Richard Rorty in the Gospel of Matthew—or the Reification of Just One Way of Being in the World?

In Matthew is a curiously ironic parable, told by Jesus, that strikes me as something that the neopragmatist Stanford philosopher, Richard Rorty, might have told when he was alive, with proper theatrics, as a joke. In other words, if you think that there is little or no humor in the Bible, this might be a counter-example (KJV 25:31-34):

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

Okay, I admit that’s not very funny yet, but I want you to imagine Richard Rorty—remembering that he is an antimetaphysical neopragmatist—delivering the above lines very somberly and seriously, as if he were a  Platonist or otherworldly monotheist, and then immediately deflating them with these punchlines (35-36):

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.

Surprise! While you were focused on the heavenly prize, imagining eternity in heaven for yourself in some Platonic second world, narcissistically “prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, what was really important was going on here, on Earth, and you serving your fellow humans.

Okay, I didn’t say it was a good joke.

But there is a joke in there, and the joke is on the person with his or her eye on the other world, and not on this one (45):

Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

The Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton, in his book, The Meaning of Life  (Oxford 2007), and in the spirit of Richard Rorty—and, of course, Jesus—says of this story in Matthew (164-165):

Despite this off-the-peg cosmic imagery, salvation turns out to be an embarrassingly prosaic affair—a matter of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned. It has no ‘religious’ glamour or aura whatever. Anybody can do it.

So far so good. But then the Marxist and Hegelian Eagleton, as obsessed with one world coherence as any Christian or Platonist, writes something very un-Rortyian (165): 

The key to the universe turns out to be not some shattering revelation, but something which a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought. Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick. When you act in this way, you are sharing in the love which built the stars.

In other words, solidarity is primary. When you give somebody who is poor a glass of water, you’ve found harmony with the universe, and eternity—and even the very love that built the stars!

Rorty, of course, would say, “Bullshit.”

The world, according to Rorty, doesn’t cohere like that, and when you’re spending time passing out glasses of water to the poor you’re missing all the other (equally valid) things that you could be doing with your time—like making a painting. In other words, there is nothing that can split the difference between, say, your pursuits of art, learning, or video game playing, and your pursuit of social justice. Even Martin Luther King had to choose between, say, spending time with his children or spending time strategizing the Civil Rights movement. And no good can be reified as more important than any other good—as the one thing that should be at the center stage of your life and sanctified by the revolutions of the cosmos. Unfortunately, only you can decide what will be most important to you—not God or sanctioning nature. 

And so I think that Rorty would say that Terry Eagleton is wrong to glibly paper-over the real choices that must be made between competing interests, as he does here (again from his book, The Meaning of Life, page 170):

[T]wo of the strongest contenders in the meaning-of-life stakes—love and happiness—are not ultimately at odds. If happiness is seen in Aristotalian terms as the free flourishing of our faculties, and if love is the kind of reciprocity which allows this best to happen, there is no final conflict between them. Nor is there a conflict between happiness and morality, given that a just, compassionate treatment of other people is on the grand scale of things one of the conditions for one’s own thriving. There is less need, then, to worry about the kind of life which seems to be meaningful in the sense of being creative, dynamic, successful, and fulfilled, yet which consists of torturing or trampling over others. Nor, on this theory, is one forced to choose between a number of different candidates for the good life . . .

Eagleton, like Jesus, thinks it can all be pulled together; that there is one right answer, and that answer passes through the poor person’s greatest need. Rorty disagrees, and I think that I’m with Rorty in one of the great conflicts, emotional and intellectual, at the heart of Western philosophical thought. Here’s Rorty, in his essay, “Grandeur, profundity, and finitude”, from his last collection of essays before he died (page 82):

Plato’s idea that ‘the Good’ is the name of a something perfectly unified, something like the Parmenidean One, helped him see all the goods he cherished as compatible with one another. The author of both love poems and mathematical proofs, he wanted to see both as serving a single purpose. If we put the Phaedrus together with the Republic, we can see Plato as trying to fit his attraction to the young men to whom he dedicated his poems, his love for Socrates, and his hopes for a just city together with his passion for demonstrative certainty. By, as Nietzsche put it, insisting that only the rational can be beautiful, and by identifying true beauty with ultimate reality, he succeeded in convincing himself that the ugly collision of good with good could be set aside as mere appearance.

Unlike Nietzsche, Rorty’s pragmatism is not an embracing of cruelty. He doesn’t shrug at the plight of the poor, or show contempt for them (as Nietzsche so clearly does). But he also doesn’t pretend (as Eagleton and Jesus do) that the choice between competing goods is straightforward. Here’s a bit more from Rorty (81):

Pragmatism differs from romanticism in taking seriously the collision of good with good while remaining dubious about total dedication and passionate commitment. Pragmatists think that Danton and Robespiere—and for that matter, Antigone and Creon—should have tried harder to make some sort of deal. The Platonist tradition insists that collisions of good with good are always illusory, because there is always one right thing to do. Pieces of the puzzle that obstinately refuse to fit are to be discarded as mere appearance. But for pragmatists intellectual and moral conflict is typically a matter of beliefs that have been acquired in the attempt to serve one good purpose getting in the way of beliefs that were developed in the course of serving another good purpose. The thing to do, they say, is not to figure out what is real and what is merely apparent, but to find some compromise that will let both sides achieve at least some of the good they originally hoped for. This usually means redescribing the situation that gave rise to the various problems, finding a way of thinking about it that both sides might be able to live with. Since pragmatists agree with James that the true is the good in the way of belief, and since they take the conflict of good with good as inevitable, they do not think that universalist grandeur and finality will ever be attained. Ingenious compromises between old goods will produce new sets of aspirations and projects, forever. We shall never escape what Hegel called ‘the struggle and labor of the negative,’ but that is merely to say that we shall remain finite creatures, the children of specific times and specific places.

As for me, I’m going to leave off my blogging now for a walk. And just because I’m heading out-of-doors, it doesn’t mean I’m going to a better place, or one sanctified by the revolving cosmos, or that I should be worrying about the poor while I’m taking my walk. Here’s a little sonnet of William Wordsworth’s on the value of staying in-doors, in our mousey cloisters:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels;

Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,

Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,

High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,

Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, unto which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound

Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found. 

I’m glad that Wordsworth gave us this poem, and didn’t use his time ladling out soup to orphans in London. I suppose it’s selfish to say such a thing, but now I’m going outside.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Richard Rorty in the Gospel of Matthew—or the Reification of Just One Way of Being in the World?

  1. Pingback: A Thought after Christmas « Prometheus Unbound

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