In Plato’s famous work, The Republic, Glaucon, Socrates’ spirited, energetic, philosophically erotic dialogue partner, challenges Socrates to give an adequate definition of justice and to convince him as to why a just life is superior to an unjust life. As part of Glaucon’s argumentative strategy, he offers a thought experiment, the story of the Ring of Gyges (359d-360d), in which the unjust life is presented as the best life. Socrates’ job is then, on the one hand, to show how Glaucon’s account is flawed, and on the other hand, to answer the questions mentioned above (e.g. “what is justice?” and “why is justice superior to injustice?”). The view of justice presented in the Ring of Gyges myth does not represent Glaucon’s own position; rather, he articulates the sophist Thrasymachus’s position, which in some closely related variation is also shared by the “many” (i.e. the hoi polloi) yet is amended in order to make it as persuasive as possible. As the story goes, Gyges, a lowly shepherd finds a magical ring that makes him invisible. He uses it to engage in acts that would normally be socially unacceptable and, in some cases, quite illegal but which allow him to act on whatever desire he may have and to “get away with it” (e.g. he sleeps with the queen; he kills the king and takes over his kingdom). So the lowly shepherd becomes in effect a despotic tyrant.

So what is Glaucon’s point? His point is the following: if any of us possessed such a ring, we’d do the same thing.  Why? Because, so the story goes, we really want to perform unjust acts, and if we could do them and not be punished for them via the law etc., then we most certainly would. Stated otherwise, if you could engage in unjust acts to fulfill your desires and you could do so with absolutely no negative consequences, what reason would you have for engaging in just acts?

Although there are several dialogical directions one might take in discussing Glaucon’s myth, I want to engage in a similar thought experiment, altering Glaucon’s storyline in order to address contemporary concerns of justice in my own socio-political context, the U. S. A.  What if, instead of the lowly shepherd, Gyges, sporting the treasured ring of invisibility, an entire group of individuals are clad with invisibility rings, affording them privileges and freedoms denied to other groups in their society. Let’s assume (for the sake of the story) that the ring-wearing people have no idea that they possess these magical rings. They enter department stores and are not followed by security guards. They are not frisked or interrogated regularly in public spaces by the police as are their ring-less counterparts. When their crimes rates are the same as the non-ringed people, they are significantly less likely to spend time in prison. When they decide to move into a particular neighborhood or housing community, they do not worry as to whether their “kind” will be seen as a threat or as a “sign” that the neighborhood is in decline. Then let’s suppose that one day, the gods decide to reveal to one of the ring-bearers—a man named Edward—the magical properties of his ring. Thus, Edward’s ring is removed, and he is treated like the other ring-less people. In order to process his newly found knowledge, Edward decides to talk an evening walk. A young ring-clad female sees him walking toward her. Edward notices that she seems nervous, as she began looking around to see if there were any other ring clad people nearby. Then suddenly she crosses to the other side of the street. “Is she afraid of me?” Edward wondered. Acting as if he were still a ringed-one, he decides to cross the street in order to explain to the woman that he had been made aware of the invisibility powers of his ring—powers which grant his people unjust social, cultural, and economic privileges—and he was now trying to figure out what, if anything, he could do to make these truths known and to effect change more broadly—i.e., institutionally, legally, socio-politically, etc. However, Edward never had the chance to discuss these issues with the young woman. She panicked, began to scream, and ran to the nearest house. The owner of the house, George, had been watching the scene unfold through his living room window. George didn’t like ring-less people, and he was quite vocal in his community about his views. “These people are lazy. They don’t work, they do drugs, and they live off the welfare system—and hard-working people like me have to pay for their hospital bills when they overdose.” When George saw Edward crossing the street and moving toward the young woman, he ran to his bedroom to get his handgun. There’s no need to spell out the details of this story’s ending; it is all-too-familiar these days. Suffice it to say, Edward died that night from a gunshot wound to the chest.

In her book, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, philosopher Shannon Sullivan builds upon insights from W. E. B. Du Bois and John Dewey concerning conscious and unconscious habits and applies these to race and white privilege. Sullivan understands “habit” as “an organism’s subconscious predisposition to transact with its physical, social, political, and natural worlds in particular ways. Habit is equivalent to neither routine nor a ‘bad habit,’ as the term is often used. Habits instead are that which constitute the self” (23).  Habits can be formed consciously or unconsciously, and quite often they are formed unconsciously. Our habits constitute our “style” understood phenomenologically (see Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception); they are “manners of being and acting that constitute an organism’s ongoing character” (ibid.). Although habits stabilize and have a “steadiness” and regularity about them, they needn’t be understood as necessarily fixed or unalterable.  Moreover, habits affect both our mental and our physical being. We see instances of physical habit in the way that women in a sexist society carry their bodies—notice the difference in how women pose for pictures versus how men pose. Similarly with respect to race, we find both conscious and unconscious mental and physical habits, which can either limit or make possible one’s ability to act. As Sullivan explains,

“to be a white person means that one tends to assume that all cultural and social spaces are potentially available for one to inhabit. The habit of ontological expansiveness enables white people to maximize the extent of the world in which they transact. But as an instance of white solipsism, it also severely limits their ability to treat others in respectful ways. Instead of acknowledging others’ particular interests, needs, and projects, white people who are ontologically expansive tend to recognize only their own, and their expansiveness is at the same time a limitation” (25).

People are often asked to “own” their actions and to “break” their habits. So how might one work toward owning his or her white privilege? Of course the answer will differ from person to person, context to context, and so forth. Likewise, habits of this sort are not simply individual habits but are also social and require large-scale socio-political structural changes. However, in agreement with Sullivan, I believe that human agents can act to re-shape their “style,” re-constitute themselves, and strive “to transform their habits of white privilege to ones of resistance” (197). Thus, with Sullivan, I am committed to an ongoing self-interrogation, considering how I might “go ring-less” in my various spheres of influence.

 

Lately, I have been re-reading Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium, in conjunction with T.S. Eliot’s poem, Four Quartets.  In addition to numerous themes that I hope to develop into a full length article in the near future, I have been musing over the different panegyrics to Love presented by the males assembled for this festive occasion. (One female voice is, however, permitted to speak at this gathering, namely, Diotima, the philosopher-priest who serves as Socrates’ mouthpiece, or keeping with the Dionysian themes animating the drama, Socarates’ mask.  I shall have more to say in the days to come about her all important leading role in this typcal male-only event.).  Of the speeches prior to Socrates’/Diotima’s, I find Aristophanes’s account the most captivating.  With his discourse, we encounter a myth about human origins in a primordial past when all was well or significantly better than the present.  As Aristophanes explains, there were originally three kinds of humans—male/male, female/female, and female/male. These originary pairs had a spherical shape, four arms, four legs, two sets of genitalia, and so forth.  More importantly, they were in perfect relational unity with their, as it were, soul mate.  However, for some inexplicable reason they became proud and plotted to usurp the gods. The gods, needy beings as they were, opted to punish them rather than obliterate them.  Why so? The gods required their sacrifices and worship. After some deliberation, it was decided that Zeus would cut them in half, thus producing their current embodied state, their experience of love now as lack—a kind of inner emptiness, a swirling always-there longing for the intimacy that was.

 What I find incredibly interesting about this ancient Platonic account of humanity’s “fall” and present restless condition is how well it resonates with the Christian account as articulated by T.S. Eliot in his poem, Four Quartets.[1] Listen to Eliot’s hauntingly beautiful word imagery in part I of the first movement of the poem entitled, “Burnt Norton.” Having introduced his first major theme, time—or better the problem we have with time and the dismal thought that our time (our past, for example) might be unredeemable, which of course is not his position at all—Eliot sets before us our telos, our end, which he says is ever-present. Just as we find time and memory closely linked in St. Augustine’s Confessions, so too in Eliot’s account.

“Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.”

Somehow we are drawn in by echoes sounding in our memory.  But echoes of what? The lines immediately following this first mention of echoes suggest something lost, more specifically potential opportunities lost because not taken. Perhaps we failed to act when we should have, or perhaps the opportunities were lost simply by virtue of our having chosen an alternative path.  A hint of sadness seems to inhabit these faint sounds.

So what about the “other echoes?” Of these, Eliot writes,

“Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.”

Here we are given more details, as these echoes recall a garden, that is, the Garden of Eden, “our first world.” But this is precisely the place where we cannot go, as a sword marks our expulsion and bars our re-entry.  In this particular echo, we recognize our exiled state.  Stated slightly differently, our Edenic yearnings confirm our exilic state. For us banished peregrinators, this “unheard music,” to which the bird summoning us can somehow respond, falls upon tone-deaf ears. Or so it seems most of the time.  Yet, when those tragic moments in life unhinge us, those times bringing intense and rigorously focused soul-reflections, our sense of hearing, like a brief but all too needed interlude from the daily grind, returns. Changing metaphors, we are given a kind a vision of what we were and of what we could have been. In this vision we see pools “filled with water out of sunlight, and the lotos rose,” reposing quietly atop the water whose “surface glittered out of heart of light.” In the water, we see a reflection of them—but of whom we ask? Adam and Eve in their pristine state? Humanity as it once was? Suddenly, the vision ends.  A cloud clouds our vision, and we can no longer see the pool—“and the pool was empty.” Why, we ask?

“Go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”

As Howard observes in his excellent little book, Dove Descending, Eliot, of course, is not calling us to live in some illusionary nostalgia. Eliot is far too much of a realist (colloquially speaking) for that.  Quite the opposite is the case.  That is, like the authors of Scripture recounting what happens to prophets who experience theophanies—i.e., they fall prostrate—Eliot understands how fragile we truly are, how quickly we become undone when confronted with Reality. We can’t bear it. Thus, it is a good thing—even an act of divine mercy—that our clashes with Reality occur over time, periodically and purposed with our telos in view—a telos that Eliot this early in the poem is happy to leave ambiguous.

Notes


[1] My reflections are influenced greatly by Thomas Howard’s book, Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ignatius Press:San Francisco, 2006.

*The icon is entitled, The Lord Confronts the Disobedience of Adam & Eve; “The Expulsion from Paradise”, Nave Mosaics from Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. Mid 12th Century.

 

As is well-known, Plato in the Republic describes the Good Itself or the Idea of the Good as “beyond all being” (epekeina tés ousias; 509b).  Hans-Georg Gadamer, who has published widely on Plato, offers a reading of Plato that brings him much closer to Aristotle than is commonly presented in the literature.  For example, Gadamer argues that Plato’s Idea of the Good and Aristotle’s theos are different ways of talking about the same reality.  Wachterhauser unpacks Gadamer’s claim as follows,Hans-Georg Gadamer

When Plato refers to the Good as what is common in all things, he suggests that the Good is the principle of Being of all things, although it itself is not a being.  Similarly, Aristotle’s God, as the highest being, becomes the one principle uniting all beings as the one principle to which Being must be referred if we are ultimately to understand how all beings ‘move’ for the sake of a telos which is not synonymous with their mere existence.  Thus we can only speak of their being in light of this telos, which in turn can only be comprehended in light of the highest being, of the unmoved mover.  Thus all Being is spoken of analogously in that Being is predicated of things ‘to one end’ or what Aristotle called ‘pros hen’ predication.  All beings have this one being in common in that what they are can only be comprehended in analogy with the highest being.  The relative perfection of each thing is a matter of degree of approximation to the highest being (Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontology, 89-90).

The common ground that Gadamer believes obtains between Plato and Aristotle allows him to “stress the importance of motion and change for comprehending reality” (Beyond Being, 90).  As Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer interprets Plato as presenting in mythical form what Aristotle articulated in his act/potency distinction in which things unfold teleologically over time.

 

GoldAs Socrates unfolds his city-in-thought, the so-called perfectly just city of the Republic, he speaks of the need for the rulers to promulgate the notorious “noble lie” (414c).[1] The noble lie consists in two parts.  First, the citizens are told that their true parent is the earth, that is, the city or polis (414d).  This part of the noble lie is designed to promote a kind of sold-out commitment to the polis-a loyalty willing to forsake even the closest (traditional) familial ties.  When this aspect of the noble lie is embraced, the citizens view each other as brothers and sisters who are all connected to a common parent, the polis (“Father/Motherland” themes come to mind).  Second, the citizens are presented with the “myth of metals.”  According to this myth, each citizen is born with one of three kinds of soul:  gold, silver or bronze.  As you might expect, the citizen’s worth and function in the city is determined by what kind of soul s/he possesses.   The myth of metals is created to promote strict class separation and is an attempt to eliminate factionalism.  The gold-souled people are best-suited to rule, the silver-souled people (the warrior class) assist the rulers in their plans for the city, and the bronze-souled people are simply to obey.  In addition, the classes must never intermarry, as those who “by nature” are superior cannot be tainted by a lower class.  For the good of the polis, the bronze-souled people must come to recognize their natural inferiority to the silver and gold-souled classes and be willing to obey and carry out their orders-after all, they are intellectually inferior to gold-souled rulers and cannot properly direct their own lives without the guidance of their natural superiors.

Of course Plato is not giving us a blueprint for an actual city (contra Popper); however, Socrates’ “building plans” strike a similar chord with modern racist projects.  (There are, no doubt, significant differences between the two projects; I’m not claiming that a one-to-one correspondence exists.  Nonetheless, the commonalities are worth pondering).   Drawing from the insights of historian Kenneth Stampp, Floyd W. Hayes III describes the ways in which slave-owners in the American ant-bellum south attempted to “create a good slave.”[2] The following are five common strategies employed by slave-owners in the process of making and managing a slave class.

First, those who managed the slaves had to maintain strict discipline.  One slave-owner said, “Unconditional submission is the only footing upon which slavery should be placed.”  Another said, “the slave must know that his master is to govern absolutely and he is to obey implicitly, that he is never, for a moment, to exercise either his will or judgment in opposition to a positive order” [Stampp, The Peculiar Institution:  Slavery and the Ante-Bellum South, p. 145].  Second, slave-owners thought that they had to implant in the slave a consciousness of personal inferiority.  They deliberately extended this sense of personal inferiority to the slave’s past.  Slave-owners believed that in order to control black people, the slaves “had to feel that African ancestry tainted them, that their color was a badge of degradation” [to use Socrates' language, they needed to feel that they were mere "bronze" souls] (ibid.).  The third step in the training process was to awe the slaves with a sense of the slave-owner’s enormous power.  It was essential, various slave-owners declared, “to make them stand in fear” (p. 146) [following the Republic, to show them the force of the warrior class/silver-souls if they decide to overstep class boundaries].  The fourth aspect was the attempt to “persuade the bondsman to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of ‘good conduct’” (p. 147) [you must believe our "noble lie" and embrace the solidarity and customs of the city-after all, it's for the good of the city, which is our Mother].  Thus the slave-owner sought to train slaves to accept unquestionably his criteria of what was good and true and beautiful.  The final step, according to Stampp’s documents was “to impress Negroes with their helplessness:  to create in them a habit of perfect dependence upon their masters (ibid.)”[3]

Notes


[1] On my interpretation, the city-in-thought is not a kind of blueprint for an actual city.  Rather, by showing the impossibility of such a (totalitarian, calculation-oriented) city, Plato highlights the theme of eros (broadly construed as “love”, “desire”, “longing,” etc.) as that which constitutes human existence and which cannot be controlled or managed by mathematics, calculated reason, eugenics etc.  In other words, all humans are lovers of something and these various loves, desires and longings are what drive us and direct our lives, actions and decisions.

[2] Hayes, Floyd W. III.  “Fanon, Oppression, and Resentment  The Black Experience in the United States,”  in Fanon:  A Critical Reader.  Gordon, Lewis R., Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean, and White, Renee T. eds., (Cambridge:  Blackwell, 1996), p. 16.

[3] Hayes, p. 16.

 

Increasingly, I think that a good way to read the Republic is to see it as highlighting the failure of mathematics/calculation to control human eros (e.g. the failure of the marriage number/lottery), as eros is constitutive of what it is to be human.  Here eros is understood in a broad sense as desire or longing for something.  For example, the philosopher is a lover of wisdom.  In that sense, s/he is erotic.Plato in Athens

In book VII of the Republic, Socrates describes life immersed in the visible realm as a life of slavery.  For example, the people who are in bonds in the cave are lovers of sights and sound.  So we have a critique of lovers of sights and sounds, and the implication that freedom comes in the study of essences.  Hence, only the philosopher is truly “free.”  The philosopher, because he knows “true” reality, the essences, must then go back into the cave (the polis) and rule.  However, there are a number of tensions with this account.  Does knowing the essences of x make you better at doing x? Or is it that knowing the particular x makes you better at doing x?  For example, someone could have an excellent grasp of the essence of music theory, yet be tone deaf and completely unable to make music.   Glaucon, whose shortcomings we often highlight, actually seems to have an insight on this point.  In other words, Glaucon’s attempts to bring Socrates down to the visible world seems reasonable because he sees correctly that Socrates is setting up an educational system that produces people who are not comfortable in the cave or the city; they don’t like it; they want to be contemplating the essences.  Some scholars attempt to resolve this tension by appealing to the ancients’ communal sense over against a more modern, individualistic leaning, which makes what “I” want more important than the needs of the city.  However, that doesn’t seem to solve the issue, because I’m suggesting that it would not be better for the city for the philosopher to rule, as knowing x does not necessarily make one better at doing x.

Plato’s Socrates is of course incredibly subtle and often leads us in one direction simply to show us that that particular path is a dead end.  Perhaps that is what he is doing here.  For example, Socrates is aware that the philosophers who have come out of the cave and glimpsed the light of the Sun (the Form of the Good) will not want to go back down (just as Socrates didn’t want to go down to the Piraeus at the beginning of book I).  At 520d Socrates intimates that a democracy would not be the best regime because the leaders all want to rule and are power-grabbers. Later in the Republic in his discussion of the different regimes, he shows how each character type is conflicted and deficient in his erotic attachments (e.g., oligarch is a money-lover).  Since the philosopher is also erotic-a lover of wisdom (Cephalus’ being the foil, as his lack of eros disqualifies him as a potential philosopher), to rule would cause him to live in a disordered state, as he would have to (at least part of the time) turn away from his love of contemplation.  In other words, the philosopher would be conflicted.  This confliction is not exactly parallel with the internal tension experienced by the oligarch or timocrat; yet, it is a genuine tension because he is pulled away from what he loves and does best and is forced to engage in something for which he has no erotic attraction.

Though Plato’s Socrates makes several critical statements concerning the democratic regime, it just might be the case that he is actually ambivalent to democracies.  For example at 557, he states, “It [the democratic regime] is probably the fairest, the most beautiful of all regimes.”  Then at 557d, he says, “It is probably necessary for the man who wishes to organize a city, as we were just doing, to go to a city under a democracy.”  Here in effect Socrates is saying, if we want to do what we are doing right now (i.e. engaging in philosophy), then maybe we have live in a democratic regime.  Consider the “clues” that we’ve been given that his might be the case.  A basic feature of democracy is the protection of privacy.  With regard to our present concern this means there is no compulsion or obligation to be political.  This is the opposite of what we find in the parable of the cave, where the philosopher is forced to return to the cave; hence, he is forced to be political.  We see this mimicked at the very beginning of the Republic when Socrates is “forced” metaphorically to stay in the Piraeus.  Thus, in contrast to Socrates’ supposed perfectly just city, in a democracy, because privacy is assured, a person could pursue philosophy, as there is no compulsion to be political.  If, as I believe it is, the city in thought is a failure, a purposed reductio ad absurdum, and eros is constitutive of humans and cannot be controlled by mathematics (which has a kind of necessity to it), then a democracy is in fact the best (although imperfect human-all-too-human) regime for the politician and the philosopher.  Why?  It allows the eros of the politician to be satisfied because s/he is doing what s/he is best suited to do.  The same thing goes for the philosopher.  Whether this works out for the artisans (and for their ultimate good) is another question, which will have to wait for another time.

 

Jesus Heals the LeperAs Alfred North Whitehead famously said, the history of Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  The more I study the Western philosophical tradition, the more convinced I am that this is the case.  At the center of Plato’s philosophy is his doctrine of the Forms or Ideas.  In Greek there are two words, which we translate into English as “idea”:  εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea).  Interestingly, in Greek these works mean something that is seen; however, Plato uses the terms to mean that which is not seen physically, but mentally.  Nonetheless, seeing is still the root metaphor pervading his philosophy.  Consider some of his most famous images-the cave, the sun, and so on.  In the cave, there is no light, no knowledge.  When one emerges from the cave into the light, one comes to know (or potentially comes to know) reality by first seeing the things of the sense world and then ascending to the Forms or Ideas in which the sense objects participate and imitate.  As is well-known these days, postmoderns have challenged this privileging of the visual metaphor and have attempted to imagine what it might mean for some of the other senses to serve as a central metaphors.  For example, postmodern philosophers and theologians such as Jean-Luc Marion and Catherine Pickstock have written with great effect on the more “neglected” senses such as taste and hearing.

Personally, I think that touch offers particularly fertile ground that ought be explored and put to use in philosophy.  To be touched is, I submit, something that all humans need.  Unfortunately, it is something that has been lost in our interactions with one another-perhaps in part due to our technological mode of being-in-the-world and perhaps also because of a fear of communicating the wrong idea or of a negative response from the other to whom we wish to encourage. Yet, an embrace and a simple clasping of hands can often communicate more than anything we might say.  Two examples come to mind:  one personal and the other Scriptural.

My husband and I lived in Moscow, Russia for about three years.  During our time in Russia, we had the opportunity to visit various cities, small towns and villages. One winter we traveled by train to Kirov, staying approximately two weeks. While there we were invited to spend a day at one of the orphanages just outside the city. The memories of that visit are quite vivid, and the time with the children, though brief, was a life- changing experience. When we first arrived, the children, who ranged in age from 4-16 years old, were extremely shy and stand-off-ish. I noticed immediately a small, very cute little boy, Sasha, who was about 5 years old and very withdrawn. I walked up to Sasha and said, “Привет Саша,” (“hello, Sasha”).  But Sasha said nothing – no smile, no handshake, no eye contact – nothing. As the day progressed, we played games, performed skits, ate lunch and attempted to get to know the children better. While playing one of the more active games (something like dodge-ball), Sasha and I began slowly to “bond.”  When it was time to eat, I noticed that he wanted to sit with me (which made me of course extremely happy), so I tried to take his hand; however, he did not want me to touch him and quickly pulled his hand away.  Nonetheless, he still wanted to sit with me. So we sat and ate borsch together and then went off to play more games. As the day was drawing to a close, I was sitting on a bench resting and Sasha walked up to me, sat next to me, and to my surprise (and joy) he let me hold his hand. After that connection, he would not leave my side and even let me hold him. He actually wanted very much to be held and touched, but he of course was simply “one among many” in the orphanage and had been for most of his short life deprived of physical touch. When it was time to leave, he did not want to let go of my hand (nor did I want to let go of his). Then the dreaded time came and we were told that the bus was leaving and we’d better pack up and board the bus. As we drove off, the kids ran behind the bus as long as they could keep up, and we of course cried our eyes out. I often think about Sasha, and hope that he remembers me-more than that, I hope that he finds a home and a family that will give him the love and affection for which he longs, needs, and deserves.

Not long after our short trip to Kirov, I began studying the book of Leviticus, which among other things describes the law of the leper’s cleansing (chapter 13).[1] For example in Lev. 13:45-46, we read,

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Why must the leper wear torn clothes?  In the Old Testament, the rending of a person’s clothes was a symbolic expression of mourning over death. Here the leper is to wear torn garments to represent his/her absolutely hopeless condition-after all, the disease was incurable.  Prior to aids, leprosy was perhaps the most dreadful disease a person might contract.  For example, the body becomes covered with ulcers, the person loses his/her hair, s/he experiences extremely slow bodily decay even to the point of losing limbs, and the mental and psychological anguish endured is excruciating.  The person with leprosy is alienated from his/her own family and from societal life; s/he experiences death daily, moment by moment over period of many years and, worse of all, isolated, alienated.   Although we are not exactly certain of the kind of leprosy that existed in the time of the OT, we can, however, grasp how this disease illustrates well the nature of sin in the spiritual sphere.

In addition to wearing torn clothes, the leper must cry, “Unclean, unclean.” Here “unclean” is not so much a reference to the physical disease itself, but speaks of the ceremonial status of the person according to Levitical law. That is, the individual remains unclean ceremonially until s/he is pronounced “clean” by the priest – that is, when and if healing comes. As mentioned above, “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” The leper experiences a separation, s/he has no koinonia with the people of God, and is considered ceremonially under judgment.

Though we do read in the OT of some lepers who were healed, there are very few illustrations of healing the disease until Jesus came on the scene. In other words, as to the “tonal center” of the OT, it was extremely unusual for anyone to be healed of leprosy. Yet, in Mark’s Gospel account, we read:

A leper came to him [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Jesus, who was well-acquainted with the Torah and the intricacies of Levitical law, did not rebuke the leper, explaining that lepers are social outcasts who belong outside the camp.  Nor did He worry about being socially stigmatized or becoming ceremonially unclean through contact with the leper.  Rather, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper.  Then the Incarnate Word said, “be made clean,” and it was so.  Jesus, who would soon know exile, alienation, condemnation and ultimately death, stretched out his hand of flesh and touched this diseased, dying leprous man.  Jesus, whose body was rent and broken for us – we, who in Adam are spiritual lepers – acted with compassion towards the leper, touching him and thereby affirming his humanity, and I assure you the leper knew love as he had never known it before.

If philosophy can’t find a use for these kinds of images, then theology certain should, indeed, it must.

Notes


[1] Many of the observations given here were first brought to my attention about a decade ago through a lecture series on Leviticus by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson.