A Story from the Book of Mormon about a Group of Refugees

I woke up this morning with this story on my mind, so I wrote about it. Now I’m sharing it because I hope it might be beneficial to someone.

Before we get to the story, we’ll need a bit of context. And because I’m summarizing many chapters of a fairly complex narrative, I’ve simplified much of it.

In this story, there are 2 general groups of people: The Lamanites and the Nephites. 

Over a period of many generations, the Lamanites taught their children to hate the Nephites, so the Lamanites felt justified murdering and plundering the Nephites whenever they had the chance. And while the Nephites would often defend themselves, at this time, they did not go on the offensive against the Lamanites. Many Nephites also regarded the Lamanites as enemies, and some didn’t think there were any good Lamanites (see Alma 26:23-26). But, a Nephite named Ammon had compassion on those who he believed should have been (and were!) his brothers and sisters, so he went with a few of his friends to teach the Lamanites about God and Jesus Christ. 

One somewhat large group of Lamanites listened to the messages of Ammon and his friends. This group had a change of heart and felt deep sorrow for the many murders they had committed. So they dug a huge pit, buried their swords and weapons of war, and made a covenant with God that they would never again shed blood. Then, to distinguish themselves, both from others and from their own past, this group took upon them the name of Anti-Nephi-Lehies. 

The Anti-Nephi-Lehies began to be persecuted by the Lamanites and by another group, called the Amalekites, who are described as apostate Nephites. The Amalekites, because of their hatred, incited the rest of the Lamanites to become angry with, to attack, and to destroy the Anti-Nephi-Lehies.

In the following excerpt from from Alma 27The Anti-Nephi-Lehies seem to me to be a group of refugees. They are about to be destroyed by the Lamanites, but they’re hesitant to ask the Nephites for protection because know that they had once done many wrongs to the Nephites:


Now when Ammon and his brethren saw this work of destruction among those whom they so dearly beloved, and among those who had so dearly beloved them . . . they were moved with compassion, and they said unto the king [of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies]:

“Let us gather together this people of the Lord, and let us go down to the land of Zarahemla to our brethren the Nephites, and flee out of the hands of our enemies, that we be not destroyed.
“But the king said unto them: Behold, the Nephites will destroy us, because of the many murders and sins we have committed against them.
“And Ammon said: I will go and inquire of the Lord, and if he say unto us, go down unto our brethren, will ye go?
“And the king said unto him: Yea, if the Lord saith unto us go, we will go down unto our brethren, and we will be their slaves until we repair unto them the many murders and sins which we have committed against them.
“But Ammon said unto him: It is against the law of our brethren, which was established by my father, that there should be any slaves among them; therefore let us go down and rely upon the mercies of our brethren.
“But the king said unto him: Inquire of the Lord, and if he saith unto us go, we will go; otherwise we will perish in the land.
“And it came to pass that Ammon went and inquired of the Lord, and the Lord said unto him:
“Get this people out of this land, that they perish not; for Satan has great hold on the hearts of the Amalekites, who do stir up the Lamanites to anger against their brethren to slay them; therefore get thee out of this land; and blessed are this people in this generation, for I will preserve them.
“And now it came to pass that Ammon went and told the king all the words which the Lord had said unto him.
“And they gathered together all their people, yea, all the people of the Lord, and did gather together all their flocks and herds, and departed out of the land, and came into the wilderness which divided the land of Nephi from the land of Zarahemla, and came over near the borders of the land.
“And it came to pass that Ammon said unto them: Behold, I and my brethren will go forth into the land of Zarahemla, and ye shall remain here until we return; and we will try the hearts of our brethren, whether they will that ye shall come into their land.
. . .
“And now it came to pass that Alma conducted his brethren back to the land of Zarahemla; even to his own house. And they went and told the chief judge all the things that had happened unto them in the land of Nephi, among their brethren, the Lamanites.
“And it came to pass that the chief judge sent a proclamation throughout all the land, desiring the voice of the people concerning the admitting their brethren, who were the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
“And it came to pass that the voice of the people came, saying: Behold, we will give up the land of Jershon, which is on the east by the sea, which joins the land Bountiful, which is on the south of the land Bountiful; and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance.
“And behold, we will set our armies between the land Jershon and the land Nephi, that we may protect our brethren in the land Jershon; and this we do for our brethren, on account of their fear to take up arms against their brethren lest they should commit sin; and this their great fear came because of their sore repentance which they had, on account of their many murders and their awful wickedness.

“And now behold, this will we do unto our brethren, that they may inherit the land Jershon; and we will guard them from their enemies with our armies, on condition that they will give us a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies.

“Now, it came to pass that when Ammon had heard this, he returned to the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, and also Alma with him, into the wilderness, where they had pitched their tents, and made known unto them all these things. . . .
“And it came to pass that it did cause great joy among them. And they went down into the land of Jershon, and took possession of the land of Jershon; and they were called by the Nephites the people of Ammon; therefore they were distinguished by that name ever after.
“And they were among the people of Nephi, and also numbered among the people who were of the church of God. And they were also distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ, even unto the end.
“And they did look upon shedding the blood of their brethren with the greatest abhorrence; and they never could be prevailed upon to take up arms against their brethren; and they never did look upon death with any degree of terror, for their hope and views of Christ and the resurrection; therefore, death was swallowed up to them by the victory of Christ over it.
. . .
“And thus they were a zealous and beloved people, a highly favored people of the Lord.
(Note that the words “zeal” and “zealousness” in these passages refer to great energy and enthusiasm. They are in no way associated with fanaticism or extremism.)
I find this story inspiring because while neither party was perfect, it seems to me that the Nephites treated the Anti-Nephi-Lehies as they would have liked to have been treated if they had been in a similar situation–like fellow human beings. The Nephites, though they may not have liked everything about the other party, when they learned of the plight of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, were still persuaded to help the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. The Anti-Nephi-Lehies, on the other hand, were hesitant to ask the Nephites for assistance–they knew they had been and would continue to be a burden to people who had done nothing to them. But they still asked. And they received the help they needed. 

I wonder if we could even say that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies gave the Nephites an opportunity to help them–an opportunity that many of the Nephites perhaps needed. What I mean is I wonder if the Nephites needed to learn something about both the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and also also about themselves. They, at least the ones who saw the Lamanites as evil, needed to learn that the Lamanites weren’t evil–they were just mistaken. Not only that, but the Nephites who had seen the Lamanites as evil were also mistaken. Both parties were to some degree mistaken because of the stories they had been telling themselves about the other party over many generations. Though there were extremes on both sides, there were also normal people–human beings–on both sides, people who were just trying to do the best they could with what they had. People who, when they received greater light and knowledge than they then had, chose willingly, even enthusiastically, to embrace it.

A Story about Two Small Boys, and a Small Accident,” by David A. Bednar

“One evening,” David A. Bednar writes, “Susan and I stood near a window in our home and watched two of our little boys playing outside. During the course of their adventures, the younger of the two boys was injured slightly in a small accident. We quickly recognized that he was not seriously hurt, and we decided not to provide immediate assistance. We wanted to observe and see if any of our family discussions about brotherly kindness had sunk in. What happened next was both interesting and instructive.

“The older brother consoled and carefully helped the younger brother back into the house. Susan and I had positioned ourselves near the kitchen so we could see what next took place, and we were prepared to intervene immediately if additional bodily harm seemed likely or a serious accident was imminent.
“The older brother dragged a chair to the kitchen sink. He climbed up on the chair, assisted his brother onto the chair, turned on the water, and proceeded to pour a large quantity of dishwashing soap onto the scratched arm of his little brother. He did his best to gently wash away the dirt. The reaction of the little brother to this procedure can only be described accurately using language from the holy scriptures: “And they shall have cause to howl, and weep, and wail, and gnash their teeth” (Mosiah 16:2). And did that little boy howl!

“After the scrubbing was finished, the arm was carefully dried with a towel. Eventually the screaming stopped. The older brother next climbed up onto the kitchen counter, opened a cabinet, and found a new tube of medicated ointment. Though the scratches on his little brother were not large or extensive, the older brother applied almost all of the ointment in the tube to the entire injured arm. The screaming did not resume, as the little brother clearly liked the soothing effect of the ointment much more than he appreciated the cleansing effect of the dishwashing soap.

“The older brother returned again to the cabinet in which he had found the ointment and located a new box of sterile bandages. He then unwrapped and put bandages all up and down his brother’s arm—from the wrist to the elbow. With the emergency resolved, and with soap bubbles, ointment, and wrappers all over the kitchen, the two little boys hopped down from the chair with bright smiles and happy faces.
“What happened next is most important. The injured brother gathered up the remaining bandages and the almost empty tube of ointment, and he went back outside. He quickly sought out his friends and began to put ointment and bandages on their arms. Susan and I both were struck by the sincerity, enthusiasm, and rapidity of his response.
“Why did that little boy do what he did? Please note that he immediately and intuitively wanted to give to his friends the very thing that had helped him when he was hurt. That little boy did not have to be urged, challenged, prompted, or goaded to act. His desire to share was the natural consequence of a most helpful and beneficial personal experience.”

From “Come and See,” Ensign, November 2014, 108.

An Imaginary Conversation with Someone from an Earlier Era and a Journey Through a Cave

“Suppose you were able to travel back in time and have a conversation with people who lived a thousand or even a hundred years ago. Imagine trying to describe to them some of the modern technologies that you and I take for granted today. For example, what might these people think of us if we told them stories of jumbo jets, microwave ovens, handheld devices that contain vast digital libraries, and videos of our grandchildren that we instantly share with millions of people around the world?

“Some might believe us. Most would ridicule, oppose, or perhaps even seek to silence or harm us. Some might attempt to apply logic, reason, and facts as they know them to show that we are misguided, foolish, or even dangerous. They might condemn us for attempting to mislead others.

“But of course, these people would be completely mistaken. They might be well-meaning and sincere. They might feel absolutely positive of their opinion. But they simply would not be able to see clearly because they had not yet received the more complete light of truth.”

From Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth,” Ensign, November 2014, 20. See this link for a video clip of the entire address.

Whenever we teach someone to do something new, we assume a similar perspective–we assume that we see more than our students. Say we are teaching students how to write. We see something our students can do to improve, so we tell them about it. They may become frustrated and angry. It is never easy to be asked to change. But if we are going to help our students become better writers, then we must point out what they can do differently. In short, we assume that we see more than they do.

It is like this classic story that you’ve all heard or read at some time or another. Two people are discussing education, and one says to the other:

“Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.”

“I’m imagining it.”

“Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it–statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.”

“It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners.”

“They’re like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?”

“How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”

“What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn’t the same true of them?”

“Of course.”

“And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?”

“They’d have to.”

“And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don’t you think they’d believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so?”

“I certainly do.”

“Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”

“They must surely believe that.”

“Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like, if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now–because he is a bit closer to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more–he sees more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?”

“Much truer.”

“And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the one’s he’s being shown?”

“He would.”

“And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?”

“He would be unable to see them, at least at first.”

“I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.”

“Of course.”

“Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.”

“Necessarily so.”

“And at this point he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.”

“It’s clear that would be his next step.”

“What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?”

“Certainly.”

“And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to ‘work the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,’ and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?”

“I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that.”

“Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes–coming suddenly out of the sun like that–be filled with darkness?”

“They certainly would.”

“And before his eyes had recovered–and the adjustment would not be quick–while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn’t he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? . . . “

“They certainly would.”

That’s from C. D. C. Reeve’s revision of G. M. A. Grube’s translation of Book VII of Plato’s Republic, 514a-517a.

Response to Dawkins’ “Don’t Force Your Religious Opinions on Your Children”

Certainly we need to remember that no person should force anything on anybody else. But we should at least recognize Dawkins’ own perspective, a perspective which includes a negative view of religion.

And yet, I personally believe that Dawkins isn’t really arguing against religion as much as he thinks he is. What he is really arguing against is forms of human totalitarianism–whether on the large scale or the small scale. After all, no person should force anything onto anybody else.

But what his article doesn’t take into account is that any religion that is good and that is true actually doesn’t force its way onto anybody. I do admit here that there are many modern-day pharisees (for lack of a better term, though they are found in many religions) who have used the language of religion to negatively influence others–to force them, so to speak. I myself have witnessed firsthand many sad accounts. But that isn’t an argument against religion. It’s an argument against those people who try to force things on others by subtly manipulating language to get people to believe the same things they do. People who do evil in the name of good are the worst kinds of people. They are the ones which we must denounce.

But that doesn’t mean we can equivocate “forcing someone to do another’s will” with “teaching someone to do that which is good.” In other words, we must at least acknowledge that there are merits to teaching one another the basic principles that any good person believes, the same principles that any good religion teaches: principles like kindness towards others, respect and love for those who differ from you, selfless service towards one’s neighbor and in one’s community. Genuine honesty. Sincere gratitude. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Don’t hurt others. Don’t shed innocent blood. Be kind. Be respectful. Values like these are the values of any good society, and they are values on which I believe all good people–no matter how we were raised or where we come from–can agree.

Two Stories about Forgiveness

I like stories about forgiveness. I like them because I believe that forgiveness is a manifestation of love, and love is something for which each of us have the faculty to feel. Indeed, I believe that we all, deep down, have a desire to love and be loved. But that is because, recognizing my own bias, I believe that all human beings are the literal offspring of Heavenly Parents, who themselves have bodies of flesh and bone, and who endow us with the capacity to love one another. The same love that They have for us, we can have for one another. That love, in more practical terms, has the power and potential to transcend all boundaries of nation, creed, color, and class. Here are two stories that that illustrate forgiveness that I would like to share with you.


This first one comes from October, 2005. 

“How would you feel toward a teenager who decided to toss a 20-pound frozen turkey from a speeding car headlong into the windshield of the car you were driving? How would you feel after enduring six hours of surgery using metal plates and other hardware to piece your face together, and after learning you still face years of therapy before returning to normal—and that you ought to feel lucky you didn’t die or suffer permanent brain damage?

“And how would you feel after learning that your assailant and his buddies had the turkey in the first place because they had stolen a credit card and gone on a senseless shopping spree, just for kicks? . . .

“This is the kind of hideous crime that propels politicians to office on promises of getting tough on crime. It’s the kind of thing that prompts legislators to climb all over each other in a struggle to be the first to introduce a bill that would add enhanced penalties for the use of frozen fowl in the commission of a crime.

“The New York Times quoted the district attorney as saying this is the sort of crime for which victims feel no punishment is harsh enough. ‘Death doesn’t even satisfy them,’ he said.

“Which is what makes what really happened so unusual. The victim, Victoria Ruvolo, a 44-year-old former manager of a collections agency, was more interested in salvaging the life of her 19-year-old assailant, Ryan Cushing, than in exacting any sort of revenge. She pestered prosecutors for information about him, his life, how he was raised, etc. Then she insisted on offering him a plea deal. Cushing could serve six months in the county jail and be on probation for 5 years if he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.

“Had he been convicted of first-degree assault—the charge most fitting for the crime—he could have served 25 years in prison, finally thrown back into society as a middle-aged man with no skills or prospects.

“But this is only half the story. The rest of it, what happened the day this all played out in court, is the truly remarkable part.

“According to an account in the New York Post, Cushing carefully and tentatively made his way to where Ruvolo sat in the courtroom and tearfully whispered an apology. ‘I’m so sorry for what I did to you.’

“Ruvolo then stood, and the victim and her assailant embraced, weeping. She stroked his head and patted his back as he sobbed, and witnesses, including a Times reporter, heard her say, ‘It’s OK. I just want you to make your life the best it can be.’ According to accounts, hardened prosecutors, and even reporters, were choking back tears” (“Forgiveness Has Power to Change Future,” Deseret Morning News, Aug. 21, 2005, p. AA3.). 

I found that story in a talk by Gordon B. Hinckley. The talk was given at a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October 2005. The talk is called “Forgiveness.” Hinckley was president of said church from 1995 to 2008. 

Here is the next story. This one also comes from a general conference, but this time is from James E. Faust, one of Hinckley’s counselors:

In the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania, a devout group of Christian people live a simple life without automobiles, electricity, or modern machinery. They work hard and live quiet, peaceful lives separate from the world. Most of their food comes from their own farms. The women sew and knit and weave their clothing, which is modest and plain. They are known as the Amish people. 

A 32-year-old milk truck driver lived with his family in their Nickel Mines community. He was not Amish, but his pickup route took him to many Amish dairy farms, where he became known as the quiet milkman. Last October he suddenly lost all reason and control. In his tormented mind he blamed God for the death of his first child and some unsubstantiated memories. He stormed into the Amish school without any provocation, released the boys and adults, and tied up the 10 girls. He shot the girls, killing five and wounding five. Then he took his own life.

This shocking violence caused great anguish among the Amish but no anger. There was hurt but no hate. Their forgiveness was immediate. Collectively they began to reach out to the milkman’s suffering family. As the milkman’s family gathered in his home the day after the shootings, an Amish neighbor came over, wrapped his arms around the father of the dead gunman, and said, “We will forgive you.” Amish leaders visited the milkman’s wife and children to extend their sympathy, their forgiveness, their help, and their love. About half of the mourners at the milkman’s funeral were Amish. In turn, the Amish invited the milkman’s family to attend the funeral services of the girls who had been killed. A remarkable peace settled on the Amish as their faith sustained them during this crisis.

One local resident very eloquently summed up the aftermath of this tragedy when he said, “We were all speaking the same language, and not just English, but a language of caring, a language of community, [and] a language of service. And, yes, a language of forgiveness.” It was an amazing outpouring of their complete faith in the Lord’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.”

The family of the milkman who killed the five girls released the following statement to the public:

“To our Amish friends, neighbors, and local community:

“Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that you’ve extended to us. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.

“Please know that our hearts have been broken by all that has happened. We are filled with sorrow for all of our Amish neighbors whom we have loved and continue to love. We know that there are many hard days ahead for all the families who lost loved ones, and so we will continue to put our hope and trust in the God of all comfort, as we all seek to rebuild our lives.”

. . .

Hearing of this tragedy, many people sent money to the Amish to pay for the health care of the five surviving girls and for the burial expenses of the five who were killed. As a further demonstration of their discipleship, the Amish decided to share some of the money with the widow of the milkman and her three children because they too were victims of this terrible tragedy. (Faust, April 2007 Conference, “The Healing Power of Forgiveness.”)

There you have it. Two stories about forgiveness. I like them because I think that while maybe it is so easy to get angry and become spiteful or hateful, and maybe it is so easy to resort to violence, but I believe that forgiveness can do much to heal our relationships, both with others and with ourselves.

An Ultra-Brief Comparative Religion

Check this out. I think it is cool to see what so many systems of belief have in common.

Christianity: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. This is the entire law: all the rest is commentary.” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517)

Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5:18)

Islam: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” (Sunnah)

Confucianism: “Surely it is a maxim of loving kindness: Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you.” (Analects 15:23)

Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” (T’ai Shang Kan Yin P’ien)

Zoroastrianism: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” (Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5)

I found this information in a book by Robert Kane on page 34. The book is called Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World. I didn’t expect to find this information in Kane’s book, but I thought it was interesting. A discussion about ethics would of course be incomplete without a discussion about religion. Just for fun, we should perhaps add one more statement, one from a more philosophical source–Immanual Kant:

Here’s a picture of the book. I found this
picture on Goodreads.com.

Kantianism: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals)

Or: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals)

Basically, we are all human beings, and it is well for us to treat one another as we would like to be treated. Let us not hurt one another or be unkind in any way. Surely no matter how skeptical we are, if we can celebrate at least one thing together, would it not be our short lives together on this little planet?

Personally however, I want to believe that we have much more in common than we perhaps realize. That is not to say that we don’t have differences or that our differences are not important. Actually, I think our differences are complementary and not necessarily contradictory. I believe that because I think peace is better than conflict, and peace comes, I think, by learning to live with differences. And part of learning to live with differences entails looking not just at differences but at common ground. Sometimes we have things in common that we don’t realize.

On Death and Life and Kindness and Respect

Well, friends, there’s no reason for us to lie to ourselves, so let’s be honest: someday we will all die. We’re by no means invincible or immortal. We feel pain, we get sick, and our bodies grow older and decay. And just as our life began with birth, so it will inevitably end in death.

Is this an uncomfortable topic, and if it is, why is it? I mean, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us, but I admit it is certainly an unusual thing to talk about–after all, who thinks and writes about these sorts of things? Death is (by definition?) a topic we tend to avoid unless its necessary (or unless we’re compelled to face it), and we want to write about things that people enjoy so that we can get views and hits and stats and likes. Right? Nobody is going to like an article or blog post on an uncomfortable topic. 

Maybe it was the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing that set this whole thing off. Or maybe it was any number of other news stories carefully written to tell some kind of sensational or emotion-evoking story under the guise of “journalistic objectivity.” Or maybe it was something else. I don’t really know. But whatever it was, the anger and violence and unkindness in the world is painful to watch, read, and listen to. Why do some people treat one another with disrespect? Why is there hate? Don’t we intelligent beings know better, deep down? And isn’t it a bit strange that all of us–all human beings–may come from different countries and backgrounds, we may speak different languages, eat different foods, and have different pastimes, but isn’t it a bit strange that all of us, no matter what we believe, may still–and must ultimately–define ourselves as human beings? Let’s admit it: there is something that transcends our differences and enables us to finally unite together as members of a human family instead of pretending to be divided as nations or races or parties or platforms. No matter what we believe or think, we must at least recognize and acknowledge that we’re all human beings, we’re all living out mortal lives on this earth together, and that we should treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. There is no argument that will justify any degree of hatred, prejudice, or bigotry–as human beings that value life, we know better. We know that these things don’t get us anywhere. We know that these things lead to a symbolic death.

This idea of symbolic death is an interesting one, but there’s more to say about physical death. (A discussion about symbolic death will have to wait until another day.) Far from being pessimistic or melancholic, these thoughts about physical death and dying motivate me to ask myself if I am doing the things that really matter the most to me: I know that my mortal life will not last forever, so am I becoming the kind of person I really want to become? Am I living the kind of life I really want to live? Who am I, anyway? 

Serious questions like that cannot be answered in a non-serious manner. They involve expressing what one really believes, deep down. But before I do that, let me say that I do not wish to impose my beliefs on others. Actually, I claim the right and privilege to believe what I choose to, and I believe that all people have the same right and privilege–let all people believe what they may. Let us all believe what is in our hearts and minds, and let us listen to, understand, and compromise with those whose beliefs differ from ours. We may believe different things, but we are also human beings. We can live together in peace. We can live together in harmony.

But I got off on an idealistic tangent again in those last two sentences. I was about to say a few things that I really believe. So who am I? The answer to that question depends not just on who I am today, but who I have been in the past. Where did I come from? Is death really the end, and was birth really the beginning?

The English poet William Wordsworth gives an interesting answer. He completed the poem in 1804, but it was not published until 1807. He wrote that 

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
     Hath had elsewhere its setting,
        And cometh from afar:
     Not in entire forgetfulness,
     And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
     From God, who is our home (Ode: Intimations of Immortality 5.58-65)

In other words, Wordsworth is saying that there is some part of us that was not created when we were born. The poet says here that “our life’s Star,” or “The Soul” “Hath had elsewhere its setting.” Our birth may be “a sleep and a forgetting,” but it is not an “entire forgetfulness” because there’s still something that longs for what we might call our real home. I believe the principle Wordsworth is teaching. I believe that birth was not the beginning and that death is not the end. We lived before we were born, and we will live after we die. While mortal life is only a temporary thing and will not last forever, there is a part of us that existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we die.

This belief gives my life direction and meaning, and it also gives me peace. It gives me direction and meaning because I believe there is a purpose to my existence. It gives me peace because while I may be called “Jarron Slater” during mortality–and although I may have been called by another name before I was born and I may be called something else after I die–I have been, and I will still be, me. 

Let me be even more specific. My own personal belief is that all of us really are a part of the same family. But we are not just all a part of the same human family: as beings who have been created after the very image of heavenly parents, as beloved and literal spirit sons or daughters of those heavenly parents, and as sons or daughters with a divine nature and divine destiny, we are also a part of God’s family. I find abiding peace in believing that there is a God and that He, as a loving Father, has a plan for each of His children. And I find lasting comfort in believing that He wants to help us be happy now and in eternity. 

But whatever any of us believe, we must at least admit that we’re here on this earth to live out our lives together, and we should treat one another with kindness, respect, and love.


What Is an Emotion?: Categorizing the Uncategorizable

Something cool that came up when I typed in “Seneca De Ira

When we call something by a name, we put that thing into a category. And when we write a paper or book or a blog post or an article and then give it a title, we assume that what we have written is rightly categorized under our title. That being said, it’s no wonder that in a book titled What Is an Emotion? we’d find excerpts from Seneca’s De Ira, Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Sartre’s The Emotions, and so on. But what about the other readings? If we’re reading a book about the emotions, then why are we reading excerpts from books with titles like Ethics, On the Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Being and Time, and, my personal favorite, Rhetoric? What this means is, not only do Aristotle and Spinoza and Heidegger and Scheler and Brentano (among others) believe that emotions have to do, in some way, with the topics under which their books are titled, but also–apparently–Solomon, the editor of What Is an Emotion?, believes that the titles of these books–in some way–deal with the emotions.

So the question is, why, if these philosophers are as wise as we think they are, why did they include a discussion (in several cases a very lengthy discussion of which we only have a very small excerpt or an explanatory essay) about the emotions in books of these names? Ethics? Rhetoric? Origins of knowledge? Being? What do these things have to do with emotions?

I think it has to do with the act of categorizing and naming. The very nature of language forces us to categorize. We have to draw lines that may not (and in some cases do not) actually exist if we are to say anything at all. So, my question is, can we really categorize the emotions? Sure, we do it to talk about them, and language is, to some degree, the way in which reality appears to us. But, on a deeper level, there are some things that are real that we just can’t talk about. For example, in terms of emotions, don’t they seem a bit trite when we try to put them into words?

But we try anyway, and so have these philosophers. I do think it is significant, however, that while these philosophers seem to disagree on a whole bunch of different things, they all agree–whether they think emotions are bad or good–that emotions are part of who we are. Emotions make us human. (Or at least, one of the things that make us human.) And this is the problem, in The Joy of Philosophy, that Solomon had with much of analytical philosophy–the form contradicts the content, and modern philosophy tends to dehumanize the human experience. So maybe we can’t categorize human beings very much, either.

Or at least, we see what happens when we take the principle of categorization to its logical extreme. Because we can’t just not talk about human experience. And, besides, I think there is value in reading and studying others’ categorization of the uncategorizable. The more we study it, the more we understand the human experience–ourselves and one another, our lives together and alone.

And the more we understand life, the better we live, and the better we die.

From Terministic Screens to God-terms

A terministic screen is just Kenneth Burke’s fancy way of talking about verbal perspectives. Think of turning your head one way and seeing something different than if you had turned your head in the opposite direction. Now apply that idea to language. That’s a terministic screen. From Burke himself, “A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing,” he writes, and “a focus on object A involves a neglect of object B” (49, emphasis in original). This statement about seeing and focusing is crucial, and we have to keep it in mind when we read Burke’s later-published essay “Terministic Screens,” where Burke asks the reader to consider several photographs of the same objects, photographs in which the objects appear different because of the different lenses on the camera:

When I speak of “terministic screens,” I have particularly in mind some photographs I once saw. They were different photographs of the same objects, the difference being that they were made with different color filters. Here something so “factual” as a photograph revealed notable distinctions in texture, and even in form, depending upon which color filter was used for the documentary description of the event being recorded. (Language 45, emphasis in original)

Elsewhere, I have commented,

In this passage, Burke is using camera lenses as a metaphor to explain his notion of terministic screens: things change depending on the lenses we use to see them, and language and words are necessary lenses that human beings always use, lenses that affect and determine the way we see the world. From this passage and others (Language 46, 51), Burke uses sight as a meta-terministic screen—a terministic screen that is intended to help his audience see and understand what he means when he talks about terministic screens. In other words, “A way of seeing involves a way of not seeing” (Permanence 49); “A textbook on physics . . . turns the attention in a different direction from a textbook on law or psychology” (Language 45, emphasis in original). (Slater 6-7)

In other words, the words we use are lenses through which we see the world. Not only that, but we’re always seeing the world through some kind of lens or terministic screen. Burke (pictured) writes,

We must use terministic screens, since we can’t say anything without the use of terms; whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute a corresponding kind of screen; and any such screen necessarily directs the attention to one field rather than another. (Language 50, Burke’s emphasis)

Because all words or screens direct the attention “to one field rather than another,” what we “see” because of our terms is necessarily “a reflection of reality, . . . a selection of reality[,] and . . . a deflection of reality” (Language 45, Burke’s emphasis).

In other words, each set of lenses, terminologies, or “fields” (an important word when considering Burke’s use of the meta-terministic screen of seeing and sight) makes implicit observations and implicit judgments: “A focus on object A involves a neglect of object B,” and whether A is a word, an emotion, or even something else (but now I’m getting too broad for this post), by choosing A instead of B, we also choose A over B and thus imply that A is better than B. We have hereby assumed a hierarchy, which where we can begin to note the existence of ultimate terms—or what Burke also calls god-terms and devil-terms—within a particular terministic screen.

God-terms and Devil-terms

Wayne Booth writes that Burke “was obsessed” with the following knowledge, that

  • once we speak, we express value
  • once we express value, a distinction between the good and the not good, we imply a hierarchy of values according to which that judgment makes sense
  • any hierarchy of values necessarily entails a supreme value term at the top, a god-term validating the steps in the hierarchy. (“Many Voices” 195)

Elsewhere, Burke has written that “Each brand of imagery contains in germ its own logic” (Philosophy of Literary 148). I take the phrases “brand of imagery” and “terministic screens” or “fields” to be synonymous. In other words, we can take a certain “brand of imagery” and, by paying attention to what is focused on and what is left out of focus, follow its own implicit logic to wherever it leads us (referring to Aristotle, Burke calls this the entelechial principle). And when we thus “compute” a particular lens’ “logic,” we end up with the ultimate terms—god-terms at the top and devil-terms at the bottom. Richard Weaver explains that a god-term is

that expression about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate and serving dominations and powers. Its force imparts to the [other terms] their lesser degree of force, and fixes the scale by which degrees of comparison are understood. (212)

God-terms transcend the terms from which they are derived (Rhetoric of Religion 3, 10). They are the ultimate reduction, and contain “in germ” all other terms within their own lens or field. God-terms are the ultimate good within a given lens, while devil-terms are the ultimate evil.

Some examples of god-terms, according to Burke, are progress, money, and democracy (see his Grammar of Motives, for example). Another one is equality. God-terms are powerful words because to say “No” to a god-term is to imply that there is something “devilish” about the one who says “No.” A person can’t say “No” to a god-term and still remain, in the eyes of others, “without guile.” Remember, Burke isn’t necessarily talking about religion, but he is using the language of religion as a terministic screen and applying it to the way human beings communicate. A knowledge of god-terms is important because finding out what they are and how they are used in a given rhetorical situation (or a situation in which influence happens among human beings) enables us to recognize ulterior and perhaps ultimate motives. In other words, as soon as we can see what Aristotle called the available means of persuasion in any given situation (Rhetoric 1355b), we enable ourselves to me careful about the means that are used to persuade us to certain ideologies.

Both god-terms and devil-terms are used strategically in war, in politics, in friendships, in gossip, in debate, in journalism, etc. (I could go on, but this list will suffice). The strategy, then, is to use god-terms to deify one’s friends, while using devil-terms to demonize one’s enemies. That’s the strategy. When two countries or two ideologies are at war with one another, they will use god-terms to define their allies and friends, and they will also use devil-terms to define the enemy.

God-terms and devil-terms are also used in acts of communication, influence, persuasion. In short, “If people believe something, the poet can use this belief to get an effect” (Burke, Counter-Statement 146).
Works Cited
Aristotle. Rhetoric. Plato Gorgias and Aristotle Rhetoric. Trans. and ed. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2009. 121-284. Print.
Booth, Wayne C. “The Many Voices of Kenneth Burke, Theologian and Prophet, as Revealed in His Letters to Me.” Unending Conversations: New Writings by and about Kenneth Burke. Eds. Greig Henderson and David Cratis Williams. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 2001. 179-201. Print.
Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.
—. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.
—. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. Print.
—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 2nd ed. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1954. Print.
—. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P. 1973. Print.
—. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.
Perelman, Chaïm. The Realm of Rhetoric. Trans. William Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1982. Print.
Slater, Jarron B. “Seeing (the Other) Through a Terministic Screen of Spirituality: Emotional Integrity as a Strategy for Identification.” MA thesis. Brigham Young University, 2012. Print.
Images courtesy of WikiCommons.
This post is an excerpt of a previous post.

On Plato and Being Removed from the Truth

What is truth?

As soon as I typed that question, my thoughts went directly to the scene in the New Testament when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus that very question (the reference is John 18:38, in case you were wondering). But I’m not going to discuss Christianity in this post, at least not directly, and not necessarily intentionally. Instead of discussing truth from a Christian perspective, I’m going to discuss it from a–shall we say Pagan?–Pagan perspective. If, of course, we consider Plato to be a Pagan.

Yep, there he is. Plato.

Plato seems to believe that truth is what is–it is things as they really are. A useful definition, but he also seems to believe that we can’t know things as they really are unless we practice philosophy. For him, we’ll remember, philosophy is the love of wisdom and the love of truth (Republic 476e2-3). And truth is not and cannot be discovered via empirical means. At least, that’s what Plato seems to believe.

But I’m not going to take the time right now to discuss how Plato thinks we discover truth. I’m only going to point out a few interesting passages.

In Book VII of his Republic, Plato has Socrates say that “calculation and arithmetic . . . lead us towards truth” (525a6-b1). He believes this because numbers are abstract and universal. Numbers are everywhere, and the principles of mathematics are universal and can be applied in a variety of circumstances.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that subject later.

Moving on, this may sound weird, but I think to some degree reading Plato has helped me to be a better teacher, at least to the degree that he believes this:

[T]he power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and . . . the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good . . . Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately. (Republic Book VII 518c2-d7)

In other words, Plato always has Socrates ask his students questions, and the point of the dialog form that Plato constantly writes in (except for, perhaps, the Apology) is to show that the most important truths are only discovered, and the best teachers help students to discover for themselves. On that note, David A. Bednar once said, “The best lessons are caught, not taught.”

I wonder, since Aristotle was Plato’s student, how much of the above-quoted passage influenced Aristotle’s thinking. (There’s a whole bunch of stuff throughout Plato that alludes to what will later be known as Aristotle’s golden mean from his Nicomachean Ethics. There’s some other stuff, too, but too much for a parenthetical aside.) At any rate, in the first sentence of Book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that “All human beings by nature desire to know.”

Now, we could talk about how sometimes the questions Plato has Socrates ask are a bit strange. We could also talk about how it gets a bit funny to see Plato constantly making people agree with Socrates (I believe Wayne Booth someplace calls this person that’s always agreeing the “Yes-man”), but Plato is smarter than I think sometimes he is made out to be. Notice that most of his dialogues are at least three times removed from the truth, the actual event. Take Plato’s Symposium, for example. Plato is telling us through the eyes of Apollodorus, who heard the story/dialogue from Aristodemus, who was with Socrates at Agathon’s house on the evening the story takes place. We’re several times removed from the truth here because Plato is trying to teach us that things as they really are are not always directly and consistently available to us as mortals.

I suppose I should now come full circle and quote from the New Testament, this time on purpose. Very well. Here’s the Apostle Paul on a similar idea:

But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God . . . But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:9-11, 14)