Knowledge and Instruction in a Politics of “Passionate Intensity”

“Evil minds Change good to their own nature.”
                         -Shelley, Prometheus Unbound

By Sam Thomas
California Lutheran University
October 2011

The Hebrew text of Isaiah 28:9 can be translated as follows: “Whom will [the Lord] teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message?” (NRSV). The word for “knowledge” here is דעה which is frequent in Hebrew and usually connotes the cultivation of wisdom—wisdom that is rooted in knowledge and leads to righteousness. The Greek translator of this line apparently misread this word, however, and rendered it as the Greek equivalent of “evil things” (κακά). This is understandable enough: clearly the translator took the first letter of דעה (dalet) to be a resh, reading instead the word רעה(even those who do not read Hebrew can see that these letters are graphically very similar); indeed, this reading produces an equally plausible kind of parallelism for Hebrew poetry (known in some erstwhile circles as “antithetical” parallelism). In any case, here the text-critical point is that by this misreading “evil” has become a substitute for “knowledge.”

Isaiah 28 as a whole conveys a sweeping condemnation of eighth century northern Israel during a time when the rich and powerful became drunk with their own self-image:

Ah, the proud garland of the drunkards of Ephraim,
and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
which is on the head of those bloated with rich food,
of those overcome with wine!

See, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong;
like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest,
like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters;
with his hand he will hurl them down to the earth.

Trampled under foot will be
the proud garland of the drunkards of Ephraim.

And the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
which is on the head of those bloated with rich food,
will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer;
whoever sees it, eats it up
as soon as it comes to hand. (Isa 28:1-4; NRSV)

Surely this “proud garland” and its “fading flower” can represent the version of America with which some people—especially a certain kind of reactionary politician—puff themselves up. It is a “first-ripe fig” that gets eaten up as quickly as it begins to show—in other words, it is an alluring treat for the immature and self-satisfied, but it has no future. For these political ideologues, this version of America is one where the “real Americans” are those who look and think like them, and everyone else should simply go to Hell. But the Lord does not approve. The Lord does not abide the rich and haughty, those who line their own pockets while (or by) making the world a harder place for the poor and the marginalized.

In one version of his famous poem “The Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats wrote that “The best lack all conviction / while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In their post-World War I setting, these lines expressed Yeats’ observation that in politics and in life it is too often the scoundrels who—out of their ideological convictions and/or bare self-interest—reduce the world to their own narrow and often wayward visions. The best ones look on helplessly even as they hope a better world might come. But for Yeats the “second coming” is not a hopeful event but a culmination of what the worst have wrought: it is a “rough beast” that “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” It is a world born of blood, a world in which “indignant desert birds” circle as an ominous sign of what is to come. It is a place where the self-serving have remade the world into a version of their own echo-chambers, one which the God of Mercy must surely come to judge.

This poem comes to mind when I ponder the society that takes shape before our eyes. It is a world in which those who are filled with passionate intensity—politicians, corporate bosses, religious fundamentalists, Christian nationalists, Tea Partiers, and financiers among them—shout their convictions and pursue their goals as if there could be nothing wrong so long as they are sincere. And as we should all know by now, sincerity is far more important than truth or knowledge or goodness. And sincerity is apparently more important than the kind of moral responsibility that comes from serious ethical reflection rooted in understanding. And boy, sincerity can make you rich and powerful if you can get enough airtime (Glenn Beck readily comes to mind).

There is a particular kind of scoundrel presently in our midst: “God-fearing” politicians and pundits who make a habit of being wrong on the facts, deliberately distort what otherwise would be considered scientific consensus, and repeat for political and economic gain statements that have been definitively disproven. They display the kind of American anti-intellectualism that spreads like a virus during times of ideological contest. They delight in wrapping themselves in the flag and all its military and economic glory, but their hypocrisy and cynicism are readily apparent to those with the proper vision to see.

These people apparently see no relevant distinction between their jingoistic nationalism, their utter allegiance to the free market, and their “Christian” faith. Constitution and Bible are to be read with the same literalistic and ossifying approach, not as expressions of evolving human institutions and cultures but as monuments to a single and exclusive point of view. How convenient that the Bible reinforces their own self-understanding. How wonderful that the Lord has made them feel so good about themselves. How lovely that American history can be revised to suit their convictions. How complete their idolatry!

It is unlikely that any of these people will be interested in reversing the course of Isaiah’s Greek mistranslation, in exchanging evil back for knowledge. The potential rewards are just so much better in Neoliberal Christian America than they are in the Kingdom of God. But one never knows—perhaps one or a few of them will repent and inherit some intelligence and wisdom.

If I seem unduly angry in this and subsequent editorials, well, that’s just me trying to work up some conviction. I only hope and pray that I will not succumb to the false idol that is merely my own passionate intensity. I do not wish to remake the world in my own image. I simply wish that more people might consider the thin line that separates self-righteousness and evil—and that we all might begin to value more fully (Hebrew) Isaiah’s insight that knowledge leads to wisdom, and that without wisdom no society can be righteous in the eyes of God.

The above line from “The Second Coming” is likely drawn from a passage in Percy Shelley’s epic poem Prometheus Unbound, in which the character Fury says that

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.

Many are strong and rich, and would be just,
But live among their suffering fellow-men
As if none felt; they know not what they do. (625-31)

It is at least a little bit ironic that Yeats may have initially conceived “The Second Coming” as a comment on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Harold Bloom has argued that Yeats allied himself with the counter- revolutionaries who would ultimately fail, suggesting that he identified the Leninist insurgents as the “worst” and their opponents as the “best.” In this age of ignorant right-wing discourse about “socialism” and “social justice”—ciphers for anything grassroots-democratic or anything that dares to question the absolute power of the free market god and those whom it blesses—the “best” for Yeats have become our “worst.” They have substituted their knowledge for evil; they have believed their own lies. They will be judged and found wanting.

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