The Way of the World

By Ofir Haivry

On the natural morality that undergirds Jewish thought.

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I. They Say: There Is a Land
At the heart of Jewish thought lies a surprising claim, of signal importance: “The ‘way of the world’ (derech eretz) preceded the Tora.”1 This is to say that before the giving of the Tora, and independent of it, there existed a code of worthy behavior, a set of moral criteria innate to human beings.
To grasp the significance of this claim, one must first understand that in an earlier time, many generations ago, the seemingly simple phrase derech eretz conveyed a meaning both rich and complex. Derech signifies way, path, road, journey, means, manner; eretz means ground, earth, country, state, land—and specifically the land of Israel. The “way of the world” embraced all of these layers of meaning simultaneously. Today, however, this phrase in common Hebrew parlance has come to mean nothing more than appropriate speech, dress and demeanor, conduct that is considerate of others—in short, basic etiquette. In other words, the modern-day use of this term is only the faint echo of a great melody that once accompanied all our acts; it represents but a small, withered remnant of a broad Jewish intellectual tradition dating back thousands of years.
Rediscovering the original meaning of the “way of the world” is more than a philosophical challenge; it is a profound need of Israeli society and Jewish culture everywhere. Such a worldview is crucial to preserving and strengthening the rules, traditions and values that form the common denominator holding a society together. Restoring the Jewish nation’s common denominator requires delving into this idea’s philosophical roots—the ancient Israelite view of man’s essential nature and his place in the world—and reviewing how this concept has evolved. Only by uncovering the roots of this worldview will it be possible to generate renewed, sturdy and sustained growth of those fundamental values which, according to the Israelite tradition, are common to all humanity and form the conservative heritage of the Jewish people.
First, we must clarify the starting point for this ancient worldview, by grounding it in those great principles that “preceded the Tora.” As the poet Saul Tchernichovsky put it, we must ask: “Where is that land?”2
II. Mending Wall
The question of human nature and morality has long formed the battleground for two fundamentally opposed views of how best to order human affairs. This question separates thinkers, religions and cultures; it delineates the philosophical divide between “left” and “right”; and it is the first question that should be asked in any discussion of society: Is man by nature good or evil? According to one view, man naturally inclines toward evil. The task of society and its organs, therefore, is to restrain the natural tendencies of its members to the extent necessary to prevent them from harming themselves or each other. The second view holds the reverse: Man is naturally inclined to good. Consequently, the rules and restraints of society are essentially superfluous, and should be loosened as much as possible—and perhaps, one day, removed completely.
The root of the difference between these two views of human nature was summed up neatly by the Neapolitan thinker Giambattista Vico: The first view (to which Vico adheres) considers man as he is; the second, as he should be.3 From this distinction stem two complete worldviews, which have produced two streams of thinkers, generally dubbed “conservatives” and “revolutionaries.”4 The conservative understands the heart of man as being disposed toward evil, a predisposition that is difficult (if not impossible) to alter. To guard against man’s natural urges, the conservative seeks to maintain vigilance, using the tools society and culture have developed. The revolutionary, on the other hand—whether because he believes that man’s nature tends to the good, or that there simply are no moral absolutes and therefore all mores are “good” by definition—sees man’s innate inclination as fundamentally positive, and believes it necessary to overturn the established social order in order to liberate man’s natural urges.5
Many philosophers and cultural traditions—including, for the most part, the Jewish tradition—hold the conservative view of human nature. Within the Western tradition, many would agree with the pre-Socratic philosopher Bias of Priene (considered the foremost of the seven wise men of ancient Greece), who declared outright that “most men are bad.”6 Xenophon and Aristotle in antiquity; Aquinas and Augustine in the medieval period; Machiavelli and Vico at the beginning of the modern period; and Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre and those who subscribe to their positions to the present day, all expressed similar views. Nor is this idea unique to the West: It can be found among many civilizations which developed independent of Western culture, from Confucian philosophy in eastern Asia to the tradition of the Barotse nation in present-day Zambia.7 This is the position of most established religions, especially monotheistic ones such as Christianity and Islam. Indeed, the whole basis for these religions being institutionalized was a pessimistic assessment of man’s inclination to do right, even after hearing the word of God. Despite the considerable differences among these various traditions, they agree that the inclination toward evil is inherent in man’s nature and will lead to terrible acts if not restrained and channeled. Only by limiting these urges in the individual, and redirecting his efforts toward productive pursuits, will society be able to survive and progress.
The proponents of the revolutionary view also form a large camp, transcending periods and cultures. They agree with Plato’s teaching that in a pristine, natural society, men would live in harmony and plenty, without compulsion or laws, jealousy or war. In his words: “So they will lead a peaceful and healthy life, and probably die at a ripe old age.”8 Similar views have been expressed by, among others, Epicurus (from whose name the rabbinic term apikorus—heretic—is derived) and Diogenes (a founder of the philosophical school of the Cynics—a name suggesting that its followers behaved like dogs) in antiquity; in medieval times, founders of Christian sects such as Bogomil, Thomas Müntzer, and Jan Beuckelson; and in the modern period, Benedict Spinoza, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and their followers to the present. This view also is found outside Western culture. China developed a number of revolutionary philosophies, including Taoism and Legalism; others originated in southern Asia, such as the more extreme trends in Jainism and Buddhism, which teach that the material world, society and laws have no purpose at all, and that only the human spirit is good.
Most religions, even those now considered deeply conservative in outlook, actually started out under a revolutionary banner (the principal exception being, perhaps, Judaism). Almost all began as a call to correct the degeneracy prevalent in society, and to usher in an era of improved, moral behavior impelled by faith alone. Early Christianity claimed that the messianic era—when laws, property, class and death would be no more—was at hand; only after the apocalyptic fervor had waned was this expectation deferred to the end of days. Examples of dissenting sects with similar messianic beliefs appear throughout the annals of Jewish history and Islam.9 In other words, almost every religious or quasi-religious movement at its outset was based on the same principle: That the institutions of society are but a degenerate shell, to be cast off in order to make way for a great leap forward to an earthly paradise.10 Despite the wide differences among the various revolutionary schools, they share the fundamental belief that man is capable of living a morally good life solely on the strength of his inherent nature. The sorry state of mankind and all its failings result not from man’s inclinations, but from the shackles imposed upon him by countless mores and superstitions, the products of society and culture, which strangle the goodness of the human spirit.
The touchstone for the great conservative-revolutionary debate is to what extent reason can and should direct human behavior—in other words, whether most people, most of the time, are capable of making morally correct decisions based on their reason alone. The conservative view is that, despite its obvious importance, reason by itself cannot lead society to its desired goal;11 the revolutionary worldview, by contrast, holds that only reason can lead man to correct decisions, that if society is imperfect it is because all manner of unreasonable customs, religions and institutions get in the way and cloud man’s judgment.
Plato and Aristotle illustrate the different roles revolutionary and conservative thinkers assign to reason. In large measure, Plato is the father of the Western revolutionary worldview. In The Republic he describes the philosopher who draws solely upon his power of reason to create the laws and practices of a new society: “He will sometimes delete and draw again, of course, but will go on till he has made human nature as acceptable to God as may be.”12 And, lest one suspect the philosopher of being influenced by the special conditions of a certain land or culture, Plato avers that “the true philosopher… whose mind is on higher realities, has no time to look at the affairs of men, or to take part in their quarrels with all the jealousy and bitterness they involve. His eyes are turned to contemplate fixed and immutable realities, a realm where there is no injustice done or suffered, but all is reason and order.”13 Finally, to avoid the suggestion that a traditional, conservative social order might actually improve human affairs, Plato asserts that “until society is controlled by philosophers there will be no end to the troubles of states or their citizens.”14

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