February 22, 2020

1. Parasite

I had heard that Parasite was a good movie, but when I saw it, I was somewhat disappointed. It’s rather enjoyable to watch — it’s often funny, and the plot is complicated but easy to follow. But it lacks a moral center. The characters aren’t 3-dimensional or interesting, and the characters don’t have any kind of personal growth.

Parasite deals with two families, one rich and one poor. The father of the rich family (let’s call him Father R) has no particular moral virtues that would justify his success, and no vices that would justify his punishment; he simply found a lucrative niche in the software industry. The father of the poor family (let’s call him Father P) has no marked virtues or vices, either.

At the end of the movie, Father P kills Father R, and I asked the person next to me (who had already seen the movie), “Why did he kill him?” “Because he hates him. Because he’s rich.” Being rich obviously isn’t a justification. Parasite ends with an orgy of graphic violence that lacks any justification, Parasite lacks a moral center.

I wanted to see if other people agreed with me, so I read a review of Parasite by John Podhoretz (the review was published in Washington Free Beacon). Podhoretz calls Parasite “a metaphorical portrait of income inequality — how income inequality brutalizes those on the short end of the stick, and how they might fight back.” Podhoretz says that this is a popular theme, a politically-correct theme; he calls it, “Politics Everybody In Brooklyn Has.” Podhoretz predicts that Parasite will win awards (it did), but he isn’t impressed with it: “When you watch Parasite, you will come to the end, and turn to your spouse, and say, ‘What the hell was that?’”

Then I read a review of Parasite by Richard Brody (the review was published in New Yorker). Brody describes Parasite as “a satirically comedic thriller about poverty, about the contrast between the rich and the poor, about the injustice of inequality.” Brody says that this injustice “troubles” the director of Parasite, and “ought to trouble viewers.”1

But is inequality inherently unjust? Isn’t it possible to become rich by honest means? Take Bill Gates, for example. He was very smart, worked very hard, was in the right place at the right time, found a lucrative niche, and now he spends much of his wealth on charitable projects. Does the case of Bill Gates show that inequality is unjust, or does it show that inequality is an unavoidable part of capitalism, and that vast wealth has certain benefits for society? True, there’s probably some greed and monopoly in Gates’ career, as in the careers of Rockefeller and other tycoons, but can any economic system eradicate all such flaws?

Brody says, “Parasite is a good movie — in both senses of the word, both artistically and morally.” (Morally good to kill people because they’re rich?) Brody agrees with Podhoretz that Parasite is rather flat, rather limited, lacking in large ideas and inner experience. “Where [Parasite] falls far short of greatness,” Brody writes, “is its inability to contend with society and existence at large... it doesn’t risk disrupting its own schema in pursuit of more drastic experiences and ideas.”

Brody notes that Parasite resembles another recent movie, Joker. In both movies, “a young man who has been severely harmed by the inequalities of money and power preys upon the wealthy, looks nihilistically at the social order, turns to violence, and is given to fits of compulsive laughter.” In the last issue, I mentioned a Thai soldier who killed people whom he thought had cheated him, whom he thought had grown rich by cheating. Is this a case of life imitating art? Can the depiction of violence incite violence? Surely there’s some connection between the killing sprees in our society, and the killing sprees on our screens. Perhaps we can trace both to the same source: nihilism, a spiritual void.

Brody is critical of Joker: “The chaotic Joker feeds red meat to conflicting strains of political tantrum-throwers, from Bernie bros (by exulting in violence against the rich) to the alt-right (by exulting in a mainstream-media figure being shot in the head).” Both Parasite and Joker revel in graphic violence, both lack a moral center. In modern film, killing sprees have become de rigueur.

2. Obama and Trump

I saw a 4-hour documentary called “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump.” The documentary was made by PBS/Frontline. It shows how the partisan divide was apparent during the administrations of Clinton and Bush Jr., became more marked during the Obama years, and intensified still further during the Trump years. Obama entered the White House intending to unite the nation, but after eight years, the nation was even more divided. When Trump won the 2016 election, he seemed to mellow initially, but the release of the Steele Dossier made him more combative, it made him think that his foes were spying on him and smearing him.

A documentary like this can teach one much, even if one lived through these events, and remembers many of them. When you see these events day-to-day, as they’re happening, you often fail to appreciate their significance. (“The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk,” as Hegel put it.)

Frontline also made 1-hour documentaries on Trump and Obama. The Trump documentary is called “Trump’s Road to the White House.” The Obama documentary is called “Dreams of Obama” (an allusion to Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father). It describes Obama’s early years, and ends with his election as President.

After graduating from Columbia, Obama became a community organizer in Chicago, perhaps inspired by Saul Alinsky. But his career seemed to stall, so he decided to go to law school. He flourished at Harvard Law School; he related well to both blacks and whites, perhaps because he himself was partly black and partly white. After law school, he returned to Chicago, and became a State Senator in 1996. In 2000, he ran for Congress (House of Representatives), and was soundly beaten in the Democratic primary by Bobby Rush, a black incumbent.

Some blacks felt that Obama wasn’t one of them, wasn’t “black enough.” In Chicago’s black community, Obama didn’t flourish as he had at Harvard, and as he later did in national politics. His bi-racial background wasn’t an advantage in Chicago’s black community.

In 2004, Obama jumped from the State Senate to the U.S. Senate. His speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention was so well-received that he was viewed as the future of the party. In 2006, he decided to run for President.2

3. Ethnic Diversity

In many ways, the U.S. has been a very successful nation. Throughout our history, we’ve had a rule-of-law that most nations haven’t had; our legal system is imperfect, but better than most. In terms of general orderliness, security of life and property, we’ve been more successful than most nations. Our rate of literacy has been higher, our rate of death-by-starvation has been lower. We’ve enjoyed more freedom of expression, more religious freedom, more equality of opportunity, than most nations.

Now, however, there’s a widespread feeling that the U.S. is declining. In business situations, Americans treat each other savagely, and in the political arena, partisan strife seems more intense than ever. We seem to suffer from a shortage of trust/cooperation, a shortage that some scholars ascribe to ethnic diversity.

Ethnic groups are inter-marrying more than ever before, and this may lead to ethnic homogeneity. Lincoln and others foresaw that blacks and whites would eventually become one race. All the ethnic groups in the U.S. seem destined to become one. Perhaps this is true of the whole human race. When the human race arose in Africa, it was probably quite homogeneous, then it diversified as it spread around the world, now it’s becoming homogeneous again as a result of travel, immigration, and inter-breeding.

Obama took office hoping to show that diversity could end in cooperation. But perhaps the lesson of the Obama years is that diversity makes cooperation more difficult, but inter-breeding gradually reduces diversity.

One might compare ethnic diversity to language diversity. When the human race arose in Africa, there may have been only one language. But as people dispersed around the world, different languages developed. As a result of communication and globalization, there may be a trend toward one language and one ethnic group. Many people resist this trend, they have an attachment to their own ethnic group, and their own language. It may be beneficial to mankind to have one ethnicity and one language, it may further communication and cooperation.

4. Perry Miller on the Puritans

A. The Nature of Man

The Puritans felt that body and soul were fundamentally different, and had different sources. The body comes from procreation, from your parents, but each individual soul is created by God — anima rationalis creatur, the rational soul is created. Plants lack a rational soul, but they have a “vegetative soul,” which enables nourishing and propagating. Animals have a “sensible soul,” which enables everything that the vegetative soul enables, plus sensation, animal spirits, common sense, imagination, memory, passion, and motion.

Man has a rational soul, which enables everything that the vegetative and sensible souls enable, plus reason and will. So man is a sort of trinity; as John Preston put it, “There are three lives in man, there is the life of plants, of beasts or sense, and the life of reason.”3 Man contains the rest of the universe, he’s a little cosmos, a Microcosmos, “with a body like the minerals, ‘a moving life as stars, a springing life as plants, a sensitive life as beasts, and a rational life as angels.”4 The Puritans inherited these ideas from the Middle Ages: “Puritans in the early seventeenth century still lived in the ordered, hierarchical, and fixed world of medieval cosmology.”5

The Puritans had a complex psychology, which came from medieval thinkers, and ultimately from Cicero, Seneca, and Aristotle’s De Anima. This psychology is called “faculty psychology” because it speaks of separate faculties, such as imagination, memory, reason, etc. Let’s see how faculty psychology would describe an actual event:

The bear, encountered in the wilderness, causes in the eye a phantasm of the bear, which is identified as belonging to the species bear in common sense, recognized as dangerous in imagination, associated with remembered dangers in memory, declared an object to be fled in reason, made the signal of command to the will, which then excites the affection of fear, which finally prompts the muscles of the legs to run.6

Satan’s favorite faculty was imagination. He could insert images into our imagination, images that would en-trance us, lure us into vice, “tempting the will with imaginations of such vices as could never have been conceived merely from experience.”7 Satan corrupted Eve by working on her imagination:

Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve
Assaying by his devilish arts to reach
The organs of her fancy, and with them forge
Illusions as he list, phantasms, and dreams.8

Novels, poetry, drama — all were dangerous, all had to be handled carefully, because all stirred up the imagination. (The Puritans closed the theaters in 1642, and the theaters didn’t re-open until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.)

It never occurred to the Puritans to question faculty psychology; it was the only psychological theory available to them, so they simply accepted it as a fact, “as obvious and natural as that two plus two equals four.”9 But while they regarded it as true, they were wary of it as dangerous — faculty psychology as a whole was dangerous, not just imagination. The wisest course was to accept faculty psychology, then walk away from it. It was developed by pagans, it didn’t strengthen faith, it taught that “virtue and vice are in our power,” it could lessen our sense of sin, and lessen our longing for grace. Calvin himself had urged believers to steer clear of it, or at least not to study it too closely.10 If we shone a bright light on each faculty, we might find that each was flawed as a result of original sin, and we might begin to wonder, Can we be certain about anything?11

During most of the 1600s, the Puritans accepted faculty psychology “without qualification”; it was the basis for their theology, cosmology, logic, etc. In the late 1600s, Descartes’ criticisms prompted the Puritans to modify their psychology, and in the early 1700s, Locke’s theories “swept it into the discard.”12

According to faculty psychology, the king of the faculties was reason, the queen of the faculties was will. Will follows reason; reason is the captain of the soul, the “fore-horse in the team.”13 Nothing is in the will that wasn’t first in the reason. The will is “always determined by the last act of the intellect.”14

There were, however, some doubts about this view. One Puritan scholar asked, If will follows reason, why did Adam eat the apple? “Certainly Adam knew that eating the apple was wrong; his will propelled him against his reason.” The will is capable of “swaying the intellect itself.” Sometimes the will chooses a goal, and then the intellect contrives a way to reach that goal.

Before the Fall, reason may have been “in the driver’s seat,” but now reason is “incompetent,” and will is “in rebellion.”15 Following Augustine and the nominalists, Puritans believed in “the deliberate errancy of the will,” they believed that the will can “doggedly fly in the face of convincing evidence.”16 Will and reason should be in harmony, but in our fallen state, will and reason are often at odds.

If will and reason are in harmony, we can appreciate the world around us, we can “come to our senses.” As John Cotton said, “Keep the heart well, and you keep all in a good frame.” But if the heart isn’t with the senses, we lose touch with the present, we aren’t “here now,” a “sweet melodious sound” will make no impression on us. “Set before a man any pleasant prospect, and if his mind be on another thing, all his senses take no notice of it.... If you have the whole man, and not the heart, you have but a dead man, get the heart and you have all.”

It’s sinful for will not to follow reason, and it’s sinful for will to act on its own; “it is equally sinful to understand and not act, or to act and not understand. ‘If a man say, I know and do not will it, that is folly. If a man say, I will, and have no reason for it, it is obstinacy.’”17

But if will automatically follows reason, what happens to moral responsibility? There must be free will in order to have moral responsibility. If the will automatically followed reason, education could replace the grace of God. If you automatically eat vegetables when your health teacher tells you that vegetables are good for you, then you have no moral choice, no free will.

So the Puritans couldn’t decide if will follows reason, or is independent of reason; sometimes they inclined toward one view, sometimes toward the other. Sometimes they resorted to verbal sleight-of-hand, as when they said, “Will follows but does not yield to the rules of the intellect.”18 Theology leads to countless complications, countless paradoxes.

B. The Means of Conversion

The Puritans were fond of sermons, they believed in the power of the spoken word. Catholics believed in the power of the priest to perform Mass, Puritans believed in the power of persuasion. “Men had to seek their salvation by hanging upon the words of the minister, and they had to listen intently and absorbedly”19 (we saw earlier how some Puritans even took notes during sermons).

It was impossible to tell when a casual word from the preacher would strike a chord with a particular listener, would harrow his soul, would lead to a sudden conversion, would “astonish and shiver the heart of the sinner all in pieces.”20 And if you listened to many sermons, and still weren’t converted, may God have mercy on your soul. Thomas Hooker said that he had “‘a great suspicion’ that those who have lived under a powerful ministry half a dozen years or so and yet have got no good from it — ‘it is a shrewd suspicion, I say, that God will send them down to hell.’”21

And if you were bound for heaven, that would become apparent during the sermon: “It was through a sermon that nine out of ten of the elect caught the first hints of their vocation, and by continued listening to good preaching they made their calling sure.”22 The sermon was the center of life for society and the individual:

The effort of the Massachusetts Bay Company to set up a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical came ultimately to the one purpose of gathering men and women together in orderly congregations that they might sit under a “powerful” and a literate ministry, that they might hear the word of God as well as read it, and hear it not as it was written in revelation, but as it was expounded by that ministry, refashioned into doctrines, reasons, and uses.23

In New England, religion wasn’t a private matter, it wasn’t “symbolized... by the secluded individual, but by the... public discourse.”24 Puritans felt that the spoken word could reach both the understanding and the heart. “The minister was believed to be a thousand times more apt to become an effectual means when he spoke than when he wrote.”25 Puritans often discussed God’s “means,” how God reached the individual (the title of this chapter is “The Means of Conversion”). Reading a sermon was a weak means compared to hearing it:

For most mortals the call came with infinitely more persuasive force when delivered from the rostrum, when shot like an arrow from the mighty bow of a Hooker, a Cotton, or a Mather, when driven by the arm of their personalities, tipped with their eloquence and feathered with their gestures.26

Puritans didn’t view religion as primarily emotional; they viewed religion as equally intellectual and emotional. One doesn’t become pious until one has learned “the history, matter, and truth of the Scripture.”27 Puritans spoke of an “understanding grace,” a faith that came from knowledge of divinity and “by all human learning as well.... A regenerate heart never throbs a single beat except at the command of an informed mind, an enlightened intellect, an educated reason.”28 Knowledge is often the first step on the road to faith. “Knowledge and understanding is the inlet into the soul, nothing comes to the heart nor can work upon it but so far as knowledge makes way, and ushers it in.... Grace had to begin with logical conviction.”29

Of course, we shouldn’t over-emphasize the intellectual aspect. There are two kinds of means, those addressed to the rational soul, and those addressed to the sensible soul; they’re equally important. Jesus often used parables in order to reach the imagination, the heart. Likewise, a minister should appeal not only to reason, but to the will, the affections, the heart. A great preacher moves the heart as well as the mind. Understanding and will should be in harmony. Conversion is often triggered by something physical, by a sensation. “There was a fundamental tenet in Puritan thought to the effect that all regeneration comes through the impact of a sensible species or a phantasm, that it is always attached to some spoken word or to some physical experience.”30

Another word (in addition to “means”) that Puritans used frequently is “ordinance.” Ordinances are means, practices, instruments. When the Puritans wrote to their comrades in England, they told them to leave England if they couldn’t enjoy the ordinances:

We do exhort you lovingly in the Lord... that neither you, nor others do live in the voluntary want of any holy ordinance of Christ Jesus, but either set them up... or else (if you be free) to remove for the enjoyment of them, to some place where they may be had.31

But while the Puritans valued ordinances, they always remembered that ordinances per se didn’t bring salvation, only God could save. Salvation comes through ordinances, but not from them.32 So we should have a certain detachment toward them — “weaned affections.”

© L. James Hammond 2020
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1. I’m not a fan of Brody as a stylist. He doesn’t strive for simplicity, which should be a writer’s chief goal. His prose has a certain complexity/obscurity, which is often found in magazines like New Yorker, magazines that try to be sophisticated.

Consider, for example, the first sentence of Brody’s review: “Of the two current movies in which a young man who has been severely harmed by the inequalities of money and power preys upon the wealthy, looks nihilistically at the social order, turns to violence, and is given to fits of compulsive laughter, the Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is by far the better one, but the contrast between that film and Joker is nonetheless revealing.”

No one would talk like this in everyday life. Literary language should resemble everyday language, though it should be “one notch higher” — one notch more formal/structured/dignified. Brody’s language isn’t just one notch higher, it’s a completely different language.

I’m reminded of Puritan criticisms of “winding, crooked, periphrastic circumlocutions.... what they believed was the sophisticated practice of the great Anglican preachers.”(Miller, p. 304) back

2. Obama’s father was a protege of Kenyan leader Tom Mboya. When Mboya died at 38, Obama Sr. was left “unprotected.” According to Wikipedia, “Obama Sr. had conflicts with Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta, which adversely affected his career.... Obama Sr. was involved in three serious car accidents during his final years; he died as a result of the last one in 1982,” when he was 46.

Were they really accidents? Or was someone trying to kill him, perhaps Jomo Kenyatta? When Boris Yeltsin was leading Russia in a new direction, and the Old Guard was resisting, he was involved in a car accident that he didn’t think was accidental. back

3. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, Ch. 9, p. 240 back
4. p. 240 back
5. p. 240 back
6. p. 241 back
7. p. 257 back
8. Paradise Lost, Book IV, 800-803 back
9. p. 242. Some Puritans realized that, despite its elaborate vocabulary, faculty psychology didn’t really explain much. Samuel Willard said, “Our knowledge of the nature of our own souls is very shallow and confused.”(p. 244, see also p. 267)

Faculty psychology thought of the different faculties as different rooms in the brain, and “almost always placed the imagination in the forward room, the common sense in the middle, and the memory behind.”(p. 246) Was there any basis for this mental map, or was it pure invention? back

10. p. 243 back
11. p. 268 back
12. p. 245 back
13. p. 248 back
14. p. 249 back
15. p. 250 back
16. p. 260 back
17. p. 251 back
18. p. 250 back
19. p. 299 back
20. p. 297 back
21. p. 297 back
22. p. 298 back
23. p. 298 back
24. p. 297 back
25. p. 295 back
26. p. 295 back
27. p. 294 back
28. p. 294 back
29. p. 293 back
30. p. 281 back
31. p. 291 back
32. p. 290 back