Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What manner of man is the prophet (Heschel)

What manner of man is the prophet? A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the marketplace. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum. They make much ado about paltry things, lavishing excessive language upon trifling subjects. What if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? So what if some old women found pleasure and edification in worshipping "the Queen of Heaven?" Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation?

Reading this I saw that the nit-picking of the Pharisees and the passion of the prophets look to the world (and to Pharisees everywhere) like the same thing. I want to learn a lot better to really distinguish these. I'm not rash enough to be too sure that I do.

I see more clearly just what the folly of philosophy consists of. It's not intellectual subtlety that makes philosophy foolish. It is its high-mindedness, its conceit, the notion that abstractions are somehow "higher" and more important than the concerns of widows and orphans and the justice and mercy due to them. The same high-mindedness is perfectly at home not only in graduate schools but in the most know-nothing anti-intellectual church, concerned with its doctrines, rather than with the widows and orphans that get the attention of the prophets.


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