To Become or not to Become: On Spiritual and Political Evolution

by George Anastaplo

(Keynote Remarks, Hickory Humanities Forum – Lenoir-Rhyne UniversityWildacres Retreat – Little Switzerland, North Carolina – May 20, 2010)


A cello concerto by Dmitry Yanov-Yavosky (who was born in Soviet-controlled Uzbekistan in 1963) was given its world premier by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on May 13, 2010.  Featured on that occasion was a virtuoso performance on the cello by Yo-Yo Ma.  One music critic responded in this fashion to the performance (Bryant Manning, Chicago Sun-Times, May 15, 2010, p. 23):

Written about a homeland the composer no longer recognizes, the [concerto] pulses and aches with those long, lamenting logical lines [Yo-Yo] Ma has virtually trademarked as a performer.  Yet [this] one-movement concerto is hardly elegiac easy listening, but does contain an abundance of timbral flavors that keeps you guessing.  Liberally garnished with atonal touches and jerking rhythmic oddities, it has a strong Soviet personality that shines through.

The typical concert-goers could endorse this assessment, especially since they had not been provided readily-grasped melodies and themes as characteristic of this piece of music.  But another critic’s assessment of this Cello Concerto could describe other aspects of this piece of music that the audience at large had probably not been equipped to notice (John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2010, sec. 1, p. 18):

The half-hour concerto takes the form of a single-movement arch in five discrete sections.  Long stretches of post-minimalist pulsing may lead the casual listener to believe that there aren’t that many ideas at work, but Yanov-Yanovsky’s music is like a quiet lake teeming with life below the surface.  Cello and orchestra enact a kind of dominance submission ritual, the soloist finally gaining the upper hand in a radiant Mahlerian coda that hints at a brighter tomorrow after the painful uncertainties of before.

It can be suspected, I have indicated, that the typical audience would not be able to make explicit what this critic discerned in a review which continues in this manner:

There’s an implied autobiographical narrative as the composer works his way through a landscape filled with Soviet-era ghosts.  Echoes of the music that defined the time in which he grew up…pass in review.  Only at the end is the soloist able to shake off those fleeting reminders of the past and begin anew….

Such technical assessments of artistic performances may remind us that we can be engaged by a work of the mind that we do not truly understand.  The most skillful purveyors of such work may induce us not to notice how much we do not understand.  This can be illustrated by examining here, in turn, both a discourse on spiritual matters and a declaration of constitutional principles.


The discourse on spiritual matters immediately available to us is the celebrated Sermon on the Mount found in Chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew, the gospel traditionally provided at the outset of the Greek Bible (or the New Testament).  Much had been introduced in the opening chapters of this gospel, including the genealogy of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, the flight to and the return from Egypt, the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.  Also introduced is an indication of the remarkable contentiousness of the time, at least in the Holy Land, for it is reported that John the Baptist accosted the Pharisees and Sadducees, coming to where he was baptizing, with this vigorous greeting (Matthew 3: 7-9):

O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

It is obvious that much (some of it quite spirited) has been immediately going on among the people dealt with here.  It is also obvious that generations of forebears are drawn on.  The specialness of the Present Time is suggested by the series of temptations to which Jesus was subjected thereafter by the Devil in the desert.

It should also be obvious that the controversies of that day were not new.  Perhaps the Roman Occupation increased tensions among a people who must have wondered what they had done to deserve this.  New modes and orders seemed to be called for.


Easy to overlook in these circumstances is how much of that which is proposed as a new way is grounded in the very traditions that are being challenged.  This can be illustrated upon examining the apparently revolutionary sentiments collected in the Sermon on the Mount, the trailblazing proclamation in the New Testament.  There can be discerned in this account reminders of the elevated status of Moses at Mount Sinai, beginning with the physical setting for Jesus at this time in Galilee.

But is Jesus, on this occasion, as innovative as he is often taken to have been?  Jewish and other scholars have catalogued, in considerable detail, the ancient (Israelite) sources of much of what is said in the Sermon on the Mount.  Can one hear properly what is said here by Jesus if one is not reliably aware of what has gone before and what problems, as well as what merits, are associated with what had been inherited?

An assessment of Jesus himself by dispassionate observers may depend, at least in part, upon a determination of how much he himself knew of the sources he drew upon.  We can be reminded here of the puzzlement created when it was discovered, in recent centuries, that the story of Noah’s Flood had had its counterpart in the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, with a notable (yet significantly different) Noah-like figure of its own.  A related puzzlement has been exhibited by those who have not yet found any trace, in extensive Egyptian records, of any cataclysmic encounter between some Pharaoh and an Israelite subject-race, something made even more challenging when it is recalled that a significant impetus for the extensive study of ancient Egypt in modern times had come from pious archaeologists interested in providing more details related to the foundational stories related in the Book of Exodus.


The soul of Jesus, as exhibited in accounts such as those in Matthew, is decisively Jewish in its yearnings.  The career, aspirations, and struggles of Ancient Israel are very much in evidence.  Jesus’ spirit and modes of expression are far closer to Abraham than they are to, say, St. Augustine.

This is not to deny that Greek elements, too, may be found in Christianity.  They may be seen, most dramatically, in the celebration of Logos in the opening of the Gospel of John.  But such elements are there throughout, of course, in the use made of the Greek language (with its opening to personal immortality?) in making the Message known.

It may have been the Greek elements that helped make Christianity eventually attractive in Europe (in the Roman Empire, which was already substantially Hellenized, drawing as it did for its critical foundation-stories on such accounts as may be found in Virgil’s  Aeneid, which is itself dependent on Homer and influenced as well by that spirit in Athens which was characterized in The Acts of the Apostles as eager “either to tell, or to hear some new thing”).  By the time of Jesus and his missionaries, on the other hand, the major peoples of Asia seem to have long settled into substantial ideological systems of their own, to be shaken eventually only by challenges grounded in modern science and its industrial and military technology.  Among the decisive influences of Christianity was the promotion of the sanctity of that individualism which is somehow associated with a lively awareness of an   identifiable (personal) life after death, a prospect that mainline Judaism had never invested in to a significant degree.


Religions, then, tend to be largely inherited across generations, and even centuries (if not across millennia).  The teachings of a new movement (whether religious, political, or social) are not likely to be completely original, even when “revolutionary” in tone.  Still, some teachers are able so to infuse their words with a distinctive spirit that restatements by them of  old teachings can elicit the response that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount did (Matthew 7: 28-8:1):

And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.  When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him [as, it could be suggested by his critics, their ancestors had “followed” the Golden Calf?].

At the heart of this Sermon had been instructions about how (and how not) to pray, instructions illustrated on this occasion by what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer.  And at the core of that prayer can be said to be the recognition of the need for daily bread.  It is recognized, that is, that the most exalted enterprise requires prosaic material underpinnings.

Another exalted enterprise is the constitutional system we all rely upon in this Country, the system anticipated in the Declaration of Independence.  That system includes among its essential underpinnings the first ten Amendments to the Constitution of 1787 that we know as the Bill of Rights (ratified in 1791).  We move here, therefore, from Daily Bread to Daily Government.


The Bill of Rights of 1791 reflects the ordering of powers in the Constitution of 1787.  It begins with limitations upon Congress before anticipating, in some detail (after glimpses in the Second, Third, and Fourth Amendments at Executive  power), with a series of likely abuses in the administration of justice.  There is little in this array of rights that would have been unfamiliar to the knowledgeable citizen of the day in this Country.

Antecedents to various rights, and even more the spirit of restrictions on governmental powers, can be found in Magna Carta (1215) and other ancient British instruments.  It would have been recognized by Eighteenth Century Americans that they were also drawing upon what had been done in the English Bill of Rights (of 1689), a document in which grievances (with respect to questionable exercises of royal powers) had been catalogued before a series of rights was insisted upon.  Likewise, the American Bill of Rights worked, in effect, from the various matters complained of in official proclamations during the preceding generation, culminating in the collection of grievances in the Declaration of Independence.

Dependence in the United States upon Anglo-American constitutionalism is dramatized by the Eighth Amendment (the last of the particular rights in the 1791 American document), which is taken, word for word, from the 1689 English document: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”  Underpinning all of these arrangements, for the English-speaking peoples, were the language and the teachings of both William Shakespeare and the King James translation of the Bible.  William Blackstone’s great treatise, in turn,  provided Americans instructive reminders of the Constitutional System and the Common Law upon which they routinely depended.


How various provisions in the Bill of Rights of 1791 should be understood is suggested upon recalling comparable provisions developed by the British in their Bill of Rights and elsewhere.  Consider, for example, the “freedom of speech” recognized by the First Amendment, language which is grounded in the centuries-old assurance that Members of Parliament would be able to discuss public affairs without risk of royal sanctions.  This assurance with respect to discussions of public affairs is far more disciplined than the highly- touted “freedom of expression” (with its lamentable openness to licentiousness) that has been improperly read into the First Amendment since the Second World War.

Consider, also, the Second Amendment, which provides, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  A study of its antecedents in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 suggests that the Second Amendment does not mean what some today have allowed themselves to believe it means.  A challenge to such a contemporary belief may be seen in the provocative argument by the late Robert A. Goldwin in the Wall Street Journal (“Gun Control Is Constitutional,” December 12, 1991, p. A15):

Congress has the constitutional right to enact a Militia Act [which would] require every person who owns a gun or aspires to own one to “enroll” in the militia.  In plain 1990s English, if you want to own a gun, sign up with the National Guard.

It was partly a matter of chance which rights were explicitly noticed in the Bill of Rights of 1791.  The drafters of those provisions understood that there were even more rights, long recognized among the English-speaking peoples, than had been affirmed in either the Constitution of 1787 or the Bill of Rights of 1791.  And so it is provided, in the Ninth Amendment, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”


We can notice that Judaic-Christian spiritual doctrines have had a quite limited reception in some parts of the world.  Much the same can be said about Anglo-American constitutional doctrines.  We can be reminded here of the significant differences in the capacities of people with respect to the music they hear.

It was generally recognized, for example, that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao could never be restrained by any elaborate declaration of rights included in their respective constitutions.  It remains to be seen what will have to be done, in the long run, to make such  declarations both vital and enduring hereafter in Germany, Russia and China.  Another way of putting all this is to observe that neither Goethe nor Tolstoy nor Confucius, for all their merits, can provide what Shakespeare evidently did.

Our current economic globalization was anticipated by such political/judicial globalization as that seen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.  “Among its 30 articles,” the Webster’s New Explorer Desk Encyclopedia (2003) has observed, “are definitions of civil and political rights (including freedom from slavery and the right to a nationality), as well as the economic, social, and cultural rights (including the right to social security), owed by member states to those under their jurisdiction.”  A study of this 1948 document and its applications can remind us of how much doctrines, whether spiritual or political, depend on appropriate circumstance for a reliable effectiveness.


We have noticed how much Christianity has depended on Judaism for its foundations and inspiration.  We have also noticed how much American constitutionalism has depended on British Constitutionalism for its foundations and inspiration.  A serious study of either Christianity or American constitutionalism (both rebellions, of sorts) does require an informed awareness of their antecedents.

Such a study includes an informed awareness as well of how such antecedents have in turn been modified by contact with the regimes derived from them.  Thus, it can be instructive to notice how Judaism has been “Christianized” (for better and for worse?) across millennia.  And it can be instructive to notice how British political processes have been “Americanized” (again for better and for worse?) during the past century, something that has been dramatically evident during the recent parliamentary election and its aftermath in the United Kingdom.

Indeed, both Jews and British can be seen to be in the quandary that Henri Matisse found himself in at mid-career.  A February 1917 visitor (Ameen Rihan) to his Issy studio reported,

And the Maestro, to add to our perplexity and embarrassment, asked us if we thought [an old tableau of his] had anything in it of Cubism.  Alas, Monsieur Matisse is afraid, I think, of becoming a Cubist and he is just as much afraid, alas! alas!, of not becoming a Cubist… Meanwhile he will go on doing his best to overcome the perplexity within himself.

Instructive perplexity confronts Jews and Christians, as well as Britons and Americans, when attempts are made to sort out who has done what to and for whom in the never-ending endeavor to determine how one should live and be.

George Anastaplo’s recent publications include Reflections on Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment (University Press of Kentucky, 2007), The Bible: Respectful Readings (Lexington Books, 2008), Reflections on Life, Death, and the Constitution (Lexington Books, 2009), and The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (Lexington Books, 2010).

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