Many moons ago, I half-justified to a friend a particular deviation from Catholic moral theology by arguing that as long as he understood the rationale behind the Church’s prohibition, he could live according to the real moral truth (imperfectly encapsulated by a behavioral norm) despite his superficial non-conformance with the letter of the law. The subtext of that somewhat Gnostic argument? That much of the thou-shalt-not discipline of Scripture and Tradition was intended to provide concrete guidance to the great unwashed masses who lack the intellectual wherewithal to properly adjudicate complex ethical problems.
We, the wise, however, ought not to labor under such crude restrictions, better suited to toddlers than adults. Ergo, as long as we could tease out a logical superstructure of principle beneath those crusty old rubrics, we could live as enlightened souls who didn’t obsess over compliance with rules intended to shepherd the children around us.
Interesting, then, to read Aaron Rothstein’s review of Steven Weitzman’s Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom published in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. Rothstein — a medical student at Wake Forest — offers a refreshing insight into the interplay of wisdom and spiritual humility:
The rabbis conceived of gezeirah, alternatively known as building a fence around the Torah. One places certain restrictions on lifestyle in order to (in Rabban Gamliel’s words) “keep a man far from transgression.” … In other words, if we understand the secrets of why we do certain things or why certain laws exist, we remove the barriers that prevent us from breaking more serious laws. Solomon’s downfall, then, demonstrates the danger of too much understanding — a biblical version of the Faustian tale.
Put differently: Laws, both secular and religious, serve as markers that delimit acceptable behavior. In many cases, those markers sit very far away from grey zones, in order to protect people from the confusion reigning at morality’s twilight. When we, the wise, treat those markers as rules for the unenlightened — when we decide that our own wisdom is sufficient to light our way through that twilight — we risk missing the next set of markers, hidden in the darkness, roping off the point of no return. Ethics becomes tautology: A given act is acceptable because I believe it’s acceptable. QED. And the wisdom inherent in the original placement of those universal markers fades from public consciousness.
Having decided that I have ascertained the real lesson of the rules that govern everyone else, I can then presume to know when those rules may safely be broken. And what’s true of one’s private life — e.g., out-thinking biblical dietary norms — works in one’s public life, too. Anyone want to wager whether all the best and brightest at the National Security Agency will always elect to follow domestic-surveillance laws, enacted in messy and haphazard fashion by a dysfunctional Congress, when the intelligence analysts think they’ve got a compelling case to skirt them in service to their version of the public good?
We break laws with impunity when we think we understand the law’s purpose and decide that some other, higher, purpose ought to trump.
Therein lies the risk. Humility — a trait that often comes easier to men of intellectually modest means — helps us to acknowledge that the law’s markers serve a valuable purpose and were erected with foresight. When we lack that humility, we treat those markers as speed bumps, yet we rarely acknowledge that some wisdom superior to our own may have played a part in setting them.
Solomon fell because he out-thought the Torah and God decided to remind him that mere wisdom isn’t a license to disobedience. Today, we see case after case after case of men out-thinking both statutory and natural law, and we must ask: Are we really that wise, after all?