Jacob Howland

Jacob Howland is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa, where he has taught since 1988.  He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Littauer Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, and the Koch Foundation, and has lectured in Israel, France, England, Romania, and at universities around the United States.  He has published roughly thirty-five articles and review essays on the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Primo Levi, among others.  His most recent book is Plato and the Talmud (Cambridge 2011).  A Chinese edition of his Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge 2006) will appear in 2013.   His other books include The Paradox of Political Philosophy: Socrates’ Philosophic Trial (1998) and The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy (1993 and 2004), and he edited A Long Way Home: The Story of a Jewish Youth, 1939-1948, by Bob Golan (2005).  He is currently writing a book entitled Plato’s Republic and the Voyage of the Soul, which is under contract with Cambridge University Press.

Greek Poetics and the Theology of Biblical Narrative

This lecture explores certain fundamental problems in the attempt to develop a Jewish theological epistemology on the basis of biblical narrative.

I begin with Plato, who coined the word theologia. The term occurs only once in the Platonic corpus, at Republic 379a5. In this context, Socrates sets forth principles for the poetic representation of the gods that effectively transform the all-too-human Olympians of Greek myth into perfect and unchanging entities, much like the Platonic Ideas. The first explicit example of theology that we possess thus raises a difficult question: if a logos of theos—a philosophical account of the nature of God—attempts to articulate the structure of God’s being, how can it avoid the danger of rendering Him lifeless? A way forward is suggested by the consideration that a Jewish theological epistemology seeks to clarify the philosophical content of biblical muthos or narrative, and not to regulate the construction of new sorts of myths (as Socrates seeks to do in the Republic). Here again, the Greek tradition offers guidance in the form of Aristotle’s Poetics, which illuminates the philosophical significance of tragic drama.

How might a poetics that focuses on biblical narratives of God’s speeches and deeds contribute to theological inquiry? It is perhaps easier to see in what way the kind of inquiry developed by Aristotle cannot so contribute. Aristotle claims that poetry is more philosophical than history, “for poetry speaks more of things that are universal, and history of things that are particular.” The universals of poetry, he adds, are “the sorts of things that a certain sort of person turns out to say or do as a result of what is probable or necessary” (Poetics 1451a-b). But the God of Torah cannot be cognized through poetic universals, both because he is sui generis (and thus, strictly speaking, of no “sort” at all) and because we cannot see the whole of Him. While God is merciful, loving, and just (Exod. 34:6), He hides His “face” even from Moses, the greatest of the prophets. This is not all. Because a person’s character is accessible only by way of inference from what he says or does, actions that initially defy one’s considered expectations may prove, in hindsight, to be consistent with a later and deeper understanding of who the agent is (and perhaps has always been). But God gives us reason to doubt that we are—or may ever be—in a position to claim any such ultimate understanding of Him, for He names Himself eheyeh asher eheyeh, “I will be what I will be” (Exod. 3:14). In brief, the story of the living God cannot be poetry in the Aristotelian sense; it can only be history (albeit of a special sort).

With respect to our understanding of God, the meaning of the Bible must remain open to the unknown future, just as it begins in the unknowable past (cf. Job 38:4 ff.). But what exactly is it about God that eludes the universals of poetry? Greek tragedy dramatizes actions that paradoxically develop simultaneously on two planes, the human level of character or ēthos and the divine level of daimōn. While Aristotle’s discussion of the necessary or probable connections between certain sorts of characters and certain kinds of speeches and deeds is meant to illuminate what is required in the poetic representation of ēthos, the logic of divine action is far more opaque. This tragic framework seems to have informed the thought of Harold Bloom, who, in arguing that the literary character of Yahweh exhibits a numinous penumbra of mystery, implicitly links the God of Torah with contradictory and ultimately inscrutable deities like Euripides’ Dionysus—a god “most terrible, and yet most gentle, to mankind” (Bacchae 861). I believe this is what Bloom himself would call a strong misreading of the Hebrew Scriptures. While Dionysus is hardly distinguishable from chaos, God creates order and establishes value. His mysteriousness in the Bible seems to derive from an absoluteness and transcendence akin to that which Socrates associates with the Good, the origin of the whole that stands beyond all finite being or ousia in a manner that Plato explicitly identifies as “daimonic excess” (Rep. 509b-c). In other words, the godhood of God, which evades the grasp of poetic universals and philosophical logos alike, is nothing other than His transcendent perfection.

In returning us to the Platonic dialogues, the connection between God and the Good suggests one philosophically significant way in which biblical narrative gives us access to God’s nature. In the dialogues, the goodness of the Good is reflected in Socrates, whose unique integrity, as Kierkegaard observes, confounds the philosophical anthropology of poetry. “For us more ordinary men,” Kierkegaard writes, “it is one thing to understand and another to be. Socrates is so elevated that he does away with this distinction.” “Outside of Christianity,” he adds, “Socrates is the only man of whom it may be said: he explodes existence, which is seen quite simply in his elimination of the separation between poetry and actuality. Our lives are such that a poet portrays ideality--but actuality is a devil of a lot different. Socrates is an ideality higher than any poet is able to poetize it, and he actually is this, it is his actuality.” One might object that the Socrates to whom Kierkegaard responds is Plato’s poetic construction. I reply that Plato’s Socrates represents the permanent human possibility of transcending poetry by a spontaneous goodness that breaks open the ordinary logic of existence. By the same token, God’s transcendent perfection is indirectly accessible in biblical narratives about the free or spontaneous availability and accessibility of human beings to His call. Thus Abraham’s readiness to bring Isaac to Mount Moriah, to take perhaps the most vivid example of this ethical availability, cannot properly be explained in the categories of necessity or probability (as interpreters have for many centuries attempted to do). For Abraham’s readiness is nothing other than the human image of God’s unpoetizable perfection.