English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment
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Both topics had the same form: "Explain the role of concept X within idea-system Y," Y being in each case "the traditional Christian picture of history" and X being either "Original Sin" or "advent," depending on which option you picked. We'll focus here on the option dealing with Original Sin, since that is the one that almost all of you decided on. In what follows, you will notice that certain points (about the issues involved in the topic, about decisions writing about them) crop up under more than one heading.
First off, let's get clear on what the job is. The general subject of the essay could be said to be the traditional Christian picture of Original Sin. It could just as well be considered the traditional Christian picture of history. But the assignment is not (just) to talk about these general topics.
You will go astray if you take the task to be "to say some true things about the concept of Original Sin," or "show me some stuff you know about Original Sin." If you do this, you will end up with a miscellaneous bag of items "unified" only by the circumstance that everything you bring in has something or other to do with the concept of Original Sin. Put another way: you will present a series of beads on a string, and the only thing the beads might end up having in common is the fact that the same string (here, the same general subject) happens to pass through them, somehow. This is not the kind of unity that a cogent analysis has. For that we have to have a pointed thesis, as distinct from a general subject or topic.
Now the specific topic is the role of the concept of Original Sin within the traditional Christian picture of history. And the prescribed task is to clarify that role. If we set about this task, we will be able eventually to decide upon a specific thesis -- the sort of thing that can serve as the unifying principle of an essay. (Of course, you will still have to make sure that what you end up writing does not go deviating from this thesis, and at the same time does finish the job of developing it.)
But how does one go about such a task? First, use analogy to draw on what you already know how to do. Suppose you had never been instructed in the operation of an internal combustion engine (which you've seen purring away) and you wanted to figure out the role of a certain piece in it (a spark plug, say, although we are imagining that maybe you've never even heard of this term). What would you do? A good opening strategy would be to take it out. This might not immediately bring a comprehensive answer to your question, but it would do something very helpful right off: it would point your curiosity in profitable more specific directions, and suggest the right sort of next things to get puzzled about.
So, here: what other elements of the overall picture of history characteristic of traditional Christianity would be affected if we were to subtract from that picture the idea of Original Sin (or, if you're doing the other topic, advent)? What kinds of differences might this particular difference make? You'd then review what you saw as the complementary elements (i.e., in the rest of the overall picture, those which in it "complete" the one whose role you want to explain), and see how they would either evaporate, or become altogether unintelligible (pointless, arbitrary, unmotivated?), or be forced to take on some importantly different meaning(s).
This kind of thought experiment is something you will want to make a ready part of your repertoire of intellectual moves. What would it turn up here?
Suppose we take the question dealing with the role in the picture of the concept of Original Sin. If there is one sub-issue that probably deserves to be made your central point in an essay on that topic it is the connection of (the traditional Christian conception of) Original Sin with (the traditional Christian conception of) the Atonement. Schematically, we indicate what's at stake here like this:
Unless human beings are in a condition of depravity of such a sort that they are powerless to remedy it by their own efforts, there will be no call for the Atonement. (This of course would need explaining.)
- If the Atonement is unnecessary, then the Incarnation and Crucifixion are superfluous.
But if Christ is inessential in history, then we have stepped outside of the traditional Christian conception of history, within which the central episode of Universal History is what God accomplishes within it by submitting himself to its vicissitudes in the Person of the Son.
To sum up: No Original Sin, no (traditional) Christianity.
A way to drive this home would be to point out how Pelagius is led to devise an account different from the traditional one of the significance of Jesus' career (i.e., role in history). (What is that?)
[As we are going to see, this circumstance is going to be the source of some of the most bitter conflicts that will arise in the course of the European Enlightenment.]
What other elements of the traditional Christian picture of history should be looked at under the thought experiment of doing away with the idea of Original Sin? (You won't of course have to discuss each of these. For one thing, the categories as given below overlap in some respects. For another, any one of them admits of being developed either more extensively or less. But the question at this point is: what, ideally, would you want to generate as the wealth of material from which you could select a set of implications of most genuine interest to you?) Here are some definite candidates.
Notice that careful selection is going to be required, along with insightful integrating analysis.
There is first of all the question of relevance. Quite apart from the fact that you have your hands full here and don't want to waste precious space on stuff that's off the main track, bringing in logically extraneous matter actually detracts from the clarity and focus of your analysis.
If you are going to discuss the eucharist and penance (a very wise thing to do), you are going to have to explain what these (which address individual sins, in the pre-protestant picture) have to do with Original Sin. (The crucial bridge notion will be the idea of concupiscence. See how?) Without this sort of integrating explanation, your analysis will lapse into incoherence. (More properly speaking, it will fail to achieve coherence in the first place.)
If you decide to bring Pelagius into the discussion, it will be a mistake to treat him as indicating one position, in justification theory, within traditional Christianity. Rather, you will need to use him to bring the latter into focus by contrast. Despite their differences, Aquinas and Augustine represent positions within what we have been calling "traditional Christianity": their agreement that Pelagius' views are heretical connects with their interpretation of the (meaning of) the Atonement. (See above.)
Finally, you should resist the temptation to get distracted into discussing the conflicts within Christianity over issues of theodicy, and still more the criticisms of Christian theodicy brought by skeptics. These are all worthy topics, but they take you away from concentrating on the exact business at hand. They make it harder for the reader you should be imagining to focus steadfastly on the central issues. Worse yet, they can mislead you yourself into thinking you've finished the job when you've filled up a couple of pages with stuff that "has to do with" Original Sin. That is, it may obscure from you yourself the fact that you have not gotten round to dealing with issues that really are important to address in any logically complete treatment of the precise topic at hand.
If, on the other hand, you introduce quarrels within the traditional Christian camp, they will likewise be relevant for defining your topic only by way of contrast, though in this case of a different kind. You can use them to throw into relief the common denominator consensus in doctrine that makes the traditional Christian world view recognizable as such. Your point would then be that these are not the sorts of doctrinal distinctions to be confused with what must take center stage here. And in keeping with this, you would be sure to engineer things so that it is clear that these matters have only a marginal connection with your central business. In other words, they will show up as something you point to in passing, not something you dwell on.
On the other side of the coin from relevance is the problem of manageability. What initially struck many of you about the assignment was how daunting it seemed. It is easy to imagine writing a 400-page book on this topic. So how is it supposed to be possible for an undergraduate to cover the ground in a 2-page single-spaced essay? The dilemma seems to be: how can anybody discuss this in any specific terms without going on forever -- or, put the other way round, how can one treat such a mammoth subject succinctly without being so abstract as to fall into vagueness?
As for the aftermath of the Crucifixion, you'll need to explain (in your discussion of the Atonement itself) how the sacrifice of Jesus is not, in traditional Christian theory, imagined to save everybody once and for all. The idea is that baptism is necessary if an individual is to appropriate the virtues of the sacrifice to his or her own case. There is furthermore the problem that, although guilt for Original Sin is washed away and the penalty of death due for it is paid (in the sacrifice appropriated by baptism), concupiscence remains as a heritage of Original Sin, so that individual sins are going to have to be dealt with in any case. Though the role of the sacraments the mass and of penance is differently conceived in the via augustiniana and the via antigua, Augustine and Aquinas are in agreement concerning the necessity, under God's plan, to bring the good news of the atonement to the "gentiles" (non-Christians) in order that they may believe and partake of the sacraments in accordance with God's will.
In the end, the quality of the analysis you achieve depends - as always! -
but on the logical framework you develop for tying them together.
Is it unified and coherent?
Coherence also requires that you take as much care for precision and accuracy in stating relationships among the things you refer to as you do in designating things in the first place. It is just as important to say that one chair is beside another instead of astride it (unless it so happens that it is indeed atop it in the case at hand!) as it is to refer to it as a chair instead of a sofa. Since the tasks we are up to in this course are over and over ones of making connections among things, it is essential that we get prissy about getting the connections right. Word choice and sentence structure are serious matters with this. Can you see what's amiss with the following sentences? (The last example has two relational glitches, one conceptual and one factual.)
The quality of your analysis will also depend on the comprehensiveness of your treatment.
Beyond that, you need to discuss at least one other complementary element in rich detail, or a couple or three more in less depth (but without leaving things in incoherence). After all, to say that the Crucifixion is "axial" within this picture is to say that everything else "revolves around" it. To develop (as distinct from merely to assert) this claim requires you to say something about that "rest" -- and the something that needs to be said is a specific showing of how it "revolves around" that axis.
Composing and organizing.
The remarks so far have to do with the problem of coming up with eligible things to say. What about the problem of organizing the presentation of what you decide to include?
Framing an Introduction and Getting Started: two very different things.
Remember, your job is to synthesize your reflections on a body of material (readings and class discussions) under the guidance of a specific analytical concern: breaking down a particular idea system into its elements, and figuring out how one of these affects and is affected by the others. This means that it will be a mistake to do something that, at first glance, may seem like the most natural thing in the world -- to "begin at the beginning"! That is, you don't want to lead off by retelling the Fall story (or, worse yet, the Creation story that precedes it in the Genesis narrative). This is starting off on the wrong foot, because your job is expository-argumentative, not narrative (story-telling -- or even the summarizing of a told story).
Example II. Original Sin is fundamental to the traditional Christian picture of the meaning of history as a whole and in detail. Traditional Christianity insists that human beings come into the world so evil that they can do little or nothing on their own behalf to avoid being condemned to eternal punishment. This is a basic assumption behind Christianity's insistance that the central episode of all human history is the Crucifixion. But it determines as well what Christians are taught to see at stake in "events" on the political scene: conquests, defeats, social upheavals. And it is essential to the legitimation of institutions like the Church and the political order.
Example III. Traditional Christianity follows Judaism in insisting that moral and physical evil enter the world with the sin of the first parents. Things like murder (like that of Abel by his brother Cain) and the sufferings of physical existence (the struggle to survive in a hostile nature, pain in childbirth, disease, and death) are all the result, not of an incompetent or negligent (still less hostile) Higher Power, but of a mis-step on the part of this Being's two most-favored creatures which, ever since, have transmitted their self-perverted moral constitution to all their progeny. To what degree can one "unplug" this miserable picture of human nature from the larger picture of history that is also a part of traditional Christian teaching? What would a Christianity look like that hich dispenses with the notion of inheritance of moral traits? Would other key traditional doctrines have to be reinterpreted or dispensed with? Or could they be retained pretty much intact?
Example IV: Traditional Christianity insists that all human beings without exception are born bad to the bone. Modern mentalities may find the Genesis story incredible in the light of modern archeology (to say nothing of the theory of evolution, which is a cornerstone of modern biology). But to the degree that they want to retain the traditional Christian picture of history, they will have to find some way to acknowledge at least the allegorical validity of the Biblical Fall story. For the idea of the innate evil of mankind is inextricable from it.
Note that the writer will still have to say more in clarifying what is meant by Original Sin (i.e., before going on to explain what it supposedly inextricably hooks up with). But it can make sense to assign part of this definitional job to the introduction, to make the thesis intelligible. The body of the essay then has the job of making the thesis convincing. These two tasks -- clarification and proof -- will arise with each subthesis that arises in the course of the body.
Plotting the body of the essay.
What we've said about the introduction applies as well to deciding how to organize the body of your essay. This is a problem you can't solve until you've devised or discovered a suitable overall logical framework for integrating your analysis -- but this integration itself is not something external, or "added to" your analysis: it is, rather, the very essence of it. There are, however, some general principles that are worth taking account of.
Question C will be logically subordinate in a different way to Question A if the answer to Question A serves (perhaps along with something else, maybe the answer to Question B) to raise Question C.
But suppose that the answer to Question A (along with whatever else) serves to raise Question C, but that (in virtue of our overall topic) we are more interested in Question A. Then, while Question C is still logically subordinate to Question A, it is also rhetorically subordinate to it. For example, Question C might be something we want to take up "by the wayside" in order to show the significance of our answer to Question A.
Getting clear about these logical and rhetorical relationships among the different sub-units of our discussion is essential to making effective decisions about the order in which some of them will be best taken up.
Climactic order is something to take into account when we are not constrained by the considerations of intelligibility discussed above.
But what constitutes "more climactic" can depend not so much on the intrinsic nature of the items we are ordering, but a great deal on the way in which we shape the discussion of the individual elements we are treating. In Example I, above, is (as we said) compatible with two quite different orders of development, either of which could carry the reader to a sense of ending on a climactic note. But of course the writer would have to be mindful throughout of the effect sought in the whole, since whether it comes off will depend on whether the treatment of the parts is consistently consistent with it.
Here again, experienced writers will resist the temptation to let their organization of the material they treat be dictated by what happens to be the order in which it happens to come to them. I used the word "happens" twice there in order to stress the accidental quality of this kind of sequence. This irrelevance to the central issue at hand will almost certainly infect this mere "order of arrival" of thoughts. This is pretty obviously so when it is the temporal series in which the writer thought up whatever occurred to him -- the largely hopping and skipping, backing and filling sequence in which they came across relevant material or dreamed up an insight into it. But it will also be the case when the order in which the material emerges is already embodied in some pre-existing account the writer is relying upon -- in this case, the Biblical narrative itself and the chronology of history in general. If one were to follow the chronology of history within traditional Christian picture that one is attempting to explicate, then mention of the Incarnation and Crucifixion would show up somewhere in the middle (if one adopts the standpoint of people living around 1500) or the end (if one adopts the standpoint of people living shortly after Christ, most of whom thought the Second Coming was fairly eminent). But proceeding this way doesn't make the best expository sense. You want to make the organizational structure of your case illuminating in its own right.
Then you could exploit as a transition the substantive insight that, in this picture, everything that preceeds this momentous episode is understood as setting the stage and preparing the way for it, while everything that follows it is understood as realizing the possibilities it opens up.
Winding it all up: arranging a sense of an ending.
Concluding your essay is often easier than students suppose. It is in any case not a good idea to repeat what you've already said -- unless, of course, you can do so in a way that goes beyond mere repetition, and actually throws new light on what you are resuming. (This is a general principle of course, not something that just applies to conclusions. We already saw it at work in Examples I and II in our discussion of introductions.)
If you have opened your essay with a paragraph that climaxes in posing (directly or by implication) the question to which the body of your essay generates the answer, then you can of course conclude with a succinct statement of that answer -- the thesis of the whole, which (in explicit form) you'll be withholding as the climactic gesture of the whole.
Still another possibility is to devote a final paragraph to indicating some aspect or aspects of the difference your thesis itself makes: what are some consequences of it, in turn? These might be questions its resolution now puts on the table for a future occasion. Or it might be that deciding the central issue of your essay as you did effectively decides a question that is somehow outstanding down the line. It might be that you have some personal leanings you'd like to declare, or some speculation you'd like to float. Provided that in the body of your essay you've genuinely come to grips with the issue posed in the assignment, these moves can be undertaken in ways that lend a sense of closure to your discussion.
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Revised 21 October 1996, 25 August 99.