Monday, July 10, 2006

Ramchal: Don't Be Selfless, Be a Saint

On the mention of one of my friends who said that the book, Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, an ethical text by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a.k.a. the Ramchal, would be helpful in my thinking about Judaism, I decided to go look it up. So, once I found the book, what did I do? I started reading it of course. ;-)

The internet is a great fun and the whole book in translation can be found here.

Anyway, as I was reading I found a fascinating argument offered by R' Luzzatto found in chapter 4:

There are some fools who seek only to lighten their burden. They say, "Why weary ourselves with so much Saintliness and Separation? Is it not enough for us that we will not be numbered among the wicked who are judged in Gehinnom? We will not force ourselves to enter all the way into Paradise. If we do not have a large portion, we will have a small one. It will be enough for us. We will not add to our burdens for the sake of greater acquisitions."

There is one question that we will ask these people - could they so easily, in this transitory world, tolerate the sight of one of their friends being honored, and elevated above them, and coming to rule over them- or, more so, one of their servants or one of the paupers who are shameful and lowly in their eyes? Could they tolerate this without suffering and without their blood boiling in them? Is there any question that they could not?...

This tolerance, then, that they adopt in order to lighten their burden is nothing but a deceitful persuasion of their evil inclination, with no basis whatsoever in truth.


So, the argument given is that some people are ok with a little piece of Olam Haba real estate and therefore figure that they shouldn't have to go over the top on their personal perfection. As long as they end being pretty good, then they get to Heaven anyway. They don't need a palace in a sky. A small loft on the Upper Westside would be just fine.

R' Luzzatto counters with a claim that they're just big liars who cannot stand anyone getting ahead of them in this world, why does it make sense for them to be ok with people getting ahead of them in the next world?

Ok, so his argument makes sense for those truly on the lower end of the ethical spectrum who cannot stand other's success above their own. But is that the ideal person for whom R' Luzzatto wants to be directing his manifesto? Doesn't it seem wrong that R' Luzzatto's idea for a good force to improve one's character and get into Olam Haba is self-betterment over one's friends? What kind of ethic is he pushing? You don't want to look stupid in your little rinky dink heavenly westside apartment when your butler has a castle, do you? Better go learn some Torah.

It's very strange how R' Luzzatto promotes this false selflessness of personal perfection by using man's selfish desires of bettering above his fellow man. Keeping up with the Steins is the literal way of getting into Heaven.

17 comments:

Chaim said...

I think what he's saying is that the fact that they are not happy with a smaller portion in this world proves that their claim that they will be satisfied with less in the next world is just their evil inclination, and not a hallmark of righteousness. I don't think he means that this should be one's motivation.

Orthoprax said...

Chaim,

I understand that and that's why I said it works for some people. But there are also real people out there that do their best to be as unselfish as possible. It is then this selflessness which keeps them from perfection according to the logic of the Ramchal.

It's just a rather strange way of thinking.

I would think that one would consider the impulse to be better than your neighbors as an incarnation of the evil inclination.

Ben Avuyah said...

I had the same impression you did. In fact, he identifies the midah of tolerance (that allows one to be happy with a middle sized portion) as a tool of the yetzer harah, but then, he himself, uses the midos of pride and unembarrased materialism as if it is a tool of the yetzer tov.

That's why these things always smell bad.

No methodology, just looking for whatever pressure point is useful for accomplishing the ends they believe in.

Some Guy said...

I think Ramchal was always off in his own little world. You can see this in "Derech Hashem," which he wrote in his 20's. It's beyond dogma. It's some kind of psychotic fantasy thing. Still, fun to read....

Baal Habos said...

OP, great point! He's having his cake and eating it too. I've asked that question in the past and the answer was something along the lines of Chaim above. In Gan Eden, the Truth will be apparent, so indeed we will be jealous of our neighbor's accomplishments.

BTW, did you see my comment to your post about the Illiad.

Orthoprax said...

Ben,

Ends before means, naturally.


Some guy,

I've read Derech Hashem, though some time ago. I also remember it being a little wacky at times. Maybe I'll refresh myself.


Baal,

Thanks, I'll check back on the Iliad post soon.

Alex said...

While you were hell-bent on scouring the sefer with the goal of nitpicking on something small and blogging on it, did any of the incredibly powerful lessons and ideas in the sefer enter your heart?

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

The book is a mixed bag. Some of the ideas are obvious, others are questionable, and still others are beyond the pale.

My intent was not to find something in the book to blog about, but simply to get a handle of what the book is about.

It's a personal ethical treatise, which is not really my issue with Orthodoxy since I know that Orthodoxy can be very ethical - though the book also ignores a large set of sensitive issues which I think contemporary Orthodoxy is generally on the wrong side of. I also take issue with the way the Ramchal equates ritual rules with ethical ones. It only serves to confuse what morality is.

Furthermore, since I am one who doubts the very existence of an afterlife or that God commanded the mitzvot, much of the text's reasonings don't appeal to me.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

Did you read the intorduction to the book? Mesilat Yesharim is a book dsicussing ethics based on the Braisa of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair. Its purpose is to teach people how to do internal work. This particualr passage is explaining that people when it comes to spiritual matters tend to find the easy way out,when in matters of commerce and honor they will literally run their friend over to get what they want and will run to the ends of the earth. He is saying these same people when they recieve their portion will be annoyed at their fellow for having recieved the loft rather than the palace. What he is saying is that the evil inclination downplays the importance of alacrity by saying you will be okay with a small portion when in truth their actions in this world show them to desire as much as possible. Not to mention I could imagine that them seeing a "lesser" person recieving more being a sort of punishment in and of itself so hey who knows.

Secondly it is known that doing things for the purpose of reward and punishment should be a phase in spiritual development and not the purpose, and it is NOT the focus. The third Mishnah in Avot spells this out and Ramchal adresses it later in this work.

Here Ramchal is making an observation about human behavior and applying the same principle, he is not countering any claims he is making an observation about people.

Orthoprax said...

Tzedek,

"Did you read the intorduction to the book? Mesilat Yesharim is a book dsicussing ethics based on the Braisa of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair."

Yes, I know, thanks.

"This particualr passage is explaining that people when it comes to spiritual matters tend to find the easy way out,when in matters of commerce and honor they will literally run their friend over to get what they want and will run to the ends of the earth."

Indeed. And like I said, the passage works for those people.

"Secondly it is known that doing things for the purpose of reward and punishment should be a phase in spiritual development and not the purpose, and it is NOT the focus."

It's not just reward and punishment here, it's the whole regard of wanting to be better than the other guy that is just rotten.


"Here Ramchal is making an observation about human behavior and applying the same principle, he is not countering any claims he is making an observation about people."

Perhaps. But isn't it possible that there really is a selfless person out there who would really be satisfied with just a small piece of olam haba?

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

I'm sure its possible that there are selfless people who don't strive for a large portion,those are people who serve G-d because they desire to serve G-d only for His sake and nothing else. But if you really believe that somone who is selfish could really stand seeing a peer recieve a greater honor than himself then I think you have yet to meet 98% of the corporate world. Seriously, it is being directed at people who are selfish and say "lets do a little I can live with that" when the truth is if it were in this world they couldn't. So What Ramchal is saying is that they are decieving themselves becuase what they are saying is in fact contrary to their actions on the earth.

Orthoprax said...

Tzedek,

"But if you really believe that somone who is selfish..."

I don't! But that's not the point.

"Seriously, it is being directed at people who are selfish..."

Like I said, it does work for some, even most people, but it completely offends real selfless folks out there.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

How are selfless people offended? He is not talking to selfless people. Also as I said it is an observation about Human behavior. It is this: If in this world people hate seeing thier friend get ahead what makes them think that when they see them get ahed in "heaven" that they won't be annoyed. In other words these people delude themselves into thinking the way i view things will be different then. Which is nonsense, why would it be different. It is sort of like somone who loves to jay walk thinking he'll never get hit by a car. One day he does yet he contines to jay walk still believeing he will not be hit, yet he is repeatedly. Eventually he dies. My point is the Jay walker believes that he won't get hit just like the people being referenced believe they won't be upset when they see others have acheived over them. Just like the Jay walker gets hit they feel that way in life, so why would their whole philosophy suddenly change? A person spends thier whole life jealous but convinces himself he won't be jealous of his friend when he sees him get a greater reward? Thats absurd he did nothing to change himself in this life and when your dead its too late your stuck with those traits.
Dude the people being discussed are people who convince themselves that they could settle for less but the truth is they can't, they didn't in this life, but believe they will in the next, yet all we take with us when we die is our deeds, hence how can what they say be logical.

Also the issue of whether you believe in an afterlife doesn't matter because it is presumed in this case that the reader does. Obviously if you don't believe in one you believe their is no portion hence the argument doesn't work for your belief. However lets assume there is or apply it to something else and you will see the statment is logical.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

Also why do you r=take quotes out of context? By doing so you miss the point of what I say.

Orthoprax said...

Tzedek,

"How are selfless people offended? He is not talking to selfless people."

Good, but selfless people could be reading it. That's my point.

"Also why do you r=take quotes out of context? By doing so you miss the point of what I say."

I didn't take anything out of context. I acknowledged your points. Now you are just repeating yourself.

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