FANDANGO’S PROVOCATIVE QUESTION #33

Fandango’s Provocative Question #33

It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding pious or self-righteous. Personally, I always wonder if I have a price too and it’s merely that no one has offered to pay it that I have managed to stay true to my fundamental beliefs. When you’ve never been tempted or at least not tempted enough, it is hard to know what your own boundaries truly are.

This question was plucked from my post, so to a large degree, I’ve answered it already. Still, it’s a valid question with many possible answers and even more questions that lie along its borders.

The question of whether morality is part of “God’s personal patch” versus being a basic human issue is old. It’s a question that goes to the heart of every religion and dogma — as well every set of personal beliefs. It’s older than our literature and for all I know, they were pondering some version of this in cave dwellings.

For at least most of my life, as a child, adolescent, and adult, I have believed that we are all born with a fundamental knowledge of good and evil, of right and wrong. It isn’t something we need to be taught. We know it. Actually, Genesis essentially says more or less the same thing.

In our bones, in our brains, in that strange space we have that is neither physical or “brain matter,” but rather a special place where we preserve our personal beliefs.

That we all know what is right and wrong from our earliest youth through all of life does not mean that we always adhere to it. We have all done the wrong thing, whether it was big and bad, or little but nonetheless, wrong.

The cynical saying that “Everyone has a price” means no matter what you believe — or why you believe it — if you are offered a good enough deal, you’ll fold and do the wrong thing. It insinuates that greed is ultimately the most powerful emotion of which man is capable.

I want to believe that this is untrue and some of us cannot be bought. But do I know that? Or have many of us never been offered a high enough price? After all, the payment doesn’t have to be money. It can be power: legal power or religious power. It can make us godlike or rich beyond the ability of our calculator to count.

Greed can be the lust for knowledge, power, drugs, or land, though somehow money seems to squeeze into the equation somehow.


To quote Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good.”


Do you agree that greed is good? Or only that greed is good within limits, to a certain extent, but not beyond? That it’s okay to be greedy as long as you don’t get excessive about it?

What is excessive?

Does it mean only if you aren’t killing or crushing other people to reach your greed level, it’s okay? Or are there other issues?

I don’t believe that greed is good. The concept that greed is good offends me. I understand why greed feels good, though. I understand everyone wants to be safe from hardship and live life in comfort and dignity. I don’t consider that greedy. More like survival with benefits.

I certainly don’t think survival is greedy until you have to murder other people to achieve it. At which point you need to put down the gun and think about it.

It’s the excessiveness of greed that’s the problem. Because once you’ve broken through the comfort barrier and moved into luxury, when is enough, enough? What amount of whatever is sufficient?

When everything the eye can see, a man desires and comfort has long been surpassed, at what point do you stop? Do you ever stop? Can you stop? When you have the greedy bit clamped between your teeth, is there an end to your run?


ALEXANDER LEARNS VIRTUE
Gold coins of Alexander of Macedon

When Alexander had flown on the back of an eagle to the gates of Heaven itself, he bangs on the door until finally, a wise man answers. Because he is a great and powerful leader, he demands the right to ask questions of the wise men. These are his questions:

“Who is wise?” asks Alexander.

“He who can foresee the future,” answers the wise man.

“Who is a hero?” asks Alexander.

“He who conquers himself,” replies another wise man.

“Who is rich?” asks Alexander.

“He who rests content with what he has,” the wise men respond.

Alexander depicted on an ancient synagogue wall

Following this question, there is a story Talmudic legend about Alexander (who was a Jewish hero — a story too long to explain here), a balance scale, and a human eye.

The eye is placed on one side of the scale. On the other side, are piled mountains of gold, gems, and all other riches. Yet the human eye is heavier, no matter how many riches are put on the other balance. Finally, one of the wise men sprinkles a bit of dust over the eye. From that moment, even a feather is heavier than the eye.

Until a man is dead and covered in earth, he will always desire more. Only death can end his greed.

“By what means does man preserve his life?” asks Alexander.

“When he kills himself.” (Talmudist notes: By this, the wise men meant when a man destroys within himself all passion.)

“By what means does a man bring about his own death?” asks Alexander, referring back to the previous question.

“When he clings to life.” (Talmudist notes: When a man holds onto his passions and belongs to them.)

“What should a man do who wants to win friends?” asks Alexander. This is his final question.

“He should flee from glory and despise dominion and kingship,” the wise men conclude.

At the end of the Judaization process, Alexander is a humbled dictator. Although the lesson does not make him a wise man, the Talmudic dialectics bring Alexander the Great down a notch or two, make him a better person and a more benevolent leader.


If anyone assured me that one can be moral and hold a strong belief system without a formal belief system, my mother did that. She believed in virtue — goodness for its own sake. She believed in dignity, kindness, fairness, and equality. She was not a racist although she was positive that education made you a better person. If there was a break in her “system,” education was it.

She loved beautiful things for their beauty, yet before she died, she gave away or sold all her jewelry and art.


In the end, I do not believe anyone of any faith is incorruptible. We all have a weak spot. Something about which we feel so passionate, we would give or do anything to achieve it.

Incorruptibility is a choice. To find out if you are incorruptible, you’d need to be tempted by whatever it is that means the most to you. You would have to make painful choices and would forever wonder if you were a fool for choosing virtue over greed, especially if you urgently needed what you refused.

If you do not have a God about whom you can say, “His laws made me do it,” you will probably feel even sillier than the religious man who at least believes he is following the route God laid out for him.

A non-believer has only his self by which to gauge the rights and wrongs of life. Standing alone is hard. A good life is a hard life.

And no one ever promised it would be easy.

BEWARE OF MAN! – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC – Beware of Man!

Harking back to yesterday’s long discussion of ARE YOUR VALUES WORTH A SONG AND A MOVIE? – Marilyn Armstrong which was based on Fandango’s Provocative Question #18:

Man (as opposed to a woman) should not lead a nation. Men are unsuited to the task. A man can be seduced by the size of a breast or beer.
A woman cannot.

A Talmud Legend relates the remarkable tale of how Alexander the Great searched for and found the gates of Paradise on Earth. Upon his appearance, however, he was not greeted knowingly by the Guardian of the Gate. The story reveals that even the most powerful, well-known or ‘great’ men need to be humbled, just like all of us on Earth need to be.

The legend goes as follows:

Once arriving at the gates of Paradise, Alexander the Great knocked persistently on the doors and demanded to be let inside. An Angel finally came calmly to the entrance and asked ‘Who is there?’

Alexander boldly announced, “It is I, the Great Conqueror and Lord of the Earth. Open the gates.” The Angel (to Alexander’s surprise and disappointment), said “We know him not. This is the Lord’s gate, only the righteous enter here.”

Incapable of persuading the Angel to allow his entrance, Alexander the Great prepared to go. Unwilling to leave the gates without some sort of token for his accomplishment for at least discovering the location of the abode of the just, he bravely asked the Guardian of the Gate for a gift. Granting his wish the Guardian gave him a small valuable item and said, “Take this, may it prove useful unto thee, and teach thee wisdom, more wisdom than thou hast acquired during thy ambitious expeditions and pursuits.”

Realizing the gift was nothing more than a piece of bone, Alexander the Great was angered and threw it down to the ground. An accompanying wise and learned man hastened Alexander to reconsider the value of the gift from the abode of the just and offered to weigh it upon the scales. Alexander allowed the wise man to do so. On one side was placed the small fragment of bone. The other side was filled with gold. No matter how much gold continued to be placed upon the scale, the fragment of bone outweighed it. The more gold put onto the scale, the lower the bone sank.

Confused, Alexander asked what could outweigh the bone. The wise man proceeded to show him and covered the bone with dust from the ground. Instantly, the side of the scale with the fragment flew up.

It was realized, “The bone was that which surrounds the eye of man; the eye of man which naught can satisfy save the dust which covers the grave.”

How, then, can a MAN lead a nation when nothing can satisfy him except his own grave? Beware the greed of man. Beware man and his hormones, his endless need for dominance, his demands for power and proof of his superiority. He will never be enough. He can never have enough.

Beware the creature who is a man!

ALEXANDER LEARNS VIRTUE – A JEWISH FOLKTALE

Judaism is a religion, but even more it’s a philosophy and an ethnicity. An identity. We have special foods, customs, stories derived from wherever “our people” came from — or at least came from most recently.

It was during the time among the Babylonians, and later among the Persians, we incorporated into our folklore shedim (demons) and dibbukim (migrant spirits) as well as the concept of angels and demons (derived from Zoroastrianism). These influences have become a permanent part of Jewish literature, right through today.

So Jews, like other ethnic groups, have our folk tales and mythology. One characters who appears frequently in Jewish folklore is — of all people — Alexander the Great.  As a kid, no one was more surprised than I was to find Alexander showing up in stories from the Talmud.

Excerpt from : 

THE AMERICA COUNCIL ON JUDAISM

The Universal and Unique Nature of Jewish Folklore

Solveig Eggerz
Issues
Fall 1995

On Alexander the Great’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the wise men of the city come out to meet the conqueror and demonstrate through word play what Alexander would have learned about himself had he but read the Talmud.

TALMUD

Alexander Learns Virtue

He asks these questions of the wise men:

“Who is wise?”

“He who can foresee the future,” answer the wise men.

“Who is a hero?”

“He who conquers himself.”

“Who is rich?”

“He who rests content with what he has.”

“By what means does man preserve his life?”

“When he kills himself.” (Talmudist notes: By this they meant when a man destroys within himself all passion.)

“By what means does a man bring about his own death?”

“When he clings to life.” (Talmudist notes: When he holds on to his passions and belongs to them.)

“What should a man do who wants to win friends?”

“He should flee from glory and should despise dominion and kingship,” the wise men conclude.

At the end of the Judaization process, the Alexander is a humbled dictator. Although the lesson does not transform him into Moses, the Talmudic dialectics bring Alexander the Great down a notch or two and make him a better man and a more benevolent dictator.

THE ACQUISITIVE EYE – A JEWISH TALE OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT

Judaism is a religion, but even more it’s a philosophy, an ethnicity and an identity. We have special foods, customs, and stories from wherever “our people” have lived through the centuries.

It was during the time among the Babylonians, and later among the Persians, we incorporated into our folklore shedim (demons) and dibbukim (migrant spirits) as well as the concept of angels and demons (derived from Zoroastrianism). These influences have become a permanent part of Jewish literature, right through today.

One of the characters who appears frequently in Jewish folklore is — of all people — Alexander the Great. As a kid, I was astonished to find Alexander showing up in stories from the Talmud.

This one is my favorite.

The Acquisitive Eye

Alexander is on his way home to Macedonia after conquering the entire world. The great ruler comes to a stream whose waters originate in Paradise. He follows the stream until he comes to the gates of Paradise itself, and pounds on the gate crying: “I am Alexander, conqueror of the world! I demand you let me in!”

Alexander is told that “Only the pious may enter Paradise,” but being as he is Alexander, they make an exception and he is allowed to come through the gates. As he stands at the entrance, he see something rolling towards him. Alexander realizes it’s a human eye. He picks it up, brings it to the wise men and asks them, “What does this mean?”

75-Eye-2

The wise men tell Alexander to place the eye on a scale and try to balance it with gold and jewels. Alexander heaps the scale with piles of riches, but no matter how much he piles on, the eye outweighs it.

“The eye is never satisfied as long as it can see,” say the wise men, “Therefore it can never be satisfied. All the treasure in the world cannot outweigh it.  The eye will want more and more.”

The wise men instruct Alexander to remove the gold and place a pinch of dust on the eye. They then place a feather on the opposing scale and it is heavier than the eye. At last the great Alexander understands the Talmudic lesson on greed and materialism.

He says: “So long as a man is alive, his eye can never be satisfied. Yet as soon as he dies, the moment dust covers his eye, even a feather outweighs it. Only in death does the eye lose its power. Only in death is man satisfied.”

And so Alexander left Paradise a wiser man.

For more stories and other information, see THE AMERICA COUNCIL ON JUDAISM.