Judge not, Lest You Be

Every statement is, by its nature, a judgment. That one, for instance. In it, I have judged that every statement is a judgment. And you, perhaps reflecting on it, are moving in your own mind toward making a judgment of your own.

You might agree, which is to say, you might judge it to be true.

Or you might disagree, which is to say, you might judge it to be false, or worse.

You might even judge it to be evil, because we all know that judging is wrong. Therefore, if I argue that every statement is a judgment then I am arguing that we are always doing something wrong.

If you are pious, you might conclude that our Lord has told us never to speak, since He told us “judge not.” If you so conclude, you will have judged your conclusion to be just. Thus, even if you don’t speak, if you draw a conclusion, you will have judged.

In short, to speak is to judge. Indeed, to think is to judge.

So I judge.

One could follow a number of paths from this beginning.

For example, one could seek out exactly what our Lord meant when He drew the judgment that we should not judge, especially given that the very next verse indicates that we should make a rather complex judgment about how to handle pearls in the presence of swines.

Or one could develop the implications on the modern mind, so badly trained and so badly informed on moral and philosophical matters, when he is told not to judge, and concludes from that premise, consciously or not, that he is unfit to think for himself (therefore he should, he judges, follow his feelings) or to guide others (therefore he should, he refuses to acknowledge that he has judged, allow them to destroy themselves).

Or one could develop a long and elaborate treatise that defends the need for judgment and therefore to distinguish sound and just judgment from unsound and unjust judgment and draws some general guidelines for when to judge absolutely, when relatively, and when to keep one’s mouth and even mind shut.

Or one could even develop a farcical, satirical, or even cynical theme on the tendency for those who are most prone to judge wildly and in a self-serving way (i.e. politicians and other lovers of power) to condemn the act of judgment, so as to avoid a careful assessment (another word for judgment) of their own actions.

I want to go in what seems to me, at least at first, in a simpler direction. I want to think about the prerequsites to sound judgment.

And lest this seem like a fruitless, philosophical exercise, let me remind you that the goal of education at least includes among its essential qualities that status of wisdom that distinguishes the disciplined thinker from the careless. And surely the mark of a wise man is to judge things rightly!

Thus the goal of education is to judge rightly.

Do you judge this to be true or false, right or wrong, just or unjust, fitting or unfitting, beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish?

It makes all the difference which you judge fitting.

I judge that we have now covered enough ground to complete the preamble, and I further judge that we are ready to look for the prerequisites to sound judgment that I raised earlier. (As an aside, I further judge that every statement always begins with the implied bilogos (a term that I just created, having judged it both amusing and potentially helpful for people who want to contemplate this matter verbally, though it is also, of course, a potential distraction, capable of evolving into a long and relatively distracting parenthetical phrase) “I judge”.)

What are the prerequisites to sound judgment, which is the goal of education? Therefore, what are the things we most need to teach our children and ourselves as we seek this marvel called education?

I judge, having reflected on this literally since childhood, that the first prerequisite to judge something rightly is to perceive it rightly. Thus the beginning of a true education is the training of the powers of perception.

It follows that if we misjudge the powers of perception, limiting them, for example, to what the senses can perceive, we cannot possibly lay a sound foundation for our children’s education.

Perception, however, is not enough.

First of all, to perceive demands attentiveness. To attempt to educate a child without training his powers of attention is an impossible endeavor, perhaps even an act of folly.

Secondly, in order to assess, evaluate, draw conclusions, express oneself, in short, to judge, one must be able to compare one’s perceptions with each other.

If one perceives accurately and if one compares perceptively, then one is well on the way to making sound judgments.

But the instant one allows the will to interfere with the powers of perception or comparison, in that instant he has turned aside from the path to wisdom, a path which to leave, I judge, is the purest act of folly.

Thus I judge, to conclude this post, though, I trust, not these reflections, that to reduce judgment to the status of an act of intellect only is a reduction against which the intellect will cry out its own judgement that you have committed an act of injustice.

In other words, judging rightly is not merely an intellectual act. It is personal.

To conclude, the path to wisdom begins with attentive perception, climbs the mountains of comparison, and, after painstaking labor, it arrives at the pinnacle of sound judgment, from which it can perceive with the soul all the beauties of the cosmos. To climb this mountain is to absorb its power into oneself.

13 Responses

  1. Andrew, I think I would enjoy sparring with you. So my judgement would be that I am undecided?

    By this definition we must make judgements to learn or communicate anything-your point I think.

    Have you read “The Four Agreements, by Ruiz?

    It’s a wisdom book that encourages people to make no assumptions, among other things.

    I like your thought provoking comments, I’ll bet a lot of people don’t get it. I think I do.

    Yet, if I was talanted enough to write an esoteric allegory, how would you define that as judgement.

    Thanks Pelagian7

  2. I don’t think I disagree with thomas, that their might be a single truth through experience. Writings and words cannot have a single truth.


  3. Gloria is right Andrew. When book clubs read books they find everyone has a different take, sometimes only slightly but usually they are of a like peer group.

    Now, take scripture, translated from language to language and era to era and then in different cultures too. There is no single truth or way, impossible, and the many sects of the many religions should prove this true.

    • Two things:

      First, you exhibit a classic case of misology. You assume that because people believe different things, because they understand texts a different way that there is no single truth. That simply simply does not follow. It is entirely possible that most people are wrong, and some right; and, anyway, the only way to establish whether this is the case or not is to actually take up the arguments and attempt to determine the truth for yourself.

      Second, I think you’re operating out of a faulty notion of truth, probably one which understands truth to the be accurate correspondence between propositions and a state of affairs. We actually experience truth quite differently. To borrow from Heidegger, truth is an unveiling, an unconcealing, a revealing; the second order expression of this immediate experience in words may be true or false, but it depends upon the initial, immediate experience.

      As our propositions are always a second-order expression of a more primal experience that cannot be reduced to any one second-order expression, it often turns out to be the case that those claims to truth which appear to be opposed are, at their deepest level, quite connected, sometimes even compatible.

      • Thomas, when I make a claim that people may understand texts in different ways, that does not mean that I do not believe in truth. My claim about how people understand texts is a fact, well-supported by solid research in fields such as cognitive psychology and discourse analysis and, of course, known for centuries by Biblical scholars.

        We have to know the facts about how people understand texts in order to help them (and ourselves) learn how to read texts that contain truths. We have to know when we have accessed the truth in a text and when we are misreading it. This is where the role of tradition comes in. For instance, I need information from an historian about the perils of calling oneself a Messiah in Palestine in the era of, say, 100 BC to 100 AD in order to understand why Jesus might have spoken rather cryptically in the first years of his preaching. Knowing that anyone speaking of Messiahship in that era could be arrested helps me interpret what is written in certain parts of the Gospels. I also need the knowledge that linguists can convey to me, the knowledge that specialists in how Jews lived and thought in that era can convey to me, etc. If I try to read the Bible without such “tradition-based” knowledge, I will surely err in my interpretation.

        Finally, my claim that people read texts differently and therefore, in order to have an informed reading to get at the truth of a text, we need help and that help comes from a tradition is supported by the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer, especially in his introductory text “Truth and Method.” Gadamer, as I am sure you know, was a student of Heidegger, but went beyond Heidegger in his marvellous writings and theories about texts and how we understand them.

        In sum, to know that people come to texts with different experiences and expectations and therefore will read them differently is a factual claim. Such a claim is totally independent of the belief that truth exists or does not exist. I believe there is such a thing as truth. To get at it we have to work very hard at trying to understand the texts we encounter without continually inserting our own egos into them.

      • Gloria,

        I’m generally disposed to agree with you. I’d like to add a stipulation though (which it sounds like you’d probably agree with).

        Understanding the truth of the text does not primarily involve situating the text within a particular historical era or judging it on the basis of objective, scientific research (and so on). A text’s meaning is never objective or equally available to a disinterested rationalism. Rather, in order to understand the truth of a text, one must either be cognizant of or (more probably) live in the “context of significance” — to borrow another Heideggarian phrase — in which the text was born and has its truth.

        We can flesh this out by thinking of Scripture. The truth of Scripture does not make itself known primarily by appealing to scholarly research on Near Eastern religions, but from being cognizant of (or better) existing within the context of significance from which the text arises and in which it has its meaning–the Church. And while things like written and oral tradition help in interpreting Scripture, what is necessary is the participation in the life of the Church, which takes place primarily through practice (in this case, practicing the Sacraments), and of which the second-order expression is theology.

        Thus, interpreting a text does not just require appealing to other texts and rationally evaluating their relation; it requires, more basically, adopting the same mode of existence (i.e., being in the same context of significance) in a pre-reflective way.

  4. “…the first prerequisite to judge something rightly is to perceive it rightly…”

    I agree. But perception, including initial perception, is always a product of a person’s prior knowledge. For example, I cannot perceive monkey rightly if I have never learned the word “monkey,” never been shown a picture of one, never learned about jungles, or zoos, am unaware of the differences between animals and plants, vertebrates and invertebrates, wild and domestic animals, etc. In short, I have to be part of a tradition in order to perceive whatever makes itself present to me. The more I have been exposed to a tradition in which monkeys have been discussed or researched, the more likely is the case that I will perceive rightly.

    In fact, it is not merely identifying and categorizing what is present to me in perception, but even perceiving something at all that requires a tradition. I have to know I am awake, rather than asleep. I have to understand beforehand that the monkey is real, as opposed to a figment of my imagination.

    I find this topic interesting because it raises the question of how anyone can recognize the presence of God or Christ. It would seem to be impossible without prior training or embeddedness in or exposure to a tradition.

    • Gloria,

      You will never hear me argue against tradition, but because I love it so much I want to be very precise about its role and not ask it to do something it cannot do.

      By the time a child has reached one or two years old, he has been formed permanently by his tradition. I don’t see this as a negative, usually, because I believe that our traditions at least can and certainly ought to point us to something beyond them.

      But when the child is still in the womb, he can perceive the sound of his mother’s voice. By comparing that sound and all that attends it with other voices, the pre-natal child can learn to judge (i.e. in this case, distinguish) his mother’s voice from all other voices.

      I believe, therefore, that traditions are built upon, limited by, empowered by, qualified by, human nature – which is to say, our common human faculties.

      A tradition can help or obscure our perceptions of reality. But a tradition can also be corrected.

      This is best illustrated, perhaps, in Socrates’ ravishing dialectics.

      I am sometimes moved to awe, to a lump in the throat, to a swelling chest, when I think of the astonishing human faculties, all of which, and here I think we agree strongly, atrophy if the tradition in which the human child is nurtured does not tend them.

      Your statement about God and Christ at the end really struck me in this context, because it is rather obvious that our public culture does not have a place in its tradition for cultivating those faculties of perception by which Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other cultures contend that God can be “perceived.”

      Again, thank you!

  5. I wonder whether the term Jesus used was the same as was used at the time for the act of judgment in a statement. Even if it was, I would agree with the substance of what you’re saying that there is an equivocation going on.

    The prohibition against judging seems to apply not precisely to judging that another person sins, but to judging that person’s sins to belong to him alone; that is, it seems that what Jesus prohibits is the stance towards others that absolves ourselves of complicity in other’s sins. This interpretation is familiar to anyone who has read “The Brothers Karamazov”, but it belongs to the West as well, as can be seen through the practice of corporate confession.

    Under this interpretation, we might well judge another person to be sinful, but we may not permit ourselves to believe that his sin belongs to him alone, to believe that we are not implicated in the other’s sins.

    I think this is necessary to keep in mind, especially in public polemics on social morality. Conservative Christians often wish to brush off the prohibition against judging by saying “well, we have to judge, so that’s obviously not what Christ meant” in order to free themselves to marginalize those who they judge to be evil, all the while keeping themselves in a different category.

  6. You said all statements are judgements, was mine?

    • Of course. You judged that I could be right. You also judged that I could be wrong.

      To judge that something may be right or wrong, which seems to me a simple humble statement that you are not sure, is still a judgment.

      You could, for example, have judged instead that I was certainly wrong. If you can judge that I am certainly wrong, I see no reason why you can’t judge that it is possible that I am wrong.

      It might help to break down a judgment. Every judgment is a statement about a relationship between a predicate and a subject.

      At the root of every such statement hides that marvelous be verb.

      “You could be right” can be translated to “it is possible that you are right,” or, better perhaps, “you are possibly right.”

      Therefore, you have established in your own mind the possibility of the relationship between the predicate and the subject.

      I.e. You have made a judgment about the relationship between me (more precisely, in this case, my statement) and rightness.

      Thus a statement is, by its very nature, a judgment about the relationship between a subject and a predicate.

  7. You could be right, but, then again you could be wrong.


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