The Nordic man and the Book of Job: From ordinary to higher goods

The Book of Job made greater sense to me as I was having a philosophical conversation with a Nordic man the other day. About two years ago, this man, who had hitherto been stout and robust with a wife and two young children, learned that he had a heart condition. Never before had he been sick, and now he was bed-ridden. For some time, he was frail and weak.

Out of a fear of death at the sight of him, his wife shrunk from him. Accusing him of feebleness, she tormented him, chastising him for his fragility while also betraying him by engaging in an extramarital affair. After he recovered (though his heart is still weak), he and his wife divorced, and he moved away the city to the country in order to try his hand at leading a simpler, bucolic life. But the organic farm he sought to establish ended up failing (small-scale farming being an impressively difficult enterprise) just as his ex-wife attempted to secure full custody of the children. With reason on his side, he awaits the court’s decision.

Over the past couple of years, then, what has been taken from this man has been his wealth, his family, his health, and (to some degree) his manliness. The story of his life helped me to re-read the Book of Job in terms of the shift from a pre-Axial to an Axial Age. During the pre-Axial Age, archaic religion–by means of divinations, spirit possessions, sacrifices, and other rituals–sought to secure for the community the ordinary goods of ‘prosperity, health, long life, fertility; what they ask to be preserved from is disease, dearth, sterility, premature death’ (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 150). ‘By contrast,’ the Axial Age, which coincides with the birth of Christ, Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius, introduces us to the idea of higher goods. ‘There is,’ Taylor writes, ‘a notion of our good that goes beyond human [ordinary] flourishing, which we may gain even while failing utterly on the scales of human flourishing, even through such a failing’ (p. 151). The goods of ordinary life may not be enough to slake the newly emerging longing to go beyond the here and now.

The Book of Job, it seems to me, allegorizes this transition by taking as its protagonist a pious man who would first lose family, wealth, fertility, and health, only to be ‘torn open’ to the question of higher goods. It is as if only by being ‘ripped free’ from ordinary life–the everyday concerns with production and reproduction, with work and health and the sentiments of family–that one can be ‘torn open’ and prepared for what may be higher. Is there something higher than the mere acquisition of wealth, something greater than simply living a long life, something more plentiful than human fertility or social recognition? The path that Job is on is one of ascesis: a whittling away of ordinary goods, a course that passes from lament through a stream of three accusations to his claims of moral outrage against God, a route that takes him farther and farther from the familiar and the taken for granted. It is, I believe, this double tearing–a ‘tearing away’ from the ordinary as well as a ‘tearing open’ to the possibility of what is extraordinary–that is one of the great gifts that the Book of Job bequeaths to us.

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In our time, there is a certain kind of return we are experiencing, the felt sense that modern life ‘levels out’ the heroic, ‘flattening out’ the spirit. What has arisen in modernity is the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’ (see Taylor, Sources of the Self).

What I was trying to gesture at with this term [Taylor writes] is the cultural revolution of the early modern period, which dethroned the supposedly higher activities of contemplation and the citizen life, and put the centre of gravity of goodness in ordinary living, production and the family. It belongs to this spiritual outlook that our first concern ought to be to increase life, relieve suffering, foster prosperity. (A Secular Age, p. 370)

Job reminds us once again that the ordinary goods can rendered insufficient, consequently disclosing the path onto what is higher. In the case of this Nordic man, he would never have come upon the search for wisdom had it not been for the loss of the ordinary goods that hitherto he had taken for granted and believed to be all there was.

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