The Single Unspeakable Commandment

When you take an insight and put it into language you gain in portability what you lose in applicability.  When you put it in written language the portability is even greater but the applicability is much harder.

Consider a very general commandment: “You shall not steal.”  It is highly portable across kilometers centuries and situations but very difficult to apply.  What belongs to who in this situation?  A massive communal undertaking — law, education, families — is required to take the portable commandment and apply it.

The single unspeakable commandment can be approximated: right now do what you and only you are called upon to do.  Hear the call and respond to it — not by obeying it precisely but by relating to it.

This commandment is formulated in the Talmudic story of Reb Zusya who worried on his deathbed that God would ask him not –“why were you not like Moses” — but — “why were you not like Zusya?”

Yet expressed in the wrong words the insight of Zusya becomes the the cliche of Polonius: “This above all to thine own self be true”, which Shakespeare immediately mocks and cancels by adding “and you shall not be false to any man” — which is clearly false.  You can be true to yourself and for example lie.  Or break promises.  So Polonius’s smug logic is revealed as self-deceptive as you are thereby false to those you lie to and break promises to.   Assuming we know in the situation what being false, lying and breaking a promise means, which until we are true to the ultimate, unspeakable commandment we do not.  We are just playing politics.

The deepest truth of our situation becomes a self-deceptive cliche when we try to make it portable, —   that is if we try to take the unspeakable commandment and put it into words.

It doesn’t need to be portable, and it doesn’t need to be expressible, which is good, because it isn’t.  We can take the call of the moment respond to it, and move on.

Except of course that because we keep moving we are always striking camp and pitching it next morning.  So we are always tempted to take our response to the solicitations of this moment and carry them into the next.

Our pain and glory lies in the fact that as of right now it is a temptation we can never ignore and never give into.


10 thoughts on “The Single Unspeakable Commandment

  1. I think that your point is a subtle one and difficult to express clearly. You do it about as well as Kant when he says that the only thing good without qualification is a good will.

    The words alone (“don’t steal,” “to thine own self be true,” etc.) aren’t enough. What’s required are the will to apply them properly and the insight to understand them.

    If we are so inclined, we can usually find loopholes to excuse our misbehavior. However, if we want to do the right thing instead of look for loopholes, that “good will” enables us to apply such maxims correctly.

    Moreover, the words do not interpret themselves, and often depend on social, legal, and historical context for their meaning.

    The question of what counts as stealing is an example: it depends on a host of legal and social assumptions we take for granted. In our era, some of those assumptions have changed, so we are reinterpreting many aspects of our tradition to bring them more into line with what we think is rational and just.

  2. Good posting. Thanks.

    As you say, the truth of one person may be that he is innately a liar, a cheat and a thief. My interests lie in finding the Life Algorithms in that person that drive him to react to life circumstances in ways that are called lying, cheating and stealing. Of course we all fit “hand-in-glove” with those who enter our lives, so the corollary is that the person who is being lied to … also has Life Algorithms that say things like “I am insignificant, I am nothing to him.” Ahhh …. LIFE.

  3. Mikey says:

    The tricky bit is not the temptation of taking our responses to the moment and carrying them to the next. The tricky bit is know what we’re called to do in among the clamour of all the other things. Some of which are the call to carry our response to the solicitations of the previous moment to this one, but others are just to eat whatever is in front of us, or work so hard that we don’t have time to think or just drive away because no one saw us bump the lamppost and who would you report it to anyway?

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