…A few hundred years after Socrates, a different teacher gave his students a rule to follow. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” he said.
It seems simple enough. But of course, not everyone thought so.
There’s a guy in the crowd—maybe a student of Socrates’—we’re not told much about him except that he’s a lawyer. He wants things more precise. When should I love my neighbor? And exactly how much? There are dozens or hundreds of more or less unanswered questions we can ask about the teacher’s rule. Without more precision, how will I ever be certain where my neighbor ends and I begin?
This is the question the lawyer asks: “And who is my neighbor?”
He wants a definition. Once he gets it, he can wrangle with it forever.
But the teacher knows all about that sort of thing, and he doesn’t answer with a definition. That way of knowing, he knows, can slip into the sophisticated form of ignorance common among lawyers. We can glimpse it in the story told about a lawyer riding through the country with a friend. They pass a herd of Holsteins. “Look at the spotted cows,” the friend comments. The lawyer looks. “Yes, ” he says. “They appear to be. On this side, at least.”
…When can we say we know, and how many ways can appearances lead us to wrong conclusions? There are always those who see that dark region as an opportunity. It’s no accident that the rise of the lawyerly class criminalizes society. The fact that proof is difficult works to the advantage of criminals. We make laws to constrain bad behavior, but we can always quibble over what the words mean, turning the law away from public meanings that citizens can discuss into scholarly disputations in which any understanding is tenuous and ephemeral enough for aggressors against the public good to inch forward, dissolving whatever obstructs their own will. In such a society, criminals prosper and piety dissolves, along with respect for authority, commitment to morality, and the struggle to reach high ideals.
If we are to be the sort of teachers our children need, we need to cultivate a simplicity in our stories and in our conduct that can only be achieved by people whose primary interest is to be good. We need to surround our young people with communities that care about one another and about fundamental human truths. We need to protect them from being too influenced by the lessons that bureaucracies sometimes teach, as when they reward self-interest, attention to appearances, and avoidance of risk.
When it comes to what to believe, we often make two opposite errors. First, we believe things without evidence. From malicious gossip to false history to pseudoscience, the willingness to believe and act on ideas without evidence is the source of endless misery and countless tragic wrecks in personal and national history.
But the opposite problem is just as dangerous: refusing to believe anything not yet proved, in spite of good evidence. Proof is frequently not available even though the need to act remains. The demand for proof is often a method of blocking the very demands that our sense of goodness places upon us. Questioning things can prevent some mistakes, but it can also interfere with grasping what is plain and simple.
So the teacher who knows that loving our neighbors would be a good thing deflects the lawyer’s question and instead of getting lost in wrangling tells a story. “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves . . .” he begins.
When he finishes his story about a Samaritan and about several people who would not help him and about one who did, the teacher turns the question back to the lawyer. “Which of these,” he asks, “do you think was the man’s neighbor.”
“The one who helped,” the lawyer answers. He knows. If he did not want to know at least weakly he could have avoided the knowledge by the simplest act of will, but it is nonetheless encoded in the story in a way that any normal human can understand.