Gypsy Kings & The Cheat Of Religion


“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

UCLA, Research Library

- What's going on here? Why did she bring you the food? Do you know her?
- I've spoken with her.
- About philosophy? Incredible. Where does she live?
- She sleeps in one of the basement window openings of the corporate housing complex formally known as 'The Palladio', now even more grandly renamed 'The Glendon At Westwood'. Five or six windows are available, but places fills up quickly.
- I thought so. And she brings you a plate of food. Are you king of the gypsies now?
- The food is from a lecture in the room back there. It's on the word religio in Roman times.
- You're not interested?
- The highly esteemed professor doing the lecture has plagiarized it in its entirety from Wikipedia and a French on-line dictionary.
- This University is nothing but criminals.
- Like the rest of our society. How could it be otherwise, worshiping money and success as we do? Why obey any rules?
- Because it is right.
- And how would anyone know that?
- From religion. Seventy percent of us in this country claim to be religious. Highest percentage of any civilized nation.
- So we're civilized?
- Compared to a gypsy like yourself, yes. What's up with that, anyway? Why did she bring you food?
- There are already gypsy kings in our part of the world so I don't see how I can accept the title much as I'd like to. In fact, up until yesterday I was helping a genuine gypsy prince with his English, his uncle a gypsy king on the East Coast. A movie was made about the king and his brother, my student's father. You might have seen it.
- Why if he's American born does he need help with English?
- He says he has managed to go strait, give up the traditional ways, nevertheless he wants me to help him cheat on his coursework for a Ph.D.
- A Ph.D. In what? I'm afraid to ask. Is it part of a con?
- He needs the diploma to lend legitimacy to his natural healing business.
- Naturally. And you helped him?
- Until I stopped.
- Why did you stop?
- Religio. As Socrates would have said, my daemon warned me against proceeding further.
- You hear voices.
- That professor busy plagiarizing in the back room would tell you what you call hearing voices is at the origin of our English word 'religion'. Religio meant for the Romans to feel sudden doubt, to have qualms, reservations, without being able to give a reason.
- It comes from another world.
- From the sacred world. Already for the Romans this sudden doubt had moved on to being a warning to perform neglected rituals, whereas for Socrates it had been a warning of going the wrong way, with wrong way to be determined by one's own judgment.
- Not by god's?
- No. You're thinking of our modern 'religion'. Christianity takes up the word, changes what was a call to action into a recommended state of rest. Religio changed to religion, changed from being a warning of doing something wrong and became instead a state of devotion and universal love.
- And doubt became guilt. How did Socrates or the Romans know the religio, the warning daemon, spoke the truth?
- Because they made a test of it, because religio was part of a continuous self observation of the consequences of actions, a determination whether or not they got us to a happy state of love, beauty, and truth.
- You mean when the daemon spoke the Romans searched their experience, looking for whether in fact they were about to break their own rules, and for the most part it turned out for them they were? Tell me about you and the gypsy prince.
- I told him I'd rewrite his work but not do it all for him.
- What difference does it make? It's all cheating, isn't it?
- My daemon said otherwise.
- Why?
- The rule I find, when I look back in my experience, is keeping my mind clear: not only in thinking, but in personal relations. I didn't want to be in that relation to people, a professional aid to cheating. That was much too much like being a mafia functionary, looked much to much like succumbing to the demands of our society, a mafia society of groups jockey with each other for power.
- You convinced yourself you were right to listen to your voiceBut you don't really know.
- Never said I did.
- But Christians do claim to know when god talks to them.
- When the time of action is over. Christians don't have Socrates or the Roman's kind of daemon because they, without doing the work of testing, can cheat and go directly to religious experience. But they pay a price for their cheating.
- What price is that?
- You brought it up yourself. They have a daemon, too: guilt, a voice after the fact rather than before. They go through life, our seventy percent of Christians, congratulating themselves on their holiness, but if they are the least bit honest, they see they are lying, cheating, stealing, betraying bastards. Yet none of this, not even its admission, prevents them from having their religious experience.
- And how does that work out for them?
- Not well! How could it? A moment later, they suffer guilt, our seventy percent of good Christians, but as they can always leave behind that guilt without taking corrective action by entering religious experience, how are they ever going to change? We're accustomed to express wonder at the unaccountable stupidity of our leaders, for example Hitler's determination in 1944, when the possibility of losing the war was staring him in the face, to expend most of the resources available to him in trying to exterminate all the Jews he hadn't yet exterminated.
- He was crazy.
- He was impractical. He had his heart set on doing what for him was glorious. Most of the societies that have collapsed did so in just that same way, with just that impracticality, using up their limited resources building monuments to themselves*. Our kings are cheaters, just like ourselves. Some few are wised up gypsy kings, cheating in a world of cheaters. Most of the rest are cheaters in the religious sense, in the sense of the Christian religion, of being able, even when it is obviously destructive, to reward oneself in advance with religious experience, be able to get away with anything that makes us feel good without having to go through the trouble of thinking whether what we did to get there is really good or bad.
- Like you claim to do, cheating the world's expectations in the process. Your food's getting cold. Eat up, gypsy king.
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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond, 2005