The Art of the Ten Commandments
Some time ago the philosopher Alain de Botton’s School of Life released a video called “How to Replace the 10 Commandments.” He said that they “maintain an extraordinary hold on our imaginations” but the problem is that they sound “peculiar” today. They were for a particular people and thus they are a bit parochial.
In their stead he offers his own ten commandments. And before you watch this video you should watch his that I’ve linked in the description. Even though many of his commandments relish Alain’s gentle and careful character, they should not replace the ten commandments in the Bible. And that is because they’re inferior. G.K. Chesterton said that before you tear a fence down, you probably should figure out why it was put there in the first place. So let’s look at the art of the ten commandments and the 10 reasons they are superior:
The Biblical Ten Commandments are 172 words compared to Alain’s which have 614. Alain’s are much much longer. Well, why does that matter. Perhaps the ten commandments have such an extraordinary hold on our imagination because of their pithiness. It's difficult to hold something in our imagination if it won't fit. This summary of the moral law was composed not simply to provide moral knowledge but provide it pedagogically. Not just as a list of good things to do but it was designed for consumption and memorization.
Alain’s ten commandments do not give us any reason why we should follow his commandments. The Bible’s ten commandments by contrast begin with “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of slavery.” The reason why they ought to follow these is because God freed them from slavery. It is quite a more anemic motivation to listen to Alain “simply because he said so.” A moral life requires both reasons for obligation as well as robust motivation - a requirement certainly met with manumission from slavery, as in the biblical ten commandments. And when we are faced with grave temptation to evil, cheating on a spouse, extorting money at work, simply having a list of guidelines without any strong account of obligation won’t do any good. A list, even a profound and elegant one may be wonderful, but that doesn't provide a binding or exciting obligation.
Perhaps the strangest part of Alain commandments is that we are never told how we know them. It is as if someone strolls into you office and tells you a list of instructions without sharing with you who they are or on what authority they offer the commands. The Ten Commandments begin with “I am the Lord your God” that is how we know these commandments, by God telling us. Therefore we can expect that deeper insight or clarification on moral knowledge will come from the same source. Should or ought we go to Alain for further insight? Did he get them from somewhere? We’re simply left to wonder.
Like every great work of art, one of the marks of greatness and skillfulness is matching or connecting form to content. For instance, Caravaggio’s Narcissus communicates the endless moral circularity of selfishness, narcissism, the inability of Narcissus to pull himself away from his own reflection by visually creating a circle with the arms of Narcissus through their reflection. Or the architecture of gothic churches designed as a cross to structurally communicate their central identity as followers of Christ, literally being found in the Cross. And the Ten Commandments were written with the same attention to form and content. I’ll show you two ways.
First, the ten commandments are arranged ontologically and causally. That is, the first four commandments are toward God and the last six are toward humans. They are ontologically ordered because God is first in being and importance and human beings second. And it is causally because good and flourishing relationships with people issue from, are caused by a harmonious relationship with God. This is communicated structurally in the first two sins of the Bible, Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. The author of Genesis structured the two chapters so similarly so as to encourage comparison. As Victor M. Wilson has noted, both scenes have a prospect of evil, entrapment, sin, interrogation, deflection of blame, confrontation, curses, and banishment.
The first sin is a sin against God (eating from the tree against God’s instruction), The second a sin against man (killing a brother). And the author communicated them in such similar ways to teach us that there is a relationship between them, and it’s causal. The break in the relationship with God cause a break in the relationship with man. Social sins are a result of theological sins. So the arrangement, the form communicates the importance and a causal order.
Second, the form communicates the relationship between internal and external, public and private actions. Notice, the first and last commandments are internal acts. Having no other gods and coveting. Now those can have external manifestations but they are intrinsically internal actions. All of the other commandments are public, external actions. Creating images for worship, taking God’s name in an empty fashion, murder, false testimony, and so on. The ten commandments move from private, to public, and back the private. So why structure it this way? Well, the whole moral life has the same form. The private instructions (No other gods and no coveting) enclose the public. And this mirrors the precise relation between private and public morality. Public acts are generated by private dispositions and public actions in turn shape private dispositions.
Thoughts and Actions
Connected to the previous reason, the biblical Ten Commandments comprehend both the internals and externals of moral life and both necessary for a good social arrangement. Alain’s ten, by contrast, are solely internal.
Prohibitions and Prescriptions
Alains Ten have 1 prohibition, saying what you should not do, compared to the biblical 8. One might assume that is much better to stay positive and describe what to do as opposed to a more dreary what not to do. But solely prescription do not take seriously the existence of great evil. While Alains list at first reading feels like a warm list of motivational aphorisms they remain silent on architectural moral evils such as theft, murder, and deceit. One begins to wonder, in the end, whose moral list is more parochial, more designed for a specific time in history with specific fashions and fads.
The only repetition in Alain’s commands is the phrase “the good person”, and for good reason. He wants to foreground the image of the good individual whom we might aspire to emulate. The problem is when his conception of human nature is one that is immature and thus lacking something as opposed to a human nature being corrupt. Those are actually the only two options when you’re thinking about what’s wrong with humans. It can only either be a defect, deficiency, or both. The Biblical conception of man is that he is both deficient and defective, but Alain only conceives of the former. But surely the genocidal and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century let alone the rest of history would be sufficient evidence that Hitler or pol pot was not simply immature but evil, crooked and corrupt, not just careless. And you certainly would treat and interact with an evil person differently from a childish, immature one.
Perhaps the most conspicuous absence from Alain’s list is any reward or punishment. That fundamental principle that we have come to recognize as structural to the economic life is no less true in the moral. Without incentives there is neither motivation nor action. And once again we are left wondering why we ought to abide by Alain’s moral arrangement at all.
Ten Commandments has produced such moral magnificence as Jesus and Mother Theresa while Alain’s has presumably produced himself. And I’m left to wonder if Alain’s moral code where we treat wickedness as childish and allow murder and illicit desires will have more longevity than one of the most influential documents in human civilization. And if we judge a moral code by the results it produces, what do we make of the hubris that one must have to not only replace the most well known and trusted moral document in human history but replace it with statues of one's own devising, how should we judge that? Perhaps a more humbling effect is desirable.