Men and Morals

A survey by released the Pew Forum in July found that eight in 10 voters were either “comfortable” with Mitt Romney being a Mormon or simply didn’t care. Although Google reported a spike in interest in August, probably due to the convention, Romney’s faith remains pretty much a non-issue for most voters. That’s good on one hand, because religion should not be a political issue. On the other hand, well, you have to admit that Mormonism is a little kooky.

Most Mormons belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints, a movement based on a “sacred text” called “The Book of Mormon,” which has apparently inspired a hit musical. Here’s how one historian has described it, the original book, that is:

[A] pretended history of ancient America it tells how the lost ten tribes of Israel migrated to this continent and perpetrated a series of Kisheneff [1. I assume this is a reference to “The Ghost of Kisheneff,” a poem by Henry Tudor.] massacres upon one another, until they dwindled down to a mere remnant, the ignoble red man. The discovery of this thrilling document is attributed to an illiterate young farmer, Joseph Smith, Junior, the founder of Mormonism.”

That was written by a man named Woodbridge Riley (no relation as far as I know) in September 1904. Riley is little known today, but during his time he was a well-respected scholar who, in addition to teaching at John Hopkins and Vassar universities, lectured at the Sorbonne for a year.

I. Woodbridge Riley

Isaac Woodbridge Riley, the son of a Presbyterian Minister was born in May of 1869. He received a bachelor’s degree at Yale, a masters degree in 1898, and in 1902 he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy. Mormonism was a subject of particular interest to Riley. His master’s thesis was “The Metaphysics of Mormonism,” and it formed the basis of his Doctor’s dissertation. In 1902, he revised his dissertation and published it as The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith. According to the Vassar College Encyclopedia, the book “drew criticism from the Mormon Church, foreshadowing the kinds of attack that Riley’s unapologetic and often satiric scholarship would receive for the rest of his life.”

You get a hit of that satirical side in his reference above to “this thrilling document.” It’s true, people named Riley do tend to be smart-asses, at least in my family.

NY Times – Sept. 20, 1902

Joseph Smith drew some fire, as well. The New York Times Saturday Review of Books ran a piece on Riley’s book in which John White Chadwick wrote of Smith, “His egotism was so colossal that he could write without compunction, ‘I know more than all the world put together,’ and declare God to be his ‘right-hand man.’ ” I guess Smith eventually overcame his illiteracy.

Woodbridge Riley did not limit his scholarship to Mormonism. As the Vassar Encyclopedia notes, “Throughout his career, Riley was always interested in the development of philosophic thought; most of his work analyzed philosophic or religious movements in Italy or America. “

I first became aware of Riley some years ago. While browsing in a used bookstore, I ran across a volume entitled, Men and Morals. Needless to say, the author’s last name is what attracted my attention.

Men and Morals is subtitled “The Story of Ethics.” The Bookman, in December 1929, described it as follows:

It is a thorough, well-organized, unobscured account of the great moral codes of the past—in early and later Greece, in the Orient, in Europe under the domination of the Church and after the Renaissance. Professor Riley interprets and evaluates the Platonic and Aristotelian, the Stoic and Epicurean codes; he examines critically the morals of the Church Fathers, of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza; he expounds the systems of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume; the idealism of Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; the pragmatism of William James and Dewey. Men and Morals is a book for him who reads that he may think.”

As for my principal area of interest, Eastern philosophy, or what Riley called “the Asiatic Systems,” in Men and Morals, he covered only Buddhism and Confucianism. He wrote in the style of his time, which seems so archaic to us now, but it doesn’t suffer from overuse of Biblical language that was typical of scholars writing about Eastern philosophy in that day. In the section on Buddhism, he focuses his attention on rebirth, karma, and the doctrine of no-self, and I think he got it as right as he possibly could:

Here, the founder Gautama, in protest against popular thought, was opposing the Brahmanic view of the soul as an airy something, a survival of the old animist belief in the ghostly self which leaves the body not only in dreams but in death and after the dissolution of the body passes into another body – that of some beast if this life has been evil, that of some noble, or hero, or saint if this life has been good. According to this view the soul, as Atman, or breath, is imperishable; the body may moulder in the grave, but the soul goes marching on. To this popular, this primitive, belief the master objected, and in its place substituted a view which left the primitive view so far behind as to approach the most subtle modern speculations on the meaning of the self. Put in the language of the Twentieth Century, the self is not a substance, however attenuated, but a stream of consciousness; all that actually exists is a series of states of consciousness . . .”

In discussing the fetter of doubt (vicikiccha), it seems he understood the point that Nirvana is not the “extinction of individual existence” but something else:

But here twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddhists . . . reached the paradoxical conclusion that the worst doubt was not to doubt the existence of the self. This, then, was the second fetter to Gautama – to doubt the truth of the impermanence of the self . . .

In the quiet hour, freed from all disturbing emotions, the saint may attain that sense of tranquility which is described as a state of victory over the world and over birth and death, a state of inward peace that can never be shaken, of a joy that can never be ruffled. This is the condition of Nirvana . . .”

James Whitcomb Riley/Chester A. Riley

Woodbridge Riley died in September of 1933 at the age of sixty-four. You will find little biographical information about him on the Internet. That’s too bad, because I am aware of only three noteworthy persons who bear this surname – your humble blogger, moi, of course; James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier Poet; and Chester A. Riley, whose name during the 1940s and 50s was synonymous with the expression “Life of Riley” and who coined the immortal catchphrase, “What a revoltin’ development this is!” I can only hope that my post today in some way helps add Woodbridge Riley’s name to that rather paltry pantheon.

Oh yeah, there’s also that Riley who has something to do with basketball . . .


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