One of the philosophers I am studying at the moment is Rene Descartes. He once defined human beings as thinking substances and claimed that our thoughts were the only things that could prove to us that we existed. Hence he proclaimed ‘Cogito, ergo sum’- I think, therefore I am.
Despite some of the objectionable things that Descartes said, his words here do seem pretty agreeable. I think, I am always thinking and it is impossible for me to not think. I can’t switch off my mind (I am aware there are spiritual ideas built on this notion). The only thing I really have control over is what I choose to think about. I can choose to spend time mulling over a set of thoughts or ideas or I can choose to change my thoughts to some other subject.
That brings me to what I wanted to talk about. The topic of judgement. I am speaking about formulating opinions of others and dwelling on them. Forming opinions of others is not essentially a bad thing. It would seem it is a sort of survival mechanism in our society. We build up pictures of others with the idea of profiting ourselves through someone’s good qualities or avoiding people with qualities that we find irritating or even bad. Judgements are instantaneous and cannot be controlled. Therefore they are pre-moral. This is key in understanding our culpability in making negative judgements of others. At this purely mental and principle level of judgement, we are guilt free.
Elrond from the LOTR judging others. The shame!
I mention culpability because I want to discuss judgement from a Christian point of view. Jesus advises His listeners in Chapter 7 of Matthew’s Gospel that they should not judge. They should remove the log from their own eye before commenting on the speck in their neighbour’s. In other words, they should examine their own consciences rather than judging other people. Thus they can avoid hypocrisy.
I have heard the most insipid judgements pronounced against other people by people who could have stood to take a good honest look at themselves. Now, I do not mean to ironically stand in judgement over those people, for indeed it is not my place. I do not know their hearts and there can be several hidden reasons as to why someone speaks bitterly of another, not that they are excuses. But the point is that it is only for God to judge us as only He can peer into our very depths.
‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ Matthew 7:1
We can, however, judge each other’s actions. If we couldn’t we would not be able to speak about moral goods and bads. With this tool we are able to determine what things are good for us to do and what are not. So, beyond the mental and principle moment of instantaneous judgement, we are obviously capable of dwelling on that judgement and developing our thoughts whatever way we choose, for good or for bad.
St. Paul tells us we should correct our brothers and sisters in private if their actions are wrong. This is what is known as a spiritual work of mercy, as if a person is acting sinfully, they can be enlightened and seek reconciliation with God. Jesus speaks about not judging each other and this includes dwelling on negative thoughts about the people we know. Holding a grudge, in other words. This type of thinking can develop dangerously into wishing one’s neighbour ill.
Bishop Robert Barron
Bishop Robert Barron, who makes popular Youtube videos on different topics from a Catholic perspective, speaks in one instance about judgement and gossiping. He gives the advice:
‘Insofar as you are willing to point out someone’s fault to them, directly to their face with a view to helping them correct it, you can speak critically about them.’ If we are not willing to speak to someone directly and risk a negative reaction, we shouldn’t speak at all, as to do so is cowardly.
The only prerogative to judge people’s hearts and souls is God’s, when we die. This is the Catholic belief, that immediately or some-‘time’ soon after death, God’s light will be shed on our being illuminating all that we are and all we have ever done. Let us pray that what He illumines shall be pleasing to Him. Amen.
The Last Judgement by Michelangelo
The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.