The Esau Syndrome

The Supreme Court’s rulings on marriage and several other matters demand some immediate comment. In the next days, we will provide several such commentaries on what those decisions mean. But as is our usual practice, instead of just rushing in with just one more off-the-cuff reaction – something that’s a temptation for Internet sites – we’ll provide some deeper reflections over the next few days. Please come back and look for them. – Robert Royal           

In the 1980s, I received two Fulbright awards for research and writing in Germany on the philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. I traveled there for a year each time with my wife and children. Considering travel and living expenses, and reduced salary, I decided to discontinue making payments toward my pension for those years, thus stretching my monthly assets somewhat.

Realizing that this decision would have an effect on my eventual pension after retirement, I joked that this was a situation where “young Howard” was borrowing from “old Howard” to make ends meet in the present. (Fortunately, these two Howards were the same person, so I wasn’t stealing sensu stricto.) I justified my action on the basis that I wasn’t planning to leave “old Howard” penniless, but just moderately reducing his future pension expectations.

Jacob’s twin brother, Esau, in Genesis took a much more radical step. Coming out from the fields, and feeling faint, he noticed Jacob by his tent cooking some red lentil pottage, and asked for a helping. Esau, according to Genesis, had appeared first, and was technically considered the “firstborn.”

But Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, to complicate matters, had received a revelation that the “elder shall serve the younger.” Jacob, perhaps privy to this mysterious prophecy, demanded Esau’s birthright as payment for the pottage. Esau agreed, without much thought, and without asking, “are you serious?” According to Genesis 25:34, he “made little account of having sold his first birthright, ate, and drank, and went his way.”

One wonders about the intensity of sibling rivalry in this story, but the most amazing thing is the insouciance of Esau. Esau seems to be absolutely intent on the here and now, with zero interest in his future. Apparently there were no complaints about the price he was paying, no counter-proposals.

Jesus in Luke 16:19-30 discusses an even more radical “bartering” arrangement in his parable about the rich man, “Dives,” in Hell, asking “Father Abraham” to send to him the beggar, Lazarus, who used to lie by the gate of Dives’ mansion. All he wanted was a drop of water to cool his tongue; or, as an alternative, for Lazarus to go back to earth to warn Dives’ five brothers to repent.

But Abraham answers that fulfilling such requests would be impossible because Lazarus could not traverse such a chasm. And, says Abraham, Dives’ brothers wouldn’t respond, in any case, to such a miracle. Finally, Abraham reminds Dives that, unlike Lazarus, he has forfeited happiness in the afterlife for “good things in his lifetime.”

On a cursory reading one might wonder whether this might be a tit for tat – God bestowing great wealth and good times on certain people in this life to make up for an eternity of suffering in the next.

      Esau Sells His Birthright by Hendrick ter Brugghen, c. 1627

Such was the sort of misplaced calculation made by Michael Pederson Kierkegaard, the father of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. Michael Kierkegaard in his teens, suffering hardship and poverty as a farm laborer, had once raised his fists, shouting curses at God, for burdening him with so many difficulties.

Very shortly afterwards, he became rich. But steeped in Moravian Pietism, he interpreted his newfound blessings as divine revenge for cursing God, to be followed by family deaths. That his wife and the majority of his children died before him, became “evidence” for the evil bargain that he had made – riches instead of happiness, in this life or maybe even the next.

Of course, the most extreme example of the “Esau syndrome” would be a Faustian bargain – selling one’s soul to the Devil for a lifetime of worldly happiness. Presumably, legends aside, people would not be foolish enough to make such a bargain.

Or would we? In an era when so many people don’t seriously believe in a soul or an afterlife, the “prudential” calculations change considerably. If, for example, a tyrant actually believed he would bear responsibility after death for wrong committed in this life, it might check his ambitions and desires. Or – tyrants aside – owners of rickety factories in Bangladesh might think again about profiting from slave labor.

Today, we often see the Esau syndrome in couples who avoid having children in order to “have it all.” Aborting children as unwelcome guests at their ongoing “party,” they give little or no thought to the fact that one day they may be asked to account for these children. As Bishop Sheen used to say, on judgment day, we will be asked, “Where are your children?”

Esau was busy working in the fields. He didn’t have a good relationship with his twin brother – although they did eventually reconcile.  Pensions didn’t exist in those days, and Esau didn’t have the time or inclination to figure out how he would manage after his father, Isaac, passed away.  Besides, Isaac favored him over Jacob (Genesis 25:28).  Rebecca favored Jacob; but what influence would she have over the venerable patriarch?

Like Esau, the interests of the present loom large before us, while our ultimate destiny seems to be a cloudy mist out there somewhere. Esau did end up with a blessing of sorts, but missed out on the first-class patriarchal blessing that his solicitous mother, Rebecca, had procured for Jacob.

We, too, are embroiled in day-to-day affairs; many of us have a hard time keeping our heads above the water.  We tend to put off thinking even about things like retirement – let alone, ultimate questions about where we are going to spend the afterlife. But even in the most truly practical sense, isn’t that the most important investment of all?


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Ib

    Actually, its my observation that many Roman Catholics and other Christians think about “the life of the world to come,” as the Creed puts it, all the time. In evangelical circles there is an immense preoccupation with “the End Times”. Many Roman Catholics build their entire piety around the apocalyptic visions given to the world by Our Lady at Fatima. Now, admittedly, the world-at-large responds to this with either indifference or hostility, but in the main, I do think this is something many followers of Christ take seriously.

    Perhaps one day you’ll write something of what you found in your researches into Hegel and what it might mean for Roman Catholics?

    The affinity between Søren Kierkegaard (Michael Pedersen’s son) and Roman Catholicism is actually well known. One of the wisest Kierkegaard scholars of the last century, Walter Lowrie, wrote that “in the Journals of the last five years … there are nearly one hundred [entries] which … express appreciation (comparatively at least) of Catholicism and monasticism. S.K.’s contemptaries, though of course this source of information was closed to them, were disposed to conjecture that, if S.K. had lived longer, he must have felt compelled to take refuge in the Church of Rome …” (Inroduction to “The Attack Upon Christendom”, xvi). Lowrie further relates that Fr. Erich Pyzywara’s book, “Das Geheimnnis Kierkegaards” — which endeavored to show that Kierkegaard was essential a Catholic in his way of thinking — succeeded so well that upon reading it Karl Barth said that “if I were to follow Kierkegaard, I might as well go over there” pointing to the Vatican.

  • Manfred

    Thank you for a fine article, Howard, and thank you, ib, for your comment. As I have said here before, the 20th Century saw two major impacts on Catholics and the entire world-Fatima and Vat. II. The first warned forcefully of the existence of Hell; the second considered Hell not such a big deal. Perhaps all people would be saved anyway. It was Christ Himself who mentioned Hell MORE THAN ANY OTHER SUBJECT. In fact, saving people from it was the major reason He came to this world to teach, suffer and die. It becomes quite stark when you see friends and confreres die without funerals that the reality really hits home. It is God’s world and He has willed the last fifty years and the future to happen. If one “should not fool Mother Nature”,it is incredibly Esau-ish(?) to disobey the Mother of God when she demands that her Secret be revealed by 1960. The Esau Church chose instead an unnecessary Council and look at the havoc which has resulted when God removed His Hand from the Church and the world.

  • Richard A

    Retirement and the afterlife, though both in the future – the first for many of us and the second for all of us reading this – do require some different calculus for us Christians, though. Perhaps you or one of your TCT colleagues will write a meditation on Luke 12:16 – 21 some day. It seems to me that Americans, starting with FDR, and Westerners generally, starting with Bismarck, have been encouraged all our lives to store up treasure for ourselves so we can take our ease later in life. Joke’s on us, of course, for besides putting our trust in Social Security instead of God, many of us will open our barns to find them full of IOUs.

  • Howard Kainz

    @ib: It’s a challenge to do justice to Hegel in a column format. If you have access to the philosophy journal Philosophy and Theology, see my article, “Hegelian Priorities in Christendom: A Reconsideration Philosophy and Theology
    vol. 22, no. 1/2, pages 265 – 277, 2010. Like Kierkegaard, Hegel was rather Catholic in his theology, in spite of himself.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Manfred: I haven’t done a count, but in my reading Christ talked about the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) more than about hell. But both these subjects are counter-cultural these days.

  • Ib

    Thank you, Howard for the article reference. I’ll see if I can get it through the University library. I really look forward to reading it!

    Again, I haven’t done a count (used to have access to the Logos Bible software at my old position and could have done it easily there), but Jesus often talked about the Kingdom together with perdition as a way of contrasting them (Schillebeeckx picked this up in his notion of “contrast experience” between good and evil). In addition, the concept of “Hell” takes on many different expressions in the Gospels, so just searching for “Hell” won’t give an accurate accounting. Checking the old Catholic Encyclopedia entry for “Hell” (not the best source, but good enough for this) gives us 10 different ways that perdition is described in the Gospels, from the well known Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus, to “abyss” (Luke 8:31 and elsewhere), “place of torments” (Luke 16:28), “pool of fire” (Revelation 19:20 and elsewhere), “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42, 50), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12, and elsewhere), “everlasting fire” (Matthew 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7), and “exterior darkness” (Matthew 7:12; 22:13; 25:30). In St. Paul and the other epistles it has even more ways of being expressed. I’m sure if I consulted a more scholarly source like Kittel, I would find even more.

    I’m not sure I would go as far as Manfred, though, and say that it was the number one thing Jesus talked about. He preached the coming Kingdom, but along with that the need to repent from sin and seek God’s forgiveness, precisely because the alternative of perdition was threateningly real. All these things were in his preaching. They were closely intertwined. We need to live our lives with all these things in our hearts, especially in light of the new evangelization the Church is calling us to now.

  • DS

    Money and possessions were also among Jesus’ favorite topics, much more than hell.

  • Ib

    Read your article in Philosophy & Theology, and got reacquainted with Hegel after many years. Thank you!

    I am intrigued by the description of your book “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: Not Missing the Trees for the Forest” (I will be getting it soon). It dips into Hegel and psychoanalysis … have you read Žisžek? Especially “Puppet and the Dwarf” or “The Fragile Absolute”? He uses Hegel extensively, but perhaps ina slapdash way (following his Master, Lacan). What do you make of him?

  • Howard Kainz

    @ib: Nope. But I have a chapter on Kierkegaard in the “trees” book that you may find of interest.