“Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” King Lear asks about his daughter, Regan.
The phrase goes back to the Bible, of course. Kabad is the term in Hebrew for the canonical instance of a hardened heart. The heart in question is the pharaoh’s, and its hardening is, in part, the work of the Lord, not nature. In Exodus 9:12, it is written” And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” Franz Rosenzweig, the great Jewish philosopher, found an interpretation of the verse in a popular Yiddish religious book: “… whereever a person wishes to go, God helps him. If he wishes to be good, God helps him. If he wishes to be bad, God also helps him.” In the latter case, by hardening – making heavy – the heart.
There is something wonderful and terrifying in Rosenzweig’s trouvaille. It is akin to Leibniz’s theory that this is the best of all possible worlds, for that transforms evil in the world into a quality as necessary as the good for the world’s perfection. I can grasp this intellectually, looking down, as much as I am able, at the world, but from within the world, I can never accept this.
That the Lord helps the wicked is a disconcerting thought, but there are hints in the Bible that the Lord and the Good and Evil are in separate metaphysical compartments. When, in the first chapter of Genesis, God creates light, there is this comment: “And God saw that the light was good.” That seems to be a way of saying that when God created light, he did not know, beforehand, that it would be good. That light was good – and I’m in total agreement with the deity here – in this story gives us a glimpse into a certain experimental neutrality, there at the beginning.
This is an idea to play with, as Rosenzweig must have seen it. The idea that my desire to follow good is independent of God, just as my desire to follow bad is independent of God, deserves some consideration. Donne considers that the case that God might not forbid sin in his sermon on God’s “patience”, and gives his response, which is wonderful rhetoric but not such wonderful argument: “for every book of the Bible, every chapter, every verse almost, is a particular Duteronomy, a particular renewing of the law from God’s mouth, Morte morieris, Thou shalt die the death; and of that sentence from Moses’ mouth, pereundo peribitis, You shall surely perish; and of that sentence from the prophet’s mouth, There is no peace to the wicked. And if this obdurant sinner could be such a Goth and Vandal as to destroy all records, all written laws; if he would evacuate and exterminate the whole Bible, yet he would find this law in his own heart; this sentence pronounjced by his own conscience, Stipendium peccati mors est, Treason is death, and sin is treason.”
You can’t get away from the sentence, in Donne. The sentence runs after you; the sentence is written within you. And by sentences you die.