(Another from the Draft folder! This + weeding = only 67 to go!)
Here, I contrasted the rich and varied moral universe of Dante – of the Church – with the flat moral universe of Marx and Modernity. Briefly: in his Divine Comedy, Dante lays out a world of complex – nuanced, even – moral choices and consequences. It is possible for an individual to commit a wide variety of sins. (1) Depending on the nature and severity of these sins, different consequences follow both in the Hell of one’s own soul and, equally important for Dante, in the Church and what might be called the extended State – extended to include all the family and social relationships that found and sustain the State.
In such a world – the real world – any little sin can result in much evil, and great sins can destroy empires and civilizations. The first identified sinners, after Dante himself, are Paolo and Francesco, whose sin of adultery starts a chain of evils that includes their own deaths at the hands of Francesco’s husband, children left bereft of a mother or father, and conflict between the families and, ultimately, the cities those families were prominent in.
Paolo’s and Francesco’s sin is presented as a comparatively small sin, mitigated by circumstances – through Dante’s example, we are invited to sympathize with the two lovers who are only following where their love leads. Yet, Dante opens with this sin, hardly a sin at all in the modern view, in order to show how even such sins can ruin many lives.
But the modern world rejects a subtly varied moral world, where individual people make their own choices, in favor of a flat moral universe, where personal decisions have little if any effect. In the old view, the evil (and good!) in the world to at least some extent is an expression or culmination of all the personal decisions made by individual people. This is rejected. Instead, some presumed impersonal yet oddly meddlesome god-like forces do bad, bad things. Thus, instead of examining whether abandoning my wife and children for this year’s fling is a culpable evil act on my part, I look to some ism or other to account for the misery in the world.
There’s a direct inverse correlation between accepting personal responsibility for moral acts and believing that racism, sexisim, capitalism, or some other ism du jour is the problem. Am I sad? That’s because I’m oppressed, somehow. Are my children sad? Well, as long as they don’t entertain the notion that *my* acts have anything to do with it, they can be made to see that it’s some global force at work in their lives.
I wish I were making this up. If I hadn’t seen it repeatedly over the last few decades, I would not have believed an adult would use his own children’s desire to have a mom and dad as a weapon to get them to pretend to accept that it’s OK that mommy and daddy broke up on a whim, that, as a condition of having one or the other parent in their lives, they must pretend that nothing much happened when the kids had all emotional security in their lives torn away from them by divorce. It must be of no consequence that the people who say they love you can up and decide they no longer love daddy or mommy – a kid simply cannot draw the conclusion that the parent’s professions of love for the kid are likewise subject to sudden, arbitrary reversal.
The Hegelian and Marxist faith that some big factors (History, Spirit) outside personal acts form human fate and, in Marx’s case, are the sole sources of evil (2) in the world conveniently lets you off the hook for falling short, even falling short of today’s low standards. That many people have lived good and decent lives in relative poverty under oppressive regimes is simply invisible, impossible, even, for a Marxist, as is that, today, many people less well off than your politically enlightened self are simply happier and healthier. No, to the the True Believer, I and mine must be miserable and deluded, and our happiness based on the advantages (whatever they are) that accrue to me via my group’s oppression of everybody else. My wife and kids, to whom I have dedicated my life and for whom I would lay it down, are nonetheless oppressed by me, because white male. (3) If only their consciousness were raised, they’d despise me, as is only proper, I suppose.
In the more complex universe of reality, it can be acknowledged that, indeed, oppression exists; it is even acknowledged that institutional oppression exists. But such systemic oppression is not somehow independent from the acts of the people involved. (4) The Enlightened seem always impatient (despite patience being perhaps the biggest single sign of maturity), such that any proposed action or inaction that addresses individual people as individuals is never enough: the System (whatever that is, functionally) must be changed – no, not changed, but brought down! And, since destruction of the System is such an overarching good (despite the lack of any coherent idea of what the Good means within a Marxist universe – but logical consistency is for the little people, as often pointed out) , any and all acts that the benighted bourgeoisie might, under their false consciousness, consider evil, such as starving 20 million Kulak men, women & children, murdering unnumbered insufficiently pure Chinese or using power tools to drill holes in the heads of Cambodians for the crime of having learned to read – such acts are neither good nor bad in themselves, but are to be judged based on how well they advance the Revolution. No, really.
- And, by necessity, also makes it possible for an individual to perform a wide range of virtuous acts. It is always good to remember that the same nature of Man and the spiritual world that makes the evil of sin impossible to contain also spreads the good of virtuous acts in ways we can hardly imagine. Every loving gesture and act of self-sacrifice reverberates through time and space. A great saint always leaves in his wake a trail of little saints.
- Although there is no basis within Marx’s world for the concept of ‘evil’ – an inconsistency that falls under the ‘logic is for little people’ rubric. If you’re not outraged, you’re paying a little too much attention, as it were.
- Mostly. I’m 1/64 Cherokee, and therefore 1/128 less evil on the White Male Scale of Evil. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
- The esteemed and much missed Dr. Boli lays out a classic example of how complicated and inextricably intertwined the relationship between the individual’s desire to do good and the social situations within which that desire must operate here.