This was tweeted by the Heinlein Society:
Good as far as it goes – but it’s metaphysical truths, such as underlie logic & observation, that one must use to do the boiling.
This was tweeted by the Heinlein Society:
Good as far as it goes – but it’s metaphysical truths, such as underlie logic & observation, that one must use to do the boiling.
In 1996, Stanley Fish wrote an article for First Things called Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, a link to which was washed up on my beach via Twitter. This fairly dense and densely reasoned essay touches upon a subject of some interest here on this blog: how did our colleges and universities arrive at the disastrous state we’ve reached today? I’m going to have to pick a few of many worthy thoughts to comment on, since this is a blog post and I don’t have a week to research and write a reply. Please read the whole essay, as I am not going to be able to do justice to the full scope of his very interesting argument. The reasoning here will not be as tight as the subject deserves, for which I apologize to Dr. Fish and my readers. The line of challenge and pursuit is I think important to get out there, however imperfectly.
First, Fish is a college professor, and thus, when he talks about how Americans think, he’s talking about how people in colleges and the penumbra of colleges think. When this battle was being fought back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, less than 10% of the population attended college; as late as 1945, less than 30% graduated high school. As late as Harry Truman, America could elect as president someone who attended no college – and not feel particularly bad about it.
I mention this because Fish doesn’t concern himself with the downward push of these ideas from the university to the vast bulk of the citizens. That these ideas were cultivated among a small and very self-conscious elite and inflicted on their presumed inferiors is, I think, an important and telling aspect of the process, as is the fundamental difference in mindset between the children and grandchildren of Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard and a typical American farmer. (Most Americans lived on farms until almost 1900, and most lived in close proximity to farms until maybe 1940.) Employing the sort of reasoning prefered by Fish, it could be said that certain unconscious assumptions made by a farmer and by a Harvard grad would be mutually unintelligible, and thus kill the possibility of free discussion a-birthing. I would add: minds are not that open; minds simply cannot be that open and remain rational. Thus, what is to be imposed is not rationality, but a belief system.
But Fish’s essay is not about how liberal open-mindedness got promulgated and eventually swept the field, but rather is about its dogmatic intolerance. He gets close to the heart of the matter when he notes that no reasoning can begin without premises, and that such premises cannot be the result of reasoning. Thus, he rejects the idea that articles of faith can be judged by their reasonableness, and calls no less a witness than Augustine.
Is this true? That I’m asking this question reveals my own premises, most important of which are that truth matters, is knowable and can be reached or at least approached by reason. Fish calls Augustine to the stand to defend the idea that articles of faith are by their nature unreasonable (or, perhaps, a-reasonable, after the immoral/amoral distinction) and thus sticks to the Platonic side of the pool. By omission of the arguments from the Aristotle/Thomist (deep) end of the pool, Plato stands as the type of the only line of reasoning to be considered.
Like Augustine, Thomas would reject the idea that one could reason his way to the Resurrection (to stick with Fish’s example), but he would consider it completely correct, required, even, to understand that the claim that Christ is Risen is not unreasonable. One who holds to the Perennial Philosophy would expect all revealed truths to be confirmed by all other truths however arrived at. They would expect all Truth to be One.
A book or two would be required to spell out how, say, knowing the melting point of iron points to the Incarnation. For now, it is enough to insist that rational discussion is not possible if we admit the idea of multiple contradioctory truth into the arena. I contend that the fundamental premise that all truth is one, that no truth arrived at one way can stand unchallenged by a contradictory truth arrived at some other way, is not only tacitly assumed by people with any claim to being reasonable, but is required for any rational discourse whatsoever. Contradictions are not acceptable. Something’s afoot. We must look harder.
Avram: (gestures at Perchik and Mordcha) He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.
Tevye: You know… you are also right.
My fundamental objection to Fish’s otherwise sympathetic analysis is his shying away from examining which premises support the activity of rational discourse, and which defeat it or, rather, preclude it. In this regard, I find it odd that Marx gets mentioned indirectly and in passing once, and Hegel not at all. Yet I think it indisputable that the premises of Hegel and Marx have replaced the Enlightenment premises as expressed by Jefferson and company as the foundation upon which the current ideas of open-minded discussion, so called, are built.
And I think Fish agrees, on some level. Discussing George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief , Fish says:
The answer has many components, including the Jeffersonian project of softening sectarian aggressiveness and establishing a general religion of peace, reason, and morality, the identification of common sense philosophy with Christian morality within the assumption that each supported the other, the rise of the cult of the expert whose skills and authority were independent of his character or religious faith, and the substitution for the imperative of adhering to an already-revealed truth the imperative of continuing to search for a truth whose full emergence is located in an ever-receding future.
This last was particularly important because if truth was by definition larger and more inclusive than our present horizons declared it to be, obedience to traditional norms and values was no longer a virtue, but a fault, and a moral fault at that.
“The higher truth was an ever progressing ideal toward which the human community . . . always moved, yet never reached. Since truth was by definition always changing, the only thing ultimately sacred was the means of pursuing it. No religious or other dogmatic claim could be allowed to stand in its way.”
It is not the business of a university, declared Charles Eliot of Harvard, “to train men for those functions in which implicit obedience is of the first importance. On the contrary, it should train men for those occupations in which self-government, independence, and originating power are preeminently needed.” (Or, in Satan’s more succinct formulation, “self-begot, self-raised.”)
We see here Hegel’s idea of the Spirit unfolding itself through history, an idea that conquered Harvard in the early 19th century, and infused all top-down educational efforts from that point forward. This idea – that men are not given to know divine truths unless and until the Spirit comes to know them in concrete History – held great appeal to Protestant and recently Protestant minds. Rather than an indictment, they could reframe the radical fracturing of Protestantism over time and space as the necessarily messy workings of the Spirit, and the Church’s claim to being the repository and defender of unchanging Truth to be the height of ignorance and hubris.
Princeton’s Francis Patton declared that “the rationality or rather the reasonableness of a belief is the condition of its credibility.” That is, you believe it because reason ratifies it, a view Augustine would have heard with horror, one that John Webster, writing in 1654, rejects as obviously absurd. “But if man gave his assent unto, or believed the things of Christ . . . because they appear probable . . . to his reason, then would his faith be . . . upon the rotten basis of human authority.” By the end of the nineteenth century, human authority has been put in the place of revelation; or rather human authority, now identified with the progressive illumination afforded by reason, has become the vehicle of revelation and of a religion that can do very nicely without any strong conception of personal deity.
This realization was not instantaneous nor universal by any means. Up until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for various Protestant leaders (Francis Patton, for example) to cry anathema on other Protestants and Christian sects for the heresy of disagreeing with established dogmas. These firebrands still believed that there were revealed truths that *required* our assent if we were to be saved. Since then, and especially over the last 5 or 6 decades, it has become moot to wonder what an American Episcopalian or Lutheran, say, would have to do to be a heretic by the lights of the leaders of their own denominations. Still, among the sheep, there are those who believe that it is possible to be wrong – but, practically, among the leadership? I’ve seen no evidence.
Once Christianity fades entirely and Hegel’s Spirit is laughed off the stage, Marx substitutes his strangely efficacious History into the Spirit’s slot (it fits once Hegel is flipped on his head). Marx renounces Hegel’s considered modesty: we, in the person of Marx, no longer need to wait for Spirit/History to unfold itself, it has unfolded itself to the end! We know where we’re going – and the only foolishness is to be on the wrong side.
Hegel considers what he calls ‘propositional reason,’ which is what Fish is calling simply reason in this essay, to be useful to the little people such as scientists and mathematicians, but of no use to real philosophers doing the hard thinking of real philosophy. For such lofty person pursuing their high and lonely destinies, the law of noncontradiction does not apply, neither do they attempt to work from true premises using valid logic to new states of knowledge. No, like Freud attacking his critics from within his theory (they only disagree because they are repressed, you see), reason is based on some form of unassailable enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be consistent; it doesn’t have to make sense. In any case, it is beyond the reach of mere logical discussion.
The attentive reader will note that such premises are not only as dogmatic and more than anything claimed by Calvin or Luther, but that they serve at least as well the purpose of ending discourse, or hope of discourse. You either get it, or you don’t.
It’s not like people didn’t notice, even at the time:
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Yale’s Noah Porter scoffed at the supposed neutrality and evenhandedness of secular educational theory, which, he pointed out, was its theology: “The question is not whether the college shall or shall not teach theology, but what theology it shall teach”theology according to . . . Moses and Paul or according to Buckle and Draper.” By the beginning of this century it was all too evident which of these directions had been taken by American education. In tones recently echoed by conservative polemicists, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine complained in 1909 that
In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils . . . that the change of one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable as styles of dress.
“The neutrality we have,” thundered William Jennings Bryan in 1923, “is often but a sham; it carefully excludes the Christian religion but permits the use of the schoolroom for the destruction of faith and for the teaching of materialistic doctrines.” From a quite different perspective, Walter Lippmann agreed: “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.” What this means, as Marsden points out, is that “two irreconcilable views of truth and education were at issue”; but of course the issue was never really joined, because the liberal establishment thought of itself as already reconciled to everything and anything and therefore was unable to see how exclusionary its policy of radical in clusion really was: “Groups that were excluded, such as Marxists and fundamentalists, often raised the point that they were being excluded by liberal dogmatism, but they were seldom heard.”
That they were not heard is hardly surprising, since what they were saying was that a state of “warfare” existed, and warfare ”deep conflict over basic and nonnegotiable issues” was precisely what liberalism was invented to deny; and it manages that denial by excluding from the tolerance it preaches anyone who will not pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.
The point being missed: an Hegelian or Marxist will very easily “pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.” They have already done it. They’ve been doing it for a century. They are doing it now, most notably at Berkeley. War is Peace. Speech is Aggression. Beatings and Intimidation are Freedom. Gramsci and Alinsky would nod approvingly.
On an intellectual level, we must challenge the premises that preclude rational discussion. While on a strictly logical basis, Fish is correct that premises cannot be chosen rationally – you have to have premises to reason in the first place. But the logical outcomes of our premises can be examined, and contradictions can invalidate certain combinations of premises as being incompatible. Thus, I cannot defend open-minded discussion without some sort of assumption that truth matters, that truth is knowable at least to some degree, and that words carry meanings that can be communicated between interlocutors.
It is not merely a question of this or that indifferent premise being enforced because we like it better for pre-rational reasons, so to speak. Some premises support conversation and some defeat it. Any society worth defending supports the free expression of ideas. To do so, it must hold up to scorn and refuse to enshrine in law or custom any premises that defeat communication by their nature.
Things have only gotten worse since Dr. Fish wrote this essay. When we allow thugs to shut down speech, when we are ‘tolerant’ of views that defeat the very idea of tolerance, when we cede the field to those who claim the very idea of logical consistency is irrational, we are not furthering this grand experiment. We are less, not more, free.
(My head today is like an industrial coffee percolator: full of mineral deposits and in desperate need of a good scrubbing. No, wait – bubbling over with ideas! That it! That’s the image! Well, maybe a little of the other, too…)
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is accused of possessing the evil superpower of ‘making the weaker argument appear the stronger’. Be that as it may, the curious part of this accusation these days lies in noting that the Athenians were evidently under the quaint impression that some arguments are better than others.
An unavoidable impression one gets from reading Plato is that, in the Athens inherited by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, argument was both a full-contact extreme urban sport, as well as a spectator event. The Sophists, who really did teach how to make a weak argument appear strong, seemed to be everywhere, and an enterprising Athenian could probably have sold a lot of peanuts and Crackerjacks to the crowds that formed whenever Socrates took one on.
Callicles, and probably his teacher Gorgias as well, believed and taught that the stronger argument is the one that wins. Callicles cared nothing for the truth except insofar as it might help or hinder his attainment of Excellence, defined by him (and multitudes before and since) as the power to reward your friends, punish your enemies and indulge your every desire.
It’s not like our modern obsession with truth being relative and a good argument being one that gets me what I want are new things under the sun. They may qualify as baseline human behavior. Those who argue that free will is a sham, that it’s deterministic turtles all the way down, are not really arguing anything different – they are just trying to place the blame somewhere else, like in a mirthless, mechanistic universe rather than in the hubris-ridden soul of Callicles. (1)
Sometimes one might read of someone who fully embraces lying to get whatever they want with bracing honesty. Alinsky springs to mind. But mostly, our children and ourselves back at least 3 generations have been taught that truth is relative, that arguments are acts of aggression, that reason has no privileged place in conversation or even in argument. What was done through omission furtively is now done in the daylight.
Frankly, what is surprising is to see anything else. Socrates leaps off the page with his willingness to follow wherever the argument leads; Aristotle is perhaps braver still: he lays his arguments out right in the open, for anyone who wants to to approach and attack.
But the hero of argument, the towering peak of all that is good about disputing among friends to get closer to the truth, is St. Thomas. Two things that are often missed: first, he knew and taught that what the Scholastics were doing was trying to get closer to truth, not settle everything once and for all. The conclusions reached by a team of people, the small group of friends gathered at the feet of the Master to play the Questions game, did not and were never meant to settle the issue in the sense of cutting off further discussion. We do the best we can, trusting that all Truth is One, and all Truth is God, Who lovingly wants us to understand.
Second, and this is utterly missing from the modern world, there’s a deep devotion to fairness. It would be unsatisfactory and a waste of time to argue against anything but the best, strongest, most convincing argument your opponent can put out. Whenever possible, you restate the argument and get sign-off from your opponent – yes, this is exactly what I mean. (2) Like a true sportsman, they don’t want to win if they have to cheat to do it.
Reading Aquinas, even for a guy like me who lacks much of the background to really understand him, is like breathing the fresh air on a high mountain, after having climbed from the dirt and gloom of the valleys below. The eagerness to hear the arguments out – the opposing view is always given first – and the care and honor given to even pretty weak arguments is unlike anything you’re likely to run into today.
Thus, reading St. Thomas, one realizes that all arguments are good, in the sense that, in the hands of a master stating them as clearly as possible, all arguments sound reasonable enough that you would not hold anyone in contempt for believing them. Nowadays, we settle for that superficial argument without ever pursuing the question: are there other arguments even stronger?
Half truths told by liars are the coin of the realm these days. Of course there is oppression. Of course life isn’t fair. But is that the whole story? Like Thomas, it would help greatly to lay these arguments out as strongly as possible, and then see what can be rallied against them. Or watch them crumble from their own flaws.
Emile: W-w-wait. You… read?
Remy: Well, not… excessively.
Emile: Oh, man. Does dad know?
Remy: You could fill a book – a lot of books – with things Dad doesn’t know. And they have. Which is why I read. Which is also our secret.
A philosophical thread on beauty expressed in 140 characters or fewer broke out. (Twitter: the thing next up to depart from my life, following computer games, the NBA, and Facebook. Soon, and very soon.) The worthy and serious interlocutors (interTweetitors?) were batting around definitions of good and beauty; Mark Neimeier threw up a post on it.
To sum up my position, which (I certainly hope) would be recognized as a callow amateur’s take of Aristotle’s and Thomas’s positions: The natural world is beautiful in its being (ontologically beautiful); when we see beauty, we are getting a glimpse of reality. Now, each of us sees this beauty according to our talents and skills – while all of us experience beauty as a part of our human nature, each of us also has gifts and shortcomings which affect our ability to experience the beauty all around us. I, for example, sometimes get a physical thrill from a beautiful chair or even a beautiful tool, because I understand them in a way most people have no reason to understand them. But ballet is to me beautiful in a way I don’t really understand, and I’m sure I’m missing some or most of what is truly beautiful about it. Further, someone who is seriously damaged morally and esthetically (and we all are damaged to some extent) may hate some beauty and find some ugliness attractive (and mislabel that attractiveness as beauty). This is no different from being physically crippled or having brain damage – that I can’t walk or speak due to such damage doesn’t make walking or speaking any less objectively real.
But enough – books have been written. Here I want to point out something from one of the very earliest posts on this blog: the argument that beauty is subjective – that it exists only ‘in the eye of the beholder’ is a self-defeating argument. What do we talk about? We just walk around stating what we do and do not like or find beautiful? To try to show someone else what it is we find beautiful in this or that is to tacitly admit that there’s something beyond my opinion which makes a thing beautiful. If it’s all subjective, then there’s nothing to talk about, and no point in talking.
On a more subtle level, the true, the beautiful and the good are not separable in practice – we can, if we want, talk about them separately, as aspects of a thing, but you can’t have one without the other two in any existing thing. Insofar as a thing exists, it is good and beautiful; any ugliness or badness exists only as a falling short of the intrinsic beauty and goodness of the things. Thus, traditionally, Satan has been viewed as the greatest of Angels – his evil lies in how far he has fallen short of his nature. But his existence, in itself, is good, beautiful and true.
Finally, nature, in the philosophical sense, admits of degrees of goodness and beauty. A rock or a plant is natural, but far less natural, and therefore far less beautiful and good, than a humans being. People possess the rock’s nature as a physical object, and possess the plants nature as a living thing. We even possess animal nature, where we can see and move around. But we can also know things in a way no rock, plant, or animal can, and act on that knowledge in a way only angels (that we know of) can. Each of the ‘natures’ man has – mineral, vegetable, animal, human – have aspects of of the good and the beautiful peculiar to them. Man, as the most natural thing in the Universe, has all those aspects.
We are most beautiful and good when we freely act out of faith, hope and love.
Bringing it back around to SFF, a book or story will be good and beautiful insofar as and to the degree it is true to life. It’s possible to write a good and beautiful story with no real moral content – a rollicking yarn, fun, entertaining. I can’t think of any, off hand – every story that is any good I’ve ever read has somebody somewhere facing a moral dilemma of some sort. In comedy (as classically understood) the good guys win in some manner; in tragedy, they lose. What makes it tragic are human failings that led to people not acting selflessly and bravely. (Much of Mike Flynn’s stuff is a good example of modern SFF tragedy.)
Much more beautiful would be a fun, rollicking story where the hero acts heroically, heroically meaning, for the last couple millennia, virtuously – selflessly, bravely, for a loved one or an ideal.
I think we kid ourselves if we think we’re going to write good stories that are morally neutral, just fun and adventurous. If Frodo doesn’t risk death so that the Ring might end up in the Cracks of Doom, if Luke doesn’t risk all to save his father and the Rebellion, heck, if Corbin Dallas doesn’t tell Lelu he loves her and thus saves the world – well, it’s just not much of a story. Or if we’re not shedding a tear when the character’s failings lead to inevitable tragedy.
This weekend, with any luck, younger daughter will get to visit the Uffizi Gallery. She is on a semester in Rome trip from Thomas More College, and this weekend is going to Florence, her one shot to visit, since all other weekends are booked through the end of the semester. (The poor dear will have to make do with visits to Assisi, Prague, and other magnificent yet lesser beauties before heading off to Paris, Lourdes, Ireland and England before wending homeward. Kids these days.)
She only has a day or two, which is roughly 6 months, 5 years or a lifetime too little to have spent in Florence, depending on how you want to figure it. I’ve gotten to spend roughly 6 weeks of my life in Italy, 2 weeks in Florence – which is pretty crazy for a sheet metal guy’s son from Whittier. I’m not complaining. Those 6 weeks blew my mind and impressed upon me that 6 weeks is hardly enough, laughably so.
The Italians, when they weren’t too tied up scheming or actively killing each other, took time out to produce about 1/2 of the truly great art mankind has ever produced, a vastly disproportionate share of which lives in Florence. The last Medici Grand Duke, a complete degenerate but semi-decent Grand Duke named Gian Gastone de’ Medici, managed to separate out the artwork from the rest of the wealth of Florence before he died, and leave it to his sister, Anna Maria Luisa. For the previous 300 years, the Medici family made no distinction between the wealth of Florence and their personal family fortune – there was little practical difference. But once it became clear to Gianni that he was the end of the Medici line as far as Grand Dukes went (the Great Powers of the time weren’t interested in letting his sister Anna Maria rule as Grand Duchess, and there were no male potential heirs) he very wisely decided that the art the family had collected over the centuries should be considered the family’s, left to his sister – and left in Florence. I don’t how likely it was that Francis of Lorraine – Gianni’s successor as Grand Duke – would have hauled off the good stuff to his palaces as Holy Roman Emperor, but I’d guess that over the years stuff would get reallocated by Frank or his successors after the manner of people’s stuff always and everywhere. Anna Maria left the collection to the city of Florence, with the restriction that it stay there.
Thus, thanks to Gianni and his sister Anna Maria, the greatest collection of great art in the world – The Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and other bits and pieces elsewhere in Florence – stayed put in Florence, where we can see and enjoy it to this day. (Although it would have been small loss if Frank had grabbed a bunch of Sustermans on his way out of Dodge. Just saying.)
It was years ago that that I heard it stated as a truism that 1/2 of all the great art that exists exists in Italy. I have no reason to doubt it. Here is a thought experiment: Take any great work of art from anywhere outside of Italy. Then set aside a comparable masterpiece from Italy. Repeat this process until you’ve exhausted one supply or the other. Well? Do you think you’d run out of Italian masterpieces well before the ‘all other’ masterpieces? Seems unlikely to me.
To the title of this little brain dump: How does this thought experiment work if you run it Western Art versus All Other? I can admire the vigor of a polynesian mask or the intricacies of a Persian rug as much as anyone, but neither compares to the beauty and sophistication of even fairly minor works of Western Art. (Western Art for our purposes here excludes the vast bulk of post-Bouguereau works. Once the conscious decision to be both stupid and proud of it took over the art world, Western Art effectively ended except for the occasional throwback. There are signs of life, however. Let us hope.)
Why is this so? Certainly, the Italians and Christendom in general were no more wealthy and peaceful nor technically accomplished nor blessed with resources nor victorious in war than, say, the Chinese or Turks, for all but at most a couple of centuries over the last 2,000 years. During much of that time, from 634 to 1492, Christendom was for the most part shrinking, getting conquered and displaced by Islam across all of north Africa, all the Levant and Turkey, and most of the former Yugoslavia and some of adjoining Slavic lands. If you are looking to military might, it was a one-way street from East to West – until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571! Then it was a draw for a few centuries. Then, finally, in the 19th century, Western military might was generally better than that of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire didn’t fall until 1917.
A huge portion of the greatest Italian art comes from periods of great internal and external unrest, the 13th to 16th centuries (and, frankly, unrest in the form of wars and invasions was the order of the day during almost all of its post-Roman Empire history from 410 – the Visigoth sacking of Rome – until the last 70 years). Contra what Jared Diamond may think, the comparative glory of Italian and Western art is not the result of Guns, Germs and Steel. For comparatively little of its history has the West had the best military, the healthiest people or the best technology. On the tech side, and subsequently on the military and health side, things began to change in the early Middle Ages, but didn’t become decisive for many centuries. Only in the last 150 to 200 years would it have not been foolish to bet on the West in a war with anyone else based on technology alone.
I suggest that there is one area where the West did far outstrip the rest of the world over the last 2 millennia (except, in an ironic reversal, the last 2-3 centuries): Philosophy. We thought about things better, deeper and with more understanding than anywhere else in the world. Science, it may be said, is the ghost of medieval philosophy animating a shell of math and gadgets. But it’s the persistent conviction that the world is understandable and that we are capable of understanding it that has driven technological and scientific advances.
But much more than that, the Christian-infused Aristotelianism that is the Perennial Philosophy of the west provides both motivation and inspiration for Great Art. The explosion of Great Art in the west – and its subsequent recent decline – is the result of how well we understand, accept and act on that philosophy.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
- Matthew 25: 37-39
Two books reviewed here, both highly recommended, are made up of stories about human relationships that are becoming increasingly uncommon or threatened. In my review of Awake in the Night Lands, by John C. Wright, I said:
In the first story, we are presented with the true love of friends; in the second, the true love of brother and sister, in the third, the true love of father and son. In this fourth story, we get, finally, to the true love of man and wife. Using the horrors of the Night Land, and the honor and humanity of the people of the Last Redoubt, Wright explores love – and everything that can go wrong with it, even among those who love truly.
At last, he touches, like Dante in the last cantos of the Paradiso, upon the love of God for Man.
In a similar way, in Captive Dreams, reviewed briefly here (I want to do a more detailed review, but this may have to do), Mike Flynn builds his first story, Melodies of the Heart, around a doctor’s (eventual) love for an old lady, parents’s love of their dying child and the child’s love for them, a caregiver’s love for that same child, and the old lady’s memories of all the loves gone by in her long life. Each successive story has, at its core, human relationships: The title story, Captive Dreams, hinges on difficult mother-child relationships across three generations; Hopeful Monsters investigates another, different but not so different mother-child relationship; Places Where the Roads Don’t Go is about a difficult lifelong friendship; Remember’d Kisses explores a widow’s devastation at the loss of his wife; and finally Buried Hopes is about a crew member’s love of crew, captain and home. (1)
Wright and Flynn write very different stories in very different styles – Wright is shooting for myth-making of epic proportions, and so his heroes, heroines and villains are much more heroic or villainous than mundane life generally allows, while Flynn’s characters are painfully flawed and realistic. Yet I was struck by how much both sets of stories are built around relationships that were once much more common and generally deeper than they are now.
In Captive Dreams, all the stories are set in a single neighborhood. From what he’s written on his blog, we know that Flynn grew up in a classic neighborhood, where everybody knew everybody else on the block (and were generally related to each other), which, in turn, is a reflection of the sort of village life 90% of people would have grown up in up until the last century or so.
Such neighborhoods these days seem to be unusual. I’ve lived in the same house for 21 years, and I know well exactly 2 of my neighbors, and even know the names of only 2 more. More than one house away might as well be in the next state. I wish this were just a symptom of modern California suburbia, but it seems to be a much more general phenomenon. The neighborhood Flynn describes in Captive Dreams seems to be much more like mine than the one Flynn grew up in.
So, in the background against which all the flawed relationships of all the perfectly human and therefore damaged characters are set, we already see a larger social effect of this damage. With few exceptions, the characters in the stories do not turn to their neighbors for comfort, support, or advice. In what sort of world are the people you live with in the most direct geographical sense not your tribe or clan or, really, neighbors? Who fills that cultural role in your life? Sadly, the answer is clear, both in the stories and in real life: no one, or the first snake oil salesman that comes along. (2)
Man was not meant to be alone.
Wright’s stories take an opposite approach, in a way: his relationships – his friendships, families and marriages are, if anything, too strong, too good for the world. Instead of the flaws of a tragically tiny soul which lead a woman to have her own child euthanized because he is not likely to make her happy as in Flynn’s stories, we have men and women willing to risk death and worse than death just for a chance to redeem a relationship. The flaws governing (if that’s the right word) the characters in Flynn’s stories seem small, but are life and death; the flaws in Wright’s characters are epic, but boil down to the utterly personal love of son for father or brother for sister.
The scripture quotation with which I began is that list of things by which, we are told, we shall be judged worthy of everlasting life. Note that only the first three are, strictly, the providing of material things to those who need them. food, drink and clothing. The last three are much, much harder, at least these days: establishing a relationship. We need to welcome the stranger, and comfort the sick and imprisoned.
Human life is built – I almost wrote used to be built – on natural human relationships. And everybody knew it. Government and society and culture all, in a way, were understood to flow from these relationships and to aim toward them. Those relationships would have stood as water to a fish: we hardly notice it, because that’s where we live our lives.
An extended family and its family friends would have contained all the relationships upon which human life rests and toward the realization of which it moves. Everyone except the tragically deprived would know first or second hand what being a son, brother and father or daughter, sister and mother looked like. Spinster aunts and unmarried uncles would not be viewed as flawed, necessarily – no more than anyone else, at least. Friendships would be cultivated and treasured.
These relationships were carried on for a lifetime, and sometimes longer! Just look at the letters that have come down to us, exchanged by Abigail and John Adams, or Paul and his companions, or even soldier in the field with their loved ones back home. These give evidence, if any is needed, that the state of these basic human relationships has declined over time. Talking with old folks (3) often gets back to these relationships – they are what lasts. In Flynn’s Melodies of the Heart, part of the tragedy is that this old lady has cut herself off not only from relationships she might have now, but from the ones she really had in the past.
Chesterton observes the insane reversal of modern life: we seem to insist these days that freedom is somehow a public right to be guaranteed by the state (and goodness, would Chesterton’s jaw drop to see how that’s played out over the last 75 years since he wrote) instead of freedom being something we exercise in our private lives. We want government at best to help us resist efforts to take that quiet enjoyment away from us, and at worst to at least stay out of our lives itself. Because we are human and therefore social, our freedom is best, perhaps only, expressed within our circle of family and friends. I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating:
If the Duchess does want to play leap frog, she must not start suddenly leaping in the manner of a frog across the ballroom of the Babylon Hotel, when it is crowded with the fifty best couples professionally practising the very latest dance, for the instruction of society. The Duchess will find it easier to practise leap frog to the admiration of her intimate friends in the old oak-panelled hall of Fitzdragon Castle. If the Dean must stand on his head, he will do it with more ease and grace in the calm atmosphere of the Deanery than by attempting to interrupt the programme of some social entertainment already organised for philanthropic purposes.
But the hospitality of a house will always be different from the hospitality of a hotel. And it will be different in being more individual, more independent, more interesting than the hospitality of a hotel. It is perfectly right that the young Browns and the young Robinsons should meet and mix and dance and make asses of themselves, according to the design of their Creator. But there will always be some difference between the Browns entertaining the Robinsons and the Robinsons entertaining the Browns. And it will be a difference to the advantage of variety, of personality, of the potentialities of the mind of man; or, in other words, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Chesterton, THE DRIFT FROM DOMESTICITY, The Thing
We need these relationships to not only show us how to welcome the stranger, but to give us something to welcome the stranger into. We need to visit the sick and imprisoned from someplace. If we, together with the sick and the imprisoned, understand our chief relationship to be with the state, we all already share that place – I may have a different role from the sick and imprisoned, but we are already part of the one family the state has longed to pretend to become. From what, to use modern semi-gibberish, have the sick man or imprisoned criminal, been alienated from? If we all are already part of one big state family, playing our different parts, what cause do I have to visit?
Instead, if the state is, as it historically has often been, a creature of families for families, that those already in relationships with their loved ones and neighbors set up with them to protect and foster those relationships, then a sick or imprisoned person has something to go back to, some place to be visited from. I’ve read over the years about the problems of recidivism in released prisoners, how those who do not have loved ones to go back to are almost certain to end up back in prison very shortly. How could it be otherwise? The prison is, or might as well be, their family, if they have no other. Similarly, it is not just cost control that motivates hospitals to get people out and back home – people really do heal better when among their loved ones.
So, as a primarily spiritual effort with inevitable Incarnational effects in the social world, we – meaning me, first of all, I’m not pretending I’ve gotten even an inch down this path so far – have got to cultivate family, support relationships, build friendships, support each other, provide that place where true freedom can be expressed. The path we are on, and have been on for 200 years, is to think that rights primarily mean public rights, like voting or assembly. But those are clearly secondary – we demand those rights for the sake of other, more important and human rights – the right to be ourselves with those we love.
Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and clothing the naked are things the state can do, however well or badly. In this day, those needs can be easily addressed – we are not likely to go hungry or naked ourselves if we give to someone in need. But the simple mechanical provision of these goods to those who need them is not enough to gain eternal life – that would be too easy. Instead, we need to do the personal part, loving our neighbor (and our enemy – as Chesterton said, they are usually the same people), creating and nurturing relationships. We must love the unloveable.
One last thought: our efforts in this direction will almost certainly be a disaster. So? As Mother Teresa put it: we are called to be faithful, not successful.