A Happy, Holy & Blessed Christmas to all, and to all a happy and prosperous New Year!
Consider the 2nd movembt of Beethoven’s 7th symphony:
The story goes that when Beethoven debuted this work, the audience stopped the concert after this movement, and insisted it be repeated. Classical music audiences were a little more outgoing back in the day, it seems.
The audience’s reaction is perfectly understandable: pre-recorded music, one might die before getting a chance to hear this sublime and beautiful piece again, so why not now? A work this beautiful is life-changing. It may sound like just another overly-familiar classical work to jaded ears, but in context it is strikingly unusual: listen to the whole 7th, which is one of civilizations greatest works of art in any medium, and the 2nd movement still stands out.
But this Allegretto isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s also deeply satisfying intellectually. The more you listen and think about it, the better it gets. Beethoven sets himself a series of puzzles or challenges, and ‘solves’ each one in inventive and unusual ways, yet, somehow, after you’ve heard it, all the little departures from expectations (or beauty where you didn’t know what to expect) sound utterly inevitable. And it fits perfectly within the symphony as a whole – as hard as it is to believe, it was only with this 7th symphony that Beethoven finally won over all the critics, many of whom had disliked his 3rd and nit-picked his 5th. The 7th is just perfect, and that 2nd movement slayed people.
Finally, as is true of all great art, the 7th, especially the 2nd movement, is bottomless: you can go as deep as you want, and there’s always more.
This confluence of soul stirring beauty and soul-stirring intellectual gratification is , of course, what makes great art great in the first place. Only in these dark modern times would anyone think to divorce emotional force from intellectual beauty.
These (mundane & traditional) thoughts were occasioned by the Christmas Gospel reading:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
This Gospel story from Luke is beautiful in a specific and somewhat odd way. Consider these 2 sentences from the middle of the selection:
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
This is the climax of the story: Mary gives birth to the son foretold by the prophets and announced to her by an angel of God, yet Luke gives it a sentence, as if it were any other birth of any man. The Lord and Creator of the the Universe, as described in the opening of John’s Gospel, or even as, in a similarly subtle and understated way, in Mary’s encounter with her cousin Elizabeth in the passage immediately preceding this one, is wrapped in the cloth of the poor and laid in a feeding trough for animals, with the casual, after the fact explanation: there was no room in the inn.
So, two matter-of-fact sentences that lay out the entirety of the Christian claim, paradox and stumbling block: That God became Man in this very specific time and place, utterly weak and humbled, and was wrapped and bound and laid among the food for animals by his own mother’s hands. He wasn’t even able to find a place at what was no doubt the very humble inn.
The artwork inspired by these two lines could fill any number of museums; a concert of the music written to commemorate them would go on for months; and the books holding the writings about them would fill any number libraries. And the flood shows no signs of abating.
Then, a great multitude of angels sing a song of infinite glory – to a bunch of sheep, and the shepherds watching over them.
The story of Christ’s birth is as beautiful as it is simple, and satisfies the soul. But it is also intellectually satisfying, not in the sense of providing a tidy summation, but in the sense of offering infinite depths to explore.
A weird little rabbit hole leads me to this: there seem to be a lot of people who imagine they can treat what other people say as a sort of modeling clay out of which they can fashion anything they like, and then attribute their own newly-form idea back to the original author. I’m reminded that I need to reread a bunch of walker Percy, and of this exchange from Love in the Ruins, between Dr. Tom More and Dr. Buddy Brown. Background: an old man, Mr. Ives, has been consigned to an scientific old folks’ facility where Brown and More work. More knows Ives is possibly the only sane person in the building and refuses to speak because there’s no point to it, and would send him home; Brown want to send Ives off for what amounts to euthanasia. They are to face off in The Pit, a sort of amphitheater/examine room, and argue for their diagnoses.
“Tom, you and I don’t disagree,” says Buddy in an earnest, friendly voice.
“It’s the quality of life that counts.”
“And the right of the individual to control his own body.”
“And above all a man’s sacred right to choose his own destiny and realize his own potential.”
“Would you let your own mother suffer?”
“I don’t believe you. I know you too well and know that you place a supreme importance on human values.”
“We believe in the same things, differing only in the best way to achieve them.”
“See you in the Pit!”
More and Brown disagree on everything, but Brown, using words More would use but with polar opposite meanings, tries to convince him they agree. This is, as becomes apparent later in the story, very nearly diabolical.
What reminded me of this today was reading a follower of Dorthy Day mention approvingly Paolo Freire’s radicalism. He read Freire’s radicalism as somehow equivalent with Day’s. I know next to nothing about Day, but nothing in the little I do know suggests she was foolish enough to consider a Marxist’s use of the word radical to mean a return to and embrace of Christian roots. Be that as it may, any reading of Freire where you take him at his word and read him in the context of the Critical Theory of which he was a major proponent would make one conclude he is as virulently anti-Catholic as any other sincere Marxist.
But he was such a nice man! Teaching, as he did, that rights are dependent on how thoroughly one embraces the Revolution – reject it, and voila! All your rights are gone. Take your stuff, lock you up, reeducate you, kill you – all on the table for Freire. He also says that if a worker beats his wife, it’s not his fault, because the real violence is in the system that oppresses him. Great comfort to his wife, I’m sure. The only solution is revolution, the complete overthrow of the system. Only an unenlightened reactionary would suggest that maybe the man shouldn’t beat his wife regardless of how his day at work went.
Anyway, this problem is ubiquitous, perhaps even as ubiquitous as its flip-side, reading everybody on the other side (however defined) as being incoherent idiots regardless of what they actually say. But hey, if you take the Critical Theorists seriously, words have no meaning, things can both be and not be at the same time and in the same way, and it’s all a social construct, man – and we’re back to where we started.
The formal class part of RCIA has begun for this year. I’m the go-to guy for history & theology (how profoundly frightening this is has so far escaped our beloved DRE). All this means is that if anyone wants, or, more likely, I decide on my own that anyone needs, a more formal definition or some historical context, I’m the guy who provides it. Such as I might. This leads to me thinking about how to talk about various dogmas in a way that isn’t too hoity-toity yet gets the essential nature and purpose across.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on Free Will. Where angels fear to tread, and all that.
While we were created in the image of God, God is still very different from us. God’s freedom is part of his eternal Being – it is not so much something He does, bit rather is a fundamental part of Who He is. Nothing outside constrains God; He freely acts in accordance with His infinite goodness and love. Every action of God is utterly free, and completely an expression of divine goodness and love.
While God is not compelled or constrained by external thing, it might be said that He just can’t contain Himself – His loving kindness boils over in His creations. All of creation is a free expression of God’s nature as a loving Father and Creator.
Creation is thus an expression of God’s life and profound joy. It is not like a clock, built once, wound up, and then left to play itself out. Rather, God loves the world into existence at every moment. In Him we live, and move, and have our being. Each of us is a unique expression of His boundless joy.
Out of this joy, God gave man and the angels freedom. This created freedom is a reflection of God’s nature, perhaps the key aspect of our being made in His image. It is a gift from God, loved into being by God, and as an aspect of God, as sacred as God Himself. As an essential aspect of this gift, God will not overrule us.
But to be free in our own little way, our acts must participate in God’s freedom. God’s freedom is always expressed through overflowing love and goodness. Thus, we can only be free when we, too, act in harmony with that divine love and goodness. Acting against God is choosing slavery; once enslaved, we have lost our freedom. Yet God, in His mercy, will always, as long as we live in this changeable world, hold out to us the opportunity to repent, to turn from the slavery of our sins back to the freedom of His will.
An example: A man on the edge of a giant cliff is free to step off the cliff. If he does so, he has lost all freedom: he is subject to the laws of physics, and will fall to his death, shattered on the rocks below. God did not give the man freedom so that he could jump off a cliff. Rather, He gave us freedom so that we, too, could share in His joy as joyful, loving creators in our own little way. Yet that freedom means that we just might choose to step off the cliff.
The moral law, another creation of God, is, in effect, a warning: don’t step off the cliff! As long as we work to avoid sin and repent of the sins we have committed, we have the freedom to act in accordance with God’s loving Will. We stay away from the cliff. Reject the law of God, and we at best court disaster. Without God’s loving guidance as expressed in His law, we will, sooner or later, fall off the cliff of our own free will!
That we are free is a gift and a miracle. The saints, who have surrendered their wills to God’s Will, who have willingly died to themselves, paradoxically enjoy complete freedom. It is when we humbly recognize that we don’t really know what’s good for us and don’t always want what’s best for us that God can show us the Way to complete, joyful freedom.
So, do you think this would be helpful to someone investigating the Catholic Faith?
Aristotle, on a couple of occasions (Nicomachean Ethics, for one, I think) mentions how poorly raised men are incapable of philosophy, while well-raised men love excellence, beauty and truth, and are therefore well-prepared for at least undertaking philosophy. He recognized, from an unredeemed pagan perspective, that men could be ruined.
Aristotle was also famously not a democrat, in the sense that he did not think men in general, nor women, children and slaves, were fit to rule. They could not rule themselves, but were subject to passion and impulse. A city that promotes happiness, defined by the Stagirite as the activity of the soul in accordance with excellence, could not be governed well by those who did not understand, appreciate nor desire excellence.
One might say his dim view of the common man, let alone women, slaves and children, reflects the world he grew up in and not so much how people are in and of themselves. The problem with that view is that we still inhabit that same world Aristotle observed. Check the news lately? How many of your friends and coworkers and acquaintances would you feel good about being ruled by, unchecked? I mean, where they are making all the calls, not constrained by other, perhaps better, men such as the authors of the Constitution? How soon before summary executions and the payment of tribute in the form of nubile youngsters? By the second generation, tops, and that’s assuming some residual decency that takes a generation to dissipate. Tyranny doesn’t stop just because you have 1000 tyrants rather than 1. (1)
Thus, the idea of a Republic, which considered from this perspective is the required universal acknowledgement of a common wealth of morals, traditions, and aspirations (which often boils down to religion), plus some of the following: territory, language, stories, heroes – culture. This commonwealth, shared and enforced by all, shapes the laws and reigns in the sociopaths leaders who inevitably arise. Within a Republic, you can have democracy – a democracy in which all the truly important stuff is off the table, and the voter and candidates and issues all fall within the bounds, in both senses of the word, of the Commonwealth. (2)
In this sense, Aristotle and the Founders pretty much agree: only men who love truth, beauty and excellence are fit to rule. The Founders thought, or hoped in the face of thought, that a free people who nurtured and handed on an American Republic could be such a people as could rule themselves. Aristotle’s requirement of the love of truth, beauty and excellence are concretely expressed in those morals, traditions, and aspirations that form the core of the Republic – learn and love your Republic, and you could be trusted to rule as well.
I can just see Aristotle raising an eyebrow and saying a very dubious: maybe. He would, I think, completely understand Franklin’s ‘if you can keep it.’
Men can be ruined. This is the underlying truth behind the damnable half-truth of the Marxist/Gramsciite dogma of social oppression: it is true that people can be ruined by the wrong influences and the lack of proper guidance, and, ultimately, the lack of love. But all these things are, ultimately, personal. Parents and family, teachers and neighbors and priest are supposed to help us to know and love the true, the beautiful and the good and to want them above all else.
They will fail to a greater or lesser degree, and there is always the mystery of Free Will. What there is not is Society or some other abstraction acting as an agent. Society is a collective noun, a description, not an actor. The people within a society act, and by their actions sustain or change ‘society’.
Shifting the emphasis from individual people to collective abstractions means that personal behavior no longer matters: “the individual is nothing, the collective everything.” You see this everywhere. Refusing to look at individuals as individuals but rather seeing each of us only as instances of ‘Society’ stands the world on its head, and dictates the crazy and crazy-making efforts to change ‘Society’ in order to change the people in it. It’s a wet sidewalks cause rain problem.
There is a divide between ruined and not ruined people, with plenty of gray area between – a divide between those who just might be able to rule themselves and their country, and those for whom such tasks are asking far too much. At the far end are sociopaths, who never should but often do lead. Even the most pessimistic estimates put them at ‘only’ 5% of the population – one in 20 people have no empathy, no hesitation to use people, and often take pleasure in manipulating and lying. (3) On the other end are great saints and lovers of truth (4), who characteristically want nothing to do with ruling, or, more properly, nothing more than is strictly necessary. (5).
In the middle are 7 billion sheep. Me, you, anybody. Some sheep try to follow the Good Shepherd. Some, as stated in the seed quotation to this series of posts, follow anything that moves. Setting aside for the moment miracles, even while acknowledging that all true conversions are miraculous, what seems most often to be the case: those raised with love, who see the true, the good and the beautiful recognized and honored, have a better chance to become the sort of reasonable and responsible people who stand some chance of governing themselves well, and therefore might have a chance to govern the polis well. Those who are raised among The People of the Lie will not be able to govern themselves, and will misgovern the polis horribly if given the chance. They have been poisoned. They have been ruined. They are unconstrained by traditions they neither know nor love – family and personal honor, the law as a positive good, a life among family, friends, and neighbors directed to something other than self-fulfillment. Lacking these and similar things, and lacking a miracle, there’s simply no chance that the rule of such as these will result in anything but envy run amok, tyranny, and chaos. In short order, they will be lead by the most unscrupulous and violent, whether they like it or not. Their personal slavery to their passions will soon become a physical slavery to ‘anything that moves’.
That love of tradition, of place, of family, friends, neighbors, and the shared life in which human beings find expression for their freedom and personal genius is a key part of the Commonwealth. I’m not sure the two are not the same in practice. Lacking such roots and the humility that comes with gratitude for them, there simply is no chance a person could rule well.
I’ve long contemplated how there is always ruin in any culture, always those who through no fault of their own come from a situations without the basic love and support needed to grow up healthy. The difference today is, first, such people used to grow up in a culture where everyone understood that the orphan, the abandoned child, the broken home were wrong. Thus, even if I drew the short straw, I knew I’d drawn it and that there were better fates, better expectations, and that I could aspire to them. The result was that even those from horrible circumstances would often try to behave like people who had been properly raised. In other words, the idea that one could be properly or improperly raised was understood by everyone.
Second, today dysfunction is not only not recognized as dysfunction, it is positively cultivated. It only takes a few leaders to lead millions astray. Today, the critical theorists and their useful idiots disparage all healthy behaviors and beliefs, and promote anger, envy and bitterness. Marxist end up creating something like the world they hate, with hatred, bigotry, alienated individuals, oppressive structures, and a yearning for totalitarianism. The delusion is that this evil, oppressive world is Out There, not merely a reflection of their own emotional and mental states. (6)
For people so damaged, projection is irresistible: the flip side of Goebbels’ rule to always accuse your enemy of what you’re doing is that people will willingly ignore what they are doing and know is true in order to hate the enemy. If this were not so, Goebbels’ rule wouldn’t work – yet it does.
This hatred of happiness and normalcy is completely insane. Attempts at reason, appeals to fact and objective reality, application of logic: not only do these not convince, they are taken as signs that anyone who uses them is the enemy. Peopled are ruined; they have built defences against anyone who could really help them.
By these standards, I should not be allowed to rule, as I am largely a failure in ruling myself. By this standard, few, indeed, would rule. The choice is not available to me and probably never has been to anyone, but if it were, I would humbly submit to being ruled by sane, good people. As it is, representative democracy within a solid Republic is the best we can get.
That Republic, that American Commonwealth of shared morals, traditions, and aspirations, if it ever really existed, is gone. A huge percentage of people are ruined, in that it would take a miracle for them to submit to any set of consistent and non-self-refuting morals, traditions, and aspirations such as a Republic could be built upon. Their ruiners run loose, and run our colleges and universities. Poison is everywhere. It’s gotten to be a cliche to post pictures of happy high school seniors, fresh scrubbed and smiling, next to their pictures as sullen, angry (and blue-haired and nose-ringed) college students.(7)
Where do we go now? Speaking theoretically, we can only have a Republic if we’re willing to enforce a certain minimum uniformity (this is where the Ruined scream ‘fascist!’) or willing to break the country up into two or more territories in which some set of shared morals, traditions, and aspirations are pervasive. Failing that, we fall back on 1) Empire: imposed rule on sets of people who each may or may not have a commonwealth. Empires tend to rule without an interest in enforced homogeneity, at least for a while; 2) Totalitarianism, after quick pit stops in ‘true’ democracy and anarchy; or 3) Aristocracy, where all pretext at equality before the law is jettisoned, and our betters simple make the rules outside the reach of the people.
Or we pray for a miracle, which I would recommend in any case. Interesting times, indeed.
The infighting is the only potential positive, knowing the pigs will fight to the death. However, I don’t know if the grim satisfaction of knowing many of the leaders of the French Revolution were themselves guillotined outweighs the disgust at knowing some weren’t. But, overall, there can be only one, so most people will die fighting to be that one.
We don’t have this anymore, here in America. I wish we did. But the Marxists who control our schools and all the non-RAD professions explicitly reject the Commonwealth. Objective reality being a social construct and history and religion tools of of oppression, ya know.
A genius move by Kazantzakis was making St. Matthew a sociopath in The Last Temptation of Christ. Matthew just figures the odds: he’s seen the miracles and seen the effect Christ has on people, and figures the best angle is to be a follower, which he then does unto his own martyrdom. Kazantzakis wrestled, in other words, with how that 1 in 20 might be saved.
C.S. Lewis portrays, almost as comic relief, such a one in That Hideous Strength: Andrew MacPhee is a sceptic to his core, but can’t quite let go of Ransom, an old friend, who is true be believer and surrounded by Divine Evidence great and small – and MacPhee sees, but remains skeptical, and stays! He is on the side of the angels whose existence he doubts.
Footnotealanche! A Thomas More or a King St. Louis of France found it necessary to wield great political power, but remained heroically detached from it. That alone – having great power yet not clinging to it – should merit beatification. Well, and that Jesus thing.
There is real oppression, of course. If Marxism were defined as an effort to redirect attention away from actual oppression toward delusions of oppression, there would little data to contradict it.
On the flip side, over the last decade, we’ve had 5 children pass through their teenage years under our roof, and 4 go to college. To my surprise, they were and are each fun, helpful and pleasant. I’m nothing special as a dad, except for one thing: we kept them away from the ruiners. No graded classroom schooling; Newman list colleges. I was surprised because I had uncritically accepted the idea of the rebellious teenager. Truth is teenagers want very much to become adults; help them, and that rebelliousness may not surface.
Got some good feedback On Followers & Humility. Commenter Billy Jack raised some good points, and I of course have some further thoughts. So here we go:
One of the interesting wrinkles here is that the idea that it is inherently oppressive for a marriage to be chosen by fathers (or anyone else) rather than the spouses themselves comes not from “Modernity” or “Modern People” but from the Church. Trent, for example, was pretty clear on this. And I think Luther disagreed.
While it is true that the Church, in the face of Frankish and Germanic tribes that tended to treat women as disposable and in any event not fully human (1), taught that, for a marriage to be sacramental, both parties had to freely submit to it, that just gives the woman, in theory, veto power. It does not mean she was expected to go find a husband on her own. It’s a huge difference, it seems to me, to say that one cannot be forced to marry against one’s will and saying that every daughter was now a free agent who needed to find her own mate. What the Church’s teachings put a stop to, or at least slowed down a bit, was the bartering off of women. So, as I described in the last post, a Christian father, who loved his children and wife and so would not want to run roughshod over their desires, was assumed to have a heavy hand in the selection of mates for his children, for their own good. The shadow of this practice persists in the fading tradition of a suitor asking his beloved’s father for her hand.
Nothing here is meant to suggest that all arranged marriages were smooth and the process was never abused, just that the idea that a good father would arrange for the marriages of his children is not an outrageous idea. I know a couple of Indians here whose marriages were arranged, and I asked them, and they weren’t bitter about it. They felt more like Tevye and Golda in Fiddler on the Roof who grew to love each other even though they hadn’t even met before they were married.
Women gained immensely from the Church’s many-century-long efforts to protect them from being viewed as less than human and bargaining chips to be sold for political gain or to the highest bidder. It’s not for noting that all those 12th & 13th century cathedrals were named after Our Lady. Nothing in this effort contradicted or disputed the practice of fathers, in conjunction with their family and other fathers and families, from arranging the marriages of their children.
So it’s funny for progressives who are dislike the Church to pride themselves on this view as an accomplishment of secular progressives, but it’s also funny for Catholic bloggers to be down on the idea.
Up until current times, it would have been scandalous for a woman in a Catholic country to arrange her own marriage in defiance of her father. Romeo & Juliet is a cautionary tale against just such presumption. The nurse and the friar are the villains of the story, overstepping their rightful duties. Until modern times, readers of the play all understood this.
That Progressives and American Catholics (in so far as those two categories are different) don’t understand this is not surprising.
The case with religion vis-a-vis tribe or family is not identical, but it’s similar. Sure, we can point to villages and nations converting together. But while conquered pagan cities typically adopted the conquerors’ gods, conquered Christians generally didn’t, or at least knew they shouldn’t. And sometimes the leaders converted first but in other cases individuals converted first, and faced persecution and ostracism. The same goes on the family level. On the Christian view, religion is not something that a father or king has complete authority to choose on behalf of children and subjects. As Jesus said: within a family, it will be three against two, father against son, etc.
Certainly, I over-generalized quite a bit. You are correct that conquered or proselytized people responded in a variety of ways, and that Christians seem to have generally put up a better fight than most against forced conversions. My point was that, for much of mankind over much of history, it would not seem at all outlandish or unusual for a family or tribal leader to make a decision of what religion he and his would follow, and that the members of the household, village, tribe or even nation, would see that as appropriate and go along with it. That it didn’t always happen that way is not the point, really, it’s rather to highlight how we moderns tend to automatically recoil at the very thought, when, in fact, our ancestors at least for a good part didn’t.
The more general point I was trying to make: we all very much tend to overinvest in our own autonomy. We aren’t really nearly as ‘free’ as we thing we are, in the ways we think we are. And further, that this dependence on the wisdom and decisions of others is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a family or tribe or village in which we have well understood mutual duties, rights and privileges.
More generally, sure, some of things that Catholics inveigh against about our time–and often rightfully so!–are just a return to things that were common before Christianity. Killing unwanted children, for example. But most of the unique characteristics of modernity, good or bad, would be unimaginable without the influence of Christianity, and I tend to think that much of the radical individualism that we see today falls into the category. A huge number of saints flat-out disobeyed their parents to follow their call. Did the ancient Chinese venerate that sort of thing? The Iroquois? Do any of the Bantu peoples have pantheons of people who told their parents to get lost? Well, I do think that Siddhartha Gautama did something like that, now that I think of it.
Both/and is the key Catholic teaching that is being lost. The radical part of radical individualism is placing the individual and his naked will first. The Church’s view is rather that we are each individually precious children of God AND members of the Body of Christ, and that these roles are not in conflict but rather arise one from the other. To paraphrase Paul from 1 Corinthians 12, we don’t get to choose if we are a hand or an eye or a foot. We are given those roles, and find our happiness and fulfillment in them, and should not envy any other roles. The whole point of that passage is that we do not get to be whatever we chose to be, but find ourselves when we surrender to the role we have been given.
So, I would disagree with the notion that radical individualism is a byproduct of Christianity, except in the sense in which it is a perversion of Christianity.
Right, I think the Buddha rejected his parents, I don’t know of any other such traditions.
The traditional Catholic stories in which a child defies his or her father tend to fall into 2 classes: the child having heard a call from God to a religious life, or cautionary tales. I can’t remember a single traditional story in which the defiant child is a hero, except those where that child follows a religious calling, obeying his Father over his father.
St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, a bunch of the early virgin martyrs and a scad of others – these folks defied their fathers in order to follow Christ. For a traditionally catechised Catholic, these stories are all familiar. The point of these stories is not that one should not obey one’s father, but rather that the authority of our fathers comes from the Father, of which they are only a vague, tiny shadow. It is the both/and teaching: we are virtuous to obey our fathers on earth AND our Father in Heaven, right up until that obedience conflicts – then, and only humbly and cautiously, we may defy our fathers to obey the Father.
I think part of our individualism comes from economic conditions, too, but that’s another story.
Yes, it is. I’d love to hear it. Once family, village and church are gone, what’s left but the individual? Not a happy situation, however.
See, for example, ‘Merovingian Divorce’ as described in A History of Private Life, v. I, where the Church’s teaching against divorce was taken by the Franks as mandating the murder of any undesired wife.
Further thoughts on this post, wherein the observation of Henry VIII (as imagined by Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons) that “…there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves” is discussed.
We modern Americans think any decision made by anyone else on our behalf is at least potentially oppressive, and, more important, has no real hold over us. In its terminal form, even the ‘decisions’ of nature are felt to be subject to review. Our own will, on the other hand, is sacred. It is meaningless to consider the possibility that we might will something wrong – wrong how? According to whom?
Yet we think feel this is true while surrounded by a mass that follows this week’s herd consensus much more rigorously and with more anxiety than any slave ever worked under the lash. The slave, at least, might dream of freedom, or at least getting a break. Not so the modern American, not so! The very idea that they might differ from the herd and thus be cast into the outer darkness with The Bad People causes such distress we see weeping; anxiety leads them to not even notice how the views they are required to parrot get changed over time, without so much as an acknowledgement that they were ever different. Examples abound. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
What’s been slowly dawning on me is this: that the key getting through the Crazy Years is not to spend time arguing, trying to show the error of their ways to that great mass of people who will follow anything that moves (1), but instead coming to grips with herd behavior being the human default position – and not, in and of itself, a bad thing!
That this is true from an evolutionary perspective is obvious: we survive and breed only as members of a tribe. Taking the evidence for the argument (standard practice in evolutionary biology) we conclude that this state of affairs – tribal membership is how we live to breed, even today, for the most part, and always in history up to the last couple centuries – proves tribal behaviors have been selected for and, therefore, are hard-wired into the human brain. Be that as it may, looking at it from a more philosophically profound perspective, Aristotle’s statement that man is a political animal, and that human happiness is therefore found in what might be called our civic relationships, leads to the same conclusion: we, the products of endless generations of successful breeders, really, really want to be part of the team. We often refer to how those on the Left act like infants – they do, but the spin here is that that’s not entirely a bad thing in and of itself. Infants typically only run into problems when the adults around them have failed.
Revisiting a couple points from the previous post: Heads of households have historically had great sway over the lives of the people in the households. We moderns have no way to imagine how that might work in practice other than imagining the (usually) patriarch as Oppressy McOpressorface. Dad got to pick your spouse and pretty much otherwise decide your future for you – that has to be oppression, right? He negotiated with other families to find you a spouse! Where’s the love?
Answer: everywhere. Dad wanted his children to survive, as a condition to them being happy, since happiness in this life is pretty much over once you’re dead. Thus, he eliminated from consideration potential spouses who could not care for you or who would require too much care on your part: for his daughters, he crossed off the impoverished sons of poor or no family; for his sons, daughters who couldn’t come up with an appropriate dowery, since they (and their kids!) would immediately become his responsibility and a drain on his resources. He did all this, of course, to honor his ancestors and to ensure his line would continue. But none of those considerations contradict his main motive: he loved his children. Having a place in a family and a society of families is, he knew, the chief way we have any joy and freedom in this life. It’s why the heads of monasteries and convents were called abbot – daddy – and mother. The only way for monks and nuns to be happy was in a family, even if it were only a vague shadow of the family in which we are children of God.
Today, getting fed, clothed and housed is such a low bar that we can hardly imagine it being much of a concern; lack of food, clothing and a bed to call your own – and a cell phone, HD TV, and high speed internet – is a sure sign something is Very Wrong (and the eternal infants want the great daddy proxy The State to fix it NOW). But back in Jean Valjean’s day – and Dante’s, and Jane Austen’s and Aristotle’s and Gregory the Great’s – making as sure as you could that your baby of marrying age was going to be taken care of was Job 1. No husbands who wouldn’t or couldn’t take care of your daughters; no wives who might bleed your sons dry. Those crusty old patriarchs wanted spouses for their kids who would be there when needed, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, in good times and bad. This mundane, feet on the ground care is the basis of love, attested to by no less an authority than Christ, who threatens to throw those who do not provide this level of care to their spiritual brothers and sisters (let alone their own children!) into the outer darkness. Feelz don’t necessarily enter into it.
The underlying assumption here, if we need to call it that, is that Daddy, having successfully married and reproduced and raised up his children to marrying age, is more wise and experienced in how all that works than his 16 year old daughter or 20 year old son. He correctly believes that he will do a better job finding and choosing a mate for his children than they are likely to do on their own. At any rate, it is his duty to do so. He would of course take his wife’s views into consideration, and even his daughter’s or son’s. Again, he does this because he loves them, and wants them to be happy.
There’s not much historical evidence that children on the whole objected much to this arrangement. Why should they? The results – not just the spouse, but the family and communal nature of the marriage, seen as uniting the destiny of two families, who thus have a huge interest in the marriage’s success – compare very favorably to today’s outcomes.
But that’s not the main point here. I here want to point out how much everyone in this picture is a follower. Not only do the children and wife and anybody else in the household follow the lead of the patriarch, the patriarch himself follows the lead of his father and the men in his life when he leads: even the leaders are essentially followers. Hope and Change are the last thing anyone involved wants: everybody want things to work out according to plan – and it’s an ancient plan.
It gets worse. History and Scripture record many incidents of entire families, tribes and nations converting as the result of their leaders converting. Sometimes, as in the case of the early Spanish missionaries in the New World, villages elders would meet them, and then send them off if they didn’t want their religion, only to later (after the Guadalupana) decide that, yes, the village would convert. There’s no reason to think the other villagers objected – that’s just the way it was done, they are the elders for a reason, they make the call. We read in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians 1 of entire households being baptized upon the conversion of the leader. Or entire nations, conquered in war, converting en mass because their new leaders said so. Once heard a story about a Viking priest who went to preach in a remote village, and was challenged by the local chieftain. They fought to the death, the priest won, and the village converted.
We humans are followers. That’s why Christ reserved the worst opprobrium for leaders who lead others astray. This would hardly warrant a whole millstone-tied-around-the-neck, cast-into-the-sea level of hellfire and brimstone unless almost all the people, almost all the time, are followers.
In this sense, what is called Original Sin might be called the Curse of the Followers. Once a bad path has been chosen, we followers really can’t do all that much about it on our own. What we need is a new Leader, a Savior, even, to follow down a better path. But once we find Him, we go all in on the following, we become as little children, as sheep who know their Shepherd.
The point here is that not following is not an option. We will follow, the only question is whom or what? Following the right leader is a great good, just as following the wrong leaders is all too literally the road to perdition.
In his beautiful Prayer after Communion, St. Thomas prays: “May it perfect me in charity and patience; in humility and obedience; and in all other virtues.” I am struck by the inclusion of ‘obedience’ in with charity, humility, and patience. Those last three virtues are big among Christians of all denominations; I don’t think anyone but a Catholic would understand obedience as used here, either in the sense Thomas means it or why he would name it as a major grace of the Eucharist. He means it in the sense another St. Thomas – St. Thomas More – lived it. (1)
St. Thomas More died, in his own words, “the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” He, following Aquinas, saw obedience to legitimate authority as a positive virtue, a full realization of humility, patience, and love. Obedience isn’t a grim duty, to be performed under duress or threat, but rather an opportunity to be eagerly embraced to live out charity and humility.
Of course, the virtue of obedience requires prudence and the knowledge of exactly how far the proper authority of a superior goes. More struggled mightily to find a way to obey his king, and only when this proved impossible did he try to retire from public life and keep his mouth shut. He could not consent, yet to the end he tried to honor Henry and do nothing to contradict him. He expressed his love and affection for his king right up to the moment that king had his head chopped off.
Both Aquinas and More thought obedience a virtue to be actively practiced. It was a positive good to promptly obey proper authority, a step on the way to greater holiness. Put another way, these saints strongly supported active, vigorous following.
Put the other way around, thinking you have what it takes to blaze your own trail is hubris bordering on lunacy. You? Me? We don’t know nothin’! The modern phenomenon is the most slavish followers professing how independent they are, different just like everybody else. Everything from getting tats to creating your own brand new gender is imagined by the victim as declarations of unique trail blazing and laudable bravery, when a look around would show everybody doing exactly the same thing. Many seem to believe unironically that only by slavish conformity can one be unique.
The paradox: we who would restore Christendom or even just Western Civilization need to become great leaders by becoming the most humble followers on earth.
Credit must go to my younger daughter, soon off to South Sudan for a year, for much of this. She wrote a very good graduation thesis exploring what the St. Thomas’s – Aquinas and More – meant by obedience.
“There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth & I’m their tiger, there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves.”
People who are not insane tend to look around at the Crazy Years we’re in, and believe objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that we’re screwed. (1) I Here’s another take: Followers gonna follow. Leaders can and do get replaced.
A lifetime of reality hasn’t quite beaten the Pollyanna out of me. Yet. I remain pretty staunchly a small-d democrat, believing people should govern themselves. But people can only truly be said to govern themselves within the context of a strong Commonwealth/Republic. Such a Republic manifests a series of what from one perspective might be called safeguards, chief of which are strong families and traditions and a commitment to the law, such that it is generally obeyed even when it is not enforced. Family, tradition and the rule of law are both causes and results of a strong Republic. Other safeguards are adopted within this context of cultural stability as needed: tripartite government and the electoral college are the kinds of steps a good Republic takes to slow things down. (2) Sane people (perhaps largely theoretical entities, but humor me) recognize that, just as hasty decisions and rash actions are a bane to personal and family life, they need to be guarded against in public life.
Political toddlers and the power hungry always want to speed things up: they want their pony, and they want it now! Perhaps Conservatism could be best thought of as the attempt of the grownups in the room to slow things down so that they can be properly examined, and just say ‘no’ to the toddlers?
Back to the quotation above. History, cultural wisdom and just a look around confirm one truth: as much as we may like to think of ourselves as nobody-is-the-boss-of-me free agents choosing our own special paths unencumbered by pesky reality (gender theory, anyone?), we’re really a bunch of sheep. Some, like Norfolk, follow because of all that stuff just mentioned: family, tradition, the rule of law. Others – and, damn, is their name Legion – are jackals, creatures who live to rend and consume and lord it over others, yet are too weak in themselves, and so follow, and attempt to flatter and weedle, the tiger. Others follow anything that moves. Think of your typical college freshman, 18 years old, away from home for the first time, both flush with the success of getting to college – what smart, ambitious boys and girls! Not like those college-skipping losers! – yet hopelessly insecure. They will and do follow anything that moves. (3)
This is how you get the ubiquitous herds of independent thinkers thundering across our urban plains.
BUT: look at, e.g., Jordan Peterson. I’ve only seen/read a few minutes of the dude’s schtick, but it can’t be denied that his ‘leadership’ has attracted a huge number of followers (fine, independent-minded people, no doubt each making an independent decision). Lead, and people will follow. The power of this idea is testified to by the endless efforts of the Left to silence anything that moves to the right. A guy like Peterson doesn’t exactly come off as a Teddy Roosevelt or George Patton. It would seem that it doesn’t require charismatic superpowers (although those help) if you just present as someone with a clue to where you are going.
We moderns cannot understand historical stories about how, once the head of the household was convinced of Christianity, his entire household converted, or how a religion was ‘forced’ upon conquered people. We are appalled: but each individual person needs to make up his own mind! You can’t force people to believe!
Yet the reality is that those people, for the most part, have chosen, as much as they are capable of choosing. They chose to follow. That is why, historically & biblically, it’s the bad leaders who get the most heat. Kings who lead Israel astray; Scribes and Pharisees; false teachers; heretics. There is a reason the secular state burned heretics, and it wasn’t that they were puppets of the Church. Heresy upsets all that family, tradition and especially reverence for the rule of law upon which any state worthy of the name rests. Better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be cast into the sea than to lead any of these little ones astray.
We’re about 99% little ones. We all like to think we’re Thomas More, the one honest man in our particular England. Don’t kid yourself. Instead, focus on being that leader who, in however small a way, points to the truth. Which is another way of saying: know Who you follow.
Yes, I just jackhammered Heinlein and Orwell into the same sentence. It’s my blog. I can do that. We here have, within the first inch and a half of text, Bolt putting words into the mouth of Henry VIII addressing Thomas More, Heinlein making an easy prophet’s call, and a Commie paraphrasing Scripture to illustrate propaganda techniques. Do I win? Achievement unlocked? Or what?
Probably the first solid political insight I ever had, back when mastodons ruled the earth, is that the last thing a citizen wants is efficient government. Democracies more developed than mob rule are horribly inefficient; totalitarian dictatorships can be very efficient. Nope, sane people want their ‘leaders’ to find it difficult to get anything done, and should be scared of politicians who preach efficiency. Alas, “Elect me, and I’ll do my best to make sure the wheels don’t fall off” isn’t nearly as catchy as “Hope and Change.”
Of course, add to their native insecurity, cultivated immaturity and hormone-soaked craziness 12 years of being actively taught to follow the teacher’s lead no matter how stupid and arbitrary, and here you are.