You know what makes me the most angry, looking back? The fact of being told so many times that I shouldn’t be.
I should be sad. I should be aware of the complexities of the situation. I should have sympathy for those in other countries. But I shouldn’t be angry. I shouldn’t feel it personally.
No one I knew died that day. In the years since, my political views, and my views of America as a country, and even the very concept of the modern nation satate have changed considerably (Or rather, have clarified).
None of that makes a difference. Because whatever I may think about it, America is part of me, as much as my own hands and feet, my own blood. It is something I have inherited, not something I have chosen for myself, and nothing can change that. I owe it piety simply on account of the fact that it is my country, just as I owe my parents piety simply because they are my parents.
That may mean criticizing it, lamenting over it, praying for its reformation, but it can never mean being indifferent to it. It cannot mean standing back and taking a ‘nuanced’ view when the country has been attacked. To do so would not be to show reason or balance or open-mindedness or any of that nonsense. It shows a cramped, ugly little soul trying to hold itself aloof from its duties. It is a mark of that atomistic individualism that accepts benefits and denies responsibilities, that imagines itself to be wholly self-created, self-ruling, and self-sufficient.
But this, it seems, is the kind of person we are expected to be. Patriotism has been despised, deconstructed, and ridiculed with ever increasing vehemence for generations. Now it has practically been marked as a secular sin. We are gleeful to tear down our own country, to dig up its sins and failures, to spit in the faces of its heroes.
No one lives in a vacuum. No one can be without a tradition, without a culture, without a country. Broad-minded cosmopolitanism, ‘multiculturalism’, that seeks to sympathize with all nations and none at the same time, only ever means impiety toward your own.
Piety to country, to heritage, is part of traditionalism (for want of a better term). Again, that doesn’t mean ignoring or papering over past or present crimes; it means recognizing that this is where you come from and this is who you are. A German is a German, a Frenchman is a Frenchman, an Englishman is an Englishman, and that doesn’t change because they can all look back and see horrible things done in the name of Germany, France, and England. It is your duty, in such cases, to seek to redeem its name, to at least ensure that such things shall not be done by you. That you, at least, shall honor its name by your life, whatever your brothers do or have done. But the duty of piety towards one’s country simply because it is one’s country is never lessened.
That means being angry when it is attacked.
And so it is that this day every year brings back those painful memories of being struck hard by an enemy. And of subsequently having half my fellows preening themselves by evading the term ‘enemy’ and turning the event around into yet another impious attack on their own nation.
BREATHES there the man with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, ‘This is my own, my native land!’ Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d As home his footsteps he hath turn’d From wandering on a foreign strand? If such there breathe, go, mark him well; For him no Minstrel raptures swell; High though his titles, proud his name, Boundless his wealth as wish can claim; Despite those titles, power, and pelf, The wretch, concentred all in self, Living, shall forfeit fair renown, And, doubly dying, shall go down To the vile dust from whence he sprung, Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung. -Sir Walter Scott
Deconstructing fairy tales is like deconstructing a ming vase; it’s easy to do, but it says more about you than about the subject itself. When some wag sniffs at the ‘love at first sight’ trope, or writes smarmy novels about Cinderella realizing how shallow her love for Prince Charming really is, it only shows the narrowness of her own mind.
Remember, narratives are always inadequate to the reality. You are always going to miss something. The question, then, is what elements of the real thing are you going to portray and why, with the goal being to convey the true, complete nature of the thing as much as possible.
Love at first sight, leading to an unyielding desire to possess the object of ones affection, is not how things usually play out day-to-day in real life. It is, however, the true pattern of an ardent love; you recognize the other for the thing you desire and you put all on the line to win her and keep her. In the context of the real world, that recognition likely takes place over the course of a good deal of time and, since we’re flawed beings, may be imperfect. In any case, there will always be elements about her that could lead you to think that you may have made a mistake at some point. But the pattern holds good; success comes in finding what you want and committing wholly to it.
As you will notice, this pattern is itself a copy of the greater pattern that Christ speaks of in today’s Gospel readings: the man who found a treasure in a field, then went and sold all he owned to possess it, or the merchant of pearls seeking one of great price who, when he found it, sold everything he owned that he might have it.
The point both here and in the fairy tales is that the hero discovers something that is worth making the baseline of his life; the thing to which all else can give way because its value exceeds them all. It is the thing that gives context and meaning to all else, and thus takes precedence over all else. It is your purpose, your destiny. Lose that, it won’t matter what else you have. Achieve it, and you achieve all.
It used to be that this pattern was repeated on earth in a minor key. And it still is in less noticeable measures; the desire to serve a noble cause and a great leader is baked into the heart of man. In legend, a young knight would consider it the highest honor to be in service to King Arthur or Charlemagne, and would endure anything for that opportunity. More recently, hundreds of men signed up to serve with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and many were disappointed to be turned away. The chivalrous spirit has, as an essential part of it, unyielding loyalty to one’s master and cause: to the Faith the knight defends and the King who serves that faith. In practice, it wasn’t so much important that the king be a good king; it was the unyielding loyalty, the submission of the self that matters. David, one of the prototypes of the Christian Knight, continued to serve King Saul even while Saul was seeking to murder him.
The virtue of devotion must be practiced in an imperfect context – to King, to country, to wife – because that is the one we know and see and thus can’t fool ourselves over. If we say “I’ll be loyal to Christ because he is perfect, but not to my country because it’s imperfect,” then we probably won’t be loyal to Christ either if He ever asks us to do something difficult or something we don’t understand. Indeed, how often do we hear people today saying things like “I love Jesus, but I don’t think he cares about my sexual habits, or about usury, or about whether I go to Church.” Because we don’t have the habit of devotion, of serving the imperfect, we have instead the habit of ‘serving’ only as we see fit. Which, of course is not serving at all. A soldier who only follows orders that he himself judges to be correct and sensible is claiming the rank of a general; a knight who only obeys his king when he would have done the same thing is claiming the rights of a king. If we have no experience of actually serving, how will we know to serve God? “He who is loyal in small things will be loyal in great ones.”
Hence, the narrative pattern of giving all for the desired object; the princess, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price. Hence the pattern of the noble knight who wants nothing more than to serve the good king. These are, in fact, the correct way to look at life, despite slurring over the details.
Christ, our Lord, our maker, our redeemer, is the foundational value; the base from which all other value proceeds. To be of the Kingdom of God — to be ‘in service’ to Christ — is the supreme glory of the human person and ought to be our greatest desire.
As noted, I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan at the moment. One of the things he talks about early on is the narrative fallacy, which involves our need to create narratives and see patterns to explain the world around us. This seems a good chance to talk about the meaning and purpose of narrative.
There are two fallacies to fall into here; the first is the skeptical fallacy, which overrates randomness and attempts to eschew all narrative as illusionary impositions upon a fundamentally chaotic and meaningless world. This one is rather popular these days, at least in a superficial form.
The other is the Narrative or what Taleb calls the ‘Platonistic’ fallacy, which involves being overly certain of a particular narrative, to the point where we ignore contradictory instances and assume that the narrative is the reality it describes. In this way we make false predictions and are caught off guard by what he terms ‘Black Swan’ events; major events that that narrative considered impossible or vanishingly unlikely, but which the actual course of events brought about.
Note that these fallacies, while directly contradictory, are often practiced by the same person, depending on how well his argument is holding up.
To settle the first fallacy first, one fundamental truth we must get straight if we are to think sense about reality is this: there is no such thing as randomness.
‘Random’ refers to a lack of knowledge, not to an actual cause. When we say a given event was random, it means that we either do not know the cause that led to it or that it was of a kind that we could not control or predict. Viewed ‘internally’, however, the event is as logical and predictable as any other. When you role a set of fair dice, the outcome is ‘random’ because the cause of their landing thus or thus is the force and angle with which they are thrown. A person with perfect muscle control could, theoretically, cause the dice to land anyway he wanted by providing just the correct force at just the correct moment.
Or, in another instance, say you are walking down a path in the woods and a dead branch drops off of a tree and hits you on the head. This is ‘random’ from your point of view. But if someone were watching that particular tree and knew its whole history – that is, if he had a correct narrative of the tree – he would understand that the branch had died at such a time and of such a cause and has been weakened in such a way that it necessarily would break under those circumstances.
What this amounts to is that the world around us is fundamentally ordered and logical; events do not happen in a vacuum nor come from nothing. The appearance of chaos is a consequence of our lack of knowledge. It is random to us on account of our limitations, but not on its own account. We have no experience of a truly ‘random’ event, an event severed from logical causation. Randomness does not and cannot produce a single event (which means that ‘luck-based powers’ are pretty much sheer nonsense, but that’s another story).
Therefore, everything that happens is, in fact, consistent, which means that meaning is derived from the world and not simply imposed upon it, however mistaken a particular interpretation may be. Though one derived meaning – one ascribed cause of the event – is false, yet there must be some cause and therefore some meaning.
(Note: I have heard that events at the subatomic level appear to be uncaused and random. But this seems to me far too uncertain a proposition to taken into serious account. We cannot observe these events directly much less observe any sub-subatomic events or forces that may be influencing them. As a rule, things on the extreme edge of what we know ought not to be part of a philosophical discussion, since they must be speculative and unconfirmed. Moreover, to prove randomness seems to me impossible, as it would require us to disprove any logical causes. That is, to prove a negative).
The second fallacy is the rather more interesting one. As Taleb points out, we have a strong need to discern patterns and create narratives to explain the events around us. In part this is a survival mechanism; we immediately recognize certain images and sensations as danger signals (e.g. a snake) and react instinctively. That is, we have automatic thought patterns that run unconsciously, producing immediate emotional reactions. Something similar happens in habits, morals, and similar matters, as we noted earlier. Information is costly to acquire, costly to store, and costly to manipulate. Simply put, careful, logical thinking takes too much time and too much energy to practical most of the time, so our brains create little bundles of thought: pre-built conceptions and conclusions (rather like the objects in programming, or like the prepared spells in DnD) to make the process easier and to direct us in day-to-day activities.
So, it is one thing to study a snake and discern its nature; it is quite another to recognize ‘snake=danger=do not tread.’ But the two are not unrelated as we must first have some idea of a snake and that it may be dangerous before we can form that pattern at all (whether this idea is learned or comes ‘ready-made’ as instinct). Moreover, that pattern can be adjusted or overwritten by further understanding of snakes. All this goes back to what I was saying about habits and thought processes; it all comes down to how we think, including the immediate, unconscious thoughts that drive our emotions.
Now, here we have to explain something about how we perceive the world. When we perceive a given object, there are two factors involved; the object itself and our idea of it, and the latter will always be less than the former. Our idea of, say, a tree is not the tree itself, but more in the nature of a diagram or summary of the tree that we create in our minds and can never comprise the entirety of the tree.
Beyond this, there is also a third factor: the words we use to describe it, which will likewise be inadequate to the idea, because the words are a representation of a representation. The skill of a Shakespeare or a Dante is inadequate to conveying, not just the thing itself, but even their own idea of a thing.
Toward the end of his life, the great St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision of God and never wrote another word of his masterful ‘Summa’, saying that all his brilliant philosophizing was ‘as straw’ compared with the reality he had witnessed. Reality is always more than we can perceive, which is always more than we can describe.
This is actually fairly simple when you think about it; the tree that you perceive is an external nature unto itself regardless of whether you perceive it. You perceive it by its interactions with your senses, which form a composite idea of it in your mind, but since that idea is only derived from sensory impressions of the object, it is always less than the object, because our senses do not take in the totality of what they perceive.
However, at the same time (and this is vital), a very inadequate diagram may still be an accurate diagram, as far as it goes, and may be more accurate than another. A crude picture of a tree may nevertheless be more like the tree than another, similarly crude drawing. Likewise, whether a summary of a book is adequate is a separate question to whether it is accurate. So, Nicholas Nickelby could be accurately summarized as “a naïve young man tries to make his way in the world while opposed by his wicked uncle.” It could not be summarized as “The vengeful form of a drowned child preys upon visitors at an old summer camp.”
Nor, incidentally, would it be accurate to summarize Nickelby as “a young man takes up with a provincial theater company.” Because while that does happen in the book, it is not the main thrust or point of the story, but only one incident among many. The first summary would give you a better idea of what the book is about than the latter. This even though the latter is more specific to something that happens.
An accurate summary, therefore, encompasses the object as a whole, not a specific element of it, and though it is necessarily less than the object itself, it may be a more or less true image of it.
A ‘narrative’ is our image or summary of a series of events, up to and including the history of the world. It is the pattern that we describe within those events. A scientific theory, for instance, is a narrative to describe observed natural phenomena. We look at fossils and create the narrative of evolution to explain them. We look at the motions of the planets and create the narrative of the solar system.
But, as was pointed out by Aristotle and Aquinas and dramatically demonstrated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these narratives are always contingent upon the unknown. If an observation is made that contradicts the narrative, then either the narrative is inadequate or even false or the observation itself is mistaken.
As noted above, people instinctively form narratives, and they ought to because everything does have a true narrative to it. Randomness is not a cause, which means that every event is causally linked, which is to say part of a narrative. The example of the tree branch that falls on your head was part of the narrative of that tree’s existence, which had a beginning, middle, and will have an end. If you knew that tree intimately, the branch breaking under just those circumstances would not be at all surprising to you.
Likewise, the whole world does proceed on a narrative, though it is one of immense complexity far beyond our capacity to understand in its totality (I can only wonder at people who believe they have discerned the pattern of human society to the extent that they can control or re-engineer it).
Put simply; there is an objective narrative or pattern to reality. Our conception of it will never be adequate or even anything like it, but it may be more or less accurate.
The necessary inadequacy of our perceptions and consequently of the narrative pattern we discern is the source of what Taleb calls the Black Swan event; the unexpected but impactful event that is understandable in retrospect, but not in prospect. Because what we perceive is not the totality of what is there, and the narrative we create from that perception is even further removed from what is actually present. So there are always currents of events happening of which even the most astute observer is unaware.
There are couple things to derive from this. To me, the more I read of The Black Swan the more it seems to me to be Dame Fortuna re-ascendant. This lady loomed large in the Medieval imagination, thanks in part to Boethius, and with her wheel or ball was held to be the mistress of this world; whether triumph or adversity, sickness or health, prosperity or penury came upon one was considered due less to one’s efforts and more to the whims of Fortune. But the point was that her gifts were ephemeral and worthless to begin with; don’t go chasing after the strumpet, but seek wisdom and virtue and other goods that were outside her power.
I would like to go into it more someday, but it seems to me that Christians found this image so appealing in part because there is an element of uncertainty and the incomplete knowledge of the world baked into the Christian claim. The very nature of Revelation grounds the most important points of reference beyond our own knowledge and asserts right at the foundation that we do not and cannot know everything about the world (this, by the way, is why “it’s not in revelation” is not a valid argument against the existence of ghosts, fairies, or aliens).
Setting those weightier matters aside for the time being; remember that patterns of thought determine emotional responses and actions. Narratives are the framework within which we create those patterns. Therefore the narrative by which someone understands the world plays a large role in how he will feel and act. Most of us have a dozen contradictory narratives exercising petty dictatorships over different aspects of our lives.
And the thing about narrative, as Taleb points out, is that it is very rarely subject to intellectual attack, even if by its own lights it should be (note how strongly scientists will cling to their pet theories in the teeth of contradictory evidence). It could be, but only if the subject himself tries to change it. Narratives and thought patterns, those ‘prepared spells’ of the mind are not subject to external control. An addict or a criminal has to want to change and has to be willing to put in the effort to change his own thinking.
But, though intellectual attacks don’t usually work, something else does. Just as only a diamond can cut a diamond, so the best weapon against a narrative is another narrative. When I look at most of the big ideas of the past few centuries (e.g. Liberalism, Marxism), I find the intellectual basis is often very weak indeed. Marxism, for instance, rests on the blatantly contradictory idea that a ‘worker’ somehow remains a worker whatever his actual role in society becomes (among other bits of self-evident nonsense). But they have extremely appealing narratives; the oppressed masses rising up and casting off their chains to take control of their own destiny or free and equal men creating a utopia of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is why things like Marxism persist despite its horrific track record; the narrative is both powerful and deeply ingrained in the public psyche (It doesn’t help that its current main adversary – ‘classical’ liberalism or libertarianism – employs much the same narrative of oppressed masses rising against their evil overlords, though that is too large a subject to get into here).
This is what gives these and other ideas their power and influence, not any intellectual or observational support. That, in fact, often comes later and is celebrated precisely because it supports the narrative. “Great ideas” are usually not the source but the consequence of particular narratives (e.g. the theory of evolution did not create the narrative of progress; the belief in progress elevated evolution to its current quasi-religion status. The narrative came first and embraced the science to support itself).
So, to contradict false narrative, we must provide true(er) narrative. Intellectual arguments are primarily important, as far as changing minds go, in lending support to that narrative once it already exists.
Again, this is why storytelling is so vitally important; the pattern of a story helps to create a narrative in the mind of the audience. This is all the more effective because, the world being as complicated as it is, you can always find real-world examples to back up any narrative you want to create. So, when you have a myopic, warmongering general trying to weaponize the peaceful scientist’s research, you can always say “well, there are people like that,” sidestepping the question of whether this is an accurate narrative about how the military works as a whole and what values and perceptions are being inculcated in the process. Likewise for your standard intolerant Christian browbeating the innocently brave homosexual, or the white cop abusing the innocent Black man. If you have any familiarity with modern fiction you can probably come up with a dozen examples for each of these. As noted before, this is exactly why the Soviet government spent millions of dollars a year funding agents in Hollywood; control fiction and you control the narrative.
This is why I call something like The Last Jedian evil film; a large part of it is dedicated to tearing down and destroying the heroic narrative of the original trilogy as embodied by Luke Skywalker, re-shaping the pattern to make him a cowardly old man who ruined everything because he had to be in charge. The narrative being “heroes of the past are worthless; you special person today are the only thing that matters and you can outshine them without even trying,” along with a bunch of others of similar vintage. I probably could do an essay about how well that film embodies the current Progressive mindset, probably better than the filmmakers intended (e.g. it shows how shallow, stupid, and myopic it really is).
But if someone embraces that narrative, if it is inculcated into their heart, then that person is made worse for the fact.
On the other hand, the original Star Wars crafts a narrative of “faith in a higher power and personal loyalties are ultimately stronger than any technological terror or tyrannical government,” among other, similar ideas. Someone who embraced that narrative would be made better for the fact.
Which is the point; it is incumbent on storytellers to try to leave their audience better people than when they found them. That is, to write so that if someone were to take their narrative to heart, it would make them a better person. Needless to say, this is a grave responsibility (and includes the necessity of knowing what constitutes ‘better’ in the first place).
Very clearly, the world around us stands in grave need of better and truer narratives. It’s long-past time to start providing them again.
Now, a man may, of course, act a given way through cool reflection: because he sees it is the thing to do. But he will not do so reliably. The head rules the hands through the heart. A man becomes moral or immoral when he reliably acts a certain way, which he does because he has an instinctive visceral reaction to the event. That is to say, a habit of thought; he runs through the pattern “I see X. X means Y. The proper response to Y is Z” without even having to be aware of it. “I could look at that man’s cards. That is cheating. A gentleman does not cheat. If I were to do that, I would not be a gentleman.” The man for whom this has become a clear conviction would be only vaguely aware of this thought process, but would feel the emotional revulsion to the idea of cheating at cards.
The thing is, it is the ‘a gentleman does not cheat’ that gives the thought its power. A philosophical dissertation on why cheating is wrong may be useful, but it creates little in the way of emotional power. For most people, the argument for why cheating is wrong simply will not fit into a pattern of thought; it’s too complex and requires too many other ideas. Besides which, ideas and actions do not quite overlap. It is one thing to define cheating, it is another to know it when you see it. The will and the intellect are separate faculties.
Therefore, the best way to translate a moral idea into the will is often to frame it in a concrete image.
This is why children tend to follow what their parents do rather than what they say. Words are just words; they are a step removed from the will. But actions are an expression of the will, and so are easier and more natural to imitate.
Most of our moral instruction, therefore, is based on imitation, whether of people we meet in real life or people we have presented before us as examples (much of the rest depends on platitudes or proverbs; easily repeatable thought patterns). We see the example and, based on how it is presented and how it seems to fit into our understanding, we have a certain emotional response; the figure is presented to us as admirable and attractive and so we form the thought “such-and-such an action is like what so-and-so does, therefore it is positive.”
This principle, of course, reaches its highest form in Our Lord Himself, who presents the ultimate image of what we ought to imitate. The next step from there are the Saints, who present concrete examples of what that imitation looks like (indeed, in a sense all moral behavior is imitation of Christ one way or another). Then we have historic, legendary, and cultural heroes, while the most basic example is imitation of the people around us.
At the same time, and built into all of this, is the idea of narrative; the pattern we detect in events and the meaning we discern from that pattern. The actions of exemplary figures, such as Christ or national heroes, is exemplary primarily due to the narrative surrounding them. We regard Winston Churchill as a hero because we understand the narrative as being the forces of liberty and civilization triumphing over barbarism. If we read it as a stubborn Capitalistic-Reactionary standing against and thwarting the destiny of the German people, we would have a very different view of the man, though we may still admire his courage and wit. In any case, the narrative creates the impression of what is admirable and what is not.
As indicated by the example, a narrative may be nearer or farther from the truth, which must be determined on quite different grounds (obviously the mere fact of being a narrative says nothing of its truth or falsehood). But the narrative provides a framework within which we find the concrete illustrations of moral principles. That whole topic will probably require an essay in itself.
Which brings us to fiction, which is the deliberate creation of a concrete moral image within a narrative. Almost like a diagram or drawing of values.
Something that is often overlooked in discussions of people is the simple fact that human beings exist in time. Their nature is expressed over the course of a sequence of events, and in the context of other events that have taken place. A man logically implies a family, a community, a nation, a culture, and a history (thus the Incarnation of God as man logically includes a nation and culture for Him to be incarnate into, which is one reason the Old Testament cannot be simply ignored). The image of a man properly speaking is an image in time and in the context of events. Thus the proper image of a moral idea must likewise be the image of a series of events.
Hence the human art of storytelling to provide that image, context, and the accompanying emotional response.
The latter is important, because we don’t only have to see the idea acted out, we have experience a proper emotional reaction to it. A positive emotion to a good image and a negative to bad one.
Again, a gentleman does not cheat. We are presented with an attractive figure of a gentleman, who does things that we naturally like. Say, he is shown to be courageous or kind to children. Then we see that when offered the opportunity to cheat, he turns away in disgust because that is not what a gentleman does. It is part of the moral idea we are presented with that cheating is no part of it. The image would be made more effective if his refusal to cheat led to hardship or sacrifice of some kind.
There was a Lois and Clark episode that actually did this very scenario; where Clark was playing cards with Perry, Lois, and Jimmy and losing badly. He’s sorely tempted to use his x-ray vision to cheat, but he refrains because that’s not what Superman does.
The idea is that the course of events, the narrative, will create the emotional response “this kind of behavior is good; it is what I would like to be” and “this kind of behavior is bad; I don’t want to be like that.” Then in the real world, you mentally associate similar situations with the events you saw or read or heard in the story, prompting a similar emotional response. “This is like when Clark had the opportunity to cheat, but he chose to be honest instead. I want to be like Clark, so I don’t want to cheat.”
The actual thought passes in an instant, but it gives you the visceral response that prompts you to want to act this way or not to act that way.
Now, just as complex ideas are composed of simpler ones and complex arguments are links of axioms, so the language of stories is composed of basic visceral responses. Kindness and Courage, for instance. Beauty is another one; we naturally want to sympathize with someone beautiful. So is humor; an amusing character can remain likable beyond any reason (e.g. Loki in the MCU, or Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon). So, all things being equal, we make the figures whom we want people to like beautiful, kind, courageous, and amusing. We make the ones we want people not to like ugly, cruel, cowardly, and dour. Likely not all in one, since they need to be effective enough to create a story, but we send clear signals that you do not want to be like this person.
Hence, Christians in modern fiction are almost always humorless scolds at best, because we naturally do not like that kind of person or want to be like them. Therefore, we experience a visceral reaction against that figure.
(I rather think the general inertia of modern Christians is due, at least in part, to this effect, reacting against the figures portrayed both in fiction and supposed non-fiction: sheer repetition of negative images of Christians creates it as a pattern of thought in our mind. When faced with standing up for ourselves and the truth, we automatically think in terms of “that kind of Christian” and instinctively react against it. Basically, we’ve had a form of depression imposed upon us).
This pattern is clearest in the old fairy tales. Cinderella is an impoverished noblewoman forced to act as a servant to her wicked stepsisters and stepmother. But because she remains humble and kind, she is rewarded with a supernatural grace which marks her out and which eventually elevates her far above them. We viscerally sympathize with Cinderella because 1. She is beautiful, 2. She is kind, and 3. She is being treated unjustly. Even simply laying those out: “Cinderella is a beautiful and kind girl who was treated unjustly” is enough to evoke a simple moral response and to make us think “I am on her side.” Taken as a whole, the story creates the moral response “it is good to be patient and humble in the face of adversity and injustice” (incidentally, this is why I think the live action Cinderella is one of the few Disney remakes that actually works; because it’s simply a straight-forward telling of the story).
Obviously, not many stories are quite as simple as that. There are usually quite a few and complex responses being conveyed by a given story or set of characters, even in a relatively straightforward story. If you take something like a Honeymooners episode, for instance, you have the specific plot of the episode; say, the Christmas one where Ralph ends up selling his new bowling ball to get Alice the present she wants, conveying the idea of generosity. But you also have the whole dynamic of Ralph and Alice’s abrasive, but loving relationship, Ralph and Ed’s friendship, and the give-and-take of their working-class existence. The show makes us sympathize with the Kramdens, even as we laugh at their antics, and makes us want to imitate them to an extent (e.g. being good-hearted like Ralph or patient-but-sharp like Alice).
Things grow more sophisticated and more complicated with meatier stories. Emma could be summed up as a story about overcoming vanity and the assumption that one knows what is best for others (which is itself a pretty sophisticated idea to impart), but there’s a great deal more going on at the same time, such as snobbery, presumption, patience with the irritating and ridiculous, affairs of the heart, matters of honesty, and so on. The ideas conveyed are subtler and more sophisticated, but once again they are conveyed, even if the reader doesn’t recognize them. We come away hoping to avoid being as vain and snobbish as Emma is in her worst moments and hoping to be as compassionate, sensible, and loyal as she is in her best.
So, I would argue, the primary purpose of fiction is to inculcate moral responses through vicarious emotions.
When I say primary purpose, I don’t, of course, mean that this is what necessarily what anyone who sets out to write a story has in mind. They may not have thought of the matter at all. Nor do I mean that any given story might not be primarily intended by its creator to do something else.
My point is that this is what stories in fact do whether they do anything else. They create an emotional response through the actions of the characters, with the response being either positive or negative, forming patterns of thought that incline us this way or that. It may be a very small effect, it may be a great one, but unless the story has utterly failed as a story – not just as a bad story, like Captain Marvel but to the point where you can’t really take it as a ‘story’ at all, like Octaman – it will not be nothing.
(Not to digress too far, but this is a point to be clarified; there is a difference between a bad story and a work that doesn’t really even function as a story, just as there is a difference between bad acting and non-acting. It is the difference between a book where the characters are carboard, the plot makes no attempt at consistency, and the dialogue is all cliché and a book where the grammar and spelling are so bad that it doesn’t actually convey any coherent narrative to your mind at all. Such books or films can be very entertaining, but not as stories).
This is why stories are so important; they inculcate values, and our values determine how we behave. They are not the only things that do this, as noted above, but they are very powerful tools in that regard. Just as a thousand word description of Audrey Hepburn would not have the same impact as a single photograph, so a five-page dissertation on the nature of courage will not have the same impact as a well-written ‘Conan’ story.
And I would argue that popular, ‘light’ fiction, the pulps and ‘penny dreadfuls’ and children’s tales are perhaps the most important of all in this regard. Because there the emotional response has to be on point. The author can’t rely on reputation, or clever ideas, or stylistic elegance to make people want to read his work; he has to hit close to the basic, fundamental language of value. As Chesterton put it in his seminal work on the subject, “The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.”
Thus popular fiction, it seems to me, tends to be naturally reactionary in its values, regardless of the author’s intentions. It is here that kings and princesses thrive, great individual leaders take center stage, men are heavily masculine and women very feminine, and things like honor and courage and loyalty make up the major themes. Even when it preaches revolutionary doctrine, a work of popular fiction most often needs to have traditional values at its core in order to make people pay attention. Harry Potter, for instance, has some trendy talk of tolerance and racism and so forth, but these lie on the surface of a story about dueling ancient families, the legacy of fathers, friendship, honor, loyalty, and love, with damsels to be rescued and monsters to be slain. Even something as crude as the Friday the 13thseries ultimately rests on the idea of punishment for transgressions and the past rising up to strike those who do not respect it. The author may intentionally create a progressive or radical scenario or character, but only intentionally, and the traditionalist values remains the default perspective, because that is how such stories work. Sure, Joss Whedon can have a whole episode of Firefly painting prostitution as triumphantly feminist, but he’s still going to have Kaylee being kidnapped and menaced by the villain of the week every other episode and showing off Mal’s patriarchal authority because that is what makes for an interesting story of this type.
In short, popular fiction, I would argue, is one of the strongest bulwarks of traditional values. Simply put, they can’t afford to be otherwise. Not unless those values have been thoroughly extricated from the audience.
For herein also lies the danger; popular fiction, like Minas Tirith, is a mighty fortress, but it is not invincible. And if it is taken, then the situation really is desperate. Why do you think the Soviets spent millions of dollars a year funding Communist agents in Hollywood? They understood that even a little evil slipped into popular fiction would, if done consistently, be more effective in transforming the west than reams and reams of direct propaganda. Because the fiction creates the values, and the values determine which side someone will and will not listen to in the first place. We come to naturally associate one person with the evil racists or heartless fat cats we see all the time in films and books, and the other person with the poor innocent whom they insult and oppress, and the argument is over before it begins. We don’t even look long enough to notice that the former does real good for real people while the latter is narcissistic to the point of insanity. We see the pattern and react automatically according to the value judgments inculcated, in part, by the fiction we consume.
This is why popular fiction must be taken very seriously, and all efforts to remove or alter classic works must be strenuously resisted. This is also why it is so important that new and vibrant authors of good will to produce good work and we the audience should be seeking out and supporting such works. If our culture is sick because it’s been drinking polluted water, then the thing to do is to provide clean water. Or at least good beer.
There is an episode of the original Star Trek called “Ultimate Computer”. The premise is that the genius Dr. Daystrom has built a revolutionary supercomputer that, he claims, can run a starship more efficiently than any human captain and obviates the need for a human crew at all. They install in the Enterprise for a test run, and at first it seems to work; it makes better decisions faster than Kirk and effortlessly triumphs in an initial simulation.
But then problems start showing up. It fires on a passing drone ship. It begins shutting down ship functions to power itself. It accidentally vaporizes a crew member and creates a shield to prevent itself being turned off. By the end, it’s firing on other starships, killing hundreds.
All the while, Dr. Daystrom (played with great pathos by William ‘Blacula’ Marshall) keeps insisting that things are fine; that these are understandable mistakes that can be corrected, that the computer will work, has to work, because its purpose — eliminating the need to send people to war — is that important. And also because he’s staked his entire career, reputation, and self-image on this one project.
That episode functions as something of an allegory for Modernity. Take an existing, functional-but-imperfect system (the Enterprise), note its very real flaws, and propose to replace it with a new, man-made system designed specifically to correct those problems. The system is brilliantly designed, and at first it seems to work perfectly, outperforming the traditional form in key areas. But then, as time goes on, more and more issues begin to arise that simply did not exist under the old form. The new system begins to behave erratically and unpredictably, it cannibalizes more and more of the old structure, and takes increasingly stringent measures to keep itself going. In the end it becomes far, far more destructive than the imperfect system it was meant to replace while simultaneously doing all it can to perpetuate its own existence. And all the while those who created it refuse to acknowledge its patent failure by continuing to point to the original purpose as being that important, despite the fact that their system is acting directly contrary to what they intended.
This pattern, it seems to me, plays out again and again. Feminism has made women more miserable and embittered than ever and left tens of millions of dead children in its wake, but it’s still being imposed because “it means respecting women”. The sexual revolution has gutted human relationships and, again, left millions dead from AIDs and other highly-preventable diseases, but we’re still celebrating it and pushing it because “it’s the only sensible way to think of sex”. Marxism devastates every single nation it ever gets imposed upon and again leads to tens of millions of dead bodies (are you noticing a pattern here?), but we’re still insisting that it somehow means justice for the poor and pretending that it was ever remotely rational.
Then there’s Vatican II.
Vatican II was supposed to be a new springtime in the Church, to make the faith more relevant and attractive to the people. It has, by any objective measure, done more damage than anything since at least the Protestant Revolt. The Church has never been more irrelevant, anemic, and unsure of herself. It’s really rather impressive; perhaps the most resilient, effective, and vibrant organization in human history, and the council fathers actually managed to hamstring it with only a few key monumentally bad decisions. There was a time, and not long ago, that that would have been considered impossible, but they found a way.
Of course, that’s not the only reason for the current state of affairs (Modernism was infecting the Church long before), but I don’t think anyone looking at the state of the post-Vatican II Church can honestly deny that it has been an utter disaster unless they are specifically trying to avoid that conclusion.
Of course, since this has only resulted in tens of millions of dead souls rather than dead bodies, it’s disastrous failure is not quite as noticeable, though since many of the same people who are most apt to defend and celebrate Vatican II are also the ones liable to heap praises on Red China, feminism, and all the rest of it, I have to conclude it would not have helped.
(Apparently, pretending not to notice mountains of corpses is a feature of Progress.)
I really wish the Bishops would get this through their heads and admit the obvious, but until then the only thing for lay Catholics to do is to simply ignore it as much as possible. Seek to live as if it never happened, at least in your own lives. If you want to learn about the faith, turn to pre-council documents and books. If you want to live it, seek out the devotions and practices from before the council.
The short version is that, until those in charge of our institutions wake up and realize they have to rip the damn computer out, we as individuals should at least stop doing what it says.
One of the key dividing lines in the world, as I see it, is between those who think in terms of good and bad and those who think in terms of this or that kind of person. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap there, and the latter would say that they are thinking in terms of justice and right, but they think of these things in terms of abstract group dynamics rather than principles.
The example I like to use is when someone gets angry that a given person has a big country estate and all the comfort in the world, while hundreds of other people can barely make ends meet. The thing is though, it is highly unlikely that the former has his comfort because the latter are suffering. In any case, to be free from money worries and to live in a beautiful home is itself a good thing as far as it goes. Though, by its nature, it’s a good thing that not everyone can have. Is it really better that no one should have it? That this particular kind of good should never be experienced because it will not be experienced by everyone? Are there no benefits associated with such a state of affairs, either for individuals or society as a whole?
This is one reason I’m in favor of aristocracy; I think financial independence, family honor, and high titles are good things as far as they go, and I’d much rather have a world where such goods exist than one in which they don’t. Such a world would be (arguably is) infinitely the poorer for it.
That’s what I mean by thinking in terms of good and bad and not this or that kind of person. The issue is not if someone is rich or poor, the issue is the qualities he shows and the object state of his situation. If a man is ill, that is itself a bad thing that commands pity; the poor man is entitled to more concern only because and to the extent that he has fewer resources for dealing with it. I can easily imagine a scenario in which a poor man and a rich man are both in straights, but the rich man is the more deserving of the two: e.g. both find themselves in financial difficulties, the rich man because he was robbed, the poor man because he gambled.
To think in good or bad terms — the traditionalist mindset — means to judge by eternal, objective values; is this person kind or cruel, liberal or miserly, polite or rude, wise or foolish? It means to prefer good qualities over bad, regardless of what ‘class’ the person fits in. Of course, you don’t expect the same kind of manners from a Mr. Peggotty as from a Mr. Copperfield, but you expect courtesy and kindness from both. This is why things like people saying that Charlie Chan is a racist caricature because he is courteous and non-confrontational are simply meaningless to me; those are good qualities, whether they’re stereotypes or not.
The people I admire tend to have certain qualities; honor, dignity, intelligence, conviction, moral fiber, and so on. So, people like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, Saigo Takamori, St. Louis, St. John Henry Newman, and so on. People I dislike or do not admire lack these qualities. It is a matter of indifference to me what social group they fall under.
However, you will note that this also gives what I think is the only rational basis for a non-prejudiced approach. If what you admire is a given quality, then you will seek it and acknowledge it whether it is found with an Englishman, an American, a Japanese, or an African. It may, for whatever reason, be more common here or there, but what does that matter? The quality itself is the important point.
This is, in fact, aristocracy in the truest sense; rule of excellence.
As I’ve shared before, I suffer from moderate depression. Lately, in my effort to combat it, I’ve been reading a book called Feeling Good by David Burns, MD. Though I’m very skeptical of most modern psychology, this one is actually based on pretty solid insights, ones that harmonize with what I read from older authors (always a good sign) and which make philosophical sense. The author also makes a point of proudly noting that his therapy is actually scientifically tested, which apparently is not standard procedure for therapy methods (“cognitive therapy is one of the first forms of psychotherapy which has been shown to be effective through rigorous scientific research under the critical scrutiny of the academic community” – Feeling Good: chp 1. Translation: “most psychotherapy is pure snake oil”). In any case, I highly recommend the book, especially to anyone suffering depression, though I think the principles can be applied to many other disorders, as you will see.
The central principle of Cognitive Therapy is this: thoughts create emotions. We feel the way we do because of how we think, and we also act accordingly.
Now, thoughts are reflections of reality; there is the real thing, then there is our idea of it as perceived through the senses. A true thought is one that is accurate to the thing perceived as it really is (“Actual knowledge is identical with its object.” –De Anima, III, 5. “The idea of the thing known is in the knower,” –Summa Theologiae 1.Q14.A1). Basically it’s like we’re constantly making drawings or descriptions in our minds of what we perceive with greater or lesser accuracy.
Our emotions follow from these thoughts; because we perceive a thing a certain way, we react to it in a certain way. If your mind forms a picture of a beautiful woman, you react one way. If your mind includes the detail that she’s pointing a gun at you while brandishing an Antifa flag, you react another way. But which reaction you have, which of the passions is engaged, depends on the image you provide to them.
Therefore, if your thoughts are a fair reflection of reality, your emotions will be reasonable and valid. If your thoughts are distorted, your emotions will be distorted and invalid. “The first principle of cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your ‘cognitions’ or thoughts…You feel the way you do right now because of the thoughts you are thinking at this moment. ” (Feeling Good: chp. 1. Emphasis in original).
The interesting thing about this is that it is exactly the same principle presented in the book Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton Samenow Ph.D. regarding how to effectively reform people with criminal mindsets. Criminals commit crimes because of the way they think; because their minds are fundamentally fixed on what they want. They are reformed when their habits of thought are altered, which generally involves intensive, uncompromising therapy and refusing to allow excuses: “How a person behaves is determined largely by how he thinks. Criminals think differently…Our approach to change must be to help the criminal radically alter his self-concept and his view of the world. Some criminals can be ‘habilitated,’ that is, helped to acquire patterns of thinking that are totally foreign to them but are essential if they are to live responsibly” (Inside the Criminal Mind – Chp 1. Emphasis in the original).
Even more encouraging, this is essentially the traditional view of the matter. What did the old Saints and Homilist’s say? “Meditate upon Christ.” Just as one example, much of St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life consists in telling people what to think about. “To attain such a conviction and contrition you must faithfully practice the following meditations. By the help of God’s grace they will be very helpful in rooting out of your heart both sin and the chief affections for it” (Introduction the Devout Life: The First Part, 8.).
Our Lord Himself alluded to this: “The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!” (Matt. 6:22-23). The eye, that is perception, determines one’s condition. If our perception is distorted or evil, our evil shall be great indeed.
In short, this principle of thought creating emotion, leading to action keeps cropping up in different contexts, yet always, it seems, with actual evidence and actual successes to back it up.
Now, you will note the corollary; if thoughts determine emotions and consequent actions, and distorted thoughts lead to distorted actions, then mental health means having thoughts that adequately reflect reality. Basically, true thoughts. Everyone would agree with this; I would call it an axiom that of course we are obliged to think honestly. It is arguably the fundamental duty of mankind.
But if thoughts, as everyone agrees, can be true or false, accurate or distorted, that means that emotions can likewise be true or false, valid or invalid.
That’s great news when you’re dealing with depression or other painful psychological disorders. It’s somewhat less great news when you realize that this pretty much invalidates most modern thought.
For instance, you take this opening statement from a ‘Psych Central’ article found with a two-second Duckduckgo search: “Emotional invalidation is when a person’s thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for anyone, but particularly hurtful for someone who is emotionally sensitive. Invalidation disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance. When people invalidate themselves, they create alienation from the self and make building their identity very challenging.”
The idea of emotional invalidation is now pretty much out the window, or at least heavily altered. Because your emotions can be invalid, and if so, the kindest thing to do would be to convince you of that, if possible, and the worst thing would be to validate them. Whether and how you can do that in any given situation is, of course, another story. The point is that emotional reactions are not somehow independent of objective reality.
“When you do this, I feel mad.” But the question is, is that a reasonable response? What is the actual situation, and how are you perceiving it? What would be a more accurate perception?
Because you see, when you validate someone else’s false emotions and false thoughts, you strengthen them. It’s right there in the word: you reassure them that their false thoughts are not false. You reinforce their habit of thinking that way and experiencing those emotions. The more you ‘validate’ someone’s invalid emotions and false thinking, the deeper you drive them into that pit (the bigger question, of course, is ‘just how do you convince them their emotions are invalid?’ Which I confess I don’t have an answer for).
In short, since emotions follow thought and thoughts can be distorted, the mere fact that you experience a given emotion says absolutely nothing about the validity of that emotion. That has to be established on quite different grounds.
If distorted thoughts lead to distorted emotion and consequently to things like depression, criminality, and eating disorders, then you can see how distorted ideas can affect society at large. A given religion or ideology frames how we will perceive the world; that is, it provides the baseline for our thoughts and consequently for our emotions and actions. In the old days, societies were very cautious about the ideas they allowed or encouraged to be at large in the public mind, precisely because they understood this dynamic. Whether they were right or wrong to have done that is another question, as is the whole point of the specific ideas they opposed. However, it does rather undermine the whole idea of pluralism. The proposal that every man has the right to create his own view of the world and that all ideas are to be received as equally valid as far as society is concerned rests upon the notion that our ideas, our thoughts, do not substantially affect our actions or make us good or bad people. But, in fact, they are the only things that do (the fact that no pluralist society – including our own – actually lives by this principle further undermines it; try publicly suggesting that there are fundamental differences between races if you want to see how pluralistic we really are when it comes to ideas we as a society actually care about).
You see, if thoughts determine emotion and behavior, then whether people think truly or falsely is very much in the public interest and “all points of view are valid” is both false and dangerous.
I suspect, though I can’t prove, that pluralism factors into this dynamic in another way. As Uncle Screwtape explained, people in the old days used to be pretty well aware of the thoughts that governed their actions and were prepared to alter their lives on the strength of a line of argument. But we moderns are not like that; with the modern media and other such things, we are bombarded from morning until night with dozens of contradictory ideas and points of view, while at the same time we are encouraged to think of them less as true or false than as interesting or shocking or offensive or liberal or conservative or inspiring. In any case, the pluralistic environment we live in gives us an instinctual check to thinking anything absolutely true or false and acting accordingly.
The result, as I see it, is that we have a massive amount of mental static cluttering up our brains, and the actual ideas and beliefs that govern our actions slip by unnoticed. This might be one reason why there seems to have been an exponential increase in psychological and emotional disorders as pluralism became more widespread (there are obviously other factors, such as the breakdown of community, but that’s another story).
But to go back a little ways, if thoughts lead to emotions and distorted thoughts to emotional distortion (e.g. depression), and if ideas and worldviews provide the baseline for thoughts, then evil, false, and just plan insane ideas spread throughout society will create emotional distortions on a massive scale. Depression writ-large, in fact.
So if you have, say, the idea “men have always oppressed women, looked down upon them, and tried to keep them subservient,” abroad in society, then many people, perhaps most, will perceive the world through that lens. Whole institutions, laws, practices will be created accordingly, reinforcing the idea (again, action reinforces thought: when you live an idea, the idea and its consequent emotions becomes more fixed in your mind).
The result is…well, what we see. Widespread misery, injustice, and a maniacal, ongoing effort to fix the problem by continually reasserting the lie, like trying kill the pain by popping methamphetamines. Just like in matters of depression, where you think things like “If I can only stay in bed and do nothing today, I will feel better,” or “if the world weren’t set against me, I would be happier.”
One of my favorite games is Psychonauts, where you play as a young psychic who travels into people’s minds and battles their inner demons. One particular level has you helping a manic-depressive actress and concludes in a boss fight against her bloated inner critic, who fights by shooting words of criticism at you. You defeat him by shining spotlights on him. That is, exposing him and leaving him vulnerable to attack.
That’s how we defeat distorted thoughts, by exposing them to the light of truth and then mercilessly pummeling them while they’re down. Whether inside our own heads or abroad in the world, whether they take the form of actual statements of fact or emotional reactions, the thing to do is to show them for what they are and take them apart.
Because emotional reactions, that sense of hopelessness and despair, that feeling that the world is so cruel and unfair, those are only symptoms; symptoms of how you think. They are consequences of lies. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
I love dogs. I miss having one, and I hope (once I have a life again) to be able to get one of my own. That’s one of the many things I’m looking forward to.
Most people like dogs, and I think it’s fair to say that people in general like dogs (with a few exceptions). We like them because they’re loyal, trainable, and affectionate.
People like horses too. I haven’t spent enough time around horses to say that I like them, but I would like to like them (see above re: having a life again). There’s a great bond between a good man and his good horse; someone once said that “A good man on a good horse is the noblest creature to be seen.” We like horses, well, much the same reason we like dogs; they’re trainable, loyal, affectionate, strong, and useful.
It’s interesting: the animals that people in general love the best are not what we would ordinarily call the best animals. Chimps are the most intelligent animals, to the point they seem almost human. But almost no one has chimps in their houses or trains them up as pets. Chimps were never domesticated. Apes and monkeys in general are novelties. Same thing with the big cats. Elephants are domesticated, but only Asian elephants.
In any case, I think it’s fair to say that the animals that humans love the best and have done the most for are the dog and the horse, along with perhaps the cat. It isn’t exclusive, of course; you will find people who are particularly attached to just about any animal. But these two are the ‘elect’ among the beasts.
I rather think it’s something similar with God. The people He loves best are generally not those whom we would think are the best people. Love and loyalty and trainability (to put it in a somewhat flippant tone) seem to be what He values most, just as we do.
God, of course, is higher above us than we are above the beasts, but there is a parallel there, I think. Man is the summit of earthly nature, being both animal and spirit. The animals, therefore, are his responsibility and under his authority (“let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth” Gen. 1:26). As man is to God, so, in a sense, are the animals to man, being his servants, over whom he has the power of life and death, for whom we are to care and nurture, partly for their sake, but primarily for our own. The highest thing we can do for the animals is to make them, as it were, a member of the family.
And the somewhat eerie thing about it is that when we do this, the animals rise to be something almost human. Stories abound of dogs saving people’s lives, displaying uncanny intuition, mourning by their master’s graves, and so on. They seem to sort of take a bit of our nature into themselves by being exposed to us and loved by us.
There are a few consequences I want to draw out here. First, I had never thought of it before, but I wonder whether the switch from animal power to mechanical power was quite the morally neutral thing that it appears to be. It might be that man was meant to have animals rather than machines as his chief servants, and that in turning away from them, we’ve lost a part of ourselves. The switch after came at the same time as, and indeed was a direct cause of, the dissolution of community. I won’t go so far as to say I think it was certainly a bad thing (much less that there’s anything to be done about it now), I’m only noting it.
More important, I want to draw out that point of the best not being the best loved. Qualities like intelligence or strength or beauty, while they are valued and admired, are not, in the end, what people look for in animals. In the same way, they aren’t what God primarily values, though good in themselves. I rather think that God sees our squabbles over who has more money or status or authority as if a dog were to try to impersonate a chimp. It’s not only doomed to fail, but it’s a matter of trying to trade more desirable qualities for less. Because even if a dog could become a chimp, he would simply find himself sitting in the monkey house at the zoo with strangers staring in at him, rather than curled up comfortable at home with his family.
Or to put it another way, animals that do very well and grow high in the wild are usually not well suited to domestic life. A lion does very well on the Savannah, probably much better than a domesticated dog would, but it would be a very rare lion indeed that anyone would bring into his house. In the same way, someone may do very well in this world, but what does that matter? The important thing is whether we are welcomed into the King’s house.
One of the keystones for understanding the world, as I see it, is this: men desire the transcendent, but only experience the concrete.
I say we desire the transcendent. Freedom, love, justice, happiness, and so on. There are indeed people who seem to desire nothing but pleasure or material things, but in the first place these are the people who are, frankly, the least human, in the second, their general misery and the disgust with which they are held by the rest of the world shows that even they don’t really want these things in themselves. If all we wanted were safety, security, pleasure, and so on, then we would be happy and content once we got them. But we find (thanks to the experience of the past few generations) that the people who have these things in abundance are precisely the ones who are most likely to blow their own brains out.
Yet we only experience the concrete. When we say we want ‘love,’ for instance, what do we mean? Well, we want a particular kind of relationship with another person, but what does that relationship look like on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis? It’s hugs and kisses and making breakfast and affectionate nicknames and jokes and touches and backrubs and so on and so forth. No one would say these things are love, but they are the way we experience it. A husband who cut them all out (and all other expressions) would have a hard time credibly convincing his wife, or anyone else, that he still loved her. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t very long, nor she him.
The transcendent must be embodied in the concrete for us to experience it at all. We see this even in the fundamental experience of language, in which ideas are embodied in combinations of sounds or symbols. And on the other hand, when we try to examine pure thought or pure belief or pure emotion, absent anything concrete, we find only a mass of uncertainty, assumption, and question-begging. Our interior life, the farthest removed from the concrete of our experience, is also our most uncertain. That is where our self-deception, our confirmation biases, the fleeting influences of the moment are strongest.
In short, we do not encounter ‘pure spiritual experiences’ in this life. As St. James put it, “shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.” (James 2: 18).
This, as I say, is a keystone concept: man desires the transcendent and only experiences the concrete, therefore the transcendent must be incarnated in the concrete for us to experience it. That is, in fact, the particularly human experience. Once get this straight, and many other things follow.
Obviously, the supreme example of this is God manifesting Himself to men in the person of Jesus, and Christ offering Grace to mankind through the Sacraments. But other things follow as well.
One I want to point out especially is this; authority is a transcendent concept. As I’ve pointed out, authority is the power to create moral obligation in those subject to us (and I’m still working this out, so bear with me here). Now, this is incarnated in the power to enforce one’s authority (“For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” Romans 13:4). Authority is not dependent upon that power, but that power is how authority is normally manifested. This is due to the nature of our being; no one, not even God Himself, can compel a person to do good, we can only punish them for doing evil (which is a curious thing when you think about it; it is absolutely impossible for us to force someone to do good. We can inflict punishment on someone regardless of his will, but we cannot never ‘inflict’ goodness). Therefore, authority, which is directed to a certain good of the subject, manifests itself most clearly in chastisement.
It is, of course, right and indeed best if the commands of legitimate authority are obeyed regardless and chastisement never has to be inflicted. We ought to obey out of love and respect rather than fear. But if we will not obey, then the best thing the authority can do, what he is, in fact, obligated to do, is to establish his authority through chastisement. The father’s duty to his children requires that he punish them when they do wrong. The ruler’s duty to his subjects requires the same.
Nor is this contrary to mercy. Remember, mercy is a function of authority. Therefore, before anyone can show mercy, he must first establish his authority through chastisement (or at least the subject must be brought to understand that such chastisement is both possible and just). “Thou art great, O Lord, for ever, and thy kingdom is unto all ages: For thou scourgest, and thou savest: thou leadest down to hell, and bringest up again: and there is none that can escape thy hand” (Tobit 13:1-2).
Violence, you see, is not contrary to mercy. In fact, it is often an essential part of what we could call the ‘merciful system.’ In order to show mercy, authority must be established, which often means chastisements must be inflicted and the rebellious subject made to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the authority of the one over him. Even if it gets no farther than “you acknowledge that I could grind you under my heel like a bug right now, correct?” that still creates sufficient authority to show mercy. It is only then that mercy becomes even possible.
Because as long as the other side refuses to acknowledge your authority, and as long as he thinks he doesn’t have to, then refusal to enforce it is not mercy but abdication: the refusal to act according to one’s responsibilities.
The historian Victor Davis Hansen put it very well (though I can’t now find where he said it) that “mercy means beating your enemy to the ground, putting your foot on his neck, and then saying ‘I am not going to destroy you this time.’” The code of chivalry was that vanquished enemies were to be spared: after the knights had done their best to kill one another, and one was finally beaten down to the point where he knows he will either ask for quarter or die, the victor was morally obligated to spare his enemy if he asked for it. Even if, as is the case most of the time, violent chastisement is not necessary, the very idea of mercy requires that it is a moral possibility.
You see what I mean by the idea of the transcendent manifesting in the concrete is a keystone idea? At once we see how things like war, the death penalty, soldiery, and so on are compatible with Christianity, even to the point of being necessary elements, at least in potential. “Blessed are the merciful,” requires that it be possible to show mercy, which means it must be permissible to establish authority.
This also pretty much defangs every clever deconstruction that we moderns employ to try to escape from inconvenient realities. To say something like “marriage is just a piece of paper,” for instance, is simply flat out wrong; it isn’t, but the ‘piece of paper’ (or at least the vows it records) is what the fact of getting married and bound to one another for life looks like in this world. You are not being clever when you point that out; I may as well say that your witty essay arguing the point is nothing but a lot of black marks on paper. Deconstructions, fixing your gaze on the material manifestation of something, is nothing but an irrelevant smokescreen.
I think one of the great problems of the contemporary world is that we undervalue the material aspect of things. I’m sure that sounds shocking, given how materialistic we are, but actually our materialism is only what is to be expected from the undervaluing of matter. Because as with lust to sex, the evil of materialism isn’t that it gives matter too high a place, it’s that it gives it the wrong place. It takes it out of context and so values the wrong aspects. It’s as though we are appraising a book without being able to read, and so we judge it on the typeface and the quality of the pages.
Our materialism is founded in a denial that matter has any intrinsic meaning; the reductionist view that, “the material does not convey Grace, or beauty, or importance; it only helps to elevate our minds to them because we have imputed meaning to these things.” The throne is just a chair and the king is just a man who happens who is imputed to have authority because he is supposedly the best qualified. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A flag is just a piece of cloth. The sacraments are only symbolic expressions of faith.
And matter, consequently, has its importance defined as “does it keep us safe and comfortable?” It is no longer a vehicle of spiritual elevation and communion with God, but only of pure pragmatism. Call it a soft Manichaeism.
The problem is that we only experience the world materially, just as we only read through letters. If you deny that the letters have any meaning and try to sever the letters of the poem from the words, then you soon only have a jumble of symbols on a page. And if all you have is a jumble of symbols, then you can do with them whatever you like. The actual purpose of the letters – the words – has been obscured, and so the letters at once seem to be the only relevant factor and to impose no obligations on us. We don’t have to form actual words or coherent successions of sound, just an arrangement that pleases us. The disconnection of the meaning from the letters leaves the letters both the only concrete thing and without any actual value of their own.
JLJHIK HTH T MIM JLJLHIK
Christianity, in contrast, teaches that matter is not only good, but meaningful. Physical actions create and correspond to spiritual realities, from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to painting doorposts with the blood of a lamb. Most importantly, God Himself became Man. A real flesh-and-blood man, born of a woman, with all that implies. His physical actions with that body created a new spiritual state of affairs for the mankind which He is now a part of.
Not only that, but this same body of His is the means by which He works His salvation upon us (and this is where things get really interesting). He tells us ” Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54). Now, what happens when we eat something? It is broken down and the relevant nutrients become part of our bodies. So, when we eat the flesh of God, God becomes a part of us. That is, we become part of Christ’s body when we eat His flesh. As such, we participate in His resurrection and glorification, as we are now physically related to Him. It’s sort of like how we are physically related to our family members (at least in the sense of there being a real material link), but conveyed in a different manner.
The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us of this relation. More fundamentally, it ought to remind us that material things are not to be treated as if they were just material. Because there is a Body of Christ, let no one hold the body as such in contempt.