Unreal City
Thursday, February 25, 2010, 6:46 PM

     For the first time in my career as a professor of literature, I think I understand why T. S. Eliot named his famous poem "The Waste Land."  Yes, it was an apt name for the spiritual exhaustion of between-the-wars Europe, and it aptly referred to the waste land of Arthurian legend, wherein the seekers after the Grail were to heal the Maimed King and end the terrible enchantments laid upon the land.  But I now think there's more.  "Oed und leer das Meer," writes Eliot, "waste and void the Sea," alluding to the first verses of Genesis — for we are told that before the creation of light, the earth was waste and void.

     The Hebrew for that is tohu v'vohu, and those are words, especially tohu (vohu always appears doubled with tohu, and never on its own), with profound scriptural resonance.  For a city laid waste is tohu, which might seem appropriate enough; but also, and primarily, the idols, the works of human hands, are tohu.  They are nothingness, unreality, vacuity, inanity.  It is not, in Jeremiah (for a prime example), that the false gods cannot deliver on their promises, so much as that they are null and void, as is, and this too Jeremiah insists upon, the reliance upon human power.  In essence, every city that aspires to the condition of Babel sets itself up as an idol, a thing whittled away at or sculpted by human hands, from which we can expect no deliverance but rather slavery to nothingness; a fall into what is tohu v'vohu.  To live in the city named Unreal is to be confronted, every day, with man's failure to trust in God, and his attempts, mostly pathetic, to provide for himself a little happiness, as does the woman with the gramophone, and the clerk carbuncular.

     If Eliot is right, and I think he is, then secular humanism is a lapse back into Unreal City, that place of dashed human projects and fallen idols.  It promises — what?  Lots of food, and warm houses, and few children, and the flickering blue light of a television screen.  No holidays, no opening of the heart to something more vast than the heavens; no gazing with wonder upon the God-ordained beauty of a human body or of a human soul.  Endless politics, but without a true polis; tools designed to supplant the human act, as a television is a substitute for talk, or play, or prayer; mass management of education, one juvenile unit after another; salvation, secured by poisons, pills, and white balloons, from the irruption of a child into our twilight city; amnesia, lest the nobility of our forefathers embarrass us, or lest we learn from their sins; a kind of aggressive bodily health, as of sleek cows and bulls.  I imagine a great map of the earth's airways, with flights marked out from Unreal to Unreal.

     Where is the real city to be found?  It is as small as a mustard seed.  It is like the leaven that a woman kneaded into three measures of flour.  It is a pearl, found by a merchant.  It is where two or three are gathered in the name of the king.  Pilate scoffed at it, but ancient Rome, that unreal place, is gone, and it remains.  The Communists scoffed at it, but red Moscow, that unreal place, is gone, and it remains.  It is adorned as a bride for the bridegroom.  Unreal smirks, or sneers, but the true city sings.



The Beauty of the Saints
Monday, February 15, 2010, 12:16 PM

     A few weeks ago a very kind woman who sometimes posts comments here — I don't want to embarrass her by mentioning her name — sent me a couple of books that confirm in me the truth, so easy to forget amidst the grinding of the sin-mill we visit every day, that in all of physical creation there is nothing so beautiful as a saint.  The books are Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, and Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses.  I cannot recommend these works highly enough.  They are the memoirs of an Orthodox priest, Father Arseny, and his many spiritual children, lovingly collected by those whose lives he blessed.  They read not so much as biography as a winning combination of journalistic matter-of-fact relation of events, and spiritual reflection.  

     Many were the miracles, great and small, that attended this holy man; I don't want to spoil the books by recounting them.  But most wondrous of all, for me, is the man himself.  Here was a man of profound education, a well-known historian of art, who gave up his prestige in the world to become a lowly priest, just at the time when the powers of Russia had determined to extirpate Christianity from the land.  Father Arseny's lot was, at first, persecution of the most disheartening kind: the near-universal mockery to which priests were subject under Lenin and then Stalin, the smug ridicule, the ruination of churches, or their reduction to museums or toolsheds or barns.  Yet he did not lose heart.  Nor when he was finally sent to the harshest of the Siberian labor camps, along with both "political" prisoners and the hardened criminals who made life doubly miserable for them — the murderers and rapists and thieves who would steal a fellow prisoner's scanty food ration, or steal the boots that were a man's margin between survival and death, or beat a fellow to death when the guards were not around, not that the guards would care overmuch about it, as death was a daily and humdrum thing.  For eighteen years Father Arseny lived in the camp.  He heard the confessions of terrible sinners.  He gave of his own food to assist the starving.  He watched by the beds of the sick and the dying.  He prayed unceasingly.  He saved lives; more than that, he was the instrument God chose to save human souls, turning them from their past evil.  One or two such men would go on, themselves, not only to embrace the Orthodox faith, but to become priests of God.

     Yet in all of this — and in the many years of exile he suffered before and after his time in the gulag — Father Arseny seems never to have believed that he was a particularly good man.  His most frequent prayer was that favorite one among the Orthodox, based upon the words of the publican in Jesus' parable, "O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner."  Though he was physically frail, and, after his years in the camp, in continual need of medical attention from the doctors among his spiritual children, yet his exertions in prayer were nothing short of heroic.  Something analogous might be said of the quality of his spiritual instruction.  He was a deeply educated man, yet he eschewed theological minutiae, and met people heart to heart, giving them the simple, profound counsel they needed, and recommending always prayer, humble and forthright.  His example bears out the truth of Jesus' saying, that when the disciples had done all they could, they were to say that they were unprofitable servants who had done no more than their duty.  If only we could all say that, and mean it!  For then the humble are truly exalted, and are most like the only profitable servant, the suffering servant Jesus; and then, they bring forth thirty-fold and sixty-fold and a hundred-fold.  Father Arseny had to live among wicked men, yet he said, in looking back upon those years, that God had granted him the gift to see the flame of faith in other men's souls, sometimes flickering faintly, sometimes burning like a bonfire where one might least expect it; and that he was blessed to see it.  He loved his enemies, or rather loved people who wanted to be his enemies but could not manage it, since he loved them anyway, sometimes sternly enough, but always with the childlike assurance that the man before him was beloved of God.

     It is, of course, a salutary judgment against me, reading such books.  Do I treat my enemies as Father Arseny treated his?  Far from it.  I do not treat my friends and relations with such love.  Father Arseny once stood in a bare metal punishment cell for forty eight hours, in weather below zero Fahrenheit, praying unceasingly for the ill-clad young student punished beside him, who had been beaten, and who lay down to what should have been certain death.  As for me, when I set aside an extra minute or two for prayer on a certain day, I walk away from it suspecting that I've gained a point in the accounts between myself and God.

     And yet people like Father Arseny are irresistably, and I might say critically, attractive.  About them, one might say something like what Dante in La Vita Nuova says about Beatrice, that whoever beholds her is changed into something noble, or he dies.  They present the heart with a challenge.  A few weeks ago I was in Washington, the day after the annual March for Life.  That evening my host was visited by three young people who had been on the march: a young man and two of his sisters.  They were part of a large (it is almost redundant to say so) homeschooled family, and they and their siblings were musicians and singers.  So we found a guitar and a fiddle, and they sang for us some bluegrass ballads of their own composition.  They were beautiful people, radiating purity and joy.  When we see such people, do we not naturally wish to join them in the feast?  Do they not say to us, by their very being, "How beautiful goodness is!"  What does the world show that can compare?  Why, the noblest death the world brings before our eyes, a Socrates awaiting his death among his friends, is as straw compared to the holy death of a martyr like Stephen, or to the beautiful life of suffering, and life of joy, experienced by Father Arseny.

     One last observation — one that Dante in his Paradise illustrated long ago.  The saints are beautiful in their distinctness, one from another.  There is no such thing as a generic saint.  It is always this one, unique and unrepeatable, this Jean de Brebeuf humbly showing the Hurons what supernatural courage looks like, or this impetuous Peter traveling to Rome, or this Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, a simple girl with tuberculosis, or this Pier Giorgio Frassati, the young athlete and medical student, giving his life to minister among the poor and sick in Turin.  We are each of us called to be a certain saint, the man or woman known only by God who calls us.  And we shy away from the calling, as if beauty were too powerful for our weak nerves to bear!



Bread Alone
Wednesday, February 3, 2010, 2:21 PM

     I was driving to work the other day, when I heard on the radio one of those annoying commercials that use the prim voices of children to lecture their elders on the cause of the day.  I hate those commercials, not just because the children cannot possibly know the import of what they are saying, but because there is something creepy about seducing children as vocal advocates for a political cause (I make an exception for children who accompany their parents to the State House, or who walk along with them in a street demonstration).  It seems to me that the politicization of childhood goes hand in hand with the infantilization of the body politic, but that is the subject of another posting.

     Anyway, the hectoring youngsters in question asserted that there were three things necessary for improving the lives of those one-sixth of all children who fall below the poverty line: income, education, and health.  That is almost all that is left of our cultural heritage, as the Catholic sociologist David Carlin suggested to me a few weeks ago.  You pass along to your children the great cultural mandates to be good looking, trim, schooled, and possessed of a high-paying job.  Then you retire and die, I guess.  The "education" in that trio above was clearly meant as "the sort of schooling that eventually brings in income," as the "health" was meant as "that without which even a rich person cannot enjoy his riches."  Notably missing from the list of the three necessary things was virtue, even of the old pagan variety.  Apparently the unexamined life is worth living, so long as you are healthy and have a good job.  Nor is there the slightest correlation between such virtues as temperance and continence and the chance that you will escape poverty.  Nor any sense that the poor are human beings, with needs that transcend those of the belly or the bankbook.  They may need bread, but they don't need anything else.

     The commercial was sponsored by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

  



United From Above
Sunday, January 17, 2010, 3:45 PM

     I have long claimed that people who castigate religion for being divisive either do not know what they are talking about, or secretly fear the power of religion not to divide but to unite — and, specifically, to unite against them and their own unacknowledged interests.  First, while it is true that Islam has had bloody borders, it is not otherwise true that most wars have been fought over religion.  A cursory look at history shows that wars are fought over territory, or goods, or either of those masquerading as an offended national pride.  Rome fought wars almost constantly, from the time the Romans wriggled out from under their Etruscan overlords, to the time the last emperor was send packing to a monastery by Odoacer, and none of those wars were wars of religion.  The Greek city states were ever quarreling, although they shared pretty much the same religion; and indeed, religion was one of the few things that could suffice to unite them in celebrating the games, or driving out the Persian invaders.  Nationalist wars were fought under the guise of religion for a relatively brief time during the early modern period, but a glance at what France was doing under Francis I, or under Richelieu, should dispel the notion that religion, rather than what was perceived as the national interest, was the main motivation for French foreign policy.  I say this, knowing full well that people hardly need an excuse to pick a fight — and that religion will sometimes serve the purpose.

     In general, however, people are not united by a common pursuit of lower things, as Hobbes and the atomists thought, but by their common adherence to a good that transcends them all.  The reason is easy to see.  If life is conceived as nothing more than the race to satisfy appetites, then, whether we live in a commonwealth or not, we are essentially at war with one another.  You are my rival.  What you gain, I lose.  It does not matter, either, that we may live in a commonwealth with an expanding economy.  If my neighbor gains, then I must gain to keep up appearances; his very gain spurs in me the appetite of emulation.  Nor can I rejoice in his advantages.  If he is good looking and intelligent and lucky, while I am plain and average and unlucky, he stands as a reproach to me.  I can only be glad for him if we are united by something that relegates such things as the building of a nice house or the securing of a prestigious job to the lower order where they belong.  I can meet him in the realm of higher "values," says the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand.  In friendship, all that he enjoys is transformed for me; it is as if I enjoyed them likewise for his sake.  But without friendship, nothing can really be enjoyed at all.  It would be like sex without love, a feast without laughter.

     Now friendship in its highest form, the ancient pagans almost all agree, is founded upon a common vision — of the Good, as Plato calls it.  That is, you are not my friend because of your usefulness to me; Aristotle and Cicero both roundly deny that utility is the bond of true friendship, because once the occasion for the utility disappears, the bond dissolves.  You and I rather are friends because together we behold something beyond ourselves, and this something serves to make each of us identify the other's good as his own.  All of which is but a natural preamble to the Christian faith.  What, after all, does Jesus pray for his disciples, but that they may be one, as he and the Father are one?  And what is the bond of unity among Christians, says Saint Paul, if not that Spirit of love that makes of them one body, the mystical body of Christ?  It is of the essence of prayer, says Pope Benedict, that it be undertaken in solidarity with one's fellow Christians, for even when we retire to our rooms to pray, we must not think that we are praying alone, but rather in communion with others.

     Something that happened to me at my school may help illustrate the point.  There was a certain professor who had long been severely critical of our school's signature program in western civilization.  So critical was he, that the man who ran the honors section of the program — a saintly man who passed away a few years ago — invited him to teach in it.  That changed his life.  A year later I found myself standing beside him at Mass — he was preparing for baptism.  I had not suspected it.  But there I stood next to him, praying the Our Father, falling to our knees together, and I felt a wave of generosity come over me; for the first time I saw him not as the rival who sought to undermine the program I loved, but as a brother.  In the years since, he has never met me with anything other than a smile; and I hope I have returned the same.

     In Christ, we are one.  In Christ, we are set free — free to dispense with ourselves and our appetites, free to lavish one another with love, if only we would avail ourselves more often of that offered freedom.  How good it is when brothers and sisters come together in unity!  Allow me another illustration.  Last year I met a man who for four years was the roommate of one of the nation's most prominent despisers of God.  He told me of the man's deeply unhappy childhood. and said that he prays for him all the time.  It is a fearful thing to consider what would happen if once, just once, his former roommate would deign to return the favor, or but endeavor to return it with sincere intent.  Theirs would be a communion and joy so great as to transform all the past years and flood them with light and laughter.



Christus Vincit
Sunday, January 10, 2010, 2:15 PM

     I am reading Dietrich von Hildebrand's Trojan Horse in the City of God, a book that takes the then self-styled "progressive" Catholics to task for, well, their apostasy.  What fascinates me most about the work, which was clearly a torpedo-shot in the ecclesiastical wars of the late 1960's, is that the battle lines have been redrawn a bit, and the flags of the opposition may have changed colors just a little, but the armies are essentially the same.  Here, for instance, he discusses the degree to which one may engage in dialogue those humanists who do not accept the faith.  It is his explicit position, with Jacques Maritain, that Christianity is the "integral humanism," completing the partial humanisms to be found in Plato, or Goethe.  With such humanists, fruitful dialogue may be had.  But not with others:

     The materialism of the Communist creed is incompatible with any ideal of humanism.  If a man is nothing but some matter that has organized itself, then any talk of "humanism" can only be an equivocation.  Certain features of man as a spiritual person are essential to every humanism.  The humanistic ideal implies intellectual and moral values and their development [note: by "value," Von Hildebrand does not mean "arbitrary assignment of worth," as in the phrase "values clarification," but an objective rank of dignity independent of our personal or collective valuing, dignity which should summon from us an attitude of appreciative reverence.  To make the rejoinder that such-and-such an antihumanist "values" something, say, academic freedom, or democratic institutions, is to miss the point].  But the materialistic conception of man has no place for these values, even if, in practice, the Communist cannot avoid taking intellectual values and achievements in some way into account.  In the second place, the idea of determinism according to the immanent laws of economic "science" (in historical materialism) is equally incompatible with a consistent humanism.  In the third place, the totalitarian nature of Communism, which takes the individual man as a means and measures his value strictly according to his usefulness to the collective, precludes any identification of Communism as a humanism.  Communism is not surpassed by any ideology in its profound and consistent depersonalization.  The person is deprived of every right.

The author goes on, with a devastating matter-of-factness, to say that we might as easily be talking about the biological determinism preached by the National Socialists; that too, and for the same fundamental reasons, was incompatible with any humanism properly speaking.

     Have these ideologies been cast away upon the rubbish heap of man's foolish history?  In the forms wherein we fought them in the bloody twentieth century, yes; in other forms, no.  Yet it is a good thing sometimes to be reminded of how, for example, the Communism of Europe was set on its still-protracted demise.  Not by appeal to another false humanism.  The triumph came not by means of welfare-state Europe, itself raddled with the antihumanist disease, but by an electrician who bent his knees in church, and an ecclesiastic, filled with hope in man, because he kept his sights on the true Man, who said, "Be not afraid; I have overcome the world."  And if there is any hope, in human terms, for sad old Europe now, it is to be found in the same quarters, among the faithful whom the intellectuals and the beautiful people despise.  For against the new totalitarians of relativism — and the Mengele-manufacturers of a new and improved race — the Christian church stands with her great paradoxes.  She is at once universal and parochial — parochial down to her most impolitic insistence upon the transcendent worth of a single human soul.  She does more than hold up to mankind the beauty of God.  She holds up to mankind the beauty of man, most especially in the beauty of her saints, of whom in the twentieth century, thanks to the plague of totalitarian atheism, there were far more than there were under the most blood-maddened purges of Decius and Diocletian.

     Who would not rather stand with Edith Stein, than with the eugenicist and Nazi-apologist Margaret Sanger?  With Dietrich von Hildebrand, who wrote so powerfully about the virtue of purity, and who saw the filth of Nazism and cried out against it when it was still at the stage of beer-hall brawls, than with the pseudo-scientific pedophile Kinsey?  With Mother Teresa of Calcutta, than with her feral accuser Christopher Hitchens?  With the brave martyr for his country and his faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, than with the murderer hoist with his own petard, Leon Trotsky? 

     Jesus sends us out, said Saint John Chrysostom, as sheep among wolves.  We conquer, he says, by the meekness of sheep; by our love; by our knowledge that without Jesus we can do nothing, but with Him, all things — even the bringing down of the most inhuman empire ever to ravage the earth.  Ours is the true humanism, to show man how he may, in the love of Jesus, conquer the wolves of sin, and become, like Jesus, true Man.



Their Hearts are Full of Unwashed Socks
Monday, December 28, 2009, 4:00 PM

     Last night, at my son's request, my family and I watched Chuck Jones' masterpiece of a cartoon — yes, I know it is Dr. Suess' story, but I think Jones was the greater genius; anybody who can make Elmer Fudd into Siegfried, singing to a bunny rabbit, "O Bwoonhiwda, you'we so wovewy," is a man to be reckoned with — about a big-bottomed green furred grouch who hates Christmas, hates celebrations, hates roast beast, and hates the aptly named Whos down in Whoville. 

     The tale works, I think, because it is archetypal, touching something deep in the shabbier corners of the human soul.  It is Grendel on the moor, looking at the firelights from Heorot and hearing from afar the sway of the harp, as the songmaker sings of creation; and hating the joys he does not or cannot share.  It is the seething envy of the unredeemed Scrooge, who has chosen to devote his life to the respectable pursuit of money, and who therefore cannot abide the son of his only sister, who married for love.  It is a peculiarly academic vice, as men and women of appreciable intelligence, little obvious wisdom in the ways of the world, and few marketable talents, set their wits to undermine those things that give meaning to the lives of the young people in their charge.  It is the sin of Satan, according to the Book of Wisdom, who envied the innocence he had lost.

     I have been reading Crossing the Threshold of Hope, a series of essays by Pope John Paul II in response to some trenchant questions asked of him by the fine papal journalist Vittorio Messori.  Again and again the greathearted courage of the pope shines forth (courage one wishes he had seen fit to use in punishing evil or apostate bishops and priests, but that, alas, is another story, and not relevant here), in his love of youth, in his confidence in all that is truly human, in his embrace of those "seeds of the word" that God has sown even in lands whose people have hardly heard of Christ, and in his emphasis upon the words of Jesus, "Be not afraid!  I have overcome the world."  Like all Christian missionaries who understand what they are about, John Paul preached that genuinely good news, that man is not alone, that Emmanuel, or "God is with us," that Jeshua, or "The Lord saves," and that, to borrow an idea that is central to the thought of the current pope, love also is a fundamental principle of reality. 

     All of that is to be seen in the cave at Bethlehem, and gives us cause for great rejoicing.  Which makes me ask, what must one be, after all, to wish it were not so?  Not to believe it is not so, but to be pleased about one's supposedly superior intelligence, smugly going about the business of spoiling the celebration for others, from the heights of Harvard, or Washington, or Mount Crumpet?  Nor let us have any nonsense about the alleged humanitarianism of people who believe that Hoboken or Perth Amboy are all there is.  The straight historical record is enough to show the misery caused by this-worldly utopians (even of the self-styled Christian sort), and the transformative acts of love performed by those who remember the babe in the manger.  Aim for heaven, and receive Whoville into the bargain.



Jesus, the Friend of My Enemy
Monday, December 21, 2009, 4:27 PM

     A few days ago I received this lovely tribute to a Lutheran pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, who worked for twenty years in Communist Romania, and spent fourteen of them in prison for his faith. Pastor Wurmbrand was no despiser of the Orthodox; he met many saintly priests and laymen in prison, and confessed to them, and learned from them the arts of patience and holy love.

     I have been pondering the story of the priest, effectively murdered by his torturer, dying of wounds he had received, meeting the torturer himself in the barracks, after the Communists had turned against him and beaten the life nearly out of him. The priest was dying, and the man confessing, who was his murderer, was dying; yet the priest asked the help of a couple of men to carry him over to the bed of the murderer, so that he could console him, and give him love, and hear him groan out a life of sin, and assure him that God had not abandoned him.

     It is enough to take the breath away. And I ask myself, "What single thing have I done today — or this whole year — or in all my life, to go out of my way to show love to someone who hates me?" So simple it is to understand the command of Jesus, and yet how many are the excuses we make to keep from fulfilling it! How easily I forget that the enemy is loved by Jesus with a love that I cannot imagine. And it is that transcendent worth that makes it not only right for me to love my enemy, but possible in the first place. For without it, he is my enemy, my rival for the compassing of certain goods whereof there is a finite supply. He is my political opponent, perhaps, and I must rise by his fall. But under the canopy of that Good which makes all earthly goods fade into relative insignificance — even as it confirms their goodness, in their right place — I can and indeed must love my enemy, because Jesus loves his enemies, among whom we all at some time have stood, or are standing even now.

     Here, in the loving of the enemy, there is nothing to lose but our pride, and everything to gain. What would the world be like, if once in a week, as a kind of observance of Sabbath rest from the weary bustle of pride and envy and wrath, we were to direct a single act of love, even gruff love, towards someone who has hurt us, or who hates us, or who mocks us, or who (and this is the terrible secret of bullies, for example) is afraid of us? Would we make conversions to Christ? Indeed we would. First among them would be ourselves.

     And, as if to confirm my thoughts and abash me at once, one of the finest students I have ever taught came to visit at my office the other day. His senior year had been made miserable by a professor who is what I call a "destroyer," that is, someone who cannot bear that anyone else should uphold a standard of goodness and beauty that she (in this case it was a woman; most of the really determined destroyers at my school are men) had rejected. We talked about it for a little bit, after which I said, as if I were the possessor of great wisdom, "You should pray for her."

     "I do," he said.



Useless Utility
Wednesday, December 16, 2009, 6:40 PM

     This Advent at the Esolen house, as always, we watch old Christmas specials, including my half-guilty favorite, which is the musical cartoon version of A Christmas Carol, with Mister Magoo as the grasping old bill collector Ebenezer Scrooge, and Jack Cassidy (of all people) as Bob Cratchit, and Morey Amsterdam making his voice go small for Tiny Tim.  "Are there no workhouses?" sneers Jim Backus, in the inimitably squeaky and sly voice of Magoo-Scrooge, about to tell a couple of pleaders for charity where to go.  "Are there no prisons?"  Scrooge pays handsomely for such institutions, he says, and those who cannot afford better must go there.

     Now the popular interpretation of the story is that Scrooge is merely greedy, and that once he is persuaded to loosen up his death-grip on the moneybags, all will be well.  That, of course, is completely to misconstrue what Dickens cares about most deeply.  Scrooge indeed will loosen that death-grip, but only after he has undergone a change of heart, which will involve a rejection of utilitarianism and an acceptance of the Christian belief that every human being, even a crippled little boy named Tim, is of inestimable worth, and cannot finally be placed in a balance with material goods and material pleasures.  And that is a lesson of enduring value.  Scrooge, today, would not be the tight-lipped honor-clamped Victorian man of business; he might instead be a profiteer in bad mortgages, lavishing himself with a posh mansion and trips to the Caribbean.  The utilitarianism underlying his "business," or his refusal to see that mankind is his business, would be the same, and must be rejected for the same reasons.

     For it is a marvelous paradox, that if we really wanted the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and if we really counted as "good" those things that are transcendently good, such as the love of a little child, then utilitarianism testifies against itself and declares that the last thing we should want to do is to produce utilitarians.  Let me enumerate some of the reasons.

     First, it is one thing to say that in the utilitarian calculus everyone ought to count the same, and quite another thing to move the hearts of men to make that accounting correct.  Dickens shows us one of the possibilities in Mr. Scrooge himself.  He pays taxes (plenty of them, as he thinks) to a reformist government that sets up the palliative institutions.  For him, the mass of mankind have receded into abstraction — relieving him of the necessity to attend to the pain of any one uncomfortably corporeal person near to him, as for instance his struggling nephew Fred, or his penurious clerk Bob.  The other possibility is embodied in Dickens' satire on bad charity, Mrs. Jellyby, in Bleak House.  This woman procures subscriptions to assist the natives of Borioboola-Gha (and to assist, not coincidentally, the British coffee trade), at the expense of her own children, whom she ignores.  She practices what Dickens calls "telescopic philanthropy," meaning that she is of no use whatever to anyone; rather, she is consumed in selfishness, albeit a pleasanter and more dreamy-eyed selfishness than that of Scrooge.

     Now it will not do to object that these are extremes, because Dickens' very aim is to show the utilitarian or the global philanthropist in pure state — and not give them credit for a humanity which their system perversely denies.  For both Scrooge and Mrs. Jellyby show that one cannot love that abstraction called "humanity," and that therefore all actions performed in order to increase the total happiness of humanity must be vitiated by that same lovelessness.  If it be objected that Scrooge should have taken care of Bob Cratchit, and that Mrs. Jellyby should have seen to her own children, I reply that indeed they should have — and would have, had they learned to love those nearest to them, and to esteem them as valuable beyond reckoning — which is but another way of saying the same thing.  But then they must cease to be utilitarians.

     For – and this is my second reason — the utilitarian cannot admit of inestimable value, without rendering all calculation pointless.  It is one thing to say that calculation and love do not coexist; and that we would all be better off producing people who love rather than people who calculate.  It is another, and more potent, thing to say that the terms of the calculus themselves have no meaning.  These views of the world are irreconcilable.  In one, the value of a crippled little boy is something no doubt very great but also determinate, needing to be weighed in the balance against, say, the value of a sound pound sterling, and the free market, and the rights of collection agencies and repo men.  In the other, the whole purpose of having a law-of-the-household at all is that there might be households, so that a Tim would get enough food to eat.  "Mankind," says Jacob Marley, "was my business."

     Which leads me to my third objection — that utilitarianism enshrines a most particular and culturally determined version of the good life, and it is by no means clear that such a life deserves that enshrinement.  Let us suppose Ebenezer Scrooge with the same habits of mind, except that he has been persuaded, for the sake of the country, that a certain amount of almsgiving would in fact redound to his own benefit and to the benefit of a great number of others.  What, essentially, would be so different about him?  The Cratchits would be better off, no question, but we would still have in Ebenezer a man swaddled up in selfishness, dead to genuine love.  Give him some pleasant tastes in diversion — the opera, the playhouse — and he might even pass for a boon companion, but hardly a friend, much less a man who encounters the depths and the mystery of life.

     Perhaps Scrooge would be, then, what we train our children to be now.  I recall a conversation I had last year with a very smart professor of health policy, a Christian of sorts, who laid it down as certain that health at least was necessary for human flourishing; we could all agree on that.  I couldn't agree, though; I was thinking of a pair of useless people who changed millions of lives, and neither of them enjoyed good health.  One was the ragged Saint Francis of Assisi, and the other was a girl who caught tuberculosis and spent the rest of her short youth in a convent, dying in agony — and in peace: Therese of Lisieux.  I simply do not see how holiness can be measured — and holiness, not health, not wealth, not prestige, not victories on the golf tour, is the ultimate standard for a truly human life.

     Be advised, Christians!  Attend to the Master, who never says to us, "Succeed in the world!"  The next time someone asks what you hope your children will be, shake the earth beneath by replying, "Saints."  And, after all that, it is the saint and not the utilitarian who is of most use in shaping the world; he whips the utilitarian at his own game.



All That, and a Handful of Dust
Monday, December 14, 2009, 11:35 PM

     I am, I confess, something of a sports fan, though one with an uneasy conscience about it.  I enjoy the games as games, and turn aside from the glare, the hype, the noise of it all.  Then something like the Tiger Woods scandal happens, and we see how little it all means.  Yes, I am aware that Woods is not the first to fall to temptation.  Thousands of professionals have preceded him.  Yet there is something about his story that I find unsettling.

     Babe Ruth, you might say, was the Tiger Woods of baseball, and he was a notorious drinker and womanizer.  But that would not be exactly right.  The Babe was a man of prodigious appetites — for everything.  He ruined his season in 1925 by feats of gargantuan (I use the word deliberately) eating.  He was an orphan who grew up deprived of pleasures, and seemed to live his whole life in reckless and somehow childish pursuit of them all.  He had no great measure of malice or guile; his sins were all those of intemperance.  That is not Tiger Woods.

     Shawn Kemp, late of the NBA, fathered something like a dozen children upon eight or nine women; I don't recall the precise number of either, nor does it matter much.  He was a wholly selfish man, a bad teammate, a thug who would probably have landed behind bars were it not for basketball.  That is not Tiger Woods.

     Tiger is a man who was brought up with one goal in mind: to play golf.  There's what I'd call an eerie tape of him as a very little boy, sinking puts on the set of the old Mike Douglas Show.  I don't know what kind of childhood he had, but from the time of his first brilliant appearance on the PGA tour, he has never altered in his intense and single-minded pursuit of victory.  Like many other golfers, Tiger is a loner; he does not make friends easily, and he seldom seems relaxed in company.  He is not a drinker and carouser along with the other boys, as Mickey Mantle was; or a child at heart, who could join in a good game of stickball, as Willie Mays was.  He is not, apparently, one of those loners who takes refuge in a close family, as Ben Hogan did, and as, from what I have heard, Vijay Singh does.  He is instead a loner who is still searching for something, anything, to give his life a little spark, to provide meaning in a vast wasteland of victories.

     I grant that I could be misreading him.  But he does not have the marks of the intemperate man — like the four-times-married alcoholic John Daly.  He is reserved, wound tight, controlled, taciturn; rarely smiles, rarely to be seen chatting idly with other golfers.  I recall one time when Phil Mickelson (I think  it was Phil) won a tournament, his challenger, the late Payne Stewart — he of the Scottish caps and knickers, a man of a vibrant faith — ran up to him to congratulate him and to tell him that he was going to love being a father, for Mickelson's wife was soon to give birth to their first child.  Not in a thousand years can one imagine Tiger Woods doing such a thing.

     Payne Stewart died in an airplane crash a few years ago.  He wasn't one half the golfer Tiger Woods is, but he had blessings in abundance.  He had the faith; that which brings people together, not from the bottom, by the temporary coincidence of animal appetites, but from above, by what they love that transcends them all.  He had friends — many of them — and a family knit together with that faith, and hope, and love.  Tiger has a lot of money, a couple of small children whose welfare he has scorned, and, for the time being, a wife he has betrayed, and whom he may have to buy out, handsomely.  No matter for that; he has plenty of wealth to spare.  But what does he have to live for?

     When he passes Jack Nicklaus to be the all time leader in tournament victories, what will it have mattered?  Jack, aggressive on the course, not always beloved by his competitors, was a fiercely devoted family man, who took a great deal of time away from golf so that he could be with his sons.  Tiger Woods will probably never experience or even understand that kind of simple human contentment — or at least he will not, unless he is changed utterly.  The media-morons understand nothing of this, one of them going so far as to castigate the man for his bad taste in blondes.  Thus is the greatest golfer in the world turned at once into something less than a villain — a buffoon, without even the good humor at his own expense that the natural-born buffoon provides. 

     Someone should tell him that Payne Stewart knew something.

    



Hadst Thou Not Been With Us
Tuesday, December 8, 2009, 8:50 PM

Hadst thou not been with us, O Lord

Had You not been with me, when I stood small
Upon a windswept nothingness of height,
A cold crag of a soul alone — when all
Significance seemed swallowed up in night,

Siezed my slack arm and braced my shoulders right,
Undone my wandering, made me lift my cheek
To feel at first a little welling light
Long before I could see or hear or speak,

I would be dying now, the fool's slow way.
But You have led me to green fields, among
Children who wreathe their reckless arms and rove
Over the hills of everlasting day,
Scattering light and laughter.  They in song
Tell all I need to know of You, and love.


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