On natural law: desires and goods

This is the second of a four-part series on natural law ethics.  The first part can be found here.


Man is an animal, and like all animals is subject to cravings and urges whose satisfaction brings pleasure and whose frustration brings discomfort.  It is the mark of a nonrational urge that its aim is a subjective state of satisfaction rather than an objective state of affairs.  An irrational animal eats to satisfy hunger, and it congregates with its fellows for the comfort of being part of the herd.  An outside observer can identify objective functions served by these urges, how they keep the animal alive and contribute to the excellence proper to its species.  The animal itself, if it is irrational, cannot achieve the mental separation from its own immanent compulsions to take this outside view.  For small decisions–like the decision to have a snack or watch a television show–humans too are often content to gratify their urges.  For important things, though, we demand motives of another sort.

Man is not just an animal, but also a person.  To be a person means that one is not locked in immanence; one can take an outside view even when one’s own impulses are in play.  In addition to being driven by urges, we can be motivated by reasons.  For rational actions, the ultimate end is not subjective satisfation, but some objective state of affairs regarded as good.  Let us call these ends–objective states of affairs regarded as valuable in themselves–as “goods”.  Because we act to preserve goods, rather than just satisfy urges, we are more than just very clever animals.  We hear the claims of objective value; this is our special dignity as persons.

Usually, cravings and goods are not antagonistic motives.  Goods serve not to frustrate cravings, but to enoble them by showing how any given craving is ordered to an objective good.  Our satisfaction of this desire is “rationalized”, not in the common sense of that word as “given a spurious excuse” but in its literal sense.  The desire is elevated to rational life; it becomes meaningful as the bodily apprehension of a real good.  Mind and body are harmonized.  Our natural capabilities as humans also acquire meaning–when we identify what good a capability is ordered toward serving, we say that we have found that capability’s function.

Some examples may help.  We all know the desire to believe things that comfort us–that we are safe, valued, loved.  However, there is also a great good in knowing the truth and comporting oneself to it, even if the truth happens to be distressing.  Our sensory organs and our intellect are intrinsically ordered toward truth–it’s their function.  Notice here that intrinsic function can be something different from adaptive value.  No doubt it was the ability to evade predators and capture prey, or something like that, that selected for these abilities.  Nevertheless, their function is to truth.  No one doubts that truth–at least about important things–is good in itself, and acquiring this good is simply what the senses and intellect do.  To know the truth would be for them to be doing their basic activity fully and without hindrance. In the bodily order, there are physical pleasures;  they are related to but distinct from the good of health.  In the interpersonal order, we crave the feeling of being loved; this is related to but distinct from the good of really being loved and the good of true intimacy.  In the social order, there is the comfort of the crowd; this is distinct from but usually related to the good of moral community.

For each good, there is a similacrum whereby one can choose to separate the good from its accompanying pleasures and seek only the latter.  To do so is to degrade oneself, to descend into the subpersonal level of immanence, to forsake truth.  All forms of self-deception are degrading in this way.  So, to a lesser extent, is gluttony, attending to the body as a nexus of pleasures rather than goods.  Most pitiable of all are counterfeit interpersonal pleasures.  Prostitution is a base substitute for the marital bond, stripping the conjugal embrace of it’s personal dimension by paying a woman to pretend to be one’s wife.  I once saw a news documentary on a service in Japan whereby lonely old men could hire a group of actors to pretend to be their family for a day.  I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.  What a great failure it is of that society that there seem to be so many people living without the genuine good of family love.

The list of natural goods doesn’t itself provide us with the first principles of practical reasoning.  These are given by the two great commandments:  to love God with all one’s heart, mind and soul, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  What natural goods do is to tell us what it means to love one’s neighbor and what it means to love oneself.  We love them by promoting what is good for them.  Of all the natural functions identified by natural lawyers, the most noble are those identified as serving the good of other people.  These functions identify humanity as being “designed” for love.  Hence the special attention natural law gives to man’s reproductive capacities.  Most of our bodily features are ordered to our own good, but masculinity and femininity are ordered to serving another.  Every difference between men and women points to a way that each is called to promote the good of child or spouse.  It is obviously not for their own good, individualistically conceived, that women have breasts, but for their childrens’.  (We natural law advocates really like tits.  They’re such obvious examples of this kind of thing.)

One might object that this perception of natural goods is really just a projection of the human mind, rather than a real feature of nature.  This objection fails to recognize that the human mind is itself a part of human nature, so that if our intellects are apt to assign a particular meaning to certain biological facts, this is itself a fact of human nature.  The accusation of projection is only meaningful when the subject and object are different.  It makes sense to say that “humans find worms disgusting” is a fact about human nature rather than worm nature and should be considered irrelevant to the study of worms.  That human reason discerns gender differences as being ordered to family and reproduction is not extraneous in this way.

A more serious objection is that our understanding of human goods and functions might just be cultural artifacts. After all, we do see nontrivial differences in mores and ethical beliefs between cultures.  The response to this objection must be more subtle, because it does point to an important aspect of social life.  Our recognition of human nature is mediated by our culture.  It’s not simply that some parts of morality (the natural law part) are given directly by nature while some other unrelated parts (“mere” custom) are set by the culture.  If it were that simple, natural lawyers wouldn’t have to care about the culture.   Nor can we settle for the cultural relativism of many anthropologists, according to which there are certain universal tasks that any collection of humans must perform to survive multiple generations (this being the “natural” part) but that how these tasks are fulfilled (e.g. children raised by parents or by the tribe as a whole) are cultural/historical fabrications about which nothing else can be said, at least on the level of universal human nature.  An advocate of natural law reads a thick account of human flourishing from the data of human nature, and not every arrangement that enables social survival will also be found to promote integral personal excellence.

I wish to avoid the error, common among natural law ethicists, of trying to prove too much at an overly abstract level.  There’s no need to claim that my culture has a complete list of human goods or that it has a fully adequate understanding of any of them.  In fact, I will be arguing later (in the final part of this series) we usually don’t understand the natural meanings of our acts in their full depth, and that this is an important part of the natural law understanding of the human condition.  Nor is it true that humanity has never posited false goods.  Liberalism itself could be said to be positing a new fundamental human good, one unrecognized as such by all past civilizations, namely personal autonomy–a sort of super-good that overrides all others.  Since I reject this elevation of autonomy, I cannot argue in general that anything ever believed to be a human good must really be one.

How does one tell true goods from false ones.  I believe that children are a true good and autonomy a false good, but how can I be sure of this?  There are several clear indicators.  First, there is the consensus of all mankind; every people except our own has always regarded descendants as a blessing, and everyone but the perverse West has regarded individualism as a social disease.  Second, there is consistency with the great commandments.  True human goods give us ways of loving God, self, and neighbor, and while it is always possible to pursue a genuine good illicitly, i.e. in a way incompatible with these loves, no genuine good involves rejecting the commandment by its very nature.  Having children with one’s spouse is an expression of and opportunity for love of neighbor.  Autonomy, on the other hand, involves by its very nature a rejection of God’s rightful sovereignty.  Third, there is the consistency between goods.  Since human nature is presumed to be intelligible, no true good should intrinsically contradict another one, although, again, accidents of circumstance may force us to choose between them.  So, for example, a man must in practice often sacrifice many true goods for his children, but having children doesn’t intrinsically preclude any other good.  Autonomy, on the other hand, intrinsically requires an at least partial rejection of the good of knowing the truth and the good of living in community.  Both truth and community limit one’s ability to posit one’s own conception of the Good in complete independence of an objective order of being and of other people.  Fourth, there is objectivity; as we have said, the point of natural goods is that they emancipate us from our own point of view.  The claim of autonomous man to dictate all value from his own will makes it impossible for him to escape from himself, just as an emperor who conquered the whole world would have no way to visit a foreign country.  Finally, there is the consideration of function:  a true good involves the perfect activity of some natural human function.  Begetting and raising children is the execution of many natural functions (functions that would otherwise have no natural meaning at all).  Here the defender of autonomy might seem to have a leg to stand on.  Surely the autonomous positing of meaning is the highest execution of our faculty of choice?  In fact it is not.  Conversion and martyrdom are the highest examples of free choice, and these are authentic but not autonomous.  In them, a person freely affirms what is recognized as an objective supreme Good. All other rational choices do this same thing, if to a lesser degree.  Positing a meaning of life as a naked act of will would be something much different–a perverse form of choice detached from the larger context of human goods.  (In fact, most such attempts to define the good for oneself just involve delivering oneself over to subrational impulses.  It could hardly be any other way.  Man cannot really posit goods; he can only recognize them.  If he discards these preexisting goods and looks inside himself for another principle of action, he will find nothing but his pre-rational cravings.)

From the above, one can see that there are rational criteria for distinguishing true from false natural goods.  One can easily convince oneself that the traditionally recognized ones show all the marks of being genuine.

Me, my father, and Billy Joel

I got my taste in music from my parents, and my father was the one who introduced me to Billy Joel.  It’s an association that has outlasted two technologies; my parents have The Stranger and An Innocent Man on record and Storm Front and River of Dreams on cassette cape, and I’ve got the four-volume Greatest Hits on CD.  Most rock singers peak and fade quickly, and their songs only capture what they were at one moment in life.  Mr. Joel, however, was productive for a very long time, and it’s very interesting to just listen to the Greatest Hits CDs sequentially and see how a man’s perspective changes with time.

One day, I think it was when I was in college and visiting home, my father and I were on a drive somewhere, and Piano Man was playing on the radio.  In the song, Billy Joel’s character is a piano man at a bar reminiscing on what a bunch of losers everyone around him is:

Now Paul is a real estate novelist \ Who never had time for a wife \ And he’s talking with Davy \ who’s still in the navy \ And probably will be for life \ And the waitress is practicing politics \ As the businessmen slowly get stoned \ Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness \ But it’s better than drinking alone

At this point, my dad pointed out that the piano man is being presumptuous in his pity for these people.  Perhaps Paul is really devoted to his career and not marrying was the right choice for him.  And the Navy is a perfectly good and honorable career.  Perhaps they’re unhappy, but the song doesn’t say so, so it’s just as likely to be the narrator’s imagination.  Really, nothing he sees justifies his dire conclusions about the people in the bar.  I hadn’t thought about it before, but once it was pointed out to me, I could see this smug sense of superiority throughout the song and in several others of the “early” Billy Joel era.  I can understand and pity these people because I live on a higher level of sensitivity and authenticity.  It’s a very common attitude among young men of an artistic or intellectual bent.  I was infected with a bit of it at the time myself; subtle hints like this from my father helped me outgrow it quickly.

Whether the point he’s making is good or bad, Joel is a songwriter who always puts a lot of thought into his lyrics; he at least tries to say something interesting, not just catchy.  One can’t assume a complete identity between him and the roles he puts on.  It could be that Joel meant the piano man to be arrogant and over-dramatic.  I’ve never been able to work up any offense at his most blasphemous song, Only the Good Die Young, because he right away establishes some distance between himself and the character.  The latter’s argument

Come out, Virginia- Don’t let me wait. / You Catholic girls start much too late. / Ah! But sooner or later it comes down to fate. / I might as well will be the one.

is so absurd, and it’s so impossible to imagine a girl actually going for it, that we know Joel can’t be speaking entirely in his own voice.

My father was also the one to notice that Joel’s perspectives changed significantly with age.  The later songs aren’t about girl chasing or other young men’s interests anymore.  As he put it, they sound more like the voice of a man with a family and responsibilities.  He pointed this out when we were listening to the “later” Joel song, The Downeaster Alexa.  This is one of the lesser-known Billy Joel songs, but one that my dad and I both really like.

Well I’m on the Downeaster “Alexa”
And I’m cruising through Block Island Sound
I have charted a course to the Vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound

We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardiner’s Bay
Like all the locals here I’ve had to sell my home
Too proud to leave I worked my fingers to the bone

So I could own my Downeaster “Alexa”
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can’t fall asleep

I’ve got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there’s fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren’t what they used to be
But I’ve got people back on land who count on me

Now I drive my Downeaster “Alexa”
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they tell me I can’t sell no stripers
And there’s no luck in swordfishing here.

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can’t make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain’t much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain’t no island left for islanders like me

The man who used to warn that “working too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack” has come to take the father’s provider role very seriously.

The thing that most strikes me about Joel’s later songs is his growing focus on transience, the sense that no matter how much we cherish them, all things are destined to pass away.  We certainly see it in the above song, where the character loves and wishes to carry on his father’s way of life but sees this way of life being destroyed by large impersonal forces that, in the long run, he cannot resist (the depletion of the fish population, in this case).  It’s a sentiment that certainly speaks to us reactionaries.

I think what happened is that time and a growing sense of mortality have turned Billy Joel from a cocky Jew into a sober atheist.  He knows–it’s the one thing that atheists know with unmatched clarity–that our time is short, very short.  One day, I was playing on the floor with little 12 month-old Julie with the CD player on in the background, and I happened to catch the lyrics

This is the time to remember \ Cause it will not last forever \ These are the days \ To hold on to \Cause we won’t \ Although we’ll want to

Nothing profound, but it hits me with more force than it used to.

Where is the comfort for an atheist, when he realizes that extinction is the fate of all things?  One of Billy Joel’s last songs was a lullabye to his daughter Alexa.

Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say
Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay
And like a boat out on the ocean
I’m rocking you to sleep
The water’s dark and deep
Inside this ancient heart
You’ll always be a part of me

Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be
Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me

Someday we’ll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on…
They never die
That’s how you
And I
Will be

This is how an atheist faces death.  He turns to his children, and thinks that perhaps a part of him will live on in them.  But then he remembers that someday they too will be gone.  Everyone he knew and loved will be not only dead but forgotten.  However we reach forward, no one can claim a place in the distant future.  If a higher meaning is to be found, we must look outside of time.  As he rocks his daughter to sleep, he senses that, although they are two distinct people–unique beings whose time is short, what they participate in, the love of fathers and daughters, is something ancient, perhaps even eternal.  Someday we’ll all be gone, but this moment we’re touching and enacting something of ultimate significance.

And this is true.

The tragedy of our age


Self-immolation of endangered peoples is sadly common. Stone-age cultures often disintegrate upon contact with the outside world. Their culture breaks down, and suicides skyrocket. An Australian researcher writes about “suicide contagion or cluster deaths – the phenomenon of indigenous people, particularly men from the same community taking their own lives at an alarming rate”. [3] Canada’s Aboriginal Health Foundation reports, “The overall suicide rate among First Nation communities is about twice that of the total Canadian population; the rate among Inuit is still higher – 6 to 11 times higher than the general population.” [4] Suicide is epidemic among Amazon tribes. The London Telegraph reported on November 19, 2000,

The largest tribe of Amazonian Indians, the 27,000-strong Guarani, are being devastated by a wave of suicides among their children, triggered by their coming into contact with the modern world. Once unheard of among Amazonian Indians, suicide is ravaging the Guarani, who live in the southwest of Brazil, an area that now has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. More than 280 Guarani have taken their own lives in the past 10 years, including 26 children under the age of 14 who have poisoned or hanged themselves. Alcoholism has become widespread, as has the desire to own radios, television sets and denim jeans, bringing an awareness of their poverty. Community structures and family unity have broken down and sacred rituals come to a halt.

Of the more than 6,000 languages now spoken on the planet, two become extinct each week, and by most estimates half will fall silent by the end of the century. [5] A United Nations report claims that nine-tenths of the languages now spoken will become extinct in the next hundred years. [6] Most endangered languages have a very small number of speakers. Perhaps a thousand distinct languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, many by tribes of only a few hundred members. Several are disappearing tribal languages spoken in the Amazon rainforest, the Andes Mountains, or the Siberian taiga. Eighteen languages have only one surviving speaker. It is painful to imagine how the world must look to these individuals. They are orphaned in eternity, wiped clean of memory, their existence reduced to the exigency of the moment.

But are these dying remnants of primitive societies really so different from the rest of us? Mortality stalks most of the peoples of the world – not this year or next, but within the horizon of human reckoning. A good deal of the world seems to have lost the taste for life. Fertility has fallen so far in parts of the industrial world that languages such as Ukrainian and Estonian will be endangered within a century and German, Japanese, and Italian within two. The repudiation of life among advanced countries living in prosperity and peace has no historical precedent, except perhaps in the anomie of Greece in its post-Alexandrian decline and Rome during the first centuries of the Common Era. But Greece fell to Rome, and Rome to the barbarians. In the past, nations that foresaw their own demise fell to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Plague, Famine, and Death. Riding point for the old quartet in today’s more civilized world is a Fifth Horseman: loss of faith. Today’s cultures are dying of apathy, not by the swords of their enemies.

Nor is the Muslim world immune:

But Islamic society is even more fragile. As Muslim fertility shrinks at a rate demographers have never seen before, it is converging on Europe’s catastrophically low fertility as if in time-lapse photography. The average 30-year-old Iranian woman comes from a family of six children, but she will bear only one or two children during her lifetime. Turkey and Algeria are just behind Iran on the way down, and most of the other Muslim countries are catching up quickly. By the middle of this century, the belt of Muslim countries from Morocco to Iran will become as gray as depopulating Europe. The Islamic world will have the same proportion of dependent elderly as the industrial countries – but one-tenth the productivity. A time bomb that cannot be defused is ticking in the Muslim world.

Facing the death of one’s culture and religion is the characteristic anguish of our time.  How odd that this great human drama will be largely overlooked by our artists and storytellers because their own individualistic, universalist prejudices keep them from seeing it.

H/T:  E. Feser

Segregation in the future

In my last post, I put out my thoughts on segregation as it existed in the pre-civil rights American South.  To sum up:  I’m not a fan of it, but I appreciate what I take to be its goal of maintaining two separate communities in their integrity.  It may be (as some commenters have said) that my opinions on this matter aren’t very well considered–it’s not a subject that greatly interests me–but I thought it was important to put them out before what I say next, so everyone will know where I’m coming from.

After the Civil Rights Act and the apotheosis of Martin Luther King Jr. in the public imagination, Republicans and mainstream conservatives more-or-less made a decision:  discard segregation (either because it’s evil or because it’s untenable) and focus all our distinct-culture-preserving energies on restricting immigration.  So, basically, whites are not allowed to have their own neighborhoods, but they are kind of allowed to have their own country.  That is, the majority culture gets to keep being the majority culture, and nonwhites are allowed (and expected) to assimilate into it.  You can’t keep the “darkies” off your street, but they don’t get to invite all their relatives from the old countries over, so that the country as a whole loses its character.

This was supposed to be the morally and electorally defensible position.  It’s not explicitly racist, but it addresses the conservative fear that our distinct culture is being drowned out by diversity.  Of course, the liberals gave mainstream conservatives no credit for their reconfiguration.  From their standpoint, any loyalty to a distinct cultural and ethnic background is racism, and they correctly saw that that was what’s behind the new position.  The liberal universalist creed is this:  All Americans are equal, and anybody who wants to can become an American.  Also, being an American just means living here and paying taxes; you can hate the native inhabitants and boast of your plans to devour half of the country for Mexico.  That’s not a threat; that’s cultural vibrancy, and we should be grateful to it.

The mainstream conservative stance has obviously failed.  The border was not effectively controlled, and America will become a hispanic country in the foreseeable future.  At the very least, Mexican loyalists will have an iron grip on American politics, so it will be impossible to resist the invasion at the national level.

One might ask if it will soon be time to reconsider the decision to reject segregation for immigration restriction.  As America becomes truly multicultural, border control is ceasing to do anything for cultural homogeneity.  Segregation may be our only hope for cultural survival (e.g. for your grandchildren to speak English and to refer to the Northern power in the Mexican-American War as “we”).  Would open borders + racially segregated neighborhoods be a better compromise than what we’ve got now?

One might ask whether the question is academic.  Once America is majority nonwhite, why would they make any concessions to the white population?  That presumes that we regard segregation as a concession, but I don’t know that that’s how they see it.  Blacks and hispanics by and large dislike whites (they make this very, very clear), and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to infer from this that they would just as soon not have to live with us.  In fact, it could be that ethno-cultural segregation will happen at their insistence, while whites (continuing our great tradition of not knowing what’s good for us) bemoan the loss of a “post-racial” future.

Conservatives and Jim Crow

What is a reactionary to make of pre-sixties segregation in the American South?  For Leftists, the answer is easy:  non-merit related discrimination, especially state-sponsored racial discrimination, is bad.  Leftists also have a ready explanation for how bad laws like this arose:  discrimination, and ethnic loyalty in general, are rooted in fear of the Other, which in turn comes from defective personality types and insufficient “education”.  Segregation is, in fact, Exhibit B for the liberals’ hatred-based understanding of ethnocultural solidarity.   (You all know what Exhibit A is.)

For reactionaries, discrimination is not necessarily bad, not even if it ends up dividing by races.  On the other hand, it’s not necessarily good either.  We certainly acknowledge that there can be invidious or stupid discrimination, just as there can be appropriate discrimination.  Once racial/cultural/sexual discrimination has been identified, the job of morally evaluation is done for the Leftist but only started for the Rightist.

Even if he ends up agreeing with the liberal that this particular instance of discrimination was bad, the reactionary will certainly reject the liberal’s explanation for it.  He denies that ethnocentrism–even when found in whites–is rooted in hatred.  But then he must explain how these laws did arise.

What then are the legitimate types of discriminatory arrangements?  They tend to fall into two types.

  1. The ghetto:  members of different cultures are separated so each culture will have space to instantiate itself
  2. The caste: society divides people according to function

Both the ghetto and caste systems, when properly arranged, provide some dignity and status to each party.  They do not tend, of course, to be egalitarian–some castes are higher than others, and ghetto walls have a definite “inside” and “outside”–but neither system should just be a matter of one party tormenting or exploiting the other.

The negroes were, of course, brought over as slaves.  Slave society is a kind of caste system, but only a morally legitimate one if slaves have definite rights and status.  Southern reformers hoped to push the slave society in this direction (i.e. to expunge the idea of slaves being property), but before that transformation could be completed, slavery was abolished.  Given post-13th Amendment American legal egalitarianism, an official caste system was now off the table.  Still, centuries of distinction had created two separate subcultures–white and black–and, understandably, neither was willing to annihilate itself by submersion in the other.  There was still the ghetto option of physical separation.  The fullest separation was the Liberia plan, which didn’t work.  Instead, America got segregation–laws and customs designed to keep whites and blacks separate, but not a system that really truly separated them.  The system, subsisting between the two models, had the coherence of neither.  The only part about it that was sensible for cultural preservation purposes was putting black and white children in separate schools.  The negro got neither the status of a caste nor the status of directing his own independent communities.  He got no positive status from segregation at all and experienced the system as pure humiliation.  This was indeed iniquitous.

The biggest difference between how liberals and conservatives see segregation is that liberals see it as a typical case of what ethnic/cultural loyalty leads to, while conservatives see it as an anomaly.  Of course, most real-world arrangements are imperfect and therefore “anomalous” to some extent, but Jim Crow was atypical in being such a muddle that it’s hard to see how any of it could have worked to maintain the two cultures of the South.  The conservative will, however, be sympathetic to this goal of cultural preservation.  There should be some way that whites and blacks can each venerate their separate ancestors (and thus continue being conscious of being two distinct subcultures) while getting along with each other.  Liberalism promised itself as the way to do this, but it hasn’t worked out, because it demands that whites revile their ancestors, which is cultural suicide.  Americans don’t like the ghetto or caste systems, but they’ve yet to find an alternative that accomplishes the same thing.

Keep your inner weird on a tight leash

There are men who can spin nightmares out of their heads.  What a gift!  I used to think to myself that if I had the talent to write fiction, I would like to write stories like Franz Kafka’s.  I loved it how, in stories like The Hunger Artist, The Penal Colony, or The Trial, he would take a single grotesque, insane idea but human being otherwise just as they are; then he would have all the characters act as if that one thing were completely normal and focus on little practical details of how to deal with it.  Then in grad school, I discovered the old 1960′s The Twilight Zone and thought it was the best television show ever.  Rod Serling had a real talent for the eerie, for creating the situation that starts out almost normal but just slightly “off”,  but off in the appropriately suggestive or dread-inducing way.  Take my favorite episode, Judgment Night, about an English ship in WWII separated from its convoy in a night fog, told from the point of view of a passenger who can remember nothing but his name and city of birth.  It perfectly captures the feel of being in a nightmare:  the missing details, the dread, the way you can feel events coming in the dream that haven’t happened yet.  The old Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie also does a good job with atmosphere and creepiness.

Making weirdness that is arresting and suggestive is a real gift, but to have great art, it needs to be disciplined and fitted into a coherent story with believable characters.  Coincidentally, Arts and Letters Daily has recently linked essays on two artists who show what happens when someone with the gift gets to let their inner weird loose.

Kurt Vonnegut was an entertaining science fiction writer.  That’s no small thing, and it’s too bad he didn’t seem to be satisfied with it.  Although he grew preachier with age, that’s not really what did him in artistically.  (The linked article makes the intriguing suggestion that Vonnegut lectured us on politics and culture because he thought that that’s what great authors were supposed to do, and that a “great author” image was needed to sell books.  I wonder if that’s true for many authors.)  Victor Hugo inserted a bunch of social policy essays into Les Miserables, but it’s still a damn readable story (just skip the essays).  The trouble, I think, was all the blasted playing around with the form of the novel that got to be a bigger and bigger part of his later works:  the doodles, the autobiographical asides, the inserting himself into his own novels (complete with his authorial God-like powers).  Sure, it’s entertaining at first, but you basically throw away any hope of making a dramatically compelling narrative.  I think Vonnegut’s best work was some of the earlier stuff, like The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night, where he tells pretty straight narratives.  The weirdness is still there, and it’s crucial for the novels’ success, but the weirdness is in the service of storytelling.  Slaughterhouse Five gave him, I think, the wrong signal.  Of course, that’s the book Vonnegut is most famous for, so he seems to have gotten the idea that letting his inner weird run free and undisciplined was what the readers wanted.  Still, I kept reading some of his weird books.  Breakfast of Champions, for example, had some amusing bits.  Galapagos was the last Vonnegut book I read, and it left me pretty well through with him.

Stephen Sondheim has a gift, no doubt.  Of course, nothing else he did was as popular–or as good–as West Side Story, which owes at least as much to composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins.  (About Robbins:  West Side Story is the only musical I can think of, except Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, where the dancing is a real highlight and not an annoying distraction.)  Just listen to the songs–almost any of them; there’s very little that isn’t top notch.  The music and lyrics come together perfectly.  And it’s in the service of a straightforward story, one that everyone was already basically familiar with.  Sondheim has had some other good stuff.  I own the soundtrack to Merrily We Roll Along, and I like it very much.  My parents got me the soundtrack to Passion one year for my birthday, and if I ever meet Stephen Sondheim, I’m going to ask for their money back.  Inside the tape cassette, it had an interview with him where he talked about how annoyed he was by the fact that ordinary people sing and hum to songs in West Side Story, and he didn’t want his new musical to “suffer” such a fate.  Mission accomplished, Steve.  In his later work, Sondheim has let his inner weird completely loose, tinkering with theater the way Vonnegut did with the novel, hardly bothering to engage his audience with anything that might interest them.  He’s suffered the fate of being allowed to focus on interesting ideas, while his reputation for genius saves him from having to tell compelling stories.  A musical about fairy tale characters and how “happily ever after” doesn’t really work out is a neat idea, but there’s more work to be done before it’s a good story.  (The linked article tells a damning anecdote about the audience reception of Into the Woods.)

Science fiction and fantasy writers have to be world-builders.  You need powerful weirdness to do this well.  But some writers get too wrapped up in the process, leaving art and audience behind.  Frank Herbert wrote the greatest science fiction novel of the last century.  Dune had an elaborate backdrop; Herbert worked out the history, politics, social forces, and even the religions of his galactic empire.  The sequel, Dune Messiah, was pretty good too.  I stopped with the series midway through Children of Dune, when Alia starts being visited by the ghost of Vladimir Harkonnen and cheating on her husband, or something like that.  It just wasn’t fun anymore.  My mother stuck it out for another couple of books.  Apparently Paul’s son turns into a giant worm and rules Arakkis, and then…and then…and then even the Amazon summaries become incomprehensible to me.

Reading the Lord of the Rings was one of the great experiences of my high school life.  Again, magnificent world creation.  A while later, I saw that my library had the Silmarillion; apparently Tolkien decided to abandon narrative and write some dense Middle Earth history.  I picked it up and looked at it, and then put it back on the shelf.  Maybe it’s good; I don’t know.  I would hate to have to learn that J. R. R. Tolkien let his inner weird loose.

The War of the Worlds

And so it was that after all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon the Earth.

Last week, I gave a lecture on the possibility that Mars had been habitable in the distant past.  It seemed like a good Halloween subject.  I decided to throw in some pictures of one of my favorite science fiction movies, the 1952 War of the Worlds, which I first saw as a kid and I’ve just rewatched.  Note:  I am not talking about the crappy Tom Cruise remake, the famous radio broadcast, or the H. G. Wells novel.  I’m talking about the movie where the Martian ships look like this:

Sure, there are some cheesy bits (this is a fifties alien invasion movie we’re talking about), and the less said about the science the better, but I still love this movie.

My impressions on seeing it again:

  1. Movies back then showed a striking (to modern movie-watchers) lack of hatred for our civilization.  The Martian conquest is described as both the end of humanity and of “civilization”, i.e. it’s not just a biological loss.  This is before sci fi moviewriters became fashionably alienated (or, at least, before it became fashionable to show off their alienation).  Our civilization is presumed to be worth defending, even though the Martians are obviously our technical and intellectual superiors.
  2. Alien invasion movies might help spiritually prepare people to question the Whig view of history.  In the fifties, belief in “progress” was, if anything, even stronger than today.  When the Reverend character speculates that, if the Martians are more advanced than us, surely they should be closer to God, this would have seemed reasonable to the audience.  The Martians, of course, provide a blunt disproof.  Material advance and spiritual or moral advance don’t always march together.  The “march of progress” only cares about the former.  Perhaps we should worry that someday we will be the ones who get trampled in progress’ march.
  3. Why did movies stop having narrators?  When your movie involves a worldwide calamity, it really helps.
  4. Those are still the most awesome alien spaceships in any movie.
  5. The nation that saw this movie had just endured a world war, and was currently going through a war in Korea.  War wasn’t a video game to them like it was to the makers of Independence Day.  Although the movie is told from the point of view of a scientist (a physicist who, we learn, had worked on the Manhattan Project), the military is a major presence in the movie.  The soldiers are competent and brave, but not in an action movie kind of way.  Their job is to shoot at an enemy who they have no realistic hope of stopping, and to do this until the enemy kills them.  (This is probably what it felt like being a soldier in one of our actual midcentury wars.)  The movie is acutely aware that war is not just a matter of the soldiers; the Martian invasion creates millions of pitiful refugees.  For me as a child, the most memorable scene in the movie was the evacuation of a major American city–I think it was Los Angeles.  Cars with loadspeakers announce that the Martians are coming, and everyone must leave.  A mass of dispossessed people headed for the hills.  Hospitals carrying out the sick on stretchers.  The nearly empty city descends into anarchy as the last inhabitants claw each other for a spot on the last cars.  As a kid, I was particularly disturbed by an image showing a little boy, somehow separated from his parents, eating at an abandoned ice cream stand, oblivious to the coming danger.
  6. This is one of the only movies I’ve ever seen that handles religion well.  Given what we know of them, it makes psychological sense that, when trapped in the Martian attack, Silvia would run to a church, and that Dr. Forester would look for her there (presumably to die together).  The people in the churches, praying to God for deliverance, make a striking contrast to the irreligious anarchy (both Martian and human) outside.  When they are delivered, both they and the narrator–while supplying the natural explanation–invoke divine providence.
  7. Don’t laugh, but I think seeing this movie, and also the original “V“, as a kid had a big effect on me.   Most of my contemporaries had an idea that being outgunned, being invaded, being powerless, are things that happen to other people, not to Americans.  I’ve always imagined war from the losing side.  So it’s partly thanks to the sci fi movies I saw in my youth that I’ve never in my life supported any American military action.  When I was in junior high school, and we attacked Iraq for the first time, I had a nightmare of Iraqi tanks driving down my home street.  What if we lose this war?  What if they turn around and invade us?  In retrospect, that was a silly worry, but it broadened my sympathies.  I might just as easily have been born one of those Iraqis, and then the invincible American air power would have been like the invincible Martian war ships for me.  And it was easier for me to join a side of history that I knew to be weak and overwhelmed.

Is idolatry possible?

A modern philosopher [Max Scheler] supposes that every man believes of necessity either in God or in “idols”–which is to say, some finite good, such as his nation, his art, power, knowledge, the aquisition of money, the “ever repeated trumph with women”–some good that has become an absolute value to him, taking its place between him and God; and if only one proves to a man the conditionality of this good, thus “smashing” the idol, then the diverted religious act would all by itself return to its proper object.

This view presupposes that man’s relation to the finite goods he “idolizes” is essentially the same as his relationship to God, as if only the object were different:  only in that case could the mere substitution of the proper object for the wrong one save the man who has gone wrong.  But a man’s relation to the “particular something” that arrogates the supreme throne of his life’s values, pushing eternity aside, is always directed toward the experience and use of an It, a thing, an object of enjoyment.  For only this kind of relation can bar the view to God, by interposing the impenetrable It-world; the relation that says You always opens it up again.  Whoever is dominated by the idol whom he wants to acquire, have, and hold, possessed by his desire to possess, can find a way to God only by returning, which involves a change not only of the goal but also of the kind of movement.  One can heal the possessed only by awakening and educating him to association, not by directing his possession toward God.  If a man remains in a state of possession, what does it mean that he no longer invokes the name of a demon or of a being that is for him distorted demonically, but that of God?  It means that he blasphemes.  It is blasphemy when a man whose idol has fallen down behind the altar desires to offer to God the unholy sacrifice that is piled up on the desecrated altar.

When a man loves a woman so that her life is present in his own, the You of her eyes allows him to gaze into a ray of the eternal You.  But if a man lusts after the “ever repeated triumph”–you want to dangle before his lust a phantom of the eternal?  If one serves a people in a fire kindled by immeasurable fate–if one is willing to devote oneself to it, one means God.  But if the nation is for him an idol to which he desires to subjugate everything because in its image he extols his own–do you fancy that you only have to spoil the nation for him and he will then see the truth?  And what is it supposed to mean that a man treats money, which is un-being incarnate “as if it were God”?  What does the voluptuous delite of rapacity and hoarding have in common with the joy over the presence of that which is present?  Can mammon’s slave say ‘You’ to money?  And what could God be to him if he does not know how to say ‘You’?  He cannot serve two masters–not evern one after the other; he must first learn to serve differently.

–Martin Buber, from I and Thou, (transl. W. Kaufmann)

A couple of thoughts:

  1. I think both Scheler and Buber make valid points.  It’s true that everyone must have something that functions as a supreme value, and so he must have something functionally similar to God.  On the other hand, his devotion may be very dissimilar in quality, in substance.  Similarly, people often debate whether Marxism is a religion or an anti-religion, whether modern culture is a culture or an anti-culture.  The first is true for the thing’s function, the second for its substance.  For example, popular materialistic culture does provide a set of shared understandings that help people get along, and in that sense it serves the function of a culture.  On the other hand, if by “culture” we mean what most cultures would take to be their heart, those beliefs and customs that elevate a man with the collective wisdom of a whole people, then popular materialistic culture should be regarded as the opposite of a culture:  it maladapts a man for wisdom and holiness.
  2. I wonder if there really is such a thing as idolatry.  It seems that when someone worships God and recognizes Him as the fountain of all holiness, he realizes that God has a certain quality that creatures don’t have at all.  God doesn’t just have more of it.  He’s the only one with it; other beings only bear this quality to the extent that He dwells in them.  This seems to me a valid intuition.  But if it is true, then anyone who ever really revered and worshipped an idol must have seen something of the true God in it.  Was his worship really idolatrous then?  Something about Saint Boniface cutting down sacred trees doesn’t sit well with me.

Faustian morale

Had Nietzsche regarded his own times with fewer prejudices and less disposition to romantic championship of certain ethical creations, he would have perceived that a specifically Christian morale of compassion in his sense does not exist on Western European soil.  We must not let the words of humane formulae mislead us as to their real significance.  Between the morale that one has and the morale one thinks one has, there is a relation which is very obscure and very  unsteady…

The Faustian Culture has produced a long series of granite-men, the Classical never a one.  But in the North the great Saxon, Franconian, and Hohenstaufen emperors apear on the very threshold of the Culture, surrounded by giant-men like Henry the Lion and Gregory VII.  Then came the men of the Renaissance, of the struggle of the two roses, of the Huguenot Wars, the Spanish Conquistadores, the Prussian electors and kings, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes.  What other Culture has exhibited the like of these?  Where, on the hights of Faustian morale, from the Crusades to the World War, do we find anything of the “slave-morale”, the meek resignation, the deaconess’s caritas?  Only in pious and honored words, nowhere else.  The type of the very priesthood is Faustian; think of those magnificent bishops of the old German empire who on horseback led their flocks into battle, or those Popes who could force submission on a Henry IV and a Frederick II, of the Teutonic Knights in the Ostmark, of Luther’s challenge in which the old Northern heathendom rose up against old Roman, of the great Cardinals (Richelieu, Mazarin, Fleury) who shaped France.  That is Faustian morale, and one must be blind indeed if one does not see it efficient in the whole field of Western European history.  And it is only through such grand instances of worldly passion which express the consciousness of a mission that we are able to understand those of grand spiritual passion, of the upright and forthright caritas which nothing can resist, the dynamic charity that is so utterly unlike Classical moderation and early-Christian mildness.  Ther is a hardness in the sort of compassion that was practiced by the German mystics, the German and Spanish military Orders, the French and English Calvinists.  In the Russian, the Raskolnikov, type of charity a soul melts into the fraternity of souls; in the Faustian it arises out of it.

—from Spengler’s The Decline of the West

Pope Benedict and the virtuocratic world government strategy

Everybody knows that His Holiness reads my blog.  First, he endorsed the Adam Webb/Bonald Christian-Muslim antiliberal alliance strategy.  Now, the Vatican seems to be following through on the next aspect of Webb’s plan.  Webb thinks victory depends on the virtuocratic elites from each civilization coming together and establishing an international order.  Christians, Muslims, Confucians, and Hindus must create a world order based on our shared vision of man as having a transcendent horizon, before the liberals form a world order based on an individualist, materialist vision of man.  Such an order, Webb assures the demots, will respect the particularities of regional culture far better than a liberal order would.

Why, everybody wonders, is the supposedly ultra-conservative Vatican so hot for world government?  Don’t they realize they’re just empowering their persecutors?  Well, one must remember that empires have not always been bad for the Church.  She was not happy to see the Roman Empire fall.  Even in times of schism she was concerned enough for Byzantium to raise crusades on its behalf.  In the West, the Holy Roman Empire was, if not created by the Church, at least supported enthusiastically by her.  The breaking up of Spain’s American empire into nations led in short order to the rule of freemasons, the plundering of Church property, and the persecution of the faithful.

Also realize that there’s a strong dose of the Hegel-con in the Vatican’s conservatism.  Society must not only be just, it must be seen to be just; there must be an intelligibility to it for man to feel at home in it.  In the world of nation-states, each nation imposes what Hegel called ethical life (meaning intelligible order) inside its borders.  Between states, though, is the law of the jungle.  An overarching authority would give a sense of order to the relations between nations.  Could this authority be abused?  Sure, but conservatives generally don’t limit authority according to what they don’t want their enemies to be able to do.

On the other hand, conservatives do think about having authority limited in this way when its possession of the enemy is a near certainty.  Here one can reasonably say that the Church has blundered.  The virtuocratic world authority can only come into existence when there is an elite ready to man it.  This elite is supposed to be forged by the elites of each civilization who in dialogue realize that they share a common understanding of the good life.  Now, I know that Pope Benedict has been spending some time talking to Muslims, but I’d hardly say the process has gone so far that we form a unified force.  If the only elite in existence is the liberal elite, then there’s simply no doubt that they will control any government one designs, and they will rule it according to their principles.  The one-world rule thing should have been kept under wraps a little longer.



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