“The Spirit of Man has been a stumbling block for all systematic philosophers of science.”
– Louis Bredvold
Louis Bredvold, in his brief and masterful work The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, asks two fundamental questions: “What is Natural Law & what are its alternatives?”. Why does this question matter? Put simply, it addresses whether our lives are guided by a Universal Divine Truth or by the arbitrary laws of man. Bredvold eloquently answers this vital question in three thoughtful steps. First, he defines what Natural Law is. Second, he articulates the arguments made by the greatest Enlightenment thinkers against the concept of the Natural Law. Finally, he presents the sharp and grounded rebuttal to this Enlightenment thought by the eminent Irish thinker and politician, Edmund Burke.
So what, exactly, is Natural Law? As Bredvold describes it, we must start with the notion of the two Laws of Nature: the scientific law and the moral law. The scientific law, it has been argued, is robust in its demonstrability. Gravity, the tides, and weather patterns can be observed. Velocity, acceleration, and force can be demonstrated. The moral laws, likewise, can also be observed and demonstrated. Bredvold articulates,
“When men recognized injustice and judged it as such, they thereby committed themselves to the idea of justice; call it what you will, call it the moral law, the conscience of mankind, the sense of decency, the Law of Nature, we cannot escape it without reducing human beings to mere things. The law for man is different from the law for things; we live in a world of standards and values; every day we live is a day of judgment.”
Aristotle would invoke the “Law of Nature” as acceptable legal doctrine. The Roman orator, Cicero, in De Legibus would reason that the fundamental principles of law rest NOT in the statutes and edicts of empowered men (which are prone to be arbitrary, vulgar, and self-serving). Rather, the fundamental principles of law rest in “Right Reason” which apprehends and conforms itself to eternal moral and spiritual values. It is this Right Reason which guides us towards the true, good, and beautiful and away from the false, evil, and hideous. Bredvold elaborates,
“We must be granted that it is legitimate to inquire whether the justice being actually administered is just. We must therefore search for the origin of law and justice. [Cicero] says, not in the opinions of men, nor in the will of those in position to command, but in Nature. This Nature can be known by the reason of man when it is full-grown and so perfected that it can rightly be called wisdom.”
“The Law of Nature…[continues] to exist in spite of the actuality of bad laws and inequitable decrees because it is Right Reason, understandable by men, but existing in the divine mind as the source of law and justice.”
The concept of “The Law of Nature” would transmit through time and across cultures to find itself informing the Justinian Code (of Roman Law), further developed/revealed by the Church Fathers (and later Augustine and Aquinas), and finally landing with Shakespeare, Coke, the American Founders, and the tenets of international law. As Sir Edward Coke admonished,
“Reason is the life of the Law; nay, the common law is itself nothing but reason.”
While the idea of Natural Law and Right Reason had advanced so far and full, skeptics emerged on the scene, especially in the eighteenth century era of the Enlightenment. Whether Natural Law was dismissed as shackling man to superstition, custom, or prejudice, the ultimate intended message was the same: by eliminating the notion of the Natural Law man is emancipated from weary strictures of tradition, law and its “ethics” are subjective and arbitrary, and man can rethink and reinvent a more “enlightened and liberating” foundation for and system of law.
Unfortunately, the cavalier sundering of law and morality, of rules and Right Reason led to a cold, “scientific” positivism focused on the “is” of law instead of the “oughts”. With no moral or ethical standard to aspire toward, laws are unmoored except for the acknowledgment that if you are in power, you can make the laws. And the legitimacy of the law resides wholly and simply in the fact that you have the power and thus, cannot otherwise be wrong in the law you enact. So too, a successor could erect contrary laws and likewise have complete legitimacy. When power is the standard and morality eliminated, anything goes. Period. No one can ask whether the justice enforced is just. As Bredvold warns,
“Laws become the measure of justice and injustice, not justice the measure of law.”
“Law is law simply because it is the will of the sovereign power.”
And as philosopher Thomas Hobbes declared,
“Nothing the sovereign power can do to a subject, on what pretense soever, can properly be called injustice or injury.”
Seeing the autocratic risks to this, Enlightenment thinkers sought to creatively thread the needle: Deny the presence of a Natural Law with its antiquated, repressive morality and obligations, BUT champion the existence of “Natural Rights” with incontestable entitlements. The paradox is obvious: an absence of obligations and an abundance of rights. A denial of an Eternal Law and an ardent affirmation of an Eternal Right. From this emerges a softer Enlightenment alternative to Hobbes’ draconian Enlightenment state. But, as Bredvold illustrates so well, the effort to pay no heed to a Natural Law and, instead, craft a soft morality to supplant Hobbes’ Leviathan state becomes so strained as to be bordering on the ridiculous.
The stark nature of Hobbes’ power-driven state moved other Enlightenment thinkers to soften up Hobbes’ truths. If Natural Law was to be denied, order would have to emerge from somewhere else lest anarchy followed by oppression would prevail. Enlightenment thinkers believed that order would come from “Science”. Science, which could bring about feats of engineering and manufacturing, wonders of agriculture and medicine, SURELY could do the same with human nature. Couldn’t it? As Hobbes would dream,
“For were the nature of human actions as distinctly known as the nature of quantity in geometrical figures, the strength of avarice and ambition… would presently faint and languish; and mankind should enjoy such an immortal peace, that… there would hardly be left any pretense for war.”
Descartes, Leibnitz, Craig, and Hutcheson promised the literal geometric solution to man’s moral and ethical conundrums. Descartes promised,
“If controversies were to arise there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants. For it would suffice for them to take their pencils in their hands, to sit down to their slates, and say to each other (with a friend to witness if they liked), ‘Let us calculate!'”
Locke introduced the notion of man as a blank slate written on by the combined forces of experience, education, and environment. If one perfects these influencing forces, one can perfect man. Helvetius introduced man as selfishly looking out for his own interests – to enhance pleasure and eliminate pain. Teachers and lawmakers have only to educate and control this self-interest to achieve man’s perfection. Draw man to virtue and away from vice, Helvetius said, and you perfect society. Rousseau disagreed, claiming man is naturally good – corruptible only by flawed institutions and best served by following his “feelings and instincts” derived from Nature, and not by following his conscience, “Right Reason”, or Natural Law.
Nature, according to the Enlightenment thinkers, is viewed differently from Natural Law. The preeminence of Man’s physiology and pathology, Man’s appetites and instincts, according to these thinkers, justify Man’s revolt against what are deemed “artificial” mores, customs, and norms. By relaxing (or eradicating) these traditional norms, Man is liberated to embrace his “naturally good” self. And if Man needs help achieving (or is found straying from) his “natural goodness”, then Society with the help of Modern Science can mold him. And this can be done through newly considered progressive education, governance, and social engineering. Interestingly, the men who have charged themselves with eliminating the traditional norms and innovating the new system to enhance humanity, are men themselves. They, apparently, are imbued with a keener intelligence and virtue than the flock of men to whom they are attending. Cicero’s notion of an Eternal Standard apprehended by “Right Reason” was replaced by a softly anti-civilizational positivist notion that describes man as he is (his feelings and appetites) devoid of judgment and standards. It was only a matter of time before a new standard – an arbitrary man-made standard – would be erected. And with this new standard would come power. The dreams of the Enlightenment thinkers were to, as Bredvold describes,
“Abolish the artificial man who is formed by customs, institutions, and prejudices, reeducate a generation or two, and the human race will enjoy the universal happiness for which it was intended by Nature. What causes the unfaithfulness of husband and wife? The institution of marriage; abolish marriage and there will be no unfaithfulness. Who wages wars? Kings do; let us abolish monarchy and wars will cease. The evil that humanity suffers from is somehow between men, not within them. It can be traced to the church, or to the government, or to the aristocracy, or to monogamy, or to the schools, or to eating meat, and so forth.”
In the midst of the enthusiasm to abolish traditional norms and standards, the new standard would be erected. And what would the appetite-driven Enlightenment worldview support as its new standard? “Growth” or “progress”. Growth or progress relative to what, away from what, and toward what is grossly unclear, but growth and progress must be achieved nonetheless. Eighteenth century thinker Gotthold Lessing illustrated this satisfaction with progress when he claimed he would choose the eternal search for truth over the eternal possession of truth.
As Enlightenment thinking would be further challenged beyond its aspiration toward growth and progress, it would advocate four pillars of philosophical thought:
1) The absence of a Divine Natural Law apprehended by Right Reason
2) The natural goodness and perfectibility of man corrupted only by flawed institutions, standards, and norms.
3) The need for man to grow and progress by listening to his own appetites.
4) The ability of elite leaders to educate, govern, and reform man and society through the successful application of Science.
It was this intellectual program which led Enlightenment thinkers to believe that dramatic changes to man and society were possible to the point of achieving utopia. Paraphrasing Helvetius, Bredvold said,
“Change the environment in which children grow up and in a generation or two all the evils will wither and blow away. Let but reason prevail. Adopt the new ideas propounded by the scientific moralist, the scientific psychologist, the scientific economist and political philosopher, and man will discover that he has unlimited power to change and direct his destiny – nay, even that his nature may become completely perfected.”
The thinkers argued that man is in no need of exorcism, because he himself is not evil – his environment is. Eradicate the evil in the environment, and you can make man perfect. As Holbach said,
“[The scientific moralists and lawgivers, the educators, the statesmen are all] gardeners who by varying systems of cultivation alter the character of men as they would alter the form of trees.”
The damnation of “corrupting institutions and norms” led the Enlightenment thinkers to greater degrees of antagonism towards civilization as we know it. With the rage toward the institutional villains (religion, aristocracy, monarchy, private property) impeding man’s perfection, and the promise of new institutions ushering man to perfection, the end would justify the means. If need be, violence, oppression, and ruthlessness would be a small price to pay to achieve utopia. Or so it was thought…
The Irish Whig politician, Edmund Burke, would beg to differ. Burke, the brilliant and earnest member of parliament in the British House of Commons, found himself consistently serving as the prized voice in a minority party advocating unpopular causes. He set his eyes and his acerbic tongue against the greatest moral threats of his day: slavery, bigoted anti-Catholicism, a power-drunk governor, a capricious king, and an untethered French mob. While his passionate entreaties changed little in the immediate circumstances, his historical reach has been immeasurable. Edmund Burke found himself arguing in direct opposition to the intellectual zeitgeist of the day. His inspiration? The Natural Law.
To the pillars of Enlightenment philosophical thought, Burke firmly rebutted:
1) There, indeed, IS an eternal Natural Law interpretable by Right Reason.
On the viciousness of Warren Hastings, British East India Company’s Governor-General of India, Burke blisters:
“[Hastings] makes the corrupt practice of mankind the principles of his government; he collects together the vicious examples of all the robbers and plunderers of Asia, forms the mass of their abuses into a code, and calls it the duty of a British governor… I believe so audacious a thing has never before [been] attempted by man. ‘He had arbitrary power!’ My Lords, the East India Company has no arbitrary power to give him. The king has no arbitrary power to give. Neither your Lordships, nor the Commons, nor the whole Legislature, have arbitrary power to give. Arbitrary power is a thing which no man can give. My Lords, no man can govern himself by his own will; much less can he be governed by the will of others. We are all born – high as well as low – governors as well as governed – in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existing law, a law prior to all our devices and all or conspiracies, paramount to our feelings, by which we are connected in the eternal frame of the universe, and out of which we cannot stir. This great law does not arise from our combinations and compacts; on the contrary, it gives them all the sanction they can have. Every good and perfect gift is of God; all power is of God; and He who has given the power, and from whom alone it originates, will never suffer it to be corrupted.”
2) Man, while good, is NOT perfectible and his traditional institutions are not innately or irredeemably corrupt. Burke said,
“[We need institutions] to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason.”
“We, in England, are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages.”
3) Man’s unharnessed appetites lead not to greater freedom, but to undisciplined disorder and tragedy. Burke again,
“The liberty, the only liberty, I mean is a liberty connected with order: that not only exists with order and virtue, but which cannot exist without them.”
(as Bredvold observes)
“Such a social order [as found in the English Constitution], the condition of a true and manly freedom… [could be brought about] only by the perseverance and effort of many generations, by the concurrence of many men and many tempers and many events, by embodying in institutions the wisdom of a whole people accumulated through many years; but such a social order, Burke lamented, can be demolished in a moment by the rashness and fury of very ordinary man. And the new revolutionary philosophy was tearing up the whole vast fabric of the social inheritance of Europe, and replacing it with untried innovations.”
4) The wisdom of intellectuals and the tools of Science are not infallible. Burke continues,
“Aristotle, the great master of reasoning, cautions, and with great weight and propriety, against this species of delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, as the most fallacious of all sophistry.”
While Edmund Burke gave an impassioned and articulate defense of man against the misguided logicians and philosophers of his day, his voice would go largely unheeded. Burke lost one fight after another. And yet, perhaps the political battles he lost are overshadowed by the robust intellectual war he ultimately won. Burke’s quiet truth has endured. It is up to us to listen.
Louis Bredvold, in the conclusion of The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, makes one last crucial point. It is a point that simply makes sense. If a man is asked what law is, he may simply answer that it is a means by which conflicts are settled in the best interests of society. This could be defines as a “Utilitarian” answer. If he were to agree that the creation of additional laws could define human nature, morals, and metaphysics, he would be giving a “Positivist” answer. But, most importantly, if man finds himself righteously indignant about a “shortcoming of the law”, a law or an application of law that does NOT settle a conflict or provide a definition that is satisfactory… then man has said that law is in adequate. And it is inadequate because it fails to be Just. And Justice is a more perfect standard. We all know what it is like to understand that something may conform with the rules, but that it may simply not “be right or fair”. This extraordinary observation reinforces that the bedrock of Natural Law can be intellectually dismissed in the abstract, but we all hold it firm and fast in our everyday lives. It is real because we feel it deep in our bones.
To Louis Bredvold’s original questions, “What is Natural Law and what are its alternatives?”. Natural Law is an eternal, unchanging Truth. It’s alternatives are not. It is as simple as that.
“A spectre is haunting eastern Europe: the spectre of what in the West is called dissent.”
It was 1978 when these words were first penned. A forty-two year old Czech playwright, Vaclav Havel, living in a ruthless Communist society felt he had little choice but to write. Havel, a man with suspect bourgeois roots and subversive political tendencies had previously proven himself to be an “uncooperative citizen” in Communist-run Czechoslovakia. In his youth, Havel had been denied various educational opportunities due to his family’s intellectual and bourgeois upbringing, so instead he would find himself writing internationally acclaimed plays. In spite of clear fears and frustrations, Havel was making a life for himself.
But in 1968, all of this would change. This year would see an eight month Czechoslovakian experiment of liberalization of travel, media, and speech (also known as the “Prague Spring”) crushed by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. During that time, Vaclav Havel would lend his voice to the resistance on Radio Free Czechoslovakia further solidifying his reputation as an enemy of the state. Subsequently, a draconian enforcement of Communist ideology through police-state tactics and civil rights deprivation would lead to Havel’s plays being banned and his travel curtailed. Defiant, Havel would illegally publish and distribute new plays and, most famously, collaborate with 250 others on the composition of Charter 77, a blistering attack on the repressive nature of the Czech Communist regime. Dubbed renegades, traitors, and agents of imperialism, the Communist government escalated efforts to persecute any involved in this work of subversion. Vaclav Havel, having proved to be a bright, unbending leader of a group of “dissidents” in Communist Czech society, soon found himself pursued, harassed, and ultimately arrested and imprisoned. But just prior to his arrest, Havel found that the perilous life he was leading helped him in ways he hadn’t anticipated – it sharply concentrated his mind. As his (and his countrymen’s) freedoms became increasingly encroached upon, a paradoxical truth became apparent. In a militant and mighty system erected on a bedrock of lies, the greatest weapon to confront it came not in the form of armies and guns, but in something quite clear and simple: the truth. And so Vaclav Havel began to write.
The Power of the Powerless is perhaps the most famous essay Vaclav Havel would ever write. Furthermore, it is one of the most well-known and instrumental pieces of dissident literature in the Cold War. Passed initially through underground channels in Eastern Europe, it would provide hope and solidarity to dissident movements in numerous Communist-bloc countries. More importantly, it would provide an education to the “Free World” about life in a Communist despotism that would rival the works of Orwell, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn. The timing of this essay would also be fortuitous following Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s Harvard Commencement Address (A World Split Apart) by several months, and preceding Pope John Paul II‘s visit to Poland and the emergence of the Polish Solidarity movement by less than two years.
The enduring question to be asked, however, about The Power of the Powerless is what does this essay say and why does it matter? Vaclav Havel told people what it was really like living in a Communist system. In the tradition of Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Kolakowski, and Kennan, Havel shined a bright light in the dark corners, physically shook the rotting edifice, weaved a compelling narrative so that all people – whether intellectual Communist fellow-travelers or worldly firebrand dissidents – would recognize the intellectual bankruptcy and moral turpitude of the Communist enterprise. And he did it brilliantly.
Havel described the Communist system as an anomalous dictatorship. Unlike most dictatorships which are local, lacking true historical roots, and legitimized largely by military power, the Communist dictatorship behaved like a “secularized religion”. It covered a broad area of diverse cultures, professed to be rooted in historical socialist movements with philosophical godfathers like Marx and Engels, and while conventional and nuclear weaponry posed as ultimate trump cards, it was often social pressures and indoctrination that enabled order to be maintained. As Havel would write:
“[Communism] offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life. In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediate available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life take on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.”
Undoubtedly, with control of civil and military power as well as the levers of economic production, the Communist system was clearly coercive. But an eerie complicity – a willingness of many to emotionally, spiritually, and ideologically “buy-in” or believe in the system – distinguishes Communist dictatorship from others where “buy-in” is simply cynically ingratiating oneself to the power structure in exchange for goods and services. This system was different. Havel writes,
“Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them… It enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves… It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own ‘fallen existence’, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.”
The Communist system, while promising to serve the people, ruthlessly demands the people serve it. While professing to protect the collective dignity of the people, it casually destroys the dignity of the individual in the name of the collective. These lies, the bald-faced hypocrisies, are accompanied by so many others, as Havel recounts:
“Government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary use of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”
It is here that Vaclav Havel makes one of his most compelling points about living within the Communist system:
“Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, ARE the system.”
Two points permeate Havel’s writing on the Communist system and its inhabitants. First, the regime is intent, at all costs, to craft a metaphysics, an ideology, a pseudo-reality to fill in any and all cracks of doubt or dissent by its subjects. If people are orderly because they are fearful, that is unstable and ultimately unsustainable because fear breeds resentment, and resentment breeds revolt. Instead, by crafting a world of lies, appearances, rituals, and philosophico-spiritual language, a regime can lull its underlings at worst and convert them at best to “the cause”. And what, is “the cause”? Power… indisputably and unflinchingly secure in the hands of the regime.
The second point Havel makes is the utter necessity for each individual’s complicity with the system – each individual’s willingness to “live within the lie.” For each citizen to comply – actively or passively – is to endorse the system, to contribute to the “pseudo-reality” of lies crafted by the regime, to pressure fellow citizens to fall in line, to push the frontiers of the dictatorship one person further against the truth of the “free world”. In doing so, the citizen has become both victim and accomplice. He loses his dignity. He has been used. He is empty and rendered less than human. That is, unless… he opts to “live within the truth.”
To “live within the truth” is to defy the unreality – in big ways, or in small. Havel’s example of the green-grocer organizing an underground group, or simply not putting the propaganda poster in his window is excellent. There is no shortage of fear under these regimes (or brutal consequence) and Havel admits this with sympathy. At the same time, he reinforces that fissures in the edifice of lies can come in big forms or small – and no small act of “living within the truth” is without its impact on the oppressive regime. Havel reinforces the threat of “living within the truth”:
“By breaking the rules of the game, [the citizen living within the truth] has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety…If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.”
In Havel’s eyes, to “live within the truth” requires a few things. First, a recognition of the “hidden sphere” within us and between us that will never be fed, fulfilled, or sustained by an external system, ideology, or abstraction. This “sphere” is a soul to be filled with faith, truth, and beauty. Second, a recognition that the edifice of society is the individual and the essence of the individual is a dignity that is inextinguishable. Finally, courage to object in ways big and small to a regime’s dehumanizing pseudo-realities that diminish human dignity in any way. To “live within the truth” is to empower the individual in even the most oppressive of circumstances. It is the power of the powerless.
Vaclav Havel and his fellow dissidents underwent withering trials to arrive at the wisdom evident in their lives and works. The lessons learned were hard-earned. Let us hope that these lessons are not easily forgotten.
Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)
Requiescat in pace
A Review of:
– Awakening the Moral Imagination: Teaching Virtues Through Fairy Tales by Vigen Guroian
– Of Weeds and Fairy Tales: The Idylls, Idols, and Devils That Corrupt the Moral Imagination by Vigen Guroian
– The Moral Imagination by Russell Kirk
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
A diminutive man who spins straw into gold. Evil stepmothers intent on destroying their stepdaughters’ lives. Beasts who must win love to transform into princes. Fairy godmothers. Giants with singing harps. Boys raised by wolf packs. “Once upon a time” and “happily ever after”. This is the stuff of fairy tales. This is the terrain of the moral imagination.
In several masterful articles, Russell Kirk and Vigen Guroian remind us of the sweet necessity humanity has for the story – and not just any story – but, more specifically, the fairy tale. How, it might be asked, can there be any enduring value in the silly-headed yarns that filled our childhood bedtimes with witches, frog-princes, and dragons? Aren’t there bigger problems, weightier issues, and worldly concerns that should crowd out these flights of fancy? In short, in an age of science and utter seriousness, don’t we just need to grow up? The simplest and most direct answer is: absolutely not. Perish the thought that we should ever cease being children.
It is fine to say this as a platitude, but what does it really mean? Quite simply, the stories of childhood matter. To consider these tales as something purely to occupy a child’s time would be to cheat them of their true import. Playing house, riding a bike, or assembling Legos could all play the same role. But stories are different. They have a message. Vigen Guroian quotes Flannery O’Connor:
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way…You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”
Even more, however, every story has a lesson or message, no matter how deeply buried. Children have an uncanny knack for identifying it. Ask either of my preschool daughters about Cinderella and you will experience a tempestuous ride through a tale of risk and reward, good and evil. Ask me about Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis and you will get a bumbling, boring, half-forgotten recitation with little abiding meaning. Fairy tales are different. Thus, if every story has a message, then it is vitally important to know what that message is. G.K. Chesterton brilliantly recognizes the vital dual role of fairy tales which mix the levity of a childish fable with the gravity of its deeper message when he says:
“That is the one eternal education: to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child.”
Now goblins and fairies, witches and giants may not exist. And massive beanstalks and eternally-sleeping princesses may be pure figments of fancy. But as wild and unpredictable as the rules may be in fairy tales, one thing is dead certain and stone serious: what is right and what is wrong. In fairy tales, the vehicle may be imaginative, but the message is moral. To indulge in these stories is to grow the moral imagination. And while it is essential to nurture the moral imagination in our children, it is also vital to cultivate it in ourselves. As Vigen Guroian quotes Alasdair MacIntyre:
“It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance… that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their minds.”
The nature of fairy tales is to compel – to draw you in. It is to propel you bodily into the center of the action so that the future of the kingdom, the fate of the princess, or the acquisition of the treasure all rely on you and you alone. In short, when you hear the fairy tale, you end up a little sweaty, goose-pimpled, and exhilarated that you were a part of something greater than yourself. You are hero, protagonist, and defender of good against evil. How much richer is this than the stale, common recitation of hollowed-out platitudes from agnostic professors to passionless tin-eared students? Again, Vigen Guroian quotes Flannery O’Connor:
“Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held a knife over Isaac.”
The morals of fairy tales move mountains. The ethics of academia perish at the mountain’s base.
The soul, Vigen Guroian and Russell Kirk argue, finds deep resonance in the moral imagination. Each of our lives is a story filled with temptation and sin, discipline and virtue. Morally imaginative tales provide us perspective and wisdom to guide us as our life story is unfolding. They model heroic deeds and virtues worthy of our aspiration, and dastardly deeds and vices worth of our opposition. As Vigen Guroian says:
“The moral imagination is the distinctively human power to conceive of men and women as moral beings, i.e, as persons, not things or animals whose value to us is their usefulness. It is the process by which the self makes metaphors out of images recorded by the senses and stored in memory, which then are employed to find and suppose moral correspondence in experience.”
Our modern era, preoccupied with political correctness and adrift in relativism, has all but bled the moral imagination out of the stories it teaches. In its place are hollow husks of style without substance, without meaning, without soul. As Russell Kirk has said:
“When literature has lost sight of its real object or purpose, literature is decadent.”
To be sure, an individual deprived of the tales of moral imagination can find himself confused, stunted, and desperately longing for a moral compass that is not forthcoming.
It is here that Russell Kirk and Vigen Guroian offer their greatest warning. The moral imagination is not an optional adjunct to one’s life – providing cheer and perspective if cultivated, but harmless and inconsequential if ignored. The soul hungry for the moral imagination will not be deprived of it. But it may seek, instead, imagination in its corrupted forms: the idyllic, the idolatrous, and the diabolical imagination (as dubbed by Kirk and Guroian).
The risk in neglecting the moral imagination is its replacement by the “amoral” and ultimately “anti-moral” imagination. In the absence of a story guiding us through the treacherous path between right and wrong, the soul finds itself grasping for shadowy replacements. The idyllic imagination seeks autonomy, liberation, and emancipation from “civic, social, and moral responsibilities”. Initially, seeming enlightening and self-actualizing, this imagination devolves to a soft hedonism and empty sensuality. Soon, bored and grasping for direction, the idyllic imagination is replaced by the idolatrous imagination which seeks to render the transient (e.g. celebrities, athletes, fashionable philosophies) permanent, and the permanent transient. Finally recognizing the emptiness of the idyllic imagination and the disappointment of the idolatrous imagination, the diabolical imagination emerges with the relativizing of good and evil, the softening or eliminating of consequences for actions, and the justification of egotism and greed. This is the dark, nihilistic end to a life deprived of a moral imagination. What the idyllic, idolatrous, and diabolical imagination seem so intent to jettison are the morals, norms, and the standards – what T.S. Eliot calls “the permanent things”. These “permanent things” are the bedrock of the moral imagination.
Perhaps in its most important role, the moral imagination reminds us of the invisible dignity within each one of us. The Spirit, the spark of God, the soul. As Russell Kirk would say:
“It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes.”
In the absence of this moral imagination, Edmund Burke would warn:
“[We are cast forth] from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonistic world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”
And as Vigen Guroian summed up so well:
“Plato argued that conversion to that which is moral, that which is just, that which is right and good is like an awakening – like remembering something long forgot. Symbols, allegories, fables, myths, and good stories have a special capacity to bring back to life the starved or atrophied moral imagination, to bring again to mind what we once knew (emphasis mine). Through dramatic depictions of the struggle between good and evil and the presentation of characters that embody and enact the possibilities therein, moral vision clears.
Light comes into our eyes – an illumination of our darkened intellect and a warming of our frozen hearts. Fairy tales are not scientific hypotheses, nor are they practical guides to living. They do something even better, however. They resonate with the deepest qualities of our humanity. They possess the power to draw us into the mystery of morality and virtue. They enable us to envision a world where there are norms and limits and where freedom respects the moral law or pays an especially high price.”
The moral imagination is indispensable, yet often neglected. But Russell Kirk and Vigen Guroian have achieved something vital in their work. They have called us to make a choice of enduring value and measureless reward, called us to start simply and behold the results, called us to cultivate “the permanent things” in our lives. It is really quite simple. Read a fairy tale to your child and yourself.
“I die the King’s Good Servant, but God‘s first.” – Thomas More, July 6, 1535
It all came down to one decision. It was simple, really. Would the right honorable gentleman assent to a question posed to all Englishmen by their Sovereign? Would he avow that the King of England is the “Only Head of the Church of England on Earth” and consequently could rightfully annul his own marriage to marry another? It was a kingly right granted by Parliament and seemingly agreed upon by “respectable” members of court and high society. Surely, this man too, could be reasonable? It was to this question that a sixteenth century English society breathlessly awaited an answer. And why the anxious anticipation? Because it was Sir Thomas More on whom they waited.
It is around this one question – this one decision – that Robert Bolt magnificently guides his readers in his play, A Man For All Seasons. The play’s title itself is emblematic of the intricate portrait Bolt seeks to paint of Thomas More. He borrows from one of More’s contemporaries, Robert Whittinton, who describes More as:
“A man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”
And while Thomas More is a captivating figure of history outside of Bolt’s poetic play, it is the words of Notre Dame history professor Fr. Marvin O’Connell that impress deeply the value of Bolt’s contribution:
“After all, the play’s the thing, and there may be more to be learned in one poetic experience than in the study of a thousand worn documents.”
And so it is. The story of Thomas More entrances chiefly because it is a story of conscience. In truth, the Acts of Supremacy and Succession (confirming the religious supremacy of King Henry VIII and the legitimacy of an heir produced with his new wife, Anne Boleyn), and the punishing Treason Act (for an individual failing to affirm the ‘Acts’) were far from simple and reasonable in the eyes of King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More. A friend of the King’s, a beloved husband and father, a man of letters, and a devout Catholic – Thomas found himself without conflict. That is not to mean that his journey would be without angst, pain, sacrifice, and, ultimately, death. But to Thomas, it was clear: The Supremacy of the Church on Earth rested inviolably with the Pope. The attempt to annul King Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was fatuous. The behavior of the King was selfish, immature, and heretical. And conscience – that is, the well-informed judgment (within each of us) hewed to the Natural Law of God – would not brook with it. As conscience would dictate, Thomas would follow.
“I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties… they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
But the story of Thomas More grows ever more complex. With a brilliant legal mind, a devoted Catholic faith, commitment to his family, and loyalty to his King, Thomas sought to preserve his conscience and his life. Yet Thomas would find himself drawn inexorably down a path dictated more by the terms of his enemies than his conscience anticipated. In spite of his deft, ethical calculations, the road he walked felt increasingly encroached upon and progressively airless as he found himself resigned from his Chancellorship, mercilessly interrogated, and ultimately imprisoned in the notorious Tower of London.
Thomas would rely on the notion that the true law conformed itself to God’s Will, and God’s Will is always just. If only the law were rightly observed in the matter of Thomas More’s refusal to take the oath (deemed so simple by so many) affirming the Acts, then that law would justly preserve Thomas’ conscience, dignity, and life. And yet Thomas More seemed to forget that where the passions of men are at play, God’s Law is dispensable. It was reasoned that by remaining mute on the Acts of Supremacy and Succession, except in giving nuanced assent to the obvious and uncontroversial, Thomas would be safe. His family would be anguished, his enemies would be irate, but Thomas was confident. Justice would be served. God’s Will would prevail. Thomas assured his wife, Alice:
“Set your mind at rest – this (tapping himself) is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.”
But, in spite of Thomas’ faith that all would be well, his King admonished him against even implied opposition, his wife warned of the ferocious tenacity of his enemies, and the King’s Chief Minister Cromwell grew singularly determined to destroy Thomas More. As Cromwell would plot with the perfidious Richard Rich:
“Sir Thomas is going to be a slippery fish, Richard; we need a net with a finer mesh.”
“It’s just a matter of finding the right law. Or making one.”
These words best characterize the conflict in which Thomas More found himself. In a circumstance where the law was jettisoned in the name of men’s caprice, the only entity intact to the bitter end was Thomas’ conscience. And while the law and fair judgment were crumbling around him, the debates Thomas had with his persecutors and family were what best represented the overwhelming power of conscience in a system disdainful of it. Thomas More famously exchanged with his friend-turned-persecutor, the Duke of Norfolk:
Duke: “Oh, confound all of this… (with real dignity) I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But, damn it, Thomas, look at those names [who signed and approved the Acts of Supremacy and Succession]… You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?”
Thomas More: (moved) “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
And Thomas More, pleadingly to his uncomprehending daughter, Meg, while he languished in the Tower of London:
“When a man takes an oath, Meg, he is holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands). And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
As Thomas realized that abiding by the law could not protect him from irrational passions, demagoguery, and outright perjury, a peace settles about him. Thomas no longer found satisfaction in the scales of law, but in the arms of God.
“In manners of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than by any other thing.”
And in a Christ-like fashion, while unjustly tried by the authorities of the day, Thomas imparted consolation to those around him as he was about to be decapitated. Thomas found himself becoming a figure of grace. To the headsman about to undertake his gruesome duty, Thomas reassured:
“Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.”
And to King Henry VIII, his Sovereign, friend, and true executioner, Thomas famously and sweetly reiterated:
“I die the King’s Good Servant, but God’s First.”
Indeed. Thomas More’s life ended abruptly on July 6, 1535. One question would dictate his fate. And Thomas chose aright. He followed his conscience. He followed his God.
I’d seen him once before. A December night on C-SPAN – and, likely, a rebroadcast. He spoke in what looked like a community center or senior high classroom to a smallish group of older, dispassionate adults. His topic was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Having recently written a biography on the German theologian and conspirator against Adolf Hitler, this puckish, engaging author was on a book tour. What stopped me in my tracks to watch him, however, was not simply his mastery of his subject, but rather his keen wit, his natural charm, and his willingness to passionately evangelize a story to an audience whether 15 or 5000 in size. I had seen him this one time. But it wasn’t until last Friday night that I truly met Eric Metaxas.
Mr. Metaxas was a guest speaker at the seamlessly organized “Faith & Life Lecture Series”, a program of talks devoted to exploring faith in the public sphere. Pastor Tim Westermeyer (full disclosure – a very close friend) has spearheaded and shepherded this decade-long series to re-infuse faith into the “public square” in a thoughtful and challenging way. Mr. Metaxas was the final speaker for this year’s series.
I was honored to be invited (with my wife) to meet Mr. Metaxas in advance of his lecture. I am in the process of reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and have found it captivating. We exchanged pleasantries, he inscribed our book and a second for my father. He kindly entertained questions and comments with charm and warmth. He was far from a New York Times best-selling author who may typically be bothered by a fan’s “too-long” anecdote or the 50th rendition of the same question. Mr. Metaxas was simply warm, witty, and eager even after a tiring day.
But it was the Eric Metaxas who spoke moments later that I and hundreds of others found riveting. In a large sanctuary at St. Philip the Deacon Church with standing room only, this slim, bespectacled man with a boyish shock of salt-and-pepper hair hypnotized his audience. With self-deprecating charm and razor-sharp wit, Mr. Metaxas walked us through his Greek-German (which, he would quip, meant effectively Greek) New York upbringing, his underfed agnosticism rendered into atheism by a mean Ivy League secularism, and his vocational wanderings landing him, inauspiciously, in his parents’ home and a Union Carbide proof-reading room. It was the story, humorously told, that we all can relate to (or as Metaxas might correct us, “a story with which we all can relate”). Success and failure, direction and vacillation, hope and apathy on the road through life. But it would be an evangelizing Episcopalian co-worker and a dream about a Golden Fish that would change Mr. Metaxas’ life. I would not do justice to his story of conversion from atheism to Christianity, so would heartily encourage a visit to http://www.ericmetaxas.com to hear it in his own words. It is his conversion that informed his decision to write about such faithful figures as William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The story is best reserved for Mr. Metaxas to tell, but he would likely relate that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was one called, devoted, and compelled to walking the walk of his Christian faith. Whether it was his parents’ haunting childhood call to accountability, his frustration with a disingenuous intellectual Christianity among theological peers, or a taste of visceral faith among believers at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, it seems that Bonhoeffer’s life responded to a Voice. While at times obscured by distraction and at other times painfully clear, the Voice faithfully guided Bonhoeffer. And perhaps it was in his courageous, precarious resistance to Hitler’s regime that the Voice whispered most sweetly and mournfully as Bonhoeffer gave his last full measure of devotion in the gallows of Flossenburg concentration camp.
Mr. Metaxas masterfully weaved this story to an entranced audience. Eloquently blending humor and high drama, he returned again and again to a recurring theme that haunted not only Bonhoeffer’s life, but haunts ours as well: We all must walk the walk. In conflicts great or small, public or private we must listen to the call and follow it. This gets to the heart of the vocational direction our lives must lead. The cost of discipleship is just that: costly. To engage in discipleship in the modern era is truly counter-cultural. But as Eric Metaxas would emphasize, it is as relevant and imperative today as it was 70 or even 2000 years ago. And while it may not be popular and it may not be easy, it is surely right. And worth it. Just ask Eric Metaxas. Just ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’m sure they would agree.
As a priest, Father Cenabre was a paragon. He was austere in his habits, scrupulous in his adherence to Church precepts, rigorous in his intellectual writings, and freely fluent among fellow Parisian sophisticates. He would earnestly make and hear Confession, meticulously serve his penance, consistently read his breviary, and answer priestly calls. But Father Cenabre jealously guarded one small secret: Father Cenabre didn’t believe in God anymore.
Such is the beginning of Georges Bernanos’ 1927 novel, The Imposter – a tale centered on one man’s (one priest’s) apostasy. Lest one be skeptical that this story risks becoming a trite, billowy tale of a man’s self-indulgent “voyage of self-discovery”, rest assured. Bernanos takes his charge very seriously.
Bernanos paints the canvas of Father Cenabre’s character with fine brush strokes. An academic priest aloof toward his admirers’ accolades, Cenabre was enamored with his own probing mind, and intolerant of mediocrity in others. He reveled in tantalizing his followers by being “suspect” in his writings without being a true “renegade” on matters of faith. Bernanos’ dominant shade in the priest’s portrait is Pride. While maintaining a respectable veneer of decency, Cenabre would suffer no fools – and he privately defined most people as fools.
And yet Bernanos’ story clearly shows that the wages of Pride are severe. It seems that this most ungenerous of vices ultimately consumes Cenabre – first blotting out tenderness and empathy for his fellow-men , then ultimately and intolerably eclipsing the Author of Love Himself. Cenabre finds that his faith, “slowly broken down by a delight in deliberate doubt and the sacrilege of loveless curiosity, had vanished completely, like a hitherto pointless physiological function once an organ has been destroyed.” His only regret seems not to be the loss of God, but the spurned resentment that God died “without a bit of a show, a bit of thunder and lightning.”
And while the dangers of Pride dominate the story, it is not the canned, predictable narrative one might expect. The Imposter is a tale rife with the merciless reckoning that a loving yet just God demands of us when we cling to Pride in spite of His entreaties, His inexhaustible love, and His grace. Bernanos seems to warn again and again that we clutch Pride to our utter damnation. For Pride is the first among sins in that it achieves estrangement and dismisses reconciliation. It is in this writing that Bernanos is at his best.
“No one is cast into Hell unless he has first thrust aside and drawn away from the terrible but gentle hand of God without having felt its grip. No one is abandoned unless he has committed the essential sacrilege of denying not the justice but the love of God. For the terrible Cross of wood may stand at the first dividing of the ways in our life to admonish us gravely and severely, but the last image we see before we take ourselves away forever is that other Cross of flesh, the two outstretched arms of the grievously suffering Friend, when the highest angel turns away in terror from the Face of a rejected God.”
“Many are those who have thought themselves finished with the soul forever and who have awoken in the arms of their angel, having received the gift of tears at the gates of Hell, like a new childhood.”
“In the greatest people, pride [is] disturbingly naive.”
Cenabre’s proud apostasy is even further illuminated by his chief foil, Father Chevance. Chevance is a stunted shadow in the withering presence of the honey-tongued Cenabre. He is a dishevelled, ostracized, and stammering priest called upon to hear Cenabre’s dramatized confession of religious abandonment. However, instead of being dominated by the force of Cenabre’s character, Chevance acts as the classic Bernanosian figure of grace. He demands that Cenabre abandon all pretense and fall into deep and penitential prayer for reconciliation. Father Cenabre, fully captive to Pride, balks and regrets having confided in Chevance. The story tragically unfolds as one priest devotes his last spiritual ounces to redeeming another who falls deeper into the abyss of heresy.
The Imposter is an unsettling work written by a brilliant author. It reminds us that the sin of Pride can be remarkably subtle and can deviously consume us by small degrees. But Bernanos reminds us of the sanctifying grace that can overcome all:
“Nevertheless, however cunning [the devil] may be, even his most ingenious tricks can harm the soul only in a roundabout way, as a town may be taken by poisoning its wells. He clouds our judgment, soils are imagination, rouses our flesh and blood, uses the contradictions in our nature with infinite skill, leads our joys astray, makes our sadness more bitter, and distorts our actions and intentions, but even when he has overthrown everything, he has still destroyed nothing. He needs OUR final consent and can only obtain it if God has not had His say. For however long [the devil] thinks he has delayed divine grace, it will burst forth, and he awaits its necessary and inevitable outpouring with immense dread, for his patient work can be swept away in an instant. He does not know where the lightning will strike.”