... and then there are Easters when we get to sing this.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
Monday, March 21, 2016
What I am about to write is, like much of what appears on this blog, hardly original. The basic points have been made before; all I am doing is repeating them in the light in which they strike me. But there can be a value in reiterating certain ideas, especially when those ideas strike at one of the particular blindnesses of a given age.
Provided that he or she is somewhere in or above the middle class, the modern American—probably the modern European as well—is practically obsessed with excellence of goods and of bodily health. Perhaps because it has been so long since the struggle to eat, to live, and to find shelter has been an urgent and time-consuming pursuit for them—for us—we tend to focus, sometimes a little too intensely, on the importance of choosing our goods, our foods, and our exercise routines well.
The actual dangers inherent in this tendency are matter for another time. Here I will only note that, if one’s life actually enables an abundance of lifestyle choices, there is certainly something to be said for making those choices matter. Living intentionally, while it can (like all other things) become a jealous god, is no bad answer to being saddled with an overabundance of worldly blessings.
Intentional living becomes particularly admirable when it takes the form of a choice to limit consumption. I have made fun elsewhere of Simple Livers, but the joke is a joke at the expense of those who abuse the concept. To declare that one will not buy more food or furniture than is necessary, and that one will be attentive to one’s own sense of “necessary,” constitutes a laudable decision.
Moreover, there is a certain broad degree of acceptance, among moderately thoughtful people at least, that such a decision is laudable. Despite the continued glorification of consumption across various media (which depend, after all, on consumption for their survival), most people if pressed will admit that there is something good about turning down a second piece of cake, or continuing to drive that used car a little bit longer. They might not make the same restrained decision themselves, but they can admire those who do (as well as those who don’t).
This is all the more striking when one considers the fact that both the desire to eat and the desire to possess are essential to human life. Without any food at all, you will die; without some goods (shelter from the weather, a few rags to cover one’s nakedness) personal long-term survival will not be possible either. Nevertheless, despite the necessity of food and goods for survival, we admire those who choose less food and fewer goods than they could easily obtain. The person who buys only what they need at the grocery store, who never throws food away, who always takes home a doggie bag, is admitted more than the person who is constantly having to throw away spoiled food, or who chooses to glut himself on restaurant meals.
What is still more striking: we admire those who make a voluntary choice not just to moderate but to drastically limit their consumption of food and goods. The person who fasts for a political cause, who chooses to limit their calorie intake to lose weight or sustain their long-term mental health, who eschews a car, who owns only fifty items—this person is regarded as practically a secular saint, one to be admired and emulated to the best of our weak ability.
Once again, to reiterate: I do not mean to (excessively) mock the secular saint of restrained consumption. His habits are essentially Christian, or rather, are those to which Christians should aspire, though he does not have Christian reasons for the aspiration. His habit of restraint and moderation is, in its Christian form, the virtue of temperance; and his most drastic limitations will be associated by the Christian with the special call of the Evangelical Counsels to holy poverty. Today we are perhaps more likely to encounter the abstemious urban professional than his equally moderate foreuncle, the abstemious monk. But the overall human attitude towards restraint in the areas of food and goods remains the same for us as it was for the early Christians or the medievals: respect and admiration.
In one third area, however, previous ages and our own part company dramatically. On one third appetite we stand in profound disagreement. That appetite of course is the appetite for reproduction.
I’ve chosen to use the term “reproductive appetite” in part because at bottom, that is what the appetite in question is directed towards. Take the most hardened evolutionary biologist aside and he will tell you that, while he enjoys his wife’s company for a variety of reasons, the basic reason for his enjoyment lies in the fact that it tends to perpetuate the species. On this, he and the pagan Aristotle and the Christian Aquinas and Pope Francis are all in agreement.
We tend, however, not to think of the reproductive appetite as being about reproduction. There has been a profound disjunction in modern American society between the desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another human being, and the species-oriented purpose of that desire. Of course, people have always had a tendency to pursue intimacy while attempting to avoid its sometimes inconvenient by-products.
But this tendency seems to have become in recent years the accepted norm. The attitude which was once the special province of adulterers has become the standard perspective of your average healthy American boy and girl: It feels good, so why not?
Meanwhile, while our respect for the actual necessity of the reproductive appetite has decreased (“Children? Pshaw. We’re overpopulated anyway”), our sense of the importance of the appetite—which I had better rename “the appetite for intimacy”—has increased. In fact, our respect for the appetite for intimacy has grown so great that we can no longer imagine moderating it, much less limiting it in a drastic way. In fact, we tend to view anyone who dares to do so as sick.
Think about it for a moment. Food and goods are necessary for life. The appetites for these things are not only good but individually necessary. Nevertheless, we recognize the moderation of these appetites as an important matter, and give great respect to those who achieve it. But the appetite for intimacy? Certainly it makes life more pleasant if indulged, but it is hardly necessary for individual survival; literally billions of people who have practiced abstinence or chastity have lived to tell the tale, and hundreds of millions have died at ripe old ages without having broken their fast.
And yet for some—dare I say it—perverse reason, the modern American persists in thinking of this appetite as the one which may not under any circumstances be moderated or questioned. Nay, he considers those who do moderate it as being themselves somehow distorted, ill, or perverted.
Meanwhile, he eats only sustainably raised goods, donates to the fight against world hunger, lives car-less in a city loft, and prefers open windows to air-conditioning.
I applaud his self-restraint, but I question his consistency.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
If I had the novelist’s privilege and somewhat more than the novelist’s usual power, I would be inclined to look to history for writing the story of this year’s coming election.
Specifically, I would look to 1852, when, on the fifty-third ballot, the Whig Party—passing over incumbent President Fillmore and the fiery, principled Daniel Webster—nominated General Winfield Scott, a showy, fussy military man whose platform ended up being virtually indistinguishable from that of the Democrats. It didn’t help that Scott himself was known for being quite antislavery, while the party platform was pro-slavery, which meant that neither the anti-slavery northern Whigs nor the pro-slavery southern Whigs could feel happy voting for Scott.
The similarity of platforms led to a personality-based campaign, low voter turnout, and a landslide win for the Democratic nominee, Franklin Pierce. Scott won only four states: Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Daniel Webster, who had run as the Union Party candidate when the Whigs failed to nominate him, had died during the campaign, but nevertheless won significant votes in Georgia and Massachusetts … which says something about how the voters were feeling about their choice of Pierce vs. Scott.
For Scott, read Trump; for Pierce read Clinton; for the Whigs, read the Republicans.
(Personally, in a Trump/Hillary campaign, I’d feel
strongly tempted to write in Antonin Scalia.
Heck, what harm could it do?)
By the next presidential election, in 1856, the dying Whig party held its last convention, where they unanimously endorsed not a candidate of their own, but the American Party candidate, Fillmore. The Whig party never regained its former political clout, and dissolved a few years later—some Whigs from both geographical sectors had joined the nativist American “Know-Nothing” Party , while many of the anti-slavery northern Whigs had been instrumental in creating the new Republican Party.
The Republican Party in 1856 nominated Frémont, with the slogan “Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont, and victory!” The Democrats, having nominated Buchanan, threatened that a Republican victory might lead to civil war. Buchanan won, perhaps in part due to a rumor, started by the American Party and capitalized on by the Democrats, that Frémont was—horrors!—a closeted Roman Catholic. Significantly, however, Frémont beat Buchanan in free states, while in the South the campaign became a contest between Buchanan (D) and Fillmore (A).
In my fantasy world, after the Republican Party dies in the Trump/Hillary contest, Paul Ryan and a Few Good Men (and Ladies) would found the Good Young Party (ahem), while the remaining Republicans would be free to endorse whatever spoiler candidate best represents their emptiness (Mitt Romney? or is that too unfair, even to Mitt Romney?). The GYP would probably lose the 2020 election, but it would be a glorious defeat.
In 1860, of course, the Republicans famously came back with Lincoln, who was seen at the convention as a moderate, compromise candidate: the front runner, William Seward, was considered too radical, while Salmon Chase and Edward Bates had made choices which alienated various segments of the Republican coalition. The party platform notably did not call for the abolition of slavery, but opposed its extension; abolitionists were angered by the decisions, and general did not trust Lincoln.
Meanwhile, the Democratic convention in Charleston was so contested that, after Douglas still failed to gain the necessary votes for nomination on the fifty-seventh ballot, the party adjourned without a nominee. Reconvening a month later, they managed to nominate Douglas—but only after a substantial number of the most radically pro-slavery delegates had walked out due to disagreements over the party platform.
Ultimately, of course, Lincoln won, firmly establishing the Republican Party as the successor to the Whigs; the South seceded; and the progress of the Civil War led to the Emancipation Proclamation and eventually to the freeing of all slaves.
Once again in my fantasy world, the GYP party candidate wins in 2024, and ends up sends a resounding number of federal programs back to the states during his term (though his campaign promise was limited to a humble vow to balance the budget).
A part of me (probably the part Treebeard would label “hasty”) enjoys imagining this all happen. It’s tempting to see, in the current Republican Party, one that—as the Whigs were—is made up of unsustainable coalitions which need to be realigned. But even if today’s Republican coalition is unsustainable (and that diagnosis may be more of a wish than a fact) there is no guarantee that the results of its dissolution for the country would be anywhere near as salutary as they (eventually) were in the nineteenth century. There is no reason, in other words, to think that a better party might rise out of the ashes. And in fact, there are reasons to assume the contrary.
For one thing, there were no less than seven parties in 1852, and the American Party did remarkably well in the 1856 campaign, suggesting that there was already a willingness among Americans to experiment with voting outside of a two party system. We are not so norm-defiant today: not even Ross Perot’s spoiler in the 1990s quite reached the epic proportions of the American Party’s success in the South in the 1850s.
It also doubtless helped the burgeoning Republican party of 1856 and 1860 that the Democrats, as the Whigs had been, were increasingly divided over slavery. But the Democratic party of today—despite punishing “front-runner” candidates like Hillary with insurgents like Bernie—seems to have no great difficulty in coming to compromise at the end of the day.
More importantly, whereas the Whigs were specifically divided over slavery, today the Republican Party is divided on multiple issues—making it more difficult to create a new emergent coalition if the party were to break down. It may be that the cry for a smaller federal government could perform a similar function to the cry to stop the spread of slavery; but I suspect that such negative messages, while they can work, tend to fly better when there is a clear human rights aspect. “Stop spreading slavery!” is (and should be!) a more effective message than “Stop federal encroachment!”
Moreover, the Democratic Party of today is not so clearly the enemy when it comes to federal encroachment as Democratic Party of the 1850s was when it came to slavery. While it is true that most Democrats have hardly seen a government expansion that they don’t like, it is also true that they don’t advertise this fact as one of their good qualities. The Democratic Party of the 1850s, however, were proudly and adamantly pro-slavery. It’s much easier to critique one’s opponents on the basis of a flaw which they own than on the basis of a flaw to which they occasionally coyly admit.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, there does not seem to be any degree of willingness among the Republican Party leadership to part ways over the issues that divide the party’s constituents. Republican voters may be exercised about immigration, abortion, regulation, failures in education, economic malaise, the collapse of the family, or what have you; but Republican Party leaders have shown no interest in leaving the party, as Whig leaders were once willing to do. The “Tea Party,” while a valiant effort to start the debate on tired political doctrines afresh, has largely remained subsumed under the Republican banner (though both the “establishment” Republicans and the “Tea Party” types remain uncomfortable with the alliance).
Overall, I think our problem is that there are so many problems—not just in American government but in American society—that hoping for them to be altered by a political realignment—as opposed to good old-fashioned one-on-one proselytizing by individual citizens amongst their neighbors—is futile. The society of the 1850s was sick when it came to slavery, and the glaring nature of that abuse is so great that it is almost impossible to compare to any other matter. But our society is sick on a whole range of things, most of which (with the possible exception of abortion) are less obviously evil to many than slavery was.
As I suggested above, there might be hope for a party or a candidate who, consolidating the various issues facing the party into what seems to be a major concern of many voters—the excessive expansion of government power—could simultaneously show that the real and potential abuses produced by a large federal government are in fact problems on the order of a grave moral evil. But to convincingly make such a case to the public at large would demand a level of rhetorical and dialectical eloquence which no candidate in recent years (no, not even the Great Communicator) has achieved.
And even if a politician were to make such a case as well as such a case could possibly be made, it still might fall on deaf ears. For to argue that the government is taking away your liberty presupposes that you have some appreciation of and desire for that liberty; and the love of liberty—as opposed to the love of license—cannot exist in a soul that does not also possess certain other qualities. Civic virtue is based on one’s broader moral health; civic virtues cannot exist in a soul that does not possess moral virtues.
And our culture has lost the moral virtues. We lack, rather obviously, the virtues understood as being “religious” or “theological”: faith, hope, and charity. But we also lack the virtues that Nature herself cries out to us that we need: the cardinal moral virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude. And we not only lack these virtues: we do not always even admire them anymore. Until that admiration, at least, is restored, I see no particular reason to look forward to a change in our political structure, in the vain hope that it might prove more salutary for our societal health than current arrangements.
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.
It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”—John Adams.
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Yes, the simple life is an excellent opportunity—like Gnosticism in the Ancient World and Manicheism in the Dark Ages—to practice that time-honored bait-and-switch in which we teach men to think of themselves as angels, only to reveal the truth to them too late. You may recall some of Screwtape’s classic advice on using human chastity: let them think they’re above it all, develop sense of pride about where they stand as opposed to ordinary people, and then, when they’ve become just complacent enough to imagine that they’ve developed some kind of virtue in the area, shoot off a volley of your best imagery and watch the fireworks go. Certainly, you can approach the matter of simple living in the same way.
But the appetite for possessions, unlike the reproductive drive and the desire for nourishment, does not provoke the same level of visceral disgust in human beings as gluttony and promiscuity. Because it is more closely connected to their rational than their animal natures, it is difficult for even the most excessive manifestations of the appetite to become so obviously subhuman. Exceptions exist, of course—the extremes of hoarding reported by American TV, or the excesses of certain public personalities in the matter of statuary and gold leafing may, perhaps, trigger something like the instinctive revulsion that the refined man feels at seeing another man “pig out”; but by and large it is far easier to tempt a person to despair after an impulse towards gluttony or unchastity than after an impulse buy.
On the whole then, I do not think the sudden attack is helpful against those who practice Simple Living—in which group I include everyone from the strictest minimalist to the casual recycler. Anyone who sees good in using or wasting little is a potential target: one has only to take the good of frugality and make it contrastive. From Mrs. DeForest wanting to leave her grandchildren a healthy planet to Mrs. DeForest looking down on Mrs. Frimp for putting bottles in the wrong receptacle is one short step for mankind, one great leap for Our Father Below. This is the kind of thing that the virtue Simple Living most naturally lends itself too: the minor sins of vanity and uncharitability which, taken to their natural conclusion, can eat up a lifetime of good works like a carpet of ivy on a crumbling brick wall.
It is also possible, of course, to simultaneously make the obvert choice of Simple(r) Living a shield under which the native human condition of greed can take cover. Is it possible, you ask, for someone who owns only fifty items in his Spartan apartment to be greedy? Oh, Wumpick, it is. Do you recall a certain man, known for his singularly uninteresting clothing and his habit of emblazoning every product his company produced with a faux-humble lowercase “i”, whose once-bare apartment was adorned by a Tiffany lamp? A single necessary item can become an object of great indulgence for those who live simply. And of course, this kind of hypocrisy is not limited to secular people: one recalls the nun whose vow of poverty forbade her to use more than one pin, but who confessed guiltily to her superior that she had been keeping a second one. Her conscience was bothered. But there is no reason that the ordinary Simple Liver’s should be.
An additional use of Simple Living is of course as an incentive to pride. Vanity, and uncharitable comparisons to one’s neighbors, I have already mentioned. But pride—not the desire to be seen as better, but the deep-seated belief, needing no assurance, that one is better than, indeed on a whole different level from other people—that should be the real goal of a tempter whose patient shows an inclination to the Simple Life. Comparisons will be necessary; fortunately, as I suggested in my last letter, many are already beginning to be culturally established. A previous generation, for example, would simply have thought Gothic Cathedrals in bad taste, or (if they belonged to the stricter sort of Puritanism) said that it was a wicked thing that the money wasn’t rather given to the poor. But our simple secularists see the very act of living well as being something to be ashamed of. Take care that they compare that living well to their well-living, and do not notice the similarities. Like Mrs. DeForest, let them begin by imagining that they are doing this for others, but do not let them think about it too much. They know intellectually that no amount of abstemiousness on their part will—in and of itself—guarantee a bowl of rice for one more child; do not let them ask what would. If the question crosses their mind, let the little well of warm emotions radiate briefly—they are thinking of others, after all!—before dissipating it quickly with a question about whether Uber or Zipcars are less extravagant. And of course, make sure that they determine the answer through extensive calculations leading to an arbitrary and contingent conclusion which no amount of argument with their friends can shake. Let them think that they have mastered the art of simplicity; purified their nature to the point of an almost angelic abstemiousness.
For they do aspire to be like angels, Wumpick—make no mistake about that. That is what lies at the root of this attraction to simplicity after all, just as it lies at the root of the love of mammon. Both the outrageously wealthy and the unbearably simple are after one thing: autonomy. No human being, of course, can ever really be autonomous. But we can tease them with the prospect, encouraging them as they divest (or increase) themselves one good at a time to think with each object that they are becoming more and more independent from the world and the flesh. What a surprise it will be to learn, finally, that all the time their “autonomy” was a mere pale and impotent emulation of the autonomy of that third and greatest enemy against whom the old monks, those earlier and more dangerous Simple Livers, so carefully guarded themselves.
Then, if you like, there will be despair—not the despair of having sinned through weakness against the god Simplicity that they worshiped, but the despair of knowing that, in the end, no human being is worthy or capable of measuring up to the glorious self-sufficiency of Our Father Below.
Your affectionate uncle,