In times of great social and political turbulence, when basic institutions are broken, discourse within them is futile. But it is precisely then that adherence to traditional morality is not only fitting but essential, for the virtues that establish a society are also necessary for its maintenance…
In the present state of political and social decay many question the benefit of participation in the accepted channels of public discourse. Some remind us of Aristotle’s description that man is a “political animal” and that such participation is not only natural to man but is a moral responsibility. Political scientists and philosophers spend much effort in explaining the importance of political discourse, the public orthodoxy, and civil religion and they try to find means whereby the conservative or traditionalist can still have a voice to defend the values of the Christianized West. Others, however, argue for forming alternative communities and dropping out of a system which in their view is broken and participation in which is pointless. They may also remind us that Aristotle’s dictum is on the same level as Adam Smith’s: Man has a natural tendency to truck, barter, and exchange. Neither represents man in his highest activity or aspiration.
Claes Ryn, for example, in his Humanitas essay, “How Desperate Should We Be?” expresses his deep concern over the difficult issues facing Americans and the West in general. He is especially concerned because he believes we are not well prepared to face them, and so will be led to take desperate actions; and desperation, he maintains, is a sign of moral poverty. He identifies Plato as problematic here because,
He offers supposedly noble souls the classical excuse for not even trying to improve a mundane, discouraging society. Claiming to be a form of high spirituality, a type of holiness, this passivity simply yields to the dark forces but nevertheless claims moral credit for retreating. Ethereal and distant from real life as it is, this spirituality may be charged with escapism and a kind of moral incompetence or perversity. My criticism is not directed against all individual acts of withdrawal or turning the other cheek but against a generalized moral passivity dressed up as moral nobility.
Dr. Ryn is concerned that traditional moralism is rigid and blind to changing circumstances: “Moral thought prone toward merely ideal possibilities is ill-adapted to politics in general, but especially to situations far removed from the presumed ideal, for example, ones involving intense conflict and involving intense disorder.” We could also say, in other words, he is concerned about “broken systems.” How does one dialogue or otherwise participate effectively to advance the good in “times of great travail and danger”? How do we avoid in his terms, “a pretentious passivity” and the mindset of “catacomb religiosity” which “abandons the field” to the opposition?
What is the morally responsible perspective? As Dr. Ryn unfolds his argument he suggests that the answer lies in being morally “versatile” and in the cooperative effort between imagination, moral sensibility, and historically grounded reason. Unfortunately, there is little or nothing offered in the way of concrete examples of what this sort of new approach actually looks like except for the difficult and ambiguous use of Machiavelli. And it may be doubted that in times far removed from the ideal that traditional, idealistic, moral thought is as unequipped as he makes out to deal with such difficulties. Since he is partial to art and literature as giving even philosophers of political science insights, it will do well for us to consider three examples involving morally difficult situations. These can be understood to address, at least indirectly, some aspects of the issues Dr. Ryn raises. In it, we look at three types of courage related to selective secession, to the suspension of normal political discourse: the martial, the civil, and the private.
Working Outside the Polis
Picture a poor farming village in Mexico where communication and protection from the rurales, the rural police, are almost non-existent, the priest comes but twice a year, and the villagers are subject to raids and extortion from a gang of cutthroats. This is the extent of their polis, and political discourse is virtually nil. What chance do they have to effect change from within this broken, corrupt system? They finally turn to hired gunmen for help. The story is, of course, that of The Magnificent Seven.
The bandit chief is Calvera, the Machiavellian leader who plays the lion and the fox well, who uses virtue and vice as instruments for his power, in the name of the good of the whole, that is, his gang. Still, in his raids on the village, he takes only what the gang needs to survive, and leaves the villagers enough to keep on going. But Raphael, one of the farmers, has had enough of this and attacks the leader who ruthlessly guns him down. His example inspires the others and although some are hesitant and want to do nothing as a group, they ultimately decide to take action. They turn to the “old man” for advice confessing that while they know how to farm, they don’t know how to kill. He tells them: “Then learn, or die.” They do the next best thing and, collecting everything valuable in the village, go to a Texas border town to hire gunmen.
In their next visit, the bandits meet up with the seven gunmen and Calvera realizes he has not been sufficiently ruthless. “Generosity,” he says in Machiavellian style, “that was my first mistake…. Sooner or later, you must answer for every good deed.” He invites the gunmen to join him because they are in the same business, so he thinks. He effects piety as he explains that fleecing the villagers is almost a religious duty: “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
After the first of the two major battles, the seven gunmen and the villagers celebrate their victory. They feel exalted. The encounter changed some of the farmers. Lario, for example, declares that when he saw Calvera running away from them, “That’s a feeling worth dying for,” he says. But the feeling and the celebration are short-lived, for some of the bandits returned and started firing at the villagers. This unexpected turn around causes a crisis both for the villagers and the gunmen. They had thought to raise the stakes just enough to make Calvera play somewhere else. Time to turn mother’s picture to the wall and leave, one of them explains. Vin feels that sometimes you either have to bend or break; this is the time to bend. But Chris objects:
Chris: “We signed a contract.”
Vin: “Not one any court would enforce.”
Chris: “That’s just the kind you have to keep.”
Vin: “A noble thought, but the way things are right now…I don’t know.”
They finally decide to lower the odds by surprising the outlaws in their own camp. But when they get there, the outlaws are gone. When they return to the village, it is Calvera who surprises them. They are trapped, betrayed by one of the farmers.
Calvera, playing the fox, does not want to antagonize authorities north of the border. Therefore, he lets the gunmen live. His men escort them out of town and return their guns to them. He is confident that they won’t come back: “Only a crazy man would make the same mistake twice.” As to the villagers, well, a little gesture (now in the guise of the lion) to show them who’s boss, a policy that both Old Nick and his exemplar, Cesare Borgia, would approve. As he had earlier explained to Chris: “You force them to make too many decisions. With me, only one decision: do what I say.”
At this point, the gunmen’s attitudes again change. They had tried to fulfill their contract with the villagers but this was no longer a matter of simple justice. Giving every man his due took on a new meaning since they had experienced Calvera’s injustice personally. And Chris and Vin had begun to care for the people themselves. So, while it would have been easy for them to leave, they decided to return. Now when they strapped on their weapons, they were no longer hired guns. In the final fight, as Calvera lay mortally wounded, he is perplexed and says to Chris: “You came back, for a place like this. Why? A man like you! Why?!”
In the last scene, Chris glosses the story: “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” The gunmen, of course, are not part of a permanent community; all this was fleeting; they were like the wind passing over the land ridding it of a pestilence. But the farmers won not only by securing peace for their village, but also by acquiring a measure of that martial courage which the town boys admired in the gunmen, in addition to that quiet courage they already possessed in fighting for their daily bread. “You see? You see your fathers?” asked one of seven as he dies in the final fight. They were now fighting alongside the seven.
In this story, the good was accomplished outside the ways of normal public discourse and the political system. But is there a way of improving a corrupt system by working from within it, from a willingness to get one’s hands dirty, as Dr. Ryn implies, believing it is the best or only way to work for the good?
Change from Within
In the film Hitler’s SS: Portrait in Evil, we have the morally confused situation of Germany after the Great War. The war was lost, the kaiser was overthrown, expectations for an honorable armistice were betrayed by the Allies, and street fighting amongst gangs of various political stripes in the nation’s capital, exacerbated by the fear of a Bolshevik revolution, dominated Berlin’s public life. The young men of the middle class had been decimated by the war leaving mainly the decadent and demoralized upper class and the vulgar lower classes to carry on. Surely, here is an example of moral fluidity fraught with frightening potential change. In this context, two young brothers, Helmut and Karl Hoffman, face the future and must decide their attitude about the Nazis. Karl, an unemployed motor mechanic and amateur football player, is idealistic and wants to help his country; he decides to join the Sturmabteilung (SA), the brown shirts. Helmut is a university student majoring in the classics; he is opposed to the Nazis explaining that if they acquire power, they will not be able to fulfill their promises. His professor at the university, Ludwig Rosenberg, a Jew, comments that they may find the price of order and discipline rather high. They quickly learn Rosenberg’s lesson, however, as it becomes increasingly clear what the new political “discourse” means in practice. Rosenberg himself would have been beaten by SA troopers but for the brothers’ timely intervention.
Helmut is more of the complete skeptic than may at first be realized, and after the Rosenberg event, this skepticism leads him to declare that he wants to remain a spectator to this madness. But when he meets Reinhard Heydrich at fencing exercises, his skepticism is transformed into a lust for power. Heydrich makes it clear that all the propaganda the party puts out is stuff and nonsense. The SS is the party and will control Germany’s destiny. It’s a matter of practical power. “I don’t want your beliefs, I want your intelligence,” he declares to Helmut.
After joining the SS, he must explain this surprising turnaround to his parents who disapprove of the Nazis. Once in power, the party will drop a lot of the propaganda and get to the business of running a modern state, he explains, and that will require practical, talented people who know what they are doing. Besides, he will make a lot more money this way than becoming another impoverished university professor. His mother is not convinced: “Sometimes I think you just believe whatever is convenient for you at the moment,” she says to him. To Professor Rosenberg he explains his leaving the university by recalling one of Goethe’s lines: “You must the hammer or the anvil be.” He wants to be the hammer.
But as the Nazis gain power and Hitler becomes chancellor, Karl finds that the SA is not suitable for him. He is disgusted and disillusioned with its brutality. He sees his foreman from the machine shop, Rudolph Langner, hurled down a flight of stairs which breaks his back. When his boss’s wife and attorney ask him to support their lawsuit, be backs away; he hasn’t the courage for that.
During the night of the long knives when Roehm and other SA leaders are “purged” from the party, Karl is arrested and sent to Dachau. Fortunately, Helmut gets him released and arranges for his employment. But Karl is unresponsive; he doesn’t talk; he doesn’t work. Mitzi, Helmut’s girlfriend, blames the Nazis for what they did to Karl. How can he stand to work for them? Helmut explains that while he doesn’t like some of the things they do, the only way you can change things is from the inside. Mitzi is unpersuaded. “You are not going to change anything. They’re changing you.” She prophecies that one day he will wake up and find he is no different from the rest of them. And how does she know this, he asks. Because she is in love with him, she says.
The situation becomes critical for Karl a few years later when Rudolph Langner dies from his injury. Somehow, during the years of brooding Karl gathers his courage and, like the gunmen in The Magnificent Seven, returns to the fight. He determines to make a public statement to the police of the SA’s mistreatment of his former boss, despite the fact that he is warned this action will place him in danger without doing any good. Once again Helmut rescues him from the anticipated consequences, this time from the Gestapo, and sees to it his brother joins the army.
But Helmut himself undergoes a transformation, as Mitzi predicted. In August of 1939, he is selected to find seven Dachau prisoners to pose as members of the Polish army to be killed in a staged event. One can see in his face his total disgust at this proposition. He begins his selection hesitantly but with each choice, his face hardens until at the seventh one it has the iron look of the determined killer. He has, indeed, become one of them.
The war grinds on. Karl continues to flex his new-found civil courage even at the Russian front where, once more, he gets into trouble for critical remarks about the conduct of the war. After being wounded and recuperating in a hospital, he decides not to go back to the front. In early 1945, the brothers meet again. Their parents have been killed in the Allied terror bombings of Stuttgart and their younger brother, Hans, was training in Berlin for the front. He was only thirteen. Karl wanted Helmut to get Hans out of there. Helmut repeated his mantra: “Don’t worry, Karl. It won’t last…I’m going to change things from the inside.” But he does not change anything except his clothes and his identification papers. As he tries to leave Berlin he is caught, recognized as an SS member, and shot. Hans dies fighting the Russian advance into Berlin. At the end, amidst the rubble, Karl and Mitzi come together. Discourse within the regime did not work for Helmut; instead, it led to compromising his way to corruption. The better part was found by Karl: disillusion, followed by rebellion, dropping out, and going underground.
Is there another form of response when there is total or near total collapse such as Germany faced after the Great War? The Russian Revolution provides another example and by the end of the Second World War, many Russians hoped a new era of freedom would ensue.
In his Nobel Prize-winning novel, Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak gives us a picture of the complete collapse of the polis and the manner in which various characters come to terms with historical catastrophe. Yurii Zhivago is of the aristocratic class, well-educated and well to do since his adoption by his maternal uncle after the deaths of his parents. His uncle, Nikolai, is a philosopher and former priest preoccupied with understanding the great changes wrought by Christianity. True history begins with Christ, he argues, with its new focus on the individual, not on the collective masses. Among its contributions are the free personality and a life of sacrifice. While Yurii is too young to absorb all this at the time the story begins, he gradually comes to understand it and his entire life is an enactment of those two ideas: a free personality in the rise of early communism whose maintenance required the sacrifice of family, freedom, profession, and life itself. And yet that ordeal brought about the great poetry that won the hearts of his countrymen as an enduring testimony to the historical society that had been destroyed, and to the perennial truths of life and renewal in the context of Christian faith.
During the war, Yurii meets and works closely with a nurse, Lara Feodorovna, whom he had seen a number of times before the war but who was always rather elusive and mysterious. Her mystery included an unhealthy relationship with Victor Komarovsky, a lawyer who had debauched her at the age of sixteen. He had also been the lawyer for Yurii’s father and had contributed to the latter’s suicide. Komarovsky was one of those smooth operators capable of easily adapting himself to the corrupt tsarist regime or the later communist system. His success in ordering the business affairs of his clients and later in politics was inseparably related to the moral disorder he brought to Lara’s, and later Yurii’s, life. Pasternak describes him at one point as coming “out of the dark December night covered with snow.” The line metaphorically sums up his character.
After the war, however, Yurii and Lara meet again when he and his family are forced to leave Moscow. This time she does not elude him and the affair they have is both a trial and a refuge: a trial in that his conscience is wounded at being unfaithful to his wife, Tonia. “[T]he division in him was a sorrow and a torment, and he became accustomed to it only as one gets used to an unhealed and frequently reopened wound.” It was a refuge because Lara was the embodiment of beauty and freedom, where the artist is at home. From his first impression, he describes her as “breathtakingly beautiful” and adds: “‘Often since then I have tried to define and give a name to the enchantment that you communicated to me that night, that faint glow, that distant echo, which later permeated my whole being and gave me a key to the understanding of everything in the world.’” She was charged like an electric current “with all the femininity in the world.” This quality was enhanced in the simple domestic tasks of the day, cooking, washing, and care of her daughter, Katya, “with her sleeves rolled and her skirts tucked up, she almost frightened him by her regal attractiveness, more breath-taking than if he had found her on the point of going to a ball, taller in high-heeled shoes and in a long, low-cut gown with a sweeping, rustling skirt.”
Together, they symbolize all that was good in the Russia that had been destroyed through war and revolution. “‘All customs and traditions, all our way of life, everything to do with home and order, has crumbled into the dust in the general upheaval and reorganization of society. The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the naked human soul stripped to the last shred… You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first two people on earth who at the beginning of the world had nothing to cover themselves with—and now at the end of it we are just as naked and homeless. And you and I are the last remembrance of all that immeasurable greatness which has been created in the world in all the thousands of years between them and us, and it is in memory of all those vanished marvels that we live and love and weep and cling to one another.’”
During their last time together, Yurii finds comfort in contemplation and in writing poetry, especially on Christian themes, though he weaves these together with his love of nature and Lara. Among these are Holy Week (the Resurrection), Explanation, Wedding (the marriage at Cana), August (the Transfiguration), and Star of the Nativity (Christmas).
After their final parting, Yurii begins to decay. All his efforts to reunite with his family fail. His work under the new regime is not appreciated. He tries to participate in public affairs through his writing on political and social matters. These can be dangerous, and the young printer he teamed up with to publish his writings eventually succumbs to the regnant ideology and breaks off their partnership. Circumstances become so bad that he is driven to live in the back rooms of what had been the Sventitky’s house where, in better days, he had once attended their Christmas party. Although his former porter’s daughter, Marina, takes care of him, he succumbs to the heart condition he inherited from his mother.
During this time, Yurii is further disappointed in his long-time friends, Dudorov and Gordon. While he has maintained the memory of traditional Russian society, his friends have yielded to the world of ideologically directed feelings. They have become incapable of thinking on their own. Even simple conversation becomes impossible as their pseudo-experiences of the Soviet system cannot be related to Yurii’s. Dudorov explains his treatment as a deportee, and as a prisoner, and declares that his conversations with the examining judge opened his eyes to many things he hadn’t seen before and that he became “more mature as a person.” Zhivago is disgusted with this nonsense. “It was like listening to a circus horse describing how it broke itself in,” he tells him. His friends had lost the “ability to think with freedom and to guide the conversation at will” and suffered from an “artificial emotionalism.” This artificiality had become so common it was even affecting the physical health of Russians, and was, he believes, a result of the moral disorder of their world, a world of mendacity and duplicity. His own health continues to fail until he succumbs to this heart condition.
But the Russian people came to know and love him through his poetry and showed their strong affection for him at the time of his death. Throughout his life he tried to keep alive the faith in the values of the older society even as he decayed, exhibiting that private courage which is unspeakably painful and usually unsung. As he says in his poem Hamlet: “To live life to the end is not a childish task.”
Paradoxical Alienation and the Public Stance
In each of the above stories, meaningful political discourse was impossible. Effective action occurred outside of or against the established order. The form of the opposition depended on the power actors in the drama had as well as on the values embraced. But whether as anti-gangster, anti-Nazi, or anti-Communist, each story also reveals a quality of estrangement from the regnant regime which was inseparable from the moral success of the participants. It is a familiar insight that might be called paradoxical alienation, i.e., by wanting something less desperately we often get more of it, or do a better job of managing it. As Aristotle observed, the legislator “must not think the truly democratical or oligarchical measure to be that which will give the greatest amount of democracy or oligarchy, but that which will make them last longest.” The behavior that makes a state endure may not be the behavior that is most immediately desired. So, also, the sense of distance from a society, of not being overly identified with it, may allow one to make better improvements to policy than otherwise. A similar case can be made for the economy as de Tocqueville writes that those people who do not place such importance on the consumption of material things are the ones best able to produce them. Those most concerned to increase consumption in the here and now gradually lose the ability for production. His reasoning is that the former have their hope in a transcendent life, something beyond this world. Similarly, Niemeyer describes Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” as “the man who lives in the here and now with unusual intensity because at every moment he also resigns himself from it all and turns to the Eternal.” Is this not another example of paradoxical alienation? All of which reminds one of the classic Christian formulation that he who would save his life will lose it and he who loses his life for Christ’s sake will save it. A commitment to an other-worldly good makes management of this world better precisely because the latter is not seen as the highest good.
Rejecting the value of paradoxical alienation, we exaggerate the importance of politics, and political science, as a solution to our problems and fail to consider realistically available options for those who believe that the system is broken and biased against reality-based values and the pursuit of the Good traditionally understood. It is helpful here to recall the words of Ortega y Gasset: “Politics is a realm of things, a category instrumental and adjectival to life, one of many matters to which we must pay heed so that our lives may steer clear of disaster and so that we may achieve the development of the commonwealth. At a moment of crisis, politics may open the breach before which we ought to mass our best energies, that we may master the situation. But these crisis-tactics ought not to become daily procedure” (emphasis added). Even in certain crisis situations politics is not the whole answer. Fr. James Schall refers to the Apology where Socrates states: “‘It is necessary that one who really and truly fights for the right, if he is to survive even for a short time, shall act as a private man, not as a public man’” (emphasis added). And he concludes that “[a] path to truth that is not political must be part of the civic good.” Surely we can see this in the above examples, especially the last one? Selective secession is a way of preserving values and ways of life when normal political discourse is impossible, whether it is as simple as establishing a Christian or homeschool, or more radically, setting up an alternative community. It can affect the good for the polis by the power of its counterexample. Like the early church, it is a way of being in the world but not of the world.
Such crises do not require “moral versatility” but simple adherence to traditional virtues, the courage to live up to what we already know. Nor it is not a matter of looking for something new but trying to maintain what is ancient, received, for which we rightly have affection. Versatility in values is another name for compromise and retreat. We recall C.S. Lewis’ point that we cannot invent a new value anymore that we can a new primary color.
And yet trying to invent new values and realities is what elements of the regnant oligarchy believe they can do. As Thomas Molnar writes, the present-day impulse is toward a form of “neopaganism” (roughly, paganism without the statuary) whose goal is radically anti-Christian and amoral, and includes replacing our religious heritage and way of life with “the invention of new values and civilizations” and for whom there are no fixed values or any “preexisting realities in the mental and moral universe.” They are not receivers of objective values but makers of their moral world and of its history. As a senior advisor to former President G.W. Bush explained in an interview, the “reality-based, community” where people study a “discernible reality” for possible answers to problems is outdated so far as the makers of American policy go: “‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore… We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities…’” This fits with what Eric Voegelin, borrowing from Robert Musil’s concept, calls a “Second Reality” (ideology) to distinguish between existence in truth and existence in untruth. Voegelin says discourse between people in these two different worlds is futile: “Rational argument could not prevail because the partner to the discussion did not accept as binding for himself the matrix of reality in which all specific questions concerning our existence as human beings are ultimately rooted.” The argument then has “to falter and peter out” because “[t]he universe of rational discourse collapses…when the common ground of existence in reality has disappeared.”
The futility of trying to force a rational discussion is further illustrated by John Courtney Murray. He found out in his efforts to show there is a public philosophy underlying the American Republic that audiences usually were unreceptive to his message. He writes: “I have tried to take this affirmative case on more than one public occasion. What is usually the result? Briefly, when the result is not simply a blank stare, it is emphatic negation.” His comment of using “right reason” to arrive at credible answers was undermined by the challenging question of “whose reason.” This was followed up with the assertion that there are many philosophies and their rightness remains unclear; and the further claim was made that we live in a procedural democracy where there is no specific philosophic content. In short, these reactions, these dispositions, stopped the discourse he sought.“ So the argument runs down and out. It ends in negation.”
So it goes with all the broken systems in America today: the lack of Constitutional behavior by those sworn to uphold it; the corruption of the financial system and the military-industrial complex; the twisted indoctrination of the schools; the militarization of the police; the nothingness of the justice system; and the tyranny of the unelected shadow government. We are in the clutches of untruth, of “new values,” of a fabricated “civilization,” and the normal channels of political discourse and dialogue are ineffective because evidence, facts, and right reason have no effect on the oligarchs of unreality, the lovers of self-consuming power.
If Murray and Voegelin had been in positions of power, however, they might have felt like practicing the motto engraved on the mouths of Louis XIV’s cannons: “ultima ratio regum,” the last reason of kings. But they did not. Nor do we. This is neither 1776 nor 1861 and there is no sanction from an established authority like the church or the state governments, nor is there a coherent vision to motivate and coordinate action among various disaffected groups. But there are still the options of civil (public) courage like that of Karl Hoffman who acted, to borrow Thoreau’s wording, as a “friction” to help break the machinery of oppression. And there is the private courage as in Doctor Zhivago, living one’s life as faithfully as possible in the face of hostile policies, keeping alive the memory of the past for a better day.
In our present circumstances, the difficulty of dialogue is particularly acute as the “unreality” involves a denial of the morally self-evident. In the case of the advocates of sexual perversion, itself an outgrowth of the feminist/homosexist continuum, adherents, through their declarations in the press and the implementation of public policy, seek to normalize what is unnatural and abnormal, such as trying to sanctify indecent relations with the title of “marriage.” (One recalls the title of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart.) The pastry shop owner who refuses to make wedding cakes for such “couples” exemplifies this dilemma. To be clear this is not merely a matter of sexually ill individuals who may be brought back to normality, but of an ideology, whose advocates can also be heterosexual, that insists on victory over all that is normal, traditional, and decent. It is a marshaling of anti-Christian perspectives seldom seen before. As the prophet observes (Isa. 3:9): “They parade their sin like Sodom.” In such cases dialogue is impossible, and dropping out or other forms of selective secession, may be the only respectable options.
And so it must be since the denial of the morally self-evident stops political discourse. “[T]here is no way in which we can prove the evident,” write Wilhelmsen and Kendall, “no way in which we can demonstrate strictly that what is evident is evident.” And as C.S. Lewis put it: “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.” When a society deteriorates to such a level, when the moral structure of human nature is denied, the obligation to participate in political discourse is abrogated. Decent people are not obliged to talk to moral idiots. “Their destiny is destruction,” says the Apostle Paul (Phil. 3:19) and what fellowship does light have with darkness?
We may take an example from James Boswell in this matter. After hearing a guest and friend of Dr. Johnson, who had given an able reply to Hume’s Essay on Miracles, the guest expounded on how he had treated Hume with civility and that they had exchanged visits. All very polite. Boswell writes: “I took the liberty to object to treating an infidel writer with smooth civility…[W]here the controversy is concerning the truth of religion, it is of such vast importance to him who maintains it, to obtain the victory, that the person of an opponent ought not to be spared.” Dr. Johnson agreed with Boswell adding: “‘When a man voluntarily engages in an important controversy, he is to do all he can to lessen his antagonist, because authority from personal respect has much weight with most people, and often more than reasoning’” (emphasis added). In the present instance, authority from personal respect gives credibility or at least a tacit license or approval for indecent behavior.
Lessening the authority of personal respect to those denying the morally self-evident is all the more important when the actions are ultimately destructive, either individually or collectively. That has been the trend in the West for some time now as Malcom Muggeridge observed when he said the West exhibits a “collective death-wish” and James Burnham when he titled his famous book Suicide of the West. Richard Weaver, likewise, saw the trend shortly after World War II: “It is said that physicians sometimes ask patients, ‘Do you really wish to get well?’ And, to be perfectly realistic in this matter, we must put the question of whether modern civilization wishes to survive. One can detect signs of suicidal impulse…” Is meaningful dialogue with those intent on following their suicidal impulses possible?
In times of great social and political turbulence, when basic institutions are broken, discourse within them is futile since normal procedures will not produce just outcomes. But it is precisely then that adherence to traditional morality is not only fitting but essential. For it is in the rough cases where character is forged and honor, if not also greatness, is achieved through some form of courage as illustrated in the three examples from art above. The virtues that establish a society are also necessary for its maintenance. The alternative notion of moral versatility, that morals must adapt to grossly decayed situations in an interdependent give and take and work from within the system, means they are ever becoming without ever being final. This rather paralyzes needed moral action or produces unconscionable compromise. And today, as in times past, the object of the Christian remnant is not dialectical evolution of “new values” but fidelity to what has been revealed and received, to be a witness for truth. Adherents to all that is decent and civil and upright should have the attitude the Lord described for Ezekiel facing a degenerate society: “As for them, whether they listen or not—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them” (2:5). The Christian is many things, not least of which is a witness for the prosecution. And yet, perhaps by that very witness and the grace of God, the suicidal impulses of the West may be reversed.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Dr. Ryn, Claes. 2015. “How Desperate Should We Be?” in Humanitas, vol. XXVIII, nos. 1 & 2: 27-28.
 Ibid., p. 16.
 Ibid., pp. 18, 21, 28.
 Ibid., pp. 108-109, 116, 117. If Dr. Ryn calls those who adhere to traditional values and formulaic morality “blockheads,” (p. 101), does that make the advocates of the fuzzy notion of moral versatility “mushheads”?
 Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Signet Classic. New York, p. 88. “There is nothing which destroys itself so much as liberality, for by using it you lose the power of using it…”
 Politics, 1320a.
 De Tocqueville, Alexis. [No date]. Democracy in America. Arlington House. New Rochelle, New York. Vol. II, p. 157.
 Niemeyer, Gerhart. 1978. “The Commitment of Political Education” in A Public Philosophy Reader (Richard Bishirjian, ed.). Arlington House Publishers. New Rochelle, New York, p. 253. He adds: “Historical decisions are taken not merely by the standards of traditions and existence, but also sub specie aeternitatis… The concrete world history and the transcendent absolute are fully compatible as long as man is aware of his standing ‘in between,’ the contingencies of change below and the eternal Absolute above.”
 Ortega y Gasset, Jose. “Morbid Democracy” in Modern Age, vol. 1, no. 1 (Summer, 1957): 54.
 Schall, James, V. 1986. “Truth and the Open Society,” in Order, Freedom, and the Polity (George Carey, ed.). University Press of America, Lanham, MD, pp. 72-73. Fr. Schall adds: “what is compelling about the truth as about the good is what is itself, for its own sake.” (p. 87)
 Lewis, C.S. 1948. The Abolition of Man. Macmillan Publishing Co. New York, pp. 56-57.
 Molnar, Thomas. 1987. The Pagan Temptation. William B. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 117, 118. For them the universe “appears to be the work of the human mind” (p. 74) and so will allow them to follow their “natural instincts.” (p. 113). In such a view “nature” and “natural” are quite different from their Christian usage and meaning.
It is also interesting to note Dr. Ryn’s declaration that: “There is a sense in which morality always has to be created anew by unique individuals facing unique circumstances…” (Dr. Ryn, op. cit., p. 117). While it would be going too far to say that this is the same as Molnar’s neopaganism, there are overlapping points that bear closer thought.
 See Ron Suskind “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush” The New York Times Magazine (October 17, 2004). See also Raimondo, Justin “Delusions of Empire: The epistemology of imperialism – the problem with you peacenicks is that you’re too ‘reality-based’!” AntiWar (2004).
 Voegelin, Eric. “On Debate and Existence,” in A Public Philosophy Reader, op. cit., p.152. Voegelin insists that we can not be remiss in our duty to “debate” but that “debate” here is not a matter of reasoning but of analysis of existence which precedes rational constructions and is medical in character, looking for a healing process.
 Murray, John Courtney. “Two Cases for the Public Consensus,” in A Public Philosophy Reader, op. cit., p. 106.
 Ibid., pp. 106, 108.
 Wilhelmsen, Frederick D. and Willmoore Kendall. “Cicero and the Politics of the Public Orthodoxy,” in A Public Philosophy Reader, op. cit., p. 115.
 Lewis, op. cit., p. 53.
 Boswell, James. 1933. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Oxford University Press. New York. Volume I, pp. 655-656. We can compare this thought with Lewis’ view: “An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.” (See Lewis, op. cit., p. 60.)
 Weaver, Richard. 1948. Ideas Have Consequences. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.185. When Weaver commented on Russell Kirk’s emphasis on the wisdom of our ancestors he asked, “Which ancestors?” (Nash, George. 1979. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Basic Books, Inc. New York, pp. 160-161.) The question is a good one but can also be misused as Murray clearly found out.