Contemporary culture is characterized by a morbid self-awareness that destroys the joy of life and tosses everything it touches into a dark pit of closed and inverted self-centeredness. If we want God back in our public life, we have to restore a “contemplative mood”—a reflectiveness that runs like a warm and sweet underground river through the vast world of Greek philosophy…
In the year 1979, June 2, thousands and thousands of Poles, standing on what was then called The Square of Victory (presently The Square of Joseph Piłsudski), sang publicly—right under the vigilant eyes of the Communist police, secret police and its informers—an old song “We want God” (the song is a prayer to Mother Mary, asking her to help keep God in Polish families, books, schools and “the dreams of our children”); there were literally thousands, probably hundreds thousands of them. They were the “simple folk,” the “average men,” physical workers with little education—but probably some of them the sons and daughters (and all of them heirs) of those who in 1956 went out on the streets of Poznan and dared to tell (with actions speaking louder than words) the “people’s” regime that it is not the people’s (they were thwarted, and fifty-seven of them were killed by the guns professedly amassed in our land to protect the working class), and this crowd knew what it wanted; and it found courage to say it aloud: Those people did not sing for bread, money, democracy, free parliament, free press, free schools. They sang for God.
However, the times changed and my Nation was cheated; they didn’t get God they were singing for. Communism collapsed, and the Church was not needed anymore by the ones in power. What was needed was a rapid “westernization,” and proving to the “great democracies” from behind the Iron Curtain that we (or at least our so-called “elites”) are no different then they. Gradually, this policy started to bear fruit; and even though Poland is still an exceptionally religious country (at least for European standards), I very much doubt something like 1979 would be possible nowadays. It was possible, however, and it actually happened; and such as this are the moments that shape history.
For indeed, this great event meant something. And it would be wise to meditate for a while on what it really meant.
What does it mean to “have God” in public life?
Firstly, of course, it means having a society organized on a Christian basis; we know God as He reveals Himself—and He decided to reveal himself in one particular way, and gave the world one religion through which He is, so to speak, “accessible” to human mind and will. Law based on Christian principles, social traditions and habits generating from Christian morality and sensitivity, the calendar of the State recognizing Christian festivals and Christian course of the week, lastly (and perhaps most importantly) public debate recognizing and properly valuing the weight and meaning of theological questions—these are (among many) the simplest and most obvious ways of reintroducing into the public life the matters of Divinity (or, in other words, Christian society does not have to “reintroduce” Divinity into its affairs, for it remains always in touch with them).
However (and this is indeed quite obvious), such “social forms” (let us call it them this way) in themselves are not enough; and, in a sense, Christianity is not enough. In the sense that it is far too much—Christian truths are not “easy” truths, therefore they cannot be grasped in full by the unprepared, to whom they often (as far as my experience goes) seem to be little more than simplistic fairy tales. It is absurd, but not always stems from ill will. Grace is given; but it also has to be received, and—as the Scholastics teach us—it can be received only if nature, upon which it descends, displays a certain proper “disposition,” certain “openness” (if you will) for the actions of the Absolute—otherwise, such Christian elements lose all its meaning and degenerate into empty social ritual, concerned more with the relations of power than with cultivating the authentic virtue of religio. As it is in the case of individual human beings, it is also (per analogiam) in the case of human societies. In order to recognize God, His existence, nature and action, publicly (and thus become a Christian society in the proper meaning of the term), we require something else—a prerequisite that would make such recognition possible. What is, then, this “prerequisite” that we are seeking?
Josef Pieper, a brilliant Catholic philosopher, would say that it is a certain social mood, purely natural in its causes (though perhaps not completely disconnected from the phenomenon of the so called Original Revelation), consisting in the recognition of a certain field of activities that are meaningful in themselves and not serving any other goals besides themselves; with all of them being connected—directly or indirectly—to the state of the soul that Pieper calls “being in tune with the universe” (it is, by the way of parenthesis, a title he decided to give his book on the subject), or—to explain this masterful phrase—a radical and magnanimous affirmation of the good of existence as a whole, of the fact that it is worthy, and fascinating, and beautiful—and meaningful, and that this human admiration does is not an external addition to, but an internal element of, this mysterious and captivating spectacle which we call the cosmos, a sign of the inherent harmony of creation; I say “creation”—but it is perhaps already to say too much. At this stage, interpretation and definition (though definitely important) are but of secondary significance; the essence of the thing lies in the mood precisely as the mood, certain practical pattern of thinking and feeling, which (as one might sometimes fancy) our Pagan Ancients almost desperately strove to equip with certain intelligible explanation, usually conveyed in the form of myths—or popular religious festivals (“golden apples and orange oranges” as Chesterton says); and it was not by accident that St. Gregory the Great decided to make Christianization of the old pagan festivals and religious celebration the cornerstone of his “evangelizational strategy.” He saw that though intellectually wrong, these traditions communicated something, a certain attitude to life and the world, that was indubitably right.
This mood, however, is definitely gone; as it was not intellectual but rather practical, moral, and emotional, it was communicated from generation to generation through traditions, stories and habits that are but now completely extinguished (which is not at all so obvious a statement as it might seem, especially considering the traditions of, for example, the European countryside), and—which is far worse—to which the contemporary world cannot even relate anymore. The very idea of public festival, of socially recognized and—so to speak—“sanctified” (if not simply sacred) leisure has disappeared. Josef Pieper, the great diagnostician of this side of our pressing crisis, called it (in In Tune with the World, but not only) the triumph of the “totalitarian work-state” (even if a triumph brought about—so to speak—“in white gloves”), a social model radically transforming the very vision of human existence hitherto prevailing in the West (in decline since about the beginnings of the nineteenth century). It is a rather obvious observation, requiring here, I think, little or no proof. The West values money above everything—and, as we all know, time is also money; it is, therefore, not to be wasted on activities that do not bring in immediate benefits (I have experienced it more than enough, and I am quite sure it is a universal experience, and if somebody still does not believe my words, all I can do is to ask him to watch some TV or read a popular paper). If we thus want God back into our public life, we have to (completely hypothetically of course) propose a plan of restoring this more general “mood,” as we have called it, this peculiar attitude towards life, that proved to be so fertile a soil for the seed of the true religion.
If I were to find a name for this mood, I would call it “contemplative”; and indeed, if we are looking for something that would be sufficiently close to it that would help us restore it, we need not look to far away. When Anaxagoras was asked why he had been born, he answered: “To behold.” This contemplative reflectiveness runs, like a warm and sweet underground river, through the whole vast world of Greek philosophy; and indeed—analogically like in the case of popular traditions and general culture—it sometimes seems more important than the intellectual definitions and explanations as such. Greek culture, at least in the highest of its forms, was the culture of astonishment; was a culture hungry for the inherent rationality and harmony of the universe; what we might call “a culture of dia ti.” It is not at all insignificant that with the progressing triumph of modern utilitarianism, philosophy was gradually eradicated from public schools, presented as useless speculation in the course of which everything can be proved or disproved, and sometimes (as far as I have heard) as a manifestation of the “class consciousness” of “white males” (sic!), therefore—no longer needed in the new, multicultural world of tolerance and “equality.”
This is, of course, a major catastrophe; “Greek wisdom is quite another affair” wrote Jacques Maritain in his magnificent Science and Wisdom. And indeed, it is; it is quite incomparable to anything else. I will not write a word more; this would be regrettable. Everything that could be said upon such a subject in such an essay could either be astonishingly genius or deplorably banal; and since I have no claim to genius mind, I will not take the risk. Yet this is, at least in my hopelessly private view, a fixed fact: If we want our society based on more Christian principles, we need to disseminate the knowledge of the classic philosophy, especially among the youth—and we need it on a national scale; we need it in public schools, and definitely in the universities (though I fear university is already too late). History could probably look completely different then it does, but yet—it looks the way it looks; some questions have been raised and some answers given only through certain contingent historic forms. And even if some of us could, by some fortunate turn of events, reflect in the same manner and upon the same things as our Greek ancestors, still their energy would be spent unnecessarily in the darkness illuminated so long ago, on mistakes made and corrected thousands years before our birth, and—generally speaking—restoring philosophical sensitivity on the social scale is impossible without going back to its original sources. If thus somebody asked me what would be my slogan for the coming election, I would say: “Liberal Education for All!” I would never win the election, but I would at least repeat something as to which even Maritain and Pieper, usually strikingly distant from themselves, unanimously agreed, which only demonstrates the social potential of this stance. Indeed, there is more than just a joke in what I am saying; for I daresay that without the classical philosophy in the system of public schooling, the civilization of the West is bound to fall (which is probably just another platitude coming from my mouth). Eliminating philosophy from our schools is thus not just plain stupidity—but plain treason, and should be treated as such in the eyes of the law.
Of course, there is a problem with this approach; for, simply speaking, not everybody is a philosopher. And such a system, though definitely socially beneficial, could not be enough. Well, I, for one, do not think it would be enough; therefore we have to think of some supplementation. Personally, I believe that this supplementation is, again, much closer than we suppose—and it is literature; especially this which might be called “the great” literature of the West, but since such a phrase would probably sound far too Arnoldian, I will say that not only this literature. It might be any literature, in fact, provided that it represents a system of thought and action that we are looking for—and is read with a proper attitude. This second factor, in fact, is probably even more essential, though probably even more difficult to define. Due to the lack of time and space, I will not define it; and perhaps for the best, because I find this necessity rather saddening. For a long time, people could read books in this way, so to speak, by instinct. My grandmother could, for one, and with what some would perhaps find surprisingly high skill. Or my uncle. Or, since neither my grandmother nor my uncle immortalized their amazing work on paper—Gilbert Keith Chesterton. It is enough to read one of his critical books to get the feel of what we are talking about. Chesterton was, in my opinion at least, one of the most “Western” or “Latin” minds in the history of modernity, in the sense that he was able to examine things from perspective incredibly in tune with the general spirit of Western culture and tradition; precisely this “contemplative” culture I have tried to say something about. He was able to discover in Chaucer the metaphysical wonder and fundamental gratitude for existence; when he read Dickens, he did not see just stories—he saw a tremendous affirmation of human nature, love of human beings in all their grotesque individuality, magnanimity towards their weaknesses, great celebration of equality and fraternity of the whole human race, united in its strange journey through the cosmos. Almost everything he read opened up questions about man’s existential condition, his destiny, his place in the universe and—ultimately—his relation to the Creator. Only if we elevate our minds to the level of this perspective, I believe, only if we free our thinking from the necessities of the servile parts of our work, if we go beyond the horizon of the immediately practical and the utilitarian, will we regain this spiritual spark that makes man see his life as an adventure, and thus makes him thrilled by his perspectives; allows him to pull through the worst crises, and set out to the world to explore it, know it, seek its reaches and rejoice in finding them.
Now, there is only one thing left to add; the negative aspect of the case, much less pleasant than the two positive ones. For if everything we have to learn to regain what we have lost is how to ask the right questions, we also have to make sure we know the wrong questions—if only not to ask them. As—contrary to the popular opinion—there really are stupid questions; for example, those which are made nonsensical by the very act of asking them. The contemporary world provides us here with a lot of examples—because, as it seems, for a very long time it has been doing nothing besides asking very stupid questions; besides looking at man and his affairs from the perspective of sheer morbidity. Again, I am bound to stop at this point, and refer to nothing more than experience and good sense of my reader. But contemporary culture really is based on morbid principles, and therefore permeated by a morbid mood; mood in which we ask question, but when we do, we never know if we even do it, because we are not so sure as to our subjectivity; we do not know whether it is not just a case of “language speaking us,” as they say (or as “the language” says), whether it is not just id, or “class consciousness” or our “will to power” speaking through us, whether we do not automatically “discriminate” or “exclude,” and whether we should not right away start apologizing for all the atrocities of our civilization. Contemporary culture is the culture of suspicion; of permanent, morbid self-awareness that destroys the joy of life and tosses everything it touches into a very dark pit of closed and “inverted” self-centeredness of “a monster dear to himself,” which Maritain described so brilliantly in his Integral Humanism.
It is precisely this that we must battle today first and foremost; it is what we must reject, I believe, and reject it flatly, primitively even. Just as in the case of metaphysical quarrels, there is no point of battling this devil further down the road; because we do not walk the same road. What we have to do, is to go back to the very source of the matter, to the sphere of the very first intuitions where our roads divide, and cast away the load. We have to do it in many ways, as many as possible, but I sincerely think that the final battle will be fought on the plane of the humanities, on the plane of philosophy and philology, both academic and (perhaps chiefly) non-academic. And since I do not have much to offer besides my personal experiences (of a philologist, which is perhaps the one good thing to say about them), I simply advise my reader to ask him- (and yes: “or HER-”) self this one question: If we are ready, authentically psychologically ready, to interpret literature in a way that could make us personally happy?
Because if we are ready, we should do it; we can. We are in tune with the universe.
And perhaps some time from now, when the voice of the simple folk (“the voice of God to the wicked”), like the voice of those thousands of my fellow-countrymen and countrywomen in Warsaw, in 1979, asks for its Maker, whatever time or country we might be talking about, these people will receive God; and not the slander and contempt it is so, so easy to insult them with; and which the new elite, elite bred on vanity and self-hate, never spares them.
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