As Things Now Stand

Anyone who has attempted to understand our contemporary malaise, as I have for many years now, must begin with the death of God. This is an uncomfortable topic and one that is dismissed by many. But if we contrast our current ethos with that of, say, the medieval period, it is clear that God plays a very small part in the lives of the vast majority of people in the West, at the very least. I have blogged about this from time to time and will not repeat here what I have already said. But a passage in one of Dostoevsky’s major works, written in his maturity, raises the issue anew.

Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky was aware, toward the end of the nineteenth century, that he was living in a new age, an age in which God was no longer the viable force He had been during the Dark Ages when faith was paramount, the Cathedrals were being built and, as it has been said, there were no atheists.

In any event, Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent (previously translated as Raw Youth), brings Arcady Makarovich and his father Andrei Petrovich Versilov together toward the end of what is a rather long prelude as the novel nears its conclusion. Arcady’s father is imparting his wisdom and while doing so reflects on the godless age in which they are living and imagines what he calls a “fantasy” in which those who once loved God now turn toward nature and toward one another and embrace their fellow humans, “. . . each would tremble for the life and happiness of each.”

“The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formally.”

To prepare us for this insight, we are told that

“. . .after the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm comes and people are left alone as they wished: the former great idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like the majestic, inviting sun . . ., but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. . . .I have never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly. . .”

Indeed, neither the narrator not the author himself can think of people as “ungrateful and grown stupid.” But apparently they are. While Dostoevsky drew on his five years of imprisonment in Siberia and his tortured existence before reaching the autumn of his life, he was convinced that humans have a deep need to love and in finding themselves unable to love God any more — after the curses and mudslinging — they would turn to nature and to one another. Without the ability to draw on that experience myself, I find it difficult to say that people have, in fact, turned to one another and to nature. Their need to love, which I cannot deny, seems to have turned upon itself. Humans exploit and destroy nature for their own purposes, ignore one another, and find themselves alone in a labyrinth with no one to love but themselves. Or is it because they love themselves that they are alone in the labyrinth? It is not clear. But either way, Dostoevsky’s “fantasy” is just that. It is wishful thinking on the part of a brilliant and deeply pious mind.

I do not share the man’s brilliance. Nor do I share his deep piety. In any event, from where I sit I see only a perverted love of self that has taken the place of a deep and abiding love of something greater than the self, something “out there” that takes the person out of himself or herself and into a world of wonder and joy — and hope. This may be a mistake on my part, but if it is even partially true it would help explain our current state of mind, our collective anxiety, our sense of despair that is so deep that we would, in this country at any rate, choose an ignorant and callous man, a man who exudes hatred from every pore, to lead us to a brighter place

 

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Hope

An inscription over the gates of Dante’s Hell, we are told, reads: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” As Dante is guided through Hell by the poet Virgil, he finds dozens and dozens of people who live forever without hope. Several times he feels sorry for the sinners but he is admonished by Virgil. After all, who is he to second guess God who, in His infinite wisdom, placed those sinners where they are? The New Testament tells us that there are three great virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love. The greatest of these is love and Dante finds very little of it in hell. Indeed, at the frozen core of hell he finds those who are incapable of love, whose hearts were frozen long before they died. The medieval thinkers married those three Christian virtues to the four pagan virtues wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These seven comprise the cardinal virtues of the medieval church, virtues that are all but forgotten today in our work-a-day world. But permeating through Dante’s Hell is the sense of lost hope. It is dreadful, indeed.

We here in Minnesota know about hope. Those of us who follow our sports teams live on hope, hope that next year they will achieve the Great Prize that almost always eludes them, and hoping we can forget last year’s disappointments. “Hope springs eternal.” For my part I hope that the world will be a brighter place for my grandchildren than in my darkest moments I fully expect it to be. I know in my heart that my generation is not leaving the world a better place than we found it — as we most assuredly should. I continue to hope that somehow the world will find itself at peace and that those who profess love for one another — as the New Testament admonishes us all to do — will in fact embrace this code fully and not merely pay lip service to those wise words. And, on a very mundane level, I hope that this twisted and convoluted political battle we see going on around us will somehow resolve itself without further violence and that a man or a woman with a grain of wisdom will finally be placed at the head of a fragile government that needs wisdom now more than ever.

I do hope for these things because without hope there is only cynicism and, while I tend in that direction, I refuse to allow myself to go there, because I know that to abandon all hope is to be living in Hell. The greatest virtue is of course love, but right behind it, surely, we find hope abiding.

 

 

Foolish Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Please note the modifier “foolish.” He did not say that being consistent is foolish or that only a fool would seek to be consistent in his or her thinking. What he is saying is that it is foolish to hang on to a conviction when the evidence clearly points in another direction — as in the case of global warming, for example. Only a fool would insist that global warming is a fiction because he said so yesterday and the day before and damn it he is not going to change his mind, no matter what anyone says. Don’t confuse me with the evidence; my mind is made up!

Strange it is that a foolish consistency in one’s beliefs is regarded in this culture, by a great many people, as a virtue. One hears that Jones is a courageous man because he “stands by his guns,” even though everyone knows he is dead wrong. George McGovern, it was said, lost a presidential race because he changed his mind about his Vice Presidential running mate. Heaven forbid that a person change his mind when the evidence suggests that it requires changing! Yet, surely, it is foolish to hang on to one’s beliefs when there is no longer any solid ground beneath them to give them support. Little minds, indeed.

But we now see on the national front candidates running for president with hoards of followers behind them who claim to be Evangelists, True Believers in the words of Christ who condemned practically everything the leader of that political parade stands for. The leader (who will remain anonymous) says the most frightful things about his fellow humans, casting aspersions left and right, threatening to punch those who disagree with him. He is a known philanderer and a failed businessman who exhibits every one of the Seven Deadly Sins except, perhaps, sloth. And yet his “Christian” followers believe he will turn the country around because “he means business.” They ignore what he says even though it is in direct conflict with their most deeply held religious convictions. Or are they deeply held? Is it possible that those who claim to follow the same Christ who threw the money-changers from the Temple really would rather follow the money changers and see to it that they themselves are financially well off, comfortable in their beliefs — and in their warm, safe houses where “undesirables” are forever denied access at gun point? One must wonder.

It would be foolish indeed to hold on to a set of religious beliefs that are in direct conflict with certain truths — say about the origins of the universe. But it is equally foolish (if not downright hypocritical) to continue to pay lip service to those beliefs while embracing the rantings of a political candidate who is the embodiment of everything that religion condemns. When one’s religious beliefs condemn the very things that man stands for it is indeed a foolish inconsistency to continue to support that man, if not patently illogical. Unless, again, those religious convictions are merely a sham, a facade behind which the “True Believer” hides his own hatred of anyone who differs from him and who might possibly pose a threat, no matter how remote that threat happens to be.

When Christ said “Love thy neighbor” he did not qualify it by defining “neighbor” as those who agree with oneself. The word is meant to include all our neighbors of every color, shape and belief. It is not a foolish consistency to act on that prescription and rid hatred from our hearts and reject those who preach it with a loud and angry voice. Indeed, it makes perfect sense.

Refuge of Scoundrels

Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. During the Viet Nam war we learned what he meant when the “true patriots” of the “my country right-or-wrong” variety were telling critics to love their country or leave it. But unqualified love, blind love, is the sign of a bigot and a zealot, not of a true lover. One who loves his or her country is aware of its faults, but loves it just the same — much like the couple who have stayed together for 50 years and plan to stay together for the rest of their lives.

When traveling abroad in years past I was proud to carry an American passport. I have always thought this was a remarkable country, one that provides an opportunity for all to achieve their dreams. This is the country that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, a war we entered in our own small way on behalf of Britain even before Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. But this was the country that also locked up Japanese citizens in concentration camps during the war, so one had to maintain some sense of balance and perspective. Still, we seemed to be on the right track, concerned about the moral high ground and doing the right thing by the rest of the world. After writing a Constitution that protected slavery, for example, this country eventually managed to free the slaves and years later struggled against Southern bigotry to guarantee those former slaves the right to marry, vote, ride on buses, and eat in restaurants. We even came to realize that women ought to be able to vote! We seemed to be on the right track.

This is the country, after all, that managed to put a bridle on the unfettered greed of capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and J.P, Morgan and bring them to heel, softening somewhat the blows of the predatory rich against those who worked in their dark mines or stifling tenement sweat shops for pennies a day.  This is a country that seemed, not long ago, to still know where the moral high ground was located even if we weren’t holding it quite so tight.

But then something happened to turn the country away from the moral high ground and it seemed to be slowly disappearing in the distance. While our education system began to fall toward the bottom of the heap, we learned that our country was engaged in torturing prisoners, spying on its own citizens, incarcerating people for years on end without the fundamental right of trial by jury, killing suspected (I stress suspected) terrorists living half-way around the world with unmanned aircraft, breeding hatred in those we suspected might be our enemies. All in the name of  Homeland Security. Moreover, as we know, America leads the so-called “civilized” world in the number of shooting deaths and gun control is not seriously discussed. Somehow, the moral high ground that folks like Martin Luther King so eloquently urged us to seek and find not so very long ago was becoming an empty phrase. We had lost our way as the corporations once again grabbed the reins of power and filled out the dance card of the puppet politicians they bought and paid for, the military increasingly determined foreign policy, and the middle class began to slip into the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Soon less than 1% of the people in this country were contributing nearly half of the money needed to elect a politician who would be beholden to that money interest, money that might better have been spent on maintaining a tottering infrastructure or, perhaps, helping those in need, those living in cardboard boxes and eating out of trash cans. We seem to have become a nation of “ugly Americans.”

So, how far does patriotism go? At what point does one cease to love his or her country when aware of the sins of omission and commission it is committing on a daily basis? As suggested, I answer that true patriotism consists in an awareness of those sins coupled with the determination to point them out and do whatever can be done to mitigate them somehow. Criticism and rebellion were the forces that created this country, after all. To pretend the sins don’t exist, to rewrite history, to curse those who insist that they do exist, is not the mark of a true patriot. It is the refuge of a scoundrel. The true patriot, if there are any left, continues to love his country in the hope that it will once again turn toward the moral high ground and do whatever it takes to hold it and not let go. The only worry is that some day, after hope has died, the love will also die.

 

 

Dante’s Relevance

In a most interesting article in a learned journal not known for its interesting articles, author Rod Dreher bemoans the fact that he didn’t read Dante’s Inferno — or the rest of the Divine Comedy — until he was in middle age (as was Dante himself).

     Midway along the journey of our life

      I woke to find myself in some dark woods,

      For I had wandered off from the straight path.

So begins Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and into Paradise, as well as the story about a twenty-first century man who had also lost his way only to pick up Dante’s poem by accident and find himself captivated. What interested Dreher most were the chords struck by Dante that resound in today’s world and which should be heard by all college students, if not all who can read. And while it is sad to note that Dreher hadn’t read Dante’s poem until his mid-forties, it is refreshing to have him echo my conviction that the classics are relevant to today (which, indeed, is why they are regarded as “classics.”) But how can a poem written by a medieval Catholic speak to today’s students whose attention is entirely on themselves? That’s the question this article seeks to answer.

It is precisely the fixation of modern youth on themselves that one finds in the occupants of Dante’s Hell. To begin with, they all tell lies, and Dante is warned not to believe all he hears — which reminds me of Jameis Winston’s press conference where he said, with a straight face, “I’m not a ‘me’ person.” But more important, the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno are filled with thousands of passionate people who do not know how to love. The circles begin with love perverted, the love of a man for a woman that never rises above the level of lust, and ends, eight levels later, with those who either love only themselves or or betray those who love them, buried in ice up to their chins and condemned to remain frozen for eternity — as far from God’s love and warmth as possible. In between Dante finds those whose love degenerates into mere passion and is misdirected (they love money or fame, for example); they sin but fail to repent. And, indeed, it is the unwillingness of the sinners in Hell to repent that places them there instead of in Purgatory. As Dreher points out, “All the damned dwell in eternal punishment because they let their passions overrule their reason and were unrepentant.” Such as it is, their love was twisted and self-involved, and it dwarfed their reason which would, together with love properly felt,  have led them away from themselves and into the world of others who are also in need of love.

And thus we find the message that rings true today when folks are told to “let it all hang out.” As the author notes,

“This is countercultural, for we live in an individualistic, libertine, sensual culture in which satisfying desire is generally thought to be a primary good. . . . We live in a narcissistic, confessional culture in which speaking whatever is on your mind and in your heart is valorized as ‘honest’ and ‘courageous’ — just as calling lust love falsely ennobles it by dressing up egotism with fake moral grandeur. . .  All these damned souls suffer hellfire because they worshipped themselves and their own passions. In Dante egotism is the root of all evil.”

Furthermore, Dante’s sinners are unanimous in finding fault with others, never with themselves. They are very good at pointing fingers elsewhere and refusing to admit that theirs is the fault. The relevance of the ancient poem begins to become apparent.

Dreher takes the reader through several other circles, but in the end he notes, appropriately, that “Dante’s egoists suffering in Hell would be admired and even heroic figures in twenty-first century America” [Cue Jameis Winston, et al]. There is much for each of us to learn from this ancient poem written by a poet in his darkest hours — suffering exile from his family and from his beloved Florence as well. In the end, as Dreher concludes,

Dante shows us that you can just as easily go to Hell by loving good things in the wrong way as you can by loving the wrong things. It’s a subtle lesson, and a difficult lesson, and a lesson that is no less difficult to learn in the twenty-first century than it was in the fourteenth. But it’s still necessary to learn. Happy is the man who embraces this wisdom at any point in his life, but happier is the man who does so in his youth.”

It is sad that Dreher had to wait until his own mid-life crisis to read this remarkable poem. It is even sadder that very few will ever read it at all, though it is a bit of a stretch to think for a moment that even if today’s youth did read it they would see its relevance to their own lives. But it is certain that very few of them will read it at all if it is not required reading, which is even less likely in a culture that insists upon allowing everyone to find his or her own way — even at the risk of getting lost. Like Dante.

(Note: For those of us who don’t read Italian, I have found that John Ciardi’s translation is the most readable. Many are not.)

 

 

Machiavelli and Steinbeck On Parenting

Machiavelli gives the following advice to prospective Princes:

“From this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

I was reminded of this passage when reading John Steinbeck’s remarkable story “The Red Pony” in which he describes the complex relationship between the little boy, Jody, and his father whom he both fears and loves. Steinbeck has this interesting passage in the story:

“When the wood-box was full, Jody took the twenty-two rifle up to the cold spring at the brush line. He drank again and then aimed the gun at all manner of things, at rocks, at birds on the wing, at the big black pig kettle under the cypress tree, but he didn’t shoot for he had no cartridges and wouldn’t have until he was twelve. If his father had seen him aim the rifle in the direction of the house, he would have put off the cartridges off for another year. Jody remembered this and did not point the rifle down the hill again. Two years were enough to wait for cartridges. Nearly all of his father’s presents were given with reservations which hampered their value somewhat. It was good discipline.”

Several things jump out of these passages. To begin with, the notion that discipline might be a good thing, that a young boy might have to wait a couple of years to get what he wanted, is a dated concept — Steinbeck wrote this story in the early 1930s. But what intrigued me most was the ability of Jody’s father to “instill” both love and fear in the young boy, the very thing Machiavelli says is difficult for the Prince to do. But it is a key to good parenting, I would think. A child should respect, love and even fear the parent a bit. I am not talking about child abuse here — while Jody’s father is a bit stern, there’s no suggestion that he beats his son — I simply mean that a twinge of fear in the child that comes from the conviction that he or she knows the parents mean what they say. Jody knows his father will not give him the cartridges if he sees  him pointing the rifle at the house.  Moreover, the need to demand that Jody postpone immediate gratification, only “hampers” the value of the gift in the ten-year-old boy’s mind; in fact delayed satisfaction, increases value — the satisfaction that comes from a long-awaited gift (even if it is given with “reservations”) — all of which seem to go into the difficult (Freud says “impossible”) job of parenting.

We have lost a great deal in trashing the concept of “discipline,” insisting in all cases that it amounts to disguised abuse, and giving in to the notion that good parenting means complying with the child’s every whim. These bogus notions came from the plethora of pop-psychology books that were all the rage in the 1950s that sought to tell parents how to raise their children. This was the outcome, in turn, of a movement that started in the 1900s when the “helping professions” regarding themselves as “doctors of a sick society” decided that most of the problems with criminals in this country resulted from bad parenting and the job should be taken over by trained professionals like themselves.

This, of course, was nothing more than self-promotion on the part of educators, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and penologists. To state the case as plainly as possible, the  parents are the ones who should raise their children. The child simply needs to know the meaning of the word “no,” and he or she needs to know the parents mean what they say and that whatever else might happen, they love their child and want what is best for them. All of this comes from that difficult balance of love and fear that comprise the core of respect that should be at the center of any relationship between a child and his father or mother.  Steinbeck knew this, and his story about the red pony (which is really about Jody) gives us a convincing portrait of a child who both respects and loves his father — and fears him in the sense described above.

Flight From Woman

Despite the fact that he never married, Henry Adams held women in the highest possible regard and often, in his autobiography, tells the reader how he was “rescued as often before by a woman.” In most cases it was Senator Cabot Lodge’s wife, who, with her husband and children, accompanied Adams on many of his travels. Indeed, it was with the Lodges that Adams first visited Mont St. Michel and Chartres and later wrote his remarkable study. He spends the bulk of one chapter in his autobiography taking about the plight of women in his age and says, in passing, “Adams owed more to the American woman than to all the American men he ever heard of, and felt not the smallest call to defend his sex who seemed able to take care of themselves. . . . woman was the superior.” In addition, Adams wrote two novels that center around women: Sybil and Madeline Ross in Democracy, and Esther in the novel by that name. In the former, Madeline Ross finds herself unable to “purify politics” in all-male Washington because she discovers “an atrophy of the moral sense by disuse.” Indeed.  For the most part the women stand head and shoulders above the men in the novels as they did with the women in Adams’ life.  I suspect that it was Adams’ high regard for women that drew him to the Chartres Cathedral which was built as homage to the Virgin Mary. As I suggested in an earlier blog, the Virgin represented to medieval men and women the Earth Mother from whom we all came and whose warm embrace will enfold us all in the end. What is this all about?

I would suggest that this has nothing whatever to do with modern feminism. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that modern feminism has helped to effectively eliminate from common discourse any discussion of the woman as she was viewed by such men as Henry Adams. Some would insist that this is for the better. But let us pause and reflect. To Adams, women represent the softer and more gentle side of life, the intuitive and emotional, caring and loving side. Woman represents feeling, man represents reason and cold, hard logic. And despite the fact that Adams himself had a mind like a steel trap and could reason with the best, he preferred feeling which he insists brings us all closer to one another and to life itself. His heroes and heroines show extraordinary sensitivity and he himself was drawn to beauty in all its forms. Adams would have agreed with Jung who insisted on the duality within each of us and tended, for his part, to prefer the side of feeling, the compassion and love that was represented by women and which he was not himself afraid to acknowledge in himself. In fact, he seems throughout his autobiography to regret deeply not having lived in the medieval period when the Virgin Mary was very real and gave meaning to life; she was available to all as a source of comfort and succor.

But what of this duality? Why is it that so much of what is written and spoken about women and men today seems directed toward a categorical denial, a leveling down, an insistence of no difference where differences clearly exist? Why is it that today women so often must seek success in men’s terms, by wearing pants and being assertive and tough enough to break the “glass ceiling”? The male is hard and repellant in so many respects. As Karl Stern points out in his interesting book Flight From Woman,

“Just as in the function of the spermatozoon in its relation to the ovum, man’s attitude toward nature is that of attack and penetrate. He removes rocks and uproots forests to make space for agriculture. He dams up rivers and harnesses the power of water. Chemistry breaks up the compound of molecules and rearranges the position of atoms. Physics overcomes the law of nature, gravity, first in the invention of the wheel — last in the supersonic rocket that soars into the stratosphere. . . . Man’s activity is always directed against nature.”

Men are leading the onslaught against the Earth Mother today: why would women want to be like men? The answer is that society demands it. We have defined success in monetary terms and the only way women can be successful, as we define that term today, is to play a man’s game. and play it as well as or better than the men. However, it is not demeaning to women to insist that they are different, especially if that difference amounts to a superiority. And it assuredly doesn’t imply that women should be denied the same rights as men. For centuries, of course, they were denied a voice and recognition as morally equal to men. It is certainly understandable that women have become defensive about being set apart: they want the recognition they deserve and have been so long denied. But perhaps the fight has progressed a few steps too far. That is one of the consequences of the trend toward equality that slowly emerged from the age of Enlightenment when people first started thinking about moral equality and the need to recognize the rights of all. But moral equality does not translate into sameness: we should  eschew any leveling down, recognize difference and accept it.

As Stern insists in a remark that would offend many women today, women “act and react out of the dark, mysterious depths of the unconscious, i.e., affectively,  intuitively, mysteriously. This is no judgment of value, but a statement of fact.”  This does not mean that women should not pursue mathematics and science or become police officers, which are supposed to be more “manly” activities, but simply that we should all acknowledge that there are differences between men and women and that every one of us is an intriguing combination of the two natures. Some women make better physicists or mathematicians than men and some men make better poets or writers than many women do. Recent testing suggests that young girls do as well as or even better than young boys in tests involving math and science. But that does not mean that there are not differences between the two aspects of the human psyche or that women and men are not different from one another in ways that subtend the physical. It is precisely because we come to this topic with bags choked with prejudice and suspicions that when differences are pointed out we insist that value judgments are being made; we refuse to acknowledge the facts that stare us in the face.

But if in the end we insist upon making those value judgments, rather than simply to acknowledge that there are ineluctable differences between the sexes, then perhaps we should simply agree with Adams that the female is superior to the male. Love trumps aggression every time. As Joseph Conrad would have it, women are “not the playthings of Time,” they shine forth with “an unearthly glow in the darkness.” And that darkness is the result of man’s unfettered rapaciousness over the centuries.

But as I write these words I wonder if we have come to the point where they simply no longer make any sense.

Eliot’s Lessons In Morality

In her first major novel, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot created a situation between Maggie Tulliver and Stephen Guest that brings to the fore the conflict between love and duty — a strangely Victorian struggle that might be alien to most of us in the twenty-first century. For Eliot, it is the struggle within the heart of a young woman between her love of a man (Stephen Guest), including the financial security marriage to Stephen would bring, and her duty to those who love her and whom she loves in return – her cousin Lucy Deane (who is engaged to Stephen) and Philip Makem, who would like to be Maggie’s lover. After arranging to take Maggie on a boat ride down the Floss, Stephen allows the boat to drift past their destination and eventually draws Maggie’s attention to the fact that they are destined, in his view, to be together. Though the event seems to have been accidental, it is, of course, what he wants and has perhaps even allowed; it is what Maggie wants but fears. Stephen puts his case forcefully:

 “See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking – in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again: it has all been done by others.  . . . . It is the only right thing, dearest: it is the only way of escaping from the wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves.”

Maggie is torn and engages in a dialogue with Stephen that progresses for several hours and many pages,. Stephen equates “the only right thing” with what he and Maggie most dearly want. Maggie, on the other hand sees things differently: “I will not begin any future, even with you. . . with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you [previously] I feel now: I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted for ever then. But we must part now.”
Note that even at this point, because of the time spent alone with this engaged man, Maggie’s reputation in those Victorian days, will have been ruined – as was Mary Ann Evan’s reputation when she ran off with the married George Lewes. That is of no concern to Maggie – though as things play out, it becomes a burden with tragic consequences. Instead, she experiences the pangs of an active conscience:

 “I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . .  Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

We are told these days that guilt is a terrible thing, a burden we ought never be forced to bear and Maggie’s speech may seem like the most blatant romantic nonsense to the modern ear that knows without doubt that “love conquers all.” Yet, in Eliot’s mind the guilty conscience is what leads people like Maggie toward the right course of action, her duty to others to whom she is bound by ties of friendship and love —  despite the fact that it is directly opposed to what she so dearly wants.  Indeed, throughout her writings, Eliot is consistent in attacking those who, like so many of us today, regard “what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves” as the highest good. In Eliot’s world doing the right thing is sometimes terribly difficult and frequently directly opposite to what “is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves.” But always giving in to what we want to do is often a sign of weak character and lack of moral fiber, ignoring “whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.” One abandons principles and duty others at great risk. Strange lessons from bygone days.

Birthdays

My friend BTG, the self-proclaimed “old fart” (who is young enough to know better), recently posted a very nice blog wishing his wife a happy birthday. It made me think about birthdays and the way we have come to celebrate them in this country of late. The attached comic (which I will probably get in trouble for using while at the same time I thank “Go Comics” for allowing me to post it) pretty much says it all. But that never stopped me from ruminating on the subject a bit.

Thanks to "Go Comics"

“For Better Or For Worse”

The notion that a person should receive a present — or multiple presents– for a birthday is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The one who should receive the present is the mother of that person. After all, she was the one who endured the pain and agony of delivering the child into the world and, in all likelihood, pretty much raised him or her all by herself. As a rule, husbands seem to have so much to do that takes them away from the raising of children, causing them later in life to regret spending so much time away from their kids. I know that was true in my case. It all seemed so important at the time, whereas I have come to realize that what was important was being with my kids as they grew up and helping my wife turn them into the remarkable young men they are today. In any event, the kids should give their mothers presents. After the kids grow up the presents should stop — along with counting the years!

And as far as parties go — as the comic suggests — it has gotten out of hand. In fact, my wife and I refuse to participate in the orgy of parties that have become a contest among families; we simply send the grandchildren their presents and leave it at that. We love our grandchildren, but are convinced the whole spectacle of parties has gotten way out of hand, with hired clowns and princesses escalating their way to bigger is better. The giving of presents and the hosting of parties simply expands the whole materialistic ethos that permeates this country and has in large measure brought us to our present impasse where money and “things” have become the idol worshipped in nearly every house in this land.

Many of us have come to realize that the way we celebrate Christmas is all wrong. Perhaps it is time to turn our attention to birthdays. Let us embrace our loved ones and tell them we are happy to have had them with us for another year. Or perhaps post a blog telling them how much we love them and take them out for a nice dinner. But let’s let is go at that. It should be about love and the delight we have in knowing those we love are still with us. It shouldn’t be about giving someone a scarf or a ball point pen and getting caught up in the competition of throwing a bigger party than the Smiths did last year. And don’t get me started about all those “holidays” Hallmark has invented to sell their cards!

Putting the “You” In Church

One of the fascinating things to think about in this self-involved culture we love to call our own is the current situation in the churches. They live on the edge of a contradiction that is fascinating in its way.

As we all know, the traditional churches are losing parishioners at a rapid pace. After all, self-absorbed people don’t want to be told what to do and cajoled into making sacrifices when they are used to being stroked and entertained. Both Protestant and Catholic Churches have lost large numbers of members in recent years as many people raised in traditional churches either drop out of church altogether or transfer to other, more “friendly” churches that will give them what they want. What they want is to be entertained and this is what the mega-churches promise. And they deliver.

The Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas is the largest church in the United States. It is so big that they now hold their services in a renovated sports arena.Their services come complete with expensive coffee and doughnuts, lounge chairs, TVs, and a bookstore they can visit during or after the service as parishioners are welcomed in with messages designed to assure them that absolutely nothing will be asked of them (except for a small contribution); their need to be stroked as they were when young and in school will be continued and kneeling is optional; they may sit where they want and take in a service that is sure to thrill and delight them.

These devout people are assured that winning is a good thing and that God wants them to be wealthy. Three of the four largest churches in this country practice what is called “prosperity Christianity” which tells parishioners that God wants them to be rich.The self-esteem mantra is repeated steadily that assures them that they are special and that they will be successful if they really want to be successful — because God would never let them desire something they couldn’t achieve. As pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church says “God would not have put the dream in your heart if He had not already given you everything you need to fulfill it.”

The contradiction to all this comes once they are lured into the mega-church and they are then told that they really should love their fellow-man (except homosexuals, of course) — though they must love themselves first (repeating the false cliché that insists that self-adoration leads to healthy relationships with others). They are also told that God doesn’t want them to sin, even though He does want them to prosper. So under all the hype there is a trace of the traditional message of Christianity as Osteen and others of his ilk tell the gathered throng stories about St. Paul and Jesus that warm their hearts. He also admonishes his parishioners that they must “take time for people [most people]. . .learn to appreciate them. When you go to the grocery store, encourage the cashier. Be friendly.” There are also rules: no adultery, no idols, go to church, don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff — faint echoes of the Ten Commandments. And this from a man who has been telling these people that first and foremost is their love of self and that God wants them to be successful and prosper.

The contradiction between self-adoration and the friendliness they are supposed to show toward [some of] their fellow humans (which frequently demands that they actually pay attention to others) is passed over lightly as people flock to the services and go home feeling good about themselves, assured that as long as they are pleasant to the cashier at the local grocery store they are living the good life and that while they must keep one eye on their weaknesses and make sure they don’t fall too deeply into sin, they are on the right track and doing just fine. And meanwhile the traditional churches where God comes first and parishioners are reminded to be humble and care about others see their pews slowly empty, their doors close, and the buildings turned into homes, apartments, or public houses.