Death of Soul?

In his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Balzac’s classic Père Goriot, Peter Connor asks the provoking question:

“Is Balzac the artist who has recorded for our modern era the death of soul? The death of all belief in something greater, grander than the individual?”

The question is rhetorical and Balzac makes it quite clear what he means to say in his many novels and stories that comprise the Human Comedy which he wrote in the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. In his novel The Country Doctor, for example, he has this remarkable passage:

“With the monarchy we lost honor, with the religion of our fathers, Christian virtue, with our sterile governments, patriotism. These principles only exist partially instead of animating the masses. . . . Now, shoring up society, we have no other support than egoism. Woe betide the country thus constituted. Instead of believers, we have interest.”

“Interest” here, of course, refers not only to the money made from money, but self-interest — or, better yet, short-term self-interest which has become all the rage not only in France, but also in this country where the business model provides a template for all human endeavors, including health care and education. Profits now and screw tomorrow…. and the planet.

But, ignoring for the moment the reference to the restoration of the monarchy in France after Napoleon (and the oblique reference to the “reign of terror” in which clerics were one of the favorite targets of the Jacobites), let us focus instead on the loss of virtue. The “death of God,” as Nietzsche would have it. And recall that Karl Gustav Jung echoes Balzac’s plaintive cry when he wrote a set of essays in the 1930s and collected them in a book titled Modern Man in Search of Soul. All of these men, and others like them, have noted that the modern era (and especially the post-modern era I would add) have displaced soul with stuff. We live in a disenchanted age. It is an age of scientism and capitalism, the one ignoring intuition and insisting that the scientific method is the only way to the Truth; the other giving birth to a crass materialism that places emphasis on things over the ineffable. We have ignored Hamlet’s observation:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant natural philosophy, or science.  Indeed, ours is a “commodified culture” as Robert Heilbronner would have it, an era in which the new car or the flat-screen TV are much more important to most of us than virtue, or the development of what used to be called “character.” And we have the audacity to think that there are no problems our scientists, mostly technicians these days, cannot solve.

Balzac’s many novels and stories — more than 90 of them — comprise “a documentary of the cramped modern soul, a soul shown to be cynical, pitiless, insensible, gluttonous, scheming, and, perhaps, above all, indifferent,” as Conner would have it. In his classic  Père Goriot, which many think is the cornerstone of Balzac’s Human Comedy, he describes in exacting detail the residents of a boarding house where the novel takes place:

“There was not a soul in the house who took any trouble to investigate the various chronicles of misfortunes, real or imaginary, related to the rest. Each regarded the others with indifference, tempered by suspicion; it was a natural result of their relative positions. Practical assistance not one of them could give, this they all knew, and they had long since exhausted their stock of condolences over previous discussions of their grievances. . . . There was not one of them but would have passed a blind man begging in the street, not one that felt moved to pity by a tale of misfortune.”

That was France in the nineteenth century. And it was written by a novelist who, we all know, makes things up. Surely this is not the real world, not the world of these United States in the year of our Lord 2018? And yet with the exception of the remarkable people Jill Dennison tells us about weekly in her blog, most of us seem to fit the pattern of the lodgers Balzac is describing in his novel, sad to say. We do seem to be indifferent to others, preoccupied with our very own selves, turned in on ourselves, perhaps posting a selfie on social media in hopes of getting yet another “like.” We glorify our indifference to others by calling it “tolerance,” and delude ourselves into thinking we are better than we are.

It is certainly the case that many Christians have given a bad name to Christianity. We can see with our mind’s eye those who drive each Sunday in their gas-guzzling SUV to a mega-church where they sit in comfortable chairs, sipping an espresso coffee and watching the frantic preacher on a television set near the book store where his latest book is on sale, along with other memorabilia, including, no doubt, tee shirts. Such people abound who go by the name “Christian” while all the time indulging themselves, festering hate in their hearts, supporting a president who is the embodiment of hate, fear, and unbridled greed.

As Balzac notes, and this is not just a novelist speaking, we have lost religion, “Christian virtue.” And this includes not only so many of those who pretend to be Christians, but many of those who have rejected religion altogether, all religions. Along with “more things in heaven and earth” we have indeed lost our souls.  If we have any doubts we need only reflect on how so many of us celebrate Christmas these days.

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Enlightened Despot?

Joseph Schumpeter. whose remarkable book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, I have referenced before, alludes to the difficulties that democracies have in passing necessary legislation — and the ease with which a dictator such as Napoleon had in making it happen:

“One of the most pressing political needs of the moment was a religious settlement that would clear the chaos left by the revolution and the directorate and bring peace to millions of hearts. This he achieved by a series of master strokes, culminating in a concordat with the pope (1801) and the ‘organic articles’ (1802) that, reconciling the irreconcilable, gave just the right amount of freedom to religious worship while upholding the authority of the state. He also recognized and refinanced the French Catholic Church, solved the delicate question of the ‘constitutional’ clergy, and most successfully launched the new establishment with a minimum of friction. If there ever was any justification at all for holding that the people actually want something definite, this arrangement affords one of the best instances in history.”

In the face of an inept and stupefied Congress in this country in our day, we find numerous changes that would make our democracy work more effectively and which we know full well will never get done. I am thinking of a Constitutional Amendment eradicating the absurd Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United” that gave the corporations the power to pull the political strings in this country; I refer also to another Constitutional Amendment clarifying the Second Amendment to make it crystal clear that it is the militia that has the right to bear arms — as was the original intent of the Amendment; the eradication of PACs which coerce the government in the direction of special interests; and, of course, term-limits for the members of Congress. We know these things will not happen because those who would make them happen prefer the status quo which favors themselves and their political party.

After Warren Buffet announced on CNN recently that “I could end the deficit in five minutes,” . . . You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election” there appeared  a petition making the rounds of social media  that insists that he could remedy the financial crisis in this country with the following seven step plan:

1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman / woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they’re out of office.

2. Congress (past, present, & future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 3/1/17. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.

Now, whether Buffet could manage to pull it off or not depends on whether he could be declared “despot for a day” and given the emergency powers to effect change. His hope that his foray into the social media will alert enough people to the problem and his solution to place sufficient pressure on the Congress to effect these changes is a bit of a pipe dream —  like the changes I noted above — much needed, but not bloody likely.

This sort of situation makes the heart yearn for an enlightened despot who would indeed be able to make the changes that are so necessary for the well-being and happiness of the citizens of this country — who are supposed to be the ones in whom the sovereignty resides. This softening of the heart goes all the way back to Plato who had a very low opinion of the democracy that condemned his beloved Socrates to death, and preferred a “philosopher king” who, like Napoleon or Warren Buffet, would make things right.

But, as we all know from reading our history (?), despots can become corrupt and instead of an enlightened despotism citizens often find themselves faced with a tyrant. At present we have a president who would be a depot if allowed — and the recent discussions in Congress about giving this man “emergency war powers” to deal with the situation in the Middle East would help bring this about. But we can see at a glance that such a man would turn that despotism into a tyranny in the blink of an eye and we shudder to think of the consequences — and sincerely hope the Congress stops such talk immediately, if not sooner.

So, perhaps, we should stop day-dreaming and simply be content to muddle through with a slow and inept (if not downright corrupt) Congress in the hope that while they accomplish nothing worthwhile they will at least keep the man in the Oval Office from making mistakes that would shake the globe and bring the democracy (or what is left of it) crashing down about out ears.