Freedom Revisited

Once again, dear readers, I give you a  tid-bit from past blogs that will be included in my upcoming book! Enjoy!!

TRUE FREEDOM
Consider, if you will, the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke who expressed a fundamental truth about human freedom. Freedom, Burke suggested, is chaos if it is not restrained by wisdom and virtue.
There are two sorts of freedom according to Isiah Berlin, positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is the freedom we brag about, the freedom to choose the cereal we want from a shelf filled with countless varieties of cereals. The freedom to come and go as we please. It connotes the absence of restraints. And taken to the extreme, negative freedom is “folly, vice, madness.”  Imagine a throng of people trying to get on a tow line to reach the top of a ski hill. If they do not line up and take turns it will be hell to pay. Order makes true freedom possible. Freedom without restraint is chaos.
And that suggests the other kind of freedom, positive freedom. This requires thought, “wisdom and virtue,” as Burke suggests. This is true human freedom, the freedom the liberal arts are concerned with, based on the assumption that we are not free at birth and we are not free simply because our hands are untied or we have a huge variety of cereals to choose from. Freedom comes with effort, self-discipline, and education. Freedom comes with knowing which of those cereals are worth eating, which are healthy and which will make us obese and eventually sick.
One of the winning cards that was played in the recent political game we call an election was the freedom card. There are many among us, more than we had imagined, who have felt restrained and held back by “the establishment,” those with money and power who control the strings of government. A man came along speaking in tongues but making clear that if he were elected there would no longer be any restraints, the game would be changed and the disenfranchised would be empowered. These desperate people bought into the lies and empty promises that were tossed at them, huddled together screaming obscene epithets at their opponents and the power-brokers. And they made themselves heard. For better or worse, there are more people who feel free today than they did a year ago.
But that freedom is negative freedom and it may well lead to “folly, vice, and madness” because there is no suggestion that it will allow restraints and the tempering effects of wisdom and virtue — two words that have become lost in the screaming hatred coming from the mouths of those who happened to win the election.
Given that the ideal of the founders to establish a Republic was based on their understanding that true freedom requires wisdom and restraint, as Burke suggested, we can say with confidence that we are growing further and further away from that ideal. Our system of government is in the hands of a demagogue who has no sense of history and has exhibited a total disregard for wisdom and virtue. His promise of greater freedom translates to the removal of restraints and the encouragement of unfettered feelings, including hatred of those who differ from themselves. The freedom he promises is just a nudge this side of chaos.

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Those Demons Among Us

I have been re-reading Dostoevsky’s Demons, in the excellent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. As someone who shares with Stephan Trofimovich the sad condition of being past my prime, I was struck by a series of comments made by his long-time friend and supporter Vavara Petrovna. In the context of the novel, Varvara Petrovna has become close friends with the wife of the governor of the province and has joined her in befriending a group of young people who are among those Dostoevsky regards as “Demons,” a group of nihilists who are bent on destroying the status quo and revolutionizing Russia in the name of…..What? No one knows for sure. (One is put in mind of Steve Bannon who prides himself on his affinity for Lenin’s nihilism, though Bannon can hardly pass for a young man.)

In any event, Varvara Petrovna, despite her fondness for him, has come to the point where she feels as though Stepan Trofimovich has had his day, because his form of liberalism is too tame for the young. She will continue to support him, but she has become convinced that he is as stale as old toast. This conclusion stems from her recent intercourse with the rebels and their determination to introduce “new ideas” into the conversation, making the old ways passé. In attacking Stepan Trofimovich’s  self-esteem, not to mention his entire sense of self, Varvara Petrovna has this to say in trying to convince him that her way is the best way to present himself in reading a paper at an upcoming event which is sure to attract the best and brightest of the town’s most attractive residents — including, of course, the young people she is so enamored with:

“I’ve defended you with all my strength as far as I could. And why must you so necessarily show yourself as ridiculous and dull? On the contrary, come on the stage with a venerable smile, as the representative of a past age, and tell three anecdotes, with all your wittiness, as only you sometimes know how to do. So you’re an old man, so you belong to a bygone age, so you’ve fallen behind them, finally; but you can confess all that with a smile in your preface, and everyone will see that you are a dear, kind, witty relic. . . . In short, a man of the old stamp, and sufficiently advanced to be able to set a right value on all the scandalousness of certain notions you used to follow. Do give me that pleasure, I beg you.”

Stepan Trofimovich is devastated, and I along with him, because this notion that the old folks have had their say, and their day, is so hurtful — and  so commonplace, though Varvara Petrovna’s insensitive manner of speaking to her old friend is unnecessarily cruel.

We also know not what to do with our elders and are convinced that we have nothing to learn from them. The thought that they might have learned something along the way to old age is foreign to the younger generation who have always wanted to wash their hands of the elders and find their own way. To be sure, this goes back to the beginning of time, but it has become increasingly nasty in recent years — beginning with the notion, popular in the 1960s, that anyone older than 30 is irrelevant, and finding its fruition in our cult of the child in which we have made deities of our children and the pages of the AARP magazine are full of advice on how to remain young.

It’s one thing for the young to want to find their own way. As parents we see our children straining against the reins that we hold in our hands — or used to at any rate — and that is a good thing. The young need to learn how to grow old. But this seems no longer to be the case. The young want to remain young (and they do) and the old want to return to their youth (which they can’t). And we all listen carefully to the young, even the smallest child, expecting pearls of wisdom every time they open their mouths. No one seems to know how to grow old gracefully. Like Varvara Petrovna, the elders of our tribe in their worship of the young and their supposedly “new ideas” turn their backs on the lessons they themselves have learned and close their eyes and ears to the wisdom that might issue forth from grizzled faces and gray heads — their own among them.

We are convinced as a culture that newer is better and progress is always forward and never a danger. We also worship the young with undeserved adoration and look in the wrong places for guidance — just as we have disdain for history and regard it as “yesterday’s news” while we read the latest news bite on the internet to find out what is on the cutting edge and therefore true.

All I can say for certain is that I wish I knew forty years ago what I know today; even though I am still in the dark about a great many things I see a little ray of light every now and again and it keeps me going. I certainly do not expect profound insights from children. Humor, yes. Wisdom, almost never. Poor Stepan Trofimovich. I feel for him!

Wisdom

I mentioned a couple of years ago that Franny in J.D. Salinger’s delightful novel Franny and Zooey decided to drop out of college because, she said, “no one there talks about wisdom.” T.S. Elliot famously asked “Where is the wisdom we have lost with knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Both of these comments deserve further comment.

As a philosopher who has devoted his life to helping young minds grow, a “philo-sopher,” a “lover of wisdom,” I have often asked myself the same questions. In my field, I have found members of my profession lost in a cloud of jargon searching for the “philosopher’s stone,” the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. This, in my experience, has translated itself into a bunch of academic introverts weaving themselves into a tangled web of abstruse verbiage splitting hairs with a wicked grin on their collective faces, playing one-up to see who is the cleverest.  One of my professors at Northwestern suggested that if I wanted to succeed in my profession I should find an obscure topic no one knows anything about and write journal articles about it. As Franny asked, what became of wisdom?

This question lead me back to the classics, which I have quoted of late in these posts, writers such as Euripides and Sophocles, who seem to have a better grasp of what it means to be wise. Socrates, reputed to be the wisest man in Athens, insisted that his wisdom (if such it be) consisted in the fact that he knew that he did not know. That is, he did not presume to know things about which he was ignorant — unlike our president-elect who presumes to know more than 97% of the world’s entire scientific community, or anyone else for that matter.

Some distinctions are in order. Wisdom is not about knowledge and it’s not about information. We have both in abundance. We also confuse information with education when we say things such as “she needs to be educated about child-rearing.” No, she needs to be informed about child-rearing. Education is what transforms information into knowledge. Knowledge coupled with experience and common sense may then become wisdom. It depends on many variables, and some have insisted that the experience must involve some degree of suffering. I suspect this is true. In any event, wisdom requires a certain amount of information and a certain amount of knowledge as well. But above all else it requires a sense of how to apply that knowledge and how to weed out the misinformation from the information — a growing problem with bogus news on the Internet, the Fox News channel, and our increasing tendency to reduce all truth to gut feelings.

I would suggest that wisdom is the knowledge of what is appropriate in a particular situation, what the situation calls for. It comes very close to what we loosely call “common sense.” And in my experience, women seem to have more of it than men. It is a wise person who knows what to do and when to do it. A large part of this comes with the skill of critical thinking, which can be taught — and which all college professors of all stripes insist they are teaching (though most are not). We cringe at the word “critical,” because we have been told not to be “judgmental” and criticism is a form of judgment. This, of course, is absurd. Judgment is what separates the wise from the unwise. And criticism allows us to wade through the tons of information and misinformation thrown at its each day and separate out those few items that are worth careful consideration. Education, above all else, involves the development of critical sensibility, the ability to grasp what is essential and important and reject nonsense and blatant falsehood.

Education, therefore, ought to be about wisdom, teaching the skills that allow us to use our minds critically and glean important information from the dreck that surrounds us — and how to apply that information. Too often it is about information, per se, teachings kids the skills they will need to get a job or filling their minds with the information their teachers and professors have decided is important for them to know. The ability to winnow the information ought to be the skill that is taught and we can then hope that the young person will be lucky enough to wed that to a bit of common sense — which I suspect we are born with. Or not. But, in any event, wisdom ought to be discussed in our colleges and universities.

I do believe it can best be discovered by reading the words written by wise men and women who have experience of the world, who know what is appropriate in any circumstance and who have a wealth of common sense. And who write well.

Why The Classics?

A former honors student wrote a note on Facebook recently and asked whether there was any truth to the rumor he had heard that liberal university faculties were putting pressure on their students to lean more to the left. I assured him that there is truth in the rumor, but that it is also the case that conservative faculty often, in my experience, try to get their students to lean a little more to the right. But, since there are a great many more liberal than conservative university faculty members, the trend he mentioned is decidedly of some concern. Indoctrination in any form, especially when it passes for teaching, is most disturbing.

One of the victims of the left-leaning faculty who have a political agenda (which they take very seriously) is the classics — to the point that it is now proclaimed by those who hold the reins of power in academia that there are no such things as classics; just books, and the ones the students should read are the ones the faculty select for them, books that tend to present the viewpoint of those teaching them. The idea, I gather, is to force open the minds of the students to endless examples of social injustice. This in itself is not a bad thing. But the books should be the teachers, not the teachers. And the authors should disagree with one another about almost everything. This generates thought, not disciples.

It is said that the so-called “classics” or “great books” are simply works that were written by “dead, white, European, males” and are no longer relevant in today’s climate of hatred and political chaos. I have vigorously disputed this over the years in my writing, including a number of blog posts (which I referred the young man to), because I have read many of those books (in translation) and have learned so much from them that is not only relevant but timely as well. One such passage I came across the other day while reading Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” of all things. It is in a lengthy comment made by the chorus and reads as follows:

” — A tongue without reins,

defiance,unwisdom —

their end is disaster.

But the life of quiet good,

the wisdom that accepts —

these abide unshaken,

preserving, sustaining

the houses of men.

Far in the air of heaven,

the sons of heaven live.

But they watch the lives of men,

And what passes for wisdom is not;

unwise are those who aspire,

who outrange the limits of man.

Briefly, we live, Briefly,

then die. Wherefore I say,

he who hunts a glory, he who tracks

some boundless, superhuman dream, may lose the harvest here and now

and garner death. Such men are mad,

their council evil.”

This is a remarkable passage and also timely, given the current trend to keep old wounds festering with talk among the power-brokers of possible political recounts. It seems worthy of a few moment’s reflection and serious attempts to see how it applies to today’s world where so much that happens is beyond our control and simply must be accepted — like it or not. As Candide said, “It’s time to cultivate the garden.”

Great books are classics because they are timeless. It matters not who wrote them or when. What matters is what they have to say to those who read them and take them seriously.  Passages like the above are said to be “irrelevant” and are ignored by many of those who have chosen to teach the young because they have other fish to fry, more important fish (as they see it), which leads me to quote another snippet from Euripides:

“Talk sense to a fool

and he calls you foolish.”

 

Propriety

In watching a recent episode of ESPN’s sports show, “The Jump,” I was struck by the following exchange. During a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and an unnamed opponent the Cavaliers had a fairly substantial lead when a time-out was called. Just after the whistle blew, when all play had stopped, one player from the winning team dashed to the basket and did a “360 dunk” just for fun. The commentators at the game remarked that the move was out of place, uncalled for. It did appear that the winners were rubbing salt in the wound.

But those discussing the clip faulted the commentary on the grounds that the player was just having fun. He had recovered from a broken leg the previous year that threatened to keep him out of the game for the rest of his life and it was good to see him loose and having a good time. In addition, the leap showed he was back at full strength and he was merely reflecting the joy he had in once again playing the game he loved. Or some such thing. In any event, they thought the original commentary was out of order.

I thought about this. (I am retired and have a tendency to reflect on the ordinary, for my sins.) It occurred to me that the original comments were expressing a sense of propriety, something — along with a sense of restraint — that has been all but lost in our climate of immediate gratification and the public exhibition of whatever we happen to be feeling at the moment. The media obviously prefer to focus in on expressions of extreme joy or, preferably, great sadness, especially with tears. Can we have some tears, please? Just consider for a moment the previews we are shown for upcoming shows, or the highlights of past shows, stressing violence and the raw expression of emotion. We have pretty much forgotten what those commentators were trying to express: putting on a show when your team is leading and the other team is trying to keep it together is not called for. It is out of order. It shows lack of respect for the losing team that is already looking forward to another loss at the hands of a team with one of the best players on the planet.

In a more recent broadcast, the very verbose Stephen A. Smith saw “no problem whatever” with Labron James in street clothes, coaching over the head of the team’s coach while he was supposed to be taking a day off for a rest before the playoffs. He saw no impropriety whatever, since James has, in Smith’s view, “one of the greatest basketball minds of this generation.” The latter is true, I gather from the available evidence, but irrelevant to the question of whether James’ conduct was appropriate. It showed a lack of respect for the coach — who was chosen at mid-season at James’ request, apparently.

Propriety is knowing what is and what is not appropriate. The Greeks understood this, as they saw tragedy emerging whenever folks, especially those in power, lost their sense of what is appropriate. The cautious person tries to grasp the situation and knows what the appropriate response is. Sometimes it is complete silence. At other times it is applause, or possibly even shouting with glee. At yet other times it is deep-felt sadness. The situation makes demands on the sensitive spectator and the wise one is the one who knows just what the situation calls for. That is propriety; that is self-restraint.

We are learning during these dreary days of political preliminaries how unrestrained some of the main characters are in this melodrama we are all sick of by this time. The men on television commenting on a basketball game recognize that exuberance at a time when your team is ahead and the other team is feeling the pressure from an impending loss is inappropriate. They showed a feeling for propriety that is missing in so much of what we see and hear these days. Those clowns who faulted them for not applauding the show of exuberance on the part of a player who has recovered from a debilitating injury merely reflected the general lack of sense of what is and what is not appropriate, what the situation called for — as did Stephen A. Smith. It was fun to see a man dunk the basketball after such a serious injury. But it was inappropriate in the circumstances. Awareness of the difference is disappearing in this culture along with the moral compass that points us to the high ground.

Truth To Tell

One of the reasons I like to read novels by folks like Barbara Kingsolver is because they often have important things to say and do it so well. Her novels (and I am hooked on her novels, I admit) are always thought-provoking and intriguing. She has won numerous awards and, in her case at any rate, they are well deserved. In her novel The Lacuna, which is in its way brilliant, she tells us of a young novelist living in Washington D.C. and lets us read the letter he is writing to an old friend in Mexico. The letter is dated July 6, 1946.

“Politics here now resemble a pillow fight. Lacking the unifying slogan (Win the War), our opposing parties sling absurd pronouncements back and forth, which everyone pretends carry real weight. How the feathers fly! The newsmen leap on anything, though it’s all on the order of, ‘Four out of five shoppers know this is the better dill pickle,’ assertions that can’t be proven but sway opinion. ‘Dance for the crowd’ is the new order, with newsmen leading the politicians like bears on a leash. Real convictions would be a hindrance. The radio is the root of the evil, their rule is: No silence, ever. When anything happens the commentator has to speak without a moment’s pause for gathering wisdom. Falsehood and inanity are preferable to silence. You can’t imagine the effect of this. The talkers are rising above the thinkers.”

It’s no longer the radio, of course, but her point is well taken: “The talkers are rising above the thinkers.” Or is it “the shouters”?

Steinbeck’s Wisdom

John Steinbeck apparently believed that there is some good in all of us — no matter how degenerate we appear. He was fond of writing about the scraps and bits of cast-off humanity that others ignored. In Cannery Row, for example, he writes about a small community of people who are likely to be unnoticed and dismissed as beneath contempt, if not avoided at all costs. The main group of five men, led by Mack, are “bums” in the eyes of most of us. They don’t work unless absolutely necessary — and then only as long as they must. They live with their dog they love too much to train or restrict in any way in a deserted warehouse, called the “Palace Flophouse,” owned by a Chinese man who has decided he is better off letting them live there rent-free than to turn them away and possibly suffer unseen consequences. The only “respectable” character, and the central character in the novella is “Doc,” an educated marine biologist who collects specimens along the California coast, prepares them for dissection and study in America’s colleges and universities, and lives a quiet and sober life among his jars, his books, and his beloved records (remember them??)

Midway through the novella a bizarre incident occurs in which Mack and his boys drunkenly trash Doc’s laboratory and home in their well-meaning desire to throw him a party because he has been good to them; Doc is indeed beloved by all in Cannery Row because he is gentle, caring, and only too willing to put himself out for others. Mack and the boys (“I and the boys,” as he says) feel awful about what their excess of enthusiasm has brought to Doc’s doors — it takes Doc, who arrives after the party is over, a day to clean up the mess they have left behind. Accordingly there is a rift between Doc and Mack’s crew, but it is one they are determined to mend — by throwing him another party (at the suggestion of the madam of the local whore house)! In the meantime, as they go about planning the party in secret, Doc is having a beer with one of his friends and reflecting on Mack and his boys “the Virtues, the Beatitudes, the Beauties,” as Steinbeck calls them; Doc comes up with the following speech which strikes me as worldly-wise:

“Doc said, ‘Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think,’ he went on, ‘that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will ever happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls. But Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. . . .

“‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness, and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.'”

Can I hear an “AMEN”!!??

Forgetting The Past

The student protests in this country during the turbulent 1960s led by well-intentioned, idealistic young people, seem to have marked the death-throes of the American spirit. Directed as it was, unsuccessfully, against the “establishment” of materialistic, commercial and militaristic power that increasingly controlled this country, the effort sought in its blind way to breathe life into the spirit that had made this country remarkable. But blind it was, led by uneducated zealots who lacked a coherent plan of action, confused freedom with license, and targeted education which they barely understood and were convinced was turning into simply another face of the corporate corruption that was suffocating their country. In their reckless enthusiasm they decided that the core academic requirements at several of America’s leading universities were “irrelevant” and they bullied bewildered, frightened, and impotent professors and administrators into cutting and slashing those requirements. Other institutions were soon to follow. One of the first casualties was history, which was regarded by militant students as the least relevant of subjects for a new age they were convinced they could bring about by force of will and intimidation.

Had they been inclined to read at all, they might have done well to heed the words of Aldous Huxley when, in Brave New World, he pointed out that the way the Directors of that bizarre world controlled their minions was by erasing history. One of Huxley’s slogans, lifted from Henry Ford, was “history is bunk.” By erasing and re-writing history those in power could control the minds of the population and redirect the nation and determine its future. In the end, of course, the students who led the protests in this country and who thought history irrelevant were themselves (inevitably?) co-opted by the corporations and eventually became narrow, ignorant Yuppies, running up huge credit card debt and worried more about making the payments on their Volvos and their condos than about the expiring soul of a nation they once claimed to love. Or they became politicians tied to corporate apron-strings thereby rendering them incapable of compromise and wise leadership.

In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote one of the most profound and informative  analyses of the cultural malaise that resulted in large part from the failure of the protests in this country in the 1960s. In his remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life In An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which I have referred to in previous blogs he warned us about this attempt to turn our backs on history:

“. . .the devaluation of the past has become one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis to which this book addresses itself, often drawing on historical experience to explain what is wrong with our present arrangements. A denial of the past, specifically progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future. . . . After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate,’ overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure.’ Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed, Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, issued in 1973, accurately caught the mood of the seventies. Appropriately cast in the form of a parody of futuristic science fiction, the film finds a great many ways to convey the message that ‘political solutions don’t work,’ as Allen flatly announces at one point. When asked what he believes in, Allen, having ruled out politics, religion, and science, declares: ‘I believe in sex and death — two experiences that come once in a lifetime.’ . . . To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

If there were any questions about the spiritual health of this country, the loss of hope, the rejection of religion, history, and science, and the abandoned expectations of viable political solutions provide clear answers.  We do seem to be a vapid people, collecting our toys and worrying about how to pay for them, wandering lost in a maze of our own making, ignoring the serious problems around us as we follow our own personal agendas — and remaining ignorant of the history lessons that might well show us the way to a more promising future.

Dollars and Sense

I have been reading the third novel of the four that comprise Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy titled The Temple of Dawn. The four novels in the group focus on the life of Shigekuni Honda before during and after the Second World War. The third volume is written around the years of the war, especially the final years when Japan was being fire-bombed relentlessly by B-29’s and Honda picks his way through the ruins of his beautiful homeland trying to make sense of a world in chaos.

The Japanese signed an agreement known as “Comintern” with Germany and Italy, late in the 1930s in order to unite against the threat of the Soviet Union and Communism, which was sweeping Europe and the Far East at a time when the world economies were in serious trouble. But the old line Japanese worried as much, if not more, about capitalism than they did Communism, according to Mishima. They saw capitalism as an insidious force that was gradually destroying the ancient values that made Japan a unique culture — and it was undermining the ancient religion as well.

Early in 1932 there had been an abortive attempt to establish a military dictatorship in Japan by a group of young idealists who were intent on restoring the ancient values. This attempt included the intent to murder of several leading bankers and industrialists. Mishima deals with that revolution in his second volume. But in this third volume his hero, Honda, comes across a poem written by one of the young men who had been involved in the failed attempt to bring down the existing government. “The poet expressed the disillusionment that followed the revolution for which he had been so ready to give up his life.” In that poem, Honda reads the following couplet: “Yesterday’s wisdom is beclouded in luxurious baths of profit.” That thought alone justifies the reading of this fine novel, which is full of insights and profound observations about the world at that time, not only in Japan, but elsewhere as well.

In any event, in reflecting on that particular thought I find it remarkable that Japan was fighting at that time against the very same capitalistic forces the Roman Church was fighting against during the European Middle Ages. Capitalism won out and the battle was over between the love of money — which is condemned in both Christianity and Buddhism — and the love of God and our fellow humans. In both cases, the fight was lost and lofty spiritual ideals were replaced by the most crass, materialistic values humans have ever come to espouse. One really must sympathize with those young Japanese men who were willing to die in order to preserve a culture that was in so many ways superior to the one they knew would inevitably replace it. Just consider Japan today, with its Western dress and ideals — and especially its commitment to capitalist objectives. And consider the insidious influence of great wealth on the government in this country which is virtually crippled because those who govern are determined not to pass any laws that might infringe on the right of a few wealthy men to become even wealthier. In both cultures, Japanese and American, it is now all about money.

Silver Spoons and Such

Edith Wharton’s name has come up in previous blogs. She is one of my favorite writers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence, and certainly one of the best writers this country has produced, male or female. She was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth and spent most of her adult life telling folks how bad it tasted. In a word, many of her novels are satirical studies directed against the puffery of the very rich. As such, they have something important to tell us about those “successful” people who now run the country — you know, the infamous 1%. If Wharton is right, they took a wrong turn somewhere along the line and, despite what they may think, they live empty lives and are not really happy. I must say I tend to believe her: she does make a strong case.

In one of her lesser novels, Glimpses of the Moon, she tells about a young couple, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, who decide to get married and then live off the wedding checks and invitations from their wealthy friends for as long as possible. They are attracted to one another by their shared honesty and the fact that they are both relatively poor and rely on wealthy friends to get by. The whole game starts out like a lark as the two think they are having a grand joke at their wealthy friends’ expense. The matter becomes complicated, however, when they find they really do love one another and during a prolonged separation following a major argument, they drift apart only to discover the falsehood of their own game, — and also the complete falsehood of the way of life they ridicule– to wit, lives immersed in great wealth.

Toward the end of the novel, as the scales are falling from Susy’s eyes, she agrees to sit for several months with the five children of one of her few remaining friends, a musician who is married to an artist and whose children turn out to be exceptional. As she gets to know the kids, she comes to know herself better. Like Wharton herself who organized relief for Belgian refugees during the First World War in France, her heroine finds herself by immersing herself in the lives of others. Susy comes to see more and more clearly how false is the make-believe world of the very rich. The kids are remarkable: they are bright and “their intelligence had been fed only on things worth caring for. . . good music, good books, and good talk had been their daily food, and if at times they stamped and roared and crashed about like children unblessed by such privileges, at others they shone with the light of poetry and spoke with the voice of wisdom.” As Susy comes to realize, the thing that makes these kids so unusual is the fact that all their lives they have been surrounded by beauty — and the honesty of their parents. As it happens, she finds herself not mothering the children but “being herself mothered, of taking her first steps in the life of immaterial values which had begun to seem so much more substantial than any she had known.”

As Wharton weaves the tale, it becomes clear that the heroine grows as Wharton herself did, from a spoiled child surrounded by the comfort and security of great wealth — with all its sham and pretense — to a life of clarity and truth where she comes to realize what really matters. She finds happiness not by looking for it, but by immersing herself in the lives of others, lives that demand that she come out of herself. Like Wharton, when she divorced her husband and turned her back on all the glitz, she was financially less well off. But in the only sense that matters she was truly richer.

When summarized, the tale sounds a bit corny, but when told by a writer of Wharton’s caliber who knows first-hand whereof she speaks, it has the ring of truth and conviction. It is a truth that must fall on deaf ears in this age of “me-first” where those among us crave material well-being and identify their happiness with the very things Wharton pilloried. But if we would only take the time to reflect we might discover a great truth in novels such as this. In addition to being a superb writer, Edith Wharton was an immensely wise woman.