White clematis, red roses
I believe the purpose of our life is to find our way back to the garden, where we began. Once we didn’t need to care for the garden–it was a gift. But we couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of never being fully human.
I’ve learned the way back to the garden. We merely have to create it around us. Then we will be able to keep it because we understand it.
What did God mean when he said it was good, after finishing Creation? I meet a lot of young people these days who do not have any very useful understanding of what “goodness” means, who are not even sure it is something they should want. They confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.
But goodness is something much larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is the vision beyond the rules. A vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children.
And so we teach children little rules that preserve the good order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.
When Valerie’s and my children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouths, Valerie kept a philodendron on the coffee table. Often that poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of reach.
Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking.
What we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our living, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.
Sometimes we encountered a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of the forlorn philodendron. Such moments rightly understood are teaching opportunities. When I lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” I only wanted her to learn.
I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed a possibility. But in fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then comprehend. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will but hinted at a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”
We wanted our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness, which is complex and requires us to live amid ordered loves.
That’s quite a bit to learn. So we start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we also knew that as her questioning spirit became more powerful, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward what we really hoped to teach.
It wasn’t long before we let her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.
In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.
Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules without making the rules absolute. Life is complicated in precisely the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness before they can see the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep young people safe while they are still learning how life works.
As Wendell Berry observed, the rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.
Goodness is almost a synonym for wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.
“Truth” is our name for that harmony.
A happy life is a garden–a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, an embodiment of joy. It adheres to principles of selection which allow careful editing of what the world offers. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.
And always, it is here. It is now.
God will have a humble people. Either we can choose to be humble, or we can be compelled to be humble.
-Ezra Taft Benson
Path to the Secret Garden
Nietzsche’s argument in favor of atheism was revelatory: “If there were gods how could I bear not to be a god? Therefore, there are no gods.” It’s not really an argument. It’s a pure assertion of will. I will
have no gods above me. It’s a choice to proceed as though he were a god himself.
It’s a common choice today: the decision to treat choice itself as god. It leads to a world of false moralities in which the act of choosing, and not the content of the choice, is given moral status. We are taught that the only moral standard we may apply to sexual practices is that they are the free choices of “consenting adults.”
That’s a low standard. It doesn’t establish the sort of moral reasoning that draws the world forward and upward, toward more light, more relationship, more peace and more love. It makes the entry gate into the garden seem to be the final destination. Yes, we may choose, but that doesn’t end the conversation about which choices are wise and which foolish.
We are not in fact gods. We are fearful and vulnerable creatures at large in a cosmos of unimaginable forces that do not care for us and do not heed us. Every moment we live is a moment we are at risk, and we lack the power to foretell what is coming or to adequately defend ourselves against much that will come. We can choose a path that becomes harder and harder to see, disappearing into thickets and brambles, descending ever farther into dark woods full of trouble.
And yet, God abides. We cannot choose otherwise. We can only choose to believe or to chase illusions.
If we choose, we can spend our time learning what he wants us to do and then doing it. As we do, more and more of what remains beyond the garden gate comes into view. Little by little we make our home in the kingdom of heaven, which is here and now, though visible only to the degree we choose to believe, choose to submit.
Bryce, Jenna and Daij experience the joys of earthly life, participating hands-on in the abundance that is ours to make. People need work.
People need to work if they are to feel contentment, argues James Bruce. They are made that way.This is true, but modern economic ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that we don’t see how to create enough jobs that people in need of work can do. We have trouble thinking about work except by thinking about jobs. Jobs, in fact, have been the way economic benefits get distributed. Corporate enterprises generate wealth from profits, and a portion of that wealth flows to the various workers employed by the enterprise.
This is true, but modern economic ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that we don’t see how to create enough jobs that people in need of work can do. We have trouble thinking about work except by thinking about jobs. Jobs, in fact, have been the way economic benefits get distributed. Corporate enterprises generate wealth from profits, and a portion of that wealth flows to the various workers employed by the enterprise.
That model has done more to increase general wealth and decrease poverty than any other system people have imagined. But it may be inadequate in the stage of history we have now entered, where technology drastically reduces the need for human workers while globalization great increases the wealth flowing into the largest corporate entities. Unimaginable sums of money accumulate in the hands of relatively few players.
Maybe we need to rethink how wealth is distributed. In recent decades we’ve implemented many schemes to make wealth available to people without jobs. Modern welfare states provide food, housing, health care, education and cash to people on the dole. This has solved one problem–avoiding for most the worst forms of destitution, but the system has done a wretched job of providing the poor with the dignity and contentment that only come from giving to causes beyond the self and helping others. We have created masses of people who remain poorer than workers, in spite of food stamps, but who feel resentment rather than gratitude and envy rather than contentment and anger rather than gratitude.
A wiser welfare policy would not forget that people need work, real work, for reasons that go beyond acquiring purchasing power in the marketplace. They need the sense of empowerment that comes from setting difficult goals and reaching them, step by step, over weeks and years. They need to feel the security of self-reliance, of learning that periods of trouble and discomfort can be accepted as opportunities to learn strength and virtue. They need to know the courage one finds in the companionship of great souls of the present and past, who have labored and sacrificed to uplift neighbors and to make their portion of the world into a better place. They need to exult in the sweet peace that one finds only in helping others, in forgetting the self by giving gifts of service. They need work.
Modern states need welfare policies based on enduring principles of human nature. This means that those who can work must be expected to work. It means that personal judgments about both the need and the capacity of those seeking help need to be made, which means that most decisions must be made at a very local level. It means that local leaders need to sought and trained–people who understand the interdependence of good character and happiness, people who are willing to love and minister and teach as well as to disburse dollars. Of course, platitudes and good intentions aren’t enough. We should be chastened and sobered by past failures, pondering them prayerfully.
Baltimore provides a good case study of how far we are from a paradise that remains, still,, within our reach.
It also means that agencies that accumulate wealth in the markets need to look at communities as something more than markets. Every neighborhood in the world faces troubles, since the world around them is constantly changing calling forth new responses, and since the worlds within them are constantly changing as all individual members move constantly into new stages of life, their abilities and insights and desires changing. Much of the work that should be done in such places does not make sense to one looking at short, direct connection to profits. So we have neighborhoods where there are no gardens and gardeners, where buildings are unpainted and dirty, where garbage accumulates and vandalism goes unanswered. We have streets of apartments where few books are owned, far from the reach of libraries and bookmobiles. We have families where for generations nobody has had a job, learning what is learned by getting up each morning, brushing one’s teeth and catching an early bus.
Investing in such places would in the not-so-long term be much better business than allowing the envy and rage of the poor to fester and spread, leading to the sort of mass movements that caused breath-taking disasters in the last century. We have many people who would be willing to help and we have an endless supply of places that need help. We have plenty of work to do, and more awareness than we sometimes admit of how to start on that work. What we don’t have is a lot of time.
Bucking bales was a central summer task for many rural people in that Montana that is already a part of the past.
I grew up in a small town on an Indian reservation in a one of the spectacular mountain valleys of western Montana. We had enough mass media in those post-World War II days for me to think my home was poor and rural, far from important people and significant events that seemed more real because television cameras broadcast them to the whole world. My earliest memory that could be called “political” was of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when, for the first time in history, the media corporations patched together without satellites a haphazard nationwide network, bringing live coverage of the speeches and ceremonies that surrounded the state funeral of one of the early heroes of the television age. A global village had formed, though its presence was weak, in black and white, without much detail.
That media empire wasn’t my primary environment. I could buy balsa wood glider airplanes for a quarter at Gambles and spend entire afternoons wandering valley meadows, finding the best hills to launch. I bought a transistor radio about the size of baloney sandwich, one of the first purchases I made with money from my first job, driving a Massey-Ferguson pulling a harrow, changing sprinkler pipes, bucking bales of hay on a neighbor’s dairy ranch. The speakers were scratchy by current standards and the AM stations were sometimes elusive, but I could keep up with top 40 pop rock songs: “Midnight Confessions,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and such. I tuned in occasionally, in the evenings, when real life slowed. After we got a television, my mother kept it on constantly, an endless drama of soap operas flowing from crisis to crisis as she ironed and cleaned, drinking long-necked bottles of Pepsi. By then I wasn’t spending much time at home. My life, outside school, was spent mostly with friends—riding horses on mountain trails, shooting shotguns at ducks, conspiring in nearly random acts of little vandalism that was more contemptible than criminal.
Always, I had a sense that these things were nearly unreal—not that I doubted they existed in some durable and consequential way—but just that I knew reality was mostly something else. The troubles and triumphs of my little life were the tangible edge of something I couldn’t penetrate, the deeply-spinning, spiraled magic of which the Milky Way was only a glittering garland. My friends cared little about this and mocked such things, so I kept a distance.
As soon as I learned to read, the weekly trips to the small library–started a generation before by the St. Ignatius Women’s Club, a handful of wives and mothers who got together to talk about culture and to serve the town—became the high point of my week. Reading reassured me that I wasn’t alone and wasn’t crazy. The words I heard reverberating in my head, thoughts from beyond that were mine but not just mine, connected me entire to entire kingdoms reaching both into heaven and hell, giving substance to impressions I had that more was at stake than people around me ever talked about.
My mother was insistent about getting me and my siblings to church every Sunday. I wasn’t rebellious, except in a superficial, adolescent way. I’ve always had the gift of belief. The great stories of a shepherd boy defeating a giant, of seas parting at the last moment and of a miraculous birth were all I had found that seemed true enough to make sense of a momentousness that I sensed but could not see in the unfolding daily events around me. I knew that like Frodo I was little and vulnerable but nonetheless at a center of an epic tale happening mostly in the great Beyond I discovered in my mind.
Some of what I found in the Bible didn’t resonate with me. The prophets spoke repeatedly to people who were wicked in ways I couldn’t fathom, urging them to stop doing things that I knew nothing about. I had never known anyone, or even imagined anyone, who delighted in bloodshed, for example. The prohibitions against various forms of sexual lust seemed pro forma. While I knew vaguely that people acted badly, I didn’t see or hear much more than rumor. The people I actually experienced were nice and respectable. They might keep the money if a clerk accidentally gave them too much change, and they routinely made “California” stops at stop signs on empty roads, and they often spoke rudely to others and occasionally got in physical fights, but I had no real idea what the deal was in Sodom. It was true that drunks lying passed out beside buildings or in the weeds along roads were not rare, and bullying was routine at school, but it still seemed that real bad guys existed mostly in Hollywood imaginations.
Though I couldn’t notice it then, the authorial voice I encountered in book after book interpreted reality with the same basic decency as the adults who ran my world. I now know that the point of view which I took as a foundation of life was a cultural construct, a human achievement centuries in the making. My decent and ordinary childhood was made possible by the intentional invention of a world where, to play with Auden’s great lines, promises were kept, and one could weep because another wept. We were a neighborly and a compassionate people, dropping off a venison roast and a brick of cheese to a family down on its luck, gathering at the houses of mourning, stopping to help a guy with a flat, feeling the honor of paying our bills and being honest with the people we met.
To a great extent, we are still that way, but it no longer seems a universal way of being and other ways are well established around us. There have been two murders within a block of my house within the past ten years, denizens of that underclass which the important people no longer deign to teach. One night in my work as a volunteer EMT I was dispatched to help a young man, thrashing and screaming unintelligibly on a gravel back road. His face had been stomped and his tongue had been cut out—a witness to the vibrant drug culture that passes mostly unseen by people with nice cars and jobs but which is really only inches or moments away.
The great scholar of antiquity, Hugh Nibley, once remarked, “Woe unto the generation that understands the Book of Mormon.” That book parallels the Bible in telling repeated histories of cultural and spiritual decay with people eventually finding themselves impotent, bound on every side by enemies and trouble. That was then. Now, here, terrorists compete with other terrorists to slaughter people in the most horrific ways they can imagine, capturing their atrocities in high definition video and broadcasting them to the world. Their delight in bloodshed defines them. Bloggers chronicle the daily death toll of murders in the tough neighborhoods of Chicago. Slave traffickers find business is properous, their wealth and power growing. The murder and mayhem of drug cartels on our border makes itself felt far north, in communities large and small.
An awareness has grown gradually that old scriptures are now resonant and relevant in ways that were hard to see a short time ago. No text is more relevant to right now than the Bible.
The tectonic shift accomplished by Christianity in the culture of Late Antiquity was driven by a profound re-thinking of free choice. To Roman minds governed by astrology and fate, living in a society where the only rules and guidelines ever imagined were those demanded by one’s social standing, the concept that each person stood before deity, accountable for every choice was, literally, a revelation. Finding oneself outside society and its norms, outside a cosmos governed by fate, and asked to choose whom or what to serve, regardless of whether one was high-born or slave, male or female, Hebrew or Greek or Roman, was to find oneself in a new world.
Classics professor Kyle Harper tells us that in the Christian culture emerging in Rome, an essential belief was that “nothing–not the stars, not physical violence, not even the quiet undertow of social expectation–could be held responsible for the individual’s choice of good and evil.” The Second Century Christian apologist Justin Martyr was the first philosopher to unambiguously use the term “free will.” According to Martyr, “The good is a purpose that man may accomplish through the freedom of his will, so that the evil man is justly punished, having become wicked through his own doing, while the just man is worthy of praise for his good deeds, not having transgressed the will of God in the exercise of his autonomy.” Humans, in the image of God, are apart from the rest of Creation. “Not like plants or beasts, without the faculty of choice, did God create man.”
It was an unsettling discovery. The idea that persons were free in a moral context quite apart from state and society, uncontrolled by cosmic fate, was essential to a host of ideas that gave Europe much of its later character. Slavery was abandoned and then abolished, freedom of religion advanced, and the idea of principles separate from and superior to society supported the development of rule of law understood as including the mightiest of earthly ruler under its demands.
The old determinism of the stars has lost most of its legitimacy among moderns, but determinism remains, offering its reassuring escape from freedom. We are not free, some think, because our genes control who we are and what we do, or our horizons are formed by our poverty or our race or our sex. Free will is an illusion, according to as many authorities as you would like to cite. Advocates of economic determinism, cultural determinism, psychological determinism, biological determinism, technological determinism and historical determinism are quite sure we are not free.
Samuel Johnson famously observed that “you are surer that you can lift up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any conclusion from a deduction of reasoning.” He did not resolve all the arguments, but he did take a side. “All theory is against the freedom of the will,” he said. “All experience for it.”
“New York is about power and status. Seattle is about having stuff. But Montana is about the place you live.” —E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.
The “nature narratives” panel at Fact & Fiction featured authors Russ Beck, Don Thomas and John Clayton. It was moderated by Read Trammel from UMs MFA writing program.
This was the first session I went to at the Book Festival, held on a gorgeous September Friday in downtown Missoula. By the time the day was over, I had come to distrust any author presuming to talk about “narrative” or “story.” Those venerable terms have apparently become cliches, intended to evoke “big ideas” and revolutionary thinking. Alas, few people up are up to such billing.
For a long time I participated in such events, supported by the hope that Montana could practice self-governance, using education and public conversations to fend off the stifling growth of ideology that had made so many places so unfree and so unbeautiful. Like every community in every time and place, Montana faces troubles that, if we are to survive in a state of civilization, we need to engage.
The three writers in this session all managed to be thoughtful and interesting, in the sense that they added a few fresh details to the old story of new money and new fashions displacing older money and older fashions. They spoke at Fact & Fiction, an independently-owned bookstore in downtown Missoula. The store hosted a series of presentations by authors published by The History Press—a national publishing company based in South Carolina that specializes in publishing local history for local audiences. The company has published about 2000 books since their startup in 2004, including several titles in Montana, including books by the three authors who participated in this panel discussion: John Clayton (Montana’s Enduring Frontier), Don Thomas (Montana: Peaks, Streams and Prairie) and Russ Beck (On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies: Essays and Dubious Advice).
The writers discussed an array of ideas, including the idea of writing in personal narrative. “The stories that stay with us are personal narratives,” said Beck. “If I’ve done my job, the complex processes in nature that have influenced my life and thinking in complex ways” are communicated to the audience in ways that reveal those complex interactions.
Clayton observed that “personal stories are a great way to connect people to science.” He noted that as a journalist, he’s always been reluctant to write about himself or to give personal opinions, since for him, writing is mainly about the narrative structure—the way a story and plot itself conveys the truth about things. But as he used his experiences to illustrate truths he had observed, he found that “Oh no! I’m expressing a lot of opinions.”
Thomas agreed. He uses his experience to communicate quite a lot of scientific and political knowledge. Much of the work of writing is knowing things, and putting that knowledge in service of others—but also of nature itself. “Wildlife needs constituents,” he said. He sounded what was probably the dominant theme in the session: in the West today, nature is facing many political and cultural threats.
All the writers gave illustrations of the ways the West has always been a difficult place to live. “Nothing is easy in the west.” He noted that we live in a very dry landscape but with Kentucky bluegrass lawns. “We’re doing a lot of things wrong,” he said, “which ends up being good for writing.”
One of Clayton’s goals as a writer is “tell stories that no one has heard before.” He said he’s been tempted to write about “Buffalo Bill and the Copper Kings” and other topics common among western writer, but that he’s more interested in finding bits of history that have been ignored. For example, in 1933, some men stole a train as a protest and headed east toward Washington, D.C. “At each stop along the way, they were greeted warmly by people.” It was an act of political protest, and “they were supported by the unemployed people.” Clayton said this was a surprisingly urban story, rather than the more typical story of country people and country issues.
All the writers commented on changes that are occurring in the West today—revisiting familiar talk about “the old west” and “the new west.” Clayton was skeptical that things were changing now much more than they always had. He suspected that all the talk about a “new west” of “microbreweries and espresso” might just be a symptom of the Baby Boomers’ fascination with themselves. He cited an article entitled “Old West and New” published in 1932, which was about the way a new kind of westerner was crowding out the original cowboys.
Thomas acknowledged that there was some truth to that, but he also argued that things were changing in important ways that writers needed to address because people needed to think about them. An astonishing number of ranches in Montana have sold for more than $10 million in recent years, he said. “Those ranches aren’t being bought by farmers or ranchers,” he said. They are being bought by “silicon valley money.” He said that big money is attacking Montana’s game laws and, specifically, stream access laws. The changes that are possible could have far-reaching effects on how we live in Montana. The “public trust doctrine” we are used to in Montana, that prevents people from owning the wildlife, “is unique to North America,” he said. The idea that wildlife can’t be owned but must be managed for the public has been rare in the context of world politics. “That doctrine is one of the reasons we have all this wildlife in Montana,” he said. “And some very rich people want all that to go away.”
Beck’s experience has been mainly in Utah, and he agreed that Montana has been blessed with stream access laws that have made Montana a world mecca for fly fishing. “It’s not like that in Utah,” he said. “We don’t have stream access laws there,” so people can fence off rivers and streams and deny the public access. “The best fishing in northern Utah,” he observed, “is in southern Idaho.”
Thomas did observe that interesting people are coming to the state, and some changes are welcome. “In Livingston, you used to have a choice of two topics for conversation,” he said. “You could discuss the weather or beef prices.” That is no longer the case.
But he was quite passionate that Montana is facing huge changes driven by big money, and Montanan’s would have to engage if they wanted to preserve some of what is best about living in Montana. He said there’s constant pressure to transfer public land to private ownership. The extractive companies—oil companies—want free of regulations on mining and drilling. Part of the strategy involves a two-step. First, federal land is transferred to state ownership. But after “one bad fire season, that’s over,” he said. The cost of managing the lands will create enormous pressure to sell it off to private owners. The state has already passed a nonbinding resolution to study the idea of privatizing state lands, he said.
These are real problems, to be sure. The hoary way of responding to them is to join the partisan fray, and, for most writers, that means to enlist in the army of one or more of the big corporate environmental associations to disparage oil companies, capitalism and private ownership. If that way of conceptualizing the problem seems stale and unfruitful to you, you might have gained little from this session, beyond new details in a very old story.
I was interested enough to buy books by two of the presenters. They’re on my desk right now, along with a couple dozen other books I’ve bought but not yet read. I’m not sure when or if a day will come when reading them seems the most pressing thing I could do right then. I’m doubtful, at the moment, that the literary crowd is going to lead Montana out of the desolation of modern ideology. Our most serious environmental threat today is that our narrative environment is becoming toxic. I wish I thought Montana’s literary gang was part of the solution.
In The Republic, Plato argues that the enlightened have a duty to return to the cave to help the prisoners there. The older Plato no longer believed they could be helped. When bands of ideologues get control of the state, they eliminate dissidents from public life and bring children up in the new creed. Such regimes can be toppled by force, but the philosopher has only the authority of the spirit. Any attempt to restore order by violent means defeats itself. Having made his offer and been refused, the philosopher leaves the cave for good.
Will the fed reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, AKA NCLB) or will the process break down again again in endless spirals of argument and counter-argument? The controversies remind me of a parable told by the stranger from Elea in Plato’s Statesman. It’s about what happens when “the people” start to regulate those with experience and knowledge. The problem is that it’s impossible for ordinary laymen to judge the work of experts, which ends up meaning as ordinary people get more influence on government, the decisions tend to get worse.
The Eleatic Stranger tells about the plight of a pilot and a physician. With the layman’s dim insight, he sees only that the physician causes him pain, charges more for his cures than the material substance is worth, and often does not effect a cure. Similarly, the pilot causes damage at sea and throws his merchandise overboard during storms. Both the physician and the pilot may save lives, but this doesn’t spare them harsh judgments in the view of indignant “victims.” If we suppose that such victims form a special interest group, we can easily imagine them, completely ignorant of the true arts of navigation and medicine, creating a set of laws to regulate the future conduct of pilots and physicians, with the shrill confidence of Bill O’Reilly in his campaign for “Jessica’s Law,” which leaves no room for future discretion.
Though Plato knows that the neither the pilot’s nor the physician’s knowledge can be summarized in exceptionless rules that will serve well in all situations, the Stranger doesn’t stop here. He further suggests that the aroused people will demand that from now on physicians and pilots will be chosen by elections, and after the election they will need to heal the sick and navigate the sea according to written rules. Not only that, but at the end of each year, the incumbent pilots and physicians will face a people’s court, where anyone will be free to lodge accusations that the letter of the law was not precisely followed. Those found guilty by the people will face fines or jail sentences.
Plato thought only fools would enter those occupations under such conditions. And that’s not the end of the matter. No one will be allowed to question the law. One who offers new discoveries will be accused of playing politics, trying to corrupt the system, for “nobody should be wiser than the law.”
Plato knew, of course, that it was just such lawfulness and democracy that culminated in the murder of Socrates–the death of philosophical reason, if you will. He spoke directly to the deadening power of laws and democracy possible in a place that has become corrupted, so that skilled practitioners are over-regulated by ignorant congresses: “The arts would utterly perish and could never be recovered; and life which is a burden even now would then no longer be worth living.”
In contemporary America we see such processes at work clearly in those parts of society most governed by political bureaucracies: law enforcement, education, and (increasingly) medicine.
The more congress argues about education at the federal level, the more meaningful conversations at the local level, the only place any actual teaching takes place, are drowned out. As new mandates flood the system, busy administrators are overwhelmed with compliance issues and tend to look on questions or reservations as little more than trouble-making. So teachers are mandated to collaborate, but they are discouraged from identifying things that aren’t working or proposing solutions. A popular reform program claims that teachers are free to think whatever they want, as long as they do what they are told. It’s called a “tight-loose” approach. On some matters, the reins are held tightly by the system, and on others they are quite loose. Most things that matter are defined tightly, though whether or not they are defined sanely or correctly is deemed above the pay grade of practitioners.
Zayda at Flathead Lake (Photo by Christa)
Reading David Brooks’ The Road to Character
with high school students this summer, I find some of them can’t quite get their mind around the distinction between “moral realism” and “the ethics of authenticity.” The distinction is important, because Brooks’ argument is in favor of the former and in opposition to the latter. In various ways, he makes the point that part of living well is to respond to what’s out there–that some ways of life work better than others because they are are better fitted to reality–to things as they are.
The argument for authenticity usually assumes that what’s most important is that a person “be true to the self,” that we find the right way to act by consulting our passions and feelings. Brooks doubts that, arguing that it’s often more important that we restrain and control our passions and feelings. In this he follows ancient traditions–most notably Aristotle. For Aristotle, it’s possible to judge some societies as better than others, because it’s possible to grasp principles by which societies can be judged. This cannot be the case if whatever a culture deems is right is right, so that if Southerners thought slavery was moral, then it was okay “for them.” Not judging is central to the deconstructionist project.
Aristotle argued that the pursuit of truth is the attempt to align one’s thinking and acting with reality, which assumes there is a reality independent of people’s opinions. One can have the opinion that lying to get what you want is okay, but reality dictates that if you keep doing that others will figure out that you are dishonest and stop trusting you, which will reduce your power–your ability to get what you want. So “honesty is the best policy” is not just something some societies teach. It’s a moral reality that nobody can change.
Students keep drifting back to the idea that morality changes as society changes; therefore, there are no universals. So they don’t really follow the points Brooks is making. It’s okay to disagree with him, but an educated person should be able to understand him.
The idea of moral realism might be glimpsed in the traditional bits of wisdom encoded in proverbs and folk sayings. They are time-tested understandings of how things are, perceptions of wisdom–what John Templeton called the “Laws of Life.” There’s the “law of the harvest”: you reap what you sow. This is also described as “what goes around comes around” or summarized by the rule that “as ye judge ye shall be judged.”
Humanity has collected thousands of them:
It is better to love than to be loved.
Success is a journey, not a destination.
Enthusiasm is contagious (and nothing important is achieved without enthusiasm).
The borrower is a servant to the lender.
We find what we look for (good or evil).
Every ending is a beginning.
The way to fix bad things is to create good things.
Love is stronger than everything else.
You can’t solve a problem at the same level as the problem. You need to get above it.
The truth will make you free.
To find gold you need to search where the gold is.
Habit is the best servant, the worst master.
People are punished by their sins not for them.
Make yourself necessary and the world will feed you.
Luck favors the prepared.
Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.
These might be understood as descriptions of how things are rather than as social rules. This is familiar to people knowledgeable and the Biblical faiths. The Bible makes little distinction between wisdom and righteousness. Frederick Buechner once pointed out that
…the Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. I would call it instead a book of truth about the way life is. Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe. When Jesus says that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it, surely he is not making a statement about how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is making a statement about how life is. [Quoted by Alvin Plantinga]
Moral realism suggests simply that nature, including human nature, is governed by patterns that the perceptive observer can discern. To discern these patterns and to live in accordance with them is wisdom, according to Brooks and Aristotle. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga said, “Wisdom is a reality-based phenomenon. To be wise is to know reality, to discern it. A discerning person notices things, attends to things, picks up on things. He notices the difference between tolerance and forgiveness, pleasure and joy, sentimentality and compassion.”
Such people “accommodate themselves to reality,” said Plantinga. “They go with the flow. They tear along the perforated line. They attempt their harvests in season. Ordinary people proceed with such a program no matter whether they have derived their wisdom from scripture or from more general revelation.” Plantinga suggests we may pick up such truths from Proverbs or from paying attention to the world around us or possibly from a wise grandparent. But, he says, wherever we get them, the wise do what Brooks is suggesting–they adjust to reality, changing their own character to be more effective in the world as it actually is. They live by truths such as these:
The more you talk, the less people listen.
If your word is no good, people will not trust you and it is then useless to protest this fact.
Trying to cure distress with the same thing that caused it only makes matters worse.
If you refuse to work hard and take pains, you are unlikely to do much of any consequence.
Boasting of your accomplishments does not make people admire them. Boasting is vain in both senses of the word.
Envy of fat cats does not make them slimmer, and will anyhow rot your bones.
If you scratch certain itches, they just itch more.
Many valuable things, including happiness and deep sleep, come to us only if we do not try hard for them.
Reposted with revisions from The Good Place
Some forms of modesty are quite natural—a sense of boundaries and of privacy that should be respected. But pride also comes naturally—a sort of competitiveness or desire for attention or power.
“Why should anyone care how someone else dresses?” asked Ebba, an exchange student from Sweden with a broad smile and a guileless charm. She was the first to speak up when my high school journalism students—all girls—began discussing whether to write an editorial on the school’s dress code, which they thought was no longer being enforced. I had invited a mini-debate to get a sense of the group’s views of the issue. In an earlier piece of writing, Ebba had said “Some days the walk from the front door of the school to my locker feels like the longest walk ever, with all the eyes staring at me.” She had the self-consciousness typical of high school girls.
“It doesn’t make any sense that girls should have to cover up their whole bodies just because guys are animals,” added another junior—a girl who gave considerable attention to looking good. Several people talked over each other, and in the mild tumult a Christian girl, wearing jeans and a bulky sweater, with somewhat shaggy hair covering much of her face, offered that each person influences others people and that a girl should be discreet in their dress. “That’s bull!” came a quick rejoinder from an angular-faced girl who tended to become strident in any conversation that touched on gender. “Rape culture,” she said dismissively. “You’re blaming the way girls dress to excuse bad behavior by males.” And so it went.
Before the young feminist could continue,” I suggested that one likely reason the dress code was being played down was that the community was divided over the question, and it was hard for politically-governed bureaucracies to take stands on issues that were controversial. What’s a community leader to do when there really is no community?
Contemporary schools are rarely community schools. They are more due-process bureaucracies, semi-organized knots of competing special interests—unions, professional associations, foundations, various levels and institutions of government, parents’ associations. A simple decision might require a principal to review several overlapping decision-making processes: is this a matter of statute, or of board policy, or of a grant requirement, or of collective bargaining? Many school leaders seek their identities in the recognition of peers rather than as members of the town or neighborhood where the school is geographically located. Such managers often have larger fish to fry than contemplating Erin’s spandex. One makes a name for oneself by being a skillful manager, which includes minimizing waves. The path to success is not straight but it’s quite narrow in places. There’s no need to be a moral leader, which historically has been a path to getting stoned. And doesn’t “moral leader” sound quaint and judgmental?
I wasn’t surprised these teenagers held the usual positions on modesty. Social media’s not great about facts or evidence, but it’s rife with opinions. I noted that the loudest opinions were those taken by those students who thought social norms in general were pig-headed. Such is the world that we now live in. In the end, the kids decided not to write about the dress code.
Dress codes have always been a touchy issue. My wife’s father disagreed with the local principal who banned girls wearing pants—even girls who walked to school in subzero temperatures. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new going on. The extent to which we have lost a common culture may be new. Some people are bothered by tarted up teenagers, while others agree with the advice given by one of my students: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” To enforce a dress code, authorities need to be able to explain the basis of their rules, but fewer and fewer know how to do this in a society where people do not share fundamental assumptions. They are more in their comfort zone urging young people to have pride—which has become uncontroversial—than they are discussing modesty.
On issues where we don’t share fundamental assumptions, nobody on one side of the chasm is likely to persuade anyone on the other side. Why, then, argue? I don’t imagine that I have anything to say about modesty that will settle the argument, but there are other reasons for speaking. Sometimes, the purpose of discussion is to remind oneself of neglected aspects of life. Sometimes, it is to encourage kindred spirits who might feel they are the only ones who feel as they do. We make communities by gathering in a shared vision, and this requires talk–making the vision clear and finding each other. Sometimes, we find those whose vision of the good life neighbors our own, giving it depth and stability. In such moments, persuading opponents hardly enters our minds. They aren’t here to be straightened out by us, and we have other things to do, such as reminding ourselves of insights and feelings that, in heightened moments, we have realized but that in the clatter of the passing tumult we have let go dark, like books we forgot we were reading.
It’s not always at the front of my mind, but I’ve known for a long time that modesty has more to do with our consciousness of where we are, who we are and what is happening than with the fashions of the moment. My tribe’s cultural roots are deep in Judaism, and partly for that reason (and partly because I’ve never been a pretty girl) when I think of modesty, my thoughts turn to those Hebrew prophets of old. Their modesty was high sanity, standing as they did before God. This isn’t the meaning of modesty that comes to mind, usually, in arguments about dress code, but it’s important to realize that modesty isn’t only—or even mainly—about revealing too much of our bodies. It has more to do with how we understand being a person.
The great prophet Isaiah realized that he was nothing on his own. He saw the panorama of human drama across centuries, the rise and fall of empires. The more one sees of reality, the more meek and modest one becomes. In Rabbinic literature, modesty is a “way of walking.” Just glimpsing the scale and breathtaking beauty of the cosmos should be enough undermine our haughtiness and sense of self-importance.
But it’s easy to create our own world, with ourselves at the center. We do this mainly by comparing ourselves to other people. Aristotle said that young men and the rich were especially susceptible to excessive pride “because they think they are better than other people.” We like to feel important. It’s “better to reign in Hell,” said Milton’s Lucifer, “than serve in Heav’n.” The great literature of the world is full of warnings about the destiny of the proud and rebellious. Lucifer failed to take over Heaven and was thrown out. Doctor Faustus sold his soul in order to be superior to all other men and the cost was eternal misery. Victor created Frankenstein in his lust to become the preeminent scientist of his age, and his creation destroyed him. Tragedy is the literary form devoted to the study of pride.
Though we can play important parts in big, important stories, on our own we amount to little. Modesty is rooted in truth. It is true that the world is vast, including billions of people, and that these people are ordered in various tribes, gangs, clubs, nations, and international organizations, and it is true that the whole wide world is only a tiny speck in a unimaginable expanse of space and time. And in all this, each of us is kept quite busy enough wiping up spilled milk, calming down an upset colleague, smoothing out wrinkles in a child’s day, getting the “check engine” light turned off or photographing the cedar waxwings that have flown into the yard. Our limited energy and attention don’t permit us to have much of an impact on the world, though we may be crucial to some little part of it. A modest person is simply an honest person.
We are immodest when we are thinking about ourselves and how we might be or should be the center of attention. This is the sort of thought that gets kids into trouble with dress codes. One teaching response could be to talk about humility. We are humble not by thinking we are without merit but by not thinking about ourselves much at all. We forget about the self by turning our attention to larger matters, such as the situation before us and what is needed and how we can help. The philosopher Eric Voegelin said Moses is the most consequential human who ever lived, because he did more than anyone to elevate human consciousness, giving symbolic form to higher levels of order. And yet Moses is referred to in the Bible (Numbers 12:3) as “exceedingly humble, more than any man in the world.” His mind was filled with matters of eternal importance.
He saw clearly that the world did not revolve around him. This can be tremendously liberating. Modesty frees us from the need to impress or get ahead. We find patience and compassion easier; making and keeping relationships becomes less complicated.
Will this persuade people like Lindy West? On her Jezebel website she rants against modesty crusaders: “the idea that society can tell you how much of your body to reveal or hide implies that your body does not belong to you” [emphasis in original]. This is true, though Lindy thinks the point is that men believe a woman’s body belongs to them. “I’m very sorry, ‘Guys,'” she says, “but my only ‘womanly duty’ is to myself.” This is an eminently understandable response to modesty patrols and clothing police. Extremism provokes counter-extremism.
And having had her say, she also speaks more modestly. “I am a person. I’ll dress the way I want and act the way I want.” I, for one, don’t want a world where such feelings are not respected. I wouldn’t contest her right to dress as she pleases.
I would, though, invite further reflection about just what it is that she wants. She hears the debate differently than I do. Most often, I hear defenders of modesty saying that none of us are islands unto ourselves. We really don’t own ourselves or belong only to ourselves. We are social beings, and others are the environment of our consciousness itself. Others sometimes become aspects of our consciousness. Who wants to be left alone, really? Most of us want to be linked in bonds of need and reliability and understanding that are sometimes bonds of love, sometimes including intimacy. Most of us want to live amid others, not surrendering our selves or our privacy but still surrounded by attentive and caring friends. Learning how to build and sustain warm communities lies at the heart of learning to be fully human. How we handle our sexuality can be thought about as part of a larger vision of marriage and community. There are real reasons why girls in high school might want to dress modestly, that have to do with their deepest desires, which, if they are fortunate, will be given form by adults in their world who understand.
Many have learned that lives of commitment and duty are a way to happiness. We can deepen the ways that we belong to each other, and in doing this we learn modesty. We needn’t demand or seek to be the center of attention. Baring some skin can be a form of immodesty, but it’s not the only one. There are innumerable modes of immodesty.
Ostentation is a popular one. Judaism frowns on ostentation, because it drives us apart. It can arouse the envy of others, it can make the less prosperous feel ashamed and it can induce arrogance in oneself. To talk persuasively about modesty, we need know ways of living amid commitments to realities larger than the self. We need to reflect on the ways we ourselves sometimes take ourselves and our desires too seriously. Do we ourselves dress in ways that display our money or our status, or that scream for attention to our chosen identity? Do our clothes sometimes become costumes? In terms of modesty, what can we make of the “successful” man who puts that success on display? Maybe the administrator with the flashiest car in the parking lot lacks the moral authority to teach a fifteen-year-old girl wearing a low-cut top that she is putting forward the wrong image. Hugh Nibley, a scholar of the ancient world and one of the elders of my tribe, insisted that “the worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols.” When it comes to sins against modesty, I don’t often find young women to be the most offensive offenders.
If we are going to talk about dress codes, we might start by talking about modesty as though we meant it. Schools usually do the opposite. As they have come to resemble communities less in their transformation into sorting and credentialing centers dedicated to empowering and enabling selves, talk of pride has come to seem more intuitive than talk of modesty. In the school where I worked, the “values” that were officially endorsed were chosen to make up the acronym POWER and so, inevitably, the first value was “Pride.” For a while, the student handbook endorsed “pride” in the behavior section and “modesty” in the dress code section. Heh.
What would Socrates say? Much of his method was to call attention to contradictions in the things people said. Contradictions signal error, and most of our bad actions are preceded by wrong ideas.
His teaching was deeply concerned with eros and with the connections between careful language and love. He taught that we use language precisely so that we can understand more, and in this way we make progress toward the truth. As we do, the astonishing diversity of our ignorances yields, and we find ourselves moving toward unity, escaping prisons of self, finding each other by finding a common world through words. Falsehoods are legion but truth is one. His opponents argued that the telos of rhetoric was career success, but he said that it was the light of understanding, which is the substance of love.
We are modest to avoid putting stumbling blocks in the paths of our fellows. We come to see better that the true purpose of wealth is, as the sages said, to help others. Ostentatious displays don’t do that. They produce envy, arrogance, dishonesty, and a shaming of the poor. The arrogance of giving oneself credit for good fortune is a form of immodesty which tears at the fabric of community. It communicates to the poor that they are guilty of their own misfortune. Shame drives them to borrow money they can’t afford to repay or to take ethical shortcuts for money. We moderns have no shortage of politicians whose primary route to power is inciting hatred of the rich, and we may be so accustomed to the uses of envy that we underestimate its terrible power.
Envy has been one of the most destructive forces in history—maybe the most destructive—and no good comes from provoking it. The most astonishing modern texts on envy may be the several books exploring mimetic desire written by literary critic René Girard. “Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it,” he observes, and “we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant.” Girard claims that we are profoundly social creatures who acquire our desires from those around us, though we are seldom aware this is their source. This creates endless situations in which multiple people desire the same goods, so envy and rivalry become daily realities. He views the tenth and last of the Ten Commandments to be the “supreme commandment” because it gets to the root of problems addressed by the preceding four. It bans desire for anything that belongs to another: “You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, no his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.” The Hebrew term translated as “covet” simply means “desire.”
Desiring what belongs to another is the source of most conflict among people. We glorify our own desires, which then leads to idolization of ourselves. The more we worship individualism and pursue our own status the more we are turned against others. “If we ceased to desire the goods of our neighbor, we would never commit murder or adultery or theft or false witness,” Girard points out. Much of what he says is confirmed by anthropological research. Helmut Schoeck has found that the core taboos and rituals of many cultures are most important as techniques for controlling envy, which might be triggered by prestige, personal attractiveness, distribution of possessions or anything else which one may have that another might desire. The practices of habitual understatement found among the English, the Chinese, and many other peoples are a mild form of such ubiquitous rituals; they testify to the depth and universality of envy as well as the need to guard against it. “Man is an envious being,” says Schoeck, “who were it not for the social inhibitions aroused within the object of his envy, would have been incapable of developing the social systems to which we all belong today.”
Of course, moderns have repeatedly “addressed” the problem of envy by killing the rich. We—or somebody—created massive regimes to decree standards of equality that could only be approached through totalitarian methods. The results of these widespread experiments would, in a better world, make discussion of creating an egalitarian society through government coercion unworthy of serious discussion. But of course, such “solutions” are being seriously discussed, and by elites, no less, who somehow remain perpetually confident that the revolution will not devour them. But if history is a guide—and it is—it will.
So there are two good reasons for practicing modesty. There is the practical concern that if we provoke envy, there may be hell to pay. Beyond that, there is the possibility that we might practice modesty because we are in truth humble, and that we are humble because we do not see ourselves as the center of the world. We are happier and more loved when we serve the big picture than when we fret over whether we are getting enough attention. The more we try to help, the less we are distracted by things that do not matter very much. Aristotle found that people are happy when they are practicing the virtues, and modern psychology has gone to great lengths to gather data that points to the same conclusion.
This does not mean, of course, that schools are likely to stop proclaiming pride and start teaching humility. Neither the curriculum director who is proud of his elegant new watch or or the pretty cheerleader who has discovered a strange kind of power has anything to fear from the authorities. Modesty has largely gone the way of the Sabbath. The dominant culture gives little thought to it.
Fortunately, none of us is required to participate in the degradation of the times. Indeed, it is wisdom to resist. People still observe the Sabbath, though not out of fear that plowing on Sunday will land them in trouble with authorities. They do it because the restraint on productivity and busyness and greed changes their relationship to work and to time and to the world in ways that encourage joy. They balance six days of creating with one day of reflecting and sharing. Similarly, many people will continue to learn humility in all the ways events and experiences conspire to teach it, and being humble they will walk modestly through the world, not because of little rules made by little committees, but in wonderful unconcern with such minutiae.