Freedom and the Rules of Life (part 2 of 3)

Calypso’s island has become a familiar place to we moderns—a pleasure palace designed to distract us from our work and to prevent us making it to where we want to be. When we reach some island of relative peace and pleasure compared to other places we’ve experienced—maybe not what we set out for, but better than it might have been—like wind-driven dust, we might settle.

Paying attention to the hyper-seductions of pop culture, I sometimes find myself thinking about Odysseus, stranded on Calypso’s Isle, who knew he was wasting his life in spite of the goddess’s charms. Every morning he left her enchanted cave and climbed down to the beach where he gazed out to sea in the direction of Ithaca where his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus waited. It was, he knew, a somewhat doggie little life he was living with the nymph. He knew he was made for something more.

Unlike the gods of Greek literature and folklore, he was born to make worlds. The gods the poets created to explain the forces that act upon us spend their eternity gossiping and strategizing and fiddling about forever without real consequence. They don’t create and they don’t redeem. But Odysseus’ home as a man is in the real world.

That’s what his place, Ithaca, meant to him—its meaning was inseparable from his fields and flocks and herds, his friends and family, including ancestors gone into death and posterity not yet born. It was all a kingdom in which only a man and a woman together could form today’s link holding all the past and all the future together. He was a king and his kingdom was formed of his marriage to Penelope.

Odysseus’s marriage was more than a legal bond. Wendell Berry notes in The Unsettling of America that “it was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family that included both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth.”

He had carved their marriage bed from an olive tree rooted in the soil of Ithaca. “That marriage bed, and what it symbolized of both his love for Penelope and his practical, human rootedness in an actual place,” symbolized a love meant to be enacted and embodied. That love was the meaning of his long voyage of homecoming. His quest, his purpose, the telos of his heroism was a world that had to be created and held together through his moment-by-moment actions. “These things, wedded together in his marriage, he thought of as his home.” He understood that in spite of the pleasures his time with the goddess was a captivity, barring his fulfillment of a stronger desire.

Life can be full of discouragements for people who want more than modern culture seems to offer. One of my better students stayed after class to talk a little about Jane Eyre–-the novel the class had chosen to read, mainly because she talked them into it. The novel is similar to The Odyssey in that it tells the story of a young woman, an orphan girl, trying to make a home. For her, this means finding the love of a man who measures up to her longings both for passionate love and for goodness—an ethical life. She finds the right man, Rochester, but the circumstances are so troubling that getting to a happy ending seems impossible.

My student was in a desultory mood. She felt loneliness and a desire to be loved by a worthy mate. And as she waited, she tried to be what the authorities urged her to be: focused on her career plans for after high school. A thousand voices insisted that succeeding at a career was the paramount goal of a life well-lived. She felt stranded in a place where what she really wanted was never taken seriously. “There are no Rochesters,” she said.

“What you really want is to marry Rochester and live happily ever after?” I asked teasingly.

“Yes,” she said, without smiling. “But boys are not like that anymore.”

I understood “that” to refer to the passionate commitment to making a life with one woman that defined Rochester’s quest. It’s certainly true that many boys are less “like that” than they used to be. A recent report on marriage, “The State of Our Unions,” found that “both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation” in spite of the fact that for both boys and girls desire for “a good marriage and family life” remain high.

We’re fifty years on in a “sexual revolution” that gave people permission to do whatever they wanted sexually without guilt at violating traditional morality. Part of that involved redefining female sexuality to be more like male sexuality—that is, unlinked from having children, more casual. For centuries, women’s honor had been understood in terms of sexual purity just as men’s honor had been understood in terms of courage (made formidable by strength and skill).

The code of chivalry, one of the most civilizing social constructs of European history, had been broadened and moderated over centuries so that many men could find satisfaction in the everyday heroism of providing for a wife and family. Lots of women, sometimes smiling at that boyish need to feel big and strong and competent, expressed appreciation for the work that men did for them and their families. But that’s not the way of modernity. Indeed, our pop culture is more likely to excoriate such a man as a bore and a loser in an age where having “adventures” seems to be the point of life. And the girls, repeating the propaganda slogans that are everywhere, are likely to cut off conversation about such things with a haughty rebuke: “I don’t need a man to take care of me.”

The old cultural narrative was (1) get an education, (2) get a job, (3) get married and (4) have a family—in that order. Most men and most women wanted to get married. According to a much-discussed article by Suzanne Venker in 2012, most women still want to get married but many men are changing their minds.“According to Pew Research Center, the share of women ages eighteen to thirty-four that say having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives rose nine percentage points since 1997 – from 28 percent to 37 percent. For men, the opposite occurred. The share voicing this opinion dropped, from 35 percent to 29 percent.”

A new cultural narrative has left many men unsure what, exactly, a man is for. They find it natural to want to love women and to take care of them, but they have likely encountered women who respond to moves in that direction with sharp rebuttals. To be happy, most of us do need someone whose private life touches ours not because we are weak or helpless but because humans don’t thrive when they are alone. We do better when we live with people who know what we are trying to do and what makes us happy, people who can see what is admirable about us and appreciate us and love us. People who care for us.

Venker believes that if you want to understand what young men are doing, look at what young women are doing. Women still have the power to turn things around, she claims. “All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs,” she said. “If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork.” Some young women now say that’ s not true. They say that young men now have most of the power, and if a woman is not ready to give a guy what he wants he will soon move on. There are lots of fish in the sea.

Increasingly, young people of both sexes feel stranded in a world where they do not know how to get to where they truly want to be. Such an education as the schools provide is little help. “Sex education” is mainly technical and clinical without any profound grasp of what either men or women are.

The main focus of the official curriculum is on other things—fitting into the economy as it currently exists. Beyond that, students are taught to be compliant and polite no matter what is or is not going on in class. Lots of young people adopt the attitudes taught by pop: it’s all a game played for someone else’s benefit, and the trick is to stay true to your own inner desires and to take seriously your own feelings and to respond to everything else with nonjudgmental indifference.

But making the self and its feelings the point is a low game. The self is a multitude of competing voices, a bottomless abyss. As a god it fails, leading to depression and despair. The secret of happiness, as both ancient philosophers and modern psychologists have shown, is to escape the relentless preoccupation with self and to serve something larger and more enduring.

Philosopher Allan Bloom suggested in his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, that an “unproven and dogmatically asserted” belief that it is the self and its desires that should preoccupy us had sabotaged the “real motive of education, the search for the good life.” He said that modern students were “flat-souled,” having lost the sense of the transcendent, they had succumbed to the primal seductions of rock music in a culture obsessed with sex:

“Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”

Though the book provoked a storm of controversy, today such a description seems almost quaint–-a vision of American adolescence before the immersive stories of digital games which thrive on murder, theft and destruction along with virtual visits to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged or “25 to Life” which features bloody gangs taking hostages and killing cops. Researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health found in a 2011 study that one in 13 teenage girls reported having a ‘multi-person sex’ (MPS) experience, often initiated by boyfriends who had been watching pornography. More than half the girls “were pressured or coerced into a gang rape,” said the researcher. The population of the study was poor, urban kids, so the middle class suburbs need pay to great notice yet.

In her NPR music blog, Ann Powers observed that “pop music is very dirty.” Reviewing the most popular songs, she noted that “there were several underground rap hits unabashedly celebrating oral pleasures; Top 10 songs about sex addiction, the cowgirl position and extraterrestrial booty.”

At this point, such reports are old news. A typical response to them is affect a world-weary wisdom and intone that people have been complaining of youth since time immemorial. Some people are fond of a quote from Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Leaving aside that there’s no direct evidence that Socrates ever said that, the more interesting point might be that Socrates in actual fact did live at the end of Athenian democracy and the beginning of rule by tyrants. Worlds do come to an end. It has happened innumerable times.

In ancient Greece, people became obsessed with sex and the nation’s business was neglected or done poorly–I think of Bill enjoying Monica in the Oval Office while on the phone with a senator discussing putting American young men in harm’s way. Socrates was intensely aware of the cultural suicide that was underway in Greek society. The moral corruption of society was his major theme, and the historical reality is that his Athens did not survive much longer. Quoting him for reassurance seems a bit like quoting the captain of the Titanic, with water to his chin, chuckling because people have been warning of icebergs for years.

If you feel you have arrived somewhere that’s far away from where you want to be, not truly sold on all the pleasures on offer around you, sensing that happiness is not to be found amid all the noise, the shallow and fleeting deceptions, you maybe in somewhat the situation of Odysseus, who in his deepest being rejected the thought of hanging out forever on Calypso’s Island. Beyond the promise that he might stay forever young on an island with a goddess who shared her “perfect bed”, he longed to go home, where he could be a doer of great deeds, a defender of prosperity and freedom, a maker of worlds.

Politics or morality? A knowledge of good and evil

gay pride flag

Crusader Nation: The moral absolutism of American sexual politics has trumped other considerations, and U.S. embassies, including the one in Tel Aviv, now fly a flag of militant sexual identities. Overcoming the supposed bigotry of all who disagree with such action has become a national priority, and reluctance is decried by prominent voices as hate speech, which must be suppressed. Those who disagree do not merely disagree–they are guilty.

Each year, I have students write an essay reflecting on the changing meanings of success they discern in the American literature they’ve read in class. The reading list stretches from the Puritans through the Transcendentalists. After their overview, I invite them to attempt a personal definition of success, as things seem to them at that moment. I ban the use of the phrase, “live life to the fullest.” It’s a good phrase, I guess, but it’s a cliche, and having said it they tend to thing they have said something, when they’ve only repeated an incantation. The education question is till Socrates’ “What is the good life?” and the answer may well be “to live life to the fullest,” but for that to be an actual thought requires some attention to the meaning of “good” and “fullness.” I suspect they are thinking of a house on a beach with a Mercedes parked out front, but they don’t actually say. They tend to stay in automatic words running on automatic tracks. They find thinking hard.

Indeed, humanity has always been a discordant mess, intellectually speaking. Half-thoughts, images, slogans swirl over some bottomless abyss of individual and collective consciousness, passing through transient form in mobs or elections as people see posters, hear slogans, stumble across cable news rants, catch twists of horrific events narrated in scraps through the honk and cough of ceaseless traffic.


The Land of Marriage is like the secret garden that the girl in the story discovered and tended with care, and “gave” to the local boy who understood plants and growing things, and they then both share it with the crippled heir, and the father who had abandoned that garden when he lost his wife returned to the world of the living. In the Land of Marriage, even a child knows that happiness can only be found by giving oneself away. In other lands, people live in abandoned houses, even rich people; and all around such places, hard, sterile, blank, old but not wise, there is hardly a sign of any such brave surrender. In other lands, flowers must serve a purpose. In the Land of Marriage, purposes must serve the flowers.
-Anthony Esolen

And yet, some things abide. Young men and women find each other, slipping past the uncertainties and anxieties they reveal themselves bit by bit and find they are not so alone. Babies are born, and new households established The most fundamental realities of human life are not like the testosterone-crazed skull-bashing contests posited by the Darwinists of old so much as an infant suckling at his mother’s breast. The deepest experience of countless persons is of awakening to life in warm arms surrounded by beings with soft voice inviting playful engagement. Young fathers and mothers imitate the forms they’ve found around them. In times not far past, those forms include barn raisings, quilting bees, PTA meetings, communal brandings, and dozens of other supports for social capital. We are at our best when we realize that we are members of each other.

All that used to be easier. In thousands of little ways—and some not so little ways—social capital has been dwindling. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone contains graph after graph that show social capital measured in all sorts of ingenious ways declining since the mid-1960s. In much of the world today vast governments and transnational financial creatures see those primary human societies as blurred abstractions. Decisions are not made with an eye to the health of communities. More often, they are made to enhance the ability of those at the Center to monitor and control our lives. Meanwhile, more and more people report that they are lonely. More of us live alone than ever. Marriage seems risky—many kids are afraid to even say that it’s what they want.

This is the world governed, increasingly, by a network of spiritual directors, issuing fiats from Brussels, Paris or New York. We live in an age of extreme individualism, in which individuals have less and less to say about so many things that are important to a fulfilling life. How did the world come to be governed from afar, by corporate and government elites? The best telling of the scholarly version of the story may be James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. In the mid 18th Century, the philosophes gathered in the cafes of the Palais-Royal in Paris to re-imagine the world–liberated from God and the ancien régime and led by libertines such as Rousseau. Billington traced the spread of revolutionary ideas through labyrinthine networks of Europe and beyond as the revolutionary motto–Liberty, Equality, Fraternity–spawned a thousand variants in France, Germany, Russia and, well, everywhere.

The story is too complex to know or tell precisely. The philosopher Eric Voegelin abandoned his magisterial 4,000 page manuscript for his History of Political Ideas when he realized that tracing influences through texts was “an ideological deformation of reality.” As the sacred texts of my own spiritual tribe explain, persons can receive insights through direct participation in consciousness, in the metaxis where we encounter both deity and adversaries of deity. A true history of ideas would include the phenomenological experiences of countless individuals. Ideas are not spread only by media and conversation. Revelation, both good and bad, has always occurred.

Still, this much is accurate: we have entered an age of ideology, of competing isms: communism, capitalism, fascism, socialism, progressivism, environmentalism, anarchism, fundamentalism, egalitarianism, fallibilism, gnosticism, utilitarianism, materialism, nativism, and nihilism. We are no longer ruled by warrior chiefs, priests, monarchs, or elected representatives–though many figureheads remain ceremonially in place. Now, a class of elite intellectuals, armed with PhDs, has gotten (imperfect) control of the governments, the media, the corporations and the schools. They see themselves as spiritual directors of the world, using technology and social sciences to govern by managing a complex ecosystem of propaganda, puppet leaders, regulations, bribes and threats. The optimism of such controllers was chastened a little by the embarrassment of the 20th Century, when instead of regenerating humanity into new forms invented by human reason, and instead of leaving behind the irrational and the superstitious, the rise of ideological empires delivered us to horrific tyrannies. Leaders came to power mouthing the beloved rhetoric of equality, and then they terrorized and decimated their own people. In a few decades, ideologues killed more people than millennia of religious militants had done.

Nevertheless, our resilient controllers have worked through the embarrassment. After all, where else can the world turn if not to its experts? So it turned out that politics was dirty and unpredictable, and a retreat to higher ground was needed. Fortunately, morality transcended it all. The rhetoric of universal rights took place on a loftier plane than the ancient arguments based in economic, geographical or ethnic interests. The endless discussions at the great conference tables in Vienna, The Hague, Cancun or Munich were animated by an often abstract quest for the justice of equal freedom for all. It was easy to feel that those who opposed such ideals were not mere opponents–they were guilty. Old moralities were barriers to progress, so the project was to debunk religious and provincial limits. Morality is dead. Long live morality.

But moral crusades unconstrained by ancient interdicts flirt with real dangers. The main patterns of the Age of Ideology were present from the beginning in the French Revolution. Reason was put forth as a self-flattering decoy, but events were driven by passion both for violence and for sex. Those who disapproved were devoured. The motto in practice was “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death,” as Dickens repeats with unsmiling sarcasm throughout The Tale of Two Cities. There is no real ambiguity about the nature of the revolution. The violence wasn’t confined to the Reign of Terror but defined the movement from beginning to end. In the September massacres of 1792, 1,200 prisoners were murdered in public orgies of rape and murder. One of the Queen’s friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, was stripped naked and raped. Her breasts were cut off and the rest of her body mutilated and put on display. Parts of her body were discharged from a cannon and other parts were eaten. Her head was stuck on a pike and taken into a tavern where customers were asked to drink to her death. Yes, stripping the corrupt aristocracy of wealth and power felt good. Getting free of old laws and social constraints to indulge wherever in whatever also felt good. For modern ideologues, “transgressive” is often a term of praise.

Mobs have always been exciting, at least for those on the side feeling righteous. Both violence and religion partake of eros. The French Revolution isn’t quite intelligible without knowing the extent to which it was, in Austrian scholar Erik von Keuhnelt-Leddihen’s phrase, “a sanguinary sex orgy.” The Marquis de Sade was in tune with the spirit of the age, understanding “Nature” as the sole source of authority as to what may be praised or condemned. “The philosopher sates his appetites,” Sade argued, “without inquiring to know what his enjoyments may cost others, and without remorse.” He defended even sexual murder, if that was what a practitioner wanted. Feminist historian Camille Paglia saw that as the old morality lost prestige, “all the nasty daemonism of sexual instinct” popped up. “Individualism, the self unconstrained by society,” was a liberation from low into a “coarser servitude of constraint by nature.” Revolutionary ideology took its bearings from lofty talk of freedom, but in practice, this often meant arranging one’s life around violent urges. “Every road from Rousseau leads to Sade,” said Paglia. It isn’t really so far.

So began the Age of Ideology–of modern totalitarian government and large-scale executions of “enemies of the People.” Writing on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian naturalist Prince Petr Kropotkin noted that “what we learn from the study of the Great Revolution is that it was the source of all the present communist, anarchist and socialist conceptions.”

In America, the civil war of the sixties was fought on a succession of fronts, beginning with civil rights but morphing into the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. Religion continued to irk the ideologically-driven champions of liberation from old moralities. “Racist, sexist, antigay! Christian fascists, go away!” has been a popular chant among today’s street activists. They embrace the role of antichrists deliberately and proudly. They seem intent on proving that rejection of the Word leaves them with a language in which nothing can be known, in which all meaning is socially constructed and thus susceptible to deconstruction. Identity, racism, patriarchy, privilege, and gender—it’s all a matter of language and power, continuously updated. Those who run the institutions and control the language have no masters.

Those who do not have university sinecures may find life more daunting. Beings shorn of faith and without the support of divine love retain only the will to power, without the will to resist what Allan Bloom referred to as the “reanimalization of man.” Valentine’s Day is celebrated by Planned Parenthood as the kickoff of Condom Week. An accumulating mountain of social science evidence reveals the damage to families and children by those who have made selfish sexuality their priority. Reality is not on the side of the sexual revolution. “Children come into the world based on sexual choices of adults,” said Robert Oscar Lopez, and an ideology that tells adults to follow their urges without regard to the impact on children cannot be good. Good, like evil, exists as a complex ecosystem, and to consider the truth about children’s well-being would be to allow a very large and inconvenient camel to get its nose under the tent.

The majority of the Supreme Court who struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act claimed that there could be no reason for denying equivalence to same-sex couples except some irrational and immoral desire to harm those couples. “The principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” said the Court. Their language was morally certain and morally absolute. James Kalb discussed such developments in “Sex and the Religion of Me” at First Things. “The new orthodoxy on homosexuality,” he said, “is about more than sex. It is an outcome of a profound change in traditional understandings of the world, the abolition of natural meanings and essences in favor of will and technique.” Neither nature nor society should hinder the individual’s autonomy to choose his or her own values. The external world is “raw material” for the liberated self to pursue its authentic purposes. What is authentic is understood as that which has its source in the self and its desires.

What is established is what Phillip Rieff has called an anti-culture–the view that is is forbidden to forbid, and that nothing should regulate the individual. What is suppressed is that humans do not “find themselves” in indeterminate space, but become human slowly, surrounded by family and community which educate them into structures of meaning which are needed if a person is to act and engage. We become autonomous by living with law, which we then internalize, accepting limits on desire and possibility. Without law we are not free, because the flip side of culture isn’t nature but barbarity. We are at the moment in a transitory period. The governing elite have restructured society to relieve parents of duties toward their children, many of whom cannot progress beyond adolescence, living in a moral chaos of disorganized desires, contradictory opinions, ceaseless demands for goods they could not earn but feel entitled to possess, and unyielding moral obtuseness. Because the state has yet to finalize its tutelary authority, such beings have liberty to cause most of our social troubles. Our future is likely to be brutal and violent.

Of course, most ordinary liberals are nice people who are dismayed by the crass and violent drift of contemporary culture. They don’t see it as good that increasing numbers of young men do not grow up, but seem lost in a simulacrum of digital games and pornography, imagining themselves masters of seven universes while unable to get a grown-up job and unwilling to commit, while increasing numbers of young women, often better educated and better paid than their potential mates, weary of a succession of boy friends who refuse to become manly feel unfulfilled as the biological clock ticks. They do not sense that they are choosing the materialistic decadence which advances on every front, closing in. They just want a nonjudgmental culture, often for quite personal reasons. They want the finger-pointing moralists to stay away. So they enact a society in which young people receive no very ennobling education. What they need to know of sex is taught by twenty-something clinicians, and the posters in the hall are about condoms and the self’s choices but not about courage or sacrifice or love. Some learn old truths from intelligent families or churches, but many find their deepest desires shaped by the stories and music of a commercial culture, biased toward that which titillates or excites. So we find ourselves surrounded more and more by people who are oblivious to the sort of order that is peace.

Mobs and gangs have been forming for some time, and yet the thinking of our masters has the quality of incantation. They cannot question whether it’s true that neutrality is wisdom, or even possible, or that the old laws were mere bigotry. Statements of traditional morality trigger a visceral revulsion within the minds of those indoctrinated in the morality of late modern or postmodern modernity. To have another impose the rules of his own or his tribe about something as personal as sexual desire feels sickening. “This reaction,” Kalb says, is best understood as “a taboo response.” It “springs from a sense that those who reject ‘marriage equality’—the view that same-sex and opposite-sex relations are interchangeable—are attacking what is most precious and sacred.” Earlier, the Court had ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that the uncultured self has the right to define the nature “of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

It’s true that anyone can define for himself what is right only if there is nothing in Cosmos or Creation that says otherwise; thus the siren song of nihilism became the law of the land. That the imperial self’s demands so often have to do with sex and sexual identity is nothing new. Religion and sex are intimately intertwined in human consciousness, as even the champions of sexual freedom sometimes admit. The inventors of a new world order have largely given up attacking capitalism and have organized their forces in an epic struggle about sex. The religious question at the heart of the matter is to what extent a person can escape historical and natural patterns in a quest for self-creation amid unbounded personal choice. We are sexual beings, and our sexuality goes to the core of our existence. And though we share a carnal nature with other animals we are also endowed with a capacity for discourse that allows us through the word to engage in such sublime realities as justice. For such beings, sex becomes somewhat more than beasts rutting in the stable. For moderns, sex and discourse are joined in debates about gender–the demotion of nature to self-created identity.

The West’s classic view of humanity was expressed by Shakespeare in Hamlet:

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

For such a being, sex can meld with love in a sublime quest for happily ever after that has been the theme of countless stories, which emerge from the universal sense that something more is at stake in matters of the heart than meaningless iterations of cycles of reproduction and survival.

It is in our “godlike” reason that we are most typically and fundamentally human. Our telos is to reach outward, our reason functioning as openness to experience of and conscious participation in the divine mystery which surrounds us. The philosopher Eric Voegelin linked the Greek understanding of reason, nous, to the Israelite understanding of spirit, pneuma, in their kindred recognitions that to be human is precisely to exist by reaching out in loving encounter with divine presence. Our sexual natures reinforce and deepen our fundamental experience of incompleteness, unable to fulfill ourselves alone. Biology and spirit are unified in a quest for love that completes and perfects our lives as biological, intellectual and spiritual creatures. The culture of marriage and family was, at its best, developed through such realizations. It represented humanity’s best hope against alienation and isolation. Anthony Esolen reprised that argument in Defending Marriage:

We are all interested in marriage, that is, we all have a stake in it, because through marriage, or through actions that should have been performed within the haven of marriage, we have all come into being. It isn’t simply a reflex of the emotions of the man and woman. It is the act of renewal. It brings together this family of blood relations with that family of blood relations, natural relations, the kinfolk that lay just claims upon us because we and they share some of the same history, the same cousins, even the same eyes and ears and noses. A marriage marries families, and it is the family, and not the abstracted autonomous individual, that is the foundation for the community.

In other words, were it not for children, there would be no reason for weddings at all, since there is no reason for the community to take note of whether John and Mike or any two marriageable people have been arguing lately or have patched up their differences, regardless of any behavior they may be indulging in when the doors are closed. But the community does have a powerful interest in what used to be called “public morals,” since these impinge upon the welfare of the family, and thus upon the community’s health and survival. It is precisely because the marital act is a child-making act that the community not only may protect it by the fencing of law and custom; it has a duty to do so, to protect itself and the most vulnerable of its members.

One might expect a nation of sexual individualists to educate children to go their own bold ways; but that cannot be, because there is no fully realized human individual apart from a family. So, paradoxically, such a nation leans towards banishing the family from rightful authority over the schools, which then become standardized, like factories. “Sparta,” [a totalitarian regime which seized boys from their homes to live in barracks] “presents to us no illustration of an educational philosophy for a Christian people.” Real education is of persons made in the image of God, and cannot be effected “by contract or in the aggregate. In the family alone, and by or on the immediate responsibility of those parents by whom were imposed upon each child from before its birth the physical, mental, and spiritual conditions on which all true after education must be based, can an ideal early education be conducted.” Schools and schoolteachers there may be, but they must “be regarded only as the representative deputy or the substitute for the family.”

Those of us alive at this historical moment have been born into a vast argument that we did not make and very likely will not resolve. It’s a religious war waged in its deepest terms at the source of what it means to be human. The main thing each of us may decide is what side we are on. It’s a crucial choice. Jame Kalb suggests that we not near the end of the conflicts:

Cultural debates are always conflicts between orthodoxies. Our own debates about sex, marriage, and family must be understood and judged as exactly that rather than misconceived as a conflict between irrational dogma on one side and tolerance and freedom on the other. This is becoming easier to do, now that a whole generation has been raised under the regime of political correctness. A backlash against that regime is already visible among young people. What is needed is to convert dissatisfaction from cynical abandonment of concern with public affairs into reasoned and constructive engagement. It appears, then, that the culture war is not over. Understood for what it is, it has hardly begun.

In the past, all sides have waged their moral crusades by getting control of law–which is to say, by using force and coercion. The hard won wisdom of Westphalia, we might remember, was a way of moving on from decades of sectarian battle through a kind of federalism, in which each jurisdiction would be left to make its own laws about religious matters. It was amid competing visions, none of which could achieve hegemony, that Europe’s institutions of political freedom took form. We tend to do our best thinking when we are stymied by opposition we cannot overcome.

The work of the world now is, I believe, what it has always been–for humanity to continue what Adam and Eve began, to know good from evil and to choose between them. It’s a complex knowing.

As with the Jacobins, when morality becomes an instrument of power it destroys the world and itself. At the moment, the controllers are ascendant, fancying themselves spiritual directors of the world, establishing a monopoly on moral judgment. Chantal Delsol suggests that they “have begun to instrumentalize morality in order to make it a political weapon.” That process will undoubtedly continue, and to the extent that it does, its success will be partial and temporary. The political, unlike the moral, cannot be universal.

My spiritual tribe teaches that the only tools available to morality are ‘persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and love unfeigned.’ Delsol notes that “universal values are freely expressed norms whose realization would allow humanity to freely advance toward the summits–in a manner of speaking, to become more human.” It is useless and destructive for morality to use the tools of politics, betraying its own norms through the use of force. Camus understood that now the struggle must be “between violence and preaching.” Morality does not impose itself; it persuades. There will be blood, to be sure, but the right will prevail with words and spirit.

It’s slow work, and it involves living as an example as well as uttering words. Patience and long-suffering are real necessities for those who choose to act in the realm of morality rather than in that of politics. We cannot will the good immediately, because for each of us, understanding the vision of the good, and disentangling it from evil and all its deceptions, has required the mediation of time. Each of us has, through much living, reflected on human experience, what has been done and how it has turned out. We have struggled to understand some of what we now see clearly. The time was not incident. We learn slowly–here a little and there a little. So those who would lead must teach and those who would teach must wait, knowing that such a life–trying to learn how to live life to the fullest–is what time is for. And there is still time.

Can we fight evil without imitating it?

A review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1

Katniss discovers a white rose, which unlike the other flowers has not wilted. It's a message from President Snow, who cultivates the flower to mask the smell of blood. Flowers are ephemeral, symbolizing the hope of beauty. Now they have become ominous, unnaturally enduring.

Katniss discovers a white rose, which, unlike the other flowers, has not wilted. It’s a message from President Snow, who cultivates the flower to mask the smell of blood. Flowers are ephemeral, symbolizing the hope of beauty. Now they have become ominous, unnaturally enduring.

Several critics have noted that although Mockingjay–Part 1 was largely exposition, lacking the action of the first two Hunger Games movies, they liked it anyway. It may be a satisfying art form for an age that often understands itself as poised in a pre-apocalyptic moment, dangling between the trouble we have known and a greater trouble that has to be coming. A film about the calm before a storm feels right.

But there’s more, I think. The real struggle we are engaged in will not be settled, this time, by missiles and bombs. Our disagreements are ontological and epistemological, so language is the arena in which this generation’s epic battle is being engaged. The Hunger Games gives that struggle accessible form by casting it as a war between Katniss’s impulse to love and Snow’s compulsion to control. The battle goes beyond physics–bullets and bombs–into the realm of spirit, and all outcomes at lower levels will fail to be decisive.

So some in the audience may want a story that moves beyond fighter jets and lasers. This third film centers on that contest between the President and the Mockingjay, and this penultimate chapter of their epic contest is waged in words and images. We stranded in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the Capitol’s subjects. To be sure, we see that we are fated to move quite beyond words into a bloodier realm of earthquake and thunder–there are constant skirmishes that leave fields strewn with corpses–but compared to earlier episodes the war is now waged in rhetoric. For the moment, antagonists struggle to give form, words and images, to our understanding of what is at stake, the meaning of good and evil.

The moral tone of the story has grown darker. Snow is clearly evil. Snow’s hypocrisy is vivid. The Capitol’s rhetoric about the common good and human flourishing is mere stratagem to perpetuate an oligarchy of masters who control a vast system of subjugation and poverty, where the suffering of individuals means nothing. Snow’s nihilism is total. Just before switching off the telescreen and pivoting to air strikes, he tells Katniss that “it is the things we love most that destroy us.” Love makes us vulnerable.

Yet hope abides, and Katniss bears hope’s burden. Her beauty inspires hope even after great disillusionment. Abernathy claims we need to see her without makeup, we need to go past appearance and manipulation. Her unfeigned moments of emotional candor keep the rebellion going. Her trainer, Haymitch Abernathy, makes explicit that contrived images lack the force of Katniss’s raw responses to horrors perpetrated by Snow’s military. He gets her out of the studio and to the front, where her image can be projected by capturing unstaged moments where her hatred of the Capitol is caught on camera in unscripted emotional outbursts. Authentic passion, not contrived images, are the keys to better propaganda. But, of course, it remains contrived propaganda.

How can we fight evil without imitating it? This story has been wildly popular with today’s youth, who sense that they are entangled in orchestrated contests with each other for advancement in a dark and hollow world void of ultimate meanings. The consequences of the games they must play are real enough, but winning is only a temporary reprieve in a larger game which no one wins.

The Hunger Games story takes place in the godless world of modern imagination–our world–a place in which human power is constrained mainly by the opposition of other human power. The Capitol’s tyranny is enforced by technology and propaganda, and the revolution can imagine no opposition but its own technology and its own propaganda. The film approaches transcendence only in moments when Katniss inspires hope that she represents another way. She resists the flat-souled utilitarianism of the advisers who would turn away from the plight of individuals to focus on the big battles. She demands that Peeta be pardoned and that a cat be tolerated, and she ignores attempts to discuss propaganda strategy in those moments when she is filled with sorrow for what has happened to the particular people she loves. She suggests a larger game, a different world. Eddy asks, “Are you here to fight with us?” “I am,” says Katniss. “I will.” And so we have hope.

Are love and authenticity enough? Or are they too vulnerable? When we learn that Peeta has been conditioned to hate Katniss, it seems that personal love has roots too shallow to survive the manipulations of evil. How can goodness win against a sadistic ruler who seeks ever more cruel modes of action, capable of feeling only the harshest and most primitive passions, a being nearly dead to all that makes life wonderful, committed to destroying whatever does not wither before his numb gaze, breeding deathless roses to mask the stench.

Does Katniss’s love draw on a power sufficient to restore a good order? Is the people’s faith in Katniss enough? Is there more?

A lot is at stake.

The third reality: a brief introduction

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

The way of the teacher

No one can be forced to see higher realities. We all need to be taught to see them, and having been taught, we have to freely choose them.

The third reality is peace–not as a sort of slumber but as an all-consuming engagement possible only through love. The third reality is living in and through love. Though it is based on law, it cannot be established by law, which it both includes and transcends.

Societies of peace necessarily are created and sustained through the methods of teachers: persuasion, patience, and unfeigned care. The economy for those living in the third reality is an order in which gift plays a powerful part. Trade remains but theft does not. The future’s uncertainty is reduced through covenants–promises exchanged with concern about the well-being of the other in mind. What may be given is as important as what will be received as, for those in love, giving and receiving merge into being.

Societies of law struggle to see that justice is done but justice isn’t enough. We all have something to fear from justice. Who has not done that he ought not to have done? We by trespassing and being trespassed. We live here in history, where being wronged is the human condition.

Those who walk the road to peace find at fork after fork forgiveness is one of the choices. If they choose the other way, they find themselves getting more alone as they go. It’s an easy road and many have grown accustomed to it.

Returning becomes the daily work of those who would know peace. Again and again they find it is necessary to turn back and start over. They study mercy, wanting first to receive it as they learn to offer it.

A separate peace

Having recognized that they have made mistakes, they tend to be forgiving. A Separate Peace was popular in high school classrooms for many years, in a past that now seems almost a foreign country. Teenagers are in a stage of life where friendship is first being explored with near adult intelligence. The book clarifies the extent to which our friends–-other people in general–-exist in our consciousness partly as fictions that we’ve created ourselves. We read other people with the same cognitive tools we use to read fiction. We hear scraps of dialogue, note expressions and gestures, overhear gossip–and we make inferences and interpretations.

Sometimes our inferences are wrong. In the course of A Separate Peace, the protagonist, Gene, experiences several versions of his friend, Phineas.

The tragedy occurs when Gene “understands” that Phineas has not been inviting him on adventures out of pure friendship but as part of a strategy to wreck his studies. He isn’t a true friend at all. Gene suddenly sees a pattern in their relationship and makes a meaning of it: He sees all of his friend’s overtures as deceptions intended to cause him harm. “That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you’re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn’t want to do something with him!”

Anyone who spends much time with adolescents–or other people–will recognize how close friendship and rivalry often are. The fictive Phineas that exists only in Gene’s mind isn’t his first version of Phineas, and it isn’t the last, but Gene acts upon it as though he knew the truth. When he learns that, however plausible his theory of Finny’s behavior, it was still only a theory, and it was wrong, it is too late. Gene told himself a lie about another person, then believed it, and then acted on it. His accepting a version of reality without sufficient evidence leads to the death of his friend.

In less dramatic ways, we daily harm each other when we accept interpretations about why others are doing what they are doing without good enough reason. Generally, we learn to recognize this common pattern most clearly when we ourselves become the victim of someone else’s false theory about us.

Peace in a world with enemies

Sometimes we lose awareness of the third reality because it’s so easy and somehow gratifying to reading conscious evil intent into the actions of others–especially rivals. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.

Everyone speaks in favor of peace as regards how others treat us, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it often is, then we easily find ourselves imagining strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us.

Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy ever known. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a thinner and paler reality–a stark place without enough air. The true realist, seeing a reality as deep as the night sky, knows that nothing else will work.

People who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well find temporal suffering as he lives by such a policy.

All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations, taking our turns at being both a teacher and a learner. When people act badly, the teacher assumes the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we choose to think that a person acting badly doesn’t understand. A person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed so much he needs to be rescued. If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so he teaches.

This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the only way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by righteous judgement and just punishment. But as every good parent understands, punishment can be delivered in a spirit of love.

Two ways, one road

The peacemaker learns that there really are only two ways: one leads toward greater life–which is greater connection and greater order–and the other leads toward greater disorder–which involves separation and death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.

Though a society ordered by fear can become one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate and easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down the continuum but will tend to do so without steady work to avoid it. This is the work of peace: willing and keeping complex human orders.

Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.

People who have chosen the way of the teacher understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity. Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.

Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. Peace is hard work, and a peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption. Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.

Which stories?

As we find the stories, both in books and in living, that we will pass on, we need to remember that stories that only evoke fear are not as good as those that also teach an understanding of principles, and those that only clarify principles are not as good as those that in addition encourage peace. More specifically, a story that leads me to take delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself, and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family, and one that shows me how to feel compassion for all of humanity is better than one that leads me to think of outsiders as enemies. One that instills a reverence for all of creation is about as good as stories get.

The best stories allow us to glimpse the largest reality, and they give us courage to work at joining. The right stories help us understand ways of living that respect the meaning and integrity of each part.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within, a harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we have to surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of the order that existed before them. To teach them about peace we surround them to the extent we can with a peace we’ve made, showing them how it works and what the rules are and why they should love it.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. But no matter how urgent things appear around us, our first responsibility is to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the contention and conflict we had hoped to resolve. We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have made.

The Third Reality is missing from Breaking Bad

Breaking BadBreaking Bad portrays the First Reality–government by fear–with great vividness and accuracy. This is the primal world where the strong do as they will. The series does a fair job with the Second Reality–government by law–though at its best this level is much more profound than the series depicts. The story is largely a contest between the criminal world and the world of law and order, and the law and order people are mainly good people, who keep the world in order and avoid being bad.

The Third Reality is missing. None of the characters seems aware of it.

Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies reference the Third Reality, and depend on an awareness of it for the horror to have its full impact. I doubt that in Elizabethan England there was any real parallel with the Team Walter groupies. Team Macbeth?

What does “The Butler” teach about America’s racial experience?

The Butler

If there’s nothing higher than the White House, there’s little hope.

The Butler doesn’t extend beyond the “progressive narrative” of American history. In this narrative, racism is pervasive−the major theme of our national experience.

In our actual past, racism has always had to contend with the better angels of our nature. Martin Luther King, Jr.was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and the power of his rhetoric is inseparable from the depth of his faith that racism is contrary to God’s will and thus doomed. When he said “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” he was not merely fashioning a trope. He was speaking truth, and he knew it was the white majority that he had to persuade and that most of them favored neither cruelty nor oppression.

Martin Luther King is present in The Butler, but the Christian tenor of his rhetoric is faint. He does defend the butler’s role to his son, who believes that angry political activism is the way to make progress. The King character points out that the domestic servant’s exemplification of service, effort, and restraint powerfully undermines racial stereotypes. He does not look down on the butler, as his son is wont to do.

It was Martin Luther King’s modeling of nonviolent and peaceful reconciliation that prepared the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he said. Such teaching was of a piece with his faith and hope:  “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

This was not Malcolm X’s message. which had more to do with anger and with victory than with love or transcendence: “Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor.” This derives from Marx. It’s the language of revolutionary ideology, dividing humanity into the classes of oppressor and oppressed. It’s the song  of hatred and bitterness that King warned against.

In the actual past, it was King’s message of peace and brotherhood that prepared America to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both of which were motivated by a vision of national unity. The political activism of Malcolm X was more useful for building a revolutionary army than for bringing a nation together. People had to choose between the two paths then just as they must now. The film, unfortunately, does not make the choice clear.

In Genesis, Joseph serves as a type of Christ. Sold into slavery, he served Pharaoh meticulously, in spite of his status as a despised minority. His patience and obedience in spite of brutal treatment positioned him to save the tribes of Israel and to ameliorate the harsh realities of this world. He foreshadowed what the Savior had to teach about oppression and brotherhood. He modeled the Christian way, which King profoundly understood.

The film generally leans a different way. In the end, the butler leaves his job at the White House and joins an angry protest movement−against Reagan, of all things. Reagan is presented, absurdly, as opposed to racial equality. This is done through cursory references to Apartheid in South Africa. The film uses the strained expedient of twisting Reagan’s opposition to communism into antagonism towards racial justice, ignoring the actual past, in which South Africa was infected with the same revolutionary ideology that moved Malcolm X.

In the film, enlightenment leads to street politics, serving up a vision of political activism as much of the meaning of goodness. The election of Barack Obama is presented as the apotheosis of our yearning for justice. Such is the progressive vision.

The Search

Fayler Sculpture

Sculpture by Lila Fayler at the Amphitheater in St. Ignatius, commemorating her lost children and the search to find them.

We weren’t trying to get somewhere, but to look closely every place we went. As we settled into the labor of the hard climb, what we were up against became more and more clear.

Sometimes we could see only a few yards through the heavy timber. If a plane were down, we could walk within thirty yards of it without seeing it. Thirty yards was a tiny distance in the immensity of those mountains. Also, I could imagine vectors through the woods all around me that would allow a plane to reach the ground without being visible from the sky.

To add to the problem, nobody had any idea what direction the plane had been flying. Lila and Bev, preoccupied with their conversation, hadn’t noticed where it left their sight. To the east, the Mission Mountain Wilderness where we were stretched through miles of forest and rugged peaks. Farther south, past the Jocko and Big Knife Drainages, it flowed into the Rattlesnake, where the mountains were gentler but the forests no less thick. The forests of the Ninemile area to the south and west were more heavily logged with many clearcuts, but it was a huge region of rolling hills and patches of timber.

Larry and Bev had flown from Boise into the tiny airport in their private plane to visit Lila Fayler and her four children. When they landed at the airport, Larry agreed to take the three children up for a quick look at the mountain valley from the sky. Bev was his fiance. She got out of the plane to wait on the runway with Lila, his sister. Larry, with his two nieces and his nephew aboard, taxied into the quiet evening, climbed quickly into the air then circled toward the snowcovered peaks east of town.

Lila and Bev chatted on the airport runway, sitting on the hood of the car for a half hour. The plane didn’t return. The engine’s hood cooled. Time dragged on. After an hour they went into town to check on supper, which Lila had put in the oven before leaving for the airport. When they went back to the airport, light was nearly gone over the western hills but the plane hadn’t returned.

They admitted their fears. The drive back to town felt unreal. They called Alan Mikkelsen, a local pilot. He contacted the state aviation agency before rushing to the airport. He prepped his plane then flew into the night sky. Hour after hour all night long he circled over the mountains, looking for any sign.

The next morning, aircraft from the state were in the valley, flying grids over the rugged country, looking for broken trees, oil slicks in lakes. I spent that morning moving lilacs from an abandoned homestead on the southern rim of the valley, planting a two hundred foot long hedge along my drive.

The sun was mild, and I struggled to pay attention only to what I was doing, ignoring the world beyond my gardens as completely as I could. But now that world droned insistently overhead, as plane after plane flew over or cruised along the mountains. Like others, I went about my work, expecting the search planes to find the children soon, waiting for good news.

When nothing had been found by evening, I drove out to the airport, one hangar beside one airstrip, to see if I could help. Though the county search and rescue van was parked beside the runway as a command center, there was nothing to command. “We need a sighting,” the search coordinator said. “We don’t have any idea where to start.” The searchers tried to pick up a signal from the emergency locator transmitter, but since the pilot was just going up for a brief jaunt he may not have turned it on.

I wore shorts and a t-shirt. Lila said the kids had also been dressed lightly. Night came as I waited out at the airport talking to the search and rescue people and people from town who dropped by to see if there was any news. I began to shiver hard from the chilly breeze. Winter had not yet left the nearby peaks. If the kids were alive, and if they were at a higher elevation than the valley, this night, their second in the wild, was going to be long and cold.

When I went home, I sat in my warm living room, and talked a little with my own children, asking them for information about Angela, the ten-year-old, the only one of the three kids I didn’t know. They told me she was a bubbly, happy girl, full of physical affection. She liked to hug people. Sierra was a senior at the school where, until a few months before I’d been principal. She was a beautiful young woman. Everyone noticed her. Jesse was only six, the same age as my youngest boy, and he rode his bike to our house often.

I went outside and stood in the dark, feeling the chill. Somewhere, one plane was still flying, looking for a signal or a fire. If my kids were up those mountains, maybe hurt, maybe waiting, I wouldn’t hang around until I knew where to start looking. It might be rational to depend on the air search, but they’d looked all day and found nothing. It would take outrageous luck to stumble onto the plane on foot in the vastness of the wilderness that surrounded us. But if luck was all we had, then we had to try. When you need a miracle, I believe, you have to step forward and expect one.

I connected with Bill Ferril, a local doctor, and Gary Steele, a professional wilderness guide. They were going to search a quadrant on the map of Mount Harding that a psychic had suggested. I placed no faith in psychics, but since I didn’t have a plan of my own, it didn’t matter to me where I started.

Before dawn the next moring we loaded packs to stay overnight and left. The terrain was rugged and the brush was thick, without trails. We fought through cedar thickets, crawled through deadfall and tore through underbrush. I found an easy logging road and followed it for almost a mile until ten-year-old growth reduced it to a trail, winding through lupine, paintbrush, clematis, wild rose, and gooseberries—all in bloom. The blossoms had attracted thousands of butterflies, and they fluttered among the leaves like delicate confetti. Hundreds of neotropical birds had returned from their migration, and the forest’s winter silence had given way to singing.

I walked slowly, overwhelmed, trying to memorize and to make meaning of finding the aromatic blossoms, the spectacle of butterflies, the chorus of birds. I had not coming looking for this, and I felt ambushed, torn between exhilaration and dismay to have wandered into such beauty on such a grim mission.

Toward dark, we broke out of thick brush onto a rocky outcrop. We made camp, built a small fire and fixed supper. We’d spent the day spread out, trying to see as much ground as possible, so we hadn’t talked much. Though I knew Bill well, I hadn’t met Gary before.

He’d guided groups through the Missions, though most of his business was in Arizona during the winter. “Not many people want hikes this strenuous,” he said, laughing.

He’d built a house up the Jocko Canyon, away from electricity and running water. He’d done all the work with hand tools. During the off season, when he wasn’t hiking and kayaking, he did contract sheetrock work. “I like the world the way it is,” he said.

He had met Edward Abbey, and though he wasn’t an avid reader, he had read all his books. He told personal stories about him, what had gone on among his friends in the desert during the days he was dying. The literary talk was an unexpected treat for me.

He had heard a little about me, and he asked questions about what had gone on at the school. “People told me that after they went to that board meeting they were sick. It made them want to move away,” he said.

Bill laughed. “The guy I rent my office from told me that the real problem was that the principal was trying to make this the best school in America. He said we couldn’t have something like that.” Bill was from out of state, and he enjoyed local eccentricities.

I didn’t want to talk about it, since it was a story and not one that everyone could hear. Throughout the conflict at the school, I had avoided saying much about the superintendent to anyone except the school board trustees. I provided formal documentation for my allegations. If he and I began fighting publicly, the school and community would be completely divided.

It was clear that he intended to fire me, using false allegations as the basis. If the board didn’t fire him, I was finished. It was the board’s decision.

During the weeks the story was unfolding, my job became more and more stressful. Every disagreement and every decision could become ammunition against me. A student swore at a teacher and she kicked him out of class. The kid swore at me and said that I was picking on him because I was a racist. The superintendent pounced on it, taking the student’s side. Such things were happening daily.

In the evenings, I took longer and longer walks, many miles, far into the mountains, into the night. When I was high above the valley in the wintry woods things seemed to fall into place. The town was a shabby little clutter in a huge and beautiful world, and the earth was a tiny planet in a vast cosmos.

I moved through chill wind, the near sounds of owls, coyotes yipping on the ridge above me. I climbed a path through dark to watch the moon rise over Goat Rock. If a person could truly see the big picture, I was sure, he would see that all the news was good. I thought hard about what I really wanted out of the situation. I thought about where I had started and what it had come to. I’d come home from Vietnam an angry young man, unstable and full of questions. I was drawn to classrooms because they are one of the few places that people gather to take life seriously, to ask questions in earnest. I was drawn toward poetry because it helped me live my life. Wallace Steven had taught me that it was the nobility expressed in poems that helped. He said that the poet’s nobility was a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination, pressing back against reality. The sound of it, he said, helps us live our lives.

Unable to make out what lay ahead, I returned to such beginnings.

After a dinner of macaroni, I left Bill and Gary to sit on the rocks beside the small fire, listening to the forest and the incessant drone of aircraft. A National Guard chopper flew directly over us. They were in a different world, in voice contact with the search command post and with state headquarters. I tried to talk to them, but our radio batteries had gone dead. I didn’t think the crew saw me, sitting in a more or less open spot beside a small fire. Their powerful technology kept them too far away. Our primitive hiking and looking was too slow, and the world was too big. The children were lost between two approaches that were not working.

We got up early the next morning, mixed cereal with yogurt for breakfast, tore down camp, and pulled on our packs. We hiked steadily all day. We went places and reached heights we would never have gone just for fun. On that day and the days that followed I became good friends with Gary. We were facing a tragic event, but we kept encountering earth’s many goodnesses.

When we got back to town, tired and footsore, scratched and cut from fighting underbrush, we learned that two dozen possible sightings were being investigated. Aircraft were coming from around the state, and both the Forest Service and the National Guard had loaned helicopters. Eleven fixed wing aircraft and three helicopters flew grids over the area, looking for broken tree tops or other clues. The constant roar of engines overhead droned through the day, gnawing like anxiety.

Psychics who had heard the news reports on television phoned in with suggestions. One flew to town, and friends of the family picked her up and drove her around the foothills as she tried to sense the children’s whereabouts. None of the leads they gave panned out.

The county sheriff said that the search was in the hands of the state aviators until there was a sighting. He said he couldn’t authorize a ground search until there was a place to search. People grumbled about this, and began organizing themselves. The next day, 120 people were in the mountains, hiking without much of a plan, following whims and intuition.

When again the day ended without success, people realized they needed to be more systematic. They gathered huge contour maps, tables and bulletin boards. Others lashed tarps together to form an ad hoc command center. They gathered reports and organized plans. People began marking off areas that had been searched, and others began checking to see what areas were likely. An organization was forming, spontaneously.

A woman who had led a petition drive a few months before, spending hour after hour taking a message of hate door to door through town, now set up a food pantry in the airport hangar. She gave hours to the effort. She cooked casseroles and got contributions. Soon, a field commissary was in full operation. Chile, stew, roast beef, hundreds of sandwiches, cookies, soft drinks were brought in and put on the tables. Searchers going out dropped in and put fruit and sandwiches in their packs. Searchers coming back hung around and ate dinner off paper plates.

The following day, nearly five hundred people were out searching. People called their jobs to say they couldn’t come in, and spent days climbing the rugged mountains.

Leaders arose. People who knew the area began assigning crews to search specific areas, having them check out before they left and report in when they returned. Local horsemen searched areas that horses could reach, and a bicycle club from Missoula arranged rode miles of logging roads. Volunteers directed traffic and established a huge parking lot in the hayfield beside the runway. Delivery trucks stopped on their routes to grocery stores and restaurants and to leave cases of fruit and soda at the hangar commissary. The search gained momentum and organized and reorganized itself quickly as people saw what they could do and did it.

People mentioned repeatedly that in some way this was connected to the mob that the superintendent had brought down upon the school. He had acted quickly. He identified enemies of the current board and offered them a chance to settle old scores. He found former board members whose dreams for the school had failed, and appealed to their resentment at being left out, offered them a way back to power. He found people who were hungry to be taken seriously, and praised them. Those who weren’t motivated by bribes or flattery were simply threatened. There was nothing unusual about his strategy. What was unusual was that he pursued it so wholeheartedly, so shamelessly.

Since people on his side felt their own importance threatened by those who attacked him, and those he attacked felt endangered by his support, the town was quickly polarized. People not involved in what was happening were astonished and perplexed by how suddenly and how passionately various people in town were mobilized to hatred for various other people. The two groups were not seeing the same thing, and they were furious at each other.

An old man who’d lived in town all his life came to me, asking what was happening. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said. He mentioned one of the superintendent’s strongest supporters. “That man has never stood up for anybody in his life,” he said. “I’m the only friend he’s ever had. But he kicked me out of his house because I don’t think the superintendent is doing the right things. What’s happening?”

The board chairman went to the superintendent privately and told him he didn’t like it. The superintendent said he was sad for any misunderstandings and promised to fix things. But the chairman had been in office long enough to have enemies, so the superintendent went to them and cultivated their friendship. Soon, he was campaigning underground against his board.

One of the chairman’s old foes, a businessman who had recently been on the school board, bought radio ads and called his own town meeting. Hundreds of people showed up to find out what the hubbub was about. Nobody knew. The businessman accused the chairman of having an agenda. He didn’t say it was a bad agenda, just that he had one. A newcomer to town tried to speak reasonably about the fact that nobody seemed to have any real information. The businessman yelled at him to shut up. The real message was simple: something was going on!

The search was bringing up powerful feelings, like those that at the mass meetings at the school. Everywhere I went, people tried to make connections between what was happening now and what had happened at the school just a few months before. They were heartened that the community could pull itself together to do good things as well as bad things.

“Isn’t this amazing?” a friend commented, gesturing at the crowd buzzing around the airport.
“It’s amazing, yes.” I was still distrustful of the town. But I also knew that if we so often find that what seemed right was, under the respectable clothes, rotten and cankered, it’s tempting to decide that nothing is good. This is the worst deception of all. When we give up on goodness, we are only a small step from hating it when it comes, because when it comes it will restore us to our guilt.

There had been no reports about the kids. It was eerie. They had simply vanished, without a trace.
People couldn’t fight back the realization that it was taking too long. There was hope. It was possible that the kids were out there somewhere still alive, unable to get out. But the odds were getting worse hour by hour.

Each evening when it was too dark to search, folk gathered at Lila’s hotel. The inside was nearly finished. Her art work was everywhere, large paintings of women with children and of buffalo. Her favorite medium was sculpture, and clay figures graced every corner and shelf. Folks brought food, and dozens of people wandered through, talking to each other, telling stories about their day, working out their plans for the next day.

Some folks brought guitars and flutes, and we sang and waited. Overhead the monotonous drone of aircraft went on. People knew that they were experiencing something profound and this was part of the sense of tragedy. One evening I sat on the floor talking to Lila, who was lying on pillows. She was exhausted, physically and emotionally. She hadn’t slept well since the search began, and she was torn continually between hope and grief, since the outcome of the story wasn’t unknown.

She was a beautiful woman, and she held herself through the tragedy with astonishing strength and dignity. People were drawn to her, partly because of her beauty and her gift for intimacy, but partly, I think, because they wanted to touch something real. Whatever was going on, it felt much more real than usual life. Folks crave contact with reality. Always, someone was with her and others were waiting to talk to her. At one point, she reached over and gave me a hug. “Let’s stay together when this is over,” she whispered.

One night I talked with two businessmen outside the hotel. We were all fatigued by the long days of climbing and the short nights of sleep. Most people had been ignoring the daily business of life, neglecting all the routines that ordinarily occupy us. One of the men commented on all the people that were still there, though it was late. “This is incredible,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep this spirit, to keep alive whatever it is that’s happening.”

Over and over folks called what was happening a miracle. People who had lived in the same valley all their lives but hadn’t got to know one another found themselves on search parties together, climbing and struggling through the hard terrain, helping one another, getting to know one another. People who had lived at the foot of the mountains all their lives without hiking into them found themselves spending hour after hour climbing through flowered meadows, reaching vistas from which they could see for miles, finding themselves stunned by the raw beauty they had been too busy to notice. Getting out into nature has a curative effect on most people. People were coming out of their isolating pursuit of wealth, of security, of importance into community, into nature, and in spite of the circumstances they found themselves being made glad.

I received a phone call late at night after I’d got back from hiking all day. A different search party coming out of the mountains at dusk had thought they saw a plane door floating in a lake. Someone knew that I had a canoe and I was asked if I could check the lake in the morning. Before daylight, I had my canoe in the lake, and I spent two hours paddling its perimeter. I wondered why I hadn’t got up before dawn and paddled other lakes. It was lovely and peaceful, watching the sun come up while I was out on the water, the mountains and forests all around. I found debris but none of it was from an airplane.

Over and over, people related what was happening to the vicious passions that had erupted on the fight over the school. Only a few months before, people had put a similar energy into hatred and fighting. They had gathered in cliques on the street outside board meetings, plotting strategies and imagining conspiracies, and then they had retreated into their hatreds and their resentments. The search felt like being let out of prison.

By the time of the board meeting to evaluate the superintendent and to decide whether to hire him for another year, the entire town was in an uproar. So many people showed up that the meeting had to be moved to the gymnasium. Three of the five board members were incensed at him. They could see what he was doing and they were furious.

“He’s attacking the school board!” one of them told me incredulously. They had documented evidence that, among other things, he had ignored board directives and violated board policies. He wasn’t any longer working for them.

The meeting had the atmosphere of a football game or a rowdy church revival meeting. The superintendent’s supporters were out in force and having a good time. Every time the superintendent spoke, no matter how silly or innocuous his comments, the room cheered. Every time one of the board members asked him a hard question, the crowd booed. The crowd quickly hooted down attempts by the chairman to run the meeting, and they wildly cheered the superintendent’s threats against me and the chairman. The lay board faced a gym full of true believers.

The board members easily read the passions of the crowd, and two of them began playing for popularity. Fans of the superintendent stood up and gave testimonials of support. The state senator, who was running for re-election, stood up and gave a speech in favor of democracy. The crowd became more and more hostile, feeling their power.

When I became convinced that I no longer had any formal role in the town’s life, I stood up to leave. I’d been sitting at the bottom of the bleachers in the center of the gym where I could answer questions from the board as needed. As I stood up, a woman came down the bleachers behind me and began beating on me with her fists. I turned to see what was happening, and looked into her face. It was twisted with hatred, and she was yelling something at me that I couldn’t hear over the roar of the crowd. She was too weak to hurt me, but she wanted to. We’d never met.
It was no ending I had imagined for my teaching career.

Most of the people in the gym were strangers. I hadn’t seen them at the school or at school activities. Neither I nor the board members who told me they supported me had tried to lobby people to get to the meeting. Those who had the authority—nobody else could do it—needed to examine the evidence and act on what they honestly found. Only five people would get to vote. I still believe it needs to be that way.

The superintendent spoke in a grand manner, sure now of his support. He was here to save the children. Evil people were trying to stop him. Whenever the chairman tried to address specific actions by the superintendent, the crowd booed him down. He was unable to get his evidence in front of the crowd, who clearly hadn’t come to listen anyway. The question people kept asking was, “What’s your problem with the superintendent?” They left without hearing an answer. They were a righteous mob, out to save the town. It can give pleasure, destroying enemies. The desire to destroy evil is evil’s favored tool.

The board lost its nerve. They voted unanimously to rehire the superintendent. After the meeting one of them told me, “If we’d done anything else, we wouldn’t have gotten out of there alive.”

I thanked each of the five board members for their public service, recognizing that they were in a hard place. I didn’t bother saying that I’d watched, that night in that gym in a little town, almost nowhere, the law vanish, replaced by the will of the people, aimed and focused by a man who, in Auden’s phrase, “knew human folly like the back of his hand.”

It was my turn to make a decision. Every strategy I could think of involved imitating the people whose methods I thought were wrong. I could launch a political campaign against my boss, persuading as many supporters as possible that he was evil. I could join his little war. Or he would fire me.

I thought about the times I’d already lashed out at people who threatened me, passing on a story that I wasn’t sure was true, making accusations that were partly based on suppositions. Driven by fear of defeat or humiliation it becomes easy to spread a little hatred of your enemies. In fact, nobody in town was doing anything that, to some degree, I hadn’t done before. I didn’t want to do it any more.

On the sixth day of the search I left early one morning to search the Mike’s Creek drainage that extended up Sonielem Ridge. Since looking mattered more than covering ground, the hike wasn’t hard though the way was steep. I moved upward through groves and clearings, through pine and fir. Occasionally, I met other hikers and had short conversations. These woods had more people in them than ever in history, but they were still peaceful. The meetings were welcome, not at all intrusions.

I kept going until I reached timberline, thousands of feet above the valley. In the aspen draws below me, I could see search parties fanning out, moving through thickets, stopping for sandwiches beside the alpine creeks. I stayed for a long time, no longer looking, really. When forests reach climax, fire or disease sets the biological clock back. Every five hundred years the giant cedar groves burn, as though the world is designed to remain in a state short of fulfillment, a place of striving toward. But whenever catastrophe strikes, leaving the earth scorched and barren, pioneering plants spring up from the ashes or sand, and slowly at first and then suddenly the barrenness turns green, as though the world is designed to thwart any final failure. Hence the need for hope and also its grounds.

That afternoon, I met Valerie and we loaded our van with kids and drove to a ridge above Twin Lakes, where we assigned each person a swath, moving up the hill in a sweep. Near the end of it, Valerie and I fell in together, walking through the lupines and paint brush. The beautiful woods around us were noisy with the exuberant efforts of our children, who were safe.

After a week, the official air search was called off. In the words of the officials, the resources needed to move on. Aircraft and the crews on loan needed to be returned. Searchers had stopped looking for signal fires and had begun looking for gatherings of bear, ravens, and other scavengers. There was no longer any rational hope that the children were alive, and there was nowhere else to look. The entire area had been flown over repeatedly. It was sensible to give up. The desire to save the children crashed into the raw immensity of the wilderness.

A few nights later a weary band of searchers, heartbroken and out of resources, out of energy, out of time, out of money, gathered hours after sunset to pray and to tell stories: those of us who knew the children told the others stories about our dealings with them. We talked about Sierra’s friendliness and charm, her love of nature, her acceptance of others. We talked about Angela’s enthusiasm, her giggling love of being alive, being with folks. We talked of Jesse’s wide network of friends, and his passion for his bicycle, which let him keep in touch with all the important folk he knew.

The psychics were gone, with their histrionic proclamations. The news people were gone, with their flat-footed questions. Most of the search planes were gone, with their aching roar. But we were still here, and we did not know what to do. So we planned to go on searching and without pride or pretense, together, we prayed.

The next day, the tenth day of the search, Ken Scott spotted the plane from a helicopter. Larry had gone up a broad canyon and far into it found it rising too quickly for the small plane, heavily loaded, to climb out. By the time he tried to turn the canyon walls were too close. His plane crashed into a cliff then fell upside down on a glacier. The craft’s beige underside was nearly invisible on the vast expanse of rugged ice.

All the passengers had died on impact.

We could not help them.

In the world’s terrible way, though, they had helped us, those of us who were looking for help.

That search ended but many of us lived on in this age of emergencies, an age full of commotion. Faith in old orders and old institutions is being eroded by people of words, and after the people of words come people of action to forge the discontent into something new. Our survival requires us to remember that if there are deceptions wrapped in righteous images to gain power, it is because at some level the deceivers know that goodness is the only game in the universe. Bad things are always parodies of good things.

For the space of ten days, folk in the valley moved through a holy place. The work they attempted came to failure, but in the working they glimpsed something else they had lost. In trying to find the lost children—and there are still many out there—a few hundred souls united for a moment in time against their only real enemy, human suffering, and in momentary glimpses and brilliant fragments, they found themselves.

Intelligent Desire


We are created by what we desire.

Eros as the ancients understood it initiates our every act. Both our heroic sacrifices as well as our selfish degradations are undertaken out of desire, and the wisdom and quality of such responses become the main determinants of both our joy and our misery.

Eros is not a physical object, known with the five senses; it is more like gravity–a presence that can be detected by the effects it causes. We can detect it in our consciousness as a movement in the soul, some attraction in the mortal to something beyond. Though Socrates’ teaching dealt mainly with reason, at key moments he augmented reason with consultations with his daimon–his channel of communication with the divine.

To take sensory impressions as the most important news about reality is like being trapped in a cave. Aristotle called the faculty we use to detect such invisible realities as gravity or eros the “intellect.” It was the intellect that, Socrates taught, the philosopher must cultivate to escape the cave of sensory impressions, where people relied on shadows to orient themselves not to reality but to their perception of objects. Beyond the cave we can learn to perceive with the intellect the invisible world. It is comprised of increasingly large and important ideas. Socrates told Glaucon, his young follower, that “the idea of the good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort.”

Odysseus may linger in his own cave, but he does not forget transcendent reality. He remembers from his youth the vision that stirs his eros. Neither the spiritual wasteland nor the natural wilderness is his true home. He was made for a place where the promise of his youth might be commpleted, where he might live in marriage to his beloved, enjoying good food and drink amid friends and kin, and where none could make him afraid. It was the vision of his youth that evoked his soul’s full assent, and now, lost and far from home, his spiritual longing will not be satisfied with lesser things. Near the end of his Allegory of the Cave, Plato quotes Homer on the ignoble life of those who live amid a false reality: “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than to think as they do and live after their manner.” His desire defines him.

It impels him toward action. He’s eager at every moment to back it up with effort and courage, and it moves the cosmos, eliciting support from the slow and mysterious workings of justice. Odysseus chose the hero’s way, drawn forward by inextinguishable desire for home. He was, as Robert Frost put it, undergoing a “trial by existence.”

Frost held on to something vital in the intellectual heritage of the New England Puritans. For them, making sense of daily life was inseparable from regular reflection on the stories in the Old Testament. They saw the Bible as not merely or even mainly a collection of rules. Rather, it was a web of stories which reveals the transcendent patterns through which we can know things as they really are.

When Frost held that “a poem is metaphor or it is nothing,” he put understanding metaphor at the heart of literature. He also put literature at the heart of education. We could not understand what thinking was, he asserted, without understanding metaphor–all the ways we see one thing in terms of another. Such thinking was fundamental to the Puritans. They read the Bible typologically, seeing in the Old Testament a collection of types, or patterns, that prefigured the New Testament. Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage, through the Red Sea, and toward the Promised Land, which was a type for Christ leading sinners out of the bondage of sin, through the waters of baptism, toward the Kingdom of Heaven. This typological mode of thought was extended so that Christians could read all the Biblical stories as types for understanding their own lives and what was expected of them. The Puritans understood their own experience by finding in it a familiar pattern: they understood themselves as being led out of slavery in England, on a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and into the wilderness, on their way to a Promised Land. Mary Rowlandson found the meaning of her afflictions with the Wampanoags in the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den and in the Psalms of the Babylonian Captivity. They recognized the divine order amid the multiplicity of variations they experienced in the lived Creation.

As Puritanism waned their long and highly sophisticated habit of seeing in events patterns of meaning that were portable, and that could be used to understand other events, lost some of its relationship to Creation as Divinely Authored and thus ordered with meanings, but powerfully metaphorical thought persisted in the symbolism of New England literature of such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville–the sense that images and events signified greater and more universal meanings.

They weren’t the only thinkers who understood that events in the physical universe can be understood by human consciousness when they are given form in stories or theories. When Robert Frost encountered Einstein’s theory, he was struck by how similar Einstein’s thought was to his own. Frost incorporated Einstein’s thinking into his conception  ways the natural order is related to the mind of man. Harvard physicist Harvey Brooks said that the poet understood Einstein better than many of his colleagues in physics–specifically because they lacked the poet’s grasp of natural dualism led him to understand that  metaphorical thinking was the way to make nature intelligible. Frost referred to Einstein as a philosopher among scientists who trusted intuited perceptions which transcended the rational-empirical assumptions passed on by Galileo and Newton. Einstein was able to leap from sight to insight, using intuition in the way that an artist uses imagination. He was a convinced theist whose “cosmic religious feeling” was his “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”

After spending much time with Madame Curie, Einstein explained her inability to rise above the mechanistic determinism that followed seeing reality as pure matter by noting “Madame Curie never heard the birds sing.” For Einstein, the pursuit of a simplified view of the world as simply matter which could be understood by science was a catastrophic illusion.

Both Einstein and Frost were dualists who believed that human knowledge of nature was indirect, conveyed through metaphors and symbols, rather than direct, conveyed through empirical experience brought into focus by logic. For Einstein,  metaphors in science reveal “the unknown in terms of the known.” Frost saw that Einstein did for matter the same thing poetry did for spirit. Frost used Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory to deepen his thought about metaphor.  He noted the metaphor involved in describing a thing as being an event. Frost quoted him, saying, “in the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved.” This delighted him. “ Isn’t that a good one!”

Einstein’s theory rejects the monism of matter alone that has become widespread among contemporary scientists. By arguing that moving bodies are perceived “relative to the standpoint of observers,” he made the observer essential to the perception of all reality.

Einstein held that there was no such thing as an objective physical universe as recorded through sensory experience; there was only a conceptual mental world perceived through the “free play” of the mind through conceptual ideas working upon the raw materials provided by the senses. (Robert Frost, The Poet as Philosopher, 166)

In other words, an age’s scientific theories provide the metaphors by which that age perceives itself in relation to the universe. This is analogous to some postmodern writers who eschew metaphor. If the universe lacks a transcendent realm and we do not live in Creation but merely in a material universe governed by chance, then typology is not a true way to grasp reality, for reality does not really have any meaning beyond those we construct for ourselves for our own purposes. When postmodernists see the use of symbols and metaphors as a way of being false to reality–imbuing it with meanings and qualities that it does not possess–they are asserting, in essence, that reality has no meaning. The loss of faith or interest in symbols and metaphors is one consequence of a loss of faith generally.

Walker Percy saw an intimate linkage between Christianity and the main metaphor of most novels–that of a human character acting in time. He suggested that it was Christianity, mainly, with its view of reality as a meaningful story within which each person could find a meaningful life that accounted for the reality of narrative and the idea of the novel. “There is a special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity as an ethos…. It is no accident, I think, that the novel is a creature of the Christian West and is virtually nonexistent in the Buddhist, Taoist and Brahmin East, to say nothing of Marxist countries.” Further, he says “Though most current novelists may not be believing Christians or Jews, they are still living in a Judeo-Christian ethos. If, in fact, they are living on the fat of that faith, so to speak, one can’t help but wonder what happens when the fat is consumed. Perhaps there are already signs. Witness the current loss of narrative of character and events in the post-modern novel.”

Does the novel itself survive in the disenchanted world without metanarratives that postmodernists are urging on society? Joseph Epstein has observed that “literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.” He points out that “greatness of literature cannot be determined, solely by literary standards.” We also bring our “ethical, theological, and moral standards” to bear on such judgments. “Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards.” Unfortunately, as Eliot said decades ago, “‘there is no common agreement.'” Certainly, one can see the declining importance of literature in schools, along with a declining ability to say what literature is good for–except reading for reading’s sake. This loss of a trandscendant reality so far as education is concerned may be epitomized by the spread of John Dewey’s ideas.

Dewey was a dedicated monist. He hated talk about transcendence–metaphysics and religion. Science and sensory experience and a social process, he believed, would supercede the authority of the past, including religion but also to a great extent books. As Dewey’s pragmatism metastasized through schools–spreading the supposition that the cave from which Plato and others tried to liberate us, the cave of nontranscendant sensory experience and information, was all that we knew and all that we would ever know.

In Deweyan schools, we do not pass on the great insights of the past so much as we collaborate to resolve “felt difficulties”, with the collaboration very near an end in itself. It’s “social” and “democratic.” It “empowers” people by giving them a “voice.” “Constructed knowledge” is all the knowledge there is. A collaborating group is the purpose of the ideology. There is no truth that we can access ourselves, and there is no order to perceive in the transcendent.

We had little need for the noble intellect. What we needed were endless iterations of experiment and innovation. Ideas of good and evil–evil mainly–interfered with constant experimentation aimed at social redemption which could be ours within the cave. There is only now and our groups and our impulses. We can innovate and choose, and democracy empowered by science would replace noble old ideals concocted by philosophers and prophets.

Though being “student centered” was a useful slogan to shift the emphasis away from teaching the knowledge acquired by traditional academic disciplines, there’s precious little interest in individual students in Dewey. They are but abstractions in the social processes that were his real interest. Dewey sought a social process rather than individual virtue, imagining schools as a means of reconstructing society. The old ideals interfered with people accepting the ideology of social redemption. “Intelligence” and “growth”–never defined or explained clearly–should replace reason and tradition. “The point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.” Selves moved by impulse toward an ever receding horizon, unbothered by teachers, who had been replaced by guides and facilitators.

So like the denizens of Plato’s Cave we are governed by debating societies wherein members give each other degrees and awards to make it all seem real. We are slaves to laws promulgated by little emperors to make a name for themselves. What has happened in our progressive liberation from transcendental ideals has been a proliferation of moralistic substitutes. For cave dwellers, the coin of the realm is data.

What advice might Dewey give to Odysseus? The question brings to mind a comic picture. They would have little use for each other. Heros didn’t count for much in Dewey’s universe. For him, democracy was an end in itself, and he had nothing to say about the personal quest that, I think, should lie at the center of the educational journey of every student.

Great literature was long understood as the most important secular resource for awakening young people to who they are, where they are, how things work, and what is necessary for them to be and do. The old questions–Odysseus’s questions and Socrates’–are their questions: What is worth believing? What is worth approving? What is worth choosing?

What we mean by truth, beauty, and justice comprise the traditional answers to those questions, as well as we have for far been able thus far to form them. Such questions lay at the center of education for centuries, until the rise of modernity not long ago. Such questions will survive modernity, which will fail, as did Epicureanism and Hedonism and Stoicism because like them it can construct no satisfying solutions to the problem of despair.

What will also survive is the story that dominates the human past–that of the heroic quest. It’s true in ways we can’t exactly say, but we sense at its core that this is the way reality is structured. To be human is to be on a heroic quest. This is why Odysseus cannot linger on any enchanted isle. He needs to turn his life into a story, which means he needs desire and action even at the cost of death.

Joseph Campbell found versions of this story in human cultures throughout time. It isn’t necessary to understand this pattern, this type, in quite the way Campbell explicated it, as entangled in the Freudian and Jungian concepts that were familiar to him. The pattern doesn’t depend on Freud–it has emerged and been attractive to people throughout human history because of its essential human truth. We needn’t think the caves in which we find ourselves from time to time, even the enchanted ones, are our true home. As long as we are longing our journey is unfulfilled. We may need heroic endurance and courage–often in the form of remembering what we are after and learning better what that means–and we may find ourselves quite hapless without occasional cosmic intervention on our behalf.

What Homer saw was that it was possible to step forward boldly to string one’s own bow, relying on some cosmic justice that might impel the gods to take our side. The pragmatic revolution was premised on giving up that culture–turning from history and philosophy, turning from literature and books–in homage to the quite groundless faith that experience and science would get us, if not to the promised land, then at least to a reasonable adjustment to our plight.

That’s not what Odysseus wants, and it’s not what the best of our students want. His driving desire was to be free to live a fully human life–which meant getting home from the disorders of war and wilderness to a clearing in the light. It was to return to his marriage.

He knew the value of home because he could only have it only by choosing it, and the choice involved the loss of everlasting life with a forever young goddess. To make that choice he needed to desire marriage and home more than pleasure or ease. To speak as those who created this civilization often spoke, he needed to elevate his thoughts from the base to the sublime. The greatness of Homer is glimpsed in those moments when human characters experience, with assistance from the gods, an opening of the soul, a perception that the order in the world has its source in a transcendent order, the order of being.

These decisive realizations in Homer–that we are surrounded by an order that favors some sorts of actions and disfavors others–led to generations of discussion and questioning that formed a culture that, in time, formed the philosophers. Justice was an emotional response echoing the cosmos before it was a philosophical ideal. Existence has an order that extends beyond the senses–that transcends the cave and reaches to the divine.

To desire the higher things, we need to hear something of that. To claim his place and to fulfill the vision of his youth, Odysseus needed to liberate home from those who offended justice. Suitors had moved in, trying to claim his place–trying to steal his world. They abused the claims of hospitality, devouring what was not rightfully theirs. Odysseus purged his home of those who had chosen their doggie little lives–trying to win by deception and threat and flattery the world that Odysseus and Penelope had made.

Odysseus was sustained by memory and vision. Each day he left the cave of Calypso’s delights and stood at shore and gazing beyond the sea toward home. What was he thinking, lost on a somewhat enchanted isle with his back turned on delights that might titillate but could never satisfy him to the depths of his being in ways that he knew were right? Surrounded by a wilderness of wonders and terrors, he knows that the way forward, the direction of hope, is a return, a homecoming. The hero’s journey ends with a return home.

Students have an innate sense of justice, which is an innate sense of universal justice, of cosmic order. “That’s not fair!” is a thought expressed in every language in every culture. What they need, in much the way they need food for their bodies, are the old stories of the births and kings and the coming into the world of justice. What they need are the stories of the virtues we need to move toward our true home–courage, diligence, endurance, patience.

What they need are the compelling visions of who they are, where they, what is worth believing, what is worth admiring, and what is worth choosing. They need an education in desire. Even John Dewey understood that much: “The highest outcome of a sound education is intelligent desire.” It is desire that drives choice, and there a real sense in which every student at every moment exists on the verge of the transcendent moment–the moment of decision when one is “all in”–like a hero. Or not–like a captive.

Moments, though, are not moments until we see them.

Teaching ignobility

stairs downIt’s harder for teachers now than it once was to get students to consider what Odysseus turns his back upon and what he opens his heart toward. The classics teacher has always faced the intellectual docility of youth, but the work of revealing and naming the ideals that formed this civilization was once backed by the authority of a culture.

However, we now live amid something of an anti-culture–which is what sociologist Philip Rieff called the society that developed through our release of desire from sacred interdictions or prohibitions. Those interdictions once guided human desire–educated it. However, champions of a therapeutic view have argued that human happiness lies in the liberation of desire from precisely such prohibitions.

One of the noisiest popularizers of the therapeutic was Abraham Maslow. With his “hierarchy of needs,” he promised to provide a “scientific” basis for the study of motivation–though his method was closer to cocktail party musings than to scientific research, consisting of hanging out with people in his social milieu and contemplating how much superior they were to the masses. Maslow argued that the old “regime” with its concern for “discipline” should be replaced with a new therapeutic regime: “If therapy means a pressure toward breaking controls and inhibitions, then our new key words must be spontaneity, release, naturalness, self-acceptance, impulse awareness, gratification, permissiveness.” He promised liberation from what many felt were stifling orthodoxies.

He suggested a new type of human, which he called “healthy.” People with “unmet needs” were “unhealthy.” He used “needs” to refer to everything from the body’s dependence on oxygen, to the soul’s desire for a mate, to the addict’s desire for a cigarette. In his thought, anything that anyone might desire became a need. Once a therapeutic regime was in place, he said, all religious or moral disciplines could be dismissed as “sick-man-created” gratuities.

For the superior persons–i.e. Maslow and his liberated friends–were truly superior, i.e., healthy, and doing what they wanted to do made all the sense that needed to be made. “Education, civilization, rationality, religion, law, government, have all been interpreted by most as being primarily instinct-restraining and suppressing forces. But if our contention is correct that instincts have more to fear from civilization than civilization from instincts, perhaps it ought to be the other way about–perhaps it should be at least one function of education, law, religion, etc., to safeguard, foster, and encourage the expression and gratification of the instinctoid needs.”

The tale Maslow told was the dream of self–indeed, it’s a theory of selfishness packaged with a smattering of jargon. For him, the “self-actualizing human” was at the apex of creation, which left love of others as a mid-level appetite. He seemed genuinely puzzled by what other writers said about love. For example, he mocked Erich Fromm for saying that love implies “responsibility, care, respect, and knowledge.” This annoyed Maslow. It “sounds more like a pact or a partnership of some kind rather than a spontaneous sportiveness,” he said. Healthy lovers, he urged us to believe, “can be extremely close together and yet go apart quite easily.” “Healthy” people are “lusty animals” who don’t make commitments.

If Maslow is right, it may be that Odysseus on the enchanted island might need therapy more than he needs to return to Penelope. But if Homer was right, then a good life is not simply one’s own. Humans have responsibilities, duties, obligations, and debts.

When the “New Left” made the “sexual revolution” a mainstream phenomenon in the sixties, they believed that releasing eros from capitalism was key to “the revolution.” Without sexual repression, guilt and the work ethic would melt away, and individual satisfaction of instincts and desires could become the proper goal of the collective. The sixties, to those who defended the cultural revolution, represented a “widespread shared feeling” that a new world was dawning. The pursuit of individual virtue gave way to a euphoric emotion of virtue, fed by mass meetings, marches and street protests. Individual development of character mattered less than social development of policies to support the liberated individual.

The psychological release of the individual from the sacred didn’t destroy capitalism, but it has succeeded at creating a deeply divided nation, with the social cleavage fundamentally organized around ideas of religion and sex–on one side, people who believe the old understanding of the sacred helped form character and encouraged commitments necessary to family and community, and on the other people who see them as superstitious sources of guilt and judgment.

David Lapp recently made a quite old-fashioned observation about shifts in America’s moral vision. He had been visiting a small Ohio town, which include attending an ice cream social. His comments and the responses on his blog illustrate the rift that characterizes America today:

An elderly married couple sat across from us at the ice cream social, and they described to us how, like many of their neighbors, they moved up from Kentucky when they were young, in search of better jobs (we’ll call them Bob and Kathy). Bob grew up on a small dairy farm—“we milked the cows by hand”—and his family didn’t even have electricity until he was a teenager.

The elderly married couple sitting to our right were self-described “hillbillies” from the coal mines of West Virginia (we’ll call them Ernie and Wanda). Wanda’s family in West Virginia was dirt poor: they didn’t even have a car, and her father, a coal miner, would arrive home caked in coal and take a bath in the kitchen tub (“I don’t know how he ever got clean!”).

Their humble origins notwithstanding, both couples insisted that life today is worse than it was when they were growing up. “I feel sorry for you kids, ‘cuz you don’t get to live in those good ‘ole days,” Wanda remarked.

“What were the ‘good ‘ole days like?’” I asked.

“Families were close,” Wanda remarked without a moment’s hesitation.

Kathy elaborated that “People had more time for each other,” and described how people would leave their doors unlocked and neighbors would come over to visit unannounced. Families had regular meals with each other, she said, and they sat on their front porches and visited with other families.

Lapp mused on the fact that although times had been harder economically, lives had been better. There was more happiness, and this happiness was related to morality. “How do we square that [economic] explanation with Wanda and Kathy’s insistence that family life was better for dirt-poor Kentuckians and West Virginians than it is for today’s relatively better-off working class men and women?” he asked.

This reminded him of an earlier conversation, when he asked an old woman to describe marriage and family life in her childhood compared to now. The woman said life used to be better. “They don’t marry today,” the sixty year old woman answered. “They just live together…. You didn’t live with someone back then—it was disgraceful. They had morals.”

They had morals. If that sounds like old-fashioned morality from a hillbilly in Middle America, well, I say, chalk one up to hillbilly wisdom. It seems to me like a fairly succinct explanation of why, a couple generations ago, families could thrive in poverty-stricken communities of Appalachia and why they’re falling apart in a time of relative abundance. I don’t mean at all to minimize the seriousness of the Great Recession, and how it is no doubt putting a strain on working class marriages. However, at least today even many unemployed working class men have big-screen TVs with a Dish Network attached to their house—the point being, most of us aren’t living in the kind of poverty that Wanda and Kathy’s parents experienced in Appalachia. However, what many working class folks don’t have today are norms against easy divorce and having children outside of marriage. So I think my elderly friends are on to something: marriage and family life is not necessarily always at the mercy of “economic forces”—norms make a difference.

Such an observation of course provoked the usual anger from people who hate the old morality. These are some of the comments the post triggered:

“My experience growing up as a Southern Baptist in Louisiana is that these people have very narrow ideas of morality. . .There is a lot of social pathology that informs ‘hillbilly wisdom.'”

“I rather doubt these norms produced much happiness, at least not for many people. The stultifying effects of small town ‘morality’ is an abiding theme of American literature, as is the need to escape small towns and provincial attitudes in order to discover happiness. You don’t have to be Richard Florida to know that the brightest young people feel stifled and trapped in cultural backwaters.”

“My objection to this kind of nostalgic vision of the past, especially when it is coupled with such a subjective and nebulous concept as ‘morals,’ is that it tends to reify some of the worst aspects of American life and history. In general whenever people start talking about their superior morals, I begin watching my wallet because I suspect that they are either hypocrites or hucksters or both.”

“I don’t think the ‘hillbilly wisdom’ version of morality was actually very moral. I’m pretty sure it involved ostracizing everyone who didn’t conform to unsophisticated people’s notions of sexual morality. . . I suspect this ‘hillbilly wisdom’ contributed to a lot more unhappiness than happiness.”

“One problem is that the ‘norms’ you are celebrating, even the ones I agree with, are so tied up with ignorance, hypocrisy, and hatred, that it is hard to take them seriously. They have been besmirched by being captured by right-wing ideologues who are more interested in manipulating people than improving the lives of even those they manipulate.”

Most adults are well aware of the cleavage that now runs through American life, that is quickly visible if the topic of morality comes up. We do not inhabit a shared sacred order, and no one has authority to sustain any rival order. We maintain an illusion of serene harmony by avoiding, in mixed company as it were, the discussion of moral questions. That might work for many social situations, but how does it work as the educational philosophy of a people? The apostles of sexual liberation, such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, were clear that such a liberation would have profound consequences.

Marcuse contended that relaxing sexual morality would lead to a relaxing of social morality generally. Without psychological moral inhibitions, the individual would enjoy a “loss of conscience,” becoming less able to make moral judgments about political and social functioning. “Marcuse refers to this ‘loss of conscience’ as a ‘happy consciousness,’ meaning that since the individual is ostensibly incapable or differentiating between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, good and evil, his ignorance is a passive contentment” (Bernstein, Frankfurt School: critical assessments, Volume 5). The pacified consciousness is content with its material and social situation.

For a teacher still concerned with justice and injustice, this pacified consciousness appears as little more than moral stupefaction. According to the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, moral stupefaction is an accurate description of many of today’s young people. Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. What they found was that when “asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life, many young people grope “to say anything sensible on these matters.” They lack the mental categories, the vocabulary, and the inclination to engage in moral thought.

Here’s a typical exchange between the interviewer and a young respondent:

I: Do you think people have any moral responsibility or duty to help others or not?

R: Um, if others are your family and you see someone in danger, yeah. But I don’t ever stop when I see somebody on the side of the road, so I guess somewhat sometimes. Maybe if someone is burning in the car, you should try and pull them out, but, no, not really.

I: Are there some other examples of ways we’re obligated to help other people?

R: I mean, I really don’t donate money, and even if I had money I don’t know if I would, so.

I: What about helping people in general? Are we as a society obligated to do something?

R: I really don’t think there’re any good reasons, nope, nothing.

I: What if someone just wasn’t interested in helping others? Would that be a problem or not?

R: No, I don’t see why that would be a problem.

I: And why is that?

R: Because I mean is that really our duty, to help others? Is that what we’re here for? I mean, they can help [themselves], if they’re just getting by, doing what they do by themselves, then do they really need anyone else? So if they don’t need help from anyone else, if somebody’s asking for some other people all the time then they’re not giving in return.

I: So if someone asks for help, we don’t have an obligation to them?

R: Yeah, it’s up to each individual, of course.

According to Smith, to understand these young people it’s necessary to understand that they “do not appeal to a moral philosophy, tradition, or ethic as an external guide by which to think and live in moral terms.” They see the world as consisting of individuals, each of whom comprises his or her own moral universe. This makes it impossible for them “to rationally evaluate or criticize any moral wrong, including the horrific destruction and violence that helped drive them to this tolerant position in the first place.” Even when the topic is murder done by terrorists, they cannot form a moral judgment: “I don’t know that people, like terrorists, what they do? It’s not wrong to them. They’re doing the ultimate good. They’re just like, they’re doing the thing that they think is the best thing they could possibly do and so they’re doing good. I had this discussion with a friend recently and she’s like, ‘But they’re still murdering tons of people, that just has to be wrong.’ And I was like, ‘But do we have any idea if it is actually wrong to murder tons of ‘people?’ Like what does that even mean?” Fully of third of the young people interviewed said that “they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong.”

Even more sobering, many of them could not make sense of the questions–could not understand what a moral question was. They did, however, have a social sense, and they vaguely felt that what others thought of them was the basis of what was right or wrong. “About four out of ten (40 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed referred to how other people would think of them as (at least partly) defining what for them would be morally right and wrong. To the extent that emerging adults feel morally lost in their own minds, looking to the reaction of others (who they presumably trust) may provide what they consider to be mostly reliable guides to determine right from wrong.” Thinking about right and wrong, for them means “how you want yourself to be known, to be looked at.”

Smith says “we are letting them down, sending many, and probably most, of them out into the world without the basic intellectual tools and basic personal formation needed to think and express even the most elementary of reasonably defensible moral thoughts and claims. And that itself, we think, is morally wrong.” Though the blame for the moral stupefaction of young Americans is widespread, the researchers believe schools in particular should think about what they are doing:

Schools are one of the most powerful socializing institutions of youth in American society today, along with families and the mass media. . . . One big theme that stuck out. . .was the fact that the schools, especially public schools, that our younger respondents attended studiously avoided talking about potentially controversial moral issues. Over and over again, these teenagers we interviewed reported that their teachers always sidestepped and evaded questions and problems that might generate disagreement or conflict in the classroom. “No, my teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,” they would typically say. “Anytime anything that might make trouble or hurt someone’s feelings come up, they say we aren’t going there,” others confirmed. “Nope, we can’t talk about religion or them hot-button moral issues in school, ’cause they don’t want to open up that can of worms” was a typical report. In short, it appears that most schools, especially public schools, are not teaching students how to constructively engage moral issues about which people disagree. Quite the contrary, schools are teaching students that the best way to deal with difficult moral problems and questions is to ignore them. The moral pedagogy of most middle and high schools clearly seems to be: avoid, ignore, and pretend the issues will go away. Needless to say, that is naive and impossible. It actually resembles highly dysfunctional families that have sets of issues that nobody is allowed to bring up or discuss and that are instead carefully tiptoed around.

The sociologists suggest that young Americans “are a people deprived, a generation that has been failed, when it comes to moral formation.” They point out that the young people are pleasant and that their desire to please and to go along probably masks the extent to which they do not think of themselves as moral beings. ” They have had withheld from them something that every person deserves to have a chance to learn: how to think, speak, and act well on matters of good and bad, right and wrong.”

Such is the social context in which many of us teach today. The intentional corruption of eros was at the heart of modern ideology’s assault on capitalism. The stated goal was to undermine capitalist society by dissolving the psychological orientation our which traditional society had flowed. Sexual liberation was always a liberation from tradition, including from family–-from husbands, from children. It was a liberation from shame and guilt, from the expectations of others. Its success was enough that we are now in position to see that in myriad ways, some unintended, it was also a liberation from right and wrong in general, leaving the self to operate alone in a cosmos of desire.

In Symposium, Diotima told Socrates that eros is “desire of all good things and of being happy.” It is a divine force that permeates all of being. It is vast–much more than genital sexuality–and it initiates every action we take. Socrates understood that it is eros, James Rhodes tells us, that lies “at the heart of who we become–how we use food and drink; how we love spouses, children, friends, and sexually attractive beauties; how well we perform our jobs; and how much we involve ourselves in the great scramble to gratify the acquisitive instinct.”

The sexual revolution was never mainly about sex. It was about burning an ancient bridge from individual desire to realities beyond the self.

Truth and its envious imitators

Judgement of Solomon

Evil often presents itself as a parody of goodness. Though it's tempting to wash our hands of the confusion this causes, we must judge. The truth is the only defense good people have against bad people.

A young woman–a former student–told me recently she does not like to pay attention to politics because she feels helpless to affect what is going to happen. Who doesn’t know that feeling?

Educators once understood that their work was of a piece with the ongoing work of establishing justice in the world, and that the means to do this was to pursue the truth. It’s worth asking why we now live in an age of such moral confusion and who this benefits.

One of the realities of American public education today is that if one attempts to talk among teachers about truth as though it matters one will be quickly assailed by versions of Pilate’s question, “what is truth?”  Whose truth? It’s become something of an intellectual habit to balk at the very mention of truth, and to feel that warmth of being among the right sort of people–the righteous–to talk of nonjudgmentalism and tolerance.

It remains an inconvenient truth, nonetheless, that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice. Justice is inseparable from truth. We can’t see that the right things are done if we don’t know the truth about what happened. The primary defense good people have against bad people is the truth. One could hope that a profession that has made The Crucible part of its canon would understand and teach such things. Alas, that story seems more often used as a parable about distrust of the wrong sort of people–Puritans and anticommunists. Ironic.

I think an important question for teachers today is why intellectuals from the mid-twentieth century on have labored so hard to mystify and problematize truth. It’s a real question and I think there are true answers that are worth understanding. The answers are not immediately obvious though to those who have been subjected to years of ideological indoctrination.

The trouble is that the confusion–intentionally sewn and cultivated, I think–is quite genuine. Consider Alexander Solzhenitisyn’s passionate naming of ideology in Gulag Archipelago as the source of so much modern evil:

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

We all recognize, at this stage in history, that true believers with their self-righteous finger pointing have done tremendous harm–that Eric Hoffer is correct when he asserts that most of the world’s evil is done by those who feel they are righteously engaged in crusades to destroy evil. The trickiness of recent decades can be glimpsed in the way that this truth has been distorted into ideological slogans that encourage a hatred of those who speak of truth as though it could be known. The cure for true believers, it is widely believed, is to disbelief assertions of truth, to say that there is no truth beyond “your truth” and “my truth” and to feel revulsion–hatred even–toward those who insist on talking about goodness and evil as if they exist out there in ways that demand that we take sides.

Still, it remains an inconvenient truth that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice. Most of our confusion is created by evil’s penchant for parodying goodness. Evil needs to work this way because it is absolutely uncreative. It only destroys.

Evil has no telos–purpose or goal–of its own. It is, at bottom, nothing–except opposition to goodness. Goodness is the only true game in the Cosmos–it is, in fact, our name for that true game. We can see evil’s agenda in the way that those who do evil are virtually required to pretend, even to themselves, that they are doing good. Rotten dictators do not usually say they are seeking power because they enjoy power, and that power is felt most keenly when we are harming or destroying another. When we harm a fellow we provoke the most pure and primal opposition and in overcoming that fully focused will of another we achieve the purest sense of our self’s will.  But the evil rarely admit this. What they say, generally, is that they are seeking some version of equality, fraternity, and liberty–because that is the true game.

In practice, it can be hard to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying. It’s so hard, sometimes, to tell what’s true that we are tempted to feel impotent and helpless, to wash our hands of the question. We note that partisans come to resemble each other, with each side making the same accusations of the other: they are lying, they have a hidden agenda of self-aggrandizement, etc. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum till the end of time.

And yet, it remains an inconvenient truth that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice.

One ancient text that focuses on the problem is the story of the judgment of Solomon, from  1 Kings 3:16-28. In this story, two young women who both had an infant son came to Solomon for a judgment. One woman claimed that the other had rolled over on her own son while sleeping, smothering him, and had then switched the two babies to make it appear that the living child was hers. The other woman denied this and so both women claimed to be the mother of the living son and said that the dead boy belonged to the other. Each accused the other of lying. At a glance, they appear indistinguishable.

But who would therefore conclude that there is no difference between them? Who would be content to say that there is no truth or that we cannot learn what it is? Who would that benefit?

King Solomon called for a sword. He declared that the live son must be split in two, each woman receiving half of the child. The true mother cried, “Please, My Lord, give her the live child—do not kill him!” However, the liar, a bitter and jealous being, agreed with the judgment, “It shall be neither mine nor yours—divide it!”

Solomon thus brought to light the critical difference between the two women who superficially appeared the same. He gave the live baby to the real mother, who was motivated by love, and he revealed the false desire of the liar. She did not love the baby. She perhaps envied the baby’s mother, and so her desire was a form of imitation rather than something authentic. Her borrowed desire for the baby, which she may at some level have believed, stemmed from envy of someone possessed of a fulfilling desire. No doubt part of her wished she could feel the way she imagined the real mother must feel. So the empty woman acted in ways that inevitably transformed the one she envied into a rival. Her dishonest desire led her inexorably toward hate.

We can see this disturbing pattern at every level in our society, from high school drama between jealous girls or boys fighting over the same girl, to intense political contests,  to international war. It’s a grave mistake to underestimate the power of envy or to remain oblivious to the ways it destroys worlds. Part of the learning we have in store for ourselves in the present age is the wisdom that lies behind the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.

This story of Solomon’s Judgment should resonate strongly in an age when, for many, the dominant political passions are envy, jealousy, and impotent hatred. For those wanting a better understanding of where the truth lies, attention to desire remains the key. What do they seek? What will satisfy them? Could anything satisfy them?

For an excellent study of what great literature (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Flaubert, Proust)  can teach us about good desire and its false parodies, read Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire & the Novel.