Hilaire Belloc’s occasional dourness conceals an underlying cheerfulness – for he believed in the chastening grace of God. This is from his reflection “On New Years and New Moons”:
I say that the New Year is a whimsy; an imaginary; a nothing. It is not there at all. You may receive it with all manner of ceremonies; you may treat it with solemn ritual; but all that is part of the myth-making of man. It is indeed part of reality that The Seasons do actually pass and return in a circle, a ring whence, if you like, the word “annual.” The days will actually grow longer after Christmas (thank heaven), and then they will get shorter again after Goodwood. There is a rhythm about all this which I do not pretend to understand but which is part of reality; and we human beings, bound in by reality and confined to it until we get away to better things (for I mean by “reality” all the business of this world), must set boundaries so as to know how far we have got along the round of the works and the days.
For the moment we have fixed on a certain day, the first of January, which in its turn is not there. There is no January. It is one more of those imaginations, without which in our weakness we cannot live. I would rather believe in a Janus with two faces (for I have met such people) than in a mere abstraction like January.
A New Year has this useful thing about it, whether it be Mohammedan, Hebrew, Julian, Gregorian, Chinese, or Choctaw: it makes man remember and regret his follies and his sins. If we did not become familiar and conversant with these ultimate companions we should make very poor wayfaring with them at the end. And as, before the end, we lose all other friends and fellowships, let us at least be conversant with these and learn to know them each by name and to grasp them familiarly by the hand, turning to the right and saying, “Good-morning, my dear Folly Number 8! Let us talk over the matters that concern us.” …
And having been first chastened by many means …. at last [man] needed a stronger remedy, for his diseases were growing worse; mutual slaughters, adulteries, perjuries, unnatural crimes, and that first and last of all evils, idolatry and the transfer of worship from the Creator to the Creatures. As these required a greater aid, so also they obtained a greater. And that was that the Word of God Himself — Who is before all worlds, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the bodiless, beginning of beginning, the light of light, the source of life and immortality, the image of the archetypal beauty, the immovable seal, the unchangeable image, the Father's definition and Word, came to His own image, and took on Him flesh for the sake of our flesh, and mingled Himself with an intelligent soul for my soul's sake, purifying like by like; and in all points except sin was made man ….
O new commingling; O strange conjunction; the Self-Existent comes into being, the Uncreate is created, That which cannot be contained is contained, by the intervention of an intellectual soul, mediating between the Deity and the corporeity of the flesh. And He who gives riches becomes poor, for He assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of His Godhead ….
What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it; He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal.
-- Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38, On the Theophany, or Birthday of Christ
It seems to me that the only way we can safeguard the view of marriage as a procreative bond between one man and one woman is to take the government completely out of the business of marriage. In this way the government can't use the coercive arm of the state to enforce its fallacious views on those who don't accept it. The Church already has a robust system for recording marriages in its own community, with its own canon laws regulating it. Perhaps, by observing the Church, the general public may gradually learn from it -- since no other robust system will exist. That's why I think that under current circumstances, the government should not be involved in marriage at all. Do you consider this position sound?
I sympathize with your dismay. If the issues were purely spiritual, I would agree with you, because the state is not our spiritual guide. But Samuel Johnson exaggerated only slightly when he wrote, “Almost all the miseries of life, almost all the wickedness that infects society, and almost all the distresses that afflict mankind, are the consequences of some defect in private duties. Likewise, all the joys of this world may be attributable to the happiness of hearth and home.” The integrity of marriage is so important to ordinary human well-being – and yet so vulnerable because of ordinary human failings – that it needs to be shored up in every possible way: Not only by the discipline of the Church, but also by custom and law.
Even when the state is confused about the common good’s requirements (as it is), civil regulations concerning marriage remain necessary for the common good’s protection. After all, marriage and family law do much more than register who is married and who is not. In ways that canon law cannot do, they enforce the duties of spouses toward each other as well as toward their children. Moreover, in cases of desertion or marital dissolution, they provide for continuing support not only for the children of the union, but also for the most vulnerable party to the marriage, who is almost always the woman.
Yes, I understand that the contemporary state labels things that are not marriages as marriages. Yet so far, this fact has not prevented the law from serving these functions with respect to true marriages. For all these reasons, I would expect enormous confusion to result from the complete withdrawal of the state from all matters marital, and the harm would fall primarily on those in most need of protection.
Conceivably, matters could become worse. Already the state is behaving oppressively toward those who do not share its views of marriage. One can imagine a future in which marriage and family law have become so depraved that they systematically undermine the duties of mothers and fathers toward each other and their children. But we are not there yet.
Some political theorists think we own ourselves. The idea is especially prominent among libertarians, who often claim to find it in John Locke, the English social contract thinker who so powerfully influenced the American founders. Just for these reasons, some readers might be interested in the following after-the-bell conversation.
I’m sorry to say that it was interrupted, because my student had to go to his next class and I had to go to mine. But it stopped at an interesting point. I’ve cleaned up the ums and ahs and made the transitions cleaner.
“Prof, I thought you said during class today that you disagreed with people who say that John Locke based rights on self-ownership. Would you please go over that again?”
“Sure,” I said. “Early in his book, Locke says we have rights because we don’t own ourselves. He says that ultimately, each of us belongs to God. You have rights against me because I’m not to treat you as though I own you. I have rights against you because you’re not to treat me as though you own me.”
“But doesn’t he say later that we do own ourselves? I mean in his big chapter about acquiring property. I’m reading that in another course.”
“I don’t think so. As I read him, what he actually says in the chapter about property is that we own the fruits of our own labor because God authorizes us to appropriate things from the common stock of nature.”
“But saying that we own our own labor seems like saying that we own ourselves. What if he really does think we own ourselves?”
“Well,” I answered, “in that case he would hold two conflicting theories of rights at the same time, wouldn’t he? And they can’t both be right. One, in the earlier part of the book, says I have rights because I belong to God -- He’s sovereign. The other, in the chapter on property, says I have rights because I belong to myself – I’m sovereign.”
“So which theory do you think he really believes in?”
“I can’t read his long-deceased mind, but I would like to think he believes in the first one.”
“Why would you like to think that?”
“Just because it’s a better one.”
My student seemed surprised.
“Really? Why would you say it’s a better one?”
“Because if each of us is sovereign, then each of us can do whatever he can get away with. That wouldn’t be an explanation of how we have rights, but of how we don’t have rights. No matter what the other fellow is doing to you, you haven’t any moral claim that he not do it. All you can do is try to stop him -- and he’ll try to stop you from stopping him.”
“I see that. Hmm. It does look like maybe the first theory would make more sense.”
He considered a moment further.
“But so what if it’s a better theory?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that people today aren’t going to be comfortable with having God in the picture.”
“Maybe some people won’t be,” I said. “But what if He’s already in the picture?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“I mean that what to do if people are uncomfortable with God is an important question – but it’s a different one than the one we’ve been asking. Who we really belong to doesn’t depend on whether God makes us uncomfortable. Does it?”
Like every conversation, this one is presumably
To Be Continued
I enjoy a magic show as much as anyone, but in real life, I dislike illusions. I want to know things as they are.
Yet at the same time I think we are insufficiently critical of the call to destroy illusions. The movement for demystification itself needs to be demystified, for those who see illusions everywhere seem to suffer from a lot of illusions themselves, and are missing a great deal of reality.
For example, take the view that the difference between men and women is a mystification, a self-bewitchment, something all made up. What is the evidence for this view? There is none. It is a mystification – it just happens to be one of the mystifications that demystifiers like. So now we are expected to pretend that we are all the same, even though we all see that we aren’t, and in order to keep the whole creaky structure of nonsense from falling down, we must entangle ourselves in increasingly absurd rationalizations. Since the difference between men and women is arbitrary, we say, a man should be allowed to “change into” a woman if that is what he thinks he is “inside.” But if there isn’t any difference inside, then how can he be one or the other?
Or take the view that belief in God is a mystification. As the story goes, God is just man writ large. We just project our fathers, or policemen, or someone, onto the big movie screen of the cosmos. How many of the demystifiers realize that historically, monotheism has been the ultimate demystification, the ultimate insistence on something real beyond all illusion? If you demystify theism itself, you are left in a peculiar position, because without a First Cause, it is hard to see how anything at all makes sense. And if nothing makes sense, then you are really trapped in illusion.
We often feel bad about doing wrong. That’s good; we should. However, the association of feelings with conscience tempts us to a big mistake: We fool ourselves into thinking that conscience nothing but a feeling, rather than an announcement -- “I feel bad” rather than “This is not to be done.”
Consequently, if we don’t feel very bad about something wrong, we may tell ourselves that it’s not very wrong. Placing all sorts of feelings in the same scale, we then tell ourselves that what is wrong may be done if we have other good feelings about doing it which are strong enough to outweigh the bad one.
This view amounts to thinking that what is wrong isn’t really wrong at all, but merely has the disadvantage of giving us distress, which we may have to be suffered for the sake of something else.
I come across this view even in the writings of thinkers who ought to know better. One political philosopher – it so happens that he was a long-ago former teacher of mine, who changed careers and became a political advisor – preaches the virtue of what some writers call “ruthlessness” but he prefers to call “toughness.” In his view, sometimes it is right to do wrong so that good will come. He calls doing evil merely a “moral cost,” the avoidance of which must be weighed against other objectives. For sufficient benefit, anything may be done. If we feel bad, we need to get over it. And that, he thinks, is virtuous.
If we live this way, we have lost ourselves.
When I was small, my public elementary school teachers taught us that the first Thanksgiving Day was celebrated by the Pilgrims to thank God for their survival through the first winter, and also to express appreciation to the local Indians, who had generously helped them, and who were invited to share in the feast. Some things are left out of this account, but so far as it goes, the story is true.
After I had been teaching a number of years, some of my students began telling me that their elementary school teachers taught them that the first Thanksgiving Day was just to give thanks to the Indians. Apparently God didn’t come into it.
Now some of my students tell me that they weren’t taught that either. Their elementary school teachers said Thanksgiving Day is just for “feeling thankful.” Neither God, Indians, nor Pilgrims are in the picture.
Now gratitude, like being in love, is directional; it’s toward someone. You can feel fortunate without having anyone in mind, but to be thankful is to be thankful toward the person to whom thanks are owed. There is no such thing as a generalized feeling of thankfulness to no one in particular, and one can’t owe thanks to “the universe” because the universe is not a person capable of generosity. So to whom were these students supposed to feel thankful?
If what we call our thankfulness isn’t to anyone in particular, then I can think of only two possibilities.
Possibility one: What we are experiencing isn’t truly thankfulness, but only something like delight over good fortune. In this case, I wonder why we even call it thankfulness. Perhaps we should be celebrating a Gee We’ve Been Lucky Day, or, if times have been hard, maybe an It Could Have Been Worse Day. If a shorter name is needed, we could call it Okayness Day. I guess it would be something like Happy Hour.
Possibility two: My attitude really is thankfulness, but I am in denial about its implications. After all, sometimes we fall into denial concerning other directional attitudes, so why not concerning this one? People who are in love sometimes try to convince themselves that they aren’t actually in love; the parallel isn’t perfect, but could it be something like that to be thankful but try to convince ourselves that there is no one to thank?
Well, this ingrate and his family are giving thanks to God this Thanksgiving for all of the wonderful things we don’t deserve, including each other. Anyone care to join us?