Saturday, September 16, 2006

We glory rightways and fall leftways

I've been mulling over an idea for the last few days, and it's been giving me quite a bit of trouble, not that the idea itself lacks clarity; but I don't know how to begin writing it down.

In C.S. Lewis's essay, "Equality," published in the book "Present Concerns," he likens the modern desire for equality with Adam and Eve's desire for clothes. That is, equality is not desirable because we have recently discovered the goodness of people; on the contrary, equality is necessary precisely because we no longer trust one person with the power of monarchy. That is, equality is necessary because we have regressed too far below the human dignity required for a just monarchy. We can observe that inequality, where it is not tainted with the stain of injustice and oppression, is by far the preferred condition of human beings (whether they are the 'higher' or 'lower'); yet we settle for banal "equality" because we have lost the innocence and trust necessary for reverential and glorious hierarchy.

So also, the wearing of clothes is not, per Lewis, our natural, primordial condition; nevertheless, it is necessary, because we are no longer innocent.

I have found this essay fascinating, and I wonder what other applications the idea might have. Lewis himself includes the equality of the sexes under this umbrella of things which are necessary in public life, but not at all natural, nor desirable in perpetuity. It seems as though left-ward, or 'enlightenment' thinking; or more generally, populist, pastoral, utilitarian, or concern for the immediate good of individuals, seems somehow correlated with a loss of "innocence," or something like it. Like how the coffee table had one of its finely carved wooden legs broken, and now it must be held up with an ugly stack of old phone books just to keep it level.

There is something about "left-ward thinking" (something far older than 'nominalism'; even ancient) which is deeply compensational. There is an implicit acknowlegment that, on some level, the beautiful instruments of civilization must always fail, and so exceptions and provisos must be constructed for the benefit of individuals, lest they slip through the cracks and be forgotten. There is something "leftward" but not "leftist"; "liberal" but not "liberalist," hearkening back to the old meaning of "liberality," the virtue of generosity in small things. This generosity is necessary because of the brokenness of nature and civilization; indeed, because of our very finitude. Innocent III, history's most powerful Pope, was known for granting exceptions to Canon Law for the benefit of unfortunate women. Granted, he was no Richard McBrien, but he had a profound sense of the brokenness of humanity, clergy included (c.f. On the Mysery of the Human Condition). Dr. Anderson, professor of Church history at Mundelein Seminary, makes a point of correlating a certain pessimism with humanistic concern. It is pessimism--and hence, lower expectations--which makes forgiveness and kindness easier.

Thus, if I were pressed to name a central characteristic of left-ward thinking, I would say that it is a passion for compensation; for shoring up the weak supports of human civilization, not with fallible and weak individuals, but with more trustworthy technologistic, beaurocratic, or ideological beams. Here I am not describing anything inherently negative; I only point out that, in its search for justice, left-ward thought has discovered that human evil, fallibility, or finitude can only be removed from the picture when the human himself is. Protocols are more reliable than people; majority votes moreso than kings; clothes moreso than naked flesh.

With all of this laid out, then, can we discover anything about rightward thinking? If leftward thinking involves a certain keen (and at times over-vigorous) awareness of the fallibility of humanity and nature, rightward thinking involves at least temporary reprieves from this awareness. That is, even if the world is broken and in need of repair, yet still it offers glimmers of glory. The Catholic hierarchy, the divine right of kings, the sacramental system, the American civil religion--wherever subjective consciousnes perceive the Holy (the Wholly Other) breaking out into history, it sees in those points a certain divinely-bequeathed return to innocence; a little slice of the Garden.

Wherever one perceives the Infinite breaking into finite being in a real way, there will tend to emerge new and uncommon orders of hierarchy, of art, of romance, of charisma, and thought--and this merely from a sociological, descriptive standpoint. If the left is concerned with compensation for what is lacking in the profane; the right is concerned with responding, in the most enthusastic way possible, to the sacred. It is difficult to be mindful of both facts at the same time; indeed, if a leftist and a rightist differently interpret the self-same event, the left will be offended by the right's callousness in the face of a perceived injustice; and the right will be offended by the left's irreverence before a perceived infinite mystery.

And there, I believe, is the pivotal point. There is in each of us a certain configuration of understanding the relationship between the infinite and the finite. If we believe, with Thales, that "The world is full of gods," then we will be naturally inclined to bother about the business of the gods, and we will emphasize all of what is most excellent in the human race as a testimony of their glory (in art, worship, sport, governance, theatre, etc). The temptation will be to overlook the real holes punctured into civilization by sin and corruption; to resign the fate of the oppressed to the whim of mysterious forces; or worse, to condemn them as insufficiently appreciative. On the other hand, if we believe, with Marx, that "Religion is the opiate of the people," we will be naturally inclined to bother about the business of the people, and we will seek any means--technology, revolution, beaurocracy, philosophy--to better their condition. The temptation will be to blind ourselves to the spaces where the Infinite really does puncture finite being, including in the dignity of the individual, and thus commit horrible atrocities in the name of a nameless utopia, and dwell unregenerate in the futility of worldly eschatology.

3 comments:

Matt of C G said...

Oh my God, in the last two paragraphs you just described half a dozen actual people I encounter daily at work. I uphold the same sentiment in my own being as you do Jeff that this unecessarily extreme divergence of conscious thought between the corporeal and the ethereal serves as a distraction from Salvation (an adopted litmus test: "...all is either an encouragement towards Salvation or a distraction from it...") and should be remedied. How? I don't know maybe some humility for the corporeal ones and a certian amount of skepticism for the ethereal thinkers. Imbued by way of two divinely begotten tube socks marked "H" and "S" with which I would hit them across the head in same manner as "Homie D. Clown" from the days of In Living Color.

Jeff said...

All I have to say is: my God, you understood my post. :)

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