Saturday, May 28, 2016

Christian Liars and Mother Teresa's Darkness



Can you be a Christian, a follower of Christ, and be a liar?

When first a more serious, idealistic Christian, I didn't think this was even a possibility. Surely those who followed the Humble God who died an ignominious death at the hands of slanderers would, if liars, just follow someone else, or themselves. The gold for selling yourself and damaging those who threaten you is a bigger pile on the world market. What is the point of being a liar, and I mean a person who builds himself or herself based on lies, and yet serving Christ who demands everything, a suffering God who asks His followers to suffer?

Since that first, idealistic time, when I began to leave my own lies behind, I have had experience of Christian liars. These are people who are an image containing many good things: piety, manners, a well-phrased turn of speech, admiration from peers and those they claim to serve, a focus on virtue, ad nauseam. Often, these are very educated people in positions of influence, precisely because the image they present is so compelling and admirable to other Christians who, like me, cannot fathom a liar following a persecuted-for-His-honesty God.

Can you be a Christian, a follower of Christ, and be a liar?

The answer should be obvious, but it isn't when one moves into the realm of individual human beings and their complexity. Complexity for a human being, in our deepest places, is not a good thing. The neo-Platonic philosopher and mystic Plotinus understood this, with his theory of the One and the truth contained in his insight, based on Greek philosophy, that the highest Being is absolutely simple, containing everything in a profound unity.

Plotinian "simplicity" is not imbecility, or naivety, as we often use it. It is more akin to the Christian virtue of purity, or single-mindedness, a single-mindedness that is focused on the truth, on reality. It is the desire, at the center of one's being, to simply be in the presence of, unified with, God, who is Reality, and Truth, and Love, even at great cost to one's success or reputation. It is leaving the myriad, complex desires of ourselves or others behind, like one leaves the intricate patterns made by shadows on the ground, in order to stand in pure light. Simplicity is to become pure light.

Complexity is existence away from that simplicity, a chiaroscuro world of desires and mistaken ideas, subject to the very difficulty presented by human communication in a fallen world. We find Our Lord, walking on the lonely roads through Palestine, struggling with the complexity of human language: using parables because he knew that the truth could not be received like direct, pure light by these creatures impoverished by their own complexities. He can be experienced in the Gospels changing tactics, slowly beginning to feed the disciples more pure food, and his disappointment at their impurity of thought, their inability to hear the simple truth, even at the very end of his ministry. We, with hindsight, often find ourselves chuckling at their blindness, their "when are the Jews going to have hegemony again?" even after three intimate years with Him; yet, how often can we hear the truth when it is uncomfortable, or shatters our expectations and images that we've built carefully over years, or which have been built into us by our broken parents and friends and spouses, our broken culture? How can we communicate and receive truth, not lies? How do we know if we are liars?

In the Gorgias, one of the greatest treatises on human communication ever written, Socrates confronts a series of well-heeled, well-educated liars, young men who are the cream of the crop, the leaders. For the Greeks, the highest art or mode of living was to be a leader of the polis. At its most pure level, at the ideal, it was to find reason, to live well, to live virtuously, to live according to reality, to create a human community which lived in the light of the Good. Dialectic, the use of communication in discussion or argument, was the means to finding the right way.  Rhetoric, or persuasive language, was the means to persuade the city at large to follow the right way found through dialectic. Rhetoric, in a sense, is a means for providing an image in the mind of the person receiving it from the rhetor; fundamentally, it is allowing the rhetor and his view of the right way to create an image common to both speaker and hearer in both their souls. We see Socrates practicing this kind of rhetoric, in another dialogue, the Republic, when he creates the image of the soul by creating for his disciples an image of the ideal republic, so that, 'by seeing a larger image, they can understand the deeper, harder-to-see one, that of the soul.' Spoken in Christian terms, rhetoric is imitating the power of the Logos, Who spoke reality into being from all that He received from the Father. It is a kind of sub-creation, and a powerful rhetor will create an image that people will see as the true narrative, or eikón, of reality and so become unified with others in the Right Way. The root of 'communication' is 'to commune' or 'to have unity.' Past bodily unity in this life, enfleshed souls must commune via image transfer, through language mainly: and of course, this can be creating true images, or false ones.

The young men of the Gorgias have varying views of rhetoric, which is ultimately political leadership; they have lost sight of the true eikón which is based on reality, on truth, on the simple light, and they have mixed in their own desires and selfhood with it: it becomes about power based in their own superior sight (which pride makes blind); it becomes instead an eidolon,  an apparition or ghost of the real thing. They think that they see the truth, and in the end, they are those who despair in ever knowing real love, or truth, or that the universe is built on this love. It is not surprising; one can pity these young men; yet what was it in them that made them turn on Socrates, who spoke truth, or rather stepped aside to try and let them see the true eikón? Like Christ, we can see Socrates attempting different forms of language to try and commune, be unified with, to midwife the truth between himself and others. He was different in one respect from Christ, of course: Socrates knew that he himself did not 'possess' the truth, while Christ Himself was the incarnation of Truth. This is why Socrates is the eikón, the true image, for what the human being should be, vis--a--vis the truth, vis--a--vis Christ, but that he is in a sense an eidolon if one tries to equate him with Christ.

The young men of the Gorgias are complex, living in the shadows, made so, perhaps by the ideals of pagan culture: warrior-class prowess and an image of success based on might and domination, that deep, almost-inherent force within fallen human beings and demons that seeks to destroy the father and mother, the source of oneself, in order to gain primacy and independence, like Zeus destroys his own father, like Greeks destroying Troy, like Priam lying in his own blood at the foot of the altars, slain both by the actions of his own son and those of the culture which was engendered by his own, a culture which desired what he possessed yet desired also to outstrip it in glory.

This father-mother slaying, this rising above in power, is a cultural eidolon, a false-image which answers the very complex desires of...us. None are exempt from it at birth but are subject to Adam and Eve's original creation of this image. Our first parents, too, attempted a source-slaying, in order to have their own identity, an identity they owned. Original sin, in this sense, can then be seen as a kind of deep rhetoric, an eidolon, seeded deep in our being, deep in the heart of our species. Adam and Eve run into the shadows away from the pure light, and they live (in us) in that chiaroscuro world of shadows, complexities away from the unity, purity, and simplicity of God.

Complexity of desires, wounds, and selfhood, all communicated by different kinds of language, or rhetoric, is the rampaging, over-fertile soil in which the liar can grow...and like our First Parents, or the young men of the Gorgias, who became later those men who murdered Socrates, or the disciples of Christ, or the Jewish elites who murdered Him, or each of us, we out of our impurities cannot stand the truth, especially about ourselves.

We all, like those who were privileged to be present at Socrates' dialectic towards truth, or those who met the Truth along the Palestinian roads and in the synagogues, will be creatures full of the eidolon of our respective cultures, and the eidolon we carry within ourselves, about ourselves. The eidolon will face the eikón, that image communicated to us through a story, a gospel, a vis--a--vis Christ or one of those who carries, truly, His eikón. It is a battle of life and death, of truth and lies. Lies are myriad, and the truth has a unity so that even small truths are intimately connected to the Whole, in simplicity and purity. Lies look self-ward, towards reinforcing the eidolon.

Now, instead of just a cultural eidolon that is pushing people together the wrong way (like Stalin's Russia), we have an eidolon that pushes us farther into our individual eidolon, so that now rhetoric, though pretending to be about unity in tolerance, is really about creating eight billion little universes detached completely from reality.

And so, how much are we Christians seduced into this multi-headed, beast-like eidolon--the beast with eight billion heads? How have we been malformed, wounded, like the young men of the Gorgias? Have we fallen into the lie about ourselves?

If piety has become your 'choice'; if your education has initiated you into 'those who know' instead of 'those open to truth'; if your image as a pious, or educated, or 'better than those prostitutes' has eclipsed your sight of others, of Christ in the poor of this world, of Christ hidden deep within your own soul, then you are a liar.

I have not only seen this in myself, I have also seen Christians like this become actual liars, spreading slander, taking their own eidolon about another as the truth, because they feel that they, with their greater education and sight, simply cannot be wrong. I have seen this morph, inexplicably, into slander which protects something that these liars want to protect: but if protected by lack of knowledge, lack of relationship, lack of truth, anything, even something that by itself may be good, becomes just a tool for the erecting of a self-eidolon.

I have known great writers who fight for Christian causes in public spheres who turn and slander a four-year-old child and a family to the Christian community around them, effectively ostracizing and scapegoating an imperfect, yet decent family. And they prey on the trust of those basically good people who believe them. I have seen pious people destroy another's reputation on the spurious words of others without having enough love and courage to find out the truth for themselves through loving relationship with their brothers and sisters. I have seen those who say, "They are not our kind of people" because they want to be better, they want not to be contaminated. They are still writing and fighting and visiting Marian shrines and going to church, but I believe these may find the Lord saying, "You said, 'Lord, Lord,' but your hearts were far from me. I do not know you."

If I have done this, even out of fear or insecurity, I may find the Lord saying it to me. I must repent; and the greatest gift for someone like this, like me, is to be given the pain of seeing the true image of myself so that I can repent.

And if one lies, fundamentally, not only about  and to others, but to themselves, how can they be got out of it? Christian liars are much, much more dangerous than anything out there. They are the proverbial snakes in the grass, the rhetoricians who are most expected to tell the truth.

How shall you know them? How shall you know the true rhetors, the real Christians, from the liars?

Everyone knows the answer. But it is not always easy to see the fruits when you have a very intelligent Christian liar. I believe the fruits we are looking for are those which are very obvious to those who can see them, those with enough single-minded desire to truly know God. It follows the truth that 'those who have, will have more.' The desire for truth must be present, in love, before one can see the fruits of it.

I choose Mother Teresa because her story is most obvious, and yet holds a deep truth that is perhaps not as easy to see for those of us blinded by her celebrity. I grew up with her celebrity. I was surprised to learn, after her death, about her darkness.

She was called not only to 'serve the poor'--this she could have done from her Loreto convent in Calcutta--she was also called to 'live with the poor, to be one of them.' The significance of this is missed, often. She was called to a unity with the dying, the suffering, the poor: most importantly, with the abandoned, those whom nobody else wanted, the refuse of the world, as she used to say.

So, like Francis of Assisi, whose prayer she said everyday, she took this most literally and went with five rupees to live with the poor. And like Francis, who set about rebuilding, literally, a little run-down church when God was asking him to re-build the Church, the Body of Christ, Mother Teresa fed the poor and sheltered the dying, when God was asking her to become an eikón of them, a true and living image. He gave her her success in her efforts, he gave her celebrity, yet He also gave her darkness. She lived for fifty years feeling abandoned by God, unwanted, unloved.

Why? Isn't doing good works enough? Isn't piety, or good teaching, or education, or profound rhetoric, a humble exterior, going to the right places and liturgies, being a Catholic family, open to life, enough? Wasn't God cruel to ask more than this of none other than Mother Teresa? Wasn't she other-worldly enough in her rejection of power or status in the pagan sense and in the worldly religious sense (everyone sees how Christlike I am, what I'm doing for the Kingdom)?

I thought at first, naively, even stupidly, that God allowed this darkness to protect her from the temptations of fame. But now I see that would be cruel, in a sense. The profundity of Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani (My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?) cannot but be wasted if simply to provide a hedge against temptation. No.

She lived this moment of Christ's passion for fifty years, she became exteriorly, and--fundamentally, essentially--she became interiorly this moment of Christ's union with broken humanity, the ultimate poverty: not just God become Man, but God become abandoned man, man unable to help himself, refuse man.

It is astounding.

And it holds a truth about being a true Christian, not a liar, about becoming an eikón. Everyone has seen an 'icon.' It is an image done in the Eastern Christian tradition, and it is more than a 'painting.' It is a 'writing' in the sense of logos, in the sense of true rhetoric, wherein an image is communicated, a true image, a real image of the person, the truth, the Logos, the Unity of Truth and Love. The icon is spoken of in the East as a 'window' or 'sight-gate' to reality, a reality that the saint has become. The saint himself or herself has become an icon, a 'sight-gate,' a communion, with Christ, and through Christ, to the Father: "That they may be one as We are One."

Mother Teresa became an eikon, a true and real image, a reality, by being willing to identify completely with those she was called to help save. She was, in her very being, not a liar, not an eidolon, which she easily could have become: a pious, good-works-doing, but prouder-than-hell Christian on the inside...the ultimate lie, the lie that Satan performs each instant to us all; the lie which is all-too-easy for Christians, especially the privileged, gifted kind.

Her fruit? Compassion--co-suffering. I think you know you are with Christ, a real Christian, when he or she steps into your poverty, and suffering, and shares that image with you, in order simply to be with you, and to bring God into that shared poverty, that sin, that suffering.

Does this mean one becomes a prostitute with other prostitutes? After all, the Lord told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute, effectively becoming one with her. He made Mother Teresa live the life that sin brings: that of refuse, of separation from God.

The truth is that God did not intend Hosea to be a prostitute, or intend Mother Teresa to be abandoned. He wanted to show Israel, through Hosea as a profound sign, that he loved her so much that he would join Himself to her even in her sin; he wanted to show us that we abandon Him in sin, and become poor, and that He is willing to become, to feel, abandoned, in order to simply...be with us.

You will know a real Christian the way you know a real Socrates, a real teacher: He or she is not 'one who knows'(a guru) but one who steps into the sewer with others, is willing to be in the mud, to be covered with shit, to be Christ, to find the Christ within them, to be the rope, 'the tool in His hand' (most assuredly not the guru), but the midwife, the rope that God uses to pull the poor, the lonely, the sinful, the abandoned,the ignorant, out to a place where the cleansing waters are.

God has no use for the pious unless they see that piety is a duty, fundamentally, to follow Him to crucifixion, to ignomy, to self-death, out of the abundance of love that they, as a true eikón of Him, bring.

Christians who live so that they are never contaminated are useless, and they are liars, because we are all contaminated more seriously than we can imagine if we have ever seen a human soul as it was meant to be. We work to build a culture of love and beauty, the beauty of the monastery and the liturgy, but we don't do it because we want an un-contaminated, sterile test-tube to save for later. We do it so that there is a true eikón of heaven, and we are just the imperfect tools, and it may be built in a way that we cannot imagine: like Socrates, our rhetoric, our dialectic, our plans, must be always open to the Other, to the other. To the unexpected.

We must, then, live within the tension of sub-creating beauty and yet being an eikón of the Suffering Servant, who goes out to find the lost sheep in the bracken; further, in order to save, we must step into their suffering. The beauty of the House of the Dying, where resided the Eucharist in an old Hindu temple, out of which Mother Teresa, eikón of abandonment, a sign of the God who wills to suffer with the human being impoverished by the sin that plagues us all, went into the sewer, literally, and returned with those whom the sewer had claimed.

That is true rhetoric, true imaging, and she told the truth in every fibre. Let us be that and the Holy Spirit will pour Himself out through a billion springs.











Sunday, May 22, 2016

The One Thing Necessary



By Thaddeus Kozinski


I think the one thing necessary is to do everything one can to become conscious of God's
presence and to obtain intimacy with this presence and the adorable Will to which it
gently invites us to surrender ourselves. Beautiful and reverent liturgy is, of course, a
primary tool for such intimacy and surrender. However, my personal experience tells
me that one's finite thoughts and feelings about God and His will, no matter orthodox,
sublime, and in accord with authentic Catholic Tradition, can easily be mistaken for God
Himself, and become an idol that actually serves to separate us from the awareness of
and intimacy with God's presence.

The present moment, regardless of its content (except for sin, of course, but even there
God is waiting for us to come to our senses) is where we find God, and only there, for the
future and past do not exist. We can easily live our entire lives in alienation from this
divine present moment, due to an inordinate attachment to our plans, the future, the
past, our convictions, and our oh so pious thoughts and intentions, as well as rash
judgments of others. There is nothing wrong with a robust and loyal devotion and
defense of Tradition, but the Pharisee temptation, the temptation to a fanaticism that
protects us from what we neurotically fear, usually some post-traumatic-stress form of
fear of contamination and intimacy and loss of control, is as powerful among those with
the particular charism to defend Tradition as it is undetectable by them once it is given
in to. I speak from personal experience. I have found that the awareness of this
temptation, and one's susceptibility to it, once it is has been given in to repeatedly,
decreases as a function of the spiritual urgency of one's need to recognize it in order to
be free of it through repentance. In other words, it is the kind of sin that makes
repentance nearly impossible--for it is "they" who need to repent, who are impure and
disloyal and traitors to God, not me!

The world, and the people floundering around in it, needs our love and hope and
friendship, as much as it needs correction and even condemnation--its sins and
structures of sin, that is. Surely, we can only do this effectively from a perspective
steeped in Catholic Tradition, but only if such steepage is actually making us humble,
loving, simple, intimate with God. Brother Lawrence is the model for such humble
simplicity. All he wanted was to be in the presence of God, and he showed us how to do
it.

But, how can we be both supportive of the best in our culture and tradition, and yet
willing to have supper with the prostitutes and tax collectors, who we all are to a larger
extent than we want to realize, without becoming elitist snobs and Pharisees, on the one
hand, and sentimental enablers of evil, on the other? How can we imitate Christ and
cleanse the modern temples of Christ of mediocrity and ugliness and hypocrisy and
ideology, and our secular culture of self-and-mammon-worship, as we rightly desire,
while also being willing to ask sinful men and woman for a drink of water, perhaps from
an impure well, so we can share our gifts and hope with them?


Saturday, May 07, 2016

Plough and Poetry



From Willa Cather's My Antonia:

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.

Our sight, so much a part of utilitarian, practical life, sometimes catches a rare glimpse of something more; the phenomena moving towards us can suddenly dance, or become still and reveal something. Jim and Antonia, young people enjoying the evening of a Nebraska summer are given this image of a normally unnoticed object, an object now seen in all its meaning and fullness by a different kind of light falling on it, a stagelight of sorts which reveals it, the plough, as a phenomenon imbued with new depth, with its true connection not only to the pioneer spirit, but to the virtues and the meaning of human life. Only those who have been on the great prairies of North America can understand what the lone plough really means, what virtues of perseverance, courage, and ultimately, hope, that it helped foster. The rhythm of sowing and harvest, hope before the winter and all that can kill a pioneer family as easily as a flood pouring into an anthill. 

Jim's journey is a journey, most deeply, of sight. He is a watcher. Finally, as a middle-aged man returning from the East, he sees Antonia: 

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.


Like the sight of the plough against the final gesture of the sun, Antonia is suddenly transformed from a failure to a source of life, from the one with bad luck, plagued with the poor decisions of others, meaningless prairie dog, uprooted Bohemian foreigner, daughter of a suicide father and sister of boorish men, to something much, much more: even in, perhaps especially because, of her now diminished physical beauty. How many men, especially in our porn-plagued, shallow visual culture, or perhaps in our over-rationalized religious sense, can see a Woman? For Jim, the veil of diminished sight was lifted aside, and he could see something more, much more. Antonia becomes a source, a vision, of the eternal order of love, an order often revealed clearly to the blind through suffering, the order that the virtues point to, reflected in the cycle of nature, of life and death, like the authority of light suddenly revealed in the fact that the darkness cannot overcome it.

Is this 'sight' poetic nonsense? Is poetry--including all that fires the imagination, or better still, reveals this deeper sight of the things and people which are given to us moment by moment, wishful thinking? In a utilitarian, rationalist, or emotion-driven world, it does seem like wishful thinking, or "Fine Arts" said in that disdainful, weary way that people who create programs for public schools (STEM--Science, Technology. Engineering, Math) will say it. Or "Liberal Arts" the way someone in the war-technology industry might spit it out, "what a waste of time and money."

We have lost the delight in, and thirst for, poetry, an essential, foundational element of the liberal arts, those arts that seek to perfect the human person. I don't mean just the memorization of Frost's On a Snowy Evening for diction-training; I mean the understanding that encountering poetry is like snorkeling in the waters of human longing, a deeper sight born from the spring of the eternal in us, the sight, the eye of the heart. 'Heart' to me is not synonymous with 'emotion'; in the Scriptures, it is used synonymously with the center of, the nexus of the will, mind, emotions, and memory. In a sense it is the enfleshed soul. 

We live in a culture of starving hearts. Mother Theresa knew this, when she exhorted people in weathier societies to look for the deeper poverty of loneliness: and I would dare to add, the poverty of the sight, the inability to connect with the natural and eternal order of the cosmos, which is, truly, at the foundation, an order of love. We live amongst many people who are blind and starving; their poetic soul (which I believe every human has as an essential identity) is dying or dead. 

What is poetry as expressed in human and divine terms? 

Human beings have expressed it in scientific theories, like Xenophanes, who saw the thought of God, a kind of Logos, permeating the cosmos, giving it order and unity; in rational treatises, like Aristotle's beautiful structure in the Physics and Metaphysics; in logic and story united in Plato's dialogues and the Republic; like Euclid's 'bare beauty' (St. Vincent-Millay); like the virtuous order expressed in the beauty of Ciceronean rhetoric; like the delight in words of Shakespeare and Milton; like the ecstasy of vision of Goethe; the delicate rational, Aristotelian Jane Austen; the efficacy of even failure in the Power and Glory of Graham Greene; the epic longing of Homer and Dante.  

Human beings have also expressed it in painting, dance, drama, in marriage, death, childbearing, and in suffering evil for the sake of this vision expressed most clearly poetically. 

The Divine expresses it through the human hand in the verses of Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah, in Genesis and even Numbers; the love and beyond-ness of God, and the torrent of Him who interacts with us and cares more for our heart, our poetic heart, than for our scientific or rationalist knowledge (though these are not bad). I believe even St. Thomas understood that human expression, even in the most beautiful and clear logic, is 'as straw' to the reality of God, to life--though it is said that the Logos Himself told St. Thomas, "You have written well of me, Thomas." Poetic expression, the poetic heart, can lift the veil of our poor logic in the face of reality and show our heart a vision, a mystery, transcendent and resplendent in the light of God. It is the sight of the meaning of everything, the Whole, and the infinitely swift understanding, outside of Time almost, of how the parts relate to the whole. 

The Divine reached down and became, in a sense, Poetry; He became the plough on the hillside, a poor and normal object in the gaze of the higher classes, the teaching class of the Pharisee and the ruling class of the Sadducee. They could not see Him because they stood above Him, looking down off the hillside with their backs to the light (because they thought they possessed it). Only those who were, like the newly freed prisoner from Plato's cave, looking towards the light from a humble viewpoint, could see Him in relief against the sky, against the light of His Father. 

Like Antonia, his battered state revealed His heart, a connection to hope, faith, and love, and from these, a connection to the order of the cosmos, based on Love. 

We find Him, in the Gospels, walking, being, speaking in a very human sense. One gets, through the poetry of those who loved Him and were with Him, the way one is with another, through the heart, poetically, a sense of Him: not given to exhibition, or hilarity, a serious man who was often frustrated with the blindness--or saddened by it; a man who knew much, a quiet Watcher, who would see out to the limits of a crowd, with an ear for those whose cries came from a place without guile; a passionate person who loved the delicate, vulnerable glory of His Father to the point of righteous rage; a man who looked most into the heart of another, not into the mind; a man who waxed eloquent most when speaking about unity in love with those the Father had given Him; a man who cared enough about the ignorant to spare them from civil war by diminishing His own rights; a man moved, in His own poetic heart, by the simple faith of even those to whom He had not yet come. 

How does one gain, or re-gain, a poetic heart? Like virtue, which Socrates said cannot be taught as one teaches math,  poetry must be learned by being with poets, by being opened, by being willing to receive, as Jim and Antonia receive the image of the plough, as Jim finally receives Antonia. 

Friday, April 01, 2016

By Your Sickbed



The place by the sickbed is sometimes like hanging on the edge of a ledge, trying to get up for a better view. Now that sounds strange, and slightly voyeuristic, but let me explain. When another person, someone you love, is there, on the bed, it is as if you cannot be there, really; there is a kind of gulf between you: I am not sick, I am not in pain, and you are. I will leave this room at the end of my visit and enter back into the color stream of life, equipped to row where I'd like; you will remain in your pain staring at the credits rolling. I am sitting up, offering you drinks or a foot rub to ease the pain; you must receive this from me. I have control; you feel helpless.

So I lean over and hold your hand and beg God to give me some of the pain, and yet I am scared crapless because I know enough to know that I won't deal with it well--and in truth, I don't want it. I don't want to be away from the color stream. What I am truly doing is trying to be with you, because I sense that you feel so deeply alone. And I want the pain to be gone: perhaps 'many hands makes light pain.' A feeble hope. It is one of the central strands of the human being, that drive to make sure that another is not abandoned, alone. And so I try all kinds of gymnastics to make sure I can step in, somehow, to offer advice, to encourage, to exhort, to hold out hope. 

How do we truly be with another? There are many ways: sharing bread and butter; in vino veritatis; doing something together, Martin Buber's we looking out together at the world outside; the I-Thou of intimacy both spiritual and physical. 

But what happens when someone is within an experience so profound, one which rakes up the debris at the bottom of the soul, one which challenges everything we hold onto, pain and suffering building a nine-foot wall between one and the rest of the world? What happens when I cannot connect to your experience, like trying to connect with someone who has been to war when all I know is peace?

I am cut off from you as you are cut off from me, because the normal means of human connection become mute in the face of this howling sickness that you must bear alone. Are you giving up? Should I do more? We cannot communicate across this abyss of human weakness and helplessness.

I think of Aristotle's Poetics. An odd thing, but there is something in it for the watcher by the sickbed. For Aristotle, tragedy was a part of poetry, and one of the highest forms of the art, having five basic elements: imitates a human action; arouses pity and fear; displays human being as such; ends in wonder; is inherently beautiful (J. Sachs).

You, my friend, my fellow human being, are not an imitation; you are not a drama--but your sickness and suffering do certainly arouse pity and fear in me. Pity? We may think of this as either a pedantic, condescending attitude, or an over-rush of sentimental slop. For the Greeks, the defect or excess of pity is described by these two extremes: but the real pity is a power, a faculty, through which we can see who we truly are; through the witness of another's suffering we see the 'life abundant' lost, the joy and vitality and power that we finally begin to recognize, in wonder, as beautiful. It is like an artist who paints a figure by using shadows; the shape of a human being comes into focus through the clever use of dark colors. Suffering in another, especially that not a direct consequence of one's own sin, is like the shadowing that allows us to see again how beautiful life is, your life, my friend, your particular, irreplaceable life. I see the true beauty of your soul when all else has been washed, burned away by this suffering.

What about fear? Who has not felt fear by the bedside of the very sick? Aristotle says in his Rhetoric that what we pity in another arouses fear in ourselves: the suffering of another can show us ourselves, perhaps for the first time, as in a mirror. It provokes questions in us about what we truly value, what we are truly unwilling to give up: and gives us, as it does for the sufferer, a chance to re-visit those priorities. Do I care too much about what I look like, or how much money I have, or the worldly things of life?

There is another level, though, past Aristotle, past tragedy. The author Peter Leithart (who oddly enough, when one takes into account his last name, writes brilliantly about comedy) wrote that in the Kingdom of Christ, tragedy is not truly possible, that there is ultimate joy, always, beyond the curtain closing on what we, in this life, often see as tragic: the death of young Philomena in early Christian Rome becoming a fountain of life for others; the doctor-mother who gave her life for her unborn child, who became a great saint for our times...so within the Kingdom of Christ, our end-sight for tragedy is not, finally just the human being and the beauty therein.

It is the human being united with Christ. In one sense, the crucifixion does what any great tragedy does: arouses pity and fear; calls us to question ourselves, to look within ourselves to delineate again what we truly value. It also calls us to wonder at the love of God-made-man, to see for the first time the joining of humanity with God in an action that is at once tragic and also incredibly beautiful: the free giving up of infinite power, the infinite condescension and humility of the Creator for His creatures.

The Resurrection is what changes it all, makes all tragedy tremble and bow and give up its olive crown. The meaning of suffering itself holds now within it the possibility of redemption, offering oneself for others, a healing and return to this life as an enfleshed soul glowing more brightly like gold, of a greater life, a participation in glory, giving glory to God and a witness that this world is not the only world, that this life is not the only life. 

So how do I connect with you on your sickbed?  I have Christ in me; you have Christ in you. I must keep in mind that Deeper Life, that ultimate purpose that runs like a surveyor's sight line beyond the confines of this world.

Can I finally climb up that ledge; can I be a we with you, in your pain, through Him?

I must dig deep inside myself to find Christ, who waits in a dim corner, an often poor, neglected corner with His hands ready to break the bread and heal my blindness to Him. I must peel the ego-layers down, and believe against all worldly belief that He is there, in me. And you must do the same--in your suffering, not the least which is expressed in every sigh, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani. 

The Christ in me points out that you are a living icon of Him in your bed and that He allows you that immeasurable privilege despite your weakness and sinfulness and unworthiness; that I must light a candle in front of you, I must meet the flame of His spirit with the flame of Him in you, and then I am with you, because He is in both of us, despite my helpless, sinful, weakness. And then I realize how much I am actually suffering with you--that the angst of those around the cross must have truly meant something to Christ; the love that drove them to hang on the edge, and feel helpless, was part of the redemptive suffering that made them all one with each other, with Him, the oneness He asked His Father to create: who knew it would begin that soon? Who knew that the crucifixion was the source, the beginning, of real community, that opened a chasm wide for the Father to assuage and be with us in our helplessness, allowing us to be with Him, through this unity, in the deepest perfection?

So I am with you, in Christ. In Christ. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Russian Republic



In Plato's Republic, we find that there is one 'natural' or 'healthy' state based on justice, one kind of healthy, just soul, but there are many degenerate forms of state and soul (Rep.,445c). Because justice is the state of balance and virtue in which a soul, or a state, lives according to the Good, according to Truth, according to reality, it is necessarily of one kind, as the Good is of one kind. It is Good.

This does not preclude a good kind of variety; however, if one contrasts it to degenerate forms of state and soul, one understands that there are many images, or appearances, or imitations, of the Good, but there is only one Good. The nature of evil is to be a supplementation, in a sense, a falling away from on some account, from perfection, thus it is legion. Perfection, like Euclid's circle, has a unity and a simplicity, a one-ness that is not boring, but rather infinite.

Oddly enough, Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina begins with a pithy, arresting, and eerily similar line to that found in The Republic: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Did Tolstoy write a novel-version of The Republic? 

Tolstoy's novel about a woman falling into degeneration and finally, madness and suicide, intertwines a number of families and individuals in the Russian aristocracy of the 1800s. Anna Karenina is the wife of a high-ranking political man, Karenin; her brother, Stiva, is a philanderer married to a good woman; Levin is somewhat a philosopher, loner, but marries the good Princess Kitty; and Count Vronsky is the seducer, whose life is also destroyed along with his lover, Anna Karenina.

The major characters in the novel fit more or less into the parts of Plato's soul and state. The Republic first of all, is a proportional analogy of the soul; the explication of the ideal state is in a similar ratio to the nature of the soul; the ideal state, on the other hand, the True outcome of the nature of the human soul. In this state, the philosopher rules; in the soul, the reason. The next part of the state, a little lower, is the guardspeople who defend; in the soul, this is the spirited, or will; the third and lowest part is the tradespeople who are those who are drawn to things and produce the lower yet necessities of life; in the soul, these are the desires, the appetites. The appetites are insatiable and so must be guided by the philosophers, the reason, which is supported by the guards, or the will, to control the appetites. If the appetite is allowed to become satiated, it will become too powerful and destroy the state, or the soul. Justice, the highest virtue, is the complete picture of a healthy state or soul: the parts are doing their parts well and in concert, in a unity of reciprocation and harmony that allows the state and the soul to be, simply, Good: To live in accordance with order and reality. Thus happy states and happy souls, are, in their justice and accordance with the Good, alike. The degenerate ones are degenerate for a legion of reasons. Just like families, which one could call mini-states, proportional to both the larger state, the human community, and the soul.

Human beings need to live in community, in an ethos that teaches us; yet these same communities, or families, can also turn and become destructive, like the swine that turn and tear one to pieces. Plato knew this and seems to have agonized over the practical impossibility of the philosopher king: he or she will be either corrupted or crucified, because all to often the mob, the desires, the appetites, revolt.

Anna Karenina revolts. Married to a man whom Tolstoy carefully creates as inexorable, logical, cold reason, her appetites get the better of her after she encounters the handsome and equally passionate Count Vronsky. The novel, of course, could be read as a pulp-fiction crossed with a Harlequin romance, but the two lovers are intermixed with other characters which both color them and contrast with them. And Anna herself is not simplistic. She knows her duty to her husband and son, and makes a very reasonable, philosophical case to her cuckolded sister-in-law about forgiveness and the permanence of marriage. Yet her own family has much to be desired: cold reason, removed from the particulars of another human being, living alongside youth and passion with tremendous wealth and little real education, is already a degeneration of Plato's ideal state. His philosopher was not simply isolated reason, but a person with charm, social charisma, warmth, wisdom in daily life, courage, and spirit. Karenin has none of these things: he is a moral and logical machine, which makes him such a good bureaucrat. The appetites and the reason are in separate spheres, and there is no guard, no 'spirited will' between them. Anna's satiation of appetite with Vronsky creates a flabby, gorged false-family which has no place in the 'image' of the ethos needed, the degenerate aristocratic society of 1800s Russia, in which largely only a copy of true moral culture remains and which cannot, at any rate, provide proper justice for Anna. She cannot survive, and self-destructs.

The other main character is Levin, a young man who tends to isolate himself from high society, does not enter into the false mores of the time, and learns from his peasants on his estate away from Petersburg and Moscow. He listens to the simple people, and dreams, and agonizes over what is the Good, what is his destiny. He loves--but in a measured and thoughtful way; he leads his estate, but receptively, and as a servant (akin to Plato's philosopher-king), not as a selfish, power-hungry, unjust man. He is the image of the just man, the true philosopher. His bride, Kitty, is supportive of him and excels in areas where he does not: taking care of the sick, and living in the moment. Between them, though they struggle at points, there is a spirited will for the good, and so they complement each other and Levin learns, finally, happiness. Their family has justice, because it follows the order of truth; it is, in the end, virtuous.

The Karenin family, and Stiva's family, are those unhappy families which are their own versions of unhappiness, because they have failed the Good, degenerated from it, in one of the legion of ways it can happen. These families are also images of the state: The disjunct in Russia at this time between the ruling classes and the working classes, down to the very difference in language (French versus Russian) foreshadowed the Revolution, the self-destruction of Russia.

And Levin's family? Was there no philosopher to save Russia? "The Owl flies at dusk" means that too often, philosophy is only turned to when night is falling, when it is too late. And Plato, after the death of his teacher Socrates, had no illusion that his Athenians would suddenly turn to him or any other true philosopher and ask for the Truth. We know what usually happens to prophets, true philosophers, to anyone who brings the Truth to those who are called into question by it: and that is, unfortunately, all of us.

Plato's metaphor of the ship is apt here: The ship's captain, the will, must depend on the navigator, who looks beyond this world to the stars for direction. Unfortunately, the appetites, the masses, the sailors, deride the captain for looking to the navigator for he is, they say, "a star-gazing booby who is useless in practical matters." The captain is overrun by them, and the navigator is isolated and ignored.

Levin, symbolically perhaps, chooses to live out in the Russian countryside, and avoids society. Knowing, as we do, that his Russia was heading inexorably for rupture, we hope and wonder if Levin's family, the just and good family, survives. More often, though, in revolution, nothing survives. The philosopher must stay in a kind of isolation--it is perhaps because of his isolation, like Levin, that he has been able to become a philosopher, far away from the corruption. He can, and must, set his sights higher on a just death, a judgment and an influence that is not of this world.

It is only a tragedy is one is focused on the appetites that are more bound to this world; it is a heroic epic of the highest kind if one is focused on the mountains beyond the sea. I speak here both of Plato's Republic as well as Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Fight or Feast?




Callicles says, "'Too late for a share in the fight,' so the saying goes..."

Socrates replies, "Really? Don't you rather mean too late for the feast?"

The dialogues of Socrates, including this one referenced above, Gorgias, are always anchored in a real, particular situation, lived within a polis, a culture, a political and social body: Gorgias takes place just after Pericles' death, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, in the simultaneous glory and twilight that is Athens of around 405 B.C..

As he spoke to Callicles--a young and ambitious man who probably shared the fate of Alcibiades in Sicily during the last hubristic gasps of Athens as she crumbled, a young man in the throes of that kind of ego-idealism recognizable by an easy willingness to say what others only think--Socrates may have been standing outside a taverna, a veranda roofed elegantly by grape vines and wisteria, late at night or in the long, sultry evening of an Athenian summer, in the Plaka nestled below the dramatic rise of stone and cypress groves that culminated in the Acropolis: a fitting, visual, beautiful analogy of profane and sacred.

Laughter of men, scattered like the used plates and half-emptied goblets, the sounds of a disintegrated unity that was the feast, may have drifted out to the young man and the wise man who knew that he knew nothing; Callicles promises Socrates that Gorgias, a rhetorician who has just spoken at the feast, will give him a private 'exhibition'; Socrates, instead, asks for a dialectical discussion. And so begins the Gorgias, a discussion of rhetoric, and ultimately, deeply, a continued search for what we all already recognize, deep, almost lost, in our nature, as justice.

Socrates is in the awkward position of standing outside the breaking feast in the street, because he is late. Too late? Is he too late to teach the Many, who always seem to mistake what seems good from what actually is wished for, what is actually truly good for both the individual and the polis? Should  the rhetoric exercise have been a fight? Is the fact that the young man Callicles thinks of rhetoric as an exhibition of prowess, an indication that the war is already lost? Socrates, the good physician that he is, tries to correct him by changing the term: "Don't you rather mean 'feast'?" Isn't rhetoric for the sake of something higher, a techne, an art, meaning that the rhetor understands the sake for which he speaks? Does Callicles understand that if an art, rhetoric should point to justice, and justice itself, an action and a virtue, is done for the sake of the Good, because human beings are meant by nature for this Good, this Beauty, this proton philon, this ultimate for the sake of which everything else is?

Or, is rhetoric simply an eidon, an image, a kind of flattery, a not-real, a 'seeming'? Is it just an empeiria, a 'knack' that gets results but is not based on understanding, or the order of the cosmos, or that chain of 'that for the sake of which' that leads men back to the Proton Philon for which they--and all other things--were made?

Is rhetoric simply a cock-fight, or is it part of the feast that is both for the good of the individual and for the polis, as a feast is both for sustenance of ourselves, but more importantly, for communion of a Body, of a community?

Athens, as a more direct democracy than has since been tried, was by this 'directness' (one man, one vote), and by its size (city state of perhaps 150,000, but only about 30.000 citizens voting) more susceptible, vulnerable to, and dependent upon, rhetoric. Rhetoric was, as Socrates practiced it, a means to discover justice, to develop laws, to uncover reality, and this was also beautiful. It was to express the boulesis, or the desire of right reason; the Athens of Socrates had a 'bouleuterion' which was a council-hall, connected beautifully, analogously, even poetically, with the idea that the city council should be discovering through speech the practical application of the 'true desire of man according to right reason.' The Greeks were not, as Edith Hamilton argues, 'idealists' or wispy, cloud-like poets; they were poets and realists at the same time. Thus, rhetoric was both essential to the daily workings of the city, and also a kind of 'beauty' or what we would call an 'art-form.' But to be beautiful, rhetoric must be done for the sake of something higher: justice.

Justice, as we've seen, led in Socrates' mind, inevitably to the Good, and to Beauty, for the just and the Good were proportional, and proportion and balance are part of the essence of beauty. Justice to be justice, to be a balanced, ordered virtue, must be a part of the Whole that is Good because it is Beautiful, and Beautiful because it is Good; yes, it is circular: the circle is perfection. Justice, as understood in The Republic is the ordered city and soul, in which each part plays its part perfectly, like the dancers around Demodocus, the mystical song-maker at the court of Alcinous (high mind), in Homer's Odyssey.

 The value system of Socrates was founded upon the ultimate purpose of any action, the sake for which something is done. One must act, one must be, within oneself and simultaneously within the Body that is a community, such that the souls of all individuals in that community are turned towards happiness, like the dancers attuned to the poet's song. This happiness is not a prolongation of good feeling, as we moderns tend to think of it, but rather it is a life of virtue and wisdom, "a human life realized in terms of ultimate meaning" (R.E. Allen).

And when we say 'human life', we must remember that for Socrates, we do not mean a hard distinction, or separation between a life and the life of the polis. They are inextricably combined: the life of the person is also the life of the community.

This Socratic value system demands a radically different conception of justice, and therefore a radically different rhetoric, with an aim not for unhinged, ambiguous 'effectiveness' but for effectiveness in leading both the soul of the individual and of the community towards a life of virtue and wisdom in accordance with the Good, ultimately the Proton Philon.

How is this different from our modern political communities? As different as a summer night in Athens is from a winter night in St. Petersburg. Heirs to Descartes, Kant, Locke, Hobbes, and now utilitarians like Richard Rorty, our justice is not founded on primary, telological ends, but rather on consequences, on what works based on our scientific observations, our phenomena, what gives the most people what seems best to them. Socrates knew there could be a night/day difference between what seems good to us, and what is actually good, but he also believed, based on the beautiful, good, order of proportion and analogy that is the cosmos of which we are a part, a cosmos in which geometrical proportion and poetic analogy meet and kiss in their coordinated revelation of relationships between diversities, that each human soul also can recollect and "desire with reason according to nature" the Good. Therefore, good rhetoric, and the justice for the sake of which we practice it, can lead souls to a life of virtue and wisdom again, and also the community. However, we have lost in part the road to what is truly good for us because our conception of a human community has been changed.

 A la Hobbes and Locke, our contractual societies tend to pit the individual against the State, or the modern mechanistic conception of what was once organic community. Thus, our justice tends to follow along the lines of retributive (keeping vengeance under control), distributive (re-equalizing), or deterrence (punishing to create fear for the safety of the many). Our justice is the ticking of wheels within an enormous, impersonal machine, and our rhetoric is centered around "what I will do will give great results." It is certainly not feast, and is perhaps now even a fight not with other individuals, but with a machine.

Socrates' justice? Remedial. Again, we must be wary of the modern understanding of this term. Wipe it. Remedial justice, Socrates' kind, can only function in a Body, a community that is organic and unified, growing towards the Good. Socrates' justice is founded upon the paradox that it is worse for the soul to commit injustice than to suffer it, and that the ultimate evil for both an individual soul and a political community is to commit injustice, for it thwarts the soul from happiness, from a life according to the Good. Thus, remedial justice is more a medical model than anything else. The statesman, like a doctor, practices law-giving as the doctor prescribes the gym, to keep the body in shape; the statesman practices judicial justice as the doctor prescribes medicine: the whole point of all of it is to heal. This does not preclude actual suffering or punishment. It means that getting our due is what is best for us, for it helps direct us towards balance, virtue, and can become a passage for wisdom.

Was Athens this kind of Soul-Polis, a veritable Body? Based on the Gorgias, Athens was a sick society, in which young men like Polus believed the powerful were most happy, regardless of their injustice, in which Callicles, a gifted young man believed 'might made right' (a precursor to Nietzsche). Socrates' use of the medical model is no frivolity: he came, as Christ said in another time and place, as a physician for the sick. Socrates was indeed outside the feast, and too late to heal Athens, which killed him with the very false, unjust, mob-rhetoric he criticized for the sake of the city. Yet this Ordered-Soul-Polis was Socrates' ideal, and we know based on the farcical trial and his death that it was never realized completely: yet Socrates could see this ideal, so much more than he could see the goblet of hemlock-juice in his own hands, that he died to uphold it, to uphold even the possibility of it, or remnants of it, that existed in Athens.

Does this Polis built on a value system that leads towards the Proton Philon, the ultimate Good, and thus the only community that can be truly just, exist? Is it just an eidon, an image that lives only in the hearts of good people, who have the boulesis,  the right desire, for it?

There is a Body, but it is not of this world. It has a place in the world, but ultimately, it joins the immanent and the transcendent; it turns the members of its Body towards a life of virtue and wisdom, to the realized meaning of human life, to be united with the Good, with God. Its justice, because of its transcendent power and reality, based on Love, flows from the loving self-sacrifice of its Statesman, its Head. It has a justice that is beyond the shallow deterrent, distributive, retributive, arithmatic-justice: it is geometrical, proportional and beautiful, poetic, like Socrates' healing justice, but it is even beyond that: it is the justice that is based on laying one's life down for the other, in overflowing mercy, a justice that makes love grow from the stalks of weeds. Socrates could not quite see it as it really is, because it is based on a Proton Philon he did not know through revelation, but who knows him and loves him, and you, and me. It a Polis is where universals can meet and embrace the particulars in a fecund tension, where individuals are truly joined with the Whole. In the end, it is the Feast he was looking for, the one he was actually too early for, the one waiting for him beyond the hemlock. It is beyond anything Socrates hoped for, and is yet exactly his true boulesis, or right desire.




Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Slouching Towards Tyranny



In the 5th century B.C., Athens and her allies were at war with Sparta and her allies, in the Peloponnesian War made famous by the great historian Thucydides. In the first part of the war, Pericles son of Xanthippus was the leader of Athens: by all accounts, he was an able leader, not the least because of his apparent selflessness in the face of Athen's need, and  because of his honesty. He seems to have been a thinking man, and though humility was not a widely held virtue in the ancient world, Pericles seemed to have that essential nature of humility, which is to stand on the ground: to be in reality about oneself, and one's relative importance in the face of the danger that one's very values and way of life was near extinction.

For Pericles, and Thucydides, who was a general in the war, and the young and old Athenians who died, and those who kept the city going after war-death and plague-death, held out hope not based on chimeras and oracles, but based on the glory that was Athens, as described in Pericles' (Thucydides') words spoken in the famous Funeral Oration:

     "[Our constitution] favors administration for the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life fall to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom...also extends to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes...but all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace...we throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from learning or observing..." (Book II, 37).

Thus Pericles, as written by Thucydides, bases the glory of the war dead on that unique government springing from the Greek faith in human reason and a reasonable universe, a polis which built an administration to serve the many rather than the few, and built on the knowledge that human reason and spirit, if guided properly, and not crushed but allowed 'a life affording scope for the excellence of virtue" (Aristotle, Ethics) will guide the state to true greatness. Pericles exhorts the Athenians to fight not only for themselves but for human posterity in order that such a grand idea may be saved. He knows, as does any good leader intent upon true liberty, as many centuries later de Toqueville knew, that a democracy can only flourish as long as it is moral, and as long as it does not act upon fear but rather on the idea that right knowledge leads to right action, that humans have a nature and so history, and politics, can be guided based on right order and right principles. Every truth has a dark side, and the darkness of this truth is that if political life is not guided by right knowledge of right order, and becomes instead fear-based or too individualistic, terrible histories will repeat themselves: communism can come again, fascism can rear it's head once more, revitalized in the safety-seeking of fearful citizens who tend towards authoritarianism. Disordered thinking and the fear that results is a kind of vacuum which invites the unscrupulous or the fanatical to take advantage.

Thucydides' Pericles addresses this danger after the great plague during the war, to a people who have started bowing to the enemy, a people which have turned on him in their depression, fear, and despair:

"...to recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamored of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. And men of these retiring views, making converts of others, would quickly ruin a state; indeed the result would be the same if they could live independent by themselves; for the retiring and unambitious are never secure without vigorous protectors at their side; indeed, such qualities are useless to an imperial city though they may help a dependency to an unmolested servitude."

In our current American situation, these words could have been spoken to both Left and Right, indeed, to a majority of our citizens, for our main enemy has become ourselves. On the one hand, we have severed the relationship of political law and natural law, of natural law and eternal law, all of which should form a kind of difference in unity. This has resulted in a fractious, individualistic culture made up of people who can no longer see the reason for laying their individualism down for the good of others, including the weakest among us. The virus of fractiousness, blooming inexorably over two hundred years into extreme individualism seems to have got into the American founding at the beginning, whilst at the same time, the opposite extreme, Federalism, also wormed its way in not long after the nation began. Thus, the new attempt at the Grand Idea of the Athenians, in America, was infected from the beginning and we are truly seeing the fruits of it now, two hundred years on.

Yet, there is something at the core of the American experiment that was akin to Athens. The insight that people should be valued not for what they can bring the few, but what they can bring to their communities around them, that a responsible, moral people hold a benevolent power that conquers the world through inspiration and virtue, is also American. However, the similarity unfortunately does not end there: Like Athens, we have become an empire, and like Athens, this push to empire has become a death-knell to us--like post-Periclean, imperialist and hubris-tic Athens, we are feared and despised by our known world--and yet, at the same time, we are envied and copied. Pericles also said that human judgement is relentless against the weakness that falls short of the true calling, or true ability of another. In our Left-ist rush to re-define reality for ourselves, our materialistic continuance of our hegemony and imperialism for the purpose of maintaining an outlandish standard of living for the few, our moral weakness is contemptible. And in our new-found Right-ist xenophobia, in response to the dangers we ourselves have helped create by our insane foreign policies, we also draw contempt for the weakness which falls short of what we are truly capable of as a once free people.

Are we free now? The fact that we would be even remotely close to electing a xenophobic materialist like Trump, or a manipulative, corrupt like Clinton, that we have no candidates available not tainted by empire-ism or fascism or rabid, amoral individualism, or plain inability, or the deeper fact that the presidential election eclipses the election of subsidiary authorities who should, by their closer connection to us, have more power to inform, serve, and guide their constituency, points to a fatal sickness growing.

Will the sickness be a new form of fascism? Or materialistic, utilitarian Rorty-style socialism? Or a slow slide into decay?

Regardless of the end, we are certainly slouching towards some sort of tyranny, not the least being the tyranny of our own unbridled passions or forays farther into interstellar silo-realities.

The answer? God.

This is simple and complex at the same time. It is simply that God is the eternal law, and the natural law, and thus the model, the true source, for individuals as well as political societies. In Him is the unity, and the relief and beauty of order and simplicity. Yet the truth, Reality, in a fallen world is overwhelmingly complex and even tragic. Pericles knew this as he exhorted his people to give their lives for something greater, even whilst standing in the midst of hundreds of bodies ravaged by the plague, by war, to live in the face of ultimate mystery. For most people, maybe almost all of us, we build chimera-walls, our own private realities, in order to escape the real one: we think we will live forever; we think science has the last word; we live almost purely in the realm of ideas, away from messy particulars; we make little gods we believe we can control; we create narratives, sometimes even taking the shreds we like from the fabric of the True Narrative.

Perhaps, truly, the human race is divided into two camps: those who live more or less in reality, but never truly in reality, on a spectrum nearer or farther from Reality, and those who are simply, saints. St. Francis comes to mind: He stands in the Assisi church surrounded by his family, his community, and his bishop, having divested himself of his clothes and anything that tied him to his old, woven life; he leaps into the unknown, into the hidden arms of God. Deemed crazy by everyone else, he was in the end, the only one in Reality among them. He said later that suddenly, everything shifted, and he saw himself as a fly upside down on a window; he knew that everything he'd known before was tainted, warped, by human narrative, and it was therefore not Truth. He saw the God who holds all things in a unified Whole, and yet counts the hairs on each person's head. In St. Francis' extremity of love from and for God, because he was a beacon from the rock, more profound and true than Athens, into the darkness of human culture, he was able to join a revolution that has influenced the world in a much deeper way than even Athens, or Rome, or any other political system, no matter the gifts each possesses.

In the end, we need God, who is Reality, to have healthy political societies; and because most of us are too afraid, sinful, selfish, or weak in love, we need saints to point the way. Otherwise, we will continue slouching towards tyranny and what is left of Athens will die once again. Open yourself to reality, become a saint, and you will be the best also for the nation you love: you may die, but as Pericles said, your legacy will be greater than if you'd lived submissive to tyranny, because by your sainthood, your being in Reality, you will remain for all time a light, a true light, born of Light, for all people.

This is leadership, the kind that serves, lays down life, does not tyrannize, the kind that points the way to happiness, the kind that matters--the kind to vote for.