Poison of Subjectivism by C. S. Lewis

One cause of misery and vice is always present with us in the greed and pride of men, but at certain periods in history this is greatly increased by the temporary prevalence of some false philosophy. Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort is abroad at present. I am not referring to the Power philosophies of the Totalitarian states, but to something that goes deeper and spreads wider and which, indeed, has given these Power philosophies their golden opportunity. I am referring to Subjectivism.

After studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his own reason appears to him as the epiphenomenona which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective. There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.

As long as this dethronement refers only to the theoretical reason, it cannot be wholehearted. The scientist has to assume the validity of his own logic (in the stout old fashion of Plato or Spinoza) even in order to prove that it is merely subjective, and therefore he can only flirt with subjectivism. It is true that this flirtation sometimes goes pretty far. There are modern scientists, I am told, who have dropped the words truth and reality out of their vocabulary and who hold that the end of their work is not to know what is there but simply to get practical results. This is, no doubt, a bad symptom. But, in the main, subjectivism is such an uncomfortable yokefellow for research that the danger, in this quarter, is continually counteracted.

But when we turn to practical reason the ruinous effects are found operating in full force. By practical reason I mean our judgement of good and evil. If you are surprised that I include this under the heading of reason at all, let me remind you that your surprise is itself one result of the subjectivism I am discussing. Until modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered was objective. It was taken for granted that in temptation passion was opposed, not to some sentiment, but to reason. Thus Plato thought, thus Aristotle, thus Hooker, Butler and Doctor Johnson. The modern view is very different. It does not believe that value judgements are really judgements at all. They are sentiments, or complexes, or attitudes, produced in a community by the pressure of its environment and its traditions, and differing from one community to another. To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have.

But if this is so, then we might have been conditioned to feel otherwise. “Perhaps,” thinks the reformer or the educational expert, “it would be better if we were. Let us improve our morality.” Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its “ideology” as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, overarching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If “good” and “better” are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.

All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition. But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure of the moral reformer who, after saying that “good” means “what we are conditioned to like” goes on cheerfully to consider whether it might be “better” that we should be conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven’s name does he mean by “better”?

He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else, something more “real” or “solid” on which to base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, “We must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of the community” – as if the maxim “Thou shalt promote the good of the community’ were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgement that he claims to be rejecting. Or he will endeavor to base his values on biology and tell us that we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently he does not anticipate the question, ‘Why should the species be preserved?’ He takes it for granted that it should, because he is really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting, as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle. Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on “instinct.” “We have an instinct to preserve our species”, he may say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species? The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to your study of them, you can never derive it from them.

This whole attempt to jettison traditional values as something subjective and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is wrong. It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar. Let us get two propositions written into our minds with indelible ink.

1)The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the spectrum.

2)Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and erecting it into an unum necessarium.

The second proposition will bear a little illustration. Ordinary morality tells us to honour our parents and cherish our children. By taking the second precept alone you construct a Futurist Ethic in which the claim of “posterity” are the sole criterion. Ordinary morality tells us to keep promises and also to feed the hungry. By taking the second precept alone you get a Communist Ethic in which “production,” and distribution of the products to the people, are the sole criteria. Ordinary morality tells us, ceteris paribus, to love our kindred and fellow citizens more than strangers. By isolating this precept you can get either an Aristocratic Ethic with the claims of our class as sole criterion, or a Racialist Ethic where no claims but those of blood are acknowledged. These monomaniac systems are then used as a ground from which to attack traditional morality; but absurdly, since it is from traditional morality alone that they derive such semblance of validity as they possess. Starting from scratch, with no assumptions about value, we could reach none of them. If reverence for parents or promises is a mere subjective by-product of physical nature, so is reverence for race or posterity. The trunk to whose root the reformer would lay the axe is the only support of the particular branch he wishes to retain.

All idea of “new” or “scientific” or “modern” moralities must therefore be dismissed as mere confusion of thought. We have only two alternatives. Either the maxims of traditional morality must be accepted as axioms of practical reason which neither admit nor require argument to support them and not to “see” which is to have lost human status; or else there are no values at all, what we mistook for values being “projections” of irrational emotions. It is perfectly futile, after having dismissed traditional morality with the question, ‘Why should we obey it?’ then to attempt the reintroduction of value at some later stage in our philosophy. Any value we reintroduce can be countered in just the same way. Every argument used to support it will be an attempt to derive from premises in the indicative mood a conclusion in the imperative. And this is impossible.

Against this view the modern mind has two lines of defence. The first claims that traditional morality is different in different times and places – in fact, that there is not one morality but a thousand. The second exclaims that to tie ourselves to an immutable moral code is to cut off all progress and acquiesce in stagnation. Both are unsound.

Let us take the second one first. And let us strip it of the illegitimate emotional power it derives from the word ‘stagnation’ with its suggestion of puddles and mantled pools. If water stands too long it stinks. To infer thence that whatever stands long must be unwholesome is to be the victim of metaphor. Space does not stink because it has preserved its three dimensions from the beginning. The square on the hypotenuse has not gone moldy by continuing to equal the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Love is not dishonored by constancy, and when we wash our hands we are seeking stagnation and “putting the clock back,” artificially restoring our hands to the status quo in which they began the day and resisting the natural trend of events which would increase their dirtiness steadily from our birth to our death. For the emotive term ‘stagnant’ let us substitute the descriptive term ‘permanent.’ Does a permanent moral standard preclude progress? On the contrary, except on the supposition of a changeless standard, progress is impossible. If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can recede. We can go on getting a sum more and more nearly right only if the one perfectly right is “stagnant”.

And yet it will be said, I have just admitted that our ideas of good may improve. How is this to be reconciled with the view that “traditional morality” is a depositum fidei which cannot be deserted? The answer can be understood if we compare a real moral advance with a mere innovation. From the Stoic and Confucian, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you”; to the Christian, “Do as you would be done by” is a real advance. The morality of Nietzsche is a mere innovation. The first is an advance because no one who did not admit the validity of the old maxim could see reason for accepting the new one, and anyone who accepted the old would at once recognize the new as an extension of the same principle. If he rejected it, he would have to reject it as a superfluity, something that went too far, not as something simply heterogeneous from his own ideas of value. But the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgements at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us: “You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?” and a man who says, “Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.” Real moral advances, in fine, are made from within the existing moral tradition and in the spirit of that tradition and can be understood only in the light of that tradition. The outsider who has rejected the tradition cannot judge them. He has, as Aristotle said, no arche, no premises.

And what of the second modern objection – that the ethical standards of different cultures differ so widely that there is no common tradition at all? The answer is that is a lie – a good, solid, resounding lie. If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery, and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the Law of Nature. There are, of course, differences. There are even blindnesses in particular cultures – just as there are savages who cannot count up to twenty. But the pretence that we are presented with a mere chaos – though no outline of universally accepted value shows through – is wherever it is simply false and should be contradicted in season and out of season wherever it is met. Far from finding a chaos, we find exactly what we should expect if good is indeed something objective and reason the organ whereby it is apprehended – that is, a substantial agreement with considerable local differences of emphasis and, perhaps, no one code that includes everything.

The two grand methods of obscuring this agreement are these: First, you can concentrate on those divergences about sexual morality which most serious moralists regard as belonging to positive rather than to Natural Law, but which rouse strong emotions. Differences about the definition of incest or between polygamy and monogamy come under this head. (It is untrue to say that the Greeks thought sexual perversion innocent. The continual tittering of Plato is really more evidential than the stern prohibition of Aristotle. Men titter thus only about what they regard as, at least, a peccadillo: the jokes about drunkenness in Pickwick, far from proving that the nineteenth-century English thought it innocent, prove the reverse. There is an enormous difference of degree between the Greek view of perversion and the Christian, but there is not opposition.) The second method is to treat as differences in the judgement of value what are really differences in belief about fact. Thus human sacrifice, or persecution of witches, are cited as evidence of a radically different morality. But the real difference lies elsewhere. We do not hunt witches because we disbelieve in their existence. We do not kill men to avert pestilence because we do not think pestilence can thus be averted. We do “sacrifice” men in war, and we do hunt spies and traitors.

So far I have been considering the objections which unbelievers bring against the doctrine of objective value, or the Law of Nature. But in our days we must be prepared to meet objections from Christians too. “Humanism” and “liberalism” are coming to be used simply as terms of disapprobation, and both are likely to be so used of the position I am taking up. Behind them lurks a real theological problem. If we accept the primary platitudes of practical reason as the unquestioned premises of all action, are we thereby trusting our own reason so far that we ignore the Fall, and are retrogressively turning our absolute allegiance away from a person to an abstraction?

As regards the Fall, I submit that the general tenor of scripture does not encourage us to believe that our knowledge of the Law has been depraved in the same degree as our power to fulfil it. He would be a brave man who claimed to realize the fallen condition of man more clearly than St. Paul. In that very chapter (Roman 7) where he asserts most strongly our inability to keep the moral law he also asserts most confidently that we perceive the Law’s goodness and rejoice in it according to the inward man. Our righteousness may be filthy and ragged, but Christianity gives us no ground for holding that our perceptions of right are in the same condition. They may, no doubt, be impaired; but there is a difference between imperfect sight and blindness. A theology which goes about to represent our practical reason as radically unsound is heading for disaster. If we once admit that what God means by “goodness” is sheerly different from what we judge to be good, there is no difference left between pure religion and devil worship.

The other objection is much more formidable. If we once grant that our practical reason is really reason and that its fundamental imperatives are as absolute and categorical as they claim to be, then unconditional allegiance to them is the duty of man. So is absolute allegiance to God. And these two allegiances must, somehow, be the same. But how is the relation between God and the moral law to be represented? To say that the moral law is God’s law is no final solution. Are these things right because God commands them or does God command them because they are right? If the first, if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the “righteous Lord.” If the second, then we seem to be admitting a cosmic dyarchy, or even making God himself the mere executor of a law somehow external and antecedent to His own being. Both views are intolerable.

At this point we must remind ourselves that Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with unity of the body, is different from a square. (Flatlanders, attempting to imagine a cube, would either imagine the six squares coinciding, and thus destroy their distinctness, or else imagine them set out side by side, and thus destroy the unity. Our difficulties about the Trinity are of much the same kind.) It is therefore possible that the duality which seems to force itself upon us when we think, first, of our Father in Heaven, and, secondly, of the self-evident imperatives of the moral law, is not a mere error but a real (though inadequate and creaturely) perception of things that would necessarily be two in any mode of being which enters our experience, but which are not so divided in the absolute being of the superpersonal God. When we attempt to think of a person and a law, we are compelled to think of this person either as obeying the law or as making it. And when we think of Him as making it we are compelled to think of Him either as making it in conformity to some yet more ultimate pattern of goodness (in which case that pattern, and not He, would be supreme) or else as making it arbitrarily by a sic volo, sic jubeo (in which case He would be neither good nor wise). But it is probably just here that our categories betray us. It would be idle, with our merely mortal resources, to attempt a positive correction of our categories – ambulavi in mirabilibus supra me. But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favoured beyond the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being these two, is also imminent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

These may seem fine-spun speculations: yet I believe that nothing short of this can save us. A Christianity which does not see moral and religious experience converging to meet at infinity, not at a negative infinity, but in the positive infinity of the living yet superpersonal God, has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship; and a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin. Nor is the matter of merely speculative importance. Many a popular “planner” on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means. He believes that “good” means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the function of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda. Because he is confused, he does not yet fully realize that those who create conscience cannot be subject to conscience themselves. But he must awake to the logic of his position sooner or later; and when he does, what barrier remains between us and the final division of the race into a few conditioners who stand themselves outside morality and the many conditioned in whom such morality as the experts choose is produced at the experts’ pleasure? If “good” means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves? The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his creation.

Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. If we do, we may live, and such a return might have one minor advantage. If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion. While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as “vision,” “dynamism,” “creativity,” and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial – virtue, knowledge, diligence and skill. ‘Vision’ is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.


Charles Krauthammer: A Social Conservative Credo

It is an axiom of the conservative revolution sweeping Washington that the growth in size and power of the welfare state is a primary cause of the decline of society’s mediating institutions – voluntary associa­tions, local government, church, and, above all, the family, the single most important instrument of social cohesion and val­ues transmission. Whether by design or inadvertence, the nanny state has taken over the house.

Welfare policy, for example, creates social chaos by means of governmental incentives that are almost comically perverse. Every teenage girl in the country is told: Have a child, make sure it is out of wedlock, make sure you have no job or prospects, and Washington will then guarantee you a monthly check, free medical care, and years of job training and child care, also free. After 35 years of this, the illegitimacy rate goes from 5 percent to 30 percent. Surprise.

Liberals are confounded by the fact that the great expansion of their social programs coincides with the dramatic rise of most every index of social breakdown – divorce, illegitimacy, violence, crime, drug abuse, suicide, untreated mental illness (disguised as homelessness). Lacking any new theory to ex­plain this unfortunate association, they prescribe the only therapy their worldview allows: more social programs.

President Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union Address, for example, embraced a Charles Murray premise when he declared that “the epidemic of teen pregnancies and births where there is no marriage” is “our most serious social problem.” His conclusion, however, is distinctly un-Murray-like: yet another federal program. After drivers ed. and drug ed., we shall now have preg ed. – a few minutes of classroom time to urge young girls and boys not to do precisely what the entire welfare system allows, indeed encourages, them to do: indulge in irresponsible childbearing.

The Limits of Structural Reform

The conservative response is equally clear: not a new gov­ernment intervention to mitigate the catastrophic consequences of the old intervention but withdrawal of government inter­vention in the first place. The contraction of the welfare state is the single most important theme of the current conservative revolution. It imbues practically every item on the Republi­cans’ political agenda. And it promises a rosy future: Pare back the welfare state and the mediating institutions will once again have the space to flower, reclaiming their rightful place at the center of a revitalized civil society.

It is a rosy scenario. It is unlikely to materialize. Social disintegration is not a reversible chemical reaction. It is far easier to reduce a complex, cohesive social structure to its barest elements of atomized individuals and fractured families than to reassemble these atoms and fractions into a new whole. Institutions so displaced and broken, particularly the family, may not be capable of spontaneous reintegration.

This is not to say that one should flinch from trying. But in, say, abolishing the current welfare entitlement, one should not assume that this in and of itself will solve the conundrum of intergenerational illegitimacy. Abolition is the first step, because without it there is no way back from where we are. But it is only a first step. And, if it is the only step, the current conservative revolution will surely fail.

That is the case because looking at the effect of govern­ment on society is too limited an analysis. The intrusions and expropriations of the welfare state have, generally speaking, created the sustaining conditions that allow the breakdown of families and other mediating institutions. They establish a struc­ture that underwrites self-destructive and antisocial behavior. But they do not create the wants and the values that find their expression in such behavior. The epidemic of teen preg­nancy, for example, is fueled by the desire of boys for preda­tory and casual sex, the acquiescence (often encouragement) of girls, and the contempt of both for the bourgeois norm of settled, married parenthood. Where do these attitudes come from? The AFDC check permits their realization. But it hardly creates them. What does?

Cultural Causes of Decay

The single greatest shaper of these wants and values is not government but culture. Mass culture is a very recent phenomenon. As an engine of social breakdown, it is vastly underappreciated by those who might be called structural con­servatives. Those who believe, for example, that changing the tax structure of the inner city (through enterprise zones) will effect a radical transformation of its social dynamics are miss­ing the larger reality. Never in history have the purveyors of a degraded, almost totally uncensored, culture had direct, un­mediated access to the minds of a society’s young. An adolescent plugged into a Walkman playing “gangsta rap” represents a revolutionary social phenomenon: youthful consciousness almost literally hardwired to the most extreme and corrupting cultural influences.

Two hundred years ago these influences might reach a thin layer of the upper classes, classes well insulated by education, social code, and sheer wealth from the more baleful consequences of cultural decay. Today these influences reach every­ one. Particularly vulnerable are those in communities where the authority structure has disintegrated because of absent or incompetent parents and where there is no power or money or codes to mediate the culture’s influence or cushion its effects. In such a milieu in particular – everywhere to some extent – mass culture rules. The results are plain to see.

We have, for example, a quarter century of psychological research on the relationship between exposure to television violence and aggressive behavior. The findings are summa­rized by the 1972 Surgeon General’s Commission report, the 1982 National Institute of Health Ten Year Follow-Up, and the 1992 report of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Media in Society. To quote Leonard Eron, a longtime student of media and its psychological effects, on the question of the relation between television and increased violence, “the scientific debate is over.” One could, of course, have done without the social science and simply reasoned, as Irving Kristol did in 1971, that if the unquestioningly held view that good art can elevate is true, then it must be equally true that bad art can degrade.

The defenders of the culture argue that their art merely reflects already existing social changes. One could, for the sake of argument, concede that point and still note that, by constantly validating and confirming disintegratory social trends, these cultural purveyors are legitimizing them and establishing a feedback system that only serves to reinforce, amplify, and accelerate the chaos.

Mainstream films aimed at young people, for example, specialize not just in glorifying violence but in trivializing it. Cruelty as camp is a staple of the PG-13 movie. MTV is a festival of misogyny, a sourcebook on the degradation and objectification of women. And ordinary prime-time television is a laboratory of “alternative lifestyles.” It has been pointed out, for example, that the typical sitcom family (with one or two notable exceptions) is what in the 1950s was called a broken home. And these homes – Murphy Brown’s, most famously – are not generally depicted as unfortunate accommodations to the sadder consequences of social disintegration but as self-affirming choices worthy of not just admiration but celebration. What is forgotten about the Murphy Brown episode is that real, live television anchors from NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN went on the show to toast Murphy’s motherhood.

Dan Quayle’s attack on the breezy, brazen amorality at play here restarted the current national debate about the cultural causes of social decay. Even the most established liberal voices had been coming to grudging acknowledgment of the fact that much of the rampant deviancy in society is learned, and learned mostly from the mass media. Take, for example, the National Commission on Children, chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller, liberal Democrat from West Virginia, and generally given to the standard establishment analyses and recommendations. It acknowledged that “pervasive images of crime, violence, and sexuality expose children and youth to situations and problems that often conflict with the common values of our society,” and even ceded that “the media, especially television” might actually be “a cause” of “our society’s serious problems.”

The Medicalization of Vice

Liberals have a serious difficulty dealing with this reality, however. It is hard for them-note the commission’s pinched, bureaucratic formulation – to say the obvious: the culture’s art is bad, its messages morally wrong. Why? Because having promoted “value-free” education and a self-validating moral relativism, they have forfeited the language of morality.

Accordingly, they have had to resort to a substitute language: medicine. Medicalized morality has the twin advantages of appearing authoritative and value-free. Liberalism can now address the problem of cultural decay thus: We cannot say what’s right or wrong, good or bad, but we can say what is harmful. Hence, sexual promiscuity is to be eschewed not because it is wrong but because it is “risky,” a risk to limb and life, as is drug abuse and the like. The right sex is safe sex. Teen violence is a “public health emergency.” And the man to lead the fight against teen pregnancy is a doctor, the Surgeon General. He did such a good job with smoking. Why not with sex?

To be sure, some liberals have so rejected the connection between morality and social breakdown that they are reluctant to apply even the smoking model to allegedly immoral behavior. President Clinton’s first Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, was so sanguine about teen sex that she wanted it taught. (“We’ve taught children in driver’s ed. what to do in the front seat of a car but not what to do in the back seat of the car.”) She was so reconciled to drug use that she spoke favorably of legalization. But she was, at the same time, a ferocious enemy of tobacco. She was quite reconciled to kids having sex in the back seat of a car, it seems, so long as they did not light up afterwards.

But such views are no longer politically sustainable, even in a Democratic administration. Accordingly, in making Dr. Henry Foster his subsequent choice for Surgeon General, Clinton played the neo-liberal, promoting Foster as just the man to fight teen pregnancy.

This is an advance, a recognition that teen pregnancy and illegitimacy are social pathologies in need of a campaign to change behavior and attitudes. But, by assigning the job to doctors, by framing the issue in terms of public health, by confusing morality with hygiene, the point is missed.

Yes, the victims of teen violence, promiscuity, drug abuse, and suicide end up in the emergency room. But so do the victims of hurricanes and war. Hurricanes and war are many things, but they are not medical problems. Neither are teen violence, promiscuity, drug abuse, suicide, and the other indices of social decay. Moreover, when you appeal to the vulnerable young to avoid these behaviors on the purely self-regarding health grounds that they are risking damage to them­ selves, you are preaching to a constituency that is not apt to buy your cost-benefit calculations.

Virtue’s return

The medicalization of vice – the campaigns for safe this and safe that – has gone as far as it can go, and that is not very far. The result is that we are seeing a “remoralization,” if not of society, at least of language. Encouraged by such books as William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization of Society, and James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense, the frank use of the old-fashioned language of virtue is making a comeback.

Establishment discourse has been forced to readmit moral categories into the debate about social decay and deviancy. The change is visible and rapid. One can almost chart it by comparing the reception accorded Dan Quayle’s 1992 assault on Murphy Brown and that given Bob Dole’s on Time Warner and Hollywood just three years later. Quayle was pummeled by establishment media. The response to Dole was: Why aren’t the Democrats saying this too?

This represents a significant advance in two respects. First, it legitimizes the use of frankly moral language in public dis­ course. Second, it legitimizes the deployment of that language against the purveyors of culture and the holding of them to certain standards of decency.

This engagement in the cultural war is a necessary complement to the “structural” conservative attempts to rein in the welfare state. Reining in the state creates civil space open to new influences. But the cultural agenda – and particularly the attempt to force the mass media to clean up their act and alter their message – will crucially determine what gets to fill that space.

In the Absence of Religion

But even that will not be enough. Culture wars, however satisfying and necessary, are not sufficient. If there is to be a remoralization of society, it will have to occur at the level not just of supply but of demand. Getting the culture producers to limit the toxicity of their products will not be that difficult. Even without overt government censorship, political and popular pressure are quite capable of inducing the culture creators to self-censorship.

In a free-market society, however, such supply-side changes are not enough. The failure of the war on drugs should have taught us that. The producers of culture may accede tempo­rarily to political demands for self-censorship out of fear or regard for public relations. But a more enduring change in the cultural market, as in any other, awaits a fundamental change in demand. The customer has to stop buying the stuff.

And where does that come from? We now leave the realm of governmental reform and media self-censorship and enter entirely new territory, religious territory. Irving Kristol has written about the current and coming religious revival as an echo of earlier Great Awakenings. There certainly is a reli­gious revival under way, and it does establish a basis for a most fundamental reversal of social decay. But I have my doubts about the firmness and permanence of this fin de siecle awakening.

This is an age of advanced science and material abundance. Science and abundance offer invitations to skepticism and plea­ sure that are hard to refuse. It is difficult for me to believe that in such an era, a self-abnegating religious revival will prevail.

I hope I am wrong. If I am, the conservative revolution will unfold in and of itself, with near-Marxist historic inevitability. It is the task of the political strategist, however, to prepare for the possibility that the Great Awakening is not at hand. In which case the arrest of social decay, the revitalization of civil society, is a far more difficult and chancy proposi­tion. It must then depend upon the more coercive and less reliable agency of politics – a politics crucially capable of articulating cultural with structural reform. Neither alone will suffice.

 Public Interest, Fall 1995

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Biblical Aspects of the Theme of Faith and Politics


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

This homily was given on November 26, 1981, during a liturgy for Catholic representatives to the Bundestag [the Lower House of the German Federal Republic] in the Church of Saint Winfried [Saint Boniface] in Bonn. The readings, 1 Peter 1:3-7 and John 14:1-6, were prescribed by the Church’s liturgy for that day. At first they seemed unsuited to the subject, but, on second thought, after closer inspection, they proved to be unexpectedly rich material for this meditation.

The reading and the Gospel that we have just heard stemmed from a situation in which Christians were not a self-organizing subject of the state but were rather outcasts being persecuted by a cruel dictatorship. They themselves were not allowed to share the responsibility for their state; they could only endure it. Theirs was not the privilege of shaping it as a Christian state but was rather the task of living as Christians in spite of it. The names of the emperors who reigned during the period to which tradition dates both texts are enough to make the situation clear: Nero and Domitian. And so the First Letter of Peter, too, calls the Christians in such a state strangers or “exiles” and the state itself “Babylon” (5:13). In doing so, it very emphatically indicates the political position of the Christians of that time, which corresponded roughly to the position of the exiled Jews living in Babylon, who were not the subject but rather the objects of that state and therefore had to learn how they could survive in it, since they were not allowed to learn how to build it. Thus the political background of today’s readings is fundamentally different from ours. Nevertheless, they contain three important statements that have significance also for political action among Christians.

1. The state is not the whole of human existence and does not encompass all human hope. Man and what he hopes for extend beyond the framework of the state and beyond the sphere of political action. This is true not only for a state like Babylon, but for every state. The state is not the totality; this unburdens the politician and at the same time opens up for him the path of reasonable politics. The Roman state was wrong and anti-Christian precisely because it wanted to be the totality of human possibilities and hopes. A state that makes such claims cannot fulfill its promises; it thereby falsifies and diminishes man. Through the totalitarian lie it becomes demonic and tyrannical. The abolition of the totalitarian state has demythologized the state and thereby liberated man, as well as politicians and politics.

But when the Christian faith falls into ruins and faith in mankind’s greater hope is lost, the myth of the divine state rises again, because man cannot do without the totality of hope. Although such promises pose as progress and commandeer for themselves the slogans of progress and progressive thinking, viewed historically they are nevertheless a regression to an era antedating the novum of Christianity, a turning back along the scale of history. And even though their propaganda says that their goal is man’s complete liberation, the abolition of all ruling authority, they contradict the truth of man and are opposed to his freedom, because they force man to fit into what he himself can make. Such politics, which declares that the kingdom of God is the outcome of politics and twists faith into the universal primacy of the political, is by its very nature the politics of enslavement; it is mythological politics.

To this, faith opposes Christian reason’s sense of proportion, which recognizes what man really can accomplish in terms of a free social order and is content with that, because it knows that mankind’s greater expectations are safe in God’s hands. To renounce the hope of faith is at the same time to renounce political reason and its sense of proportion. Abandoning the mythical hopes of an authority-free society is not resignation but honesty, which sustains man in hope. The mythical hope of a self-made paradise can only drive man into inescapable anxiety—into fear of the failure of the illusory promises and of the immense emptiness that lurks behind them; into fear of his own power and of its cruelty.

Thus the first service to politics rendered by the Christian faith is that it liberates man from the irrationality of political myths, which are the real threat of our time. Taking a stand for sobriety, which does what is possible and does not cry with an ardent heart after the impossible, is of course always difficult; the voice of reason is not as loud as the cry of unreason. The cry for the grandiose project has the cachet of morality; restricting oneself to what is possible, in contrast, seems to be the renunciation of moral passion, mere faint-hearted pragmatism. But, as a matter of fact, political morality consists precisely of resisting the seductive force of the big words for which humanity and its chances are being gambled away. The moral thing is not adventurous moralism, which tries to mind God’s business, but rather honesty, which accepts man’s limits and does man’s work within them. Not the uncompromising stance, but compromise is the true morality in political matters.

2. Although the Christians were being persecuted, they did not have a negative view of the state in principle, but rather they still recognized in it the state qua state and did what was in their power to build it up as a state; they did not try to destroy it. Precisely because they knew that they were in “Babylon”, they applied to themselves the guidelines that Jeremiah had written to the children of Israel who had been exiled to that place. The letter of the prophet that is recorded in chapter 29 of the Book of Jeremiah was by no means an activist’s manual calling for political resistance and the destruction of the slave state, as understandable as that would have been; it is rather an instruction on how to preserve and strengthen what is good. Thus, it is a lesson in surviving and at the same time in preparing for better days and new prospects. In that sense, this morality of exile also contains basic elements of a positive political ethos. Jeremiah urges the Jews not to persist in contradiction and denial but rather to “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce. . . . Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:5-7). We can read a very similar admonition in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, which tradition dates to the time of Nero, where it says to pray “for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2). Along the same lines, the First Letter of Peter itself admonishes the readers to “maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12). “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (2:17). “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God” (4:15).

What does this mean? The Christians were by no means fearful, gullible people who were taken in by the authorities and did not know that there can be a right to resistance and even a conscientious duty to resist. The very last sentence shows that they recognized the limits of the state and did not bow to it in matters where they were not allowed to bow to it because it opposed God’s will. Even more importantly, the fact remains that they still did not attempt to destroy that state; rather, they tried to build it up. Amorality is fought by morality, and evil by a determined adherence to the good, and in no other way. Morality—doing good—is the true resistance, and only the good can be a preparation for a turn for the better. There are not two kinds of political morality: a morality of resistance and a morality of ruling. There is only one morality: morality as such, the morality of God’s commandments, which cannot be temporarily suspended in order to bring about a change in the status quo more quickly. One can build up only by building up, not by destroying—that is the political ethics of the Bible from Jeremiah to Peter and Paul. The Christian always supports the state, in this sense: he does the positive, the good things that hold states together. He has no fear that he will thereby favor the power of the wicked, but he is convinced that evil can be dismantled and the power of evil and of evil men can be diminished only by strengthening what is good. Anyone who accepts the killing of the innocent and the destruction of other people’s property as part of the bargain cannot appeal to the faith. The words of Saint Peter are quite explicitly against such methods: “Let none of you suffer [condemnation] as a murderer, or a thief” (4:15)—and at that time he was speaking also against this sort of resistance. The true, Christian resistance that he is demanding occurs only in the situation where the state demands the repudiation of God and of his commandments, where it demands evil, against which good is still commanded.

3. A final point follows logically from this. The Christian faith destroyed the myth of the divine state, the myth of the earthly paradise or utopian state and of a society without rule. In its place it put the objectivity of reason. But that does not mean that it brought an objectivity devoid of values, the objectivity of statistics and mere social dynamics. True human objectivity involves humanity, and humanity involves God. True human reason involves morality, which lives on God’s commandments. This morality is not a private matter; it has public significance. Without the good of being good and of good action, there can be no good politics. What the persecuted Church prescribed for Christians as the core of their political ethos must also be the core of an active Christian politics: only where good is done and is recognized as good can people live together well in a thriving community. Demonstrating the practical importance of the moral dimension, the dimension of God’s commandments—publicly as well—must be the center of responsible political action.

If we act in this way, then even in the midst of confusion and adversity we can understand the words from today’s Scriptures as a reliable promise addressed to us personally: “Let not your hearts be troubled” (Jn 14:1). “By God’s power [you] are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed” (1 Pet 1:5). Amen.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Feeling of Things, Contemplation of Beauty

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Message to the Communion and Liberation Meeting at Rimini (24-30 August 2002)

Every year, in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Season of Lent, I am struck anew by a paradox in Vespers for Monday of the Second Week of the Psalter. Here, side by side, are two antiphons, one for the Season of Lent, the other for Holy Week. Both introduce Psalm 44 [45], but they present strikingly contradictory interpretations. The Psalm describes the wedding of the King, his beauty, his virtues, his mission, and then becomes an exaltation of his bride. In the Season of Lent, Psalm 44 is framed by the same antiphon used for the rest of the year. The third verse of the Psalm says: “You are the fairest of the children of men and grace is poured upon your lips”.

Naturally, the Church reads this psalm as a poetic-prophetic representation of Christ’s spousal relationship with his Church. She recognizes Christ as the fairest of men, the grace poured upon his lips points to the inner beauty of his words, the glory of his proclamation. So it is not merely the external beauty of the Redeemer’s appearance that is glorified: rather, the beauty of Truth appears in him, the beauty of God himself who draws us to himself and, at the same time captures us with the wound of Love, the holy passion (eros), that enables us to go forth together, with and in the Church his Bride, to meet the Love who calls us.

On Monday of Holy Week, however, the Church changes the antiphon and invites us to interpret the Psalm in the light of Is 53,2: “He had neither beauty, no majesty, nothing to attract our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him”. How can we reconcile this? The appearance of the “fairest of the children of men” is so wretched that no one desires to look at him. Pilate presented him to the crowd saying: “Behold the man!“, to rouse sympathy for the crushed and battered Man, in whom no external beauty remained.

Augustine, who in his youth wrote a book on the Beautiful and the Harmonious [De pulchro et apto] and who appreciated beauty in words, in music, in the figurative arts, had a keen appreciation of this paradox and realized that in this regard, the great Greek philosophy of the beautiful was not simply rejected but rather, dramatically called into question and what the beautiful might be, what beauty might mean, would have to be debated anew and suffered. Referring to the paradox contained in these texts, he spoke of the contrasting blasts of “two trumpets”, produced by the same breath, the same Spirit. He knew that a paradox is contrast and not contradiction. Both quotes come from the same Spirit who inspires all Scripture, but sounds different notes in it. It is in this way that he sets us before the totality of true Beauty, of Truth itself.

In the first place, the text of Isaiah supplies the question that interested the Fathers of the Church, whether or not Christ was beautiful. Implicit here is the more radical question of whether beauty is true or whether it is not ugliness that leads us to the deepest truth of reality. Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love “to the end” (Jn 13,1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.

Certainly, the consciousness that beauty has something to do with pain was also present in the Greek world. For example, let us take Plato’s Phaedrus. Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer. In a Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards towards the transcendent. In his discourse in the Symposium, Aristophanes says that lovers do not know what they really want from each other. From the search for what is more than their pleasure, it is obvious that the souls of both are thirsting for something other than amorous pleasure. But the heart cannot express this “other” thing, “it has only a vague perception of what it truly wants and wonders about it as an enigma”.

In the 14th century, in the book, “The Life in Christ” by the Byzantine theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas, we rediscover Plato’s experience in which the ultimate object of nostalgia, transformed by the new Christian experience, continues to be nameless. Cabasilas says: “When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound” (cf. The Life in Christ, the Second Book, 15).

The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny. What Plato said, and, more than 1,500 years later, Cabasilas, has nothing to do with superficial aestheticism and irrationalism or with the flight from clarity and the importance of reason. The beautiful is knowledge certainly, but, in a superior form, since it arouses man to the real greatness of the truth. Here Cabasilas has remained entirely Greek, since he puts knowledge first when he says, “In fact it is knowing that causes love and gives birth to it…. Since this knowledge is sometimes very ample and complete and at other times imperfect, it follows that the love potion has the same effect” (cf. ibid.).

He is not content to leave this assertion in general terms. In his characteristically rigorous thought, he distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge: knowledge through instruction which remains, so to speak, “second hand” and does not imply any direct contact with reality itself. The second type of knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge through personal experience, through a direct relationship with the reality. “Therefore we do not love it to the extent that it is a worthy object of love, and since we have not perceived the very form itself we do not experience its proper effect”.

True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality, “how it is Christ himself who is present and in an ineffable way disposes and forms the souls of men” (cf. ibid.).

Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.

Starting with this concept, Hans Urs von Balthasar built his Opus magnum of Theological Aesthetics. Many of its details have passed into theological work, while his fundamental approach, in truth the essential element of the whole work, has not been so readily accepted. Of course, this is not just, or principally, a theological problem, but a problem of pastoral life, that has to foster the human person’s encounter with the beauty of faith. All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it “has a wax nose’: in other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough. Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.

In a rich way Pavel Evdokimov has brought to light the interior pathway that an icon establishes. An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes, as he says, “a fasting of sight”. Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendour of the glory of God, the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ “(II Cor 4,6).

To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.

Now however, we still have to respond to an objection. We have already rejected the assumption which claims that what has just been said is a flight into the irrational, into mere aestheticism.

Rather, it is the opposite that is true: this is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.

Today another objection has even greater weight: the message of beauty is thrown into complete doubt by the power of falsehood, seduction, violence and evil. Can the beautiful be genuine, or, in the end, is it only an illusion? Isn’t reality perhaps basically evil? The fear that in the end it is not the arrow of the beautiful that leads us to the truth, but that falsehood, all that is ugly and vulgar, may constitute the true “reality” has at all times caused people anguish. At present this has been expressed in the assertion that after Auschwitz it was no longer possible to write poetry; after Auschwitz it is no longer possible to speak of a God who is good. People wondered: where was God when the gas chambers were operating? This objection, which seemed reasonable enough before Auschwitz when one realized all the atrocities of history, shows that in any case a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough. It cannot stand up to the confrontation with the gravity of the questioning about God, truth and beauty. Apollo, who for Plato’s Socrates was “the God” and the guarantor of unruffled beauty as “the truly divine” is absolutely no longer sufficient.

In this way, we return to the “two trumpets” of the Bible with which we started, to the paradox of being able to say of Christ: “You are the fairest of the children of men”, and: “He had no beauty, no majesty to draw our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him”. In the Passion of Christ the Greek aesthetic that deserves admiration for its perceived contact with the Divine but which remained inexpressible for it, in Christ’s passion is not removed but overcome. The experience of the beautiful has received new depth and new realism. The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns; the Shroud of Turin can help us imagine this in a realistic way. However, in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes “to the very end“; for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence. Whoever has perceived this beauty knows that truth, and not falsehood, is the real aspiration of the world. It is not the false that is “true”, but indeed, the Truth. It is, as it were, a new trick of what is false to present itself as “truth” and to say to us: over and above me there is basically nothing, stop seeking or even loving the truth; in doing so you are on the wrong track. The icon of the crucified Christ sets us free from this deception that is so widespread today. However it imposes a condition: that we let ourselves be wounded by him, and that we believe in the Love who can risk setting aside his external beauty to proclaim, in this way, the truth of the beautiful.

Falsehood however has another strategem. A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure. It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” to eat and was “delightful to the eyes”. The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself. Who would not recognize, for example, in advertising, the images made with supreme skill that are created to tempt the human being irresistibly, to make him want to grab everything and seek the passing satisfaction rather than be open to others.

So it is that Christian art today is caught between two fires (as perhaps it always has been): it must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything beautiful is a deception and only the representation of what is crude, low and vulgar is the truth, the true illumination of knowledge. Or it has to counter the deceptive beauty that makes the human being seem diminished instead of making him great, and for this reason is false.

Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky’s often quoted sentence: “The Beautiful will save us”? However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ. We must learn to see Him. If we know Him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.


Marcel Proust: Death of Cathedrals – A Consequence of Briand Bill on Separation of Church and State

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Marcel Proust, 1895

Suppose for a moment that Catholicism had been dead for centuries, that the traditions of its worship had been lost. Only the unspeaking and forlorn cathedrals remain; they have become unintelligible yet remain admirable.

Then suppose that one day scholars manage, on the basis of documentary evidence, to reconstitute the ceremonies that used to be celebrated in them, for which men had built them, which were their proper meaning and life, and without which they were now no more than a dead letter; and suppose that for one hour artists, beguiled by the dream of briefly giving back life to those great  and now silent vessels, wished to restore the mysterious drama that once took place there amid chants and scents—in a word, that they were undertaking to do what the Félibres have done for ancient tragedies in the theatre of Orange.

[1st-century ancient Roman theatre of Orange had been restored in the 19th century under the aegis of the Félibres, a Provençal cultural association. A yearly summer theatre festival (the “Chorégies”) started there in 1902, two years before this article.]

Is there any government with the slightest concern for France’s artistic past that would not liberally subsidize so magnificent an undertaking? Do you not think that it would do what it did in the case of  Roman ruins for these cathedrals, which are probably the highest, and unquestionably the most original expression of French genius? After all, one may well prefer the literature of other peoples to ours, prefer their music to ours, their painting and sculpture to ours, but it is in France that Gothic architecture created its first and most perfect masterpieces.  All other countries have done is to imitate our religious architecture without ever matching it.


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Amiens Cathedral


And so, to return to my hypothesis, here come scholars who have been able to rediscover the cathedrals’ lost meaning. Sculptures and stained-glass windows recover their significance, a mysterious odor once again wafts in the temple, a sacred drama is performed, and the cathedral starts to sing once more.  When the government underwrites this resurrection, it is more in the right than when it underwrites the performances in the theaters of Orange, of the Opéra-Comique, and of the Opéra, for Catholic ceremonies have an historical, social, artistic, and musical interest whose beauty alone surpasses all that any artist has ever dreamed, and which Wagner alone was ever able to come close to, in Parsifal—and that by imitation.

Caravans of swells make their way to the holy city (whether it is Amiens, Chartres, Bourges, Laon, Rheims, Rouen, Paris, or whatever town you please, we have so many sublime cathedrals!), and once a year they experience the feeling they once sought in Bayreuth and in Orange: enjoying a work of art in the very setting that had been built for it. Alas, here as in Orange, they can only ever be curious dilettantes; try as they might, the soul of times past does not dwell within them. The artists who have come to perform the chants, the actors who play the role of priests may be learned, they may have imbued themselves with the spirit of the texts, and the Secretary of Education will lavish medals and compliments upon them. Yet, in spite of it all, one cannot help but think “Alas! How much more beautiful these feasts must have been when priests celebrated the liturgy not in order to give some idea of these ceremonies to an educated audience, but because they set the same faith in their efficacy as did the artists who sculpted the Last Judgment in the west porch tympanum or who painted the stained-glass lives of the saints in the apse. How much more deeply and truly expressive the entire work must have been when a whole people responded to the priest’s voice and fell to its knees as the bell rang at the elevation, not as cold and stylized extras in historical reconstructions, but because they too, like the priest, like the sculptor, believed. But alas, such things are as far from us as the pious enthusiasm of the Greeks at their theater performances, and our ‘reconstitutions’ cannot give a faithful idea of them.”


Chartres Cathedral


That is what one would say if the Catholic religion no longer existed and if scholars had been able to rediscover its rites, if artists had tried to bring them back for us. But the point is that it still does exist and has not changed, as it were, since the great century when the cathedrals were built. For us to imagine what a living and sublimely functioning thirteenth-century cathedral was like, we need not do with it as we do with the theater of Orange and turn it into a venue for exact yet frozen reconstitutions and retrospectives. All we need to do is to go into it at any hour of the day when a liturgical office is being celebrated. Here mimicry, psalmody, and chant are not entrusted to artists without “conviction.” It is the ministers of worship themselves who celebrate, not with an aesthetic outlook, but by faith—and thus all the more aesthetically. One could not hope for livelier and more sincere extras, since it is the faithful  that take the trouble of unwittingly  playing their role for us. One may say that thanks to the persistence of the same rites in the Catholic Church and also of Catholic belief in French hearts, cathedrals are not only the most beautiful monuments of our art, but also the only ones that still live their life fully and have remained true to the purpose for which they were built.

Now because of the French government’s break with Rome debates on Mr. Briand’s bill and its probable passing are imminent. Its provisions indicate that after five years churches may, and often will, be shut down; not only will the government no longer underwrite the celebration of ritual ceremonies in the churches, but will also be enabled to transform them into whatever it wishes: museums; conference centers, or casinos. As for you, Monsieur André Hallays! You go about repeating that works of art lose life as soon as they no longer serve the ends for which they were created, that furniture becomes so many knick-knacks and that a palace turned museum grows icy, can no longer speak to our heart, and ends up dying—I hope that you will stop for just one moment condemning the variously  clumsy restorations that daily threaten the towns of France that you have taken into your care, and that you will rise to your feet, speak up, even harass Monsieur Chaumié if you have to, indict Monsieur de Monzie if need be, join Monsieur John Labusquière, and call a meeting of the Commission for Historical Monuments. Your clever zeal has often been effective; surely you will not let all the churches of France die in one fell swoop.


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Bourges Cathedral


Today there is not one socialist endowed with taste who doesn’t deplore the mutilations the Revolution visited upon our cathedrals: so many shattered statues and stained-glass windows! Well: better to ransack a church than to decommission it. As mutilated as a church may be, so long as the Mass is celebrated there, it retains at least some life. Once a church is decommissioned it dies, and though as an historical monument it may be protected from scandalous uses, it is no more than a museum. One may say to churches what Jesus said to His disciples: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” (Jn 6:54). These somewhat mysterious yet profound words become, with this new usage, an aesthetic and architectural axiom. When the sacrifice of Christ’s flesh and blood, the sacrifice of the Mass, is no longer celebrated in our churches, they will have no life left in them. Catholic liturgy and the architecture and sculpture of our cathedrals form a whole, for they stem from the same symbolism. It is a matter of common knowledge that in the cathedrals there is no sculpture, however secondary it may seem, that does not have its own symbolic value. If the statue of Christ at the Western entrance of the cathedral of Amiens rests on a pedestal of roses, lilies, and vines, it is because Christ said: “I am the rose of Saron”;  “I am the lily of the valley”;  “I am the true vine”.

If the asp and the basilisk, the lion and the dragon and sculpted beneath His feet it is because of the verse in Ps 90: Inculcabis super aspidem et leonem. To his left, in a small relief, a man is represented dropping his sword at the sight of an animal while a bird continues to sing beside him. This is because “the coward hasn’t the courage of a thrush”: indeed the mission of this bas-relief is to symbolize cowardice, as opposed to courage, because it is set under the statue that is always (at least in earliest times) to the right of the statue of Christ, that is, under the statue of St. Peter, the Apostle of courage.


Laon Cathedral


And so it goes for the thousands of statues that adorn the cathedral.

Now the ceremonies involved in worship participate in the same symbolism. In an admirable book to which I should like eventually to pay a full tribute, Emile Male analyzes the first part of the feast of Holy Saturday according to William Durandus, Rational of the Divine Offices.

“Morning starts with all the lights being put out to indicate that the Old Law, which used to light up the world, is now abrogated.

Then the celebrant blesses the new fire, a figure of the New Law. He brings it out of the flint, to recall that Jesus Christ is, as Saint Paul says, the keystone of the world. At this point the bishop and the deacon make their way to the choir and stop before the Paschal candle.

William Durandus tells us that this candle is a threefold symbol. When it is unlit it symbolizes the dark pillar that guided the Hebrews by day, the Old Law, and the body of Jesus Christ. Once lit it signifies the pillar of light that Israel could see by night, the New Law, and the glorious body of the Risen Christ. The deacon alludes to this triple symbolism when he recites the Exultet before the candle.


Facade, looking northeast

Reims Cathedral


But it is especially the resemblance between the candle and the Body of Jesus Christ that he emphasizes. He recalls that the spotless wax was produced by the bee, a creature both chaste and fruitful, like the Virgin who gave birth to the Saviour. To bring out to the sense of sight the likeness of the wax to the divine body, he presses five grains of incense into the candle; these recall both the five wounds of Jesus Christ and the spices that the Holy Women bought to embalm him. Lastly he lights the candle with the new fire and all lamps throughout the church are lit to represent the new Law in the world.

Someone will say: ‘But all this is only an exceptional feast.’ Here is the interpretation of a daily ceremony: the Mass. You will see that it is no less symbolic.

“The deep and sorrowful chant of the Introit opens the ceremony: it proclaims the expectation of the patriarchs and prophets. The clergy are in choir, the choir of the saints of the old Law who yearn for the coming of the Messias and do not see Him. Then the bishop enters and appears as the living image of Jesus Christ. His arrival symbolizes the Advent of the Lord that the nations await. On great feast days, seven torches are born before him to recall that, as the prophet says, the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost rest upon the head of the Son of God. He processes under a triumphant canopy whose four bearers may be likened to the four Evangelists. Two acolytes walk to this right and left and represent Moses and Elias, who appeared at Mount Tabor on either side of Christ. They teach that Jesus held the authority of the Law and of the Prophets.


Notre-Dame Cathedral


The bishop sits on this throne and remains silent. He seems to take no part in the first part of the ceremony. His behavior contains a teaching: his silence recalls that the first years of the life of Christ were unknown and recollected. Meanwhile the subdeacon reaches the pulpit and reads the Epistle aloud towards the right. Here we catch a glimpse of the first act in the drama of our Redemption.

This reading of the Epistle is the preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the desert. He speaks before the Saviour has begun to make Himself heard, but he speaks only to the Jews. For this reason, the subdeacon, an image of the Precursor, turns to the North, the direction of the Old Law. Once the lesson is read, he bows before the bishop, just as the Precursor bowed before Jesus Christ.

The chanting of the Gradual follows the reading of the Epistle. It, too, refers to the mission of Saint John the Baptist: it symbolizes the exhortation to penance he directed towards the Jews on the eve of the new era.

At last the celebrant reads the Gospel. This is a solemn moment, for this is where the Messias’s active life begins: for the first time, His voice is heard in the world. The reading of the Gospel is the very figure of his preaching.

The creed follows the Gospel, just as the faith follows the proclamation of the truth. The twelve articles in the creed refer to the call of the Apostles.

“The very clothing the priest wears to the altar” and the objects used in worship amount to so many symbols, M. Male adds. “The chasuble, worn on top of the other garments, is charity, which is above all the commandments of the Law and is itself the supreme law. The stole, which the priest puts over his neck, is the  light yoke of the Lord, and since it is written that every Christian must cherish this yoke, the priest kisses this yoke when he puts it on or takes it off. The bishop’s two-pointed miter symbolizes the knowledge he must have of each of the Testaments; two ribbons are attached to it to recall that Holy Scripture is to be interpreted both literally and spiritually. The bell is the voice of the preachers and the timber from which it hangs is a figure of the Cross. Its rope, woven from three twisted threads, points to the threefold understanding of scripture, which must be interpreted according to the threefold sense, i.e., historically, allegorically, and morally. When one takes the rope in hand to set the bell ringing, one symbolically expresses  the fundamental truth that the knowledge of Scripture must lead to acts.”


Rouen Cathedral


And in this way everything down to the least of the priest’s gestures, down the stole he wears, comes together to symbolize Him with the deep sentiment that gives life to the whole cathedral and which is, as M. Male puts it so well, the genius of the Middle Ages itself.

Never has a sight comparable to such a giant mirror of knowledge, of the soul, and of history as this been presented to man’s eyes and understanding.  The same symbolism clutters even the music heard in the immense vessel. Its seven Gregorian tones are the figure of the seven theological virtues and the seven ages of the world. One may well say that a production of Wagner at Bayreuth does not amount to much next to the celebration of High Mass at the Chartres cathedral.

Doubtless only those who have studied the religious art of the Middle Ages are able to analyze the beauty of such a spectacle fully. That alone would suffice for the State to have to see to its preservation. This is precisely how the State underwrites the lectures at the Collège de France, even though they are only intended for a small number of people and, if compared to the total resurrection of a Solemn Mass in a Cathedral, they seem like cold dissections; compared to the performance of such symphonies, the productions of our equally subsidized theaters answer to quite paltry literary demands. But let us hasten to add that the people who can read medieval symbolism fluently are not the only ones for whom the living cathedral, that is to say the sculpted, painted, singing cathedral is the greatest of spectacles, as one can feel music without knowing harmony.  I am well aware that Ruskin, when he was demonstrating what spiritual reasons explain the arrangement of chapels in cathedral apses, declared: “Never will you be able to delight in architectural forms unless you are in sympathy with the thinking from which they arose.” Still, we all know the ignorant man, the simple dreamer, who walks into a cathedral without any effort at understanding yet is overwhelmed by his emotions and receives an impression which, though perhaps less precise, is certainly just as strong. As a literary witness to this state of mind, admittedly quite different to that of the learned person of whom we were speaking a moment ago and who walks in a cathedral “as in a forest of symbols who gaze on him with familiar glances,” yet which allows for a vague but powerful emotion in a cathedral during the liturgy, I shall quote Renan’s beautiful text The Double Prayer:


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Beauvais Cathedral


“One of the most beautiful religious spectacles one can still contemplate today (and which one may soon no longer be able to contemplate, if the House of Representatives passes the Briand bill) is that which the ancient cathedral of Quimper presents at dusk. Once darkness has filled the vast building’s side aisles, the faithful of both sexes gather in the nave and sing evensong in the Breton language with a simple and moving rhythm.  The cathedral is lit only by two or three lamps. In the nave, the men are on one side, standing; on the other side, the kneeling women form a motionless sea of white headdresses. The two halves sing in alternation, and the phrase that one of the choirs begins is finished by the other. What they sing is quite beautiful.  As I heard it, I felt that with a few changes it might be fitted to every state of humanity. Above all it made me dream of a prayer which, with a few variations, might suit men and women equally.”

There are many gradations between between this reverie, which is not without its charm, and the religious art “connoisseur’s” more conscious joys. Let us bear and keep in mind the case of Gustave Flaubert, who studied—albeit with a view to interpreting it within a modern outlook—one of the most beautiful parts of the Catholic liturgy:

“The priest dipped his thumb in the holy oil and began to anoint his eyes first . . .  then his nostrils, so fond of warm breezes and of the scents of love, his hands that had found their delight in sweet caresses . . . lastly his feet, which had been so swift in running to satisfy his desires, and which now would walk no more.”


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Tours Cathedral


There is therefore more than one way of dreaming before this artistic realization—the most complete ever, since all of the arts collaborated in it—of the greatest dream to which humanity ever rose; this mansion is grand enough for us all to find our place in. The cathedral, which shelters so many saints, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, kings, confessors, and martyrs that whole generations huddle in supplication and anxiety all the way to the porch entrances and, trembling, raise the edifice as a long groan under heaven while the angels smilingly lean over from the top of the galleries which, in the evening’s blue and rose incense and the morning’s blinding gold do seem to be “heaven’s balconies”—the cathedral, in its vastness, can grant asylum both to the man of letters and to the man of faith, to the vague dreamer as well as to the archeologist. All that matters is that it remain alive and that France should not find herself transformed overnight into a dried-up shore on which giant chiseled shells seem marooned, emptied of the life that once lived in them and no longer able even to give to an ear leaning in on them a distant rumor from long ago, mere museum pieces and icy museums themselves. “It is not too late,” André Hallays wrote some years ago, “to bring up a gruesome idea which, they say, was hatched in the brains of a few citizens of Vézelay. They wanted the church of Vézelay to be decommissioned. Such is the silliness that anticlericalism inspires. Decommissioning that basilica amounts to taking away what little soul it has left. Once the little lamp that shines deep in the sanctuary has been snuffed out, Vézelay will become no more than an archeological curiosity. The tomb-like odor of museums is all that will give breath in it.” Things keep their beauty and their life only by continuously carrying out the task for which they were intended, even should they slowly die at it. Does anyone believe that, in museums of comparative sculpture, the plaster casts of the famous sculpted wooden choir stalls of the Cathedral of Amiens  can give an idea of the stalls themselves in their august yet still functional antiquity? Whereas a museum guard keeps us from getting too close to their plaster casts, the pricelessly precious stalls, which are so old, so illustrious, and so beautiful, continue to carry out their humble task in the cathedral of Amiens—which they have been doing for centuries to the great satisfaction of the citizens of Amiens—just as those artists who, while having become famous, yet still keep up a small job or give lessons. This task consists in bearing bodies even before they instruct souls, and that is what, folded down and showing their upper side, they humbly do during the offices. More than this: these stalls’ perpetually worn wood has slowly acquired, or rather let seep through, that dark purple that is so to speak its heart and which the eye that has once fallen prey to its charm prefers to everything else, to the point of being unable even to look at the colors of the paintings which, after this, seem rough and plain. Then one experiences something like ebriety as one savors, in the wood’s ever more blazing ardor, what is so to speak the tree’s sap overflowing in time. The naïf figures sculpted in it receive something like a twofold nature from the material in which they live. And generations have variously polished all of these Amiens-born fruits, flowers, leaves, and vegetation that the Amiens sculptor sculpted in Amiens wood, thus bringing out those wonderful contrasting tones in which the differently colored leaf stands out from the twig; this brings to mind the noble accents that Mr. Gallé has been able to draw out of the oak’s harmonious heart.


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Strasbourg Cathedral


The cathedral, if Mr. Briand’s bill were passed, would not find itself closed and unable to provide the Mass and prayers just for the canons who perform the services in those stalls whose armrests, misericords, and banister tell of the Old and New Testaments, nor only for the people filling up the immense nave. We were just saying that nearly every image in a cathedral is a symbol. Yet some are not. Such are the painted or sculpted pictures of those who, having contributed their pennies to the decoration of the cathedral, wished to keep a place in it forever, so that they might silently follow the services and noiselessly participate in prayer from a niche’s balustrade or the recess of a stained glass window, in saecula saeculorum. we know that since the oxen of Laon had christianly drawn the construction materials for the cathedral up the hill from which it rises, the architect rewarded them by setting up their statues at the feet of the towers. You can see them to this day as, in the din of the bells and the pooling sunlight, they raise their horned heads above the colossal holy arch towards the horizon of the French plains—their “inner dream.” That was the best that could be done for beasts: for men, better was granted.

They went into the church.  There they took their place, which would be theirs after death and from which, just as during their lifetime, they could go on following the divine sacrifice. In some cases, leaning out of their marble tomb, they turn their heads slightly to the  Gospel or to the Epistle side and are able to glimpse and feel around them, as they can in Brou, the tight and tireless interlacing of crest flowers and initials;  sometimes, as in Dijon, they keep even in their tombs the bright colors of life. In other cases,  from the recess of a stained glass window,  in their crimson, ultramarine, or azure cloaks that catch the sun and blaze up with it, they fill its transparent rays with color and suddenly let them loose, multicolored and aimlessly wandering in the nave, which they tinge with their wild and lazy splendor, with their palpable unreality. Thus they remain donors, who, for this very reason, have deserved perpetual prayers.  And all of them want the Holy Ghost, when He will come down from the Church, really to recognize his own. It is not just the queen and the princes who wear their insignia, their crown, or their collar of the Golden fleece: money changers are portrayed proving the title of coins; furriers sell their furs (see Male for reproductions of those windows); butchers slaughter cows; knights wear their coat of arms; sculptors cut capitals. Oh! all of you in your stained glass windows in Chartres, in Tours, in Bourges, in Sens, in Auxerre, in Troyes, in Clermont-Ferrand, in Toulouse, ye coopers, furriers, grocers, pilgrims, laborers, armorers, weavers, stonemasons, butchers, basket makers, cobblers, money changers, o ye, great silent democracy, ye faithful obstinately wanting to hear the office, who are not dematerialized but more beautiful than in your living days now in the glory of heaven and blood that is your precious glass: no longer will you hear the Mass you had guaranteed for yourselves by donating the best part of your pennies to building this church. As the profound saying goes, the dead no longer govern the living. And the forgetful living stop fulfilling the wishes of the dead.


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Metz Cathedral


But let the ruby coopers and the rose and silver basket makers inscribe the backdrop of their stained glass with the “silent protest” that Mr. Jaurès could so eloquently give us and which we beg him to bring to the ears of the representatives. Leaving aside that innumerable and silent people, the ancestors of the electors for whom the House has such little concern, let us at last summarize:

First: safeguarding the most beautiful works of French architecture and sculpture, which will die on the day that they no longer serve the worship for which they were born, which is their function just as they are its organs, which explains them because it is their soul, makes it the government’s duty to demand that worship be offered in the cathedrals in perpetuity, while the Briand bill authorizes it to turn the cathedrals into whatever museums or conference halls (in the best of cases) it pleases after a few years, and even if the government does not undertake to do so, it authorizes the clergy (and, since it will no longer be subsidized, compels it) no longer to celebrate the offices in them if it finds the rent too high.

Second: the preservation of the greatest historic yet living artistic production imaginable, for the reconstruction of which, if it did not already exist, no one would shrink from spending millions, namely the cathedral Mass, makes it the government’s duty to subsidize the Catholic Church for the upkeep of a worship that is far more relevant to the conservation of the noblest French art (to continue our strictly worldly perspective) than the conservatories, theaters, concert-halls, ancient tragedy reconstitutions at the theater of Orange, etc. etc., all of which enterprises have doubtful artistic aims  and which keep up many weak works (how do Le JourL’Aventurière, or Le Gendre de M. Poirier stand up to the choir of Beauvais or the statues of Rheims?), whereas the masterpiece that is the medieval cathedral, with its thousands of painted or sculpted figures, its chants, its services, is the noblest of all the works to which the genius of France has ever risen.


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Toul Cathedral


And so far in this article we have mentioned only the cathedrals, in order to present the consequences of the Briand bill in their most striking form, the form most apt to shock the reader’s mind.  But obviously this distinction between cathedral churches and others is quite artificial, since it sufficed, on a feast day, to erect the bishop’s cathedra in a church to turn it into a cathedral for a day. What I have said about the cathedrals applies to all the beautiful churches of France, and it is a matter of common knowledge that there are thousands of them. On the French road “so beautiful” among sainfoin fields and apple orchards lining up on either side to let it through, with nearly every step you will see a steeple rising against stormy or peaceful horizons. On mixed days of rain and sun, it is set across a rainbow which, as a mystical halo reflected in the nearby heaven within the half-open church, juxtaposes its rich and distinct stained-glass colors on the sky. With nearly every step you see a steeple rising above the earth-gazing houses as an ideal, soaring amid the bell’s voices with which, if you come near, the birds’ song mingles. Well: you may often positively state that the church above which it rises contains beautiful and grave sculpted and painted thoughts, as well as other thoughts which, since they are not called to the same distinct life, have remained more vague, in a state of beautiful architectural lines that are more obscure yet also more powerful, as well as able to carry our imagination away in their upwards flight or to enclose it entirely within the curve of their pitch. There, from a Romanesque balcony’s charming bannisters or the mysterious threshold of a half-open Gothic porch that unites the sun, sleeping in the shade of the grand trees all around, to the church’s illumined obscurity within, we must go on to see the procession coming out of the multicolored shade falling from the stone trees of the nave and follow, as if in the countryside among the squat pillars and their flowery and fruited capitals, those paths regarding which one may say, as the prophet said of the Lord: “All of his paths are peace.” Finally, we have only mentioned an artistic interest in all of this. This is not to say that the Briand bill does not threaten other interests, or that we are indifferent to them. This, however, is the point of view we wanted to take. The clergy would be mistaken if it refused support from artists. For when one sees how many representatives, once they have finished passing anticlerical laws, go off on a tour of the cathedrals of England, of France, or of Italy, bring back an old chasuble for their wife to turn into a coat or a door-curtain, draw up secularization plans in offices where hangs a photographed version of the Entombment, haggle over an altar-piece volet with an antique dealer, go out into the countryside to fetch church stall fragments to serve as umbrella stands in their parlors, and, on Good Friday, “religiously”, as they say,  listen  to the Missa Papae Marcelli at the “Schola Cantorum” if not at Sainte-Geneviève, one may think that once we persuade all persons of good taste of the government’s duty to subsidize worship, we shall have found allies, and raised against the Briand bill, any number of representatives, even anticlerical ones.

Le Figaro, August 16, 1904

Translated by Prof. John Pepino for Rorate

Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address: Faith, Reason and the University

Benedict XVI at Paul VI Audience Hall, Vatican, 2012

Benedict XVI

It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. That was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors. The various chairs had neither assistants nor secretaries, but in recompense there was much direct contact with students and in particular among the professors themselves. We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas – something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned – the experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason – this reality became a lived experience. The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the “whole” of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.[1] It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor.[2] The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between – as they were called – three “Laws” or “rules of life”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole – which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason”, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις – controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”[3] The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”.[4]

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.[5] The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.[6] Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.[7]

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logosLogos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time. The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply asserts being, “I am”, already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy.[8]Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: “I am”. This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Ps 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature. Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria – the Septuagint – is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.[9] A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which – as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated – unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, “transcends” knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul – “λογικη λατρεία”, worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).[10]

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity – a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.[11]

Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal’s distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue,[12]and I do not intend to repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization. Harnack’s central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. Fundamentally, Harnack’s goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university. Behind this thinking lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant’s “Critiques”, but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield decisive certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology’s claim to be “scientific” would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was an initial inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is – as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector – the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being – but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss”.[13] The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

12 September 2006

[1] Of the total number of 26 conversations (διάλεξις – Khoury translates this as “controversy”) in the dialogue (“Entretien”), T. Khoury published the 7th “controversy” with footnotes and an extensive introduction on the origin of the text, on the manuscript tradition and on the structure of the dialogue, together with brief summaries of the “controversies” not included in the edition;  the Greek text is accompanied by a French translation:  “Manuel II Paléologue, Entretiens avec un Musulman.  7e Controverse”,  Sources Chrétiennes n. 115, Paris 1966.  In the meantime, Karl Förstel published in Corpus Islamico-Christianum (Series Graeca  ed. A. T. Khoury and R. Glei) an edition of the text in Greek and German with commentary:  “Manuel II. Palaiologus, Dialoge mit einem Muslim”, 3 vols., Würzburg-Altenberge 1993-1996.  As early as 1966, E. Trapp had published the Greek text with an introduction as vol. II of Wiener byzantinische Studien.  I shall be quoting from Khoury’s edition.

[2] On the origin and redaction of the dialogue, cf. Khoury, pp. 22-29;  extensive comments in this regard can also be found in the editions of Förstel and Trapp.

[3] Controversy VII, 2 c:  Khoury, pp. 142-143;  Förstel, vol. I, VII. Dialog 1.5, pp. 240-241.  In the Muslim world, this quotation has unfortunately been taken as an expression of my personal position, thus arousing understandable indignation.  I hope that the reader of my text can see immediately that this sentence does not express my personal view of the Qur’an, for which I have the respect due to the holy book of a great religion.  In quoting the text of the Emperor Manuel II, I intended solely to draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason.  On this point I am in agreement with Manuel II, but without endorsing his polemic.

[4] Controversy VII, 3 b–c:  Khoury, pp. 144-145;  Förstel vol. I, VII. Dialog 1.6, pp. 240-243.

[5] It was purely for the sake of this statement that I quoted the dialogue between Manuel and his Persian interlocutor.  In this statement the theme of my subsequent reflections emerges.

[6] Cf. Khoury, p. 144, n. 1.

[7] R. Arnaldez, Grammaire et théologie chez Ibn Hazm de Cordoue, Paris 1956, p. 13;  cf. Khoury, p. 144.  The fact that comparable positions exist in the theology of the late Middle Ages will appear later in my discourse.

[8] Regarding the widely discussed interpretation of the episode of the burning bush, I refer to my book Introduction to Christianity,London 1969, pp. 77-93  (originally published in German as Einführung in das Christentum, Munich 1968;  N.B. the pages quoted refer to the entire chapter entitled “The Biblical Belief in God”).  I think that my statements in that book, despite later developments in the discussion, remain valid today.

[9] Cf. A. Schenker, “L’Écriture sainte subsiste en plusieurs formes canoniques simultanées”, in L’Interpretazione della Bibbia nella Chiesa.  Atti del Simposio promosso dalla Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, Vatican City 2001, pp. 178-186.

[10] On this matter I expressed myself in greater detail in my book The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, pp. 44-50.

[11] Of the vast literature on the theme of dehellenization, I would like to mention above all:  A. Grillmeier, “Hellenisierung-Judaisierung des Christentums als Deuteprinzipien der Geschichte des kirchlichen Dogmas”, in idem, Mit ihm und in ihm.  Christologische Forschungen und Perspektiven,  Freiburg 1975, pp. 423-488.

[12] Newly published with commentary by Heino Sonnemans (ed.):  Joseph Ratzinger-Benedikt XVI, Der Gott des Glaubens und der Gott der Philosophen.  Ein Beitrag zum Problem der theologia naturalis, Johannes-Verlag Leutesdorf, 2nd revised edition, 2005.

[13] Cf. 90 c-d.  For this text, cf. also R. Guardini, Der Tod des Sokrates, 5th edition, Mainz-Paderborn 1987, pp. 218-221.

Pope Benedict XVI: The Listening Heart – Reflections on the Foundations of Law

Benedict XVI, Bressanone, Italy July 31, 2008

Mr President of the Federal Republic,
Mr President of the Bundestag,
Madam Chancellor,
Madam President of the Bundesrat,
Ladies and Gentlemen Members of the House,

It is an honour and a joy for me to speak before this distinguished house, before the Parliament of my native Germany, that meets here as a democratically elected representation of the people, in order to work for the good of the Federal Republic of Germany. I should like to thank the President of the Bundestag both for his invitation to deliver this address and for the kind words of greeting and appreciation with which he has welcomed me. At this moment I turn to you, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, not least as your fellow-countryman who for all his life has been conscious of close links to his origins, and has followed the affairs of his native Germany with keen interest. But the invitation to give this address was extended to me as Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, who bears the highest responsibility for Catholic Christianity. In issuing this invitation you are acknowledging the role that the Holy See plays as a partner within the community of peoples and states. Setting out from this international responsibility that I hold, I should like to propose to you some thoughts on the foundations of a free state of law.

Allow me to begin my reflections on the foundations of law [Recht] with a brief story from sacred Scripture. In the First Book of the Kings, it is recounted that God invited the young King Solomon, on his accession to the throne, to make a request. What will the young ruler ask for at this important moment? Success – wealth – long life – destruction of his enemies? He chooses none of these things. Instead, he asks for a listening heart so that he may govern God’s people, and discern between good and evil (cf. 1 Kg 3:9). Through this story, the Bible wants to tell us what should ultimately matter for a politician. His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work as a politician must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace. Naturally a politician will seek success, without which he would have no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet success is subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right. Success can also be seductive and thus can open up the path towards the falsification of what is right, towards the destruction of justice. “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”, as Saint Augustine once said. We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty spectre. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right – a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss. To serve right and to fight against the dominion of wrong is and remains the fundamental task of the politician. At a moment in history when man has acquired previously inconceivable power, this task takes on a particular urgency. Man can destroy the world. He can manipulate himself. He can, so to speak, make human beings and he can deny them their humanity. How do we recognize what is right? How can we discern between good and evil, between what is truly right and what may appear right? Even now, Solomon’s request remains the decisive issue facing politicians and politics today.

For most of the matters that need to be regulated by law, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion. Yet it is evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws. In the third century, the great theologian Origen provided the following explanation for the resistance of Christians to certain legal systems: “Suppose that a man were living among the Scythians, whose laws are contrary to the divine law, and was compelled to live among them … such a man for the sake of the true law, though illegal among the Scythians, would rightly form associations with like-minded people contrary to the laws of the Scythians.”[1]

This conviction was what motivated resistance movements to act against the Nazi regime and other totalitarian regimes, thereby doing a great service to justice and to humanity as a whole. For these people, it was indisputably evident that the law in force was actually unlawful. Yet when it comes to the decisions of a democratic politician, the question of what now corresponds to the law of truth, what is actually right and may be enacted as law, is less obvious. In terms of the underlying anthropological issues, what is right and may be given the force of law is in no way simply self-evident today. The question of how to recognize what is truly right and thus to serve justice when framing laws has never been simple, and today in view of the vast extent of our knowledge and our capacity, it has become still harder.

How do we recognize what is right? In history, systems of law have almost always been based on religion: decisions regarding what was to be lawful among men were taken with reference to the divinity. Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God. Christian theologians thereby aligned themselves with a philosophical and juridical movement that began to take shape in the second century B.C. In the first half of that century, the social natural law developed by the Stoic philosophers came into contact with leading teachers of Roman Law.[2] Through this encounter, the juridical culture of the West was born, which was and is of key significance for the juridical culture of mankind. This pre-Christian marriage between law and philosophy opened up the path that led via the Christian Middle Ages and the juridical developments of the Age of Enlightenment all the way to the Declaration of Human Rights and to our German Basic Law of 1949, with which our nation committed itself to “inviolable and inalienable human rights as the foundation of every human community, and of peace and justice in the world”.

For the development of law and for the development of humanity, it was highly significant that Christian theologians aligned themselves against the religious law associated with polytheism and on the side of philosophy, and that they acknowledged reason and nature in their interrelation as the universally valid source of law. This step had already been taken by Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans, when he said: “When Gentiles who have not the Law [the Torah of Israel] do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves … they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness …” (Rom 2:14f.). Here we see the two fundamental concepts of nature and conscience, where conscience is nothing other than Solomon’s listening heart, reason that is open to the language of being. If this seemed to offer a clear explanation of the foundations of legislation up to the time of the Enlightenment, up to the time of the Declaration on Human Rights after the Second World War and the framing of our Basic Law, there has been a dramatic shift in the situation in the last half-century. The idea of natural law is today viewed as a specifically Catholic doctrine, not worth bringing into the discussion in a non-Catholic environment, so that one feels almost ashamed even to mention the term. Let me outline briefly how this situation arose. Fundamentally it is because of the idea that an unbridgeable gulf exists between “is” and “ought”. An “ought” can never follow from an “is”, because the two are situated on completely different planes. The reason for this is that in the meantime, the positivist understanding of nature has come to be almost universally accepted. If nature – in the words of Hans Kelsen – is viewed as “an aggregate of objective data linked together in terms of cause and effect”, then indeed no ethical indication of any kind can be derived from it.[3] A positivist conception of nature as purely functional, as the natural sciences consider it to be, is incapable of producing any bridge to ethics and law, but once again yields only functional answers. The same also applies to reason, according to the positivist understanding that is widely held to be the only genuinely scientific one. Anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable, according to this understanding, does not belong to the realm of reason strictly understood. Hence ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field, and they remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word. Where positivist reason dominates the field to the exclusion of all else – and that is broadly the case in our public mindset – then the classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are excluded. This is a dramatic situation which affects everyone, and on which a public debate is necessary. Indeed, an essential goal of this address is to issue an urgent invitation to launch one.

The positivist approach to nature and reason, the positivist worldview in general, is a most important dimension of human knowledge and capacity that we may in no way dispense with. But in and of itself it is not a sufficient culture corresponding to the full breadth of the human condition. Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity. I say this with Europe specifically in mind, where there are concerted efforts to recognize only positivism as a common culture and a common basis for law-making, reducing all the other insights and values of our culture to the level of subculture, with the result that Europe vis-à-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum. In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.

But how are we to do this? How do we find our way out into the wide world, into the big picture? How can reason rediscover its true greatness, without being sidetracked into irrationality? How can nature reassert itself in its true depth, with all its demands, with all its directives? I would like to recall one of the developments in recent political history, hoping that I will neither be misunderstood, nor provoke too many one-sided polemics. I would say that the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s, while it has not exactly flung open the windows, nevertheless was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives. In saying this, I am clearly not promoting any particular political party – nothing could be further from my mind. If something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture. Allow me to dwell a little longer on this point. The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.

Let us come back to the fundamental concepts of nature and reason, from which we set out. The great proponent of legal positivism, Kelsen, at the age of 84 – in 1965 – abandoned the dualism of “is” and “ought”. (I find it comforting that rational thought is evidently still possible at the age of 84!) Previously he had said that norms can only come from the will. Nature therefore could only contain norms, he adds, if a will had put them there. But this, he says, would presuppose a Creator God, whose will had entered into nature. “Any attempt to discuss the truth of this belief is utterly futile”, he observed.[4] Is it really? – I find myself asking. Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus?

At this point Europe’s cultural heritage ought to come to our assistance. The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.

As he assumed the mantle of office, the young King Solomon was invited to make a request. How would it be if we, the law-makers of today, were invited to make a request? What would we ask for? I think that, even today, there is ultimately nothing else we could wish for but a listening heart – the capacity to discern between good and evil, and thus to establish true law, to serve justice and peace. I thank you for your attention!

Reichstag Building, Berlin
Thursday, 22 September 2011

[1] Contra Celsum, Book 1, Chapter 1. Cf. A. Fürst, “Monotheismus und Monarchie. Zum Zusammenhang von Heil und Herrschaft in der Antike”, Theol.Phil. 81 (2006), pp. 321-338, quoted on p. 336; cf. also J. Ratzinger, Die Einheit der Nationen. Eine Vision der Kirchenväter (Salzburg and Munich, 1971), p. 60.

[2] Cf. W. Waldstein, Ins Herz geschrieben. Das Naturrecht als Fundament einer menschlichen Gesellschaft (Augsburg, 2010), pp. 11ff., 31-61.

[3] Cf. Waldstein, op. cit., pp. 15-21.

[4] Cf. Waldstein, op. cit., p. 19.

On rigor in science by Jorge Luis Borges


Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges


. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these Immeasurable Maps did not satisfy and the College of Cartographers built a Map of the Empire, that was of the Size of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. the Following Generations who were Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, understood that that dilated Map was Useless and not without Pitilessness they delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and the Winters. In the Deserts of the West endure tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole country there is no other relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suárez Miranda: Travels of Prudent Men, Book Four, Ch. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

Stories and Totalitarianism by Václav Havel

Václav Havel

A friend of mine who is heavily asthmatic was sentenced, for political reasons, to several years in prison, where he suffered a great deal because his cellmates smoked and he could scarcely breathe. All his requests to be moved to a cell with nonsmokers were ignored. His health, and perhaps even his life, were threatened. An American woman who learned of this and wanted to help telephoned an acquaintance, an editor on an important American daily. Could he write something about it, she asked. “Call me when the man dies,” was the editor’s reply.

It’s a shocking incident but in some ways understandable. Newspapers need a story. Asthma is not a story. Death could make it one.

In Prague there is only one Western news agency with longterm accreditation. In Lebanon, a country far smaller than Czechoslovakia, there are reporters by the hundreds. Perhaps this is understandable, for, as they say, “Nothing is happening here.” Lebanon, on the other hand, is full of stories. It is also a land of murder, war, death. But as long as humans can remember, death has been the point at which all the lines of every real story converge.

Our condition is like that of my friend: we are unworthy of attention because we have no stories, and no death. We have only asthma. And why should anyone be interested in listening to our cough?

One can’t go on writing forever about how hard it is to breathe.

It doesn’t bother me that terrorists are not on the loose here, or that there are no big scandals over corruption in high places, and no violent demonstrations or strikes.

What bothers me is something else: that this remarkable absence of newsworthy stories is not an expression of social harmony, but the outward consequence of a dangerous and profound process: the destruction of “the story” altogether. Almost every day I am struck by the ambiguity of this social quiescence, which is the visible expression of an invisible war between the totalitarian system and life itself.

It is not true that Czechoslovakia is free of warfare and murder. The war and the killing assume a different form: they have been shifted from the daylight of observable public events, to the twilight of unobservable inner destruction. It would seem that the absolute, “classical” death of which one reads in stories (and which for all the terrors it holds is still mysteriously able to impart meaning to human life) has been replaced here by another kind of death: the slow, secretive, bloodless, never quite-absolute, yet horrifyingly ever-present death of non-action, non-story, non-life, and non-time; the collectively deadening, or more precisely, anesthetizing, process of social and historical nihilization. This nihilization annuls death as such, and thus annuls life as such: the life of an individual becomes the dull and uniform functioning of a component in a large machine, and his death is merely something chat puts him out of commission.

All the evidence suggests that this state of things is the intrinsic expression of an advanced and stabilized totalitarian system, growing directly out of its essence.

Visitors from the West are often shocked to find that for Czechs, Chernobyl and AIDS are not a source of horror, but rather a subject forjokes.

I must admit this doesn’t surprise me. Because totalitarian nihilization is utterly immaterial, it is less visible, more present, and more dangerous than the AIDS virus or radioactivity from Chernobyl. On the other hand, it touches each of us more intimately and more urgently and even, in a sense, more physically, than either AIDS or radiation, since we all know it from everyday, personal experience and not just from news~ papers and television. Is it any wonder, then, that the less menacing, less insidious, and less intimate threats are relegated to the background and made light of?

There is another reason for the triumph of invisibility. The destruction of the story means the destruction of a basic instrument of human knowledge and self-knowledge. Totalitarian nihilization denies people the possibility of observing and understanding its processes “from outside.” There are only two alternatives: either you experience it directly, or you know nothing about it. This menace permits no public reference to itself.

The foreign tourist can form the legitimate impression that Czechoslovakia is a poorer and duller Switzerland, and that press agencies have a legitimate reason for closing their bureaus here: how can they be expected to report that there is nothing to report?

I will attempt to make a few observations on the origin and nature of our asthma.

I will attempt to show that the disappearance of the story from this corner of the world is a story in itself.

In the fifties there were enormous concentration camps in Czechoslovakia filled with tens of thousands of innocent people. At the same time, building sites were swarming with tens of thousands of young enthusiasts of the new faith singing songs of socialist construction. There were tortures and executions, dramatic flights across borders, conspiracies, and at the same time, panegyrics were being written to the chief dictator. The President of the Republic signed the death war rants for his closest friends, but you could still sometimes meet him on the street.

The songs of idealists and fanatics, political criminals on the rampage, the suffering of heroes-these have always been part of history. The fifties were a bad time in Czechoslovakia, but there have been many such times in human history. It still shared something, or at least bore comparison with those other periods; it still resembled history. No one could have said that nothing was happening, or that the age did not have its stories.

The blueprint for political power in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968 was a document called “Lessons from the Years of Crisis.” It was an appropriate title; the powers that be really did learn a lesson from the Prague Spring. They discovered how far things can go when the door to a plurality of opinions and interests is opened: the totalitarian system itself is jeopardized. Having learned this lesson, political power set itself a single aim: self-preservation. In a process with its own, mindless dynamic, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms. Henceforth nothing could be left to chance.

The past twenty years in Czechoslovakia can almost serve as a textbook illustration of how an advanced or late totalitarian system works. Revolutionary ethos and terror have been replaced by dull inertia, pretexaridden caution, bureaucratic anonymity, and mindless, stereotypical behavior, all of which aim exclusively at becoming more and more what they already are.

The songs of zealots and the cries of the tortured are no longer heard; lawlessness has put on kid gloves and moved from the torture chambers into the upholstered offices of faceless bureaucrats. If the President of the Republic is seen in the street at all, he is behind the bulletproof glass of his limousine as it roars off to the airport, surrounded by a police escort, to meet Colonel Qaddafi.

The advanced totalitarian system depends on manipulatory devices so refined, complex, and powerful that it no longer needs murderers and victims. Even less does it need fiery Utopia builders spreading discontent with dreams of a better future. The epithet “Real Socialism,” which this era has coined to describe itself, points a finger at those for whom it has no room: the dreamers.

Every story begins with an event. This event-understood as the incursion of one logic into the world of another logicinitiates what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships, conflict. The story has a logic of its own as well, but it is the logic of a dialogue, an encounter, the interaction of different truths, attitudes, ideas, traditions, passions, people, higher powers, social movements, and so on, that is, of many autonomous, separate forces, which had done nothing beforehand to define each other. Every story presupposes a plurality of truths, of logics, of agents of decisions, and of manners of behavior. The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable. We never really know what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it, and how it will end; it is never clear what potential qualities it will arouse in a protagonist and what action he will be led to perform by the action of his antagonist. For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other.

The fundamental pillar of the present totalitarian system is the existence of one central agent of all truth and all power, an institutionalized “rationale of history,” which becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity. Public life ceases to be an arena where different, more or less autonomous agents square off, and becomes no more than the manifestation and fulfillment of the truth and the will of this single agent. In a world governed by this principle, there is no room for mystery; ownership of complete truth means that everything is known ahead of time. Where everything is known ahead of time, the story has nothing to grow out of.

Obviously, the totalitarian system is in essence (and in principle) directed against the story.

When the story is destroyed, the feeling of historicity disappears as well. I remember the early seventies in Czechoslovakia as a time when something like a “cessation of history” took place; public life seemed to lose its structure, its impulse, its direction, its tension, its rhythm, its mystery. I can’t remember what happened when, or what made one year different from another, and I don’t think it matters much, for when the unforeseeable disappears, the sensation of meaning disappears with it.

History was replaced by pseudo-history, by a calendar of rhythmically recurring anniversaries, congresses, celebrations, and mass gymnastic events; by the kind of artificial activity that is not an open-ended play of agents confronting one another but a one-dimensional, transparent, predictable self-manifestation (and self-celebration) of a single, central agent of truth and power.

And since human time can only be experienced through story and history, the experience of time itself began to disappear: time seemed to stand still or go in circles, to disintegrate into interchangeable fragments. The march of events out of nowhere and to nowhere lost its storylike character and thus lost any deeper meaning as well. When the horizon of historicity was lost, life became nonsense.

Totalitarian power brought bureaucratic order into the living disorder of history and thus effectively anesthetized it. In a sense, the government nationalized time. Thanks to that, time encountered the same sad fate as many other nationalized entities: it began to wither away.

As I’ve said, the revolutionary ethos in Czechoslovakia has long since vanished. We are no longer governed by fanatics, revolutionaries, or ideological zealots. The country is administered by faceless bureaucrats who profess adherence to a revolutionary ideology, but look out only for themselves, and no longer believe in anything. The original ideology has become a formalized ritual that gives them legitimacy in space and time, and provides them with a language for internal communication.

Oddly enough, it is only recently that this ideology has begun to bear its most important fruit, to manifest its deepest consequences.

How are we to explain this?

Simply: by the age and the deeply conservative (in the sense of preserving) nature of the system. The further it gets from its original revolutionary fervor, the more slavishly it clings to all its constitutive principles, which it sees as the only certainty in an uncertain world. Inevitably, through its own mindless, automatic motion, it gradually transforms those principles into a monstrous reality. The ceaseless strengthening and perfecting of totalitarian structures has long since come to serve only the naked self-preservation of power, but this is the best guarantee that what was genetically encoded in the original ideology will flourish undisturbed. The fanatic whose unpredictable zeal for the “higher cause” might threaten this automatic process has been replaced by the bureaucratic pedant whose reliable lack of ideas makes him an ideal guardian of late totalitarianism’s vacuous continuity.

The phenomenon of totalitarian nihilization is one of the late fruits of an ideology that has already gone to seed.

The totalitarian system did not fall from the sky fully developed. Nor is it the work of a pervert who has got his hands on a scalpel designed to remove malignant growths and begun killing healthy people with it.

We need only penetrate the tissue of various dialectical sprouts to discover that the germ of this nihilization lies dormant in the heart of the ideology the system is based upon: in its belief that it has fully understood the world and revealed the truth about it. And if the main territory of that belief is history, is it any wonder that its nihilizing intention radiates most strongly from its approach to history?

It began with an interpretation of history from a single aspect, then made that aspect absolute, and finally reduced all of history to that one aspect. The exciting variety of history was discarded in favor of an orderly, easily understood interplay of “historical laws,” “social groups,” and “relations of production,” so pleasing to the eye of the scientist. But this gradually expelled from history the very thing that gives human life, time, and thus history itself a structure: the story. And the story took with it into the kingdom of unmeaning its two essential ingredients: uniqueness and ambiguity. Since the mystery in a story is the articulated mystery of man, history began to lose its human content. The uniqueness of the human creature became a mere embellishment on the laws of history, and the tension and thrill in real events were dismissed as accidental and therefore unworthy of the attention of scholarship. History became boredom.

The nihilization of the past nihilizes the future as well: when the “laws of history” were projected into the future, what would be and what had to be suddenly became obvious. The bright glare of this certainty burned away the essence of the future: its openness. Plans to make an earthly paradise the final end of history, to rid the world of social conflict, of negative human qualities, and even of misery, climaxed the work of destruction. Society was petrified into a fiction of everlasting harmony, and man into a stone monument representing the permanent proprietor of happiness-these were the silent consummations of the intellectual assassination of history.

Yet by presenting itself as an instrument for history’s ultimate return to itself, ideology unwittingly admits to its own destructiveness. The claim is that through ideology, history has finally understood itself, understood where it is going and how it must proceed: that is, under ideology’s guidance. Ideology revealed the historical necessity of what ought to happen, and in doing so, confirmed the historical necessity of itself, whose mission it is to fulfill that necessity- In other words, history has at last discovered its final meaning. The question is, however, does history that has discovered its own meaning still have any meaning? And is it history anymore?

Ideology, claiming to base its authority on history, becomes history’s greatest enemy.

But the hostility is double-edged: if ideology destroys history by explaining it completely, then history destroys ideology by unfolding in an unpredictable way.

Ideology, of course, can destroy history only ideologically, but the power based on that ideology can suppress history in real ways. In fact, it has no choice: if history, by unfolding unpredictably, were allowed to demonstrate that ideology is wrong, it would deprive power of its legitimacy.

By negating history, power is defending not just its ideological legitimacy, but its identity as totalitarian power. This identity too has a firm ideological anchorage: the principle that there is a single central agent of truth and power could scarcely have come into existence, let alone develop and grow strong, had it not initially drawn strength from an ideology that so smugly disdained any viewpoint but its own, and so proudly declared its historical mission, and all the prerogatives this mission endowed it with. After all, totalitarian power has been fed and weaned and to this day is imbued with the intolerant spirit of this ideology, which sees plurality only as a necessary evil, or as a formality. And its central principle is nothing more than the consistent working-through of the original ideology and the perfect incarnation of its vanity; as its legitimate product, it draws on ideology’ nihilizing energy, so that it can put the theories of ideology successfully into practice.

The asthma our society is now suffering from is a natural continuation of the war that intellectual arrogance once declared on the story, on history, and thus on life itself.

Boredom has jumped out of the history textbooks and into real life.

Any fledgling totalitarian power tries first to limit and ultimately to eliminate other sources of power. The C~rst to go is political plurality. But along with it, or shortly afterwards, intellectual and economic plurality disappear as well, since any power that respects these pluralities would not be total.

First, then, the story is driven out of public life.

By virtue of its own specific gravity-its totalitarian gravity-this power deepens its totality and extends its range. Once the claims of central power have been placed above law and morality, once the exercise of that power is divested of public control, and once the institutional guarantees of political plurality and civil rights have been made a mockery of, or simply abolished, there is no reason to respect any other limitations. The expansion of central power does not stop at the frontier between the public and the private, but instead, arbitrarily pushes back that border until it is shamelessly intervening in areas that once were private. For example, a club of pigeon fanciers that had enjoyed a kind of autonomy now suddenly find themselves scrutinized by the central power. Today, that power walks through my bugged bedroom and distinguishes my breathing, which is my own private matter, from what I say, which the state cannot be indifferent to.

When opposition parties are banned and censorship has been introduced, the attack on the story and thus on life itself is not over; it is just beginning.

Because they are better hidden, indirect interventions are in some ways more dangerous. Public life is not as sharply distinguished from private life as it used to be. Countless phenomena in modern civilization bind the two spheres together, and so they have become two faces, two poles, or two dimensions of a single and indivisible life. Though it sometimes happens in complex and hidden ways, everything that takes place in the public sphere eventually influences and shapes the private sphere. When public life is nihilized, private life is distorted and ultimately nihilized too. Every measure taken to establish more complete control over the former has a pernicious effect on the latter.

The attack on plurality and on the story and on public territory is therefore not an attack on a single side of life; it is an attack on all of life.

The web of direct and indirect manipulation is a straitjacket that binds life and necessarily limits the ways it can appear to itself and structure itself. And so it languishes, declines, wastes away. It is cheapened and leveled. It becomes pseudo-life.

While I was in prison, I realized again and again how much more present, compared with life outside, the story was. Almost every prisoner had a life story that was unique and shocking, or moving. As I listened to those different stories, I suddenly found myself in something like a pre-totalitarian world, or in the world of literature. Whatever else I may have thought of my fellow prisoners’ colorful narratives, they were not documents of totalitarian nihilization. On the contrary, they testified to the rebelliousness with which human uniqueness resists its own nihilization, and the stubbornness with which it holds to its own and is willing to ignore this negating pressure. Regardless of whether crime or misfortune was predominant in any given story, the faces in that world were specific and personal. When I got back from prison, I wrote somewhere that in a cell of twenty-four people you can probably encounter more real stories than in a high-rise development housing several thousand. People truly afflicted with asthma-those colorless, servile, obedient, homogenized, herdlike citizens of the totalitarian state-are not found in large numbers in prison. Instead, prison tends to be a gathering place for people who stand out in one way or another, the unclassifiable misfits, real individuals with all sorts of obsessions, people who are unable to conform.

There has probably always been a greater concentration of people in prison who stand out in some way. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that what I observed when I was there myself bears directly on conditions under totalitarianism. The nature of many of the stories confirmed this.

On the whole, it’s logical: the wider the scope of the instruments by which the system manipulates, de-individualizes, and circumscribes life, the more powerful its embrace, the more thoroughly everything unique is pushed to the periphery of “normal” life and ultimately beyond it, into prison. The repressive apparatus that sends people to jail is an organic part and, indeed, the culmination of the general pressure totalitarianism exerts against life: without this extreme threat, many other threats would lose their credibility- It is certainly no accident that, proportionally, Czechoslovakia has many times more prisoners than the United States. Criminality I mean real criminality-cannot be that much greater in Czechoslovakia.

What is greater is the demand for uniformity and its consequence: the criminalization of difference and variety.

If the agents entering into a story can fully manifest their individuality only as the story unfolds, in other words if individuality requires a story to become what it is, then by the same token a story assumes and requires individuality. Without unique-mutually distinguishable-individuals, the story could never get off the ground. Individuality and story are therefore like Siamese twins that cannot be separated.

They also have a common abode: plurality. Individuality, like the story, cannot exist without plurality, since individuality is only possible alongside another individuality with which it can be compared and contrasted; where there are not many individualities, there are none at all.

An attack on plurality is therefore an attack both on the story and on individuality. Indeed, the world of advanced totalitarianism is outstanding for the remarkable decline of individuality; a veil of vague, expressionless indistinguishability clings to everything, coloring it all gray. Paradoxically, this veil clings to its source as well: in banishing all other comparable individual agents from its own world, the central agent divests itself of its own individuality too. Hence the strange facelessness, transparency, and elusiveness of power, hence the blandness of its language, the anonymity of its decisions. Hence too its irresponsibility, for how can an agent be genuinely responsible when its identity is so blurred and when, moreover-because it is so isolated-there is no one left for it to be responsible to?

This antipathy to individuality is not something planned by the individuals who rule, but an intrinsic expression of late totalitarianism. Its centralism cannot co-exist with individuality. If we mix all the colors together, we get a dirty brown. The intention of totalitarianism is to make everything totally the same. Its fruit is uniformity, Gleichschaltung, and the herd mentality.

Standardized life creates standardized citizens with no wills of their own. It begets undifferentiated people with undifferentiated stories. It is a mass-producer of banality.

Anyone who resists too much, or despairs too much, or insists too much on having something of his own that exceeds the norm, or who tries to escape the standardized nothingness-either internally or by going abroad-in other words, anyone who sets himself apart is already on his way to a place where he will no longer disrupt the prescribed forms of social life: to jail.

Once a place where crimes were punished, prison is now a “correctional institute”: a wastebasket for peculiar humans and their bizarre stories.

Whenever I found myself in a new cell, I was asked where I was from, and when I replied, “Prague,” the question always came back: “Whereabouts in Prague?”

It would never have occurred to me to say I was from Dejvice, so at first the question surprised me. But very quickly I understood it: in this old-fashioned world of individual stories a thing as old-fashioned as a city quarter still plays a role. Obviously there are still people for whom Dejvice, Holešovice, or Liben are not just addresses but a real home. People who have not capitulated to the standardizing and nihilizing pressure of the modern housing estate (where you can no longer tell what city you’re in) and who still cling to their streets, the pubs on their corners, the former grocery store across the road-and to the mysterious and secret meaning of the stories connected to these localities.

The most natural of questions-where is your home?-I have heard asked most often in prison.

The history of the system I live in has demonstrated persuasively that without a plurality of economic initiatives, and of people who participate in them, without competition, without a marketplace and its institutional guarantees, an economy will stagnate and decline.

Why then does this system so stubbornly resist all attempts to restore these proven instruments of economic life? Why is it that all such efforts have so far either been half baked or else repressed?

The deepest reason is not the leaders’ fear that it will conflict with the ideology, nor their personal conservatism, nor even the fear that if the center gives up its economic power, it will give up its political power as well.

The real reason, in my opinion, lies-again-in the totalitarian essence of the system itself, in its overwhelming inertia. It cannot relinquish its control of such an enormous and vital part of life as the economy. If it were to recognize the institutional guarantees of economic plurality and undertake to respect them, it would be acknowledging the legitimacy of something beyond its own claims to total power. This would deny its own totalitarian nature and it would cease to be itself. So far, overwhelming inertia has always prevented the system from carrying out this ontological self-destruction. (A stronger power may someday arise to oppose this inertia and compel the system genuinely to relinquish its essence, but this has never yet happened, anywhere.)

When he can no longer participate with relative autonomy in economic life, man loses some of his social and human individuality, and part of his hope of creating his own human story.

I mention this now because although the standardizing and therefore nihilizing impact of political and intellectual centralization is clear, the analogous impact of economic centralization-as one of the indirect methods of manipulating life in general-is far from being so obvious. And that is what makes it more dangerous.

Where there is no natural plurality of economic initiatives, the interplay of competing producers and their entrepreneurial ideas disappears, along with the interplay of supply and demand, the labor and commodity markets, and voluntary employer-employee relations. Gone too are the stimuli to creativity and its attendant risks, the drama of economic success and failure. Man as a producer ceases to be a participant or a creator in the economic story, and becomes an instrument. Everyone is an employee of the state, which is the one proprietor of economic truth and power. Everyone is buried in the anonymity of the collective economic “non-story.”

When economic plurality disappears, the motives for competition in the marketplace of consumer goods disappear with it. The central power may talk all it wants about “satisfying differentiated needs” but the pressures of a nonpluralistic economy compel it to do exactly the opposite: to integrate production, standardize goods, and narrow the range of choice. In this artificial economic world, diversity is merely a complication.

Not only do consumers have to depend (as all who live in modern industrial societies do) almost exclusively on commodities they have not produced themselves; they do not have a choice of different commodities, and cannot express their individuality even in this limited way. All they have is what has been allocated by the monopoly producer: the same things that have been allocated to everyone.

A centralized furniture designer may not be the most typical representative of the totalitarian system, but as one who unconsciously realizes its nihilizing intentions, he may have more impact than five government ministers together. Millions of people have no choice but to spend their lives surrounded by his furniture.

Let me exaggerate deliberately. It would be to the greatest advantage of a centrally directed system of production if only one type of a prefabricated panel were produced, from which one type of apartment building would be constructed; these buildings in turn would be fitted with a single kind of door, door handle, window, toilet, washbasin, and so on, and together this would create a single type of housing development constructed according to one standardized urban development plan, with minor adjustments for landscape, given the regrettable irregularity of the earth’s surface. (In each apartment, of course, there would be the same kind of television set showing the same program-)

Imperceptibly but irresistibly, not deliberately but inevitably, everything begins to resemble everything else: buildings, clothing, workplaces, public decorations, public transport, the forms of entertainment, the behavior of people in public and in their own homes.

This standardization of public and private spaces has a standardizing effect on life and its rhythms, narrowing the sphere of desires and aversions, of sensual experience and taste. It flattens the world and the people in it.

In such an environment, stories become interchangeable. Is it any wonder that an ambitious reporter would rather risk his life in Lebanon?

If a citizen of our country wishes to travel abroad, get a new job, exchange his apartment or his stove, organize an amateur event, he is usually compelled to undertake a long and exhausting march through various offices for the necessary permits, certificates, recommendations, and he must frequently demean himself or bite his tongue. It is tiring, boring, and debilitating. Many people, out of disgust, or for fear it will drag them down, quickly give up on their most personal plans.

In doing so, they renounce something of their own potential story. It may be something of little importance. But the process of surrendering oneself begins with small matters.

Obviously, then, the bureaucratic regulation of the everyday details of people’s lives is another indirect instrument of nihilization. It is here that public matters infiltrate private life in a way that is very “ordinary,” but extremely persistent. The sheer number of small pressures that we are subjected to every day is more important than it may seem at first, because it encloses the space in which we are condemned to breathe.

There is very little air in that space. But not so little that we might suffocate, and thus create a story.

These examples do not exhaust the ways in which the totalitarian system, directly and indirectly, negates life.

The elimination of political plurality deprives society of a means to structure itself, because it prevents a variety of interests and opinions and traditions from proclaiming their presence. The drastic curtailment of intellectual plurality makes it hard for a person to choose a way co relate to Being, to the world, and to himself. Culture and information controlled from the center narrow the horizon against which people mature. The demand for unquestioning loyalty forces people to become bit players in empty rituals. People cease to be autonomous and self-confident participants in the life of the community and become instruments with which the central agent fulfills itself The ever present danger of being punished for any original expression compels one to move cautiously across the quicksand of one’s potential, a pointlessly exhausting process. The network of bureaucratic limitations affects everything from one’s choice of study or profession to the possibility of travel, the limits of admissible creative initiative, right down to the extent and kind of personal ownership, and all of this shrinks the space one has to act in. The total claim of the central power-respecting only those limits it imposes upon itself for practical reasons at a given moment-creates a state of general nervousness: no one is ever sure of the ground he stands on, or what he may venture to do, and what he may not, or what may happen to him if he does. The sway of this power over the executive authority of the legislature and the judiciary, coupled with the actual omnipotence of the police makes people insecure. The imperious vanity of the administrative apparatus, its anonymity, the extinction of individual responsibility in the faceless pseudo-responsibility of the system (anyone may offer excuses for anything, or be accused of anything, since the will of centralized power recognizes no arbitrator in any dispute with an individual) creates a sensation of helplessness and cripples the will to live one’s own life.

All of that together-and much that is more subtle-lies behind our asthma.

On the surface of things, everything goes on just as it does anywhere else: people work, have fun, make love, die. Beneath this surface a destructive disease is gnawing away.

“Call me when the man dies.”

In this case the patient will not die. Nevertheless, to keep his disease a secret amounts to encouraging its spread.

In recent years, several very good film comedies have been made in Czechoslovakia that were successful at home and abroad. A couple of them were even nominated for Oscars.

However much I may enjoy such films, I can’t shake the feeling there’s something not right about them. American audiences, who do not have to suffer daily the asthma that prevails here, see nothing wrong with them.

What do these films have in common?

One important thing, I think: the stories they tell lack historical background. No matter how many superficial and ornamental techniques these films employ to suggest a specific locality and moment in time, they seem to exist outside space and time. The stories they tell could have happened anywhere.

There are two ways in which totalitarian pressure removes their historicity: directly, through censorship and self-censorship, both of which have evolved a sophisticated sensitivity to anything that might capture the historical dimension of life; and indirectly, by the destruction of historicity in life itself It is, of course, extremely difficult to grasp the historic quality of a moment when a global attack on the very notion of history is taking place, because it means trying to tell the story of the loss of story, the story of asthma.

This double pressure forces a creative person to turn his attention to private life. And yet-as I’ve said-private and public life today (particularly under totalitarianism) are inseparable; they are like two linked vessels, and one cannot be represented truthfully if the other is ignored. Private life without an historical dimension is a facade and a lie.

Indeed, the picture of life that has been artificially reduced to its purely private dimension (or provided with superficial reminders of the public dimension, while skirting around everything essential in that dimension) inevitably becomes a strange anecdote, a genre picture, a familiar cliché, a fairy tale, a fiction concocted from thousands of living individualities. In such a presentation, even the most private life is oddly distorted, sometimes to the point where it becomes implausibly bizarre, the paradoxical outcome of a paralyzing desire for verisimilitude. It is obvious what has made this desire so intense: the subconscious need to compensate for the absence of the opposite pole-truth. It is as though life in this case were stripped of its inner tension, its true tragedy and greatness, its questions. The more charmingly all of its superficial features are caricatured, the more seriously the work misses the point. Imitating life, it falsifies it. Calligraphy replaces drawing.

In the films I’m talking about, what I miss is not this or that concrete bit of political detail. Some details from political reality are always there, sometimes more than is good for the work. I miss something else: a free vision of life as a whole. This is not a matter of theme: I can well imagine a film about nothing more than love and jealousy, yet where this freedom would not be lacking.

During the Nazi occupation, several popular film comedies were made in Czechoslovakia. They were remarkable for a similar a historicity and the untruths that flowed from it. Here again it wasn’t the theme that was at fault: it wasn’t images from concentration camps that I found lacking. I missed an inner freedom, and felt that their humor was only a slick way of making a virtue from necessity.

You can always tell in the end.

The domestic success of today’s Czech film comedies has a problematic side to it. People find in them an odd consolation: their illusions are confirmed, that the asthma does not really exist and that, to the extent that it does exist, they can live with it; that it’s not really important; that their lives have not been as ravaged as they sometimes seem in bad moments. It is pacifying.

These films tell unique stories. But they do not show the nihilizing pressure against which these stories were brought to life. People are thrilled to find that stories still exist. They are elated, and end up kidding themselves: they forget that the story is on(y on the screen. That it is not their story.

I don’t know if there is anywhere to hide from the AIDS virus.

It seems to me, however, that there is no hiding place, no reservation, where one is safe from the virus of nihilization.

There is one sphere where the symptoms of our asthma can be observed better by a foreigner than by someone suffering from it. That sphere is the visible face of the daily life of society. We have long since got used to this face. But more than one observant visitor has been shocked by it.

Ride the escalators in the Prague subway and watch the faces of people going in the opposite direction. This journey is a pause in the daily rat race, a sudden stoppage of life, a frozen moment that may reveal more about us than we know. Perhaps it is one of those “moments of truth” when a person suddenly stands outside all relationships; he is in public, but alone with himself. The faces moving past are empty, strained, almost lifeless, without hope, without longing, without desire. The eyes are dull.

Or observe how people behave toward each other in stores, in offices, and on the streetcars: they tend to be surly, selfish, impolite, and disobliging; for the counter staff, customers are often an imposition: they serve while talking among themselves. When asked a question, they reply with distaste (if they know an answer at all). Drivers yell at each other, people in lineups elbow ahead and snap at each other. Bureaucrats don’t care how many people are waiting to see them, or how long they wait. They often make appointments and fail to keep them. They get no pleasure from helping people and have no regrets when they can’t. They are capable of slamming the door in a supplicant’s face, cutting him off in midsentence. It would not be so depressing if these officials were not so often the final court of appeal.

Or look at people walking the streets: most of them are rushed, their faces full of worry, inattentive to things around them. The sense of ease, cheerfulness, and spontaneity has vanished from the streets. In the evening or at night the streets are empty, and if you do happen to see a group of relaxed, happy people, they are usually foreigners.

Warmth, openness, kindness, and unassuming friendliness are vanishing from everyday public contacts. Everyone seems to have one thing on his mind: where to find what he is looking for. Indifference and bad manners are spreading; even in restaurants, people seem buttoned up. Mindful of their own behavior, they speak in low voices, checking to make sure no one else is listening. Class-four restaurants are the last oases of natural companionship, and they tend to be in the suburbs rather than in the city; these are the places one remembers in prison. But even in such places, more and more people come there just to get drunk.

At the bottom of all this lies a vague stress: people are either nervous, anxious, irritated, or else they are apathetic. They look as if they expect to be hit from an unexpected quarter. Calm and certainty have been replaced by aggression.

It is the stress of people living under a constant threat. It is the stress of people compelled, every day, to deal with absurdity and nothingness.

It is the stress of a people living in a city under siege.

The stress of a society that is not permitted to live in history. The stress of people exposed to the radiation of totalitarianism.

Life, of course, goes on. It resists manipulation in many ways, adapting to it or finding ways to cope. It has not been destroyed, nor is it ever likely to be. Cracks can always be found for it to penetrate, levels where it can go on developing, ways in which, even in this suffocating milieu, it can arrange itself into stories. Somehow we will always manage to write our stories by the way we act.

I am not describing anything like the end of humanity. I am instead trying to draw attention to the inconspicuous and unspectacular war that life wages every day against nothingness.

I am attempting to say that the struggle of the story and of history to resist nihilization is in itself a story, and belongs to history.

It is our special metastory.

We do not yet know how to talk about it because the traditional forms of storytelling fail us here. We do not yet know the laws that govern our metastory. We do not even know yet exactly who or what is the main villain of the story (it is definitely not a few individuals in the power center: they too are victims of something larger, just as we are).

It is clear: we must tell the story of our asthma, not despite the fact that people are dying from it, but because they are not.

One small detail remains: we have to learn how to do it.

“Stories and Totalitarianism” (April 1987) was written for the underground cultural journal Jednou nohu (Revolver Review), and dedicated to Ladislav Hejdánek on his sixtieth birthday. In English, it appeared in Index on Censorship, no. 3 (March 1988) and, in a slightly different version, in The Idler, Toronto, no. 18 (July-August 1988). Translation by Paul Wilson. 

Edmund Burke: Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Mr. Speaker,–We have now discovered, at the close of the eighteenth century, that the Constitution of England, which for a series of ages had been the proud distinction of this country, always the admiration, and sometimes the envy, of the wise and learned in every other nation–we have discovered that this boasted Constitution, in the most boasted part of it, is a gross imposition upon the understanding of mankind, an insult to their feelings, and acting by contrivances destructive to the best and most valuable interests of the people. Our political architects have taken a survey of the fabric of the British Constitution. It is singular that they report nothing against the Crown, nothing against the Lords; but in the House of Commons everything is unsound; it is ruinous in every part. It is infested by the dry rot, and ready to tumble about our ears without their immediate help. You know by the faults they find what are their ideas of the alteration. As all government stands upon opinion, they know that the way utterly to destroy it is to remove that opinion, to take away all reverence, all confidence from it; and then, at the first blast of public discontent and popular tumult, it tumbles to the ground.

In considering this question, they who oppose it, oppose it on different grounds; one is in the nature of a previous question–that some alterations may be expedient, but that this is not the time for making them. The other is, that no essential alterations are at all wanting, and that neither now, nor at any time, is it prudent or safe to be meddling with the fundamental principles and ancient tried usages of our Constitution–that our representation is as nearly perfect as the necessary imperfection of human affairs and of human creatures will suffer it to be; and that it is a subject of prudent and honest use and thankful enjoyment, and not of captious criticism and rash experiment.

On the other side, there are two parties, who proceed on two grounds–in my opinion, as they state them, utterly irreconcilable. The one is juridical, the other political. The one is in the nature of a claim of right, on the supposed rights of man as man; this party desire the decision of a suit. The other ground, as far as I can divine what it directly means, is, that the representation is not so politically framed as to answer the theory of its institution. As to the claim of right, the meanest petitioner, the most gross and ignorant, is as good as the best; in some respects his claim is more favourable on account of his ignorance; his weakness, his poverty and distress only add to his titles; he sues in forma pauperis: he ought to be a favourite of the Court. But when the other ground is taken, when the question is political, when a new Constitution is to be made on a sound theory of government, then the presumptuous pride of didactic ignorance is to be excluded from the council in this high and arduous matter, which often bids defiance to the experience of the wisest. The first claims a personal representation; the latter rejects it with scorn and fervour. The language of the first party is plain and intelligible; they who plead an absolute right, cannot be satisfied with anything short of personal representation, because all natural rights must be the rights of individuals: as by nature there is no such thing as politic or corporate personality; all these ideas are mere fictions of law, they are creatures of voluntary institution; men as men are individuals, and nothing else. They, therefore, who reject the principle of natural and personal representation, are essentially and eternally at variance with those who claim it. As to the first sort of reformers, it is ridiculous to talk to them of the British Constitution upon any or all of its bases; for they lay it down, that every man ought to govern himself, and that where he cannot go himself he must send his representative; that all other government is usurpation, and is so far from having a claim to our obedience, that it is not only our right, but our duty, to resist it. Nine-tenths of the reformers argue thus–that is, on the natural right. It is impossible not to make some reflection on the nature of this claim, or avoid a comparison between the extent of the principle and the present object of the demand. If this claim be founded, it is clear to what it goes. The House of Commons, in that light, undoubtedly is no representative of the people as a collection of individuals. Nobody pretends it, nobody can justify such an assertion. When you come to examine into this claim of right, founded on the right of self-government in each individual, you find the thing demanded infinitely short of the principle of the demand. What! one-third only of the legislature, of the government no share at all? What sort of treaty of partition is this for those who have no inherent right to the whole? Give them all they ask, and your grant is still a cheat; for how comes only a third to be their younger children’s fortune in this settlement? How came they neither to have the choice of kings, or lords, or judges, or generals, or admirals, or bishops, or priests, or ministers, or justices of peace? Why, what have you to answer in favour of the prior rights of the Crown and peerage but this–our Constitution is a proscriptive Constitution; it is a Constitution whose sole authority is, that it has existed time out of mind. It is settled in these two portions against one, legislatively; and in the whole of the judicature, the whole of the federal capacity, of the executive, the prudential and the financial administration, in one alone. Nor were your House of Lords and the prerogatives of the Crown settled on any adjudication in favour of natural rights, for they could never be so portioned. Your king, your lords, your judges, your juries, grand and little, all are prescriptive; and what proves it is the disputes not yet concluded, and never near becoming so, when any of them first originated. Prescription is the most solid of all titles, not only to property, but, which is to secure that property, to government. They harmonise with each other, and give mutual aid to one another. It is accompanied with another ground of authority in the constitution of the human mind–presumption. It is a presumption in favour of any settled scheme of government against any untried project, that a nation has long existed and flourished under it. It is a better presumption even of the choice of a nation, far better than any sudden and temporary arrangement by actual election. Because a nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is a choice not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and of generations; it is a Constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice–it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body. Nor is prescription of government formed upon blind, unmeaning prejudices–for man is a most unwise, and a most wise being. The individual is foolish. The multitude, for the moment, are foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right.

The reason for the Crown as it is, for the Lords as they are, is my reason for the Commons as they are, the electors as they are. Now, if the Crown and the Lords, and the judicatures, are all prescriptive, so is the House of Commons of the very same origin, and of no other. We and our electors have powers and privileges both made and circumscribed by prescription, as much to the full as the other parts; and as such we have always claimed them, and on no other title. The House of Commons is a legislative body corporate by prescription, not made upon any given theory, but existing prescriptively–just like the rest. This prescription has made it essentially what it is–an aggregate collection of three parts–knights, citizens, burgesses. The question is, whether this has been always so, since the House of Commons has taken its present shape and circumstances, and has been an essential operative part of the Constitution; which, I take it, it has been for at least five hundred years.

This I resolve to myself in the affirmative: and then another question arises; whether this House stands firm upon its ancient foundations, and is not, by time and accidents, so declined from its perpendicular as to want the hand of the wise and experienced architects of the day to set it upright again, and to prop and buttress it up for duration;–whether it continues true to the principles upon which it has hitherto stood;–whether this be de facto the Constitution of the House of Commons as it has been since the time that the House of Commons has, without dispute, become a necessary and an efficient part of the British Constitution? To ask whether a thing, which has always been the same, stands to its usual principle, seems to me to be perfectly absurd; for how do you know the principles but from the construction? and if that remains the same, the principles remain the same. It is true, that to say your Constitution is what it has been, is no sufficient defence for those who say it is a bad Constitution. It is an answer to those who say that it is a degenerate Constitution. To those who say it is a bad one, I answer, Look to its effects. In all moral machinery the moral results are its test.

On what grounds do we go to restore our Constitution to what it has been at some given period, or to reform and reconstruct it upon principles more conformable to a sound theory of government? A prescriptive government, such as ours, never was the work of any legislator, never was made upon any foregone theory. It seems to me a preposterous way of reasoning, and a perfect confusion of ideas, to take the theories, which learned and speculative men have made from that government, and then, supposing it made on these theories, which were made from it, to accuse the government as not corresponding with them. I do not vilify theory and speculation–no, because that would be to vilify reason itself. “Neque decipitur ratio, neque decipit unquam.” No; whenever I speak against theory, I mean always a weak, erroneous, fallacious, unfounded, or imperfect theory; and one of the ways of discovering that it is a false theory is by comparing it with practice. This is the true touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men: Does it suit his nature in general?–does it suit his nature as modified by his habits?

The more frequently this affair is discussed, the stronger the case appears to the sense and the feelings of mankind. I have no more doubt than I entertain of my existence, that this very thing, which is stated as a horrible thing, is the means of the preservation of our Constitution whilst it lasts: of curing it of many of the disorders which, attending every species of institution, would attend the principle of an exact local representation, or a representation on the principle of numbers. If you reject personal representation, you are pushed upon expedience; and then what they wish us to do is, to prefer their speculations on that subject to the happy experience of this country of a growing liberty and a growing prosperity for five hundred years. Whatever respect I have for their talents, this, for one, I will not do. Then what is the standard of expedience? Expedience is that which is good for the community, and good for every individual in it. Now this expedience is the desideratum to be sought, either without the experience of means, or with that experience. If without, as in the case of the fabrication of a new commonwealth, I will hear the learned arguing what promises to be expedient; but if we are to judge of a commonwealth actually existing, the first thing I inquire is, What has been found expedient or inexpedient? And I will not take their promise rather than the performance of the Constitution.

But no; this was not the cause of the discontents. I went through most of the northern parts–the Yorkshire election was then raging; the year before, through most of the western counties–Bath, Bristol, Gloucester–not one word, either in the towns or country, on the subject of representation; much on the receipt tax, something on Mr. Fox’s ambition; much greater apprehension of danger from thence than from want of representation. One would think that the ballast of the ship was shifted with us, and that our Constitution had the gunnel under water. But can you fairly and distinctly point out what one evil or grievance has happened, which you can refer to the representative not following the opinion of his constituents? What one symptom do we find of this inequality? But it is not an arithmetical inequality with which we ought to trouble ourselves. If there be a moral, a political equality, this is the desideratum in our Constitution, and in every Constitution in the world. Moral inequality is as between places and between classes. Now, I ask, what advantage do you find, that the places which abound in representation possess over others in which it is more scanty, in security for freedom, in security for justice, or in any one of those means of procuring temporal prosperity and eternal happiness, the ends for which society was formed? Are the local interests of Cornwall and Wiltshire, for instance–their roads, canals, their prisons, their police–better than Yorkshire, Warwickshire, or Staffordshire? Warwick has members; is Warwick or Stafford more opulent, happy, or free, than Newcastle or than Birmingham? Is Wiltshire the pampered favourite, whilst Yorkshire, like the child of the bondwoman, is turned out to the desert? This is like the unhappy persons who live, if they can be said to live, in the statical chair; who are ever feeling their pulse, and who do not judge of health by the aptitude of the body to perform its functions, but by their ideas of what ought to be the true balance between the several secretions. Is a committee of Cornwall, &c., thronged, and the others deserted? No. You have an equal representation, because you have men equally interested in the prosperity of the whole, who are involved in the general interest and the general sympathy; and perhaps these places, furnishing a superfluity of public agents and administrators (whether, in strictness, they are representatives or not, I do not mean to inquire, but they are agents and administrators), will stand clearer of local interests, passions, prejudices, and cabals than the others, and therefore preserve the balance of the parts, and with a more general view and a more steady hand than the rest.

In every political proposal we must not leave out of the question the political views and object of the proposer; and these we discover, not by what he says, but by the principles he lays down. “I mean,” says he, “a moderate and temperate reform;” that is, “I mean to do as little good as possible. If the Constitution be what you represent it, and there be no danger in the change, you do wrong not to make the reform commensurate to the abuse.” Fine reformer, indeed! generous donor! What is the cause of this parsimony of the liberty which you dole out to the people? Why all this limitation in giving blessings and benefits to mankind? You admit that there is an extreme in liberty, which may be infinitely noxious to those who are to receive it, and which in the end will leave them no liberty at all. I think so too; they know it, and they feel it. The question is, then, What is the standard of that extreme? What that gentleman, and the associations, or some parts of their phalanxes, think proper. Then our liberties are in their pleasure; it depends on their arbitrary will how far I shall be free. I will have none of that freedom. If, therefore, the standard of moderation be sought for, I will seek for it. Where? Not in their fancies, nor in my own: I will seek for it where I know it is to be found–in the Constitution I actually enjoy. Here it says to an encroaching prerogative–“Your sceptre has its length; you cannot add a hair to your head, or a gem to your crown, but what an eternal law has given to it.” Here it says to an overweening peerage–“Your pride finds banks that it cannot overflow;” here to a tumultuous and giddy people–“There is a bound to the raging of the sea.” Our Constitution is like our island, which uses and restrains its subject sea; in vain the waves roar. In that Constitution I know, and exultingly I feel, both that I am free and that I am not free dangerously to myself or to others. I know that no power on earth, acting as I ought to do, can touch my life, my liberty, or my property. I have that inward and dignified consciousness of my own security and independence, which constitutes, and is the only thing which does constitute, the proud and comfortable sentiment of freedom in the human breast. I know, too, and I bless God for my safe mediocrity; I know that if I possessed all the talents of the gentlemen on the side of the House I sit, and on the other, I cannot, by royal favour, or by popular delusion, or by oligarchical cabal, elevate myself above a certain very limited point, so as to endanger my own fall or the ruin of my country. I know there is an order that keeps things fast in their place; it is made to us, and we are made to it. Why not ask another wife, other children, another body, another mind?

The great object of most of these reformers is to prepare the destruction of the Constitution, by disgracing and discrediting the House of Commons. For they think–prudently, in my opinion–that if they can persuade the nation that the House of Commons is so constituted as not to secure the public liberty; not to have a proper connection with the public interests; so constituted as not, either actually or virtually, to be the representative of the people, it will be easy to prove that a government composed of a monarchy, an oligarchy chosen by the Crown, and such a House of Commons, whatever good can be in such a system, can by no means be a system of free government.

The Constitution of England is never to have a quietus; it is to be continually vilified, attacked, reproached, resisted; instead of being the hope and sure anchor in all storms, instead of being the means of redress to all grievances, itself is the grand grievance of the nation, our shame instead of our glory. If the only specific plan proposed–individual, personal representation–is directly rejected by the person who is looked on as the great support of this business, then the only way of considering it is as a question of convenience. An honourable gentleman prefers the individual to the present. He therefore himself sees no middle term whatsoever, and therefore prefers of what he sees the individual; this is the only thing distinct and sensible that has been advocated. He has then a scheme, which is the individual representation; he is not at a loss, not inconsistent–which scheme the other right honourable gentleman reprobates. Now, what does this go to, but to lead directly to anarchy? For to discredit the only government which he either possesses or can project, what is this but to destroy all government; and this is anarchy. My right honourable friend, in supporting this motion, disgraces his friends and justifies his enemies, in order to blacken the Constitution of his country, even of that House of Commons which supported him. There is a difference between a moral or political exposure of a public evil, relative to the administration of government, whether in men or systems, and a declaration of defects, real or supposed, in the fundamental Constitution of your country. The first may be cured in the individual by the motives of religion, virtue, honour, fear, shame, or interest. Men may be made to abandon, also, false systems by exposing their absurdity or mischievous tendency to their own better thoughts, or to the contempt or indignation of the public; and after all, if they should exist, and exist uncorrected, they only disgrace individuals as fugitive opinions. But it is quite otherwise with the frame and Constitution of the State; if that is disgraced, patriotism is destroyed in its very source. No man has ever willingly obeyed, much less was desirous of defending with his blood, a mischievous and absurd scheme of government. Our first, our dearest, most comprehensive relation, our country, is gone.

It suggests melancholy reflections, in consequence of the strange course we have long held, that we are now no longer quarrelling about the character, or about the conduct of men, or the tenor of measures; but we are grown out of humour with the English Constitution itself; this is become the object of the animosity of Englishmen. This Constitution in former days used to be the admiration and the envy of the world; it was the pattern for politicians; the theme of the eloquent; the meditation of the philosopher in every part of the world. As to Englishmen, it was their pride, their consolation. By it they lived, for it they were ready to die. Its defects, if it had any, were partly covered by partiality, and partly borne by prudence. Now all its excellencies are forgotten, its faults are now forcibly dragged into day, exaggerated by every artifice of representation. It is despised and rejected of men; and every device and invention of ingenuity, or idleness, set up in opposition or in preference to it. It is to this humour, and it is to the measures growing out of it, that I set myself (I hope not alone) in the most determined opposition. Never before did we at any time in this country meet upon the theory of our frame of government, to sit in judgment on the Constitution of our country, to call it as a delinquent before us, and to accuse it of every defect and every vice; to see whether it, an object of our veneration, even our adoration, did or did not accord with a preconceived scheme in the minds of certain gentlemen. Cast your eyes on the journals of Parliament. It is for fear of losing the inestimable treasure we have, that I do not venture to game it out of my hands for the vain hope of improving it. I look with filial reverence on the Constitution of my country, and never will cut it in pieces, and put it into the kettle of any magician, in order to boil it, with the puddle of their compounds, into youth and vigour. On the contrary, I will drive away such pretenders; I will nurse its venerable age, and with lenient arts extend a parent’s breath.

May 7, 1782