An Explanatory Essay
The Center for Moral Reason was founded early in 2001 with the express purpose of reconciling religious faith in a supremely good being with our culture's languishing life of the intellect. We sought to affirm that the Commandments are not right because they are in the Bible, but in the Bible because they are right. We affirmed further that people are directed by an inborn conscience (which they are free to neglect or ignore) to higher truth, as St. Paul writes in Romans. We were also convinced, however, that art and beauty are a more dynamic means of bridging the gap between mere dutifulness and such higher insights--a knock upon the door of grace.
For it is clear that the best person's best action falls somewhat short of moral perfection (if not in execution, then in motive: even the man who pulls a baby from a fire may be driven by a racket of signals from a past he wishes to redeem or resurrect). The blemishes which create human complexity clearly require the benign antidote of God's grace. Nevertheless, we at The Center rejected the widely peddled notion that all moral striving is therefore irrelevant (grossly mis-packaged as "salvation by faith alone"), and we indignantly deplored the ridicule of human reason in favor of hysterical pseudo-spiritualism. All true service of goodness demands careful thought before action and sober review after it.
Today's political Left and Right have both belittled this traditional Western ethic of quiet reflection and dignified humility. We believed before, and believe now, that our society is much the worse for the Left's blind faith in paternalistic government (utopianism) and the Right's debased faith in "blessed materialism" (eudemonism).
As The Center for Literate Values, we continue to hold these positions. However, we have yielded to the recognition that our post-literate culture has now grown incapable of the analysis needed to weigh the words "moral reason" properly in the milliseconds during which they may pop up in a Net search. This hapless two-word phrase simply carries too much baggage in a culture whose citizens always travel light. Hence the change of our name. All the same, since conscientious morality is a direct product of literate habits (and an early casualty of their abandonment), the renaming of our organization by no means reflects a shift of interest away from the thoughtful pursuit of goodness.
The following paper was composed for the first issue of Praesidium after that quarterly journal had legally absorbed another (titled Arcturus) to be The Center for Moral Reason's standard-bearer. We continue to post the essay on our site, despite our re-christening, precisely because it brings to the fore so many concerns which unite us as much as ever. The fascinating--and highly disturbing--objections commonly registered to the phrase "moral reason" are an unmistakable sign of our troubled time's degeneracy.
The Garrison of Moral Reason: Lofty Citadel or Lonely Outpost?
John R. Harris
John R. Harris, President of The Center for Literate Values, has three degrees from the University of Texas at Austin (B.A. in English, M.A. in Classics, Ph.D. in Comparative Literature). Between stints of graduate school, he taught briefly at every level from fifth grade to high school to junior college; yet he spent most of his academic career in various universities throughout the South, an adventure which endured for fifteen years altogether. Though he earned teaching awards and published widely, he at last decided to attempt a new career in publishing when (as the essay below implies) the triumph of PC rhetoric, marketing, and careerism over substance poisoned the academic atmosphere beyond his level of tolerance.
Verum, Quirites, antea singuli cives in pluribus, non in uno cuncti praesidia habebatis.1
Diese Moralität und nicht der Verstand ist des also, was den Menschen erst zum Menschen macht.2
Several fairly steady readers of Arcturus have suggested to me that something called The Center for Moral Reason might turn away the right sort of interest in our endeavor and attract the wrong sort. A few others have politely sidled away, not wanting to offer their reservations for the record but clearly bemused. For my part, I may say that I understand both the well-meaning advice and the uncommunicative evasion. These people are connected to the academy, and they know that academics will smell some kind of fascist coup in the air (in the academy, such odors are detected with extreme finesse). The former Arcturus may well be regarded as veering dangerously toward the Right, where it will find few friends and no thinking public from which to draw an audience.
While I consider the alarm of these supporters to be rather exaggerated, I have had first-hand experience of rude receptions from the right side of the political spectrum. One publisher of a conservative religious organ where I attempted to place an ad for a book (in the early days, I attempted to place ads just about everywhere) simply lowered the portcullis, heaved up the drawbridge, and refused to acknowledge any of my queries. I had the distinct impression that, to her practiced eye, some word or expression in the modest hyperbole of my tendered copy bore the mark of the Devil. The one response I could ever ferret out over the phone was a curious question about why my company's FAX number featured four sixes in a conspiratorial row. Academe isn’t the only venue where you find watchdogs sniffing at your shoes to verify whose grass you’ve been walking on.
I vowed then and there to waste no more time trying to anticipate how words might resonate with this or that constituency when wrenched out of context: someone will always cry foul, and most of the time you won’t know why. I prefer to spend my effort in struggling to say what I mean. The phrase "moral reason" captures the objectives of this journal’s architects better than any two words I can imagine. (Thanks to the persistent prodding of our Web advisor, I have lately acquired a certain skill at crunching my ideas into "keyword phrases".) What could possibly be more important to a human being than the good? In goodness lies whatever convincing destiny we have, as individuals if not as a species. Indeed, without a concept of the good, we are left with nothing but the evolutionary trajectory of our species. We have no more individuality, no more free will. We simply do what science tells us we were made to do—and when I say "we", I mean the statistical majority, the mean, the norm. The greatest common denominator.
Talk of valorizing our ethnic and cultural diversity is in such manifest bad faith that I can no longer view intelligent people who churn it out as anything short of liars. At the same time as they praise an oppressed culture, they enjoin mainstream culture to change or be damned (with a quasi-religious fervor fully equal to that editor’s who excised—or rather exorcised—my ad). They plainly understand that culture is skin-deep and ever subject to erosion, mutation, or utter evaporation. Marginal cultures are defended only against the forcible homogenizing of bourgeois taste: over all cultures broods a supreme relativity—at least in cultural terms. Now, biology is quite another matter. There we are to take our bearings. Hunger, sex, play, health, longevity, a certain animal joy in the day (as Homer ascribes to the witless Paris through the "untethered horse" metaphor at Iliad 6’s closing)… these are our common objective, our point of convergence as human beings. No wonder the animal rights crowd is gaining credibility: a dog, a cat, or a rat has most of the same ambitions.
It is because my friends on the Left can do no better than this that I feel compelled to insist that something better can indeed be done. Some of them, I know, are nervous only because the word "moral" has been salted into so many political campaigns where values are fitted to circumstances like guests to Procrustes’ bed. The "do this or be damned" mentality again… what thoughtful person doesn’t have a few stories to tell about such anti-intellectual encounters? But because I prize reflective thought, I am unwilling to give up a word merely for its having been assaulted and battered beyond recognition by propagandists. And I’m not entirely sure that what some on the Left hold against "moral" is its undeserved but defacing bruises. Some of them, I think, realize full well that the word properly designates a communion aspiring to universality. Biologically based drives and urges they will tolerate—even celebrate, apparently—as definitively human; but the duty to rise above self-serving impulse in procuring food or sex or even bare survival… they will have none of it. Such talk makes them claustrophobic. Beyond the tyranny of genes and hormones, they must be granted unqualified freedom to "be who they are" (though what could possibly be free of genes and hormones to a materialist, or what that materialist could ever hope to be beyond a biologically determined machine, I’ve never been able to figure out). The phrase "moral reason", if anything, becomes still more provocative at this level, since it implies that the brain power so proudly advertised by the intelligentsia should actually lead us away from anarchic self-indulgence. These left-wing libertarians may not know it, but the Bible-thumping Moral Majority type was really the best ally they had. In his anti-intellectualism rested their most convincing justification.
For if the self-styled Religious Right is infatuated with the word "moral", the phrase "moral reason" draws from this crowd the tight-jawed silence that a counterfeit coin’s dull clank would inspire in a miser. Moral reason? But morality has nothing to do with reason! It is entirely based upon God’s word (or The Word) as transmitted in the Bible. You don’t reason anything out: you just obey. That these words and not others should be in the Bible to begin with because they appeal to the human heart of hearts—or that the million or so words in the Bible should need translating, interpreting, and sometimes reconciling or prioritizing with the help of resonances they stir deep within us—is sheer blasphemy. It belongs to the outrage which (I have lately learned) is called "natural theology". Something of God knowable through human nature, through the structure of the human faculties? Why, man, haven’t you heard? Our nature is so corrupt that we would be better off always doing exactly the opposite of where our will is pulling us! Of course, those who are God’s chosen people no longer endure this tug-of-war. God has entirely taken over their will. No more do they will anything whatever: all that they do is God’s doing.
As I say, this is enough to make anyone paint a red hammer and sickle on his front door—but that would be a most unfortunate response. It would be impulsive, juvenile, and sterile. It would be, in short, the same order of non-thinking as we find on the Far Right. The Left has indeed become the mirror image of its beloved antagonist, especially in the academy, as it counters every bourgeois lunge at decency (strip-searches of students, the Ten Commandments brandished over entrances in Orwellian menace) with gaudy gestures designed for maximal shock. Everyone, everything in the middle—and it is an increasingly broad middle as we are all crowded to the polarities—gets shot down in the crossfire. Your grammar is sub-standard, said the Right once upon a time, and your tie is crooked, too. Oh yeah? countered the campus protesters, well your canon is full of dead white guys: blow ’em to hell! The Old Guard is dead, observes today’s Far Right, but the Left still hates its traditions, so let’s sing their praise. Sing all you want, smirks today’s Left, we have the keys to the store now and you’re not getting back in!
This from a pair of adversaries who could not identify Statius or Marie de France with a "lifeline" to anyone on either side! For the Left, literature begins with the Romantics, just about the time that common sense and social consensus end. For the Far Right (or the New Right), literature would or might begin at the beginning… but everything before Calvin is Papist propaganda or heathen raving. The Right’s new canon is the Left’s anti-canon with Shakespeare preserved and Milton promoted. And both sides, if it has escaped your attention, pick up about where empiricism goes into full swing. No wonder Darwinian evolution is such a sore spot! Since both believe that the truth must be wholly, visibly, immediately material, science’s version of history is a battleground where they are destined to fight it out forever—not to the finish, for there can be none on these terms, but as interminably as the tortures of Dante’s lower hell.
In the citation from Sallust with which I opened this essay, the speaker reflects upon the meaning of a praesidium—a garrison or safeguarding bastion. I shall return to the word later. Here I note only that a healthy society is capable of working out what the vast majority of its members have in common, and is heavily invested in doing so through ordinary cultural activities. A diseased society, ironically, is one which inclines to crowd around charismatic leaders in mock-coherence. Insisting upon its individual differences, incapable of working through them to find deep points of accord, it generates spontaneous mobs of special interest as it dances on the edge of chaos. People who routinely exchange insults, deriding each other’s tastes, labors, and gods, will suddenly strap on the same armband or chant the same slogan because a demagogue unites them against the neighborhood down the road in the most inane of causes: a tree cut down or a dog run over, perhaps. Such are the culture wars of Right and Left over the already stiffening corpse of Western tradition.
I for one (and I believe I also speak for the Board of Directors) am tired of being pressured to abandon reason by extremists of either camp. I love the Western tradition, not because I have some ethnic stake in it, but because it is, above all, the rational tradition. More than any other, it has been fueled by literacy. (Various Eastern traditions were heavily dependent upon writing, to be sure: but it was the static writing of sacred history and dynastic chronicle, not the meditative writing of creative analysis.) For twenty-five hundred years—with several backslides and lacunae—Western culture has endeavored to map out God’s voice in our hearts. Above all, it has been moral mapping; for the founders of the tradition among the Greeks and Romans recognized that The Voice, The Word, must speak quintessentially of goodness to touch the vitals of all human beings everywhere. Was that Word sometimes reported too narrowly—were there those, sometimes, who wanted to stop the reporting and dwell mindlessly upon received text? Of course! The natural reverence we feel (notice, I said natural) for the source of all goodness constantly seeks to pay its respects by crystallizing the message, by insisting that it is more abstinence than orgy. Yet such centripety is just as constantly opposed by a centrifugal flight from grossly human caricatures of the divine, and that, too, is fully and wonderfully natural. Reason understands that logic is not enough; or rather, reason ultimately senses that the Word which founded reason itself was—and is—beyond thinking about.
But if beyond syllogism, how much more must this spirit within the letter live beyond blunt, blind, mute, and stupid impulse? It is the love, not of a buck who dies of wounds during the spring rut, but of a stranger who dies for the children of strangers. It is reason in full, fully circumscribed: logic and also sentiment, number and also nuance—the whole paradoxical system harmonized with itself in the fewest strokes and leaving the fewest stresses.
I called this tradition a stiffening corpse a moment ago. I was somewhat misled by my metaphor. The tradition itself is very nearly lost, no doubt—but the truth which it orbited, ever approaching and missing slightly and once again approaching, is not culturally conditioned. We will all be dead, and all our cultures forgotten, long before one beam of that star goes out. So we need not despair of resuscitating the corpse, or even of bringing forth new life. What else have we to do with our time in the present’s post-cultural rubble? It is never too late to begin to live.
I am convinced, furthermore, that new life would revive old life. As soon as we resume investigating our humanity, we will discover that much of the work was already done long ago. Sallust is but an infinitesimal piece of the puzzle, and often not a very eloquent one. The present controversy between Right and Left, cast in its most flattering form, is over living up to certain basic rules versus resisting the idolatry of man-made rule books; and, of course, the bone of contention here is far more ancient even than Christendom. It is as old as the human race. I happened to be rereading Plato’s Protagoras recently (partly as a result of seeing it cited in the last edition of Arcturus) when I stumbled upon the subject of a graduate research paper I wrote two decades ago. That paper was to become the second article I would ever publish in a scholarly journal, so the issue obviously stirred me to surpass myself. At the root of the debate lies a fragmentary poem by Simonides which the master sophist Protagoras accuses of patent self-contradiction. Socrates, perhaps more to twit his adversary than to defend the poet, decides to champion the incoherent lines. They go like this, at the crucial points:
Naturally, the original Greek was not italicized. In fact, the main reason scholars and translators make a point of distinguishing between become and be is that Socrates does so. Otherwise, the ingenious ploy would probably occur to few of them, for genesthai and emmenai are used almost interchangeably throughout antiquity. There’s something counter-intuitive about this defense, too, as Protagoras suggests. Surely being good is harder than becoming good. Becoming implies a work in progress, which nobody would expect to be "four-square, without flaw". Socrates’s reversal of the proposition strikes me as faintly Buddhist (or, I should say, as mystical in a way already explored by Buddhism). He argues that being good will have grown second nature to the true sage: what’s hard is graduating from mere right-mindedness to that sublime plateau of "right-mindlessness". This confidence in the ability of true wisdom to transcend human weakness, both incidental and congenital, would emerge as a central plank of Greek Stoicism, which rightly (as we see here) claimed Socrates for its grandsire. It would also represent a major point of friction with the essential Judaeo-Christian doctrine of original sin.
But Socrates, I must say, seems to be using the poem as a springboard (even though he knew all of it and we have only a part) to pounce upon Protagoras with both feet. His quasi-mystical exegesis goes well beyond the case we observe Simonides making—which is, after all, quite pragmatic. "Hard to be good? Bosh and blather!" the poet bursts out. "If I say keep off the grass, you can keep off the grass, can’t you? If I say don’t pull your sword on fellow citizens, don’t you think you can manage that? Now, going from not breaking the law to becoming a true sage whose spirit the letter of the law is always chasing after… that is hard." Simonides never lets on that such true wisdom is actually attainable, or not that we can tell. He apparently emphasizes far less the beatitude of the wise man’s perfect moral poise than he does the simplicity of doing what typical codes and rules require. What is easy to Socrates is being a four-square sage: what is easy to Simonides is doing your merest duty.
Karl Barth, who grandfathered the movement called neo-orthodoxy at least as much as Socrates did Stoicism, was able to wax eloquent about such basic acts of obedience. He saw them as a sure sign that God had taken control of one’s life; for the believer is entrusted with very specific instructions about how to do the exact and utterly right thing in all but the most irregular circumstances. Barth explains:
Barth and Simonides may appear to be in agreement, since both dismiss the position (held by the poet Pittacus, among others) that doing the right thing is just not possible sometimes when circumstances (symphora) leave you no good options. In a way, I believe the parallel is valid. Simonides might well speak up for the right-of-center view today that we spend too much time sympathizing with criminals. There’s the law in black and white—now do it! In a more profound respect, however, the two are diametrically opposed. Simonides says that obeying the rules is easy: anyone can satisfy the requirement with half an effort. Barth takes a position so extravagant that it lands him in the Socratic/Stoic claim of transcendence for the wise man. Only the sage is good, and he always… except that now, of course, you must read "true believer" for "true sage". The believer sins no more: he is above sinning, having surrendered his will to God’s. On the other hand, the ordinary bloke whom Simonides exhorts to do his duty is no longer capable of getting the simplest thing right. If he happened to make the correct choice in a certain case, it would be blind luck (symphora again).
The sparring which goes on among these ancient moralists, I suggest, is of the very same sort which we see disrupting the contemporary scene: that’s why I slipped Barth into the ring. The difference between then and now is that our self-styled intellectuals are so busy trying to stay head-on opposite to their adversary that they don’t notice the fancy footwork which keeps the pair of them dancing in circles. Neo-orthodoxy, like so much Protestant revivalism, stressed that God’s grace alone, and not man’s works, brings salvation. It was something of a reaction to the "social gospel" of the previous century, and to the spirit of progressivism generally which two world wars had pretty well exhausted. Yet the "fundamentalists", as they soon came to be labeled generically (though that term also haled back to the turn of the century), were a civil, orderly community despite their low opinion of social engineering. The campus anarchists and peaceniks of the sixties were not necessarily their children, for college was more of a "high church" practice back then—but organized religion nonetheless posed an irresistible target for the "rebellion" against bourgeois decorum. As the academy climbed on board the liberal juggernaut, bag and baggage, those alarmed by the chaos of the intelligentsia fled to fundamentalism in droves, which now became a force to be reckoned with. If the students were going to play Pittacus, subverting all moral standards as unrealistic, then they would take up Simonides’s part—"No shoes or shirt, no service"—even though this implied a retreat from salvation by faith alone. Indeed, the Religious Right would soon concoct strategies of social engineering which were quite as ambitious as social-gospel progressivism, if rather more exclusive.
At this instant in our generation’s dubious intellectual history, we find the combatants shifting to yet another sequence of feints and jabs. Rightist taxpayer and leftist intellectual alike have grown comparatively prosperous over the last decade or so. Fundamentalist churches are less willing now to condemn sexual impropriety, drinking of alcohol, or even skipping Sunday service, for their members are discovering the joys of affluent leisure. Academics and other would-be revolutionaries are less willing now to tolerate high crime rates and smorgasbord curricula, for they are discovering the tensions of owning mutual funds and rearing adolescents. Watch closely. The Right is adopting a suspiciously libertarian look, not just about economic matters but also about certain social issues. Pittacus is delivering Sunday sermons all over the country on how it’s okay to screw up, and the new lyrics of old hymns echo the sentiments of Beatles songs. Meanwhile, the Left has had enough of certain bad words and certain "bang-bang" playground games. If Simonides were around to read some of the zero-tolerance speech and behavior codes being crafted by our avant-garde intellectuals, he might wish to say that doing the right thing should be just a little bit harder than this. Moral endeavor has never been defined down to a level so near to full automation.
Though this dance around the maypole is perhaps inevitable, I hardly regard its contemporary staging as a quaint little bit of kabuki theater. Epochs have always lurched from greater to lesser formalism in art and manners, yes—but the alternations should be, and usually have been, a series of corrective fine-tunings. That’s how a tradition is created. It seems that our constant counter-positioning, in contrast, intends to annihilate itself as each side savages the other. There is nothing remotely fine-tuned about the process. In my own lifetime, which has not yet achieved half a century, I have been "privileged" to witness the dilution of liberal and conservative sacred causes alike to a degree of thinness which cannot sustain life. The high vocations of novel-writing and composing music, the visual arts, education in the classroom, religious orders of worship, forms of physical recreation, filmmaking, political debate, professional ethics—pick any area not governed by technology (whose praise is always self-supporting) and you can see for yourself how we have degenerated. We are drowning at the shallow end of the pool. Either pole, Left as well as Right, defines itself in its periodic triumphal returns to power a little more imbecilically. Now I am reduced to tendering an apology for the phrase "moral reason" to both sides of the aisle!
But then, that’s not really what I’m doing. An apology in the Greek sense of the word, perhaps—an answer, a defense: but for those who prefer to judge our project on the basis of some discordant echo between our nomenclature and their slogans, I say, "Go your way." Can anything be more transparent than that moral reason is exactly what we require to bring peace between Pittacus and Simonides, Protagoras and Socrates, Calvin and Aquinas? We need to think about what is good, and why it is good. When we are resisted from certain quarters, we need to consider whether our critics may not have perceived a crack in our edifice, or at least have revealed to us unwittingly that our door jambs are too high for easy entry.
For if both Left and Right seem to me to share the blame for not addressing our cultural crisis, both sides in the dispute about being good and becoming good—about grace and works, in Christian terms—possess a large measure of the truth. Doing the right thing is usually not all that hard, nor is the right thing difficult to identify in most circumstances. Yet there is a lot more to being a good person than doing the right thing—infinitely more. The worst of people may do a commendable act, or the best a damnable one, unless we consider the motive behind the deed. To ignore motive is to subscribe to behaviorism or some other form of material utilitarianism. And here our current Left and Right "polarities" meet: for they are one in aspiring to evaluate behavior solely on the basis of how far it advances their cause. Both look for material results: in neither is there so much as a possible foundation for morality.
Let us return to the polarized Mr. Barth, a man divided against himself if ever there was one. You shouldn’t cheat on your taxes, you shouldn’t toss trash in the street, and you shouldn’t throw things at your mate. He’s right about that. Such strictures are neither hard to recognize nor hard to honor. But precisely because he is right, he’s wrong to add that the unsaved cannot fulfill these standards—and, by the way, he’s also wrong to claim that the law-abiding satisfy God in fulfilling them. You can honestly report your taxes while still refusing a dollar to a starving child. You can never lift a hand against your mate and still engage in verbal intimidation. That someone who observes the most minimal demands of civilized conduct should be said thereby to manifest God’s infallible will is positively ludicrous. Simply because these are minimally civilized standards, a person might abide by them for no better reason than to keep a good name in the community.
Not that being the truly good person is susceptible to the simplistic "social gospel" arithmetic of how many starving children you’ve fed, how many compassionate exhortations you’ve delivered. The vain pride possibly hidden in these deeds of mercy is fully equal to the merciless, sanctimonious alderman’s who wants his child sent to the reformatory for shoplifting. The way out of such self-idolatry is not Habitat for Humanity, worthy though that cause may be. You may devote your life ostentatiously, even spectacularly to others and still be a thorough-going narcissist. Particularly if you are extroverted by nature, your crusading social work might be far less painful to you than staying home with a book. You will certainly be lavished with the community’s praise, even though your soup kitchen is chronically underfunded. You have your reward… don’t you?
What are your true motives? Social activists are highly sensitive on the subject. "Some become engrossed in spiritual egotism," sneers John Dewey, taking the offensive. "They are preoccupied with the state of their character, concerned for the purity of their motives and the goodness of their souls."6 And yet, the Dewey man-of-action clearly wants to motivate—or to manipulate—by removing motive from the determining ground of goodness. If you can so readily descry hypocrisy in the modest checks which your stay-at-home brethren make out to your hospice, maybe your own hypocrisy is no less. Maybe you are a little too in love with yourself, like someone who fancies that he is truly wise or does only and always God’s work.
For Pittacus eventually meets Simonides unless becoming can somehow remain becoming. People who insist upon the difficulty of right conduct (as opposed to its impossibility) end up simply giving us a different version of right conduct. If a person can indeed become truly good—can be the sage or the saint—then moral complacency is the only spiritual reality to be "born again". Moral reason warns us that true goodness is humanly approachable at best, not humanly attainable. If perfection lay in action, then goodness would consist entirely of right behaviors; and if this were so, then motive would be irrelevant (as so many progressives like Dewey have said it is), and what is good would be fully observable—the healthy, the sensually pleasant, the efficient. And if this were so… why then, the very word "morality" would be redundant. For we should more properly be using words like "healthy", "delectable", and "efficient".
But if moral goodness designates something invisible within men and women, then the ultimate end of goodness is asymptotic, more nearly approached but never reached. For the perfectly good deed must now be accompanied by a morally perfected will; in fact, good deeds will be properly understood as no more than the inevitable shadow of that will upon the practical world of oppressively finite choices. Of course it’s better to swerve your car and miss a stray dog than to plow over it! Of course it’s better to hold your tongue than to vent your full impatience upon a procrastinating friend! Saint and sinner alike can achieve such successes, and achieve them without any discernable difference of tone or gesture. What matters is what’s within: the outer moral measure provided by "works" is but a crude gauge of the heart’s intent, though nonetheless a major one. (Symphora is indeed the primary cause of this gauge’s crudity: what if the saint were thinking about a sermon when he ran over the dog—shouldn’t he have been concentrating on the road? Bad luck, holy one!)
Since all our intentions can never be utterly purged of selfishness in every variety—egotism, cowardice, envy, anger, lust—it follows that there are no truly good persons; for goodness is born in intent and inspires act only secondarily.
And it also follows, from moral reason, that goodness has metaphysical origins. There must be a supreme moral being who knows us intimately—more so than we know ourselves—and who draws us toward his higher reality. How else but in this belief could we ever be reconciled to our shortcomings? Rather, we should simply give up the good fight in despair. Or how else but in this belief could we ever be dissuaded from claiming moral perfection, and thence plunging into the gravest kind of moral disease? We should end up strutting about in search of opportunities to display our peerless wisdom and virtue before others, even as we sought hiding places dark enough to fool our own eyes as well as the world’s.
In its cultural projection, this ongoing adventure in moral reason is best represented by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Again, Eastern traditions share many of its insights—how could they not, since reason is available to all human beings? Thanks to the popularization of literacy in the West, however, our Mediterranean-based tradition has been immensely more accessible to the rank and file in its details and fine points, many of which have been further refined by the uncertified and unordained. There is little of the Mandarin or the exclusivist about Christianity, in particular, which early on rejected the formidable efforts of gnosticism to make it yet another mystery cult. It is fair enough, no doubt, to argue that the Christian faith grew altogether too accessible to the improperly prepared, a case made well by the likes of Jacques Maritain, Jacques Barzun, and Thomas Molnar (recently published in Arcturus). Our present shoot-out between liberal progressivism and what Joe Barnhardt has aptly called Christian hedonism would be inconceivable on either side without the lubricating ministrations of a certain Calvinist empiricism…
But enough of the –isms. I merely observe that accessibility carries its costs. The heaviest cost is that common sense arises only from thought, which is introspective, quiet, time-consuming, painstaking, and—in short—ever less common. We need more reason to correct reason’s blunders, yet we have falsely reasoned ourselves now into a system which doesn’t tolerate reasoning.
I see even such scholars as Huston Smith, for whose work I have the utmost respect, claiming (on a Net interview) that the Western tradition locates the divine outside of the human heart, in contrast to Buddhism.7 Well, Christianity can certainly be misrepresented in this way, and has been so more and more by its most vocal "proponents"… but Smith draws no distinction between the huckster and his wares. Immanuel Kant (if I may use a Protestant rationalist to prove a point which some assume to belong to Catholic mysticism) was most insistent that the supreme moral being must be known from within, and that the Christian god is this being. Writes Kant, "Christendom is the idea of a religion primarily grounded in reason and, to that extent, must be viewed as natural." (Cf. Tertullian’s remark in Apologetic 17 that the soul is naturally Christian.) Later in the same work, he elaborates:
Granted, phrases like "the God within us" instantly make stalwarts of the Religious Right smell relativism, and even solipsism. (How they handle John 10.34-35 I do not know: in my experience, they ignore it.) This is another occasion calling for refinement, for better choice of words, rather than for drawing lines in the sand. Kant was plainly not an eloquent writer, and I personally would wish that he had emphasized more the dependency of moral reason upon the concept of a metaphysical wellspring. He talks about it, but he does not insist—almost as though reason is willfully deluding itself to make its clock run on time. Such is not at all his intention, I think. To be sure, "critique" is all about making reason’s clock run on time—about Ockham’s Razor applied with full regard for all the human mentality’s registers. Yet to call the assuming of an imperceptible reality a self-delusion would be to favor the patently false assumption that reason might somehow analyze itself reasoning. Kant’s thesis moves precisely in the opposite direction.
I have observed throughout my scholarly career that nobody cares much anymore about Kant’s intent, or about that of the other "great dead guys". It’s the boxing match again: left-right-left-right. The New Right loathes Kant because he revered the spirit which inspired the Bible more than the Bible. The New Left condescends to him because he cast into doubt the supreme importance of material reality. He is worked over between the two of them like a Jesus between two Sanhedrins: "Did you say this? Just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’! If you did, you’re dead." Professor Smith himself has not read beyond The Critique of Pure Reason, as far as I can tell (one of the few foibles he shares with the infinitely less studious Jacques Derrida). They overturn a few crates to make a tribunal, these Kafkaesque sages, then they either send you back to the factory or ship you out to the penal colony. How utterly tiresome.
And the proliferation of tinpot Hitlers and Stalins, I stress, is a direct consequence of the metaphysical vacuum left by the suppression of moral reason. Why should it matter whether or not you believe in anything beyond yourself, or whether that something demands goodness, first and last? Because without that belief, you have Hitlers and Stalins—a society full of both, a society of nothing else. A race of people who babble, "Works don’t matter, nobody can really be good, so I’m not losing sleep over the lie on my résumé… but anybody can be good enough to stay off my lawn… but even at your best, you’re not good enough, because you don’t see that my vision of things is better. At least I have the courage to stand by things as I see them, which is what any really good person does. What, then, is truth?"
Apologize for dedicating a journal to sorting through these sorry, sickly clichés, buzzwords, and keyword phrases? Next thing we know, we’ll be getting ticketed for walking along in quiet thought without a boom box or a head-set. No, I think I’ll keep my apologies today.
But wasn’t Arcturus supposed to be a literary journal? Whatever Praesidium is presiding over in tutelary concern, wouldn’t it have been better off sustaining Arcturus’s interest in belles lettres?
And so it shall. The major cause behind the change on this journal’s cover is… well, superficial. Few know what the name "Arcturus" signifies, to begin with: even those who recognize the name of a prominent yellow star can’t figure out what heavenly bodies have to do with literary journals. Now that Arcturus Press and the journal are being severed, the time often lavished upon explanation seems wasted.
Let me be more forthright, however. Faithful readers will know that we have aired out far more than literary issues right from the start. Praesidium is subtitled (as was Arcturus before it) A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis. I have already devoted a few words to the connection between literacy and moral analysis. The appearance of an ethics of conscience, valorizing individual freedom and exacting individual responsibility, occurred in Athens and spread throughout the Mediterranean world side by side with alphabetic literacy: not obscure hieroglyphs, that is, but the technique of writing which just about any bright person of any station could soak up quickly. Even those who never acquired the new learning were privy to a new spirit of inquiry, a new direction—to newness itself. The oral-traditional world had suppressed change even when it rarely happened, whereas the literate world now insisted that all things may change, and that all people should. Enter the morality of self-improvement. Read Eric Havelock and Fr. Ong on the subject.
Writing makes you think things out more profoundly, and it makes you more aware of yourself as an originator of behavior—an individual distinct from the group—as you chew upon your quill and sort through your options. In states like Pennsylvania where the Quaker influence was once strong, prison inmates used to be placed in solitary confinement and told to write. I often think we should revive that rehabilitative strategy. Writing is confessional. The blank sheet of paper soon becomes a mirror.
To take the morality out of writing would be to remove writing’s aloneness, its meditation, its confession. We would emerge with what we’re getting right now, more and more often: narratives put together from televised clichés the way a child’s "lego" toy snaps together from various blocks. The blocks can make different patterns, up to a point; but the point is reached after only three or four divertissements on the theme, for creativity has been rigidly circumscribed by the triumph of parts over whole. The post-literate world is a world of such building blocks. Prefabricated for our convenience (to spare us the "inconvenience" of living, I suppose), they are always marketed as liberating in their plasticity, their virtuosity: yet they only form the resilient bars of an agonizing prison. So many streets that your car can follow to so many places… except back to towns where you used to be able to walk, to meet people, to have curbside conversations. So many "matches" on Yahoo that you can click to find so many good deals… except the serendipitously retrieved jewel which you used to stumble upon in casually rummaging through the stock of a little specialty shop, not really knowing what you wanted.
Discovering good short stories for Arcturus was always a chore, for this reason among others. That is, I have learned that people simply don’t write creatively—especially young people—at the rate they once did, and that what little they do write is hackneyed almost beyond belief. I have sometimes dared to slip my own nugatory efforts between the covers (as I have this time). I’m sure that my self-selection has the appearance of gross vanity: but if you could only have seen the paucity and the poverty of what I had to choose from early on…. I recall, for instance (the young man in question will never read these words), a story about an unwashed "bag lady" whom the narrator’s family took to church for years. As a Sunday school exercise, the narrator gives the woman of unholy odors a textile of some kind, and… I don’t want to draw this out. Let’s just say that the bag lady renders the narrator locally famous by making and distributing quilts all over town with the young benefactor’s name stitched into them. Gee whiz.
During my final stint of teaching, I had to judge dozens of such submissions for an annual contest. Most of them featured lurid murders. No quilts stuffed down the vic’s windpipe, as I remember—but equally improbable send-offs which would strike you as familiar even if (like me) your closest approach to a movie theater is the fifteen-second ad between the news and weather.
Moral? The parable of the malodorous bag lady at least gestured at an instructive insight—but the insight came first, and then the lego blocks were snapped around its edges in an attempt to provide support. No doubt, a tale of horror and mayhem can be inspired without offering any apparent instruction whatever… but the present generation of bloodletting hacks must be torturing poor Edgar Allan Poe’s soul with their incoherent tomato-paste canvases. Their prepackaged grotesquerie has no psychology behind it, no motivation. It’s a special-effects extravaganza without setting or dialogue. Again, no visible support—just a sparkling chunk of cabaret floating clear of drama’s sunken ship.
This brings me to two points with which I shall conclude my desultory defense: that story-telling shares the structure of moral reflection, and that it also, and necessarily, implies a theory of human conduct which has moral implications.
We have seen (following Simonides) that moral conduct lends itself to some considerable degree of codification, but also that insistence upon any code’s adequacy is suffocating to the ultimate end of goodness (Simonides notwithstanding). The values which respond to this mysterious gravitational field both converge upon a clear, distinct form and struggle to surpass that form; and they do so concurrently and productively—one might well say harmoniously. The word is fully appropriate in art, at any rate, where the same fertile tension labors with the same ceaseless intensity. Art constantly tends toward form as it organizes chaos into purposive motion; and, with equal constancy, it frays and strains and overpowers existing forms in search of the form that got away. In literature, specifically, we are all aware that the measure of words (meter in Greek) insinuates a message. This is especially true in clusters of words where similar measures persist. Short words arranged in short phrases can communicate a sense of the hasty, the giddy, the terse, or of a few other moods (among which we make a more confident choice largely because of clues within the words’ meaning). Long words arranged in long clusters can suggest weariness, complexity, confusion, and so on. You can speak about the phenomena of meter and rhythm with a mathematical precision: these qualities are about as objective a measure of aesthetic performance as throwing a brick or not throwing it is of moral performance. Yet precisely which mood the telegraphic style or the run-on style finally evokes is always open to debate. In the hands of some creators, one style may evoke two or more moods, sometimes in a highly ironic paradox.
Or take the much-extolled quality of plot structure. Even in this age of postmodern free-for-all, young authors probably have their stories rejected for sins against plot structure (if they’re given the grace of an explanation) more than for any other single failure. A good story is supposed to begin with a problem, which then proceeds to grow more and more complicated until at last, in a stroke both credible and unforeseeable (so sayeth Aristotle), the major tension is somehow resolved. The mind loves order, apparently. Such a triumph of orderliness can be entertaining even when the story has no reference to any tensions present in one’s own life (perhaps especially then: the pleasure of harmony is most "pure" when personal anxieties do not corrupt a "disinterested" experience, if I may use Kantian language). Yet a conclusion which ties together every last strand (or which unties every last knot, if you prefer the metaphor implicit in dénouement) is viewed with a certain suspicion. The more popular genres of novel—detective mystery, Harlequin romance, etc.—are disparaged for the simplistic tidiness of their finales as much as for anything else. You may call this a moral reservation if you like: it would obviously be an appropriate objection from someone who felt strongly that goodness cannot be summed up in a short list of do’s and don’t’s. At the same time, though, it may betoken a fine aesthetic sense. The one or two threads left dangling are as much a welcome intrigue to the playful imagination as they are an honest admission to the mature moralist.
I see no reason to press the question further. Instead, I believe the truth lies within a slight confusion of aesthetic and moral values, so intricately are both involved with the complementary labors of creating new form and dissolving it to explore still newer form. To be blunt, I suspect that moral reason is somehow sharpened up by the practice of story-telling and story-reading, while I also suspect that the best story-tellers are those who puzzle over complex moral issues. A journal which advertises its interest in literature can therefore not help but have an interest, as well, in moral questions, at least if it is in earnest. I could name one or two journals right now (but will not, out of charity) which have loudly protested the politicizing of literature and have put themselves forward as the real thing, l’art pour l’art… yet they fall to pieces in any given issue precisely because they have no moral backbone, no sense of purpose or even of convergence. They are stray snippets of de-politicized ruminations about literature.
I have already entered my second point through the kitchen door. I found it impossible to discuss the strictly formal similarities of aesthetic and moral thought without declaring that the former necessarily absorbs some of the latter’s content simply by resembling it in form. For this is exactly what happens. A story which opts to be more "poetic" and leave its tensions as unfettered as a vague metaphor projects a morally alarming picture of life, at the very least. The open-endedness may be nuanced in a soothing direction: a main character’s newly discovered strength, for instance, may cause all tension to shrink to the Lilliputian proportions of a comic dance. Throughout most of the twentieth century, though—let us be honest—the unresolved plot was usually a sign of encroaching pessimism. The central wrong in the story which wasn’t righted implied that wrongs generally are not righted in our world; the central characters who left our ken clinging to hopes of transparent futility implied that our own fondest hopes, too, are mere pipe-dreams. A story with no clear end is frustrating: but the good stories without clear end transform an aesthetic frustration into a moral one. They do not remain isolated in some fanciful universe which makes up its own right and wrong or simply suspends all right and wrong. They cannot; for if they are good stories, their unresolved structure would have to be motivated—and the only thing which can motivate a portrait of human events not brought to some kind of closure would be an abundance of human choices against closure. That, my fellow story-lovers, constitutes a statement of moral belief.
As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the final decade of the late, nearly fatal twentieth century saw a resurgence in "closed" narratives—a purely aesthetic resurgence, however, which outraged moral sense. I have already mentioned the piles of short stories which crossed my desk in such visions of blood and guts that I wanted to hose my mail with Lysol. The minimalist fictions which Raymond Carver at his worst represents (his best was much better) indicate the degree of respectability this vein of fiction has achieved. Nothing is more final than death—but "typical" death can be vexingly incoherent for the raconteur: a car wreck, a heart attack, a slip in the bath tub. Murder, on the other hand, puts the end of life right back in the center of the painter’s canvas, since it requires a choice and is thus a culmination of motivating events… yes? Well, not necessarily, it would appear. Murder and mayhem are as unexplained, as out-of-the-blue, in today’s short fiction as chest pains or a slip down the staircase. The sadism just happens: it springs from the created environment with the spontaneity of a Heisenberg electron. And once a central character is killed off, the story has to end: no Dickens or Tolstoy could tie a tighter knot around the last period. The completed form, however, is woefully deficient—some would call it aesthetically so; but we are on much firmer ground, surely, to say that its weakness is moral. If our taste for completed pattern has not been satisfied, we must recognize that what’s incomplete is the inner portrait of human choice, not the external reporting of a "news" item. We need to know the motive. We cannot accept that ordinary people relieve an urge to kill or maim with the same complacency they show on a trip to the lavatory. We consider such a degree of "aestheticization" extremely unhealthy and, frankly, not at all pleasant to behold. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we insist that well-crafted stories provide insight into the moral calculations behind events.
Or do we? Just who are "we"? Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty have us wondering if any "we" is ever more than a clique of the similarly prejudiced or a claque of well-paid flunkies. All I can say is that their proposition leaves me morally indignant: they may be right, but shame on us all if they are. In any case, Fish’s championing of non-canonical authors reveals that he has hopped aboard one or more social crusades. He clearly doesn’t believe in his own relativism—and so it goes with the other "living white guys". They may always be relied upon to demand righteous action with a Simonidean stridency if you only press the politically sanctioned button.
The choice, then, is not really between literature with a moral dimension and literature without one: it is between analyzing that dimension, for inherent moral soundness as well as artfulness of delivery, and practicing no analysis at all. The post-structural forces that raged across the critical landscape for decades have now abated, but it isn’t at all clear that they are being succeeded by fair weather. As I said earlier, every time one polarity does its best to annihilate the other, the eventual reincarnation of the other (for the effort to annihilate always exhausts the aggressor) brings us a sadder, more degenerate animal. To be sure, scholars are back to studying what Jane Austen had for breakfast as she conceived Pride and Prejudice and what Emily Dickinson scribbled on the flip side of her laundry list. It’s almost like those tedious days when, as a wee bairn, I was sent off to write a research paper on Shakespeare which ended up being about Queen Elizabeth. The difference is that now I would ferret out evidence of the bard’s racist indoctrination or repressive toilet training or closet homosexuality. The academy is still not guided by anything approaching literary criteria in its treatment of literature. By revealing the degree of bias in history-writing, it appears merely to have licensed the ascent of less favored biases over mainstream ones. Heaven forbid that we should back away from historical causality altogether and assess our common humanity!
That, however, is precisely what I and my most capable Board of Directors aspire to do in Praesidium. Our endeavor is intended to be a defense of Western culture’s beleaguered citadel: hence the image of a garrison in a stronghold. And in the heart of that stronghold’s arsenal… moral reason, the faculty of sorting out our duties and callings with every particle of intelligence, imagination, and humility at our disposal: telling true stories, sifting through false ones, mining fantastical ones for a gem of revelation. I like to flatter myself that we were doing that all along in Arcturus.
But I would be less than forthright if I did not admit that this position seems much more like a lonely outpost than a pendant-strewn turret. The barbarian army is no longer attacking: it has filled its belly, stuffed its carts, and moved on. It never fought its way to the inner sanctum—it never intended to, perhaps. The effort required was no doubt judged excessive. Now a blind beggar or a sickly jackal occasionally limps through the main gate, creaking in the wind on rusty hinges, in hopes that some rifled larder yet conceals a moldy crust of bread. Who is there for us to fight off? Sabres drawn, standing at full alert, our posture often strikes us as positively ludicrous.
But it isn’t. The barbarians will be back. One by one, they will come staggering in more parched than a desert jackal—because, after all, they are people. And a person cannot live indefinitely on nights of drunkenness and dreams of revenge. When they do come back, one by one, we shall be waiting to open up the stronghold and give them the water of life. For this is what moral reason demands of us.
1 "The truth, fellow Romans, is that, though isolated individuals, you used to find safety in the community’s good will. Now all of you look to one man for protection." Oratio Macri 24. With one exception (noted), translations in this essay are mine.
2 "This morality [founded upon the assumption of free will] and not mere understanding is thus primarily what makes human beings human." From p. 72 of Der Streit der Facultäten in Kants Werke, vol. 7 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 1-116.
3 "The worst temptation for humanity in periods of dark-ness and general upheaval is to renounce moral reason." From L’Homme et l’État (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953), 68.
4 This fragment is numbered 370 in the Oxford anthology, Lyrica Graeca Selecta (ed. Denys Page), 542 in other sources. The extent verses beyond what I have translated are so fragmentary that one can only guess at their relation to the whole.
5 I cannot vouch for the translation from German here, which I drew from Louis B. Smedes, Mere Morality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 9. Smedes, by the way, is the kind of biblical inerrantist typical of Barth’s many admirers.
6 From Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1922), 7.
7 I admit that interviews are a poor source of carefully deliberated thought, and the Internet an undiscriminating source even for interviews. I find the following reflection by Smith immensely more fair-minded: "I was not myself conscious of the loss in this ‘updated’ Christianity [i.e., process theology] until, seeking to expand my horizons through the study of world religions, I came (first) on the Vedanta, whereupon I found that my interest in process theology dropped markedly, and with it my interest in Christianity until I discovered that its classical expressions include everything of importance I had discovered in the Upanishads." From Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (Wheaton, IL: Quest, 1989), 158.
8 From p. 48 of Der Streit der Facultäten in Kants Werke, vol. 7 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 1-116. The previous citation was drawn from p. 44; and the translation from the German, this time, is mine.
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