Sunday, April 12, 2015

VDH and Chesterton

Victor Davis Hanson (VDH), in a series of books, most especially in Carnage and Culture, develops the theme of the peculiar Western advantage in war-making. Hanson traces this all the way back to the emphasis on rationality in the ancient Greek origins of Western culture. He shows how, throughout subsequent history, the West has consistently (although of course not perfectly) subordinated other considerations to rational ones when it comes to the martial sciences. This has given the West a decisive and enduring advantage in war over the East, an advantage that is by no means absolute but that eventually resulted in the civilizational domination of the East by the West.

The standard line on why the West has dominated the East traces the cause almost exclusively to technology. The West, for whatever reason, was able to develop modern weaponry before the East and the East simply could not compete. Spears vs. machine guns.

But, of course, the Western development of military technology is itself the expression of the emphasis on rationality that has distinguished it from the East. It is well-known that many of the crucial breakthroughs in military technology - gunpowder, for instance - were first developed in the East. It was the West, however, that typically imagined the military innovations possible with these breakthroughs and exploited them - in the case of gunpowder, with firearms. The West has consistently maintained a lead in military innovation, with the East playing catch-up and never quite getting there.

Neither can the Western dominance be attributed entirely to technology. Hanson uses the example of Cortez who, with a few hundred conquistadors, was able to conquer a sophisticated Mexican empire that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The crucial difference between Cortez and the Aztecs, Hanson shows, was the way Cortez interpreted Mexican civilization vs the way the Mexicans interpreted Cortez. The Mexicans interpreted Cortez's advent in terms of myth and religion: Was he the white God foretold by their myths? They eventually came to the conclusion that he wasn't, but they never made a genuine attempt beyond that to understand the Spaniards in themselves. Neither did they make efforts to adopt and master Spanish weapons (e.g. swords, armor and cannon) after the superiority of those weapons was made manifest. The Aztecs had access to swords and armor from captured Spaniards as the conflict endured, yet they never made a systematic effort to exploit the captured weapons. Aztec warriors never appeared in captured armor wielding swords, something a Western army would have done as soon as possible when it encountered novel but superior enemy military hardware.

Instead, religion dominated rational considerations of warfare and the Aztecs stuck with their religiously based methods of fighting. Their weapons were designed to stun rather than kill, so that the enemy might be dragged back for ritual human sacrifice. The Aztecs never changed this tactic even when it was obvious that such tactics were particularly unsuited to attacking men wearing chest armor and helmets.

Cortez, on the other hand, made a rapid and systematic evaluation not only of Aztec military technique but also of the political structure of the Aztec empire. He was able to turn the subject peoples of the Empire - who were required, among other things, to provide regular victims to Aztec human sacrifice - against the Aztecs. And after his first attempt to conquer the city failed, Cortez analyzed his failure, came up with a plan based on Aztec vulnerabilities, exploited them, and ultimately conquered.

That's just a brief foray into Hanson's work on cultural history. My real point in this post is to point out that G.K. Chesterton anticipated much of this work way back in 1906, in his August 18 column in the Illustrated London News. (Randomly reading through Chesterton's essays is an exercise that is rarely disappointing, with the occasional discovery of real treasures). What is especially interesting about Chesterton's take on this theme is that he explicitly links it to the Western moral imagination, in contrast to Hanson, who emphasizes what he believes is the amoral character of Western rationality applied to military matters. Here is Chesterton:
Whether or no these details are a little conjectural, the general proposition I suggest is the plainest common-sense. The elements that make Europe upon the whole the most humanitarian civilization are precisely the elements that make it upon the whole the strongest. For the power which makes a man able to entertain a good impulse is the same as that which enables him to make a good gun; it is imagination. It is imagination that makes a man outwit his enemy, and it is imagination that makes him spare his enemy. It is precisely because this picturing of the other man's point of view is in the main a thing in which Christians and Europeans specialize that Christians and Europeans, with all their faults, have carried to such perfection both the arts of peace and war.

Hanson would point out that men like Cortez were hardly humanitarians. One thing the Aztecs did figure out, and pointed out to Cortez's native allies, was that Cortez was not interested in liberating them but in exploiting them. But the natives made the calculation that whatever Cortez was about, it had to be better than serving as a victim in the lethal religious ceremonies in Tenochtitlan.

I don't think Chesterton's point, in any case, was that every Western encounter with the Other had noble intentions. I think it is more that the Western imagination made it possible for Western man to have treat his enemy humanely, because he could imagine him as a human and imagine his point of view. The man who cannot imagine his enemy's point of view doesn't really imagine him as human. In this context Chesterton references another case Hanson treats, that of the conflict between the English and the Zulus:
They [Christians and Europeans] alone have invented machine-guns, and they alone have invented ambulances; they have invented ambulances (strange as it may sound) for the same reason for which they invented machine-guns. Both involve a vivid calculation of remote events. It is precisely because the East, with all its wisdom, is cruel, that the East, with all its wisdom, is weak. And it is precisely because savages are pitiless that they are still - merely savages. If they could imagine their enemy's sufferings they could also imagine his tactics. If Zulus did not cut off the Englishman's head he might really borrow it. For if you do not understand a man you cannot crush him. And if you do understand him, you probably will not.

Well, Chesterton's example of the Zulus is itself a counter-example of that sentiment, since the English certainly did crush the Zulus after the disaster at Isandlwana. But his broader point remains, which is that the Western man, because he can imagine the point of view of his enemy, creates at least the possibility that he will treat him humanely. Aztecs, on capturing Spaniards, would drag them off to be sacrificed, it never occurring to them to do otherwise, even if interrogating them and, possibly, learning from them were they only ways to avoid conquest by the Spaniards. For purely selfish reasons the Aztecs should have treated the Spaniards more humanely.

And I think Hanson would agree with that.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Down's Syndrome and Abortion

Here is a post over at the Secular Right concerning the apparently common practice of aborting children discovered to have Down's Syndrome. The post ends with the approval of a quote from Walter Mead:

... because, the argument goes, one ought to spare someone from living a low quality of life.

I'm surprised more people are not discomforted by the creepy overtones of this sentiment. There is the fact that "low quality of life" is almost a translation of the Nazi Lebensunwertes Leben. Or the lurking implication that, since "sparing someone" is something "one ought" to do, there is a moral duty to kill the innocent, whether they wish to be killed or not. In the euthanasia context, at least the standard for "low quality of life" is subjectively set by the one to be killed. But how hard is it to make the jump from self-selected euthanasia to forced euthanasia, that there is a duty for someone with a "low quality of life" to die, since such a person ought to be spared from such a life?

Then there is the idea of "low quality of life" itself. Just what does a "low" quality of life lack that is possessed by a "high" quality of life? I've never seen this spelled out in detail, let alone thoroughly justified. The Secular Right post takes for granted that intelligence is a critical element, perhaps the critical element, in a high quality of life. It's also mentioned that Down's Syndrome children (DSC for short) are more susceptible to debilitating diseases like Alzheimer's, so we can also assume that freedom from disease is also part of a high quality of life.

What is interesting is that philosophers who have thought deeply about the nature of a high quality of life - Socrates or Aristotle, for instance - put neither intelligence nor freedom from disease at the center of it. Instead they emphasize virtue, spelled out, in Aristotle's case, in terms of the four cardinal virtues of courage, temperance (self-control), justice and prudence or wisdom. Of the four, it does seem as though DSC might suffer a disadvantage in terms of wisdom, since intelligence is a part (though only part) of that virtue. But although the Secular Right wishes to condemn DSC for their limited intelligence, I've never heard anyone condemn DSC for being cowardly, or prone to self-indulgent excess, or for wishing evil on others. In fact, in terms of the virtue of justice, DSC seem to be superior to the norm. So in three out of four of the cardinal virtues, DSC seem to be the equal and perhaps even the superior of others. Why is it that the one aspect in which they are deficient, intelligence, should trump all others as necessary and sufficient to condemn them?

We all lack wisdom to one degree or another, as we are more or less perfect in all the virtues. It is the nearly virtuous man, however, who is the most dangerous. The highly intelligent, courageous, self-controlled man -but one who lacks the virtue of justice - can be a terrible force. Stalin was intelligent, willing to take a risk, and a virtual ascetic (except for his smoking). Shakesperean tragic figures like MacBeth come to mind or, for a more contemporary instance, Michael Corleone. Wouldn't it make more sense to search for a genetic test for such individuals and cull them out rather than DSC? DSC, whatever their flaws, aren't really a threat to anyone. Or to cull babies that might be prone to alcoholism, addictive gambling, or cowardice (if we could test for such a thing)?

But the fact is that the "quality of life" in question isn't that of DSC. It's really the quality of life of the DSC's parents or whomever is burdened with caring for them. (This is clear from some of the comments in the Secular Right post). That's the reason unborn DSC are aborted - because the parents don't want the trouble of caring for them, and it's a certainty that DSC will require more and different attention than normal children. I get that - as a father of three normal and healthy children, I am thankful to God for them, and wouldn't relish the idea of raising a DSC. But neither would I kid myself that such a child is better off dead, and any thoughts along those lines are just a rationalization to do something terrible to avoid what amounts to an inconvenience.

I wonder also about later children who are not culled by their parents. What does such a child think when he discovers that his parents aborted one of his older siblings because he didn't measure up genetically? I always knew from my parents that they loved me unconditionally, that they were on my side when no one else might be, and nothing could separate them from me. For many years this was known unreflectively and it wasn't until I was older, and discovered that not everyone had it, that I realized what it was and how lucky I was. When I hear Romans 8:35-39, I instinctively interpret it in this context. That confidence would have been shattered had I discovered that my parents had culled an earlier child, for whatever reason. A measure of conditionality is introduced, made all the worse, perhaps, if justified in terms of a self-serving rationalization about quality of life.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Waking from the Nightmare

"... for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again..." - Luke 15:24

On Saturday morning my daughter Ellen and her friend Ciara drove our Honda Fit to visit friends at the University of Vermont, a roughly three hour trip from our home here north of Boston.

At about 10:45, my wife, sitting next to me, received a call on her cell phone, and I heard the hysterical voice of a young woman on the other end. Tricia's eyes opened wide and without a word she handed me the cell phone. It was Ciara. [ For what I was about to hear I in no way blame Ciara. Given what had just happened to her a few minutes before it is amazing she could even operate a phone at all.]

In the old days they would have called her "hysterical." Between sobs I could hear phrases like "the car swerved" and "I'm so sorry" several times. It took about 10 seconds of soothing talk for me to get her to calm down enough to answer the one question I needed answered - was anyone hurt? In those 10 seconds I tried to push away from my mind the implications of the fact that it was Ciara calling me and not Ellen, that Ciara was saying how sorry she was  - and that Ellen's was not one of the voices I could hear in the background. But I could not ignore those implications and I was convinced I was about to be told that my daughter was dead.

I thank God and the engineers at Honda that this wasn't what I heard. Ellen, Ciara said, had a bloody nose but did not otherwise seem seriously injured, and was at that point lying on the ground covered in blankets waiting for the police and firemen to arrive. [It turns out that Ellen also endured a minor fracture of her lower back, from snapping forward over the seatbelt. There is no spinal cord danger in the injury, and no explicit treatment. She will be sore for several days and it should heal itself over a few weeks.] Ciara said she herself was uninjured. [And it turns out she had broken her left thumb, which indicates the state of mind she was in at the time of the call.] After a few more minutes of conversation I told Ciara I would be driving up immediately and would also try to contact her parents. I left a message on her home answering machine telling the story as I knew it - leading with the fact that there did not appear to be any serious injuries.

At the time, and during the drive up to Vermont, I didn't feel anything one way or the other about what had happened. It was just as though I were driving up for one of the many pickup/dropoff runs to college.  I even continued listening to the audiobook I've been enjoying while running. That may sound callous, but it is something I have become used to as the way I naturally respond to stress. When I was younger this emotional distancing worried me. Was I some sort of monster? Doesn't a normal person feel something in such situations? I've reflected on this many times since and concluded that, yes, in some of the cases where this emotional distancing has occurred to me - indifference might be a better word - it is worrying and I should be worried about it. (I may write a post on this sometime, for it was through this that I learned the distinction between the spiritual and the emotional.) But at other times it is in fact a good thing, for it has allowed me to keep a level head in times of crisis. I take no credit for that because it's nothing I consciously developed; it just happens. It could have just as easily been that I fall to pieces in a crisis.

I didn't actually start to feel anything until I saw Ellen lying in bed in the hospital room. And the feeling was elation or rather joy. The words of the Gospel at the top of this post came to my mind. While she was out of sight behind a closed door getting a CAT scan, I also began to feel the emotions I should have felt during Ciara's original phone call. A sick feeling at the pit of my stomach like I had just been punched. The hope that what you are in is merely a nightmare from which you can wake up, fighting with the knowledge that this was indeed no nightmare.

But for me it was merely a nightmare, and when the door opened up and I saw her again, I woke up from the nightmare and experienced again the joy of seeing her talk and smile. These emotions alternated for the next few hours, along with emotions that are true enough to have become clichés: Feeling like you had a reprieve from a death sentence,  feeling like you are truly appreciating someone for the first time. And there was also a deep pity for the mothers and fathers that weren't as fortunate as I was, and for whom the nightmare was not merely a nightmare. All these emotions finally began fading away in the drive back home. Maybe fading away because Ellen was simply sitting next to me.

The particulars: It appears that Ellen overcorrected from a drift, then overcorrected from the correction and ended up rolling the car on the interstate in Vermont. The Fit tumbled and, we think, also impacted some large boulders in the median that tore off the front end. Neither Ciara nor Ellen remember the accident itself, only the moments before and then finding themselves upside down in the car off the highway (the Fit ended up on its roof).  The car was a comprehensive wreck but the passenger compartment remained intact. I've still got a daughter (and a daughter's friend) because they wore their seatbelts and Honda knows how to design a car. And there is always the rosary I kept in the cupholder.

Friday, March 20, 2015


I just saw the Disney film Cinderella with my daughter. I had heard that it respected the tradition and irritated feminists, so, being a lover of the classic fairy tales well told, I didn't want to miss it. I was not disappointed. [Everyone knows the story - and there are no surprises in that regard - but if you don't want to know some of the nice touches Kenneth Branagh added don't read on.]

Cinderella tells the tale straightforwardly, with enough fresh interpretations to keep the well-known story interesting, yet without compromising the integrity of the tradition. For example, the Fairy Godmother is first seen as a poor and somewhat disgusting beggar woman. Cinderella, having just been denied an opportunity to go to the ball by her stepmother, is despondent as the years of oppression she has endured finally overwhelm her. The Fairy Godmother as beggar woman asks her for some milk; Cinderella immediately puts her own problems aside and serves the beggar woman, who sloppily slurps down the milk. Only after allowing Cinderella to reveal herself through this act of charity does the Fairy Godmother reveal herself.

A fair amount of time is spent on backstory, providing details on how Cinderella ends up living with her stepmother and stepsisters and tying up some loose ends. For instance, if the stepmother is so nasty, how did her good father end up married to her? Cate Blanchett is terrific as the stepmother, and in one of her final confrontations with Cinderella, tells the story of what happened to her. She is twice a widow, once before and the second time with Cinderella's father, and the loss of two loves has embittered her and, finally, twisted her into a villain. And in fact we see a degeneration of the stepmother as the film goes on. We first see her as she marries Cinderella's father, and at that point she is hardly an out-and-out villain, although she is clearly no innocent. It is only after Cinderella's father dies that she descends to the point of no return. There is a wonderful contrast here with Cinderella, who has also suffered two losses, first her mother and then her father. But Cinderella refuses to allow tragedy to embitter her.

It is the theme of that refusal that makes this interpretation of Cinderella unique and powerful. Its origin is also told in the backstory when Cinderella's mother, close to dying, reveals the secret to life, which is to "have courage and always be kind". She insists that Cinderella vow to remain true to these ideals, which, naturally, Cinderella tearfully does. The linkage of courage and kindness is profound, for it takes courage to be kind. It also answers the feminist criticism that Cinderella is merely a passive victim awaiting rescue by a prince. This Cinderella is not passive, but she is not active in the manner of worldly overcoming approved by feminists; instead she is active in the manner of the Gospel, answering hate with love and cruelty with kindness. It is not easy for her, and it is only by recalling her mother, her mother's wisdom, and the vow she made to her that she is able to endure. While the stepmother gradually becomes a complete slave to the bitterness and envy that consumes her, Cinderella remains free by the active fidelity to her ideals.

But there is more to it than that. Cinderella's mother also links courage and kindness to magic - that is, a transcendent hope. Here we have the purely Christian element in disguised form. And it is just here that the secular/feminist criticism has some bite. Suppose that no Fairy Godmother arrived when Cinderella was despondent after being denied an opportunity to go to the ball. Then isn't Cinderella just the doormat the feminists say she is? Branagh's manifestation of the Fairy Godmother as a beggar woman helps to answer this. Cinderella still treats her with kindness despite her despair and reveals the depth of her character, a character that will endure even if there is no such thing as fairy godmothers. The stepmother and stepsisters are driven by circumstance, imagining a future with the prince that is even more unrealistic than fairy godmothers. And when those worldly outcomes don't turn out, they are destroyed, as the stepmother destroys herself in her bitterness. Cinderella's character, by contrast, a character developed and formed in terms of her commitment to her ideals, endures despite circumstance. If there are not fairy godmothers Cinderella will remain who she is; melancholy perhaps but consoled by the memories of her mother and father. This is further reinforced after the ball, when Cinderella begins to reconcile herself to the possibility that she will never see the prince again. The memory of the ball, she decides, will be added to the memories of her mother and father and will be enough for her. This is the summit of pagan or non-Christian virtue. In a world without the Gospel, despair is not inevitable, even if the love we ultimately desire is not attainable.

But there are fairy godmothers or, to interpret the allegory, Christ did rise from the dead. The last shall be first and the first last, the meek shall inherit the earth; these are not mere hopes but truths. Cinderella's virtue is good in a world even without fairy godmothers; but in a world with them, it opens her up to a destiny not available to the vicious, and not because the vicious are vicious but because they have no time for fairy godmothers.

Some other nice touches from the film: On alighting from her carriage, Cinderella is momentarily hesitant to climb the steps to the ball. "I am really a common girl, not a princess." Her footman answers - "And I am really a lizard, not a footman. Let us enjoy this time while we can." Nice. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand - and nature is swept up in the redemption of man.

The film ends with Cinderella forgiving the stepmother - forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fr. Walter Ciszek and Ordinary Virtue

"Facing a firing squad is a pretty good test, I guess, of your theology of death."
- Fr. Walter Ciszek, He Leadeth Me

That is how Fr. Ciszek opens ch. 15 of his book. He follows it up with "I didn't exactly pass the test with flying colors."

I've read a number of books on spiritual development, including some classics like The Imitation of Christ, but they never did a lot for me. This is a reflection on me rather than the works themselves; the classics become classics for a reason and if I can't appreciate that reason, then so much the worse for me.

One work which has stuck with me, and that I find myself going back to repeatedly, is He Leadeth Me. This is the story of a young American priest who, in the late 1930s, is determined to become a Catholic missionary in Soviet Russia. He can't get directly to Russia and ends up in Poland, but with the advent of WWII he is eventually sent to the Gulag. After spending more than twenty years in Soviet captivity he is released and makes his way back to the United States. During that entire time he never gave up on his vocation as a priest.

On returning to the States, he wrote two books, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. The first is a detailed recounting of his life in Russia, and the second - the one he really wanted to write - is a series of spiritual reflections on his experience. What makes his work so accessible is the ordinariness of Father Ciszek. Some of the famous saints - St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Francis, for instance - can strike one as spiritual "all-stars." Not that they lacked humility - far from it - but they didn't seem to struggle with ordinary life as many of us do. But this is just the struggle of Father Ciszek. And it is remarkable that his struggle in the Gulag could have such meaning for us in our far less oppressive lives. Father Ciszek is an apostle of the "ordinary virtue" I discuss in my post about the film American Sniper.

The most difficult thing Father Ciszek faced was not so much the overt opposition - although that was plenty bad enough (see the quote at the start of this post) - but the indifference and quiet disdain of so many of his fellow zeks (prisoners), the apparent lack of results of his work, loneliness, and the grinding routine of every day life. Day after day, year after year, following his priestly vocation with no external support, relying on God alone, Father Ciszek found himself, gradually and repeatedly, falling into self-pity and arrogance. But as he hit bottom, again and again, he would confess his sins and recommit himself to God, gradually learning over the years some simple but powerful lessons.

In our secular culture, we face some of the difficulties Father Ciszek faced in different and less brutal form. The Soviets pressed him with overt anti-Christian propaganda; we don't have that so much as a general cultural atmosphere that denigrates robust Christian faith. Go to Mass if you must, but you better not oppose gay marriage or risk being denounced as a "hater." In the Gulag, ordinary morality went out the window for most zeks as a matter of survival. Father Ciszek struggled to hold on to it and was thought a fool (and taken advantage of) by the other prisoners. For us, following Christ means daily sacrifice of the self that directly conflicts with the dominant cultural value of self-fulfillment. Life is about fulfilling your dreams and your talents, "being all you can be", we are taught through TV and film. But following Christ means following His dreams, not your own, and that means sacrificing your self-fulfillment (that there is in fact true self-fulfillment on the far side of this sacrifice is over the horizon for us and a matter of faith). It is easy to get the feeling that we are "missing out" on life when we stop trying to fill it up ourselves and instead empty it for the sake of Christ. At such times we need to read again Father Ciszek:

We must constantly return to the catechism truth we learned as children: that God made us to love, reverence, and serve him in this life and so to be happy with him in the next. We are not saved by doing our own will, but the will of the Father; we do that not by interpreting it or reducing it to mean what we would like it to mean, but by accepting it in its fullness, as made manifest to us by the situations and circumstances and persons his providence sends us. It is so difficult and yet so simple. Each day, and every minute of every day, is given to us by God with that in mind. We for our part can offer back to God every prayer, work, and suffering, no matter how insignificant or unspectacular that may seem to us. Yet it is precisely because our daily circumstances seem so insignificant and unspectacular that we fail so often in this regard. It is the seeming smallness of our daily lives and the constancy of things that cause our attention and our good intentions to wander away from the realization that these things, too, are signs of God's will. Between God and the individual soul, however, there are no insignificant moments; this is the mystery of divine providence.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Sniper, Extraordinary and Ordinary Virtue

American Sniper is a wonderful movie that I hope is not overlooked at the Oscars for its somewhat politically incorrect moral clarity. Moral ambiguity is nowadays misunderstood as moral sophistication, and a film that draws clear lines between the good guys (Chris Kyle and his fellow American soldiers) and the bad guys (Islamic radicals) is seen as simplistic. But modern moral "sophistication" is really just an expression of the emptiness of contemporary secular ethics, which, failing to find a foundation for simple and obvious moral distinctions - like the distinction between terrorists who use children to deliver bombs, and the sniper who must decide whether to shoot that child before he succeeds - denies the obvious moral distinctions themselves.

But the failure of secular ethics is not my point here. Rather, while watching the film, I kept thinking about the extraordinariness of the heroism of Chris Kyle - his courage in facing down an enemy sniper nearly as lethal as himself, his patience in sitting hour after boring hour in the same position, scanning the horizon for threats to the Marines he was protecting, his prudence in making the split second decision whether to pull the trigger on a target that might be a dangerous terrorist - or might merely be a mother out for a walk with her child. And by extraordinary I don't mean the magnitude of his virtue (although there is that) but the simple fact that it was out of the ordinary - not the normal way in virtue is manifested.

Sniping in war is an extremely unusual occupation, and it is that because it is an unusual occupation in something that is itself unusual - war. War cannot be the norm because it is destructive, and you can only destroy what has first been created. So more fundamental than war must be the peace that allows that which would be destroyed or consumed in war to be created in the first place. This is but an instance of the more general metaphysical truth that good is more basic than evil.

We should keep this in mind if we are tempted by the idea that war somehow rips away a façade and reveals reality as it is. The fact that those who have experienced war have seen things very few of us have seen, and that it is easy to become complacent and fall into the mistake of thinking peace is self-sustaining rather than something that must be vigilantly protected, can lead us into this temptation. And if we have fallen for this temptation, then war might indeed be a process of disillusionment, but only of our mistake in thinking that that which is normal and fundamental therefore needs no effort to maintain. It is normal and fundamental that we breathe, but it would be a tragic mistake to think that we therefore need expend no effort in making sure the conditions are maintained in which we can in fact breathe; this is why we have smoke alarms in our homes, airplanes deploy oxygen masks in emergencies, we have clean air laws, and ships carry life preservers.

The extraordinary virtue of Chris Kyle in war, then, was for the sake of returning to or maintaining the ordinary. And from there we can say that the extraordinary virtue of Chris Kyle was for the sake of the ordinary virtue of normal life. Again, I do not intend extraordinary/ordinary as referring to a scale of magnitude - extraordinary being a lot of virtue and ordinary less - but as referring to their relative normalcy. Ordinary virtue happens all the time, extraordinary virtue only occurs in unusual circumstances like war or a natural disaster.

In some ways extraordinary virtue is more difficult than ordinary virtue, but in other ways it is less difficult. Extraordinary virtue tends to be concentrated in the moment and demands a supreme sacrifice of the individual. He is squarely faced with the choice to live up to his character or not; to charge the machine gun, run into the burning house to save a child, or face down the criminal pointing the gun at him. It tends to be, but is not always, highly visible and has clearly defined and immediate results. There might be glory attached in medals, news stories or even a feature film. There is almost certainly the gratitude of those who have immediately benefited, the buddy you dragged back to the aid station or the mother of the child you brought out of the burning house.

The clarity of the challenge involved in extraordinary virtue may be considered one of its "advantages", even if that isn't exactly the right word. The problem of meaning is eclipsed. The situation is clear and what is required is obvious: The only challenge is in doing what is necessary. Veterans have spoken of the horror of war and don't wish to repeat it, but they also sometimes speak of missing the existential clarity of combat. I remember one Easy Company veteran (from Band of Brothers) wistfully reflecting on the confidence and vigor he felt during the Second World War, something he lost as a civilian and never recovered. (I understand that war is not always morally clear - Vietnam comes to mind - but I am thinking here of the typical individual soldier in the moment of combat. The American GI in Vietnam may have wondered what he was doing there, but those doubts were forgotten when the VC were discovered infiltrating through the wire at 2:00 AM).

The challenges of ordinary virtue are almost never, individually speaking, as difficult in the moment as those of extraordinary virtue. They involve simple things like getting up every morning to be at work on time; doing well in your courses of study whether you enjoy them or not; spending time playing with your children in the evening even though you are tired and would rather not; getting up in the middle of the night to care for a sick infant; putting up with a difficult boss for the sake of making a living for your family; dealing with the rotten kids on the youth soccer team you coach, or taking care of a crotchety elderly relative (not you Dad if you are reading this!) In none of these instances are the individual acts in any real way "hard", certainly not hard in the way of Chris Kyle. But there is also no glory or immediate recognition or "payoff" with them. Your kid may not be grateful with you that you played with him, just annoyed you are making him go to bed. No one will give you a medal for getting up and going to work every day. And everyone thinks his kid is just a joy for you to coach.

Furthermore, ordinary virtue can seem easy or boring because "everyone does it", and extraordinary virtue glamorous because only a few are called on to perform it and those that are, are lionized. But this is partly an illusion based on the fact that we normally live in ordinary times and only occasionally in extraordinary times, so simply by the nature of things extraordinary virtue will be unusual. And in ordinary times, not everyone does in fact do it, but this fact itself becomes blasé, especially in our "non-judgmental" culture.

If the challenge of extraordinary virtue is to find the strength to do what is necessary in the extreme moment, the challenge of ordinary virtue is to discover a moral foundation that can support the unglamorous, repetitive, and perhaps boring ongoing life of ordinary virtue. This was a central concern of Kierkegaard, of course, and in his view, the life of ordinary virtue (the ethical life) is inherently unstable and tends to lead to a crisis that provides the occasion for genuine religious faith. The difference in the challenges of ordinary and extraordinary virtue is not always appreciated, and the man who discovers the strength to face the demands of combat may be confused as to why he finds ordinary civilian life so difficult. Combat is, superficially and immediately, a far more difficult situation than ordinary life. How could the latter pose a problem when one has successfully faced the former? It is because, as we have seen, the requirements of the two situations differ.

The key here is meaning. The immediacy of combat, or any life and death situation, eclipses the more general question of meaning and gives life an urgent and brutal purpose in the moment. There is a temptation to yearn for the clarity that combat gives to relieve oneself of the anxiety of the question of meaning; but that question is not answered in combat, only eclipsed, and the question will return once the extraordinary state of war ceases. For war is only for the purpose of restoring some sort of peace, and ultimately itself has meaning, and is justified, in terms of the meaning of the peace it aims to bring about.

Thus we may admire and appreciate the virtue and sacrifice of Chris Kyle, but we should see that his virtue, while necessary and important, is not the most important type of virtue, because it is a virtue that has meaning only in light of the ordinary virtue of the peace it defends. And that latter virtue should be honored at least as much as the former.

I sometimes wonder if the effusive honor and praise we  currently give veterans is a reflection of our guilty conscience, or our half-buried suspicion that we are not worthy of the sacrifices our soldiers make for us - that our ordinary virtue is not worthy of their extraordinary sacrifice. Do not misunderstand me, I believe veterans deserve to be honored, and surely some of the contemporary effusion is makeup for the disgraceful treatment Vietnam veterans received for many years. But there is a certain over-the-top quality to it, as when I am regularly "thanked for my service", although I only served in the late 1980's for a few years, not in a time of war, and I find it embarrassing to be lumped in with WW2 or Vietnam veterans. In the old days veterans were honored on Memorial and Veterans Days with parades and that was that.

The true way to honor veterans is to live well in the peace that they have provided; and I mean "live well" in the classical sense of a life of virtue lived to as much perfection as humanly possible. But we have lost sight of ordinary life as essentially a challenge in virtue. That is too "judgmental." We see the virtue of the soldier in combat from afar, however, and cannot help but admire it. If we cannot honor our soldiers by the lives we lead, at least we can honor them with parades and benefits.

Perhaps the extraordinary virtue of the soldier is the last virtue a civilization loses. Out of the morass of ordinary life, our nation still produces superlative soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, police officers and firemen. We admire the soldier who faces his fears in combat, and would both reject and be puzzled by one who shrank from the demands of combat merely on the grounds that he "wasn't up for that." On the other hand, many times I have been met with puzzled looks by individuals when they learn I raised three children, something that was commonplace and hardly extraordinary not so long ago. Isn't that just an awful lot of work and an unreasonable sacrifice, the question is asked (although not typically in those words)? The question is itself an indication that ordinary life is no longer seen as a challenge in ordinary virtue, for it is like asking the soldier why he charges up the hill. The soldier does it because it is what the situation calls for, and I did it because it was what my situation called for.

And I also wonder: How long can a nation that no longer puts ordinary virtue at its center, keep producing individuals capable of the extraordinary virtue required by its defense?

Here we are back to one of the central questions of Plato's Republic.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Dawson on Barbarism

"We have learnt that barbarism is not a picturesque myth or a half-forgotten memory of a long-passed stage of history, but an ugly underlying reality which may erupt with shattering force whenever the moral authority of a civilization loses its control."
 -  Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950)

Dawson wrote those words in the wake of the barbarities of the Second World War. It is something we should remember as we deal (or avoid dealing) with the barbarities of radical Islam. Refusing to name evil for what it is by, for instance, merely talking about "extremism" and avoiding any mention of Islam in connection with contemporary terror movements, corrupts the moral authority of our civilization. For truth is the foundation of moral authority, and as we cede the latter we invite that ugly underlying reality to erupt - with shattering force.