The other day, I made a comment on Antisocial Media to the effect that you should read old books because their characteristic errors will not be your errors, and because they will show you things that are good and true and beautiful which you may have forgotten. It’s only what C. S. Lewis and plenty of writers devoted to the arts of old have said before me. It shouldn’t be controversial. In fact, anyone who really believes in cultural diversity should welcome it, because in this regard the past is like a foreign country, where you go to be charmed by, and instructed by, a way of life very different from your own.
That includes, too, a view of the sins of people in days gone by, which we are sometimes pleased to look upon with horror, forgetting that we have our own sins to repent, if we can be led even to recognize that they are sins at all. Augustine’s friend Alypius, I noted, was a remarkably gentle and compassionate young man, but he got hooked on the gladiatorial games, against his better judgment and will. The frenzy, the terrible excitement, all the more potent because of its wickedness, turned his head one day when some of his friends, teasing and cajoling him, dragged him to the arena, and there he kept his eyes shut fast, until a roar came from the crowd just when one of the fighters was slaying his opponent. Alypius looked up—and was fascinated, we might say possessed. Only the grace of God would later tear that fascination out of his heart.
I further said that most of the evil done in this world, just by the sheer force of numbers, is performed by “nice people,” engaging in the ordinary evils of their time, or giving way to the kinds of selfishness and hard-heartedness each person finds most comfortable or profitable for himself. The implication is that we commit evils peculiar to our time too, as wicked as what the Romans indulged in, and that “nice people” will likewise fill the stands.
Then someone responded, evidently thinking about his favorite forms of sexual release, that nice people in our time “deny other people’s humanity” and “use the ballot box to force their delusions of God on everyone else.”
I don’t think he perceived that he had proved my point.
He wanted to vilify people who hold to a vision of sexual morality that within living memory was just about universal, even among liberals themselves. Such people, he implied, were denying his humanity. That is nonsense.
I recall the words of the King of Brobdingnag, after Gulliver had described to him the ways of European countries and their cultures, that his people must be “the most odious race of pernicious little vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the face of the earth.” That’s a large part of our humanity, right there. We are proud, vain, envious, and self-absorbed. We hoard what we do not need, to the harm of others. We lie, and we excuse ourselves for our lies. We cheat, we covet, we treat divine things as if they were contemptible, and contemptible things as if they were divine. We neglect our children and scoff at our parents. And we roll in lust like pigs in slop.
So if I say, “You should not do such-and-such,” I imply that I should not do that either, or some other thing that happens to catch me where I am weak. I’m not denying anyone’s humanity. I’m affirming it, in two ways. I am saying, “Welcome to the club of the sinners,” and, “The moral laws that govern our lives are the same, regardless of what we think of them. We are not gods.”
Which brings me to the other thing the young man said. Clearly, he does not want to read old books, since they will undoubtedly come from times and places in which his sin, the sin whereby he identifies himself, was either condemned or looked upon as petty or ridiculous. He does not want to admit that he has anything to learn by stepping outside of his self-built moral mansion, a kind of well-decorated and comfortable prison-house. But as soon as he says so, he implies that he has denied his own humanity: he has made himself out to be a god, determining good and evil for himself, at least in that one realm of the moral life where he has staked what he believes is his identity.
That is why the very idea of God threatens him. For the only human beings in our time whose very humanity is denied in principle and as a matter of public law are the unborn, and many people, most of them religious but not all, most of them politically conservative but not all, have been fighting for years to have their humanity recognized and protected. It may be the most important reason why the Republicans fared poorly in the last election. Try to imagine a Roman emperor saying to the people, “You will get your bread, but I am shutting down the circuses, because they are immoral and inhuman.”
Think of all the people whose livelihoods depend on those games. It isn’t only sex that sells. All kinds of bad things sell. Who profits from the fraying and the collapse of stable family life in our time? A lot of people profit. My interlocutor profits in this way: He gets to do what he pleases, regardless of the implications for raising boys and girls who will be attracted to one another in the natural way of mankind, and who will exercise the virtues that give them the best chance for a permanent and happy marriage.
But you will have a hard time trying to persuade someone walled up in his mansion to step outside and to think about the whole of his society. That was the case with Ebenezer Scrooge and his law-abiding but immoral and wicked avarice, and that is the case now with other kinds of Scrooges, not so staidly dressed, and our peculiar law-abiding but immoral and wicked lusts.
And yet you must take that step, and let the old books help you, if you are going to be free, even if you and your fellows are going to be any kind of society at all. You must leave behind the self-made identity, the little god in the mirror. To acknowledge God as the giver of law is to step down from the throne where you yourself are playing at deity, and, since most people are not so aggressive at that game, to knock from their thrones those among us, always the worst, who want to remake the whole world in their own image and subject everyone to the ghastly pretense: great haters of both God and man, like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, and anyone in our midst whose vast wealth and power give him the odd notion that he is called to save the world from our old liberties and old pieties.
So yes, I will acknowledge God in my civic life, because I want to have a real civic life and not a mockery of it, and because the alternative is no society, but a numbed collective of half-men serving an array of petty gods as mortal and as foolish as they themselves are. And I will read the old books, too, because they will often be wise where I am not.