People say that chivalry is dead. If true, we have killed it. The sexual revolution, the crest of second and third wave feminism and the natural tendency toward chronological snobbery have made the idea of chivalry quaint at best and tyrannical at worst. The idea of a knight errant fighting for his lady love is seen as a hopeless romantic with his head in the clouds or as an unapologetic standard and enforcer of the patriarchy. Chivalry, in an Orwellian thrust, has been dubbed “benevolent sexism” by Women’s Psychology Quarterly since it presumes—by their understanding—that women are inherently weaker than men and need men for their protection. The only thing to do was to destroy the idea of chivalry through shame and mockery.
All that destruction though has led to foreseeable if unintended consequences. The revelations of sexual harassment, in Hollywood especially, have suddenly revealed that all the promises made by the sexual revolution in the 60s have not come true. But, like true disciples, today’s feminists and apologists say that the problem is not feminism but men or “toxic masculinity” as the modern slang puts it. It is the sole fault of the man if he preys on women and it does not matter if the man in question is an actual criminal—like Harvey Weinstein—or simply a scumbag like Aziz Ansari. Each are equally guilty and equally monstrous.
Now, to be sure, from the stories and accounts that have come out of the Aziz Ansari case in particular, Aziz Ansari is a scumbag; he is not a gentleman and he is not man, except in the physical sense but he is not a criminal like Weinstein. But this distinction is lost on today’s minds who see no distinction between the two, no difference between the illegal and the immoral. To them, again, the problem is men themselves; men are inherently evil and crass. What they forget is that if a society laughs at honor, or virtue, or bravery, then very soon, they will be surrounded by people who are dishonorable, unvirtuous and cowardly. Men have been told that men and women are the same, that they do not have to be differential to women and that, in fact, it is disrespectful of them to do so. Combine that lesson with the contradictory but equally powerful one learned from online pornography—that men are supposed to dominate women and that women are supposed to enjoy their domination—and it is not surprising that that the slew of sexual harassments and transgressions have come out.
This is not to say that men are justified in acting like this but we might say that their culpability is lessoned through ignorance. Perhaps not men like Ansari, who claimed to be a feminist in order to signal his virtue to the rest of Hollywood, but the ordinary runoff the mill men whom we see every day. We might even be justified in asking ourselves how can men be expected to treat women well when they are not taught? And that is why chivalry must return not only for women but for men.
Chivalry was never about sexism or the patriarchy. Instead, chivalry was the recognition by men that women were noble and special—so much so that it was considered normal for a man to pledge himself to a lady. Both men and women benefitted from this code and ideal. Women, who as a matter of objective fact are physically weaker, on average, than men, gained protectors in a harsh and brutal age. Separated as we are from the fall of the Roman Empire, the spilling of the dark ages across the Europe and the rebirth of civilization in the Middle Ages, we do not have the appreciation that we should for how harsh life could be in that time. That women were seen as persons that did not just require but deserved protecting on the basic fact of their womanhood, was phenomenal and not something that was seen in the ancient world. Not only that, but in the medieval romances where the seeds of chivalry were planted, the ladies to whom the knights pledged themselves and for which they fought were not weak, misogynistic stereotypes; historian Richard Barber says that the knight’s lady “is unlike anything before or since, unrivalled in her command over men’s hearts, a remote, almost divine being.” Curiously, some post-modern feminists defend women becoming pornographic actresses, where they become objectified by men, for the same reason—because, they say, that acting in porn gives them a power over men. Which is readily true; what would be argued about is the type of power wielded.
Men, for their part, found their natures refined, tempered and channeled. It’s no secret that men are more rough and tumble as a rule than women are which is one of the very reasons why a man requires a woman in his life. Left alone and to themselves with no feminine touch upon their lives, a man’s naturally more aggressive and warlike nature would turn him into a brute. In a fit of irony, chivalry, the very thing which moderns decry as a result of toxic masculinity, was one of the remedies which prevented a man’s nature from toxic in the first place. Before chivalry and the romances that inspired its world-view, warriors had thirsted for great deeds to accomplish in order to be hailed for their military might, so that their names could be listed alongside those of Alexander, Caesar and Charlegmagne. But, after the romances appeared, it was not the thought of glory in military deeds that spurred him on but his lady who became the inspiration behind his deeds. The writers of southern France saw love as a subtle moral and spiritual education while in northern France and Germany, less sophisticated, saw love as an actual power that would give the knight strength, skill and accuracy. Perhaps that is the reason why some have argued that it was a good thing for chivalry to die. The idea of a love so strong, almost perverse, needed to go; the image of the knight pining away for his lady seems ridiculous and undignified. But there is a difference between an ideal and the corruption of an ideal just as there is a difference between courage, a virtue, and foolhardiness, a vice. All good things are liable to be corrupted and the better something is, the greater the likelihood that it will be corrupted and when that happens, the greater the chance that the corruption will be detrimental. But that in no way should make us suspicious of the good thing—in this case, chivalry—itself just as foolhardiness should not make us doubt the worth and necessity of courage.
I once read that a true man helps a woman become a true woman and a true woman helps a man become a true man. In this way, the cycle is complete. In the world today, the cycle is often broken as men and women do not have the knowledge on how to treat each other and even what a true man or woman encompasses. Chivalry—real and genuine—can help us rediscover it.
Usually, outside of Christmas, birthdays are the most eagerly anticipated days of the year; or, the most dreaded. The common denominator of birthdays–anticipated or dreaded–is that it marks the passage of time in a person’s life. Another full year separates a person from the date of their birth. Fictional characters, though they may have a date of death–such as Robin Hood–usually do not have birthdays, for the simple reason that they were never people; a reader of Greek myth has never stopped to demand on what day Zeus was born or when Athena came bursting from his head. In this way, Sherlock Holmes is unique.
It is poetic that Holmes would have a birthday. Though he was not the first fictional detective–that honor goes to Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin–Holmes was and is the most famous detective in literature and one of the most characters in literature in general. No other character has taken plain objects–the pipe, the violin, the deerstalker–and made it his own. No other character has had so many pastiches written of him and no other character has been filmed more often than him. And while Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot may be the only fictional character to have an obituary featured in the New York Times, only Holmes had black-band wearing mourners in the streets of London after his presumed plunge into the Reichenbach Falls. This level of devotion led his most ardent devotees–“Holmesians” in England and “Sherlockians” in America–to create and play what they call The Game, in which it is imagined that Holmes, Watson, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, were all living people in Victorian London, Arthur Conan Doyle being regulated to Watson’s literary agent. It was one of the first Sherlockians (and avid writer) Christopher Morley who proposed Holmes’ birthday as January 6, 1854. Morley chose January 6because he noted that Holmes, who quoted Shakespeare avidly, quoted only one play twice in the whole Canon (the original 54 short stories, 2 novellas and 2 novels of his adventures) that play being Twelfth Night. Why would Holmes take this particular play as the one from which to quote the most? Morley opined that Twelfth Night was close to Holmes’ heart because his birthday fell on Twelfth Night–January 6. Ad for the year 1854, Morley deduced that from the story, “His Last Bow” in which Holmes is described as being about 60 years of age in 1914. Holmesians take the game so seriously that every January 6, they gather at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City to celebrate the birth of their hero.
Though Holmes is recognized for his mind, his powers of observation and deduction, these are not the ultimate reason why he has been remembered nor the primary reason why the world needs him today. As Morley wrote in his introduction to the 1932 edition of Holmes:
It is not that we take our blessed Sherlock too seriously; if we really want the painful oddities of criminology let us go to Baitaille or Roughead. But Holmes is pure anesthesia. We read the stories again and again; perhaps most of all for the little introductory interiors which give a glimpse of 221B Baker Street.
Many people have honed in on the friendship between Holmes and Watson as the chief reason for the longevity, not only of the stories but of the characters and there is definitely something to that belief. The quality of the mysteries varies from the great (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” “Silver Blaze”) to the mediocre (“The Adventure of the Three Gables,” “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger”) but where Holmes and Watson are allowed to be themselves in their old environment, even the poorest story has some redeeming quality; the three stories where this dynamic is absent are probably the poorest of the lot, particularly, “The Adventure of Mazarine Stone.” But there is another reason behind that of the friendship between Holmes and Watson, however; and that is the adventure and romance of the world they live in.
Friendship is an invaluable possession; no less a person than Aristotle said so. But it is also true that there exist millions of friendships throughout the world at this moment and yet, I doubt if any of these friendships, as good as they may be, would be powerful enough to hold the public imagination for a space of thirty years, let alone 130. The friendship that develops between Holmes and Watson has to have a powerful background that we take notice of the friendship in the first place. The background chosen, particularly, was the criminal backdrop of Victorian London but, in more general terms, it was the backdrop of romance. This is an odd word to use in association with Holmes to whom Watson once called a “thinking machine.” The fault lies not with the word but with ourselves since we have boxed in the word “romance” so much that it hardly has the room that it did. In the medieval world, a “romance” was not a love story, though that element often did play a part of it; rather, it was a story of high adventure, filled with mythical creatures, dangerous and evil foes and a knight who faced these dangers while pursuing a quest which he had undertaken. Though these elements are not present ver bantam in the canon, they are still present though in a more subtle form. Holmes, though never accepting knighthood from any of the royal houses of Europe, is still a knight, pursuing justice and the truth, regardless of the particulars of the case. Like every detective, Holmes’ mission is to restore order where it has been broken through evil. In pursuit of this quest, he and Watson face many foes and dangers, whether it be in the form of John Clay, Charles Augustus Milverton, James Windibank or, most famously and dangerously, Professor Moriarty, whom Holmes compares to both a snake and a spider. There are times that Holmes and Watson even face what the medievals would have termed fantastic monsters that are twinged with the supernatural; most well known of these is the Hound of the Baskervilles (taken from actually legends from Dartmoor) but there is also the Sussex Vampire and the Devil’s Foot. There is, in reading the adventures, the very real sense of danger and the thrill of good triumphing over evil, echoing Chesterton’s observation that the pursuit of virtue has all the exhilaration of a vice. Even when there is no villain per se to apprehend, such as in “The Musgrave Ritual,” there is an almost boyish innocence to Holmes and his stories; where else but in a Sherlock Holmes adventure would there a treasure hunt on a country estate, the prize at the end being the ancient crown of England?
The necessity of these things comes from the fact that the world today is very hostile to pleasure. This might seem a surprising thing to say after having it drummed into our head that we live in a “sex-positive” society where every sort of pleasure is condoned. But it is not so much pleasure that is condoned today but the will; if a person wills it, then it must be true, so long as what a person’s will wants is what society has already condoned. With that also comes the idea that morality is decided by society and that, on a whim, society can change the definition and parameters of its morality. In Sherlock Holmes and his adventures, however, there is the innocence of goodness: the goodness of truth and mercy (as when Holmes commits a felony, whether it is to do more good for the criminal, as in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” or to save a marriage as in “The Second Stain”); and there is the innocence and goodness of hunting evil for the triumph of good. In his lecture on fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien said that fantasy was needed because the materialists of the world told men the lie that all that existed was the three physical dimensions and only those things which existed within those three dimensions. There are not so many pure materialists today as there were in Tolkien’s time; most people believe in something other than the purely material as shown by the “nones” claiming to be spiritual instead of religious. But if pure materialists have left the field for the most part, their place has been taken by devotees of the will to power, who claim that “there is no good or evil, but thinking makes it so.” It is against them that fantasy and fairy tales are still needed and it is against them that Sherlock Holmes and the good doctor, with their innocence and goodness, are in need today in the lodgings at Baker Street as they were in the time of Victoria. What Vincent Starrett wrote in his poem, “221B” is just as true today as it was then:
Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears—
Only those things the heart believes are true.
A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
The paradox of Christmas, G.K. Chesterton said, was that in it, the Hands that made the sun and moon became so small that They could not reach out and touch the cattle and the sheep that lived in the manager. Perhaps this paradox can be put another way: It is in Christmas that the Lion of Judah became the Lamb of God.
From this, it would be too easy to say, as others have, that the terrible God of the Old Testament, became the loving, gentle and meek God of the New Testament. If this had actually happened, the entire paradox and mystery and the beauty which comes from each would disappear as easily and quickly as dew from summer’s grass. There is no paradox in one thing becoming another thing. There is no amazement, except the usual, every day type (which in and of itself is magical enough, much like hobbits) in a boy growing into a man; we expect that transformation and would be very surprised if a boy of five was still that age after fifteen years. We would also be surprised if a person was born as an old man and preceded to grow younger with the flowing of time, following the example of Benjamin Button. While these things would be surprising or even startling, they would be so because they reversed the ordinary or froze it solidly in place. But a paradox is greater than that since it is a thing or state which is two different things at the same time while also at the same time not violating the principle of non-contradiction. If God had simply changed from being a terrible and vengeful deity to a meek and forgiving one, this would be no different than Scrooge changing from a miser at the beginning of Dickens’ Carol to the soul of benevolence at the end. If this is what had happened with the coming of Christmas, not only would this lower God to the level of a mid-nineteenth century Englishman it would lower Him much more than that, lowering Him so much that He would no longer be himself. God, in other words, would not be God. If, as Christianity holds, God is an unchanging Spirit, simple in the summation of all Perfections, then He cannot change, either by evolution or devolution. If God is perfect, which He must be to be God, then He must be perfect forever since He is outside of Time, being its Creator and not its subject. This becomes even more obvious when the fact of the Trinity is taken into consideration; if Christ is the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity, as Christianity again maintains, then when the God of the Old Testament spoke, the Son was speaking in unison with the Father and the Holy Spirit. As an aside, this dichotomy of the Old Testament and its God being vindictive and terrible and the God of the New Testament being merciful and meek is a false one. I remember reading somewhere that a theology professor asked his students which they would choose: the merciful God of the Old Testament or the vengeful God of the New Testament. Numerous times in the Old Testament, God’s mercy is manifested whether it is the promise of mercy to Israel conveyed by Isiah or Jeremiah or even the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah which only resulted because of the lack of even ten just men between them. Similarly, there are numerous times when Jesus uttered harsh words—calling the Pharisees “whitened sepulchers” and a “brood of vipers”—and when He condemned, such as His condemnation of those who would lead the little children away from Him or in the parable of the lambs and the goats.
Because God is greater than us, there is no quandary in His being a paradox, in this case, the Lamb and the Lion; the Lamb, of course, because He came to sacrifice Himself for us, just as the Jews sacrificed lambs for the Passover. It is the Lion, today, with which we have a difficulty in wrapping our head around. Our minds do not work so well under paradoxes and we have pictured Jesus, “meek and mild” so often that we cannot imagine the Good Shepherd at the same time as a Lion, a creature that would not mind having fresh lamb for dinner. We are very comfortable with the stories of Jesus’ meekness, whether it is His conversation with the Samaritan woman or His saving of the woman caught in adultery but not so much when He makes the whip and drives the money lenders from the temple. I suspect that a part of the reason is because lambs and their keepers are so seemingly non-threatening that it gives us the idea that there really is nothing of which to be afraid. A lamb cannot harm you and neither will a shepherd; fairy tales seem to be in complete agreement on that point. A lion, on the other hand, is inherently dangerous; we automatically recognize in it, even one separated from us by glass and bars at the zoo, that here is an animal which we cannot predict and which can and may destroy our lives if given half a chance. It is the same feeling that the Pevensie children had when they realized that Aslan was a lion and Susan asked their hosts, the Beavers, if he was safe, to which Mr. Beaver responded, “Of course he isn’t safe.”
Benjamin Franklin once opined that those who gave up their liberty for temporary safety deserved neither. It is just as true today as it was then that people have a fanatical devotion to safety. We want to know that the new diet or exercise regimen will make us look like movie stars and if there is any doubt, we reconsider it; we want to know that the stocks that we have chosen will yield us a profitable return and if there is a doubt that they will, we decline to take the leap. There are times, of course, where such a decision may be wise; prudence, that oft neglected virtue, is necessary as ever, even if its status has declined in the world. But there are also times when prudence is used as an excuse rather than as the virtue that it is. Prudence, from Aristotle down through the wise men of the West, have recognized that prudence was the habit that enables one to see in human affairs what is virtuous and what is not and how to attain the one and avoid the other. In matters pertaining to Christianity, the fullness of the truth is the virtuous path. There can be no holding back since to hold back is to withhold oneself from the truth Himself.
It was with these thoughts that I found a story detailing how a Christian couple in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was told by their homeowner’s association that they had to take down an “offensive” lawn decoration after a complaint was filed, a decoration which consisted of nothing but a piece of cardboard with the name Jesus written upon its face in red garland. To their credit, the couple, the Wivells, refused to comply with the ridiculous command of the home owner’s association. The fact that someone found the sign offensive was not surprising; the fact that the Wivells possessed the courage and the faith to refuse to comply was mildly surprising and heartwarming; the fact that was the most surprising was the reaction of one of the Wivells neighbors. Neil Blevins, after making the usual disclaimer that he is not opposed to Christmas, said that the Wivells chose to do the un-Christian thing in keeping their sign up.
Without knowing Mr. Blevins personally, it would seem that he thinks that the heart of Christianity is inoffensiveness. It might be said that he cares for his neighbor so much that he does not want to cause his neighbor any twinge of pain or uneasiness but he does not love his neighbor enough to proclaim the truth that, as the saying goes, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” The very fact of being a Christian is offensive to the world which is why so many of the great saints were also martyrs. They displayed the light of Christ so clearly, they spoke with the roar of the Lion so loudly that the world could not bear the sight or the sound and decided that it would be much better if both the light and the sound vanished. Christmas, in this light, is by its very nature offensive as it says in a Word that the world is sick and needs a Physician; that the world is cold and needs a Fire; that the world is dark and needs a Light; that the world is dead and needs Life. But like children who dread the doctor even more than the threat of disease or the disease itself, the world shies away from the silent roar that first came from the cave in Bethlehem two thousand years ago because if it listened, it feels that it would have to give up so much. In the imbalance that has come from emphasizing the Lamb over the Lion, it has been forgotten that Christ gave offense whenever He spoke and that, if His followers are serious in imitating and following Him, that includes making a whip of cords from time to time.
At Christmastide, there sometimes are seen signs that say “The King is born!” It is easy in our day to conflate the kingship of the ancient world with kingship today in which kings are mere figureheads. But in the past, the king led his followers into battle; he had to be a lion on the field to his men who were then inspired to fight for and with him for their homeland. That was the reason why the old hymns, such as “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” declared:
The Son of God Goes forth to war,
A kingly crown to gain;
His blood red banner streams afar:
Who follows in his train?
Who best can drink His cup of woe,
Triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears his cross below,
He follows in His train.
At Christmastide, the Great War was declared and the Lion roared and the world will never be the same for it or for the followers of the Lion.
Traditions are a good thing, in and of themselves, if for no other reason that they give order and routine to our lives. Some people have made a glass of warm milk before bed a tradition and it may very well be that the milk does help to bring the initial drowsiness but the act of drinking cannot be entirely forgotten either. The pouring of the milk, the heating on the stove or in the microwave, and the drinking all wash together as a sign to yourself that, yes, the day is actually over; sleep can now come. I had a brother who did the very same thing when still a baby except that it was not a glass of warm milk but a particular CD of Celtic lullabies.
More importantly, of course, traditions connect us to the past in our religion, country, culture and, most intimately, to our own families. Using the silver tableware for the Thanksgiving feast is not just to give the table the final gloss, although that is part of it; it is also the understanding that we are doing what our great-grandmother started doing with the silverware, given to her as a wedding present, coupled with the idea and hope that future generations of our family will this particular silver for this particular feast day. Past, present and future all meet under the same roof.
Sometimes–or oftentimes–the tradition becomes so habitually that we forget not only its meaning but also just how bizarre it is. At any other time of the year, setting up a tree in our living rooms and decorating them with lights and glass balls would seem ridiculous but, at Christmas-tide, no one thinks twice making a conifer of some type the centerpiece and heart of our homes for at least a few weeks. Not having one is tantamount to branding yourself a Scrooge.
Time and custom are certainly on our side in this particular tradition: the Germanic tribesmen brought conifers from the winter forests and into their huts as a reminder of the promise of the coming Spring in the middle of Winter, since the conifers kept their green throughout the year and did not die in Winter; when Christian missionaries came into Germany, they baptized the tradition, making the evergreen a symbol of Christ, the one who rose from dead Winter to living Spring. According to legend, Martin Luther took this tradition and the Christian symbol of the evergreen and began the practice of placing candles in its branches after walking through the forest and seeing the midwinter stars shining down upon the earth; this custom then crossed the English channel with the marriage between Queen Victorian and Prince Albert and, from there, it sailed the Atlantic to the United States. In spite of this honorable pedigree, by any utilitarian calculation, the Christmas tree is just as ridiculous today as it was when the first Germanic tribesman brought a tree into his hut. Perhaps the cynic or the utilitarian would say that we are even more ridiculous; the German tribesman at least had a reason for filling his home with a tree that cramped his extended family into the far corners of the hut, since he saw it as a promise of the return of Spring and the summer sun. The tribesman might be forgiven since he did not have the advantage of modern astronomy, geology or meteorology by which we, sitting in the 21st century, are well assured that when the sun disappears at its earliest time on the Winter Solstice, it will rise the next day. With these advantages there is no reason, save nostalgia and the indefinable “holiday spirit” which compels us to set up a tree.
Christmas time though is the season of the year filled the most with symbols. It is also the time of the year when we are to be the most childlike and children never say that a tradition is silly. They will want to know why the tradition is still practiced but they will hardly, after the explanation is given, say that the tradition and the reason are ridiculous. There is an innate innocence in the minds of children–or there should be–that trusts that there is a reason for the madness that surrounds them.
The Christmas tree is the perfect symbol of Christmas because it is a sign of contradiction. The paradox of the Christmas tree comes not so much from the lights and decorations but from the very fact that, under no other circumstance, would a tree be taken from the forest and temporarily planted in the house. That is the great paradox. The paradox is garnished with something that is so trivial that it probably does not deserve to be called a miracle but personal experience draws me to that particular description. My family has a habit of buying large Christmas trees every year. Something as stupendous as Christmas needed to be celebrated with a tree that was big enough itself to hold Christmas in its branches. Inevitably we always chose the biggest tree that we could find; twelve or thirteen foot Frasier firs were not uncommon, with branches that stretched out as wide as our arms. It should be noted, as well, that none of the houses in which we have lived have been what would be considered large; there was really no reason to look for, much less purchase, the biggest tree that we could find when a nine or ten foot tree would have been sufficient. By all rights, the tree should not have been able to fit in. Even after the necessary cutting of the truck was completed (to make a fresh cut for the water while the tree stood in the stand, a fact that might make some Scrooges cast doubt upon the validity of the yearly miracle) which allowed the tree to barely miss the ceiling, its girth should have been too much for the living room to bear. And yet, the tree always fit. It was snug, sometimes it made the room slightly difficult to maneuver in, but the basic point remained–the tree always fit inside the house.
The reason why the Christmas tree is the perfect vessel and symbol of Christmas is because Christmas acts just like its tree because that is the way that the Baby acts. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said once that Christ has no hands, no feet, no tongue, on earth except for ours. If this is correct, then to allow Him to make use of those appendages and organs requires that we let Him into our lives. The problem is that He is a very unaccommodating guest. The usual house guest will typically try to stay out of underfoot and will general leave after a few days so as to not overstay his welcome. But the Christ Child expects to be treated like a tree and once planted in a home and heart, we are expected to keep Him there. As He grows, the less space there seems for us. Rather than look at the perpetual green of His branches, the dazzle of the lights within them, we grumble at all the space that He is taking. Inviting the homeless Child into one’s home at Christmastide is the equivalent of planting a tree in one’s house; as it grows, it forces one to change not just the arrangement of the furniture but the size and scope of the house itself. The emphasis becomes not simply a subjective order in the house according to one’s tastes but the tree.
And yet, we know that the Tree can fit inside the house, despite its perceived cumbersomeness. Furthermore, we know that planting the Tree does not destroy the house but perfects it, just as every house with a Christmas tree is perfected which we instinctively know by understanding that the houses without trees are incomplete. We know this objectively because the people who have planted the Tree and allowed it to root Itself deep in their soil are called Saints, those for whom it is Christmas every day. Continue reading “A Philosophy of the Christmas Tree”→
Sometimes, the discovery of a new word opens the window and allows the world to be seen in a new way. Other times, it allows a new point of view to be discovered as if some genius had created a means of seeing through a “fifth dimension” the ordinary things about him in the world which now, because of the point of view which had always existed and yet remained unobtainable till now, suddenly seemed as precious as gold and as unique as snowflakes. Words can do this, much like experiences, because words are experiences; they are signposts through which the world can be seen and felt, even invisible things such as truth, honor and justice can be given breath and blood through words.
Sometimes, in order to share the experience however, it is necessary to bring up examples and stories of the past. Bringing up stories from the past–not great, historical events or persons but simple stories–is not considered rude, per se but it might be considered irrelevant and boring, which are considered rude by some, or, at least, treated with suspicion. For some, this is because they believe that we are all caught up in the great wave of progress and that the past must remained buried so that we can fully concentrate on the coming utopia which will make itself felt as a never ending present; others may express some interest in the past but feel that with the perpetual deluge of stories and outrages and accusations and trivia bombarded on us every waking hour, that there simply is no time or room for things past a certain date. At the risk of being rude, I feel it necessary to drag two stories and two reactions from their niches in the past to the present moment.
In September, some parts of the news was devoted to the phenomena of NFL players kneeling during the pledge of allegiance. Surprisingly, one of the voices that defended the players was National Review’s David French. In a piece French argued that patriotism could only be voluntary and could never be mandated and that the players were simply exercising the their First Amendment right to free expression in protest against Donald Trump who had called on the NFL to fire players who publicly disrespected the flag. To bring further weight to his argument, French brought to his court the 1942 Supreme Court case, West Virginia vs. Barnett, in which a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses brought the West Virginia Board of Education to Court after the Board required the children of West Virginia to salute the flag every day, a ritual that contradicted the practices and beliefs of the Jehovah Witnesses. The Court, on the grounds of religious freedom nd under the idea that patriotism did not have to be mandated into the heads of a free people, ruled in the Witnesses’ favor.
In September too, another writer at National Review, Katherine Trimpf wrote a reaction to a story that received much less popular attention than the NFL. In Everett, Washington, a group of baristas who serve coffee in bikinis sued the city council after that body unanimously voted that quick serve restaurant employees could not dress for work in a way that bared their shoulders, stomachs or butts, declaring that such a ban infringed their rights of privacy and free expression. Miss Trimpf took the baristas’ side completely, arguing that while companies could dictate dress codes, governments could not and that if someone really did not want to see a woman in beachware serve him coffee, he could quite simply go somewhere else.
Now, I have to wonder how these ladies can complain about their privacy being invaded when they attire themselves precisely to gain attention. Some may call me a prude or a Puritan for that bewilderment but I cannot see how the mere asking of the question regulates me to the boogies in the past. I have no real objection to women wearing beachware while on the beach; I find it quite enjoyable, to a point. But, again, I wonder what the purpose of wearing beach clothing when there is no beach especially when the clothing being worn by the baristas in question is not really even a swimsuit but a the lack of clothing. Ignoring these questions, however, Miss Trimpf and Mr. French are both wrong in their conclusions.
On the purely technical level, both Miss Trimpf and Mr. French are wrong regarding some of their basic ideas concerning government. I think of myself as a small-government man but an error that has occurred in some minds on the right is the equivocation of the word “government.” When the word is said, most thoughts immediately fly to Washington DC which is one of the greatest proofs that the centralization worked for by progressives and post-moderns in politics and culture has been successful since, according to our original system of government, the federal or national government is only the last and was supposedly the least powerful of the three. The individual state governments were designed to have much more influence and power than the federal government since they were closer to the people; in the same way, the local governments dotted across the different states were originally intended to have the post power since they were the ones closest to the people, most attune to the needs of the different communities and more accountable to the people. If the federal government unveiled a national dress code for the workers, I would agree that such a stupid idea could only have come from a madman or a Congressman but a decree of that sort comes from a local government, though we may question its prudence, we should not question its validity.
We hear often today that we cannot impose our morality on others. Censorship is seen as the sin which is unforgivable. If we are right, then our forefathers were blasphemers and it is our duty to damn them to hell at once and be done with it. For censorship was not unheard of in the old days of the early republic–blasphemy laws, limits on what could be printed, laws declaring that seekers of public office had to profess a belief in the Christian God, official state churches, public acknowledgement of the Sabbath, including the closing of shops, were all enforced by local governments. Many, perhaps Mr. French and Miss Trimpf would be included in this group, would say that regardless of the level of government, such laws and such activities are not appropriate since it is not the government’s job to make men virtuous, and, to an extent, they are correct. The little platoons which Edmund Burke spoke, the family, the independent schools, the communities, over all which, as an umbrella, stood the Church as a source of refreshment, wisdom and strength, were all seen as the real teachers of virtue and morality. But governments–particular those of a self-governing republic and most especially those levels of government closest to the people–also have an interest in the virtuosity of its people and a duty to help encourage it, especially is Benjamin Franklin was correct when he said that only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. While the government–even the local government–may not have the responsibility to teach us virtues it does have the duty, as Robert Bork said, to deter us from vice, acting as a bulwark, a dike, so that the little platoon may do their duties in relative peace rather than in a war-torn environment. It is not the government’s job to teach me to love my neighbor, nor can a city council make me love my neighbor but the government can forbid me and prevent me through law from killing my neighbor which, in some way, is more primordial than loving him since I can only learn to love my neighbor if he is alive. Every law, in fact, is a deterrence from vice, or, at least, what is regarded as vice; even as mundane a law as the speed limit exists to protect us and others from the intoxication of speed.
What is interesting is that while we implicitly accept this role of the government in cases of murder, stealing, perjury and the like, we most strongly resist it in the case of sex, proving Confucius correct when he quipped that no man loves virtue more than sex. Although we like to think that we have become sufficiently enlightened to free sex from all thought of antiquated morality, that is not quite the case; even the most ardent defendant of the sexual revolt concedes that a basic morality in the form of consent. But morality in matters of sex must be stronger than mere “consent;” sex is such a powerful force–it is, after all, the only earthly force which can create not just life but a person–that it must be tightly reigned. The greater the power, the more evil its corruption will bring. Looking at it practically, if consent was all the morality that was required in matters of sex, we would be left in a world where the strong could coerce consent from the weak a la Harvey Weinstein; not only that but there would be no moral barriers with which to oppose or condemn a daughter marrying her father. Because of its natural allure and power, only virtue–chastity, modesty, prudence, and genuine love for the other, agape rather than just eros–can reign in the power of sex. The Founders thought so as well. John Adams took his marriage vows to Abigail so seriously that he declared in a letter written for his children in the twilight of his life that he had fathered no illegitimate children and he thundered in his diary against so-called men who gave the appearance of virtue only to seduce innocent women; Benjamin Franklin included chastity in his list of thirteen virtues; Washington took the Bible and the old, Roman, Seneca, as his guide in matters of morality. If the level of government closest to the people has as one of its goals, the virtue of the people through the determent of vice, then this must include matters of a sexual nature as well. Prudence will be required to determine where and when the local government must exercise its role at deterrent but the fact that the local government can act in this way flows naturally from this line of thinking and not only flows but is necessary. As Madison said, men need governments because they are not angels, not natural and wholly good. Restraints must be placed upon them and this is as true about sex as on any other matter, perhaps more so, given the innate power which sex possesses. Against cries of censorship and totalitarianism, Edmund Burke comes again with not only with an answer but the correct one. Burke said that man’s chains are forged by his passions and that a man must either chain his passions himself or must permit some outside force to chain them for him. After fifty years of sexual revolt, we no longer need speculate but can see what sex, unbridled from restraint and virtue, has done to persons and to society at large: broken souls, broken homes and communities and an ennui that has made the current generation, ironically, less interested and less capable in having sex than our grandparents generation. We also see it in the general darkening of the intellect and softening of the will among society, the effects of the “daughters of lust” as Aquinas termed them. If John Adams was correct when he said that only a virtuous and moral people are capable of freedom, the deterrent force of local government in matters of vice becomes even more necessary.
That, however, is only the technical side of the issue. There is a deeper aspect of the issue in which both Mr. French and Miss Trimpf are wrong and that deeper aspect is expressed in the word which I discovered–pietas. It is an old Latin word, a relic of the Roman Republic and Empire and from which we receive our word “piety.” That word, however, does not do the original word justice for when we think of piety, our minds are taken to matters of religion. If I say that Mr. Jones is a pious man, it is assumed that I mean that he goes to church on Sundays and tries, at least in some degree, to live a Christian life, or, at least, a moral life. But pietas is deeper than mere piety. T.S. Eliot, in his analysis of the Roman poet, Virgil, examined pietas within Virgil’s epic, the Aeineid, which told the story of Aeneas, the prince of Troy who escaped with the gods of the city and some survivors from the Greeks and who was given a command from the gods to found a new city, one that would be called Rome. Eliot explained that, rather than mere piety, for Virgil, pietas “implies an attitude towards the individual, towards the family, towards the region, and towards the imperial destiny of Rome.” Today, we are tempted to compartmentalize our duties, if we even recognize that we have duties to perform. In this manner, my duty to my parents if different and separate from my duty to my country or my duty to God. Pietas makes no such distinction; it recognizes that there are different levels of duty but instead of separating them, pietas sees them as connected; Eliot says, “It is an attitude towards all these things, and therefore implies a unity and an order among them: it is in fact an attitude of life.” Eliot explained that all the instances of pietas were connected because:
In his [Aeneas’s] devotion to his father he is not being just an admirable son. There is personal affection, without which filial piety would be imperfect; but personal affection is not piety. There is also devotion to his father as his father, as his progenitor: this is piety as the acceptance of a bond which one has not chosen. The quality of affection is altered, and its importance deepened, when it becomes love due to the object. But this filial piety is also the recognition of a further bond, that with the gods, to whom such an attitude is pleasing: to fail in it would be to be guilty of impiety also towards the gods. The gods must therefore be gods worthy of this respect; and without gods, or a god, regarded in this way, filial piety must perish.
A man with pietas in his soul would no more want to disrespect his country by kneeling at his flag during the recital of his national anthem than he would want to slap his own mother as he knows and understands that his country is his country and that it is deserving of his love for that fact alone; a man with pietas wants to see his neighbors and countrymen virtuous and happy and would not want to act as a stumbling block in that regard in any way; a man who practiced pietas would want what is best for his country. Not only that but the man with pietas in his soul would know that he is simply one link in a great chain. Some will think that this is a backdoor to totalitarianism again. Whereas the totalitarian believes that men exist to serve the state, we know and understand that the state, being a natural phenomena, as Aristotle explained, exists for people; at the same time, however, the patriot, the man with pietas, sees and understands that while the state exists for his benefit he, himself, while a pearl of great price in the eyes of God, a unique person only a little less than the angels, he is also, paradoxically, only a speck in Space and Time; millions have come before and millions will come after him. More to the point, he sees that past, present and the future as a continuous line, not cut off by arbitrary dates. Nor will he see the present as the epitome of history. He will see the past, present and future as one continuous line with him, a man from the present, with duties both towards the past and the future. As such, he will understand that he and his countrymen are united in a web made of blood and history and culture and that what he does will have consequences for his family and neighbors. Good and evil deeds, he knows, will spread like ripples on a pond; his deeds will affect others and the deeds of others will affect him. Furthermore, the man with pietas will see this all as being under the umbrella of his filial duty to God; as God made him, and allowed his country to come into existence as part of His story and made him specifically a child of his country, he knows that to honor and love his country–not idolize it–honors God as well. George Washington might well be our model, again, in this regard, the American Aeneas as well as the American Cincinnatus and Fabian.
Of course, pietas will not be planted in the souls of even a tenth of our countrymen, let alone the entire population, in a day, or a night. It will take time and effort and sweat. The task will not be made any easier if we condone actions that undermine the very planting of the old Roman virtue out of a misguided understanding of freedom.
G.K. Chesterton said once that men do not love their countries because their countries are great; rather, countries become great because men love them. That is why a miserable village in central Italy became the nucleus of the second great empire of the world; that was the force that turned a miserable island in the North Atlantic into the premier power of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And that is the force that will truly make America great again as well.
Sometimes the past is kind to the dead and sometimes death is the only means by which a man may be thought in a kindly way. Edgar Allan Poe, despite the universalism that now attends his name, was something of a failure in life. Although he was not a drunk (that lie being inserted by Rufus Griswald, another writer and supposed friend to whom Poe entrusted the writing of his obituary which was where Griswald lay the lie) Poe did not enjoy success; alienated from his foster-father, a failure at West Point, frustrated in his attempts to become a successful writer like Nathaniel Hawthorne, a young marriage ending in the premature death of his wife, and, finally, dying under still shrouded circumstances in Baltimore at the age of forty. And today, every high school student in America is at least partially acquainted with his name though a miniscule selection of his most famous stories. This seems to be a road travelled by many artists.
Sometimes though the past is made to disavow its inhabitants and thrust them into what our modern times deem to be the outer darkness. We have seen this most recently in the destruction of our past which has moved on from Confederate generals to the Father of our country. The Puritan fathers are also members of that merry group of untouchables with the most recent example of their now obsolete status in the modern, public square coming, ironically, from the university which they founded. Harvard University, this past summer, expunged the Puritans from the school’s alma mater song since mention of “the stock of the Puritans” was not inclusive enough for modern ears.
It is not surprising that the Puritans have become unwanted. The past saw them as pioneers, sturdy and brave, cutting through the Atlantic to land on Plymouth Rock not only for land but for God and for the church and that is the very reason why the modern world cannot abide them; as John Grondelski said three years ago, the very fact that the origins of the United States rests in a group of men and women who recognized that their preservation on the sea and in the New World was entirely from the Love and Will of God, is a source of embarrassment to contemporary elites who must ignore and obfuscate that fact as much as they can. That the elites hate the Puritans is natural and if they were the only ones, it would be a mark of honor in fact, since the man who has no enemies has never done anything in life. It would be proof that they had stood for and believed in something. What is perhaps harder to understand is that Catholics of a more traditional bent have also sounded the war drums against the Puritans. In some manner, this has been going on for some little time: the great apologist, G.K. Chesterton, said that if Americans celebrated the arrival of the Puritans to the New World with Thanksgiving, perhaps the English should establish a Thanksgiving for the Puritans leaving England; four years ago, in an article entitled, “Illiberal Catholicism” John Zmirak chronicled a number of cases of unapologetic anti-Americanism on traditionally minded Catholic campuses, which included an history professor christening Thanksgiving as “Anathema Thursday” and naming the Statue of Liberty “that Masonic bitch-goddess;” another historian, Marian T. Horvat has explained that it is all right for Catholics to celebrate Thanksgiving since it was not begun by Puritans but by the Catholic Spaniards; and, this past Thanksgiving, Christine Niles of Churchmilitant.com reiterated Dr. Horvat’s point, saying,
If you’re anything like me and don’t take kindly to celebrating a holiday commemorating a group of Calvinists who set up a Puritan theocracy in New England known for persecuting Catholics, then you can rest easy; the Protestants were not the first to celebrate Thanksgiving in this country — Catholics were.
Although I am a Catholic myself, and one who considers himself to be a traditionalist, this attitude is not only wrong but it is ungrateful. The wrongness begins with the vision of the Puritans–which did not originate with other traditionalist Catholics–that has come to replace the actual Puritans. If Catholic history, particularly that of the Middle Ages and 16th Century Spain, has been tarnished with the Black Legend, the Puritans have been covered in what might be called the White Legend. The purpose of the White Legend to the Puritans is the same as the Black Legend to the Spaniards except the end goals of the villains; the Black Legend’s main contention is that the Spaniards–conquistadors and missionaries–sought only gold and glory, whereas the White Legend states that the Puritans sought God, but that this rabid quest for the divine turned them into dour clouds, perpetually black in their outlook and in their clothing. It was this obsession which lead them hang nineteen men and women in Salem and which made them see themselves as nothing but loathsome spiders, hung out over a caldron of hellfire, in the hands of a wrathful God. This image has been in the shadows of our minds for some time; Nathaniel Hawthorne might be said to have helped first nurture it, if he did not mostly create it from out of his inkwell and from there it creeped to the rest of the American mind, even at its most banal. I remember being in an antique store some years back where I came across a magazine whose title I have now forgotten with this particular issue being from the late Nineties. What caught my eye was Jackie Kennedy’s face on the cover. As I was thumbing through the pages, I came across another article with the salacious title, “Questions About Sex You Don’t Dare Ask,” the reason being, according to the author, that Americans were still far too puritanical, a word which, itself, came into being only because of this particular vision of the Puritans.
That the Puritans were firm is beyond question but that they appear so grotesque in their terrible orthodoxy reflects more on us than it does on them. Modern man in inflected with a terrible ennui; having conquered so many fields, the horizens seem to much smaller than they did even seventy years ago. In the Fifties (so vilified today), we could still dream of sailing to the Moon and from there to Mars and out beyond into the vast regions of space, an entire new frontier to explore and settle and cultivate. It was these dreams which inspired Bradbury, Asimov and Clark in their art. Today, the Moon has been walked, space has been seen and we have become bored by it, too lethargic and bloated on debt to make the next voyage to Mars. The sexual revolt in the Sixties and Seventies promised energy, happiness and purpose without end at its initiation and many were swayed by the promises it made; the result, besides new strains of disease and a burgeoning percentage of population to host them, has been that the most aweful, most sacrificial, most artistic act capable of man has today become so cheapened that the latest generation makes love with much less energy and frequency than our grandparents did, in spite of our newly acquired liberation. Modern man has demonstrated the paradox that the more you try to fill yourself with you, the emptier you will become. The Puritans, whatever their faults, realized that God alone will ultimately satisfy, as St. Augustine discovered. God was the reason why they risked the sea and the tabula rasa of Plymouth, not just for themselves, but for the whole world. When John Winthrope referred to their colony as a city on a hill, he did not have the bland idea that history ended with them; rather, just as the individual soul could only shine to others with the light of Christ, so Plymouth and the Puritans could only be that shiny city if they remained true to the Word and to the mission that God had bequeathed to them. That mission was nothing less than the re-establishment of the Church of Christ in the world. In January of 1776, Reverend Samuel Sherwood of Norfolk, Connecticut, preached a sermon on the Book of Revelations in which he argued that the woman who fled into the desert from the Dragon was a symbol of the church, driven from England to the wilderness of New England where she would be safe and, from where, she could reclaim the world; in the same vein, William Bradford in his On Plymouth Plantation, through the use of typology, connected the different triumphs and failures of the colony to the crucifixcion and resurrection of Christ. Now, as a Catholic, I believe that the Puritans’ theology was deficient but that is something for which I cannot entirely blame them. And, at the very least, the Puritans were attempting to move towards God and, as such, had a very realistic idea and reaction to sin, grace and the Divine. To paraphrase the writer, Rod Dreher, though I may have argued with the Puritans over theological points, I would rather have them on my side than un-serious members of my own church.
Someone, somewhere, once remarked that God does not somber saints and the Puritans seem to have understood that. Salvation is serious business but it is only the unserious man who takes it so seriously as to suck all the innocent joys from life and to retreat, hermit-like, within himself to become another Scrooge. The serious man knows that there are legitimate joys in life, legitimate because they are little blessings from God sprinkled along our path to refresh our hearts and excite our imaginations and that they are there to be enjoyed. A harvest party in the company of one’s family and neighbors, Christmas morning, an innocent baseball game, a sunset and a snowfall, are just some examples. The Puritans understood this quite well. Far from being the drab specters in black, they were intense lovers of beauty as Dr. Harry Stout of Yale explained at one time, saying that the Puritans wore bright clothing, painted their houses in bright colors, were not opposed to parties, and produced great poets such as Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Even in the realm of sex, where it has been said that the Puritans were at their most puritanical, the real Puritans, if they could be witnessed in their natural habitat, would have been mis-identified. As Dr. Stout continued to say, sex was very important to the Puritans, witnessed by the fact of their large families. Nor was it seen as some cold, precision ritual, a forerunner to Orwell’s vision of state-approved sex. In a letter to his fiancé, Margaret Tyndal, John Winthrop said:
Being filled with the joy of thy love, and wanting opportunity of more familiar communion with thee, which my heart fervently desires, I am constrained to ease the burden of my mind by this poor help of my scribbling pen. . . . Love was their banqueting house, love was their wine, love was their ensign; love was his invitings, love was her faintings; love was his apples, love was her comforts, love was his embracings, love was her refreshing.
What the Puritans lacked, in large scale, in their colonies, was promiscuity but for this, they can hardly be called puritanical; one might as well call a living, healthy apple tree a frigid and unwielding statue. They understood the meaning of sex far better than we today and simply acted accordingly.
It is true to say, as Christine Niles does in her article, that the Puritans persecuted Catholics. The Puritans persecuted most people who broke away from the Puritan covenant, such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison. Declared bad taste today, to the Puritans it was simply commonsensical that if they were the remnant of the Christian church, charged with bringing the whole world back to Christ through their example, they could not tolerate dissenters. Although wrong, an understanding can be gained by looking at the Puritans not through the lenses of our times but through the lenses by which they saw the world. In the case of Catholics, this is especially true, as no self-respecting believer would have tolerated a sect that was created by the devil for the express purpose of luring souls into hell–which is how the Puritans viewed Catholics and the Catholic Church and how most Protestants had viewed the Catholic Church since the beginning of the Reformation, a hundred years before the planting of the Plymouth colony. The Puritans, in many ways, were victims of their times and it would take the Revolution for views towards Catholics to begin to mellow.
The position of Dr. Horvat and Miss Niles is ungrateful, in addition to being wrong, because their insistence on celebrating the Spaniards of the New World, as opposed to the British settlers, is an attempt to cut us off from our past. Regardless of how one sees the Puritans, and even less regardless of how one feels about them, they were, with Jamestown, the original American settlers. We are an Anglo nation with an Anglo culture and many of the things that we take for granted, such as trial by jury, the protection of the law and equality under the law, was brought from England with the settlers and planted in the New World. Attempting to wipe them out from the narrative of Thanksgiving is the same as wiping out your great-great-great-grandfather from the family tree as nothing that is set to replace the blank spot will suffice. Not only that but even if the Spaniards were the first to have a celebration of thanks on American soil, it was the Puritans in New England who made such a thing traditional; it may have been haphazard (as Thanksgiving was not made into a recognized, national holiday which fell on a particular day [the last Thursday of the month] till Abraham Lincoln’s administration) but without the Puritans’ feasts of thanks to God for all that He had done and given, however haphazard, the tradition which we should treasure today would never have been bequeathed to us. As different and wrong as the Puritans were in their faith, they are still a part of the Christian family, of the tapestry which C.S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity;” not “Mere” in the sense of minimal but “mere” in the sense of pertaining to the beliefs which have been universally held by all Christians for all or most of the time. Mere Christianity is, as Lewis out it, the great hall from which many doors go and though the hall is not a place made for people to live out their whole lives, it is the necessary starting point and the necessary reminder that all who take seriously the call of Christian, do pray to the same God and desire the same thing, even if, at this point, they do not see eye to eye. From the Catholic-American view, the Puritans are not only our fellow countrymen and national ancestors, they are also, spiritually, distant cousins. In a world grown cold for want of God, that is yet another thing to give thanks on that Thursday in November.
A week ago, this past Thanksgiving Day, I had the opportunity to walk in the old pasture with my pit bull, Toby. The weather was mild, for so late in November, aided by the sun which had a lapis lazuli sky from which to shine down. The breeze kept the sunshine in check, and it parted its way through the long grass. Down by the pond, still encircled by the trees, the same wind scattered the leaves down in a thin veil, rustling as they left their homes in the trees and came gliding determinedly to the earth. It was a setting that was worthy of a Currier and Ives cover; and, I felt again the stirrings of thankfulness from somewhere in the well of my soul.
It is an irony that even on the day which our forefathers set aside for giving thanks for all the blessings, material and spiritual, which have been bestowed upon us, we moderns are seemingly incapable of mustering much thankfulness. But since our time seems to be an age of ironies, that in and of itself is not surprising. I would lay a lion’s share of this on the “I” mentality that has gripped Western civilization–the idea that the universe revolves around me; that I am my own quasi-deified potentate whose wrath shall rage against whatever goes against my will or desires. Just this year, the news was inundated with several prominent stories of ingratitude: Lavar Ball, father of LiAngelo Ball, one of the three American basketball players arrested and jailed for shoplifting in China and, subsequently released at the request of President Trump, refused to thank the president for winning his son’s freedom and, thus, the ability to be with his family for Thanksgiving, telling CNN’s Chris Cuomo that he would have thanked Trump only if his son had been allowed to fly in Air Force One back home; GQ told its readers that it was their civic duty to “filibuster Thanksgiving” and to be “kind of an ass-hole” to their family if said family had voted for Trump last election. In addition to that, there was the usual gathering at Alcatraz Island for “Unthanksgiving Day”, which has been in existence since 1975, despite its utterly unimaginative name, as a way to protest the European colonization of the New World. Even disregarding the overtly political, a task that is becoming harder and harder to do with the creeping of politics into every aspect of existence, I am sure that there were many people whose hearts were filled, at least at some part of the days leading up to Thanksgiving, that were filled with envy, sadness and ingratitude from the usual thrashings which life gives. One of those hearts was mine.
This attitude is completely backwards, as most people even fifty years ago were aware. The Roman philosopher and writer, Seneca, may have broken through the “I” mentality the most completely when he said, “There is nothing more honorable than a grateful heart.” Gratitude is not just something which it is nice to be but is the pinnacle of honor, of one’s own self-respect. As such, it is not simply a feeling that can be extinguished with the next bout of bad luck or the next piece of bad news. It is, instead, a disposition, a way of seeing life. The reason why this disposition is honorable while other dispositions, such as cynicism, are not, is because when he have gratitude we realize that all the things that we have, be it in material items, achievements and successes, or spiritual treasures, are all gifts which have been bestowed upon us and for which we are blessed. And here, in America, there are blessings so numerous that many of us have forgotten to recognize them as blessings; little things such as the fact that most of us have roofs over our heads, cars to drive, cell phones, not only to communicate but through which entertainment or practically the vast sum of human knowledge can be retrieved through the push of a button and the slide of a finger; libraries where books can be read and knowledge and wisdom, if one is patient and attentive, for free and plenty of food and clean water to drink from the tap anytime we wish; machines that keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter, machines that wash our clothes and machines that wash our dishes. To most of the rest of the world, the poorest house in the United States is Aladdin’s cave, filled with treasures and marvels. These things have become so commonplace that we expect them and we have ceased to be grateful for them; we complain when the air conditioning quits and the temperature rises to 85 or 90, forgetting that we still have roofs over our heads and that, even if the worse came to the worse, we could abscond to the self same library or the mall to cool our heels while Africans of 2017 live in mud huts and dream of being poor in America.
But not only do we have these devices and these machines; we still posses the stars at night, the sun in the day, the wind to cool us, the ocean to fascinate us. And, we have our lives.
The rejoinder that things may be bad but least we have our lives has become another worn cliché but, as is the case with all clichés, the sentiment and saying has become a cliché because it is true in two different ways. In the first place, we have our lives and thus, we have the power to try and do something to make either our lives in general or an aspect of our lives better. While in all honesty it cannot compare with Peter Jackson’s version, the 1977, animated, Rankin & Bass production of The Hobbit, did speak to that fact in its main theme:
The greatest adventure, is what lies ahead/Today and tomorrow, are yet to be said/ The chances the changes, are all yours to make/ The old of your life is in your hands to break.
We are not ants, possessing only a hive mind and thus only being a cell in the life of the colony; nor are we like most of the mere animals who operate mostly from instincts. Rather, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, we have the opportunities and potential to change ourselves for the better, to make of ourselves real men and real women.
The second way is deeper. Seneca, good Roman that he was, realized that the things for which men should be grateful, were gifts of the gods. Not only are the things which we receive gifts of God but our lives are themselves gifts from Him. Humans are contingent beings; we did not have to exist at all and yet we are here. Man is little less than an angel and yet not one single man is necessary and no man had need to exist. This fact goes beyond the realization that we were created by God, a fact that, in and of itself, is awesome, particularly if one happens to be a Thomist. Thomistic philosophy states that creation was not an act of God that occurred at some point in the far past but is an ongoing occurrence. Based on the fact that man is a contingent being, Thomas Aquinas came to the conclusion that the only thing keeping man in existence–as a species and as an individual–was the Will and Love of God, keeping every single man, woman, and child in existence, picosecond to picosecond. The only reason why I am here, writing these words at this minute and the only reason why you are here at this moment is that God wills it. This is perhaps a large part of the reason why Meister Eckhart. the German priest and mystic, once said, “If the only prayer we said in life was, ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.” Thanks for the continued existence of our lives when our lives are not cosmically necessary is the epitome of gratitude.
In one of his voluminous writings, G.K. Chesterton said, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” The fruit of an ungrateful disposition is plain in our world, with misery the chief harvest. Genuine gratitude, the combination, as Chesterton put it, of happiness and wonder, will go a long way in dispelling that particular darkness from our lives.