I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity over the past few weeks and a section really got me thinking about the whole idea of the need for virtue in the political world. I apologize for the long quote, but I certainly can’t summarize Lewis’ point better than he does himself.
When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing-the tidying up inside each human being-we are only deceiving ourselves.
What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.
I am in agreement with C.S. Lewis on this point. Unless we fix ourselves we really can not fix society. I am not suggesting that we stand by and let the country go to hell while we work on some sort of new age self improvement. What I am suggesting is that we hold our leaders to a higher standard. We need men and women who are serious, and who conduct themselves is a manner that is in accordance with some basic virtues. Otherwise we will just end up with more of the same.
Flannery O’Connor was an American novelist, short-story writer and essayist, who wrote two novels and many short stories, as well as a number of reviews and essays. O’Connor’s writing usually reflected her Roman Catholic faith, and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics. (As an aside, one of my personal favorites of her is A Good Man is Hard to Find.)
One of her many essays dealt with what was then the modern high school education. The quote that I came across that motivated this post is:
The proper business of the high school is “preparing foundations”; it is ABSOLUTELY NOT immersing young people in the already-too-familiar aesthetic tastes and moral realities of modernity; it is certainly not amusing them with exciting stories of sex and violence. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”
If she is right, then the last few generations have been formed without a foundation at all. There is a whole genre of literature now dealing with young adult fiction that caters to their tastes. While some of it I would argue has the ability to elevate, such as the Harry Potter series, much of it is largely soap opera drivel, such as the Twilight series.
While part of me agrees with her point, I also wonder how many more young adults readers there are now than in the 1960’s when O’Connor wrote her essay. I think there is something to be said for developing a habit of reading, even if that habit is fed with low quality/high entertainment value literature at first. Eventually taste will improve, and if the student is of a humanities bent then higher education will point him to better forms of literature.
That said, at some point a firm foundation in the classics is truly invaluable. But I do wonder if it is harder to go backwards if your tastes have been formed on a diet of modern, largely empty fiction. Can you tell I am conflicted?
The title for this post comes from an article by Ian Leslie that deals largely with the idea that actors and writers are at heart artistic liars, whose lies are seeded with a deeper truth. The full quote follows:
Given the universal compulsion to tell stories, art is the best way to refine and enjoy the particularly outlandish or insightful ones. But that is not the whole story. The key way in which artistic “lies” differ from normal lies, and from the “honest lying” of chronic confabulators, is that they have a meaning and resonance beyond their creator. The liar lies on behalf of himself; the artist tell lies on behalf of everyone. If writers have a compulsion to narrate, they compel themselves to find insights about the human condition. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that novels “express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, masquerading as what it is not”. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth.
It seems to me that this concept speaks to the fact that human language is not always sufficient to fully express exactly what it means to be human. In many ways this is useful way to look at religion. In our modern technological society- a descendant of an age of enlightenment gone rogue – science often seems at odds with religion. This is because science works under a completely different rubric from religion.
Where science seeks to break down, analyze and compartmentalize, religion seeks to open, set free and experience. Both are useful and objectively good. It is when they try to interact that we have problems. Maybe instead of pairing matters of faith with matters of reason we would be better off using art. Whether you accept the “factualness”of any given religious dogma matters less than whether that story or belief points to a larger truth that pales before language.
This is not a new age statement that all religions are equal. Just as some art contains more truth than others, some religions speak closer to what it means to fully express our inner humanity.
If one studies Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Meditation one can see that the painting shows a man sitting near a window; on the far right is another man tending to a fire. The dark border of the image that surrounds the soft golden glow of the room emphasizes the philosopher’s stillness and the calmness that he embodies. The light illuminates the philosopher and his thoughts while the stairs remain untraveled, but waiting.
Did Rembrandt witness this scene? If we traveled back in time could we see it? Probably not, but it doesn’t detract from the meaning of the image he created. Now imagine a velvet Elvis; while still art, the value in terms of the truth communicated is clearly lacking. Yet Elvis is a documented reality.
The core of the matter is what brings out an essential truth, not what can be scientifically proven. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth- or- religion is the myth whose secret ingredient is truth.
In other words, true art.