In his fine apocalyptic novel, Lord of the World, Robert Hugh Benson says that the then-underground and persecuted Catholic Church was the single institution remaining that upheld the dignity of the individual. At the same time, Benson gives us a scene in which the last survivors of all the royal families of Catholic Europe come to the new pope to receive his blessing. The combination of individualism and hierarchy should strike us in the western world as odd, because we are used to assuming that monarchy and tradition—not to mention a hierarchical Church—are the enemies of individualism. Instead we require democratic institutions, and even what Pope Benedict has called the “dictatorship of relativism,” if individuals are to thrive.
What is wrong here? No less than our having forgotten that a human being is made in the image and likeness of God.
First, let’s look at the consequences of our forgetfulness. If a human being is not holy, then what is he? A smart primate; a consumer of natural resources; a polluter of rivers and seas; a player in a vast economic game; a tick on the ratings for mass entertainment; an atom of self-will in the Hobbesian “war of all against all”; a bearer of constantly shifting “rights” enumerated by political decrees; a self-fashioner, by means of meaningful work, indistinguishable from everybody else’s work; an idol for others to admire; a bundle of desires to be gratified; cannon fodder; business fodder; political fodder. If we become detached from God—a community of three Persons who made us to reflect that communion of love—we become either individualists without any clear aim beyond ourselves, or collectivists without any clear personal center, or—as we see in our times—both at once. For it is entirely possible to reconcile a spiritually amputated individualism with the vast, impersonal, all-competent, collectivist state. As Christopher Lasch long ago observed in his Culture of Narcissism, there’s a strange connection between a diseased individualism and a diseased collectivism—between Narcissus and the Leviathan.
True and False Duty
Recall the ancient myth of Narcissus. The lovely boy catches sight of his countenance in a pool and falls enamored of himself. But he does not then leave the pool to boast of himself wherever he can, as foolish and proud as that might be. Instead, he loses all genuine connection between himself and other living creatures by perpetually admiring his reflection. Narcissism does not expand the soul, but rather contracts it. He does not heed the pleas of the young nymph, Echo, whose unrequited love will wear her away until she becomes nothing more than the faint reverberant sound to which she gives her name. He does not even acknowledge his immediate material needs. “Plenty makes me poor,” he moans, in Ovid’s account, as he gazes upon the image that seems to fulfill his every desire, and yet which is just this side of nothingness.
For the narcissist “the world” is conveniently vague, rather like a stage upon which he may flaunt his talents, with others as audience or props. Thus it is that to “save the world” calls for playing a self-approved part. It is a parody of duty. Thus, today a chirpy young girl on a television commercial says “I have a passion for saving the world,” without the slightest trace of irony—or any awareness that the task might have required the sacrifice of the Son of God.
The genuinely dutiful man, whose gaze is turned towards others, notices first of all the people around him: my spouse, our children, our kinfolk, our neighbors, our pastor, our fellow congregants, our townsmen. He does not seek to save the world. He seeks to love his spouse, provide for his children, rejoice or mourn with his kin, assist his neighbors, obey his pastor, and so forth; thus his life opens out into a real world of meaning. He needs few laws, because he obeys already. The narcissist needs many laws, because he is essentially lawless, even when most predictable. And so he welcomes the Leviathan.
True and False Community
And here is where that man-made monster lugs its prodigious weight ashore. When Thomas Hobbes wrote his famous Leviathan, he took for granted that all men are created equal—equally rapacious and treacherous, that is, and with equal right to snatch all things for their individual selves. The result is what he called the “war of all against all,” with the life of man, in his memorable phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” There was for Hobbes no natural society (see “The Laws of Leviathan,” page 18). Families, clans, villages, guilds, neighborhoods, and congregations do not spur his moral imagination. We leap instead from a chaotic individualism to the severe order of law, imposed by the state Leviathan, a creation of man, who cedes to it his freedom of rapacity and treachery. It is as if the heart of man had fallen out, leaving only brains and belly.
Hobbes acknowledges no such thing as the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, which these days is justified by its supposed usefulness. But the justification is made on the wrong grounds. The Catholic does not believe that, for example, local charities must be encouraged simply because they alone can actually assist the poor, as human beings ought to be assisted. The Catholic believes in subsidiarity because it touches upon what human beings are. That is, we are made for one another, in our embodied selves, here and now. If some metastatic state should seize from us our duty to feed and educate our children, even if the state should do it well (which it does not), that state must necessarily rob from us our full humanity. If it should then give us the recompense of a false liberty—if the managers of Leviathan should say, “Behold, we have set you free from the burden of the next generation, free to dance the hours away as you please”—that would be but to implicate us in the theft, so as to make us less likely to demand our rightful duties back.
Let us take a closer look at these matters, to see how the false individualism of Narcissus and the false community of Leviathan fall prey to the same error, and why that error is fundamentally theological.
Man without Meaning
Take a famous illustration of individual liberty, from the libertarian philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He says that if I wish to learn to play the violin, no one should be able to prevent me, so long as it can be shown that my playing the violin does not impinge upon anyone else’s capacity to do what they want to do in turn, such as—I am supposing—buying violins to burn them in anti-Paganini rituals. We can agree with Berlin that it would be silly to pass a law preventing Morris from learning to play the violin. There would seem to be no sensible purpose behind such a law. But at the same time we must insist that Berlin’s vision of liberty is shockingly narrow. It is merely a negative liberty, the freedom from being interfered with. There is no notion of what it is good for Morris to do, why he would want to play the violin, or for whom he would play. There is no vision of Morris thriving as a human being—plaintively sawing away on the strings as he undertakes our common pilgrimage to the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the One who unites all of these in himself. Indeed, Morris is but that bundle of desires—the contracted soul—isolated not only from God but from parents and children and neighbors.
Now it is not a long stretch to go from cheering Morris on in his splendid isolation, to insisting that all the Morrises of the nation must be made subservient to a state that guarantees his isolation. We see the devilish combination virtually everywhere. For example, Morris wishes to take up residence with his friend Lawrence. They call themselves lovers. Their neighbors, their parents, their local church, the postman, the paperboy, and the plumber may have a variety of opinions about the matter, but they do not count. For the state has decreed that what Morris and Lawrence say will be so. Everyone in the modern world is different, as the philosopher Philippe Benetton has noted with mordant irony, and the differences make no difference. So the state establishes the pseudogamous union of Morris and Lawrence at the price of draining marriage of all objective meaning and refusing to the community any moral claims on the two men. But of course the men themselves are also, and by the same act of the state, rendered of no account, since their union is predicated upon the proposition that as long as no one is “hurt”—and the state reserves to itself the definition of harm—it does not matter what they do.
Meanwhile Josephine, a self-described artist, derives an income from large non-profit foundations. Such foundations, free of the particulars of any coherent community and various funnels of state bounty, enable Josephine to “transgress” the standards of the people for whom she performs her “art,” naked, with chocolate. Of course, the cruel irony is that there is no longer anything to transgress, since, again, there is no shared vision of the end for which human beings exist, so that the shock that once gratified Josephine is now little more than a raised eyebrow between drinks. Yet, as the saying goes, it’s a living, and perhaps Josephine can content herself with the knowledge that she too is saving the world, or the gynecological part of it at least.
Now then, since chaos and anarchy are unthinkable—since, after all, the airplanes have to fly on time, and people who are sick in the hospital must sometimes be healed—and since the premise upon which this false individualism is based must tear the heart out of the community, not to mention the church and the family, something must be established to manage affairs, and that something is the collectivist state. Narcissus and Narcissa will be quite content to stare at their images in the pool, and let the leviathan and its maritime spawn rule everything else. (See “Who Pays for Narcissus’s Perverted Gaze?")
Indeed, since even the debris of community life can still prove refractory, the Narcissi promote the authority of the leviathan, to manage schools, to redefine marriage, to intrude into the membership of formerly private associations, and even to whittle away at the doctrines of churches. This is what is known as progressivism, with the qualification that those who are progressing are not actually going anywhere—there being, really, nowhere to go.
A Particular Bond of Love
Such a truncated vision of man, one that either a Hobbes or a Rousseau would have accepted, at once reduces individualism to narcissism and community to collectivity. And so we Christians need instead to recover the fullness of meaning in that mysterious verse, “Let us make man in our image.” Note that God did not say, “I shall now make man in my image.” It is not solipsistic. The our of “our image” is something shared, and Christians will affirm that it is what it is only by virtue of being shared. That is, to be made in the image of God, for the Christian, is to be made in the image of that communion of Persons that is the Trinity. Now the Trinity is not a collocation of individuals, nor is it a collectivity of the anonymous and distant. It is a personal relationship, in fact the ultimately personal of all relationships. Then I cannot ask, “What am I, as an individual?” without also asking, “From whom have I come? With whom shall I walk? For whom am I?” And this consideration implies that I will only attain the fulfillment of my individuality by those relationships of love and duty that bind me to my family and those among whom I live: bonds that are not abstract, as is my bond to a distant and vast state apparatus, but personal, and therefore, since we are embodied beings, rooted in time and place.
Impersonal or Personal?
In other words, a true Christian individualism is in harmony with a Christian social vision. The battle is not between the individual as such and the state, but between an individualism and a statism that see nothing holy in man. On one side are those who think man has no purpose other than what is determined ad lib by Narcissus and Leviathan; on the other is a community of Christians who find themselves by caring for one another and for the common good.
There is all the difference in the world, then, between the soulless and irresponsible state “support” of the poor, divorced from personal claims and from the joys and frustrations and setbacks and victories that we find when human beings unite in some difficult purpose, and John’s real care for Mark, in the place where they live. I am not saying that there is no role for state welfare; I am only noting its severe limitations and its distortion of charity.
There is all the difference in the world, too, between a state that settles the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant family by consigning their disagreement to happy irrelevance, and a council of people responsible for the local school, who wish to find some way to unite both in a common vision of education.
There is all the difference in the world between a state that blithely grants to some favored group the “right” to offend (taking from others the logically concomitant right to be offended) and a stern town father who, in his just role as protector of his own family and those of his neighbors, knocks on the offender’s door and tells him to wise up.
The true Christian wishes to live by law and the folkways or customs that should be more powerful than law, not by the distant diktat of the leviathan, nor by the nearby predilections of Narcissus. If anyone should say to us, “We have a different view of the holiness of man, and the end for which we are made,” then we can have an argument or a fight, nor need we apologize for it. But if someone should say, “We do not believe that man is holy, nor that there is any end for which we are made,” we should reply, “Fellow, you are welcome to live among us if you abide by our ways, but since you yourself confess that you have nothing particular to contribute to our vision of the common good, you will of course forgive us if we decline to pay attention to anything you have to say.”
I believe that Msgr. Benson, who celebrated both the individual and the Catholic community, because they are incomprehensible apart from one another, would approve.
Who Pays for Narcissus’s Perverted Gaze?
Let us suppose that a seller of filthy movies wishes to take up shop on my street, the first and only such in town. Those with a truncated vision of human nature will not know what to do, or will not know that there is anything to do at all. Some will try to prove that the seller participates in an activity that does indeed harm people, but since they acknowledge no end for which we are made—nothing holy—they will be stymied by the obvious fact that all the participants give full consent, and that no one is getting beaten up or robbed. Others will concede to the leviathan the obligation to determine what shall or shall not be considered licit, but eventually all limits are transgressed, because no one has any standard by which to establish a limit. Some of the Narcissi may be disgruntled, but they will be the first to admit that theirs is but a private and subjective response; what pool a fellow Narcissus wants to stare into is his own business.
Yet they will all be missing what for the Christian should be obvious facts. The first stems from the truth that our individuality is fulfilled by our seeking the common good with our fellows. So the seller of filth sets himself up under false pretenses. For the sake of his business, he insists upon individualism, while at the same time denying the very end for which our individuality exists in the first place. He comes to us not to join our celebrations, and assist in our troubles, and share our sorrows and our joys, but to sell what he wants to sell despite our not wanting him around. We say that his portrayals of men and women, strangers, in the act of intercourse makes a mockery of the holiest of human relationships, that between man and wife: His response is to play the trump cards of Narcissus and leviathan, saying that is just our opinion (and one opinion is just as meaningful as another, meaning that they are all essentially empty), and that leviathan has ruled in his favor anyway. We say that we do not want our young people to be corrupted, and he laughs and plays the same cards. He comes not to join a community, but to offend it, if after all these years of muddled thinking there is anything left of a community to offend.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College. He is the editor and translator of the Modern Library edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. His most recent book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery). He attends Sacred Heart Church in West Warwick, Rhode Island with his wife, Debra, and their two children.
The Laws of Leviathan
- The laws of Nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.
- During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.
- To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the cardinal virtues.
- In such [war] there is no place for industry . . . no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
- Moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good and evil in the conversation and society of mankind. Good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions, which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men, are different.
- It belongs therefore to the Sovereign to prescribe the rules of discerning good and evil and therefore in him is the Legislative Power.
—Source: www.spaceandmotion.com: Quotes from Hobbes, The Leviathan