Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Into the Wild and G.K. Chesterton II

Here I brought up the remarkable story of Chris McCandless, the young man who tramped off into the Alaskan wilderness and eventually died of starvation.

A response to that post might be that the modern "free spirit" can't submit to authority like St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was, this thinking might go, tamed by the Catholic Church and thereby betrayed the truly radical nature of the quest for freedom. Submission to any authority is to submit to limits, and true freedom is not constrained by limits, particularly those set by others. St. Francis was radical for his time, but the modern quest for freedom has moved beyond him.

We can find an answer to this point, again from Chesterton, in Ch. 6 of Orthodoxy. The peculiar genius of Christianity (in its unified form prior to the Reformation) is that it did not settle for what Chesterton called pagan or natural compromises; in other words, the virtuous mean of Aristotle. The problem with Aristotle's mean is that it ultimately does not do justice to either of its extremes. Chesterton considers as an example the case of charity:

Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly, charity certainly means one of two things - pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people. But if we ask ourselves (as we did in the case of pride) what a sensible pagan would feel about such a subject, we shall probably be beginning at the bottom of it. A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn't: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing; but is is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice, such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole fascination of the charitable.

Now what Christianity manages to do is to balance the extremes without compromising either. Both are kept in their full force, but in a way that neither destroys the other. Chesterton puts it this way:

Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from anaother. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all. It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

"Good things running wild" is just the sort of thing that seems to describe Chris McCandless. He had the uncompromising moral sense of the radical, and sensed that the bourgeois life he saw around him as he grew up was a series of pagan compromises, which he found intolerable. He refused to have his burning passion for transcendence tamed (that is, killed) by society. All this is good. His answer was the only answer available to the natural mind; a complete repudiation of society and its compromises and the embrace of a radical lifestyle that pushed things to extremes. Alas, Aristotle cannot be refuted simply by ignoring him and attempting to reconcile extremes through the sheer force of personality, even a personality as powerful and talented as Chris McCandless's. The extremes do destroy each other as surely as do fire and ice.

The solution of Christianity, and in particular the Catholic Church, was to reconcile the extremes not in the individual personality, but in the corporate body of the Church. The aim of such reconciliation was not to tame the passionate personality, but to point his passions in the right direction such that they could run free yet not be in danger of destroying each other. Contrary to the modern impression, this does not limit the extreme personality, but allows him to travel to places he could not possibly find on his own. St. Francis was every bit as radical as Chris McCandless in his pursuit of living on as little as possible; the difference is that Chris did it for two years and St. Francis did it for thirty. Again, Chesteron puts it better than I can:

St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Both passions were free because both were kept in their place. The optimist could pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle. But he must not call the fight needless. The pssimist might draw as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds. But he must not call the fight hopeless. So tis was with all the other moral problems, with pride, with protest, and with compassion. By defining its main doctrine, the Chruch not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists. Meekness grew more dramatic than madness. Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange coup de theatre of morality - things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice. The spirit of indignation and of charity took terrible and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantangenets, to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head of the criminal.

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