Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Into the Wild and G.K. Chesterton

I just finished reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a book that was recently made into a film (I haven't seen the film). For those who don't know, the book is about the life and death of Chris McCandless, a young man who set out to live on his own in the Alaskan wilderness and, after a few months, starved to death.

There is a lot in the book that stimulates philosophical reflection, for McCandless was not your typical foolish youth attempting a misguided communion with nature. He was highly intelligent, talented, well-educated (he graduated from Emory University), and would likely have survived his time in the Alaskan wilderness but for a couple of unfortunate circumstances. In fact, rather than a nutcase, the figure he brings to mind is St. Francis of Assisi.

In this post, I would like to consider Chris McCandless in the light of G.K. Chesterton. Specifically, the following passage from Ch. 3 of Orthodoxy:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices, are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone man. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

The phrases "wasted virtues" and "virtues gone mad" seem apt with respect to Chris McCandless. This was a kid of extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, self-discipline, intelligence and passion. He was a physical stud, musically talented, and generally charmed whomever he met. A lot like St. Francis. The crucial difference between St. Francis and Chris McCandless, however, was that St. Francis's extraordinary life was theocentric rather than egocentric. By that I mean that the radical lifestyle of St. Francis had its origin in the imitation of Christ, rather than in a self-conceived program of spiritual transcendence. The difference this makes is all the difference in the world, for it is the difference between humility and pride.

Because St. Francis was imitating Christ, and Christ is one who submits to authority, St. Francis himself submitted to the authority of the Church. This had the effect of giving a structural foundation to Francis's life, a structure that prevented his passionate virtues from turning in on themselves and destroying him. The Church has also always made clear that a life of self-denial, no matter how radical, is never an end in itself. Nor is it really even a means by itself. The point of self-denial is to remove those things that stand between us and God. Now, even if we are successful at removing them, we have no guarantee that communion with God will follow. That is up to the will of God, and so patience is a virtue counseled by the Church even to natures as wild and impulsive as St. Francis.

Chris McCandless had no such direction or foundation, and so his considerable virtues eventually pulled him in directions that destroyed him. Since he did not understand the true point of radical self-denial, McCandless made the natural mistake of thinking that such measures, by themselves, could lead to transcendence. But such measures are ultimately empty without the grace of God. The consequence is that the seeker is led to ever more radical and dangerous modes of self-denial, with the thought that just a little bit more is all that is needed for the breakthrough. Eventually, either the seeker realizes it won't work or he is tempted to potentially fatal excesses. The latter seems to have happened when McCandless tramped off into the Alaskan outback without a decent map, compass, radio and only a ten-pound bag of rice to eat.

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