Remember Memorial Day

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
O beautiful for heroes prov’d
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

We sang this song at Mass on Sunday. I had never heard the whole thing sung aloud in public before. To my chagrin, I realize that I never knew the words the second, third, or fourth verses.

I never realized, for example, that this patriotic hymn held praise for self control in the second verse. It is not a virtue often mentioned in modern America.

In this space in recent days, I have had passages at arms with words with three champions of the modern world. Of course I do not know the real thoughts and intent of these men, but their words perfect expressions, in the simplest and clearest terms, of three of the philosophies of a modern age: materialism, hedonism, and nihilism.

The materialist asserts that there is nothing in reality but matter in motion, ergo human thought is itself merely a mechanical by-product or epiphenomenon of the Newtonian (or Quantum Mechanical, take your pick, as it does not affect the argument) laws governing the motions of brain atoms.

This logically requires that both human free will and human consciousness are illusions. If materialism were true, we have no more choice in determining the outcome of our thinking than a clockwork has in setting its own agenda for what hour it will strike independent of the tyranny of its springs and escapements, wheels and gears.

In the same way that is is nonsense to speak of a clock or a steam engine possessing or lacking self control, were materialism true, it would be nonsense to speak of humans possessing or lacking self control.

The hedonist asserts that good consists of what gives bodily pleasure, and evil consists of what produces bodily pain. The position is distinct from the more noble doctrine, called Epicureanism, which argues that good consists of what give happiness, and that certain virtues, including self control, are necessary for that happiness.

Hedonism is designed to deny the necessity of self-control, except in cases where the pleasure sought produces physical harm; and Hedonism may even argue that self-control, by producing unhappiness (or, at least a lack of self gratification) is wearisome or even wicked. Hedonism is the doctrine that it is right to reject self-control.

The nihilist denies that anything has any reality or meaning outside what the all-sovereign human will imposes on it. This is, tragically, the default assumption and position of the modern worldview, including the worldview of many persons nominally Christian or Jewish. My reality is not your reality; whatever is right for you is right for you, so don’t impose on me; do your own thing; just go for it; and no man can say what or is not true.

Obviously neither self-control, nor any other virtue (nor any other concept of any kind) has any value as an objective truth, or as an objective goal or moral imperative, were we to live in the radically subjective universe of the nihilist. The nihilist universe is one where nothing matters, nothing is true, and nothing exists, except insofar as the sovereign willpower grants its whimsical and omnipotent favor.

The personal appeal of nihilism is the promise of godlike liberty to define one’s own meaning for oneself of one’s life and of all things. At a blow, all moral imperatives lose all power. There are no duties in this nihilist world, no beliefs, no systems of belief, not even the minimal duty to speak sense rather than nonsense, logic rather than illogic.  Nihilism is the doctrine that it is right to reject right reason.

The public appeal of nihilism is that it, ironically enough, promises peace. The argument, or, rather, the baldfaced lie, is that were only we all nihilists, content each in our own reality and willing to let all other men, equally as empty of passionate conviction as we, there would be peace, as no cause of conflict would arise. If no one believes anything, no one has any cause to fight over anything. That the generation surviving the bloodiest and cruelest century of mass-murders, mass-exiles, orchestrated starvations and brutal genocides history has ever recorded could or would adduce the notion that it is a lack of objective ethical norms rather than their presence that produces peace is folly beyond sanity.

What is bizarre about the popularity of these three doctrines is how easy they are to refute.

The paradox proposed by all three philosophies are simple enough, and obvious enough, that a schoolboy with a sophomore education can see them. If the materialist’s claim were true, then the materialists neither believes nor disbelieves the words he uses to support the claim any more than a phonograph record or a computer believes or disbelieves the vibrations or punchcard marks or pixel brightnesses produced by the mechanical action of its mechanical parts in motion. If the materialist’s claim were true, then we live in a universe where there is no such thing as symbols or signs, and no such thing as concepts to which symbols and signs, in the eyes of the observers, point, and there are furthermore no observers.

A debate with a materialists, if materialism were true, would be no more meaningful than placing two phonograph players next to each other in an empty room, winding up their mainsprings, and letting them produce meaningless air vibrations. One phonograph is not going to convince the other of the truth or validity of its philosophy because phonographs do not ponder thoughts, they merely have inward mechanical parts in motion.

The paradox produced by hedonism is that if hedonism is true, then one need not assert nor espouse nor believe hedonism until and unless it produces a bodily pleasure. Since this is not possible for hedonism nor for any philosophy, therefore there must be some good in some things, such as truth or honesty, found outside the limited scope hedonism allows.

The paradox proposed by nihilism is that if nihilism is true, then nothing is true, not even nihilism. Even to ask the question “Does truth exist? Can any human being know the truth? Does human reason reflect reality?” or the other stock repertoire koans of shallow nihilist profundity presupposes that such things as truth, knowledge and reason exist, and that men can know and use them.

A schoolboy even younger than his sophomore year can see that the philosophies are never taken seriously enough by their partisans for those partisans actually and literally to live up to (or down to) their propositions.

These philosophies are popularly trotted out to explain away to evade accusations of the conscience. They are always used to lower standards, never to raise them, and once their special pleading is done, folded away again neatly.

When someone takes his seat on the bus, the materialist were to say, “Hey! why did you do that! That is mine!” he would not be satisfied with the answer if the seat-thief were to explain that nerve impulses of so many amperes moved muscle tissues of certain tensile strength to impel his body of a certain mass across a given distance in a certain time. Even if the thief described the material circumstances of the action with perfect material accuracy down to the location of every last particle and element, inducing giving the numbers representing the voltage and wave patterns in his brain, the materialist would not be answered in a satisfactory way, because his question cannot exist at all in a universe where materialism were true.

Instead the materialist says, “Hey! That is not fair! That is my seat! I was there first. How would you like it if someone did that to you?” — and he always immediately refers to some concept which his philosophy of life is at pains (during arguments about materialism and at no other time) to deny: concepts of fairness, possession, trespass, justification, reciprocity, and some version of the Golden Rule.

Note that the materialist would not react the same way if a large dog or a windup manikin occupied his seat on the bus, because he would not argue with a creature or a machine, such as he proposes (during arguments about materialism and no other time) all human life including himself to be.

When someone takes his seat on the bus, the Hedonist likewise would not be satisfied with the answer by the thief, “I took it because it caused me immediate physical pleasure to rest my legs, nor did I strike, smite, or wound you, therefore you have no right to complain.”

And, of course, Nihilist would be even less satisfied when confronting the thief to hear the answer, “Did I take your seat? Do I exist? Do you? What is truth? Everything is merely an assumption. In my reality, this seat is rightfully mine: you must see to your own reality.”

No, there are certain things that all rational creatures, including man, cannot not know. There is a certain knowledge that presses in on us unavoidably and inescapably. No man can not know, for example, that it is wrong to do an injustice to the innocent. He can invent excuses to mask or smother that knowledge, but it still influences his thought in many ways, subtle or overt.

From the knowledge that we ought not commit injustices, and the observation that most injustices are produced by intemperance of the passions or immoderate desires, particularly greed, fear, anger, lust, avarice, or pride, all honest man soon come to see the utility and wisdom and value of a virtue like self-control, and all virtuous men see and recognize its profound beauty and its fearsome moral authority.

A nation whose liberty is constrained by wise and just laws, and whose people are of such a temper and character as to constrain their appetites and passions by virtues, including self control, can perhaps for many generations maintain a system of ordered liberty, a republican and limited form of government, which does not fall back on the dangerous expedient of placing one man or one class of men above the restless multitudes in an embrace of mutual resentment and loathing, rulers against ruled, or (in more extreme cases) masters against slaves.

To live without self control is to live with yourself a slave to your own passions and appetites, a life of increasing helplessness, misery, and wretchedness.

Such slaves cannot be trusted by themselves or others to go armed, to make decisions about their own lives, much less to vote and make decisions about the great public issues of the day. To allow a disorderly mob of addicts their own property would be as much to consign such property to spoliation and waste.

A wise statesman, if required by an unjust fate to rule a turbulent and selfish mass of slaves, would at first restrict, and then abolish, their ownership of arms (lest they rise in rebellion) and would restrict, at first only in egregious cases, but then, for the sake of administrative convenience, in all cases great and small, in all matters large and trivial, what uses the multitude be permitted to make of the property allegedly their own.

And once their physical property was chained with regulation, those imponderable things which also provoke envy and discontent, words and salutes, honors and dignities, associations and employments and positions, and every form of discrimination or dishonor would be subject to regulation, so that men would no longer have the power to insult each other, or deny anyone any honor or dignity to which his appetites might pretend.

(And merely because modern Americans do not have formal ranks, like Duke and Squire and so on, do not think we have no dignities. The argument favoring gay” marriage” above a civil union, for example, or the desire to abolish the pronoun “he” or the desire to replace years reckoned in “BC” with “BCE” are all matters of dignity, or claim to be, as these are all matter of mere words, as imponderable as being addressed as “your Grace”.)

A mass of subjects who live without self control cannot be expected to live in peace, without riot and without murder, if their fellow subjects have the right to say whatever they please, for they will lack the self control to check whatever hateful and provocative fighting words as might pop into their head, and the former will not have the self control to check their anger at the insult. Men will not be trusted to hire or fire employees for reasons that are just and moderate; nor to speak or print their opinions; nor to reward or withhold such dignities as are given.

No one is trusted, and perhaps no one can be trusted, to be motivated by any impulse nobler than hate or greed or partisan zeal. These are the impulses slaves know. Sportsmanship, courtesy, self-control, modesty, delayed gratification, and so on, are impulses trained into the heart by self-control, and are absent in a degenerate age.

If this is the extreme to which a wise statesman would be herded by the vices of an unruly peoples, think of how eager  would be a dishonest politician or his creatures and clingers-on in the press or academia to embrace laws as restrictive and illiberal, using any excuse convenient to hand.

The conclusion that only a people who govern their passions can be trusted to govern themselves is amply confirmed by the testament of common sense and the sad experience of mankind.

The novelty in this, the current age of grave spiritual darkness in which we live, is that for the first time, we are a generation that lives without a common philosophy, a common ethic, a common metaphysic, or a common worldview, except for the one worldview most immediately destructive of the roots of liberty and freedom: namely, a culture of materialists, hedonists, and nihilists, men who believe in everything and anything aside from self-control.

Perhaps there is a reason why, among this current generation, this song is not often sung. When the songs die in a culture, and the soul dies, one is left with cacophony in the area of music, nonsense in the area of philosophy, and wreckage in the area of civic virtue.

Let us remember this Memorial Day the high and noble things, the beauty of the pilgrim feet in the wilderness, or the beauty of the heroes who loved mercy more than life, for which soldiers died and civilians suffered and sacrificed.

The war that is set before us, a war against a nothingness that has eaten the soul of our nation, is not less dignified or desperate than their wars and struggles: let us pray that the demands be no worse, and the victory, with the grace of God, be as sure.