On What We Lost

In some of the comments surrounding a recent article in this space, champions both of the virtues and modernity and of the vices of the pagans (called by the charming term ‘values’) have risen to object that there is very little in the past worth regarding: modern man having achieved the maturity and wisdom of accumulated millennia of learning, that is, scientific learning (nothing else is worth noting) that it is vain, nay, merely childishness or invincible ignorance to look with nostalgia or regret to our ancestors and the world they knew.

And at least one comment trumpeted as if with a horn of brass the victory of modern joy and happiness over the pale gray breath of the Galilean  prophet, flourishing the banner of modernity, on which in letters of purple and tittles of gold, is writ the slogan of the modern mind: we define our own values!

It is a sentiment worthy of the Pepsi Generation.

I am puzzled, and contemptuous, of those who claim it is progress to return to an intellectual world that is formless and void, as if no human race had ever existed, nor any forefathers ever learned any moral lessons in life, in order to create for oneself, by fiat like a god, a personal cosmos.

Are you going to write your own Periodic Table, O Demiurge, after you are done writing your own Ten Commandments?

My puzzlement comes from the illogical of defining moral reality according to personal sentiment or whim. Obviously, if it is reality, it is objective, something one can observe, but not something one creates.  Logically, one must possess a ‘value’ before one attempts to define one’s own ‘values’ — and this original value, whatever it is, cannot be self-defined.

The unspoken guilt, of course, is that the ‘value’ of being someone who disobeys virtues is that it grants short-term pleasure. To trumpet such values as modern and free is like praising a drunk for being the brave standard-bearer of ‘Intoxication Liberation’ — as if merely calling an old vice by a shiny new name changes the degrading nature of the act, or turns the slavery we call vice into a type of liberty: freedom from being good, or wise, or just, or righteous, or fully human.

My contempt comes not from the boldness of the act, but from the result: the “new values” are all the same old vices, the dead-ends, and hopeless dreams and self-indulgent filth from which prior ages so painfully and so slowly pried themselves and their children free.

This is not the joy for which the pagans of old are recalled. They were aware of the tragic shape of the human condition, and spoke of it more pointedly and bitterly than we. The Greek warns in every play and poem against hubris, overweening ambition, deadly pride, which moderns laud as a virtue, calling it self-esteem, a value necessary for a robust capitalist system.

The pagans knew about sin. It is not a Christian invention. Christianity’s novelty was that it promised a cure, a water of life that could wash the stain of sin away. The Jews had their Eve and the Greeks their Pandora, but there was no New Pandora in the Greek stories: only in Christianity is Mary the New Eve, whose child undoes Adam’s fault.

Permit me to quote G.K. Chesterton, the apostle of common sense, who expresses my sentiment more clearly than could I myself:

It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say “enlightened” they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything — they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything — they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.

The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstacies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.