The Imperfectability of Man
Review by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs by James V. Schall, ISI Books, 2001
“The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life’s plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.”
~ Robert Louis Stevenson
"God is dead," Nietzsche tells us. We have killed him and all we are left with is terrible freedom. For James V. Schall, Nietzsche’s assertion embodies modernism in all its foolishness and arrogance. Nietzsche himself is no fool, but has only identified the central belief of modernity: the belief that man is the master of all and can bring everything within his grasp. In his most recent book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, Schall contends however, that man is not now and cannot be master of all, but in his mad drive to be so has inverted the rational order of human affairs. Where once man might have pursued the simple pleasures of the virtuous life in a fallen world, modern man will not be content with anything less than the creation of heaven on earth, a material paradise where the problems of economics and politics have all been consumed by the end of history. Schall denies not only that such a thing is impossible, but that the very pursuit of such perfection is dangerous and contrary to what man was created for: for happiness and for contemplation of the “higher things,” the things over which man has no control.
For Schall, the lesson of Original Sin (not necessarily as a religious dogma, but simply as a fact of human nature) is a lesson learned all too rarely by modern man. For the same sin that afflicted the first parents is the same that afflicts us now: intellectual pride. And according to the essayist Hilaire Belloc, "no sin is more offensive to the angels." The intellect is fine but there is so much more:
"What! Here we are with the jolly world of God all around us, able to sing, to draw, to paint, to hammer and build, to sail, to ride horses, to run, to leap; having for our splendid inheritance love in youth and memory in old age, and we are to take one miserable little faculty, our one-legged, knock-kneed, gimcrack, grumpy intellect, or analytical curiosity rather (a diseased appetite) and let it swell till it eats up every other function?"
But what of this “miserable little faculty” that Belloc is so suspicious of? When is the appropriate time to use it? Aristotle appears to give us the answer, and as with so much of Aristotle’s thought, the answer lies in moderation. After all, it was once understood that the work within the political and the economical spheres was to provide order and resources for leisure, and within leisure, to turn to the things that really matter: sport, beauty, philosophy, and the company of friends. We find that Schall is fond of quoting Samuel Johnson and his friend James Boswell, who were frequent dinner companions. After one night of particularly fulfilling conversation, Boswell declared "I believe this is as much as can be made of life." Clearly, Aristotle would have agreed, for like many of the ancients, Aristotle was preoccupied with what it meant to live well, and for Schall, it is "prudence and the contemplative and supernatural virtues that have to do with our living well."
If living well consists in finding connection with the supernatural virtues, what happens when man rejects the supernatural? What happens is modern man. The rejection of the supernatural has occurred to man throughout the ages because it denigrates the works of man. It places his wars, his social programs, and his ideological battles below something higher. It says that the ways of man are not the best way, or more insulting yet, not even the only way. Schall tells us:
"The whole modern argument against God is that he has distracted us from the really important things — our own lot, our own making of a world that is ours alone to redeem, our efforts to make the world safe for democracy, our drive to alleviate poverty and sickness and even death. Anything devoted to the transcendent is so much distraction. Indeed, religion is not merely the opium of the people, but the rival of man."
It is here where we really begin to the see the political repercussions of refusing to learn the lesson of original sin. Flannery O’Connor in a letter to a friend who was near to despair over the amount of sin in the Church wrote: "What you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right now, that the Holy Spirit be translated at once into all flesh…. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in; you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death." The philosopher George Steiner pointed out that many Jews, impatient with the delay of the messiah, and Christians, tired of waiting for the second coming, have decided to take matters into their own hands and mete out universal justice on their own in their own time. It is at this point that man slips from the reality of the fallen world where "the worst has already happened and continues to happen" into a world where man, fueled by radical pride, can set it all right, where he can seize control of history and make it into something more to his liking. Only by engaging in the unserious things, however, can we regain our sanity, our prudence, and our virtue. Only through dance and song and play and sport can we appreciate the created world for what it is, and not what in our prideful imaginations it might have been.
Throughout history, Americans in general have been remarkably immune to the pride and the temptations of bringing heaven to earth. Generally skeptical of messianic visions like Marxism, fascism, and utopian socialism, Americans have largely shrugged off the frantic claims of ideologues that all can be made perfect if we are only willing to abandon ourselves to the pursuit. In other words, Americans have been reluctant to embrace only the serious things. To be sure, American history has been punctuated with unpleasant episodes of frantic visions of paradise in manifest destiny or in the imperialism of the early 20th century, but such crusades have generally burnt themselves out and Americans have been content to follow the advice of George Washington and to pursue peaceful commerce to provide Americans with the time to once again pursue the unserious things.
Schall does not mention the fevered radicalism that so now occupies America’s elites and is now so enmeshed in her foreign policy, and even though he seems to have disregarded his own advice in the past year, it is easy to see that his call to remember the lesson of Original Sin should not be just an academic question. In fact, our current state of affairs reminds one of what Schall calls "aberrations" of human prudence, and such aberrations "suggest a common theme, namely, that an improper understanding of man’s final destiny necessarily, yet still voluntarily, sets one off to find or to create more rapidly the Kingdom of God on earth. This search justifies activities that violate the Commandments and reason in the name of a greater, more urgent good." Reading Schall’s words, it is difficult to see how we can continue to tell ourselves that this is not the road down which American civilization is now headed.
Daily we are bombarded with claims that we must invest ourselves in a battle to destroy evil, or to bring our way of life to every corner of the globe at the point of a gun. We are told that if victory in these things can be attained, then it must be attained, for some in their arrogance still believe that the Kingdom of God, thanks to us, is at hand. As in Schall’s aberrations, reason and the Ten Commandments have been shunted aside in favor of a greater goal — bringing "market democracy" to the Arab world and securing more and more territory for American bases, American markets, and American oil rigs. Who can be troubled with such unserious things as domestic culture, arts, and community when total victory is at hand? We only need invade a few more countries, or bomb a few more cities, or trample a few more American liberties until victory is ours, now and forever.
Schall, like the philosophers, tells us that in our folly, we are looking for a time when we will all live "happily ever after" when all the heroes and heroines have nothing left to do. What will we do then, when all the serious things have been taken care of? Indeed, man will have to rediscover that, as Plato asserted, he is a mere "plaything" of God, and that this is the best thing about being human. Of course, after having sacrificed everything in the name of bringing the Kingdom to earth, man will have forgotten about the unserious things, and the contemplative and supernatural virtues will have been swallowed up in the "victory" over history and over sin itself. If we allow ourselves to be students of the higher things, we know that there will never be a time when we, through our own efforts, will live "happily ever after." So why sacrifice the good things in pursuit of such an unattainable goal? After the rubble produced by our arrogance is cleared and the smoke lifts, it will still be the same as always, but if we are lucky, we will be able to say after a fine dinner "this is as much as can be made of life" and leave the serious things for another time.