What Rough Beast

 

The great Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov writes that the world about us was made for us to exalt, to spiritualize, not because matter is in itself evil, but because the good that it possesses was meant to be united by man with the God whom man serves. That is the meaning of our being made in the image of God, he argues — that we might, through our grace-filled work, bring creation itself to its fulfillment and ourselves to the likeness of God, which for Bulgakov is our inherent end or goal, as the image is our origin and foundation. Thus he also forges an intimate link between the sin of Adam, the state of being of the natural world, and our relationship with both that world and God. Instead of seeing in the forbidden fruit a mere symbol of a command that man was supposed to obey, Bulgakov requires us to see the fruit as, in fact, fruit, a product of the natural world.

The original sin, then, perverts the order of creation. Man, says Bulgakov, wishes to assume the place of God — not exactly as Satan did, whose sin was to affirm that he was equal to God. Man wishes instead to become as a god, knowing that he is not now a god. But he wishes to become godlike not by accepting the gift of God’s transforming grace, but by his own efforts as applied to the natural world. In other words, man begins his long history of magic.

This magic that we practice is related, as C. S. Lewis saw, not to prayer, which is but an honest confession of dependence upon God, but to the Baconian project of the domination of nature to serve our purposes. We will be “saved,” we think, or we will be as gods, if we but torture nature to give up her secrets. Now, it is not in itself an evil thing — in fact, it is quite a good thing — to love the world about us, and to learn about its ways, and to appreciate its beauty in wonder and a proper humility. But that sort of learning is one thing, and the brute subjection of the world to our materialistic purposes, whatever they may be, and whatever we have to do to the world to attain them, is another. Here I am not speaking simply of the rape of a mountain or a sea, but of an entire attitude toward the world, which now manifests itself as the exertion of power over what is inert and of no intrinsic worth, and now as our servile abjection before that world, as if matter alone could save us.

I suggest, then, that there is a strange connection between rationalism and animalism. It works like this. The rationalist who has set his heart upon the domination of nature reduces the animal to machine; while he does so, he does not notice, or does not admit, that in so doing he has plunged man himself into that same predicament — it is the “abolition of man” whereof Lewis wrote. This result is inevitable, since the premise of the Baconian project is that, for all our purposes (purposes that are spiritually empty, yet that promise our deification), the creation about us is of no moral consequence. It is but one short step from there to the reduction of man himself, even this godlike man, to the same inconsequence. Instead, then, of humanizing and spiritualizing the world about us, we animalize and mechanize ourselves, and set ourselves upon a pedestal for doing so.

 

Let me illustrate. Let us return to a cliffside town in medieval Italy. A young man, nicknamed “Frenchy” perhaps for his affinity for fancy clothing and the songs of the troubadours, has given up his life as a young reveler to devote his days to God and the gospel. He used to be dressed in scarlet and silk, but now only a rough gray cloak covers his limbs. Yet his rejection of mere material wealth — I would say, his rejection of the magic of money — does not divorce him from the material world. Instead, it allows him to love that world all the better, to be one with it, and to elevate it in praise of God. He sings of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, of the playfulness of robust Brother Fire, and even of the tender mercies of our Sister, Bodily Death. Stories are told of how the animals listen to him or follow him about; and the stories are the more believable because it seems not to have occurred to his contemporaries to see in this attraction anything deeply theological at all. It was, for them, an endearing quirk. But we see in St. Francis both a love for creation, for what it is and for the One who made it, and a spiritualization of that created world.

What would be the inverse of St. Francis? Perhaps we can find it in the city named after the saint. It is a parade. If the reader finds the example offensive, he can substitute men and women for the men and men; the point will not suffer too much in the translation. Since rationalism cannot recognize more than utilitarian value, and can certainly never move the human heart to fall in love with what is good and beautiful, the people of San Francisco are entirely at a loss to know what is wrong with the parade. Men in various degrees of nudity walk down the streets, shouting slogans. Some wear hats and shoes but nothing on their reproductive organs. Some strap themselves down with leather. Some perform acts of perversion upon one another in public. Some have their body parts pierced with steel. This is not to see the human body as a beautiful reflection of the soul, nor to see the human being as made in the image of God. It is instead to idolize parts, in their gross and subhuman materiality, and to boast of appetites, not as leading to a love of God’s beauty, but merely because the people in question happen to have them.

A terrible combination, that of a hypertrophied rationalism in the service of tumid appetite; an arrogant head serving an importunate belly. The result is not the hearty beauty of the canticle of St. Francis, sung under the open air. It is instead the garish, the suffocating, the dehumanizing, and the ugly. Walk through an airport, and look at the idols, and listen to the noise.

Or turn away from all of that, and regard again the beauty of the saints. It is not just some dry moral beauty severed from the body and from the material world. Wherever holy people walk, as it were, flowers spring up in their footsteps. Look at John Bosco, walking a tightrope to entertain the street boys of Turin before he introduces them to the living God. Look at Mother Teresa, in whose drawn and many-wrinkled face there is no beauty but the beauty of goodness, holiness, and joy, and see how she transforms the most terrible and ordinary moment in life, the moment of death — the death, for instance, of a man lying in a ditch — into a deeply human and godly moment of love. Look at the gaunt old Curé of Ars, who in the world’s eyes would be no more than a useless man of very modest intelligence, and see the hundreds who come to him daily, even from the blaring salons of the city, to have their lives changed forever.

Or turn away from haughty and soulless Rome, to the child Jesus lying in the manger. The ox and the ass will be there before us.


Image:
Legend of St Francis, Renunciation of Wordly Goods by Giotto

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010) and, most recently, Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). Professor Esolen has also translated Dante.

  • Tony Layne

    … that no one was here before me to congatulate you on a wonderful think-piece, Mr. Esolen. Unfortunately, the Conditioners Lewis spoke about in The Abolition of Man are fairly far along in producing the society of Men without Chests

  • Telemachus

    I agree that this is a great piece.

    Thank you, Mr. Esolen, for grappling with the paradox that as Man glorifies himself more, he destroys his own dignity, and in the end destroys himself. This is an extremely counter-intuitive conclusion, and I’ve been thinking about it for a while. This article helped.

    God Bless,
    Tele

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