There is a scene early on in Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World when a volor (helicopter) crashes on a London Street. Within a quince a grim crew arrives, drives off the curious and begins to attend the dying and wounded. They swiftly and efficiently put them to death.
I am often reminded of this prescient episode when I read of counselors who descend on the scene of a disaster to help people cope with their grief. A school bus is struck by a train, killing a dozen students, and their surviving classmates are subjected to days of official and doubtless secular psychological ministration. From time to time, one gets a glimpse of what such therapy amounts to. A woman who was in charge of the consolation crew in Oklahoma City, a psychologist, spoke feelingly for the camera of how a rescue worker had tearfully given her a teddy bear found in the ruins. She said it was her most prized possession. She seemed to be citing this as the fruit of her work. What goes on behind her sparkling eyes and equivocal smile?
Voltaire was prompted by the Lisbon earthquake to write Candide, in which he made fun of the optimism of other Enlightenment figures. In the absence of prince and priest, they thought, the human race could at last fashion a rational society. But what about earthquakes and all the other ups and downs that flesh is heir to?
National disasters in this country are carefully monitored by government officials, special moneys are allocated, but tornadoes and floods have not yet been outlawed. Terrorism has been. The predictable governmental reaction to Oklahoma City was to pass a bill, the main argument about it being whether it was tough enough. Could it be so calibrated that at some point no more terrorist acts would occur?
Religion may have been privatized in our society, but morality has been externalized. Officials who legalize infanticide and whose personal conduct leaves everything to be desired moralize about bombers and seek some external and costly solution to the “problem.” Terrorists and bombers are thought to be insane and in need of even more therapy than the rest of us. But the rest of us are no longer taken seriously as moral agents. That is, free and responsible.
The deathly ills that afflict the deviant are the subject of daily discussion, huge sums are spent in the search for a cure, but it is taboo to mention the link between the behavior and the deficient immune system. An external solution is sought, one that will make no demands on the behavior of “those at risk.”
Children are prodded into premature sexual activity and, in Lake Woebegone terms, shown how to board the train when they have no intention of going to Minneapolis. It goes without saying that they cannot be expected to become mature adults. Sexual activity becomes two people tapping on the wall that separates them. The enormous societal consequences of this sponsored promiscuity can never be recognized as consequences.
In the last century, Cardinal Newman wrote an essay, “The Tamworth Reading Room,” in which he gently poked fun at utilitarians who thought that libraries for the working class would transform society. One can almost long for the days when the proposed therapy appealed to the mind and imagination. But Newman knew that knowledge alone cannot make us good. He would not have been among those who wondered how lovers of Bach could administer extermination camps. Newman was an Aristotelian. The only way a human being can become good is by acting good. If he must initially do this out of fear of punitive sanctions, if he must imitate acts whose motivation he does not yet have, only such repeated behavior can establish character. The greatest justification of government is that it promotes virtue in its citizens. Nowadays the government with its hollow conception of human beings is a large part of the problem. We are asked to believe that men we couldn’t trust alone with our wives are fit custodians of the common good.
Dr. Johnson wrote Rasselas in answer to Candide. Johnson was a man both serious and wise. He knew that a good part of the human task is to cope with evils we can neither foresee nor forestall. Rasselas found in the monks of St. Anthony a model for human behavior in this valley of tears. This is not a call to quietism but a reminder of our creaturely condition. And of course there is always the book of Job. “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if thou hast understanding.” And Job lay his hand upon his mouth. The problem is not in our stars—or politicians—but in ourselves.