It is about this time in Lent, around halfway through, that one begins to wonder what the point is. Of anything, really. One purpose of the season is just that: to bring us up against impossibilities. Today, I’m thinking particularly of impossibilities in the realm I am compelled to stare into in my daily life as a political journalist. Even at the best of times, I have difficulty imagining how anything can be achieved through political action, absent some degree of what is called “goodwill,” calling upon something like divine intervention.
This is a mysterious term: “goodwill.” In English, I take it for the moral equivalent of what is called “common sense” in intellectual behavior. The two terms seem interdependent; they both describe an intuitive position toward the world at large. They both require, and are in turn related to, an aesthetic position for which I can find no satisfying English term: a kind of reasonableness and even kindliness in response to the appearances of things. Perhaps “openness” comes closest to this. All three terms imply a habitually chaste approach to reality — or, if you will, a disinterested approach, free of obfuscating passions. (Disinterested, not uninterested.)
An attitude towards the “beingness” of the world that is open, commonsensical, and good-willed — now I am sounding like a German philosopher in English translation! — as opposed to an attitude that is closed, abstruse, and, quite likely, malicious.
But I am trying to describe dryly and abstractly what is not an abstraction in life. Life is personal, and “the political is the personal” — to reverse the old leftist saw. To engage in politics in an impersonal way is already to forfeit goodwill. It is to be an idealist in the worst sense of that world: an ideologue and, inevitably, a cynical Machiavellian schemer. That is not chastity.
Shakespeare, of all people, was concerned with this, and is constantly showing through his histories the tension in characters who are at risk of losing their humanity as they engage in political life — with consequences to others far beyond themselves. The hinge play, I have come to think, stands as conclusion to his first tetralogy: it is Richard III, and its hinge source is Thomas More’s account of that barbarous monarch.
In an unambiguously Catholic way, Shakespeare is exploring the fact of Providence in history; the retributive nature of justice; the unavoidably moral dimension of history. He is composing the drama of real things. We’ve come to read the play as an extenuation of the Tudor dynasty, which was founded in the overthrow of King Richard. Onto this template more recent critics have scrawled various psychoanalytic, feminist, and other postmodern insinuations that, oddly enough, point to aspects of the play that are really there.
Yet we mostly see what isn’t there: We look for a tract when the play is not a tract. Shakespeare is not a manifesto writer. He is describing, with preternatural wisdom, the action of Providence in worldly affairs. He is looking at politics in the opposite of a narrow way, and finding in politics what goes beyond politics. He is reading into the narrative of historical causes and consequences, finding something larger than the mere justification of a regime.
And he is presenting the characters who walk the stage of history as something more than pastiche. Famously, the character of Richard III grows in Shakespeare’s hands beyond the materials that were passed to him in Thomas More’s sketch biography — the document that first recounted the murder of the young princes in the Tower. The monster who had them killed, to advance his own ambition, is not presented entirely without sympathy. Richard grows into a charismatic figure; paradoxical virtues are discovered in him. The tyranny he represents is not wholly unattractive.
There are no cardboard characters in Shakespeare’s plays. I would almost go so far as to say there were no cardboard characters in the historical understanding of the Elizabethan era. By contrast, modern political writing is infected with the Hollywood impulse to reduce the field to black hats and white hats, to “good guys versus bad guys.” And our attention is turned away from the working of Providence toward the policy prescriptions of mere “ends and means.” Good guys pursue good policies; bad policies mean bad guys.
So it is when we look at the great moral themes in our contemporary political life. The abortion issue might be our murders in the Tower. That abortions are evil I take as given, in the most elementary interpretation of Catholic doctrine: Babies are human persons, and murdering them is wrong. Less simple but still basically clear statements could be drawn across the range of other life issues, extending even into many questions of economy and diplomacy for that matter. I am not discounting plain moral distinctions between right and wrong, nor failing to oppose the sort of moral relativism that slurs those distinctions.
But in only a few Catholic writers who wade into politics today do I find the old Catholic impulse to discern the operation of Providence behind all human action. Curiously, I find more wisdom in those apparently crazy people who see that abortion is a fact, and that the consequence of the many millions of children who have been aborted is also a fact, and that we will pay for it. In the larger scheme of things, it is a crime that cries out to heaven; and in the working of Providence, there must and will be retribution for this. For it is not a crime that is being contemplated, but a crime that has been committed — on a vast scale.
Goodwill, common sense, and an openness to things as they are must necessarily present this providential world beyond “practical politics” to our imagination. Indeed, without enlisting that imagination, we become cardboard characters ourselves. By only prescribing policy — good policy to replace bad policy — our engagement with politics only diminishes us.
Consider, as an essay for contemplation, “the politics of seeking God’s forgiveness.” Try to imagine what those would entail. They would, from the start, go beyond any unobtainable quick fix. Such politics would more generally lift us out of our prison-like confinement in present time and begin to restore our sense of the historical. They would offer possibilities that must remain invisible to any wonkish analysis of our problems.
Hence my Lenten reflection. The way forward, in politics, may well be the way of desolation. It must acknowledge the impossibility of achieving even the most modest practical objectives. It must deeply acknowledge the reality of a history that is enmired, in which we ourselves are enmired. It must seek God, and our own redemption, in the very act of participating in political life — or else eschew politics as something of which we are not worthy, as a subject to which we cannot rise.