The British poet and classicist A. E. Houseman once felt obliged to take a colleague to task for simplifying his labors by ignoring a troublesome manuscript of the Roman poet Catullus. The scholar in question, said Houseman, presented a new twist on the classic pons asinorum: Like a donkey paralyzed equidistant from two bales of hay, he thought that by eliminating one of the bales he would cease to be a donkey.
Houseman’s tart observation came to mind as I was contemplating some of the recent explanations for our president’s behavior. William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s loquacious lawyer, has informed us that the president and the former intern had a “complex” relationship. Amid the many evil consequences of the Clinton dalliances, this excuse may be the most pernicious. Complexity, we are supposed to understand, prevents any right-thinking person from making simple judgments.
Of course, all human relationships are complex. Indeed, everything human is endlessly complex. Yet for some reason, until recently, no one thought this settled much.
If you look into Thomas Aquinas or the casuists, you will find enough complexity to satisfy even the most shameless defense attorney. They knew that we are poor creatures, easily influenced by forces of which we are often unaware, and consequently diminished in our responsibility for certain acts. Thomas, for example, gives a long list of reasons why God has had to reveal through Scripture several things that we can know through reason: Many questions are difficult and easily admit error; few people have the ability or the inclination to pursue philosophy; and the cares of life distract us from learning what we need to know to live a good life.
Yet all that said, Aquinas believes it part of the divine mercy that God has revealed to us his existence and the Ten Commandments, so that we have reliable guides even if we are not philosophers or moral theologians. These principles assured us of some help in passing through the twisted thickets of everyday experience.
But all that has fallen by the wayside. David may have innocently caught sight of the naked Bathsheba and been inflamed to wicked deeds, including plots and murder. When confronted with the simple truth, however, he repented. For us, though, the fact that the highest of leaders succumbs to human weakness leads to the weaving of further tangled webs that are themselves more damaging to moral understanding that the original offense.
Sadly, this not only involves the president. It is taken by some to warrant further self-indulgence. A letter to the New York Times Magazine recently argued: “If there’s any upside to the news media’s endless preoccupation with President Clinton’s alleged affairs, it’s that Americans are being forced to confront the complexities of human nature, especially . . . sexuality. This exercise in mind expansion can only benefit gay men and lesbians.”
Say what? Thinking about revelations of complex misconduct as “mind expansion?” And what exactly would be the lessons of complexity, even for gay men and lesbians, in the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal? That cheating on a partner in an exploitative way should be understandable to sophisticated people? That cheap sex helps explain lesbianism and male homosexuality? That adultery is, subtle to be sure, philosophy?
The American media prior to Intern Lewinsky were not exactly innocent of sex, and neither were the American people. Just about everyone who has ever lived has tried the complexity defense or rationalization at some time or other, if not on others at least in his own mind. We do not think much of such arguments when it comes to theft and murder. Sex may be a harder case and a more common temptation, but the complexity plea now merely means it will never get addressed at all.
G.K. Chesterton once remarked, apropos of socialism, that a man may walk right up to the cliff of socialism, if he knows what socialism is. But if he is lost in a fog of words about it being a broad movement for justice or the path to human brotherhood, he should give it a wide berth. In a dense fog, observed GKC, only a “healthy bigotry” will keep him far enough away.
“Healthy bigotry” sounds menacing to a culture that believes all settled principles are fundamentalist and simplistic. But in remembering such principles, we recover a forgotten bale of hay, so that we shall not confuse a shrinking horizon with mind expansion.