There are believers in Liberty, and believers in power. There are those who say, “The only way for the many to be happy is through their own good choices, and so the greatest necessity is to prevent their free choices from being undermined, whether by crime or oppression. We cannot make them good, we can only prevent the rewards of goodness from being snatched away” And there are those who instead say “Whether these masses be good or no, I am good enough, or clever enough Continue reading
This title has been used as an explanation, a rationalization, and a taunt. We recognize that somehow, in spite of God’s ultimate power and unstoppable purpose, there is some sort of reason for Man to put forth effort. We have to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the insignificance of human action’s power over the universe (when compared to that of God, or fate, or “historical forces”) with the very practical fact that it matters whether we show up for work, whether we get the crops in before the rains, whether our rifles are ready when the wolves or bandits come.
At least, we have to reconcile it if we believe in God. If it’s all historical inevitability, then it’s not our actions at all producing those outcomes; it’s our inevitable actions playing out as inevitable consequences of forces unrelated to our intentions. In that case, the question is resolved very simply: Human action doesn’t exist, and the grand force determines all things, including our delusion that outcomes somehow “depend” on us. While whether or not we do some deed which forms part of a chain of causation, we are (in this view) in error in thinking there was ever any question of whether we would perform the act. Our distinction between successful and unsuccessful action would be false in this view, since all the parts of the machine only perform according to their own nature, neither exceeding nor falling short of their potential.
This view is not only implicit in the Marxist view of history (etc.) but also has an odd little foothold in Christian thought, Continue reading
Let us address the problem of the real misery of vast numbers of men in the modern world. I’m talking about the prevalence of despair among citizens of modern societies, particularly male, but both wealthy and poor, successful, religious, nihilist, blue-collar, white-collar, healthy, unhealthy, really of all stripes. Unhappiness is a net drawing in all kinds, remarkably, all kinds who are secure against the miseries that attended the lives of their grandfathers. Why do suicide and alcoholism prevail to such a great extent in lands where starvation and exposure are all but eradicated? How is it that men have been saved from destruction, and ushered into a paradise of luxury and ease (relative to the hardships taken for granted a few generations ago) only to be cut down instead by an epidemic of self-destruction? How is it that every misfortune that afflicted our forefathers may be avoided, and a thousand satisfactions unavailable to them may be put before us, yet it is our generation’s lives that must be escaped in hard drink or shotgun blasts?
One idea would be that ease and luxury are unmanageable for men; that hardship is our natural environment, and we are lost without it, like salmon trying to fight their way upstream but finding no resisting current. This is to some extent true, in the sense that the satisfaction of contention is unique and essential to our life, but it is not unique to the struggles of our grandfathers, nor to the kind of hardships that are forced upon us by outside circumstance. Rather, in an individual life, we often see that escaping from a struggle with starvation actually opens the way for greater and more satisfying struggles, as of creative work or some personal, well-chosen mission. Depriving men of insecurity in their food supply or their shelter has not taken away from them the satisfaction of contending against obstacles, instead, it has set before them a choice of obstacles, whose overthrow will grant generally still greater satisfaction than the bare subsistence obtained through more basic labors in the face of a harsher world. By putting the struggles of Earth under men’s feet, we only place in their hands the struggles of the stars, if struggle is the desire of their hearts. Continue reading
Lord and Father, look not upon our iniquities,
But hear our prayer in light of your exceeding love and mercy.
Thank you for another year past, secure from hunger and cold,
That we have not been struck down by disease or sword,
That our roofs stood firm and our bodies sound
Through these dark days.
Thank you for the innumerable joys of life you have provided,
And forgive us for those we have neglected to enjoy.
Thank you for the embraces of those we loved this year,
Thank you for what we have learned and achieved.
Thank you Lord for watching over the cities,
For building the houses beside us.
Thank you Lord for your unfailing virtue,
Visible above our sins like the sun seen from the ocean’s depths.
Lord please grant us another year of rain sufficient to feed our children.
Please sustain our hands with strength for the work ahead,
And sustain our hearts in the wisdom of your Word.
Please grant that our labors bear fruit, please guide our minds to wise labors.
Please Lord, shower upon us poor sinners the same undeserved gifts
Which you have so richly showered on our sinner fathers.
And let not our entanglements hinder your mercies,
O God of heaven.
Glory to God in the Highest,
I don’t usually invoke the comparison, because its weight is extreme and its depth is beyond my ken, but it is known that among the qualities of Christ himself this one is listed: “…A man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.”
The infinite joy which must accompany infinite wisdom or enlightenment, and the infinite gratification at hand through infinite power, together somehow fail to provide God on Earth with the merry outlook of a Chesterton or a fool. Our Lord is not a knower of suffering, a comprehender or expert observer, knowing its qualities and results with a scientific precision which we sufferers can only envy; He is familiar with it. It is among his family.
Isaiah stands in Heavenly inspiration before the corrupt King of Israel and announces the maker of the universe not as a man of might, insight, purity, or accomplishment, but “a man of sorrows.”
…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him
Nothing in his appearance that we should desire him
Like one from whom men hide their faces
He was condemned, and we esteemed him not…
But He was crushed for our iniquities
He was pierced for our transgressions
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him
And by his wounds we are healed.
My memory carries these lines, perhaps in error, but certainly in adoration. Somewhere in Isaiah 53 the Lord drew closer to me than I ever dared draw close to Him. God may as well have betrayed a fondness for horseradish or for Black Sabbath’s early work or for Mongolian beef with green onions, shared with my own loves, as so described Himself through his prophet in the distant millennia. In walking the Earth as a man of sorrows, he has offered every man of sorrows a kinship at which every man of laughter should weep with envy. He has extended a comfort our way, in the form of His inestimable wisdom’s confirmation of our own emotional conclusion: that to love is to hurt. He only adds the insight which entirely upends the impulse of our sufferings: If to love is to hurt, then inevitably to hurt for love is the only means by which a man can give his beloved its due.
No man properly loves America who does not lament its decline. Aurelius could not be said to love Rome until Aurelius could properly be said to despise Rome, that is, the Rome he saw before him as a betrayal of the Rome that was or might have been. Nobody can truly adore Jefferson except his creator, who saw the moment at which that genius could have extinguished not only aristocracy but slavery at a single blow…and saw the moment slip away. Nobody who rejoices over an Earthly thing as it is really loves it; the true lover of life can be recognized by his tears.
I once said to myself that to love a thing is only to really see it; that we do not love trees because we do not comprehend trees, and that the love of a botanist for a tree is the closest we have come to the rightful adoration a man owes the miracle of growth and strength we see in every sycamore and sapling. I meant that the vistas of learning available to every specialized study, no matter how specialized, were sufficiently enormous to fully justify a lifetime of study and interest; yet we non-specialists casually dismissed such matters with a refusal to fully investigate the infinite depth of mystery available in every grain of sand. And every one of these hidden, yet vast, fields of learning fully justified the total absorption which we would see in an academic who had made it his life’s work. I still believe this sentiment.
Loss, mortality, disappointment, failure. The griefs of Man echo the griefs of God. The virtuous powers of a man (though not their sinful imitations) to grieve are also his powers to emulate the way that God loves us, and loves all the world. God loves humanity the way a parent loves a profligate child who is in and out of rehab, opportunities lost, gifts squandered, only to re-emerge and then once again be crushed and then once again sincerely hoped for. The hopelessness and hope of that situation, at each repetition seeming new yet once again seeming the same and doomed to the same outcome…How could God yet love us? With sorrow, that is how. He yet once again puts his faith in us. He yet once again puts His broken heart back together, while a greater intellect than we can even conceive considers our history of faithlessness. He accepts us back again through a hedge of rationality that makes you or i look like nothing but an id. And you and i have a rationality, and a sadness sufficient to crush a million others.
If sorrow is a major quality of Christ, then to grieve is to act virtuously, for virtue means nothing else but the practice of the qualities of God.
I was asked to explain this a little bit. It’s a funny thing that Cain’s act seems cynically rather intuitively obvious, (“Well, he was jealous!”) and at the same time blatantly irrational, serving no real or even imagined interest of Cain’s, and not even avenging a perceived slight.
It was God, not Abel, who rejected Cain’s sacrifice, and the mere fact that retaliation against God is impossible really does nothing to undo the absurdity of an act of violence against Abel. Of course every part of this is as familiar as violence itself; we are so used to irrational, self-destructive, downright mindless violence that the most incomprehensibly idiotic acts fit neatly into well-used human categories. We have no reason for what we do, but we have a name for it, and even a narrative cliche for the things we have done a million times, and should not have even been stupid enough to do once.
So to begin with, the reason that Cain killed Abel is that he acted in error. He acted evilly, but not in the sense we often imagine of ruthless self-interest or dogmatic certainty of a some evil principle, but in the blind wrongness of perverse self-destruction or mindless waste. And there’s something to be said about the circumstance in which he errored, because in the background of Cain’s mysterious action is God’s mysterious action that provoked him. God looked with favor upon Abel’s sacrifice, and not Cain’s; we are tempted, for lack of detail, to call this unreasonable on God’s part. However…If Cain and Abel had each submitted an economics paper to Dr. Friedman, and gotten a similar reception, we would know on that basis alone that one paper was in true fact better than the other, even if we were ourselves incapable of comprehending either paper. If God is anything like Friedman, that is, anything like God must be to be God at all, then his judgement is to be trusted.
Very well, Cain’s sacrifice was defective in a real, but unknown way. Where does that get us? Well where it gets Cain is to an explicit lesson from God, a privilege few enjoy and what could have been the key to major personal growth for Cain.
“6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
It’s a teaching opportunity. It’s direct, sound advice from God to Cain personally in his exact circumstance. It’s how to handle rejection and failure. It’s illumination of the nature of sin: The thing that seeks to rule over you, the error that seeks to corrupt your character and has its moment of opportunity when you make a misstep. It’s God’s wisdom for a situation that will come up over and over again through the life of every human being since Cain. It’s God’s plan for turning your misfortunes into strengtheners of character, of using the hard world he gave us as a force to purify our souls of errors. As hungry belly immunizes the man against the temptation of sloth, so the hard knocks of failure in ambition abrade away the rust of complacent pride and give our dreams the polish that only a resilient surface can take. Such is God’s plan for hardship, such is the strategy by which God prevented sin from blooming immediately into an all-consuming flower of self-indulgence and suicide (a flower some aristocracies have, however, more recently succeeded in cultivating). And then we have Cain’s plan:
8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
How much of human history, whether of whole societies or whole men, is described in this little answering of God’s instructions? “No thanks God, I’ll just do something blindly idiotic instead,” said Man to his maker. I’ll just harm my brother, and myself, and gain nothing, because I’d rather pursue an error of my own than the wisdom of God. I’ll just funnel a million lives and innumerable gifts into the monstrous whirlpool of pride that was the Great War. I’ll just take God’s Liberty and modify it to create monarchies and slave classes. I’ll just sell my birthright for porridge.
I can’t give a rational explanation for Cain’s crime, because it was a blatantly, purely irrational act. I haven’t the slightest difficulty in believing the story however, because the proper explanation is intuitive: Cain killed Abel because Cain is exactly the same kind of dumbass that i am.
21 If someone is found slain, lying in a field in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who the killer was, 2 your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distance from the body to the neighboring towns. 3 Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke 4 and lead it down to a valley that has not been plowed or planted and where there is a flowing stream. There in the valley they are to break the heifer’s neck. 5 The Levitical priests shall step forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord and to decide all cases of dispute and assault. 6 Then all the elders of the town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, 7 and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8 Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, Lord, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.” Then the bloodshed will be atoned for, 9 and you will have purged from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the Lord.
Deuteronomy 21:1-9 NIV
When we see this sort of long, ceremonial requirement in the Old Testament we tend to get a little frustrated, and depending on our beliefs we either remark how nonsensical or mysterious are the Laws of that ancient book. We all too rarely even give the text the chance to show its good sense, observing as we do that its sense is contrary to modern habits. We would rather see some of the mandates of one of the innumerable CSI series. “What,” we demand, “has that poor heifer ever done to deserve to lose its life over an unsolved murder? What possible practical or moral value could all that travel and ceremony and the slaughter of an animal have compared to a serious forensic investigation of the case?” Most are content to leave it at that, or leave it with some muttering about mystery and the unknown. But what we are looking at is really not mysterious at all; it is as sound and practical a piece of law as the First Amendment would have been if the lawyers had never laid hands on it. We are looking at the practical use of incentive by a legal system as a substitute for a vast body of invasive regulation.
Let’s consider the immediate effect of this law, from the perspective of incentives and public policy. Like all good laws, it begins with a concrete and obvious physical test: “If someone is found slain.” Thus it is a relatively simple matter to know when this law applies, as opposed to the other laws regarding murder. It follows up (with a clarity I need not emphasize) by specifying upon whom the obligations of this law fall: “Your elders and judges” and further specified to be the elders and judges of the physically nearest town. Notice once again the concrete and indisputable test; we are not looking for the most probable town or the most hostile town or the town with the worst intentions or the (LOL) most “reasonable” town as it might be specified in modern law. We are looking for a town we can identify with a measuring line, and an identification we can barely hope to dispute even with the aid of lawyers. In other words, this ancient law has dispensed with two modern legal sophistries, each worth months and millions in a modern court, in a matter of two sentences. And what actual duties does this law impose upon those officials specified? We may sum it with three words: “A tremendous hassle.” The whole group of those “Elders and Judges” who enjoy the status and power involved in deciding public matters and resolving the disputes of others are to be pulled away from their own ever-so-important business to find a cow and a river and a field that has never been worked and all go down together and perform these ceremonials and swear an oath. Somebody is going to be out a heifer, and to top that off it is to be one that has never been used as a work animal; the field is narrowed. So this cow, which somebody was saving for some purpose, is going to have to be used instead for this purpose. But the elders and judges have not been given authority to confiscate to cover this expense; they have the actual and full duty of obtaining this expensive animal on their own account in order to perform their own specified duties. And if the cow weren’t enough, an unworked field by a river isn’t the easiest thing to find in the populated world, especially since we are starting from a town; the density of agriculture will be highest immediately surrounding these Elders and Judges, and only drop off sufficiently to expose suitable fields as they travel more impractical distances from their homes. Hilariously, this rule of hassle actually defies modernization: As transportation improves, making it easier for the Elders and Judges to travel to the suitable field, it also makes it easier for a farmer to turn that field into one that has been worked. The law thus essentially has a permanent hassle written into it; it will never be convenient or easy for a murder to be ruled “unsolved” under this law.
That very thing is the whole point; there will always be a temptation, when confronted with the death of an unknown person at an unknown hand, to wearily go through the forms of an investigation and then chalk it up as unsolvable. And if we specified a certain level of investigation that was required before these Elders and Judges were off the hook, this would essentially become the automatic steps taken before the case was abandoned, because solving the murder of a person out in a random field is a hard thing. We would see the same sort of bureaucratic routine that we constantly do see, under the modern regulatory state. But instead, the law of the Old Testament specifies a concrete test, and a powerful incentive, and leaves it to the Judges whether they wouldn’t rather conduct a thorough investigation. If they, for good reasons or bad, are unable to solve the murder or employ some expert to do it, they will have to endure, personally, the tremendous hassles involved in this law. This is the very meaning of incentive: Tell a man the consequences if he leaves a thing undone, and you will have his best efforts to do it. You will have all his gifts and talents, rather than his rote obedience. You will have him acting swiftly where he is able, cautiously when it is needed, shrewdly to his full capacity. In short, you will have not the quarter or tenth of his abilities you employ when you order him about; you will have the very best and most efficient he can offer.
When we compare incentive to oversight, almost all the advantages lie with incentive. The mere effort involved in oversight is entirely a lost and useless thing when the same work could be achieved by incentive; the careers of the millions of managers bothering people all over the world are merely a massacre of man-hours, a colossal wastage of work, waste and blight on a scale like that of the wreck of an oil tanker. Still greater is the waste seen where oversight actually fights against incentives, where a man is told to do one thing and paid to do the opposite. Managers of such situations are like men furiously trying to shovel the water out of a swamp; the user of incentives is like a man who drains it.