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The People We Need

Edmund Burke spoke a great and noble truth when he observed that the kind of society and government a nation has is an accurate reflection of the character and intellect of the people who inhabit it. A corrupt, careless, sluggish people will have a government to match their ill nature. A social order that contains a significant number of citizens of probity, intelligence, energy and imagination will be represented by statesmen like the fifty-five men who sat themselves down in Philadelphia over two centuries ago and produced some of the fundamental documents of our unique civilization. We get the government we deserve; and by the same token, we tend to get the churches we deserve and the schools we deserve; and I suppose the same might be said of music and art and entertainment.

A conquered people may have alien institutions forced upon a sullen and rebellious population; but all of our institutions are home-grown, organically related to the kind of people we are. “A mean, corrupt, careless, sluggish people,” observed Burke, “will never have a good government of any kind.” Nor will they have good art or great music; they will have much schooling for everyone, but little education; some of their religious leaders will allow their faith to become politicized, or trivialized. The basic axiom of most serious religions, and sober philosophies as well, is: Begin from within, with the individual mind and soul. Get that right and the rest will follow.

Unfortunately, we’ve got it wrong, having adopted the false premise that man is a product of his natural and social environment, and if the right kinds of leaders have the required power they can construct an ideal society out of any human community. The great social drift of the modern period is the heresy that “man is the product of the circumstances into which he was born, lives, and works; man’s character is made for him, not by him.“ It was a view articulated as early as the 1840’s by socialists like Robert Owen. It remains the major premise of every form of collectivism, or planned society. I suppose the best label for this notion that human beings are only what external factors make them would be ”environmental determinism.“

The basic proposition behind environmental determinism is that life itself is the accidental coming together of certain chemicals which caused a stirring in the warm slime of some pre-historic tidal pool. Further chemical and physical encounters resulted in the chance proliferation of various life forms struggling for survival until man appeared as the organism that most fittingly adapted to environmental conditions. Bertrand Russell sums it up neatly in his celebrated essay Free Man’s Worship: “...man’s life, his hopes, his fears and his beliefs are but the result of a chance collection of atoms.” The natural environment having done its best for mankind, it is now up to the social conditioners to get themselves into power and put on the finishing touches. Start with the proposition that man is not a created being, i.e. does not manifest in his very being the handiwork of the Creator, what follows are the destructive consequences we are now trying to cope with.

We will be able to manage the detrimental consequences of our actions more effectively as we become aware of areas where we have gone astray, where we have wrongly assessed human nature by failing in our efforts to judge our strengths and our weaknesses. At the basic level what are we? What may we become?

I found helpful answers to such questions in some words of Albert Jay Nock. Built into human nature, as such, says Nock, are five fundamental pairs of social instincts or drives, dealt with fairly effectively in “...the grand, old, fortifying curriculum” that was the background of the educational enterprise in Christendom until the past several centuries, and now neglected. Here is Nock’s list: the instinct for Religion and Ethics, for Intellect and Knowledge, for Beauty and Poetry, for Social Life and Manners, and for Expansion and Accumulation.

Nock uses the term Expansion for the drive to get on in the world, to achieve fame or notoriety, to wield power and influence. By Accumulation he means the single-minded pursuit of wealth for its own sake, obsessively turning a mere end into the goal of life. This is “worldliness” in its worst sense and comes pretty close to what St. Paul had in mind when he warned that “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

Man is made to serve a transcendent end, which means to do the will of God. But when the dimension of transcendence recedes, secular religions take over. The dialectical materialism of the Marxist is a rather inverted theology; Fabian socialism became a religion of sorts for many literary people and attracted an astounding number of the clergy. Apparently, humanity cannot flourish without some scheme of meaning that enables men and women to make sense of the cosmos and give purpose to individual life. Our forebears found recipes for right living in the Bible; the same great truths are still there waiting to be rediscovered.

The human mind itself, its powers of reasoning, have come under attack in our time. The philosophy of mechanistic materialism subordinates mind to matter; it devalues ideas down to mere reflections of the material particles composing the brain. Certain material particles rubbed together will produce a spark. Nevertheless, however long you may manipulate bits of matter, you will never produce a single thought. Mind is sui generis; it is a gift of the Creator and the most godlike of our several attributes. Theism stresses this point and clarifies the ethical confusion of our time by grounding moral mandates in the Creative Will.

The level of social life and manners in our society rarely gets our attention except when the antisocial elements among us turn to violent crime, as is happening now. Before there is crime, there is a corrosion of ethical behavior and a coarsening of manners. Rudeness is more common than a generation ago, especially in our big cities. Social life is less agreeable as a consequence. The inevitable friction’s that are part of living together in society now become inflamed, whereas a mannerly people handle most of such troubled spots by trying to love their neighbor as God loves us. We demand more laws to protect us against criminal activity by punishing those who partake in it. Such laws are indeed necessary, but politics is not the answer in the long run. The only long term answer is the growing presence within our society of a significant number of men and women, an “aristocracy of virtue and talent,” whose behavior and bearing are as much above the general level of society as the criminal element is below it. As C.S. Lewis put it: “We need to become, not just nice people, but new people.“ This, of course, is religion’s primary task.

Religion works on the hearts and minds of men and women to make them better people, as they seek to know and do God’s will. Biblical faith for nearly three millennia has given us workable knowledge along these lines. Our churches reinforce this material and interpret it by study, spiritual disciplines, prayer, worship, the sacraments, fellowship and acts of charity. Religion’s claims upon us are all encompassing. We encounter them as we tread life’s path from conception to eternity, attempting as best we can to deal with the issues of life as they confront us in our workaday world now gone so awry. The claims are still there and still valid, awaiting only our renewed resolve to put them back into operation.