The Catholic Thing
Let Order Die Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 30 April 2014

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The scene is the castle of the Duke of Northumberland. The Duke has been feigning illness to excuse himself from joining the revolt of his son, Harry Percy, called Hotspur for his impetuosity, against the throne of King Henry IV. But we cannot attribute his inaction to loyalty to the King, or to moral scruples. Northumberland was the ladder wherewithal the ambitious Henry deposed his cousin Richard and ascended the throne in the first place.

There is no enemy worse than a political ally disappointed in his hopes to gain from the man he has elevated to power. Northumberland and his kinsmen have egged on the quick-tempered Hotspur to his rash military venture. Too rash, it appears; and that’s why the nervous Duke has stayed home. Now comes word of the event. Hotspur has been slain in battle. The rebel armies have been driven from the field, and the king's forces are now on the march toward Northumberland.

The Duke tosses aside his crutch and his nightcap, and pitches himself into fury:

Now bind my brows with iron, and approach
The ragged’st hour that time and spite dare bring
To frown upon the enraged Northumberland!
Let heaven kiss earth! Now let not nature’s hand
Keep the wild flood confined! Let order die!
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention in a lingering act!
But let one spirit of the first-born Cain
Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set,
On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead!

And that is Shakespeare’s cue to us, in Henry IV, part two, that Northumberland and his fellows are quite insane, despite their usually cool heads, their Machiavellian calculations, and their obvious intelligence.

Let order die. A friend of mine once said to me that they were the most sinister words Shakespeare ever wrote. I am inclined to agree. They express more than a desire to overturn a political arrangement. They are essentially suicidal, nihilistic. Chesterton once said that suicide is in this sense more desperately wicked than murder. The murderer kills a man; he says no to that one human life. The suicide says no to the universe.

We are in the midst of people now who say, in one fashion or another, Let order die – who say no to the universe. Many are like Northumberland, who is learning to his dismay that one Machiavellian had better not trust another; whose own moral failings have led to his son’s death, and who cannot admit it. It would be better for the nation to be thrust into civil war, better for Cain the fratricide to reign in every man’s heart, better for universal darkness to fall, than for him to say, “Lord, against thee, against thee only have I sinned.”

         Harry Hotspur, Ainwick Castle, Northumberland

Such people are moved by resentment against a good they have rejected, and find, in rejecting it, no peace, but a remorse they cannot drive out, and a hotter and hotter desire to ruin what is left of that good, so that no one will be able to enjoy what they cannot enjoy. It is hard for ordinary people – people who respond with gratitude to the order of nature – to understand this.

When an ordinary person beholds a work of “art” in a public place, a hulking tangle of metal that looks like the droppings of some gigantic android (I’ve seen such a work, in Los Angeles), he’s apt to give the “artist” the benefit of the doubt. He will say, “I don’t like it, but maybe there’s something to it that I don’t understand.”

It doesn’t occur to him that anyone would want to make ugly things, to offend or to nauseate. He can no more imagine it than he can imagine wishing that everything he sees and hears – the finches trilling in the trees, the puffs of cloud in the sky above, the pleasant friend walking beside him – were buried in darkness.

When an ordinary person walks into a church whose most prominent features are the rivets in the joists overhead, whose Stations of the Cross are so small and so far away from the pews as to be specks, and whose sanctuary has been replaced by a clearing for getting to the back doors (I have seen many such churches), he’s apt to say, “I don’t like it, but maybe there’s something to it that I don’t understand.”

It doesn’t occur to him that anyone would want to build a church to stifle the sense of the holy. He can no more imagine that than he can imagine wishing that there were no God, and no meaning to human life.

When an ordinary person sees a lad and lass holding hands, it cheers him. He cannot imagine why anybody would not be cheered. When an ordinary person meets a young wife and her three children running and hollering across the playground, he smiles. He cannot imagine why anybody would wish there were fewer of those children, or none.

When an ordinary person sees someone saying grace at a restaurant, it embarrasses him, not because they’re saying grace, but because he forgot to. He cannot imagine anyone being offended by it. An ordinary person sees the cross of iron girders left in the destruction of the World Trade Center, and feels a shiver of awe. He cannot imagine why anyone would hate it, and want it destroyed.

The ordinary healthy person cannot imagine what it is to be sick. He cannot imagine wanting to destroy for the sake of destroying. He thinks he can reason with the destroyers.

Well, maybe so; it depends on the destroyer and the extent of the sickness. But ultimately that ordinary person will have to peer into the darkness, and admit that he is fighting against powers and principalities. “Evil be thou my good,” says Milton’s Satan. Let order die.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (18)Add Comment
written by Bruno, April 30, 2014
All true professor. I only observe that while these ordinary persons seem nice folks, I'm not always among them. The war against principalities and powers is sometimes to be fought inside.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, April 30, 2014
Étienne Gilson describes this mood perfectly: “If we start by annihilating everything, what limits can stop us? None whatever. Everything is possible, provided only that this creative spark which surrealism seeks to disclose deep in our being be preceded by a devastating flame. ‘The most simple surrealist act,’ says André Breton, ‘consists in this: to go down into the streets, pistol in hand, and shoot at random, for all you are worth, into the crowd.’ Why not?”
written by Other Joe, April 30, 2014
Mr. Esolen, that was superb! Shakespeare's vision seems to be fundamentally a moral one. Much of what passes for art today seems to be fundamentally political. "Ugliness in the service of power is no vice", goes all the way back to Cain.
written by Jeffrey Rubin, April 30, 2014
I salute the great Tony Esolen. Another profound piece!
written by Augustine Thomas, April 30, 2014
"Let order die!
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention in a lingering act!
But let one spirit of the first-born Cain
Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set,
On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead!"

This is the founding principle of Leftism.
written by Ted Seeber, April 30, 2014
When the ordinary becomes extraordinary because orthodoxy is no longer normal, the persecution has begun.
written by Drusilla Barron, April 30, 2014
A friend who is battling the demons bequeathed to her by parents who sought to make her evil, was once trying to understand a serial killing. Her father said to her, "Some people like to do evil." Chilling words and yet too often true. I do hope "ordinary people" can understand that to remain ordinary, we must fight princes and principalities.

PS: I wish Dr. Esolen, you had been my Shakespeare professor.
written by Athanasius, April 30, 2014
Disorder entered the world through the Fall. We now must choose whether to fight our concupiscence and embrace order once again, or give in to our base desires and embrace disorder. Those who today call themselves liberal have deluded themselves into thinking that disorder leads to freedom. And they hate the Church for pointing out that they are wrong, and they thus seek to destroy her. But fear not, for the Bridegroom will not abandon His Bride.
written by Marie Therese, April 30, 2014
Why is there today a profound desire/need/compulsion to deny the objective existence of powers and principalities? Why do our imaginations fail us in this respect?
written by schm0e, April 30, 2014
Mossad clarified this for me ages ago: "We gave up trying to understand what motivates our enemies" (I paraphrase what) one officer was quoted as saying.
written by Tony, April 30, 2014
Thank you, everyone, for the thoughtful responses.

Milton is most enlightening on these things. We think that Satan fell for pride, and Milton seconds that interpretation, but he also takes up the hint from Scripture that the serpent was motivated by envy -- the base, despicable bastard brother of pride. The evil of envy is not a desire for one's own preeminence, but for the demotion of others. So when Satan spies on the naked Adam and Eve in their delightful conversation about When We First Met, and when he sees them end their talk with passionate kisses, we get these lines:

.............Aside the Devil turned
For envy, and with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
"Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two,
Emparadised in one another's arms,
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, whilst I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor bliss, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines."

He WANTS to destroy .....
written by Marie Therese, May 01, 2014
Dear Tony, He HAS destroyed. Yesterday I was in a senior English classroom (Catholic school) about to analyze a short story with my students. I prefaced our undertaking by reminding them of the mysterious power of the aesthetic. Music, literature, painting, that which makes us truly human and is unique to us, and which the evolutionists cannot explain - try as they might. The rabid dogs were loose! Music is nothing but systematized birdsong! Art is whatever you want it to be. One young man was furious at me for saying that a beautiful car is not art. Another student got angry when I said that computers cannot 'do' art no matter how cleverly they are programmed; he literally stomped out of the classroom, saying he couldn't be in the same room with such ignorance. This happened within a handful of minutes. I wanted to share the mystery of these gifts - George Steiner (philosopher, linguist, professor) offers the idea that the aesthetic/art is prelapsarian, tools we have received to find our way home. The ANGRY response to this idea was split-second, the boys the most vocal. Their unwillingness - similar incidences have happened before, also in other classes - to explore a God-gift idea for even a moment was total. I left the classroom bruised, with an underlying sense of principalities and powers much greater than a group of teenagers. My dilemma now, far beyond ties of duty, is that I do not desire to engage with these students intellectually. In self-protection, I will reduce classroom activity to an exchange of skills, knowing I have failed the one power and principality whom I love deeply.
written by debby, May 01, 2014
when i was suffering great pain,
the black hole of abandonment,
the nightmare of profound rejection,
some of the seeds of survival that God plants in each soul
were fertilized by revenge, hate, a hostile self-defense.
the far reaching Cain DNA took root and Able was in danger of being murdered within my soul.
great battle.
horrible place.
a kind of landscape where everything is grey:
smoky fog, suffocating mist.
envy for a "normal life" could have
easily murdered all hope of recovery....
if it were not for The Good Shepherd Who went out
in search of me,
i would have been lost.
i am not so very much different than Cain or those
despicable ones Shakespeare and Milton and Prof Esolen warn us about.
i am redeemed by Grace. Mercy has Transformed me and is renewing the dignity He calls me to.
keep praying for all those who are neither ordinary or aware, and most especially for those who have given themselves over to hate.
He went lower than their sins to save them as well.

i want to Thank God OUT LOUD for Saving me.

And Thank You TCT for everything you all do in the Holy Name of Jesus, from the Heart. (Col. 3:14-24)
Sending in my donation by mail today as a form of this thanksgiving.
written by debby, May 01, 2014
@ Marie Therese -
please!do not stop doing what you are doing.
please. please. begging you.
let the Healer tend to your wounds,
then get up and go after them.
i was one of those students in the 1970's.
3 teachers in public HS loved me.
it seemed to make no difference at the time,
but i know that He kept me alive through their compassionate concern, humor, gentle kindness, and i have a feeling at least of of them was praying for me.
the Hope that there Actually IS Something More, Something Else than what the world offers was being watered by each of them.
Look at today's Mass readings - i referenced the First Reading in my prior comment.
You work for Him.
and you are doing a Great Job.
Success is reaped much later on.
i am praying for you and your students.
love, debby
written by Howard, May 01, 2014
@Marie Therese -- Interesting. I would argue, though, that if a car cannot be beautiful, then neither can a church building. The car is engineered to perform a function -- transportation -- and the church is engineered to perform a function -- keep the rain off the altar and tabernacle, and usually the people and pews in the nave as well. If a church building can be designed and adorned to be beautiful, so can a car. I somehow suspect you consider even the shell of Chartres Cathedral to be art, but when it comes to cars, you basically resort to paraphrasing Fr. Vasiliy: "Was it cars in 19th-century Russia?"

As for computers and art, the art comes in the writing of the code and dealing with the output, not in the execution of the code. Many of the sketches that Escher made would today be created much more rapidly with a computer. The computer does not produce art on its own any more than the camera -- or even the brush or chisel -- but all of these tools can be used to produce art.
written by Carmel, May 01, 2014
The supreme form of evil destruction is its mask of benevolent 'creativity.' Chaos is come again in the guise of universal pity divorced from truth, and the ceremony of God's order dies when a mere humanitarian order is imposed on being. The Lord of misrule will wear a fascinating smile.
written by Marie Therese, May 01, 2014
@Debby, your cry from the heart touched me deeply, and your appeal to my heart makes me want to brush myself off and head back into that classroom. I am going to copy and paste your response to my desktop; words of encouragement from someone I do not know are seldom fare in my life. This IS the Communion of Saints.

@Howard. Definition of ART according to Oxford: "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." You show me a car created PRIMARILY for its beauty or emotional power and I will show you a sucker with a dusty vehicle in his garage.

This TOO IS the Communion of Saints, and I thank you both.
written by Ian, May 01, 2014
I think there is a moment in the Dark Knight movie thst expresses this well. Bruce Wayne asked Alfred why he thinks the Joker is doing what he is doing. Alfred tells him a little story. He concludes, with saying, "Some men just want to watch the world burn"

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