- The Catholic Thing - https://www.thecatholicthing.org -

Tiger, Tiger

William Blake’s poem no doubt comes to many minds these days: “Tiger! Tiger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The Tiger Woods story does seem, morally, to have its “fearful symmetry.”

Within the week that Woods became the first athlete to be worth a billion dollars, his fire seemed meekly quenched. It is a page right out of the first book of Aristotle’s Ethics. Money is not the definition of happiness. Dishonor is close to the essence of unhappiness. Thus, it was not just money that made him who he was; it was what the man stood for. Over the years, Woods’ “frame” on the links, his prowess, seemed almost fearsome as he stalked down one “leader-board” rival after another.

A black TV commentator said that whatever Woods did was his own affair except when it came to his business dealings. Woods promoted himself, however, as a “family man.” He endorsed products under that rubric when he knew that he was disloyal to his family. That was “hypocrisy,” the man said. On this, the American people do not look “kindly.”

I have often observed that almost the only place where true morality is discussed these days is on the sports pages. There, as in this case, good and bad, glory and dishonor, performance and slovenliness, justice and injustice, faithfulness and unfaithfulness are daily displayed and ruminated on. The world-wide audience for this sort of thing is not just “gossip,” I think. What famous men and women “do” does matter.

Several schools of thought exist on how we should take Woods’ troubles. He himself has now acknowledged that he was wrong. He apologizes, asks forgiveness, and seeks a time of healing. We hope he has “a firm purpose of amendment,” as we Catholics say. What he has said is certainly right in principle and humiliating in fact. Things were “shouted from the rooftops.”

Habits are difficult to break. We wish Woods good speed. The man who had everything going for him is himself responsible for his troubles. Implicitly many commentators recall the words of, I think, Francis de Sales: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

“You’re upset about the Tiger Woods scandal?” Tracee Hamilton writes in the Washington Post (December 10), “and I’m here to tell you whom to blame for that: Yourself.” In this view, anyone who thought that highly paid and famous athletes would do anything else is simply naïve. It happens all the time. The list of athlete-sinners is long and familiar. Nothing is new about it.

“You say that you can’t cheer for someone at, say, the Masters after you’ve learned he cheated on his wife?” Hamilton continues. “Really? That’s the yardstick you use? Then one assumes that you’ve cut everyone out of your life who has ever cheated on his or her spouse, right? Your co-workers, your friends, your siblings, your children, even your own parents? No?” Well, that just about covers everyone. It is not a bad experiential proof for original sin found in the morning sports page. It’s a wonder it is not censored as religious propaganda!

Hamilton’s column interests me, however, for another reason. Those who know their Aristotle or Aquinas are familiar with the distinction between art and prudence. It is possible to be a good golfer, musician, or carpenter and still be a rather lousy man. The good of the practical intellect in art and craft looks to the thing made, not to the moral condition of the maker.

“Woods’ latent talents and his morals are two different things,” Hamilton affirms.” Clearly. The Woods who betrayed you, if you will, is not the fist-pumping force on the PGA Tour, but the guy who is selling you stuff.” So Woods and his golf is one thing; Woods and his salesmanship is another. But of course, that is the same thing; both are crafts. The fine salesman who cheats and the skilled golfer who cheats both do the same thing. Their craft is there, but its place in their lives facilitates other things not quite so innocent.

The major accuser of Socrates in the Apology was Anytos, a wealthy craftsman. On questioning a craftsman, Socrates found that he did know his skill, but thinking he knew this, he surmised he knew everything else.

“What immortal hand or eye?” Our lives do seek symmetry, seek to put all things together. Tiger Woods’ decision to withdraw “indefinitely” does suggest that, despite the fact that his skill is real and unequalled, still he needs to reorder his life. We should be slow to cast the first stone. But we should be glad our faults catch up with us. In no other way can we do anything about them.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.