Polluting the Waters

In my last essay, I showed one way Nice Fornicators hurt themselves: they lose the incomparable good of total and irrevocable self-donation to one person and one alone, before God and man – and not simply to one person after a series of half-gift, false marriage, and “commitment” with reservation.

Then it’s not hard to show how they harm everyone else, too. For they make it nearly impossible that anyone should ever again enjoy that good. They help to pollute the waters we all must drink.

It might help here to consider the widespread acceptance of a different vice – graft, let’s say. Now there are such things as Nice Grafters. One was mayor of Providence, RI for many years.

The Nice Grafter is not in politics for the money. He is genuinely concerned for the welfare of his city. He works hard to attract new businesses and tourism. He cleans up shabby neighborhoods. He uses all of his many contacts to get work done. And he skims some money for himself on the side. Not a great deal, mind you, because his first love is still the city.

On the whole, aside from the crime, he is an extraordinarily effective mayor. But by that crime he brings about, as far as it lies in him to do so, a culture of graft, wherein contractors will expect that bids are mere shows, and that who you know will weigh more heavily than what you can do.

The Nice Fornicators, as far as it lies in them to do so, bring about a culture of hedonism, which is by its nature antithetical to something as self-sacrificing as marriage. Yes, it is true that a determined and highly principled young man or woman can, even in such a culture, reach the altar still innocent. So too can a politician in a culture of graft slog and fight his way to the mayoralty.

The point, though, is that the exercise of a virtue that should be available to everyone – continence before marriage, or an ordinary honesty in political dealing – should not require heroism. Most people are not heroes. Most people are frail in one important way or another.

That’s why the army, for example, must cultivate so obvious and so strict a culture of obedience. Left to themselves, most soldiers would say, “I’d rather not storm that hill, thanks,” or “So what’s the big deal if the barracks is sloppy?” That’s not because they’re notably wicked. They aren’t. They are simply human, and frail.

If a young man solicits his sweetheart, the woman he’s been seeing for two weeks, for sexual intercourse, in the culture of Nice Fornication there are not many ways for her to reply if she doesn’t want to.

She may utter a flat ‘no’, and risk giving him the false impression that she’s not smitten with him. She may say, “Let’s wait a while,” kicking the can down the road a few yards, but also committing herself to giving in, and sooner rather than later.

She may say, “I believe we should wait until we’re married.” If he asks why, unless she’s deeply religious, she’ll be at a loss. If she is religious and she does explain why, he may not understand; after all, he has been raised in a culture of hedonism, and any religion that runs athwart that hedonism must be relegated to the realm of private preferences, like a quirky hobby, or an inexplicable habit.

But what if she is not a regular churchgoer? She feels that something is wrong, but her culture cannot tell her exactly what it is. She can’t retreat to common knowledge, saying, “It’s just wrong, and you know it,” or “Is that the kind of girl you think I am?” or “It hurts me that you put me in this position.”

We have taken away his expectation that an honorable man does not do that to a good woman, and her expectation that an honorable woman does not yield to such a request, and should expect better from the man she loves. The language has changed for everyone.

I’ve described one situation, but when the water is polluted, the sour slick doesn’t stay confined to one convenient spot. It spreads everywhere. A young man of natural modesty, who in a different age would have considered his sex as a holy gift to be given in marriage, finds his modesty checked or derided at every turn.

If he goes to a school “dance,” he watches his classmates simulate sex acts on the floor in view of everyone. If he goes to the drug store, his eye catches the magazines blaring their tips for “better” sex. When he checks his mail on the computer, he discovers messages inviting him into a world of pornography that is unspeakably vile.

He is attracted to girls; his body is like every boy’s, and his blood runs as red. How long do we expect him to hold out against the onslaught? After a while, will he even remember his tentativeness, his sense that there was something deeply and disturbingly wrong here?

No sin is Nice. But how often does man ignore the harm until it is too late?

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.