Note from the Present Underground

The last lines of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground are these: “We shall not know. . .what to cling to, what to love, what to hate. We are oppressed at being men – men with a real individual body and blood. We think it a disgrace and contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten not by living fathers. . . .Soon we shall contrive to be born from an idea.” These words were written in St. Petersburgh in 1864, the last full year of the American Civil War.

In his 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx told us to “rise up.” We had nothing to lose but our chains. This call, however, showed considerably less insight into the future than Dostoyevsky’s. He told us that we would lose our fathers, and with their loss, our very being. Nietzsche, near the end of the 19th Century, proclaimed that God was already dead in our souls. We just had not noticed.

But the notion that we “shall contrive to be born from an idea” is a more haunting consideration. Without Fatherhood in God to ground the reality that is, we “free” ourselves to become anything but what we ought to be. The real sociological record of our time is a step-by-step, logical declination from the good that is already present in the cosmos and in man. We remain free to know this good, but only if we will.

Chesterton, early in the 20th Century, told us that the most horrible of human ideas was that men could be born of men, not women. Men cannot beget of men – or women of women, no matter how much they “want” to. Positive “laws” establishing “marriage” in such cases contradict reality. They place all involved at odds with the order of being.

Dostoyevsky saw it clearly. We want a “generalized man,” not the particular one born of woman having been begotten by an identifiable father, with a real body and real blood. Our anonymous sperm and ova banks, our abortion factories, our random begetting, cloning, our divorces, all testify to the truth of Dostoyevsky’s warning. We stand to be born of a laboratory or political “idea,” not from real fathers and mothers.

We read the passage from John that tells us that the Word was made “flesh” – body and blood – to dwell amongst us. The Word did not appear as an “idea”; nor have any of us in our beginnings. Several famous passages in the Old Testament speak of God knowing us before we were in our mother’s womb. In this sense, we were indeed in our ultimate origins “an idea” in God’s creative mind. But the what-it-is-to-be-a-man is not ours to formulate or to bring forth. God’s mind is not filled with abstract “ideas,” but images of His own being.

The Martyrs in the Catacombs by Jules Eugène Lenepveu, 1855 [Musée d'Orsay, Paris]
The Martyrs in the Catacombs by Jules Eugène Lenepveu, 1855 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]

What is the “underground” today? What is it that cannot be admitted, what is driven systematically from our public lives? The “underground” today is that explication of being and living that is specifically rejected by the politicized culture.

The curious thing about the official deviation from the good is that it does not tolerate opposition. It cannot. Like Islam, it affirms that any view of reality that is not fully controlled by the public order is illegitimate. Elimination of freedom of religion and expression through charges of “hate” language and other devices is no accident. It is the compliment that error always pays to truth.

What we must recognize is that articulated, orthodox Catholicism is today the real underground. It is what the culture recognizes that it must systematically eliminate. But this rejection follows a clear and logical path. It presupposes the Gnostic idea that laws and customs of the people are but free constructs, with no basis in reality. Our laws, however, really comprise step-by-step, logical deviations from the good that is in being, especially in human being. This good is found already present in reality.

The truth of human being is not created by man but discovered as already in him. He is not asked to become something else, but to become himself. He must choose to be what he is. He is free to be what he is created to be. He is also free to reject what he is. Such is his doom or glory.

The “modern project,” as Leo Strauss called it, proposes that man becomes an object of his own science. He reconfigures himself in every way. But in the end, when he completes the declination from his own good, he will finally be in a position to see, if he will, that he was better made than he thought. We can only whisper these truths in the present underground. The order of evil mocks the order of good. It does not change its truth.

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.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019