Ides of the March hare

Here is a slick binary for gentle reader: the Puritan wants to ban certain things because they are pleasurable; the Catholic, because they are sinful. The former is a subjective, the latter an objective criterion. (Have I lost you yet?)

First, since I’m inclined to the objective, there are things that are BOTH pleasurable AND sinful; these are not exclusive categories. And some things, God knows, are neither. But the instinct of the killjoy does not make fine distinctions. For him, the categories are confused.

Morally blind, he feels his way across the obstacle-strewn landscape, the blind leading the blind, mistaking small things for large and what is large for insurmountable.

Perhaps I besmirch the Puritan mindset. Safely: because there don’t seem to be any self-proclaimed Puritans left to defend themselves. But the mindset is immortal, and perhaps governs in Hell.

Start with smoking, as I like to do. Opposition to the practice is justified in many ways, these days mostly as “health issues,” mostly concocted, but asserted with grand emotional force. That is the clue to the real motive. It is deeply suspected that people who smoke are enjoying themselves. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have to be stopped.

The same could be applied to many old-fashioned pleasures, the enjoyment of which was not society’s business. Or rather it was: society’s business to accommodate, as graciously as possible, the liberty of the individual to do as he pleases that which is neither sinful, nor significant.

It is a minor issue that has been inflated to huge size by a moral sense that crawls blindly on hands and knees; that cannot stand up and see in proportion.

Of course, if one is a sophist (as all Puritans are), one will weave a convoluted argument in which the pleasurable is confused with the sinful, and these days, under the dictatorship of relativism, provide some statistics to back up the case. Statistics that show the opposite will then need to be suppressed, for they might give pleasure to the smokers, too.


Abortion, to the contrary, gives pleasure to no one. No true Puritan will be against it. Except, the abstract pleasure of relief, after killing off one’s inconvenient progeny, thus escaping a life of responsibility for the consequences of one’s own acts. But like any pain that ceases, the abstract pleasure of painlessness does not last any longer than the pleasure that led to the pregnancy — which was at least real, in some cases.

The unmodern Saint Basil (of Caesarea, 4th century) wrote a letter to a “fallen virgin,” which I was reading recently. It is a long and conscientious letter, shining with sincerity as everything about him. Three-quarters of it is taken up with a learned, biblical, condemnation of the former virgin’s sin of fornication. Yet in its humane knowingness, its benign wisdom, it reminds me of Plutarch.

No space is wasted making excuses for the lady’s having committed what is, to God, a major crime. Only after he has made this utterly clear, does Basil “move on” to suggest what could now be done, in reparation, to recover some chance of saving the lady’s soul.

In other words: true, as opposed to fake, Mercy.

Presented with a binary, the recipient of this letter had made the wrong choice, for both pleasure AND a grievous sin. Basil realizes that the temptation was powerful, that it offered “satisfactions” not simple but complex. It was not just the prospect of a moment’s thrill; the devil had told her a more romantic story.

She had imagined that it could all end well. But let us reverse the old aphorism: Without God, nothing is possible.

Moreover, without the honesty that lifts us from a subjective to an objective view of fact, there can be no intelligent decision-making. This is something every Catholic is expected to grasp, through the sacrament of Confession. Not, What did it feel like? But, What did it look like? Gradually one learns to stand outside oneself; outside the self-seeking mirage.

The Puritan mindset, in its modern, “evolved” form, tends to overlook all this. Simple lust is, at times not drunk in a bar, usually complicated by the whole range of associated human passions, and all of the illusions that are summoned with them. We imagine unavailable good things might result from our purposeful lapse of moral judgment; but sin is sin is sin.

For the world is complicated, but morality is simple. The modern mind bathes in complications. It can’t cope with a bald Yes, or No. It rejects the naive, binary questions, the flat distinctions that logic dictates – such as that, when you come to a fork in the road, you can’t go both ways. Try it and you’re in for an embarrassing and awkward cross-country.

Nor can you answer both Yes, and No, to the same question. This was the point that the authors of the Dubia (Cardinal Burke et al.) made to the pope, and which the pope then ignored. You can’t have it both ways; “you can’t have the penny and the bun,” as they say in Yorkshire. Tell us which it will be; and act truthfully upon THAT.

But the modern mind looks instead for a “workaround.” It will actually condemn “binaries,” the way they have been doing in the Vatican lately, when those binaries stand out and call. This is indeed one of the methods by which hard choices are avoided, and the revolutionary offers contradictory rewards. It is the ostrich method.

He hides his head in that Black Hole the physicists didn’t tell us about, where malice and stupidity can no longer be distinguished, because they have become thoroughly admixed; where even the consciousness of sin has been extinguished.

And it belongs to a world double-fallen, where neither pleasure nor holiness is possible anymore, only the compulsion of the moment to sink down, ever down.


*Image: The Puritan by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, cast c. 1899 [The Met, New York]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: