Wise as Pigeons, Harmless as Snakes

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It is a part of the destiny of man, wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, “to pursue both power and love, knowing them to be incompatible. ‘Here am I, captain of a legion of Rome,’ a recently discovered inscription runs, ‘who served in the Libyan Desert and learns and ponders this truth: There are in life but two things, love and power, and no one has both.”

In God alone are power and love in perfect harmony. It is not so for us frail and fallible human beings, so we must take care not to confuse them. Muggeridge had seen too much of the seamy and the brutal to put his trust in, or to indulge in dreamy sentiment about, princes and their engines.

Thirty years after he had reported on Stalin and the starvation he visited upon millions of people in the Ukraine (and he knew it would cost him his job, while the socialist Walter Duranty, writing for The New York Times, happily helped to spread Stalin’s lies and won a Pulitzer Prize for it), he said that his disillusionment had merged “into a general sense that power must invariably bring out the worst in those who exercise it.”

If that were all, if we had only to be troubled with the excesses of our rulers, we might go our way, forgetting on most days that there ever was a king or a Congress. But the modern democratic world will not permit us to forget. “We who are the Leviathan,” Muggeridge writes, “cannot slay it.” Nor do we wish to slay it. We have believed its lies, which are our own. We cry, “How great is this Beast, that has brought us prosperity, communion, and peace in our time!” We admire its empty shows and trust its promises. “If an epitaph were required for this sad and terrible time,” says Muggeridge, “it might well be found in ‘The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.’ That is what has been assiduously sought; and because it is a vain pursuit, it has produced its exact opposite.”

I might put the problem thus. In seeking to bring about earthly salvation, we seek to attain the ends of love by the means of power. It is an empty dream. Or a nightmare: think of Orwell’s “Ministry of Love,” an inquisitorial prison and torture chamber. Yet we cannot shudder and wake from the nightmare. The best that earthly power can do, as C.S. Lewis puts it so beautifully in The Weight of Glory, is to clear a space wherein the sweet and ordinary things of human life can play:

As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the wind and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit.

No sane person would say that we need a National Council of Conviviality, or a Global Initiative for Friendship, or an industry for the Manufacture of Solitude. Political machinery can spoil or crush these good things, but it cannot produce them. Yet it is a measure of our madness, our fuzzy thinking, our worship of engines, that even our highest prelates can hardly begin to think of the realm of love, before they turn to what must be impersonal and mechanical and destructive beyond its proper sphere: as if the European Union could read your child a bedtime story.

Pope Francis himself, who wants to remind us that the ends of power and of love are not the same, no sooner calls us to think about the life of a village, than he abandons the village and its intimate and personal life, and turns to the abstractions of global enterprise. (Fratelli tutti, ¶ 27, ff.)

But power must be exercised. Muggeridge noted that it was fine for pacifists to write and speak about peace, but they should have the grace to admit that their freedom to do so was guaranteed by the constable. When we attempt to attain the ends of love by the means of power, we corrupt power to boot. 

Instead of establishing a far-sighted, unsentimental, and necessarily impersonal machine to accomplish what it can – to build bridges (I mean those made of concrete and steel), to put men to work (to build the bridges), to foster indigenous industries, and to curb public vice, we end up with dangerously vague and ineffectual calls for what is personal if it is anything at all, while we neglect the true work of politics. Caesar is not God; but he is not even Caesar.

We have, in the United States, millions of underemployed young men, and plenty of hard and rewarding work they could do, but no one will put the two together, because current politics pretends to be about personal relationships, even about what some addled person believes about his sex in the curious chambers of his head. Aristophanes, thou shouldst be alive at this day. And my Church?

Sometimes she reminds me of Dickens’ Mrs. Jellyby, in Bleak House, the sentimental public pest who garners subscriptions for the natives of Borioboola-Gha, while her own household goes to ruin. Hers is “telescopic philanthropy,” a convenient thing, since we don’t have to draw near to people who sweat and stink and get drunk.

At least Mrs. Jellyby is not a Member of Parliament. Not yet. Machiavelli could tell us how to exercise power, and he could point out some obvious aims. But we have no one like the old Florentine, either. We are fundamentally amoral, as Machiavelli was, but sloppy and sentimental, like Mrs. Jellyby: inept at the exercise of power, for warm and fuzzy ends; as wise as pigeons, and as harmless as snakes.


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.