All the World’s a Stage

Searching for fault, it seems, is the great political and religious hobby of our time.  Social media would collapse without it.  But Christians should beware. Love, says Saint Paul, is not glad to find injustice, but rather is gladdened by the truth.

Of course, there is plenty of injustice to find, but it is rare to see someone who eyes his own sins, supposing that he recognizes what they are, as closely as he eyes the sins of other people.

We all play before an audience, and that includes the most appreciative audience we can find, namely ourselves.  In our fallen natures we are all Pharisees.  Who knows the public moral delicacies of the cannibal?

The danger when we play is not just that we may play false, but that the player can eat away at the person, so that only the player is left, a shell of self-will and self-regard, like Napoleon as C.S. Lewis imagines him in The Great Divorce, walking back and forth in his faraway room in the gray city below, saying that it was all the fault of Talleyrand, it was all the fault of Wellington, and so on forever.

To the extent that public or political life occurs on a stage – and whenever we post a bill on the stage of social media, we do so before an imagined audience – it is a threat to us, a temptation to show ourselves as standing upon the pinnacle of the Temple, a great vantage from which to look at the sins of others, and to hide from ourselves our own.

Of course, public problems must be discussed in public.  But consider even the worldly uselessness of the pharisaical posture.

Take the problem of race relations in the United States, and suppose a general and strong agreement, that racial hatred and contempt are bad things.  A good start, we should think.

Yet before us lies a vast tangle, impossibly perplexed, with people of good or ill will proposing or opposing good or bad things, for good or bad reasons; all sixteen combinations are common.

We have a burden of historical wickedness, and of attempts, often fitful or fainthearted or ineffectual, to address it.  We have the real and stubborn fact of relative poverty that makes for crime, and also of crime that makes for poverty.

We have family breakdown that hurts the poor the most, and the strange crisscross of motives whereby the rich preach to the poor the sexual license that will keep them poor.

We have intra-racial differences, so that an immigrant from Nigeria is far less likely than is a black man born in New York to go to prison.

Our brothers are suffering from diseases, and we who know little of the human soul also suffer from diseases, not all of them the same, and yet we must confer as to curing them, or palliating the effects.

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The worst thing to do, then, is to posture, to pretend to know exactly what we are doing, and to attribute the worst motives to those whose diagnoses and recommended remedies differ from ours.  I am not talking about principles; but even then we should recognize how often we derive our principles not from thoughtful analysis but from social contagion, so that a man may blunder into the truth for no good reason, and may blunder into falsehood for no worse reason than that everyone around him has made the same blunder.

Alexander “solved” the Gordian knot by cutting it in two.  That may work well with ropes.  I do not recommend it for human societies.

If the posturing is worthless, why do we do so much of it?  Those same words of Saint Paul are uneasily instructive.  We do it because it makes us glad.  Sure, it is a flashy and empty gladness, but when we accustom ourselves to the stage, we begin to forget that there is a world of reality at all.

We are in moral posturing what we are with regard to wealth: mimetic and comparative.  The Yahoo with two shiny rocks is better than the Yahoo with only one.  The Pharisee is glad to see the publican.  If the publican did not exist, we should have to invent him.

The political stage is merciless, because so much of it is purely imaginary, a matter of talismans, taboos, and the evil eye; and the trick is to stay on the blind side of the monster.

But Jesus, who did not trust himself to man, because he knew what was in man’s heart, will so far alienate us from the stage as to say that when we give alms, we should not even permit ourselves to enjoy the show, as if the left hand could applaud the benevolence of the right.

He would not play the wonder-worker for Herod.  He would not play the petitioner for Pilate.  He would not play at admiring the Pharisees.  And the only mimesis he commends is that we should take up the cross and follow Him.

The wonderful thing about that imitation is that even for earthly things, it works.  It is hard to reconcile angry sinners unless you first persuade them that they are fools: that they are not as angry as they pretend to be, or that they are angry, but not simply for the reasons they profess.

It is hard to begin to address an apparently intractable problem, unless you begin with the humble admission that there is much you do not know, and perhaps much that you can never know; and then you may hear a suggestion without wrath or fear or shame.

Evil principles, as I have said, are another matter.  We must always repudiate the lie. And we will do that to greater effect if we show in general that we sorrow for the sins of others almost as much as we sorrow for our own.

 

*Image: The Three Witches (or The Weird Sisters) by Henry Fuseli, c. 1782 [The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA]

Anthony Esolen

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 a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.