CHAPTER XII — SOCIETY’S DEBTOR
There is a peculiar fittingness in the comparison of this state of things to the ruthless haggling of a family over the will of a dying parent. In such a case the parent is pretty well forgotten; the only important thing about him is his eagerly anticipated death. When that happy event takes place the individuals of the family will be enriched. Now, as a matter of fact, when the groups or individuals within a society concentrate on what society owes them and fight to get all that can possibly be had from society, that society is in grave danger of death; of death by violence. There is an equal sordidness in the family quarrel and the social quarrel; but the latter is more than sordid, it is terribly dangerous. The society, like the dying parent, lies neglected and forgotten on its death-bed; but the death of society will not enrich the social groups, it will destroy them.
Social debts as links to a principle
Society is, after all, a union of men. It is not stronger than the links that bind its members together; and those binding links are the individual citizen’s debts to society. Where those debts are forgotten, neglected or denied, society is dissolving; it has become a tool for the aggrandizement of the individual or the group, rather than an instrument for the common good. An acknowledgment of the individual’s debts to society is a statement of his dependence on the group, and therefore of the strong tie that binds men together in that common life. On the contrary, a denial of those debts is a boast of sufficiency, an implicit denial of dependence on society or of any serious need of a common social life. The truth, however, is that no man is sufficient unto himself. He never lives alone; he is linked to other men as to a cause or to an effect, he is linked to the whole society as to his principle of social life, of education, of direction, of government.
It is unfortunate that today we use the word debt in the sense of the obligation imposed by a usurer. In its truer sense a debt is no more than a statement of the rights of others; it is an insistence on the minimum of justice. In case of social debts, the word means more than that man owes something to society; it means that in owing something to society, man owes something to himself. His payment of his debt to society is a payment made to himself; a repudiation of that social debt is a repudiation of a debt to one’s self. For a man cannot rob society without at the same time robbing himself, just as a man cannot shoot himself without injury to every part of his body; every cell in that body must contribute to the toll exacted by nature tor the repair of the injury. And man, you will remember, is a part of society, a member of the social organism.
Social debt as obligations to one’s self: As a member of society.
The man who cheats society is in the disastrously absurd position of an Alpine climber who cuts the rope from which he dangles by way of proving his rugged individualism. If we could picture a musical note, in a fit of independence, turning viciously on the throat of the singer and cutting it, we would have a fairly exact insight into the full significance of injustice to society. For a man is always dependent; he is always hanging from something, swinging towards something. His position in society is like the position of the trapeze artist as he swings through space from one support to another. Neither is in a position to indulge in snobbery or assertions of complete self-sufficiency.
A man cannot hang in space any more than a trapeze artist can sit on air and defy the crowd’s impatient demand for the completion of his act. Man must have something above him and something below him. He must have a beginning and he must have an end. It is precisely in holding to that position, below his superior and above his inferior, that man takes his rightful place in the universe; the maintenance of that proper place in the universe is the absolute condition for human order, human peace, human stability and human progress.
In the past few chapters we have looked at man’s dependence in relation to his first cause and final goal. We have seen that the virtue regulating that dependence, recognizing it, glorying in it, is religion. And religion, it became apparent, was not a matter of personal taste, of caprice or indignity to man; but a matter of strict justice, of being honest with God. From the human side, we saw this subjection to a first and last principle as a fullness of life for man; its denial or perversion, as barrenness, imperfection, sterility in human life.
In this chapter we shall examine some of the other principles, some of the other beginnings of man and his relation to them; for man has other beginnings. There are other persons, other things under God from which man depends and to which he must be subject, Nor is this so surprising in view of the power, generosity and thoughtfulness of God. He is not a blustering dictator nor a tyrannously timid superior afraid to share his power, knowing that he cannot stand a rival. Rather because He is such a perfect Beginning, He can and does share His divine prerogatives so prodigally with His creatures, even that prerogative of principality with regard to the master creature, man. The phrase “image of God” is not an empty figure nor a bit of poetic fancy; it is a profound truth. Men are made in the image of God not only in their very essence, but in their actions as well as in their goals. Man does have other beginnings from which he depends as he depends from God, either because of the benefits he has received from them or because of their superiority, their excellence in his regard.
As dependent from a principle
A dependable norm for judgment of the relative dependence of man upon the creatures of God is this: a man is dependent upon these secondary causes in exact proportion to their share in the principality of God. That is, the dependence is to be measured by the degree in which these creatures are the principle, the beginning, of man’s life, his nourishment, and of his direction to a goal.
God comes first on all counts. Under God, as so many easily graduated steps by which His children can race up to the heights of the divine, there are, first of all, parents who are immediate principles of life, nourishment and direction. The native country (patria), the fatherland is in some sense a beginning of his life, a principle of his direction to the goal, of his education as a social being. Then there are the superiors of that society as principles of direction to a goal through the instrumentality of law; in a lesser way, the way of example, there are those virtuous men and women who also lead a man to his goal. Finally there are benefactors who, while not principles of the common goods, as are the superiors of society, are undoubtedly principles of particular goods for this particular individual.
It is as though God, in His tolerant understanding of the vagaries of the human mind, saw how easily we could be distracted, even entranced by the baubles of life to the point of overlooking the Supreme Being in whom we live and move and have our being. In the rush of life, man might easily forget or push to one side the thought of the infinite presence of God and His all-powerful causality; so all along the way our feet must tread, God put this variety of highly colored markers sure to catch the fancy of our childish eyes and bring our minds back, again and again through life, to the first Beginning and the last End.
Subjection to principles a condition of perfection.
We are debtors of God as the supreme principle, first and last, and by paying our debt of religion we perfect ourselves. After God, we are debtors to our parents and to our country as to the chief sharers in the principality of God. Again this is a debt of strict justice. Its payment involves no more than honesty; and that debt is paid, to our perfection, by the virtue of piety.
Subjection to the first principle — religion
These two virtues, religion and piety, are not rival creditors clamoring for their share of the slim assets of a bankrupt man. They are intimately a part, one of another. Just as religion fits under justice, so piety fits under religion; as religion is a part of justice, so piety is a part of religion. But it is much more a part of religion than religion is a part of justice; in fact, religion includes piety as the United States includes Illinois or as the human soul includes within itself the powers of a plant and an animal soul. In the concrete this means that true religion is not a shrewish, jealous wife frowning down a man’s patriotic devotion; it cannot interfere with man’s duties to his parents or to his country. On the contrary, it is the surest guarantee of parental reverence and of patriotic sacrifice, for by piety we acknowledge a subjection that is only a feeble sharing of the subjection to God; in religion we admit the far greater debt which is the foundation and source of the claim of parents and country upon our reverence and upon our subjection. Religion is the sun, piety the moon of our life of subjection.
Subjection to secondary principles: To parents and country — piety
To carry the comparison to its concrete conclusion, we may say that parents hold the same place in relation to their children that God holds to creatures. Parents play the part of God, not only in the minds of their children but in actual reality. Under God, they are principles or beginnings as God is the Principle or Beginning. This truth is not difficult of realization in its actuality, especially for a mother or father. It is impossible to look with love’s eyes at an infant and not see its utter helplessness. It depends entirely on the parents’ thoughtfulness, generosity, willingness to sacrifice — a dependence that extends not only to the broad essentials of life but to the smallest detail of personal action and personal necessity. The infant in his mother’s arms presents a picture, perfect in its way, of our relationship to God.
But of course the relation is two-sided. If the parent plays the part of God as the principle of the child, the parent also bears something of the divine responsibility to that child; not only in the few instants of infancy, of childhood and of adolescence, but for the whole life of the child. They do not cease to be parents because their son has had his first shave. So it becomes the normal and accepted duty of a father to exchange the long hours of the years, the tissues of his body, the blood of his heart for a heritage to sustain his children throughout all of a lifetime. Not infrequently the love and labor that were spent so generously prove a greater heirloom than piles of gold.
Normally our patience towards, and understanding of, other people’s children is distinctly limited, our irritation a ready and reasonable thing. But with regard to our own we have something of divine generosity, divine understanding, divine patience; and like the divine, these things escape reason’s weight and measure. We may be puzzled at the mother’s ecstasy over this child, so patently inferior to our own; how does she ever put up with the noise, the thoughtlessness, the impudence of that brat? While from the front porch across the way, other people are asking the same questions about us. So also might we easily wonder how God ever puts up with us.
A superficial glance at married life today might lead us to suspect that men and women have missed the sublime truth that a parent plays the part of God in relation to his child. As a matter of fact, they have not missed that truth today; rather they are staring fixedly at that truth, but only at the frightening side of it. It is the obligations of parenthood, rather than its privileges, that have caught the modern eye; we see nothing but the terrifying fact that the child, in all justice, makes somewhat the same demands on its parents that a creature does on its God. It takes courage to face that fact, indeed, it takes something of divine courage. And our age is not a notably courageous age.
On the other hand, the child’s relation to his parents is like the creature’s relation to his God. The untrammeled development of a child’s personality is not sufficient reason for its impudence and reckless disobedience. The child owes reverence and honor to his parents for somewhat the same reason that a creature owes reverence and honor to his God; both are principles, sources, beginnings of life and of direction to a goal. Nothing in the world will ever change this truth; the parents will always be parents, the children always children. Understand, this is a matter of justice, not of love. Love for one’s parents can be pretty well wiped out by parental wickedness; but absolutely nothing in the world can wipe out the fact of parenthood. Their just claims to honor and reverence stand forever.
It would be utterly preposterous for a mother, in the name of the equality of all men, to rebel against the one. sidedness of nursing and to demand that the child take on half the burden; on Monday, Wednesday and Friday let the child do the nursing, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday would be the mother’s shift, while on Sunday both could go hungry. Normally it is the child who should receive help, care and sustenance. Still it would be a monstrous caricature of reverence that would make a son rush through his dinner in order piously to assist at his mother’s death from starvation. In other words, the parents, though they share in the principality of God, are not God. We never have to help God; but our parents are human, they can need help and that help must be given. lt is an extrinsic, accidental obligation of sonship; but none the less a real obligation that extends to all blood relatives in exact proportion to their share in the common bond that unites parent and child.
In its own way a man’s country holds the same place in relation to the individual and his fellow-citizens as God holds in relation to His creatures. This, however, is not to be taken in the exaggerated sense of an unadulterated nationalism such as prompts an American newspaper to carry on its editorial page the motto: “My country, may it always be right; but my country, right or wrong!” After all, a man’s country is not his God; it shares in some way in the principality of God, but it is not divine. It is not true, as Communism openly maintains, that a crime is justified if it is committed from patriotic motives, for the good of the party. Whether it be done in the name of parents or of country, a crime is always against God; and it is only by reason of their share in things divine that country and parents have a claim on our reverence, on our loyalty, on our subjection.
The very reason for giving reverence to our parents and country is precisely because they share in divine principality; consequently it is absurd to advance that shared principality as a reason for abandoning the divine principality, for not paying God the debt of religion. If our parents are evil they still remain our parents with a claim on our reverence and help; but not at the cost of our soul. If they are a serious danger to our souls, we must leave them; and give them help and reverence from a spot that does not endanger the rights of God and our obligations to our own soul.
On the other hand, Christ was justly indignant at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in making religion an excuse for neglecting the duty to parents. An only daughter is not being at all religious when she blithely leaves poverty stricken parents to starve that she might enter the convent. The obligations to God and to parents do not clash; they have one and the same source, the one includes the other. If in the name of one we neglect the other, we can be very sure that we have completely failed in both.
To superiors — observance
The complicated group of superiors to whom a man is subject can be seen in their fundamental unity if we picture them as intimately interdependent units of an electrical system. God is the generating unit, the dynamo of principality; from Him the line passes through one transmitting station after another, each of which cuts down the power to fit the particular purposes for which it exists, each receiving a lighter charge of the power from the transmitting station just above it. The station below that of parents and country is made up of the superiors of the state. The virtue by which we are subject to them is called “observance” and it stands in the same relation to piety (the virtue of subjection to parents and country) as piety does to religion. These superiors, in other words, have the same relation to parents that parents have to God; the superiors participate something proper to parents, as parents participate something proper to God.
The President in relation to the citizens of the United States, a general in relation to his soldiers, a mayor in relation to the citizens of his city, are all principles of limited direction, of government, of common goods. The obvious implication of this statement of observance is one of fatherly providence on the part of superiors; their citizens are not tools, cogs in a machine or a mere rabble to be used for the benefit of the superiors, they are children with a just claim to fatherly thoughtfulness, protection and help.
These superiors cannot supplant the parents without committing suicide any more than the parents can destroy God and retain their claims to reverence and honor. The transmitting station cannot cut itself off from the generating station and its dynamo and still expect to supply power. We are much more closely united to our parents, more dependent on them than we can ever be on the state. To them our union is substantial, from them we receive such substantial things as life itself, education, nourishment and so on. Theirs is the principality which is but shared by the state superiors.
The superiors, then, are not brow-beaters nor slave-masters. They are not to be looked on by citizens as enemies, suppressors of liberty, or poachers on the domain of individuality; rather the citizen must see them somewhat as a child sees its parent or a man sees his God. But it must always be remembered that these superiors are not God. Not infrequently they will not even be good men. We give them reverence and subjection, not as God, not even as men, but as superiors. By reason of their official position we give them honor: by reason of the coercive power they exercise we give them fear; by reason of their directive office we give them obedience; and by reason of the labor they expend for the common good, we pay taxes for their support.
To superior persons — dulia
The next transmitting station that cuts down the divine power of principality is the virtue of “dulia”. It regulates the honor given on grounds other than religious, blood relationship or official capacity; for the protestation of excellence which is called honor is due to all superiors, whatever their claim to superiority, precisely because they are superiors. The name of this virtue is taken from the honor due to a master from his slave. It is a derivation of profound significance when we understand that in absolutely every man there is something superior; in a sense, then, every man is a slave to all other men.
Understand, we do not have to distort our imagination in this search for superiority nor to be hypocritical about it. It would be absurd to pretend that we are in breathless admiration by the small talk of a barber, We need only stick to the truth. If there is any good in a man (and of course there always is) there is a basis for honoring him. As that good increases, that is, as the man comes closer to his goal, to his God, the reason for honor increases proportionately; so we pay great honor to the saints and the greatest honor given to creatures is given to the saint of saints, Our Blessed Lady.
Yet we find the saints paying honor to sinners. Catherine of Siena stepped out of a crowd and marched arm in arm down the street with a man condemned to the gallows, ascended the gallows with him and stayed by his side until his death. The same sort of thing is found again and again in the lives of the saints; after all, they were doing no more than following the example of their Master. You remember the grave courtesy Christ gave the woman taken in adultery, the tender persistence by which He won over the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. It would seem certain that it is not necessary for a man to be better than we are to merit our honor; surely it is not necessary that he be better in every way, or even in any way. In some way or another he is better than some men.
This does not amount to a kind of auto-hypnotism by which we peer at the world through the eyes of Pollyanna. It is true that it is far from the vague, distorted view given by eyes which are clouded and heavy with experience of evil; but what it really is, is the clear, true outlook that comes through seeing the world with the eyes of Christ, through the eyes that discovered the fearless teachers of the world among the ignorant fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
To benefactors — gratitude
We pay honor to all men. We give subjection to our superiors as principles of our being and direction, as principles of the common goods that come to us. The principles of particular goods are our benefactors and to them we give gratitude. There is a sharp and highly significant distinction between our debts to superiors in general and our debts to benefactors. The former look us squarely in the eye with justice’s impassive, impartial face; the latter give us gratitude’s open smile, half dare, half invitation, all graciousness. To spurn the first is an injury to our creditors; to dismiss the second is to hurt ourselves. Debts to superiors are statements of the necessity for the equality of things; debts of gratitude are statements of the necessity for the equality of wills. Our benefactors are a step up the ladder of perfection; by gratitude we measure up to that advance, by ingratitude we step down one grade below our own level.
A benefactor has no claim in strict justice to our thanks. As a matter of fact, beneficence has about it something of the satisfaction of mercy; it too, allows a man to play God, distributing his goods to those who have less or nothing at all, even when the goods he so freely gives are no more tangible than smiles. A benefactor really has a substantial return on his action from the moment he gives his gift, independent of any return of thanks on our part. He has had the joy of acting like God. In fact, the smallest act of gratitude on our part immediately puts our benefactor in debt and starts an endless exchange of gifts. So the Magi came bringing gifts to the new-born Infant; and ever since that time the same divine Infant has been giving Himself wholly to men. Simon the Cyrenian helped carry the cross of Christ; from that day forward every man has been helped in the carrying of his cross by the Savior, Who was not too proud to accept the help of a mere man.
The virtues of subjection to secondary principles: Gratitude.
If we give it a moment’s thought we easily understand that the obligation of gratitude must be interminable. It arises from a gift freely given; it can be paid, not by a return equal to the original gift — that way we balance justice, paying a loan – – but by a gift from us, a gift as freely and as spontaneously given. Gratitude’s return, in other words, must exceed all claims to justice, just as did the original gift; automatically, then, it sets up the game debt of gratitude in the benefactor. To put the matter more profoundly, we might say that we are images of God even in our actions; as all of creation, which is an act of God, fights its way back to God, to every effect of ours, every one of our acts, is perfect insofar as it finds its way back to us. Inevitably, those acts do find their way back, either by way of revenge or of gratitude. If they do not, that act has been imperfect, as imperfect as would be a work of God that did not seek God. In other words, it would have all the imperfection to be found only in that one creature in the universe that does not come back to God — a man who has sinned.
Christ gave gratitude’s prescription when He said, “Freely have you received, freely give.” He started the endless exchange of gifts in giving Himself to Mary as her first Christmas present; all of her life with Him was a loving rivalry of greater and greater gifts. Indeed the lives of all of her children have been just such an endless Christmas, with none of the fears of the spectre of January bills and February housecleaning of the gifts Christmas has brought to us.
For, as a matter of fact, there is no one so poor he cannot pay a debt of gratitude. cannot give a greater gift in exchange for what he has received. There is no man so low he cannot put the mightiest in his debt. Christ was not exaggerating when he pointed out the poor widow dropping her mite in the treasury as the one who had given more than all others; for the norm by which gifts are judged is not the pocketbook but the heart. In gratitude’s return, likewise, it is not the gift but the will of the giver that overpays the debt; not the thing said, nor the thing done, but the pulse of the heart of the grateful one writing the check that satisfies this debt. And there is no power on earth that can stamp “insufficient funds” across the face of such a check.
Whether or not it is more blessed to give than to receive, it is certainly a great deal easier; for the reception of a favor is itself a confession of need. It is for this reason that the proud, self-sufficient man finds it so difficult to receive favors; and for the same reason, the first and most difficult act of gratitude is a benign acceptance of a favor. This whole matter of beneficence and gratitude is one of the heart and not of the hand. Just as we can judge the heart of the receiver by the graciousness by which he takes the gift, so the heart of the giver is betrayed in the gestures with which he gives the gift. A blackmailer rightly doubts the freedom and affection behind the check his victim surrenders for there is none of the inevitable joy and prompt eagerness inseparable from affection visible in the presentation of this “gift.”
There are two significant conclusions forced upon us by this consideration of beneficence and gratitude. The first is that a sinner’s debt of gratitude for his penance far outstrips that of the saint for his sanctity. The unquestioning surrender and intense apostolicity of Magdalen and Paul are entirely understandable, for they received a greater gift in a double sense: they had less claim on the gift of grace that was given them, and consequently the gift itself was given ever so much more freely. It is true that the saint receives the greater gift objectively; but subjectively the minimum of grace coming to the sinner is like a dime given to a destitute man as compared with a hundred dollars coming to a millionaire. The second conclusion, a rather startling one to our age, is that a prompt return of a favor is more often a sign of ingratitude than of gratitude. There is little of the easy, graceful stride about our rush to return a favor at the earliest possible moment; we feel ourselves forced. And that is the wrong point of view. Really, it is an attempt to escape a debt that should be a joyful burden, delightedly borne; it is a debt, not of justice but of love and love should not be hard to put up with.
Even though ingratitude is usually a venial sin unless it oversteps the boundaries of justice, it is a contemptible thing. The absolute contempt which men have for the sin of ingratitude has been compressed into one explosive word: traitor! Judas has remained the most unsavory character of history because he is the supreme ingrate, the betrayer of a divine friend. Other sins that awaken the disgust and contempt of men are despised not only in others but also in ourselves; our contempt for perversion, bestiality or murder, in other words, is not merely speculative, it is practical for we bend the utmost of our efforts to excluding these things from our own lives. But for some dark reason, the same is not true of ingratitude; that our disgust for it remains largely speculative is evident from the rarity of gratitude and the frequency of ingratitude.
This may seem a large statement. But run through the scale of ingratitude, making sure each note is true. The least sin of ingratitude consists in not resuming a favor, a grade of ingratitude that reaches its peak when we return evil for the good we have received: when we have gone up a step in ingratitude we pretend that no favor has been done us, a condition that reaches its high point in the scorning of a favor; finally the climax of ingratitude is a non-recognition of a favor done to us and its crescendo crashes about our deaf ears when we consider the favor a positive injury. Run over that scale again, listen carefully and see how many of the notes find an echo in our own hearts in our relations with God. How many of the favors of God do we take for granted; how many do we fail to recognize as favors; how many do we positively resent as injustices, punishments, curses? Yes, ingratitude is far from rare however despicable it may be; and no doubt it will remain so, for only a humble man can be grateful and for humility we must have the courage to see ourselves as we really are. But the very contempt for ingratitude is a splendid thing, a ringing assurance of the sound common sense of human nature in its rejection of the stupidities of pride.
Obedience: Its natural origin It is only to benefactors that unpaid debts escape the anarchy of injustice. To all other principles we subject ourselves in justice and one of the universal acts by which we put that subjection into action is by our obedience. Yet the very word revolts our jaded appetites as emphatically as the mention of pork to a sea-sick man. The objections to the very notion pour from our lips with a violence and rapidity that reveals a deep-seated resentment: one man is as good as another, the ignobility of taking orders, the servility of being at the beck and call of a man, the irresponsibility of having someone else do our thinking, the spinelessness of being unable to make up our own minds. How fine they all sound to an independent spirit; and how utterly absurd they are! We have hardly reached the point where it is necessary, as a proof of strength, independence, equality and all the rest, to invade another man’s home and beat his wife; it is not degrading for us to respect these rights of a man, nor is it degrading to respect any of his other rights.
From a purely natural point of view obedience is an absolute condition for harmony with the rest of the universe. All of nature follows the same rule of divine providence, namely, that inferiors are led to their goals by superiors. Men are not only equals, they are also unequals; so much so, in fact, that even in the untainted air of Eden’s peace there would have been political organization if Adam had never sinned. It is men, not God, who insist on doing violence to human nature. Men have superiors and they move to their ends as all nature moves to its end, not in violation of their nature but in harmony with their humanity; that is, not physically but morally, by a precept whose answer is obedience. Obedience, in other words, is nothing more or less than a moral virtue by which we obey the precept of our superiors from the intention of satisfying that precept. It is the virtue by which, in harmony with all nature, we are moved to our goal in a manner fitting the high estate of our humanity.
Granted that obedience is not in the same high class as faith, hope and charity which have God Himself for their object, or even that it is not the supreme moral virtue, for certainly religion comes much closer to God. Still, among the moral virtues which involve a rejection of temporal things in order that a man might bow down to God, obedience stands at the very top. By it man offers that which is most truly his own, his free will; he does what no other creature in the physical world can do, he makes the surrender which is in itself a conquest of self and of perfection.
In the cosmic order, then, obedience saves man from becoming the one freak in the universe. In the social order, which is after all the natural order for man, obedience is absolutely indispensable. No matter how natty its uniforms, how modern its equipment, how numerous its members, a police force that meets with the combined opposition of all the citizens will be utterly destroyed. Men cannot be ruled successfully for any length of time by an army, a secret police, or a mob of gangsters; but only by obedience. We can put this in one short sentence by pointing out that obedience is justice, and justice is absolutely essential for the social and cosmic life of man.
The superior’s precept and the subject’s obedience have about them the quiet beauty of a peaceful countryside under a spring sun, the smooth freedom of the long, sure stride of a man. But it is not hard to introduce the brazen clash of disorder or the grotesque antics of anarchy. All the smooth grace and freedom is gone from the motion of a man when the hands decide to do the work of the feet. It is unfortunate that this grotesqueness is seen to its full only by the spectators. An industrial captain who, flushed with success in the manufacture of motor cars, decides to regulate the diet of his employees never quite sees what a fool he makes of himself. Obedience, you see, is a respecter of rights; the limits of the rights of the superior automatically mark off the limits of the demands he may make on his subjects.
Its extension: Obedience to God; Obedience to man
lt is beautifully fitting, and absolutely necessary, that man give universal obedience to God as the supreme superior; naturally all movement is subjected to the divine First Mover. But no man is a universal superior, nor is he a universal mover. The obedience we give to any man is limited to the bounds of the subjection we owe him. The feelings of a prince should not be hurt when his subjects ignore the commands he has given in contradiction to the natural law. A governor decreeing a limitation on the number of children his subjects shall have has stepped outside of his field, he is a drum-major playing Napoleon; for, in the things that pertain to man’s very being, all men are equal. Human superiors have, as their proper field, the disposition of human actions and human things but strictly within the limits of the power they enjoy.
Society’s bad debts; philosophy of punishment: Revenge by society
Even when the command is within the limits of the superior’s power, it does happen, and always has happened, that there are social cheats. The action taken by society against these men who refuse to honor their social debts is punishment. It is an unpleasant subject; indeed, if it were not we would have gone far along the road of degradation, as far as enjoying the pain and suffering of others. But we must not mistake its unpleasantness for an argument against punishment. The mistake is a common one today when men argue seriously in favor of coddling a prisoner like a sick child or of abolishing punishment altogether because it is such a messy, disagreeable thing.
Such arguments do not proceed from a love of humanity but from a flabbiness that shrinks from facing the facts. They overlook the fact that non-payment of social debts really means serious injury to members of the society. To speak of this punishment as the vengeance of the state runs the risk of emphasizing the element of injury to the criminal to the complete neglect of the element of healing the wounds of society and protecting the rights of others; and it is these latter which are the primary objects of this vengeance of the state. Unquestionably revenge or punishment is wrong if it proceeds from hate; for then it intends the evil primarily, and gloats on the injury it does to the criminal. But when its sources are charity and justice, as they normally are, punishment is a virtue. It intends such goods as the correction of the criminal, the restraint of his crimes and consequent peace to others, the preservation of justice or the honor of God.
Punishment is not something that may be excused but always demands apology; it can be positively obligatory; it is the state’s gesture of defense against internal enemies, as war is its defense against external enemies. If the punishment of the state sometimes seems harsh, we have only to try our sweetest smile the next time we meet a thug to see how far it gets us. He does not respond to a homily on virtue, a paternal slap on the back as emphasis of honeyed advice; the tools of his craft are a club, a gun, a blackjack. This is the language in which he makes himself understood and the language which immediately brings a glimmer of intelligence to his predatory eyes. He understands a threat to or loss of things by which he places great store: his life, his health, his integrity, his liberty, his possessions, even though at the lower levels of crime, he may not take exile or defamation too seriously.
Not long ago the newspapers reported the case of a judge who discharged a prisoner from the charge of manslaughter as a result of drunken driving. The judge argued that there could be no punishment where there was no guilt and this man was so blindly drunk he could not see to commit a crime. The judge was, of course, roundly denounced in editorials the country over; but indignation does not answer an argument. There was something in the judge’s argument, but not nearly enough, as is the way with half-truths; they are always too meagre a fare to keep the intellect from staggering into error from sheer weakness. It is true that vindictive punishment must not be inflicted unless there is guilt; but medicinal punishment can very well be inflicted in the absence of guilt, though never in the absence of a cause. Perhaps five or ten years in prison is strong medicine; but there is no doubt that it would impress the condemned man with some personal evils of drunken driving, it might even open his eyes to the enormity of the risks to which he exposes his fellow-citizens, surely it will be a salutary warning to others who find the exhilaration of speed only half the fun of driving. Certainly the thing should be punished, for, if it is not, only citizens with the reflexes of jack-rabbits will survive. Surely, these are causes sufficient for medicinal punishment.
Perhaps the judge had in mind the divine Governor Who never punishes except in cases of positive guilt. But if he did, then he overlooked the fact that this Supreme Governor inflicts spiritual punishments; and since the spiritual goods which these deprive a man of cannot be ordered to further ends, obviously they cannot be used as a medicine to ward off other evils. We do not decapitate a man to cure his tooth-ache; nor does God deprive him of the supreme goods to which he can aspire for any lesser end.
Revenge by the individual
lt must always be remembered that this matter of punishment is the affair of public authority. A private citizen may defend himself against an attack, even defend himself with considerable vigor; but once the attack is over and done with, the matter is out of his hands. He cannot stalk his attacker, biding his time and pouncing at an unexpected moment; the most he can do by way of revenge is to cite his attacker to public authorities, i.e., he can start his vindication but he may never finish it. The reason is obvious. All punishment involves coercive power because it involves some injury to society in the injury it inflicts on one of society’s members; and coercive power belongs only to God and the human superiors who share the principality of God in relation to the common good. ln any case, the individual is rarely obliged to seek revenge; it is not so much justice as decency and charity that will move him to take revenge through the state for an injury done to him.
The unceasing social debt — truth
Social debts are debts to one’s self. Nowhere is this more clear than in the social debt paid by the virtue of veracity. It would be enough to prove the point if we merely noticed the scorn and distrust given the two-faced individual or the liar as contrasted with the honor and trust that decorates the life of the straight-forward, truthful man. But these are external things. Within his very self the liar find. quickly how badly he has cheated himself by his lies as it becomes more and more difficult for him to be what he is, to face the world as it is, to meet life as it is. A lie, you see, is an easy escape, a pleasant substitute for accomplishment and struggle; once we become familiar with that emergency exit our hand reaches for its knob at every hint of danger or labor. The liar buries himself in a false world as sweetly and gently as a man might smother himself in a feather bed.
Christ gave a succinctly profound account of Himself when He said: “I am the truth.” Dominic set high goals for himself and his Order when he adopted that single word for his motto:Veritas, the truth. For truth and reality are not really different. Christ, as God, was indeed and is the Supreme Reality and so the Supreme Truth; Dominic seeking truth was seeking the world of reality and the God of reality. A false world is like a false step; rather than advancing a man, it throws him down with a jar that hammers at every bone in his body and utterly ruins his disposition. In the same way — not doing what it should do — a false word lets a man down hard; it tangles up the line of communication from man to man which is so essential to human life. Imagine the turmoil in the petty details of society if bus conductors, ticket agents and traffic policemen answered all questions with artistically fluent lies; indignation would be a timid word for the outburst of the explorer in search of Brooklyn who was deposited in the Bronx. Men simply cannot live together if they can never be sure they are in contact with one another; and it is by word that they reach each other’s mind.
At times, this obligation to tell the truth is one of strict justice, as, for instance, in answer to a legitimate question by a legitimate superior. But over and above that strict right, men have a claim in sheer decency, certainly in charity, to be spared deception. However, being truthful is not a matter of pulling the bung from our minds and letting all of our knowledge run out. When a wife asks her husband “How do I look?” she is not seeking a diagnosis; prudence will teach him, eventually at least, to restrict his comments to a few large and fairly obvious objectives. When mere politeness moves you to ask after the health of an acquaintance, you stand aghast as he rattles off a long list of his symptoms; this sort of thing is not necessary for social life. Words should measure up to the concept in our minds as things measure up to the concept in God’s mind; then both the things and the words are true. It is not impertinent to notice that not all the concepts of God’s mind have been expressed in the world of reality. We must tell the truth, yes, but when, where and how it should be told.
The tremendously impossible stories of Baron Munchausen were certainly not lies. They were so evidently and jokingly false that they could never have been meant to deceive; and formally speaking, a lie is the will to say a false thing. Whether or not others are successfully deceived pertains to the perfection of a lie rather than to its nature as a perversion of the gift of speech. The student who knows his matter backwards and gives it that way to his examiners is not guilty of a lie; the manifest hyperbole of a political orator nominating a “favorite son”, or the demure secretary’s “Mr. Smith is not in” obviously fool no one. They were not meant to fool anyone; the words have a generally accepted meaning, they are polite forms that even the “favorite son” or the traveling salesman do not fail to understand.
Where the formal will to tell a false thing is present there is always a sin, the sin of lying, never justifiable, never excusable. We can no more excuse a boy for the lie he tells to escape a spanking than we can a man who lies to ruin the character of a rival. The second lie is more serious because it enters the field of justice and takes on the added gravity of an offense to another’s rights; but strictly as lies, both are inexcusable. Lies are not sour when they hurt another and sweet when they “do no damage”; they are wrong because they pervert the gift of speech. As a matter of fact they always do damage, social damage, which can never be properly estimated. The life of the party who wrings a laugh from a sullen crowd by his plausible lies is none the less a liar albeit an agreeable one. There are not white lies, not even spotted lies; all lies are black with the blackness of sin.
If a girl looking for work as a stenographer is asked whether she has had experience and answers “yes,” mentally concluding the sentence, “in washing dishes”, she has completely fooled her prospective employer — for the moment at least. But she might as well have saved herself the effort of mentally re-washing the dishes. She has indulged in a mental restriction which the theologians call “pure”, though an odd kind of purity it is, for it leaves the lie intact. There is absolutely no way in which that restriction can be detected by any one else; no way in which the concept in her mind can be seen from her words. It has been just a plain lie. The legitimate mental restriction, a restriction in the wide sense, is found in the poor, worn-out phrase, “Mr. Smith is not in;” only a moron could mistake the meaning. And such a restriction may, under some circumstances, be allowed. So also may ambiguity or equivocation, for we are not obliged to tell all that we know all the time; here we are not telling falsehood, but rather we refrain from improperly telling the truth.
Perhaps the best estimate of the value of truth is to be found in the effect truth has upon man. Devotion to falsehood produces the social outcast and the sinner. Devotion to truth in the intellectual world produces a philosopher; in the social world, it produces a gentleman; in the supernatural world, it produces a saint. In language dear to our times we might say that a lie is a kind of verbal perversion that prevents the conception of knowledge in the minds of our neighbors and thwarts the delivery of our own concepts; it is at the same time a verbal birth control and a verbal abortion.
The importance of beginnings: The grain of truth in process philosophies
A summary of this chapter must begin with the truth that man is never through beginning. That he finishes one step in life merely means that he is ready to take another. If any stage of his life is not a beginning of something else, the man has failed; he has been misled into a blind alley, not led on to higher things and, ultimately, to the Highest Thing. Even when he reaches the end of his life, man comes to the beginning of an eternal life and an eternal act, a beginning that never ends. A man is never really separated from his beginnings; he is always starting things, and all of the things, all the way back in his life, hang together as intimately as the links of a chain.
Double error of modern views: Unending process This truth has been grasped by modern process philosophies. This is what gives an air of plausibility to their theorizing, this thin thread by which they dangle precariously from the world of reality. Their mistake is in thinking that there is nothing but a beginning in man’s life; that life and the world is nothing but a process that does not really begin and never ends, but just flows on. In their eyes, man’s life is a bridge that is never quite crossed, an endless treadmill whose only goal is exhaustion. As a result, these philosophies present man’s intellect with a tremendous lie; there must be a goal if there is to be any activity, and so there must be not only a beginning, but also a progress to the end which is the reason for the beginning.
The second error in these modern philosophies inevitably links up with the first, namely, that all of the past is to be disowned, tossed aside as a man discards his boyhood and forgets it. And this is held to be true, not only for an age, for one generation, but also for the individual in all the fields in which he moves: religious, philosophical, economic or social. Each individual, each age, each nation starts afresh. That, thank God, is never true. We do not have to shoot our ancestors to prove that we are alive. The loudness of progress in human life, the uncovering of truth, the approach to God, is not something to be handled in a moment, in a lifetime, a generation or an age. It is a slow, laborious, dangerous climb where every foothold dug by our predecessors is invaluable. The past is not a burdensome load we carry on our shoulders; rather it is the springboard from which we plunge into the future.
The penalty of separation from principles — physical or moral annihilation
Man cannot separate himself from his beginnings without disastrous results. They are an intimate part of him; action against them is a kind of mutilation. If he attempts a moral separation from his first Principle, God, he embraces an eternal hell; a physical separation from the same Principle, if it were possible, would mean instant annihilation. A proportionate note of disaster rings through the world as the result of the blow that separates us from any of our beginnings, our principles; and the disaster will be in exact proportion to the principality which the particular beginning enjoys.
The waifs’ physical separation from parents awakens an immediate response of pity for their misery; they have lost something out of their lives, a precious, indispensable thing. Behind all our irritation there is pity, too, for impudent, disobedient, irreverent children; they also have lost something and lost it forever. Something has been cut out of their lives because they have cut themselves off From a beginning; they have suffered a kind of annihilation and condemned themselves either to a hell of memory or a duplication of the same scorn, insolence and disobedience from their own children. Their life has been dulled, sickened, dwarfed at its start for they have lost subjection and sacrifice, both indispensable to the living of human life.
A man, who has cut himself off from his country, has lost a part of himself, for he is a part of society; indeed, we might say that, as a social being, he has cut himself off from the greater part of himself. He is now a stranger to whom no place is home; he is a stranger everywhere and so is everywhere alone. A man who cuts himself off from his social superiors denies moral force and issues an invitation to physical force. He is a rebel, not only against society, against his fellows, but also against himself. The cynic who refuses the subjection of honor and reverence to men on the score of their virtue condemns himself to blindness; he deprives himself of constant inspiration and anchors himself forever in the sluggish waters of smug mediocrity. The ingrate, refusing to meet the debt of gratitude, scurries to cover from the constant shower of gifts that gratitude and beneficence set up, that constant increase of love, the fullness of a man’s life, which comes from beneficent acts of others and their gracious return,
The perfect subject
Man can be perfect; in fact, he was made to be perfect. All of his nature was designed to that end. But his perfection is not to be obtained in any utterly self-sufficient sense; he cannot pull up his roots and still expect to grow. He is not alone in the universe: he came from somewhere; he is going somewhere. He has something above him and something below him; something behind him and something before him. And it is only in maintaining that proper position in the universe that a man can find grounds for order, stability, peace, progress and ultimately, perfection. There is a perfection of man, but a perfection that is in perfect proportion to a man’s subjection. The perfect man can best be defined as the perfect subject, a truth that was once, not insignificantly, put in the agonized words of the Saviour’s prayer of perfection: “Not my will, but Thine be done.”