CHAPTER XIII — ROOTS OF RUDENESS
(Q . 111-122)
A MASTERPIECE, a cathedral or a cottage has a personality of its own. It is lovely, proud, simple, eagerly alive or coldly reticent. All are, in a sense, living even if the life by which they live is the life of their creator. They are solidly units; and by that very unity they are the closest imitation of that substantial unity which is so characteristic of life. We marvel at them because we marvel at life, and will never have done marvelling at it. In both we are marvelling at an effect of intelligence deeper than a distinct order, an effect achieved by that order which intelligence alone can produce — the effect of unity. The artist steps back from his easel and sees that his work is good; into his dead materials he has breathed as much life as it is given man to give to things, the breath of order and unity. He is in his own way a creator and we honor him for his high achievement.
Unity and social life
Certainly intimate union is a universal characteristic of life. When that unity begins to break up we have disease; when that unity is completely dissolved, we have death. And this will be true, not only of the dissolution of the union of soul and body, but of the dissolution of the union between the body and any of its parts. Social life implies an organic unity that is essential to all life; we describe society as an organism whose members are men and women. Pursuing the figure, we measure the vigor of social life by the unity existing between the parts of that social body. Society is healthy, diseased or dying in proportion to the unity of its members.
When one part of the social body is cut off, though the whole body retain its full vigor of life, we have the parallel of amputation. It is injurious to the whole in proportion to the importance of the part that has been amputated; the impeachment of a president, for instance, will be much more harmful than the execution of a gangster, just as it will make a great difference to a man whether he loses a finger or both legs. But in all cases the amputation is absolutely fatal to the member that is severed from the body. In this chapter we shall consider the relation of that separation from the social body, precisely as it affects the individual member who is separated from society.
Separation from the unity of social life — exile: Physical exile.
A social separation is not called amputation, though it could aptly be so called; it is known as exile. Ordinarily we understand that term in a physical sense as calling up the haunting loneliness of “a man without a country.” The difficulties of this physical exile are vividly presented to us whenever we enter a Greek candy store or approach an Italian fruit stand. The exile may be voluntary, but the blue sky of Athens and the warm sun of Naples are not to be lightly brushed from a man’s mind; nor are the memories of easy, leisurely comradeship, the wild words of argument so quickly forgotten by everyone in preparation for the next discussion. These men will continue to dream their dreams of home as they stand shivering on a New York corner or caught in the clammy embrace of a London fog.
Perhaps the difficulties are more evident when we consider an American expatriate in France, not, you understand, a tourist jumping from place to place but always on his way home, but a man who takes up permanent residence there. Nicodemus long ago was rightly incredulous at the thought of a man being born again; the thing is impossible physically. Spiritually it can be done through the omnipotence of God; socially it is possible to some degree and always with much labor and tears.
That is really what social exile in a physical sense means, i.e., that a man must be born again as a member of another social body. To some degree it is always a failure. A man’s own country is one of his principles, of his beginnings; it is a part of his very self; to be cut off from that country means that a part of a man’s very self has been cut out. Our country and our attitude towards it are bred in our bones and in our blood. Away from it we must always remain a stranger, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. It is not merely the difficulty of language, of a mode of thought, of national customs; it is deeper than all that, for it is the difficulty of being grafted on a new principle very much too late in life.
For all of its difficulty, the physical exile is hardly to be compared to moral exile. The physical involves a separation that can be measured in miles and it allows some sort of rebirth in another social unit, however partial and unsatisfying such a birth may be. But the moral exile involves a distance, not from society, but from men, a distance not to be measured in miles but in loneliness, rebellion and despair. It is always an absolute and universal exile from every society, for men are the integrating units of every society. By it a man is marooned on a desert island; or rather, he carries his own deserted island strapped to his shoulders, that is the only ground he can stand on for any length of time and from it he perpetually scans utterly empty horizons. He is always alone. Moreover, the pain and fears and labors that go into this exile are much more severe than their parallels in physical exile; for our desire for union with other men is much deeper than our bones, deeper than our blood, deeper than our love for country. It is as deep as the depth of the nature of man.
This moral exile consists in a separation from men; its cause, then, is anything that cuts us off from men. It is a deep-seated loneliness accomplished on one side by driving men from us by injustice, on the other by withdrawing ourselves from men by sins against truth. In this latter case we hide behind a falsehood which has built a wall between ourselves and other men, forbidding all contact; when the falsehood is discovered, men withdraw from us in repulsion. But the discovery of the falsehood is not a necessary ingredient of the bitter draught of moral exile; whether or not men see the wall behind which we have hidden ourselves, we know it is there and we know it cannot be climbed from the outside.
Social exile by defect of truth: Simulation and hypocrisy
In the last chapter our efforts were concentrated on the verbal lie and its poisonous effects. In this chapter we are engaged primarily in dealing with the lie in fact, the factual lie which is called “simulation.” We see the appearance of it in the smile of a guest at his hostess’ flat joke. It exists on a mild scale in the attempted, but rarely achieved, nonchalance of a girl whose suitcase has sprung open in a crowded railroad station; as a matter of fact, most of the bystanders do get some little inkling of her confusion.
Understand, now, this is not a condemnation of that attempted nonchalance. Just as in words we do not have to tell all we know, so in acts we do not have to manifest all that is within us. It is not necessary that every murderer slink through the world glowering at people; nor is every empty-headed person obliged to cultivate an ever more vacant stare. But if the acts we do place signify things that are not within us, we are shams, pretending, lying to the world.
There are acts that are not meant to fool anyone, just as there are words not to be understood in their literal sense. A dash of lip-stick, even skillfully applied, does not fool the owner of the lips, and does not fool anyone else; it is merely a bit of decoration and is recognized as such by civilized peoples, though a savage might reasonably be puzzled about it. No one interprets a mechanical smile of greeting as a sign of hilarious joy. In fact, our lives are filled with acts that have the air of pretense but which deceive no one. The bustle of a loafing business man or the whistle of a frightened boy are expressions of a hope or an ideal, rather than an attempt to lie to the world. Because they are easily seen through, they do not separate us from men; often they draw us closer to others in their manifestation of a bond which appeals to every human heart, the bond of human weakness. We recognize in these people something of ourselves, for we, too, have felt the confusing sting of that same weakness.
The naively innocent approach of a swindler is obviously in a different class from these things. It is definitely the sin of simulation, a lie told to the world, a lie for which both the swindler and his victim must pay. The pious airs of the hypocrite who has no other end in view than to appear holy is also simulation; he too is a swindler. In both cases the individuals withdraw from men, so far, in fact, as to take on the external appearance of totally different persons, completely obliterating themselves from social contact.
The hypocrite plagiarizes the personality of the one person men most respect, that of a just man; and this is one of the fundamental reasons for the distaste and distrust men have for hypocrites. These spiritual swindlers are guilty of cheap cheating; their smooth approach obtains the price of respect that men mean to pay to real justice, to real holiness. Moreover, this cheating is a cowardly attack on the really just man, for it puts him under the burden of proving his justice in order to escape the suspicion of hypocrisy that men cautiously advance before tendering their respect. Sometimes hypocrisy is an escape from reality, from the not inconsiderable difficulties inherent in the attainment and maintenance of justice. The hypocrite lives in a child’s world of pretense with none of the child’s candor. The child knows and admits that he is only pretending, playing a game; but the hypocrite is so deadly in earnest that sometimes he almost succeeds in fooling himself.
This pitiful romancing which is simulation does not always proceed along horizontal lines; at least the personal boaster builds his act straight up. He must stand head and shoulders above others even though his pedestal be of the fragile stuff of dreams. Strictly speaking, the man who regales his company with his truly great deeds is a bore, not a boaster; he tells the truth, though with imprudent excess. The real boaster is a liar. He climbs up the ladder of fiction rather than stoop to the menial labor of building a ladder of hard deeds. If his boasts are successful men never know the real man concealed behind the boasts; if they are unsuccessful, men do not want to know the real man. In either case he has effectively exiled himself from men. St. Thomas says that often boasting is not indulged in to injure others, for the sake of a job, or for profit, but merely out of vanity; as such it is reducible to a jocose lie. That is profoundly true; and most often the joke is on the boaster.
It is fairly easy to deal with a known boaster; all we need do is listen, sprinkling our silence with appropriate exclamations -“Oh”, “Ah”, “How wonderful”, and so on. It is a much more serious social problem to deal with the belittler. This is no place for day-dreaming; in a moment of distraction we may make the disastrous mistake of agreeing with a dinner companion who says “I haven’t a brain in my head,” or with the university professor who asks, in a purely rhetorical fashion, “Wasn’t that a silly thing to do?”
The boaster stretches the truth out of all recognition; the belittler shrinks it. If the latter is actually fishing for compliments in running down his own good points, he really has the same goal as a boaster; indeed, he might be called a subtle or indirect boaster. When, however, he minimizes his good points or lays claim to fictional bad points as a means of avoiding offense to others, he bends over backwards in his attempt to be agreeable; he gives men a distorted view of himself comparable to a candid camera’s view of a contortionist caught at an unfortunate moment of his rehearsal. In either case he keeps his real self secret from his fellows; he cuts himself off from men.
When he is actually telling the truth about his failures, not mentioning his successes, he is not really belittling himself because he is not telling a lie. Thus, for instance, a successful author might tell his audience of beginners the now humorous history of his rejected manuscripts with no mention of his successful ones; and he is doing no more than giving them the courage to face the defeats and disappointments that will undoubtedly come their way before success stands at their door shouting for admittance.
We understand this and admire the man’s kindliness and thoughtfulness to those budding authors. What is much more difficult for us to understand is the case of the saints’ open estimation of themselves as serious sinners, even as the worst of sinners. It is important to remember that the saints were not lying; they were not, therefore, belittling themselves, they were telling the truth. Our difficulty in understanding this arises from the fact that we do not know sin as the saints know it, nor do we know God as intimately, as experimentally, as appreciatively as do the saints. Knowing God so well they could understand to the full the seriousness of any offense against that divine goodness. Moreover, they knew themselves as they could not know others. Not even a saint is in a position to give accurate judgment of the actions of others because not even a saint can edge his way past the gates of a man’s intellect and will. No matter what this other man has done, a saint cannot know certainly (short of a revelation from God) that this man is more seriously culpable than was the saint in his small sin; for the saint knows himself from the inside out. They were not hypocrites, not liars, the saints; they told the truth, the highly significant truth that the smallest of sins is sufficient reason for a lifetime of regret.
Hypocrisy, boasting and belittling are all distinct sins against the truth; they are all means by which a man exiles himself from the men and women with whom he lives in society. However, their distinction represents no bar to the human ingenuity of the sinner; he can contrive to pack all three sins into one and the same act. Thus a man, who would deliberately parade himself in old clothes to indicate great spiritual perfection and humility, would be guilty of hypocrisy in claiming the perfection he had not yet attained; he would be boasting by the very flapping of his rags; and he would be belittling his social position by the age and raggedness of the clothes he wore. This was the sort of thing that so angered the Lord and won his scathing denunciation of the Pharisees’ parade of emaciation and sorrow as heralds of their great fasting.
Social exile by defect of friendliness (affability)
It seems evident, then, that a man cannot live in society without truth. But it is equally true that he cannot live in society without pleasure. His very nature, as a social animal, demands not only that he live with others, but that he live pleasantly with them, that he be united intimately with them in a common life. It is extremely difficult to live a common life where the members of the community are not on speaking terms, or where it is perhaps better that they are not on speaking terms.
This might almost be established as a norm for the judgment of social perfection; at least as the society becomes more perfect, the relations between its members are more and more pleasant. Thus in a community of nuns, where the bond of union is supernatural and each member is striving for a heroic degree of sanctity, the time of recreation sounds like nothing so much as a children’s party at its height: none of that gloomy or sullen emphasis on what has been surrendered, but rather an hilarious gaiety that awakens a smiling envy in anyone privileged to eavesdrop on its echoes.
The nature of friendliness
The virtue, regulating this decent agreeableness in our social relations with other men, is friendliness or affability. As a part of justice it deals with externals, with the signs of courtesy and amiability. It does not demand internal love for others; that is charity’s work. But it does demand that we treat others decently, pleasantly, agreeably.
Friendliness does not demand that every man be a jester of society; friendliness, in fact, does not deal in jokes but in serious, everyday relations. After all, we can stand only so many jokes; certainly not a gluttonous diet of them all day, every day. Yet friendliness is not a barrier to a joke; on the contrary, it is a distinct barrier to a perpetual listening to the jokes of others, a mere passivity in social relations that contributes nothing but takes all that others give. Where this virtue of friendliness is weakening, social relations will fade to such desperate measures as a dinning radio, a perpetual movie, enough drink for oblivion and a headache, or even to a game of solitaire.
Affability or friendliness can go too far, either to the position of the “yes men” of society who, in their desire for peace at any price in their social relations, refuse to hurt anyone’s feelings for any reason; or to the degenerating length of flattery. Both are evidences of softness, of flabbiness; the first affects the “yes man” himself; the second saps vitality from those with whom the flatterer lives.
Social effeminacy — flattery
Flattery can be extremely serious, as when it is aimed at a libertine’s conquest, designed to prepare a man for a swindle as we fatten a pig for the killing, or when it is an occasion for sin. But even at its lightest, its obsequiousness is a disgusting thing. It is a foul, enervating cultivation of human weakness, hurrying on the disintegration of the individuals at whom it is aimed. To a healthy appetite flattery has the taste of too much whipped cream or too much of the poetry of Keats: too sweet, too sensual.
The real opinions of the flatterer are never known. He has cut the links that might have bound him to men and so to the social unit, the links by which we normally communicate with men. Instead he has chosen to use men as tools, humoring them, toying with them, playing on their weaknesses, and all the while laughing at them behind their backs.
Social savagery — truculence (“quarreling”)
The flatterer is simply too agreeable for any social good; he sins by exceeding the measure of friendliness. At the other extreme is the man who sins by a serious defect of friendliness, the man who can best be described as a social savage. He is not only indifferent to the hurt feelings of another, he actually seeks new ways to be unpleasant; it might be said that the one achievement that gives his sardonic soul pleasure is another’s embarrassment or pain. He relishes his reputation of having a sharp tongue, of being a master of invective, of being able to cast such subtly sarcastic darts that the victim is socially dead before he realizes he has been struck. Sometimes we describe him, helplessly, as a difficult person. But he is really a savage. Perhaps he does not physically torture his victim, burn him at the stake, rush off with his victim’s scalp or make a stealthy attack upon him at dawn. But he does do all that is the social equivalent of just these things. Many a victim has felt scalped after the attack of one of these social savages; and many a matron, striding victoriously away from an engagement of this kind, certainly gives the impression of having her victim’s scalp dangling from her belt even though, with proper dignity, she suppresses her victorious war-whoop. We may be maligning the savages in making a comparison between their physical attack and the social attack of social savages. Normally the savage has some reason for his attack, frequently it was a revenge for serious injustice; but these savages of civilization need no excuse to let loose the terrors of their attack.
It is not difficult to visualize the damage done by the social savage to his victims, particularly with painful memories rendering such invaluable assistance. Yet the damage he does to himself is even more devastating. He immerses himself in that personal provincialism that we call uncouthness; he builds a wall about himself, driving men savagely away from all contact with him and imposing upon himself an isolation that becomes increasingly bitter with the passing years.
Common origin of social effeminacy and savagery — contempt
Like the flatterer, the social savage nurses a contempt for others; specifically, a contempt for their feelings which are not to be compared with his own satisfaction. But even so, his contempt for men is a lesser thing than that indulged in by the flatterer; at least the social savage pays us the compliment of social violence a much more satisfying thing than the secret snigger of the flatterer at the fool who swallows his flattery.
Social exile by defect of liberality
The truthful man and the friendly man give themselves to the social life. The liberal man gives a much lesser gift — his goods — but with a similar result of tying men closer to himself, making himself a more intimate participator of the unity of men in the social organism. Taken strictly, liberality is a regulator of the love, desire and pleasure in money and the things money can buy. More remotely, but much more evidently to others, liberality deals with the possessions of a man; in concrete terms, the liberal man uses riches well. The corollary of that statement of the nature of liberality is that the liberal man uses men well, never placing riches above them; his every act is an implicit compliment to his own humanity and the humanity of others, fully justifying the opinion that he is a man of refreshingly sound common sense whose scale of values leaves no doubt but what it is the man who tosses the coin, not the coin the man. As a result the liberal man never lacks friends. And they are real friends, friends who in their turn, when their means allow, show an equal or even a superior liberality. Indeed, often the shock of personal contact with liberality will awaken a man to the real value of his own humanity and of the humanity of those around him.
The nature of liberality
Liberality is not the greatest of the virtues. It may be one of the least, for it deals with the least of the goods of man. But it is a rough, homely, common sense virtue of tremendous social importance, an importance that is seen best, perhaps, in the sins against liberality.
Social extravagance — prodigality
There is, for instance, the sin of extravagance, the sin of the man who carries liberality to an excess. He throws money away and, of course, a host of followers gather around him like buzzards around a dead body; yet, paradoxically, the very number of his followers only emphasizes his exile. Soon the extravagant man is forced to think of everyone in terms of a “loan”; his evaluation of humanity goes down steadily and receives a confirmation in the fact that when his money is gone so also are his friends. Even if his money holds out and his “friends” never leave him out of their sight, he gets no closer to men but rather farther away; for he gets little from his friends but the flatterer’s contempt for a fool.
On the other hand, the greedy man is even more emphatically severed from men. At least the extravagant, the prodigal man puts men and women in their right place — far above money. The greedy man puts money above absolutely everything else; even, sometimes above himself, to the point of starving himself in order to amass money. His contempt for humanity is countered by his fellows through their contempt for his greed; the miser goes into a voluntary exile as effectively as if he had locked himself up in a cell and dropped the key down a drain pipe.
Social niggardliness — avarice
Avarice, the sin of the greedy man, may seem only a slight sin in its direct opposition to liberality; liberality is, after all, not one of the greatest of the virtues, so avarice cannot be one of the greatest of the vices. But avarice so easily steps over the boundaries of justice that it is no trick at all to catch it poaching on the rights of others. There is great danger in its inherent gravity; but that danger is as nothing compared to the danger involved in avarice precisely as a capital sin. Here it is the father of a family; we must reckon not only with the sin itself but with all its dangerously ugly offspring.
In fact, in another place, St. Thomas has called avarice one of the roots of all sins, giving it a place just below pride. As a capital sin it proudly presents its children to the world: betrayal of friends, cheating, deceit, perjury, restlessness, violence, hard-heartedness. Understand that these are not the enumerations of an orator trying to frighten his audience away from avarice. These sins arc logically, inevitably connected with the sin of avarice. The greedy man is head over heels in love with money; he will hold desperately to the conquest he has made and be on fire for still more of money’s caresses. Of course he will go too far in holding to what money he has; and he will go too far in trying to get more. He will be restless and worried about his present treasure, prepared to go to any violent lengths to acquire more; ready even to deceive men, cheat them, and confirm his cheating and deception by calling God to witness. In his eyes, all these things are paltry compared to the beauty of money. Since he has placed money so high in his scale of values, he will not hesitate to sacrifice men for its sake, even those who are closest to him; even one who is the Son of God, if there are thirty pieces of silver to be had for the betrayal.
We have now seen all the equipment for and the dangers to social life. It is time to look back over it all for a composite view, lest we overemphasize a detail and mar the whole picture. Perhaps it would be better to look up rather than look back, for the unifying power of the social order is the shadow of God hovering over it all, softening the light and tempering the heat of divine power. You will remember that we said religion looked to God as to the First Beginning and the Last End; that piety looked to parents and to country as participating the principality of God; while observance looked to superiors as participating the principality of parents. In other words, we have seen that the relation of parent to child is as the relation of God to His creatures; the relation of superiors to their citizens as the relation of parents to children.
The benign paternity of God smiles on the whole social structure. Every unit of it is a mirroring of the divine Fatherhood, a ray of that source of light, dimmer as we get farther and farther away, but immediately dependent on that single source of brightness. It is because of the principality of God that parents have a claim to reverence from their children; it is because of the principality of parents and country that superiors have a claim to obedience and reverence from their subjects.
Perfection of the social instinct — the gift of piety
The perfection of social life is seen in the concept of paternity. The perfection of our payment of social debts, social obligations, is seen in the reverence and honor given to God, our common Father. To look at God as our Father is an appealing thing and yet it is a difficult thing. It is appealing because it touches the deepest chords in our nature. We are His children more truly than we are the children of our own parents; we owe Him a deeper, more perpetual debt; to Him we come with our smallest troubles, our smallest joys, at every critical moment in our life, and, with even more familiarity, in those moments that are not at all critical. But it is a difficult thing because it is not easy to be familiar with God. For that we need help, help, in fact, of a member of the family of God; the help of God Himself, God the Holy Ghost. We need both a divine push and a responsiveness to that push such as is offered by the gifts of the Holy Ghost; and this particular responsiveness for social perfection is given to us as the gift of piety.
The nature of this gift
The gift of piety makes us easily and promptly responsive to the movements of the Holy Ghost. It inspires us to look upon and to reverence God as our Father, as the Father of all men, as the benign Father of all humanity. The operation of this gift is more or less taken for granted by the Catholic; familiarity with God seems natural to him who has been addressing God as Father since he was first able to lisp a prayer. He has been a member of the household of divinity for so long that it almost seems too ordinary a thing to single out for special consideration; but it is no ordinary thing to belong to the family of God. That family relationship which is the bond of our union is more penetrating than the bond of common blood; it is as deep as our dependence on God. The gift of piety in action, then, gives us a model for our reverence to parents and superiors for, in a lesser way than God, they too are our principles, our beginnings.
Its distinction from religion, filial fear and the virtue of piety
It must be clearly understood that the gift of piety is not the virtue of religion; this latter bows to the first principle and the last goal, by its subjection paying a debt of justice. Nor is it the virtue of piety by which we give reverence to our carnal parents; rather the gift of piety looks to the very source of parenthood. It is by no means to be confused with that fear which is a reverent awe of divine majesty. Rather this is a child’s response to a loving Father Who is God.
Its extension to all men
The gift of piety represents the climax of social fitness. It is a statement of the sublime heights to which a man can climb in his social life, a height reached not by tearing down but by looking up. It is social manhood, with all the full strength and vigor of adult age. We have come a long way to this full social manhood from its feeble beginnings of social infancy; for there it was a question of just the minimum strength and vigor necessary for life itself. Or, to abandon metaphorical terms, we have come a long way from the minimum demands of justice, which were the absolute essentials of social life, to this peak of social fitness which is the gift of piety. Nevertheless it is essential that we have a very clear idea of those bare essentials of social life, those demands of babyhood; for they remain the essentials of any stage of social life.
Minimum demands for social unity — the Ten Commandments
The minimum demands of social fitness are stated in the Ten Commandments. It is most fitting that those commands should have been underscored by the finger of God; for without them we cannot hope for life either in the kingdom of man or in the kingdom of God. Like all things essential — like breathing, seeing, digesting — these precepts of justice have an air of easy naturalness about them. They all deal with justice and justice is the most evident of our obligations. If a man’s horizons are limited to his own mirror he might, by a peculiar blindness, see himself as self-sufficient, completely in command, with obligations only to himself. But as soon as he steps out into the world of men, these illusions are shattered; other men will not let him make the mistake of thinking they do not count, they will insist that he see that he has obligations to others, that he is not the lord of all men but rather the companion of all men. These precepts have their easy air not merely because they flow immediately from the first principles of natural law, but also because their obligation is so easily seen and so readily agreed to by man.
General character of the Decalogue — precepts of justice;
Particular character of the Decalogue
All of the Ten Commandments are really commands of justice; they demand only that we respect the rights of others, that we refrain from injury to another. Naturally enough, the supreme rights of God are protected first: the first two commandments removing the injuries or impediments of superstition and irreligion; the third, with the impediments removed, gets us down to an actual payment of our debt of religion. In the fourth commandment, the rights of parents, country and superiors are protected; and finally, in the others, the rights of men as men have their sacred character written on them by the hand of God, rights that embrace the personal, the domestic and the proprietary fields. And the protection given is absolute, against all injury, whether by thought, word or deed,
It is to be understood, of course, that these commandments are not licenses to do anything that they do not mention; adultery is by no means an exhaustive statement of the sins against purity. Rather these commandments are general or root terms, statements that include all sins against justice. We are not asked to stretch our imaginations to cover all impurity with the blanket prohibition of adultery; that particular sin is mentioned because it is the most obvious violation of justice in the line of impurity. Thus, also, the inclusion of all superiors under the fourth commandment is not a matter of reading things into the orders of God; reverence to parents is simply the most obvious of the obligations of reverence, that which will be most easily seen and readily agreed to by men. In other words, the Ten Commandments are the least statement of the secondary principles of the natural law in their most obvious application. Their form is merely another example of God stooping graciously to our level, making as easy and obvious as possible the path by which we shall find our way home to Him.
Equity and the Decalogue
There is one particularly noteworthy characteristic of this law which makes a fitting conclusion to St. Thomas’ tract on justice. In human law our obedience can never be absolute; sometimes it would be evil to follow the letter of the law, against justice and against the common good. After all, human legislators are not omniscient; they do the best they can, striking an average and legislating for what usually happens. In individual cases, which of course they cannot foresee much less legislate for, something special is needed to preserve justice; some special virtue which will really protect the lawgiver’s intention of meting out justice. It is not an attack on the majesty of law but a defense of the honesty of both law and legislator to insist on the special virtue of equity to protect justice in the individual case.
Now the peculiar characteristic of this divine law is that no equity is needed. Indeed no equity is possible; this law deals with what happens, not in most cases, but in absolutely all cases. It flows from the roots of nature itself and the greatest injustice that could be done to the individual would be to enable him to pass out of the limits of this law. God did not overlook anything, there was no individual case which He did not foresee or could not legislate for; for God, you see, is not a human legislator. This law commands the essential; it is not affected by circumstances, by this or that age, this or that economic development. It is the law for all men, in all times, under all circumstances. Perhaps all this is said very simply when we insist that the virtue of equity is the superior rule of human action and there is no higher rule of human action than the law of God; or, still more simply, God is God and man is man even in the business of legislation.
Conclusion: Virtue and society:
General necessity of virtue in society
Let us try to sum up, not only what has been done in this chapter, but in the past few chapters on justice. Let us take one last glance at the social life of man. In the preceding volume of this work we spoke of virtues, identifying them as good, operative habits, as the habits which were the immediate principles of good actions. Now it is precisely by action that men come into contact one with another; it is by this that men are linked together, and it is by good actions that men are bound together in one social unit. Why? Because it is only for good actions that men need help to struggle on to perfection. No man needs help to fail, to commit sin, to degrade himself; but he does need help for fuller life, for the development possible through social life. The virtuous man, then, is the best citizen; he is linked most closely to other citizens and, at the same time, he offers most to that common life of society.
This may have the hollow ring of a pompous platitude; but let us look at it more closely in the light of what we have seen in these last few chapters. For a fuller perfection for ourselves and for the guarantee and protection of the rights of others, i.e., for social life, the very least requirements are justice, religion, piety, observance and dulia. To go up a step higher to more perfect social life, we must have gratitude, truth, friendliness, liberality. Finally, for the complete perfection of social life, the gift of the Holy Ghost which is piety is necessary. All of these are habits; all are good, operative habits. In other words, all of them are virtues; and in proportion as they are more perfectly possessed, the individual becomes so much more of an asset to society.
According as a society is made up more fully of virtuous men, men possessed not only of the virtues demanded for the minimum of social life, but also those which make for the perfection of social life, that society is more perfect. Virtue is not something that can exist in society without hurting anyone’s feelings or impeding the flow of traffic; it is something that must exist if society is to exist. It is by virtue that men are tied one to another; and it is in that linking of man to man that society has its essential origin.
The Church versus a godless society: The enemy and the friend
This will, I think, make clear the real issues involved in the modern battle which is becoming more and more an open fight, the battle between the Church and godless groups. This consideration of virtuous society certainly seems to show that on the outcome of this battle hangs the fate of society itself. There is considerable confusion in men’s minds today as to which is the friend, and which is the enemy of society, the champions of godliness or the champions of sanctity; but the issue is clear and the answer simple when we understand the relation of virtue to society. Any group that abandons virtue, that condemns it, that does its utmost to root it out, is beyond doubt society’s bitterest enemy. Any group that cultivates virtue, that insists upon its practice as the uppermost concern in the life of a man, is by that token alone the most valuable friend that human society can have.
Solver of difficulties
Indeed, we are doing the Church an injustice if we stop at the insistence that she is the friend of society. We are not saying nearly enough when we go further and maintain that, because of her exhaustive knowledge of and championship of virtue, particularly of the virtue of justice, she has the answer to the problems of society. The Church is more than a friend, more than a solver of difficulties; she is the protector of the absolute fundamentals of social life. Not, you understand, of the absolutely essential virtue of justice alone; but of the very integrators of society — of the family upon which it is modeled and from which it proceeds. There is still one step to take: the Church is the protector of the very humanity of man, without which anything human, society included, is utterly inconceivable.
Protector of fundamentals
In this chapter we spoke of the social savage and noticed his provincial character of uncouthness; he has cut himself off from men and that separation has made itself evident in his very uncouthness. Culture is one of the products to be expected of social life; as a part of social life, it should be brought about by precisely those things that are most conducive to the perfection of social life. As the social life improves so the deeper and greater should be the culture it produces. Yet, if we ask what are the things that are most conducive to the perfection of society, our only answer can be, the virtues: justice, religion, piety, observance, gratitude, truth, friendliness, liberality and the gift of piety. Culture and the virtues, then, are not to be separated.
Champion of culture
The significance of this truth can hardly be overestimated. Obviously it means that culture is not something to be found in the books that have been read, the plays that have been seen, the languages that have been mastered or the tastes that have been acquired. All of these are more or less superficial indications of an intense social life, past or present; but they are superficial and they are merely indications. They can be, and in fact have been, cut off from the deep roots and living sources of social perfection from which, originally, they spring. It is possible to have an entirely artificial culture, an inherited culture, for instance, which has no relation to the age in which a man lives. But of course such a culture is decadent.
It is a far cry from that living culture which explains the French peasant’s contagious pleasure and proud welcome of a stranger to his evening repast of bread, wine and cheese or the protective strength in which the voyager is enveloped as the Irish peasant, with one and the same gesture, throws open the door of his cottage and the door of his heart. An artificial culture is separated from the life of a society and is as ghastly a thing as theatrical make-up seen in bright sunlight. Just as the perfection of social life is rooted in the perfection of virtue. so also the truest culture is something that need not be coaxed along in a kind of social hot-house. It is the inescapable product of a man, a virtuous man, living in society.