The Radical Error of Our Time
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2019
The Catholic Thing
Egalitarianism is the radical error of our time. If we do not attack it at the root, we will find we have nothing of cultural or spiritual value left to conserve.
The position of the conservative, whether liberal in his politics or otherwise, presumes inequality. A man ought to love his homeland more than he loves another, so he defends against its demise. Certain works of culture are better than others and command our special care.
When we love with a grateful heart, the image of God in us shines most clearly. By gratitude the creature resembles the Creator, who gives freely across an infinite abyss of being, who needs nothing, and who asks for nothing but love. Gratitude acknowledges the goodness of the giver and the gift, and delights in the excellence of both.
“Equality,” says C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, “is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live.” Equality “is medicine, not food.”
Political equality may be necessary because men are fallen, and there is also a sense, says Lewis, in which we are equal in the sight of God, whose love does not depend upon our social rank or intellectual acuity. Apart from Him, and by comparison with Him, our value is the same: nothing. In the Church, says Lewis, “we recover our real inequalities and are thereby refreshed and quickened.”
Where could Lewis have gotten such an idea? From all of Christian thought and art, and from a sane view of what all peoples have thought to be good and better and best. From Dante, for instance.
When Dante is in the lowest sphere of Paradise, that of the inconstant moon (allegory for those who did not fulfill their sacred vows), he asks his sister-in-law Piccarda whether she desires a higher place, to love more and see more and be held more dear. He is thinking in emulous terms: envy, not love, demands equality. Piccarda smiles, “like a girl in the gleaming of first love,” and replies:
“Brother, the virtue of charity
brings quiet to our wills, so we desire
but what we have, and thirst for nothing else.
If we should feel a yearning to be higher,
such a desire would strike disharmony
against His will who knows, and wills us here.
That cannot catch these wheels, as you shall see:
recall love’s nature, recall that Heaven is
to live in loving, necessarily.
For it is of the essence of this bliss
to hold one’s dwelling in the divine Will,
who makes our single wills the same, and His,
So that, although we dwell from sill to sill
throughout this kingdom, that is as we please,
as it delights the King in whose desire
We find our own. In His will is our peace.”
Why would you want it otherwise? I look upon the heavens and do not see a gridwork of stars, equidistant and of one magnitude. Such a thing every night would drive us mad. I see instead what Hopkins saw and loved when he looked upon God’s creation:
All things counter, original, spare, strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckled, who knows how?
With swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is without change:
It is like the carnival of distinct persons in the Body of Christ. So Hopkins praises the lowly Jesuit saint Alphonso Rodriguez, whose mighty struggles against evil were interior and unseen:
Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event,
That in Majorca Alphonso kept the door.
The variety of offices within the Church implies inequality, as does the variety of members of the body. It is impossible to be a member without inequality and hierarchy; a body is only a body by virtue of the mutual love that binds the members, a love expressed by the virtues of selfless leadership and obedience. “I too am a man under authority,” says the centurion to Jesus, and so he knows both what it is to command and to obey.
He is like the Boatswain in The Tempest, who shows his prompt obedience to the commands of the ship’s Master by relaying them to the mariners and cheering them in their work. He is like Milton’s stripling cherubs, Ithuriel and Zephon, who obey their commander Gabriel and so are granted the privilege of discovering Satan, squat like a toad at the ear of the sleeping Eve.
Satan, playing the card of Pride, belittles them for not recognizing him right away. They must be low in the ranks of the angels. Ithuriel does not defend his rank. He replies that Satan, disobedient, no longer shines with his former glory. A man grows taller when he bows to one more honorable than he. Pride and envy shrivel. Satan knows it, despite himself:
So spake the cherub, and his grave rebuke,
Severe in youthful beauty, added grace
Invincible; abashed the devil stood
And felt how awful goodness was, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined
I suppose none of this would be controversial, except for the feminism peculiar to our time. It is peculiar; it has brought no health to the family or the Church; it has made our politics no more humane and no less bitter; it now makes Sodom equal to Jerusalem.
No body without hierarchy. Are all teachers? Are all prophets? No hierarchy without obedience: the virtue of heeding what your superior wishes, and taking it into yourself, making it a principle of your action. If I am admitted into the kingdom of God, far be it from me to demand equality with Peter and Paul. So would I lose half of my joy!
*Image: Satan Starts from the Touch of Ithuriel’s Spear by Henry Fusseli, 1776 [Cleveland Museum of Art]
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Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.