Thursday 18th October 2018

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On Capriciousness

February 2, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By C.F. MONTESANO

(Editor’s Note: C.F. Montesano is vice president with a maritime trade association in Virginia. He serves as a lector at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, D.C. Last summer, he was selected by Signum University to be a presenter at its annual “Mythmoot” conference for enthusiasts of J.R.R. Tolkien.)

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The word “capricious” takes its root in ericius, the Latin word for hedgehog. The Medieval Book of Beasts tells us the main characteristic of this animal is an ability to protect itself from “stratagems in all directions” with bristling spikes, especially in instances when it has a “presentiment of anything nasty.”
A capricious man — especially the tyrant who clings to power — tends to classify other men primarily on the basis of the threat they pose to him, and acts with an unpredictable, self-reinforcing wickedness. Tiberius, under whose rule Suetonius wrote neque tormentis neque supplicio cuiusquam pepercit (anyone was susceptible to torment or death), was as capricious a man who ever lived. He was in good company with Herod Antipas, his puppet in Jerusalem, himself the inheritor of his father’s bad qualities.
Capriciousness suggests an absence of happiness. The tyrant who bristles at every perceived threat is not likely to have a favorable outlook on life. Reason becomes attenuated from virtue to the point where, as Dostoyevsky wrote, the Devil helps.
A capricious man lacks the equanimity to face life’s vicissitudes because he places an excessive value on life’s earthly aspect. His despair of existing in the future leads to an obsession with surviving in the present. And alien to him is the resignation of knowing that many things fall outside of man’s control, often expressed in the colloquialism “in the next life.”
In this sense, the capricious man is the opposite of a martyr who, inspired by a transcendent reality, is willing to bear misfortune regardless of hazard, even if it leads to death. Here the contrast between St. Charles Lwanga with Mwanga, the African king who had him killed, is particularly apt.
Devoid of virtues that Aristotle maintains are pleasing to other good men, the capricious man is usually a loner. A tyrant who spends his waking hours as judge, jury, and, often, executioner of those he fears are bent on his demise is necessarily friendless.
Or, as the grizzled old convict tells fresh fish Elvis in the film Jailhouse Rock: “I’m an animal in the jungle and I got a motto: do unto others as they would do unto you, only do it first.”
The life of Josef Stalin demonstrates why the man who lives by that creed, and the lack of charity it implies, would have no friends, or at least none that live very long.
Perhaps the most recognizable attempt by a people to protect themselves against the capriciousness of kings is the Magna Charta of 1215, which, in a larger sense, ended the Medieval ideal of a just, Christian absolute monarchy. In the centuries that followed, the governing documents that began to appear in its wake (as well as the legal precedents they birthed) sought to establish the political rights of the various estates vis-à-vis the monarch.
The Code of Canon Law is the primary governing instrument of the Catholic Church, though the Roman Pontiff remained the sole legislative, executive, and judicial authority. Unlike their secular counterparts, the canons are taken directly from the New Testament teachings of Christ and define the obligations and limits of the Pope, bishops, priests, and the laity.
The U.S. Constitution traces its lineage back to the Magna Charta and is designed in largely the same spirit, though from a more egalitarian premise. It insulates Americans from capriciousness of governmental bodies by prohibiting the legislative branch from enacting bills of attainder, i.e., punitive measures directed against a single person. In addition, the judiciary is empowered to nullify a statute, or a regulation issued by the executive branch, if it finds either were issued in an arbitrary and capricious manner.
Despite governing documents, institutions, and checks and balances, capriciousness always remains a threat to an established order, be it ecclesial or political, because (as Augustine warned) officials will permit themselves to allow truth to become equal to their changeable minds.
Lincoln went to considerable lengths to demonstrate how a flippant remark made by Stephen Douglas about slavery in the territories would eventually lead to its nationalization.
More recently, we have seen calls to change the Constitution — or ignore it — in the name of “rights” for this or that group, something the Supreme Court did in spectacular fashion with its Obergefell decision.
And while canon law may not have prevented a Pontiff like Leo X from selling indulgences to finance his artistic whims, it at least acted as a firewall to prevent graft and extravagance from devolving into a capriciousness that would have been poisonous to the Deposit of Faith. For that, Deo gratias.
But the challenge ahead for both Church and state, in this era of mutable truth, is whether these institutions — one sacred, the other secular — can withstand the corrosive effects of those capricious souls who undermine their foundations through a constant barrage of despairing infidelity and live-for-the-moment demagoguery. If they cannot, then the alternative, as Lincoln foresaw, may well indeed be pure, unalloyed despotism.

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