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A Book Review… What Man Does Not Reverence, He Will Profane

July 16, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN

Society and Sanity, by Frank Sheed (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2013), 261 pp. $17.95. Available from www.ignatius.com or at 1-800-651-1531.

This new edition of Sheed’s 1953 classic work of apologetics brings to mind the famous myth of Procrustes’ bed. The wicked king captures his victims then tortures them if their legs do not fit his notorious bed. If they are too short, he stretches them; if too long, he cuts them to fit the size of the bed. Rather than build a bed to accommodate the variety of human beings, he twists and distorts the given, normal, natural sizes of human legs to force them to a prefabricated construction that does not respect or fit the nature of the human body.
Procrustes’ bed typifies the kind of insanity that Sheed’s classic work of apologetics addresses. Regarding social ills that require political solutions, one form of insanity, for example, ignores the primary consideration: the truth about man’s essential nature: “The first reason is that all social orders are made for man, and must be tested by their aptitude to men.”
In other words, all governments and ideologies that invent abstract, theoretical solutions to human problems without a foundation in the universal truth about man’s unchanging nature follow the madness of Procrustes’ ignorance.
As Sheed explains and defines it, “sanity” respects the nature of things, acknowledges self-evident truths, and conforms to the structure of reality. “Insanity,” then, denies the God-given, revealed, intelligible facts about human nature, marriage, family, moral law, and society known to both reason and faith and validated throughout the ages by the entire wisdom and accumulated experience of the human race.
No one can build, Sheed argues, without a basic knowledge of the nature of the raw material used in the construction. No government can create a civilized, just society without an understanding of “what man is.” Whatever the social change, economic policy, or educational agenda, “The first question should be, Does it fit the nature of man?” Without this fundamental truth in place, government rushes to assume “more and more control of man’s life” — the problem in all socialistic or totalitarian governments that deform man’s nature.
Sheed first defines “Man Essential”: human beings as created by God in His image, formed with an immortal soul, and redeemed by Christ by His Blood. Man’s spiritual, intellectual, and moral inheritance is ordered to grow in the love of God, in possession of the truth, and in the perfection of the natural and supernatural virtues. Although Sacred Scripture and Christian Revelation affirm the dignity and personhood of man, Sheed argues that “a large part of it could have been arrived at, and all of it confirmed, by looking at man” — by way of reason and experience as philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero illustrate.
“Man Essential” also recognizes the truth of man’s unity of body and soul, the integrity of man as an embodied spirit in whom the body affects the state of the soul and the soul informs the body. To reduce man to mere body, pure mind, or spiritual substance distorts his essential nature and violates his integrity as much as Procrustes tortures his victims.
These aspects of Man Essential, however, rarely receive the recognition they deserve. Whether it is materialists who ignore spiritual life as “delusion” or spiritualists who view the body as a machine or a prison rather than the temple of the Holy Spirit, the entire truth about man suffers reduction and impoverishment as religious heresies, scientific theories like chance and evolution, and political ideologies like Marxism illustrate: “Only the Christian writes off no universal experience. He accepts the whole of the evidence” — the quintessential mark of sanity.
Because of man’s human nature as rational, moral, and spiritual, he inherits what Sheed calls “real rights not concessions,” and these include “to be treated as what he is” — neither a slave, a creature of the state, an animal, nor an object; “the right to act as what he is” — a moral agent with free will and intelligence who assumes responsibility and initiative; “to move toward the goal for which he has been made” — a person made to love God and neighbor and follow the inviolability of conscience. Sheed argues that only the Christian view of man provides the first principles and logical formulations of these human rights and thus “makes man’s rights defensible” rather than an instinct, custom, or opinion.
Any interference with these inherent God-given rights robs man of the reverence and respect he is due as man. Insanity ignores the objective reality of human rights and regards them as subjective feelings.
For Sheed the contrast between the Stoic’s philosophy about man as a person owed reverence (Homo sacra res homini) and Christ’s sacrificial death for man’s redemption exalts man’s nature as of absolute, ultimate, eternal value because God’s total love spared not even His Son who emptied Himself with every last drop of His Blood.
If man is precious and of infinite value to God, God’s love for man, then, dictates reverence for all human beings as the first principle for social order and family life: “every man seen as valuable simply for being a man.” All human beings by virtue of their divine image command respect and deserve dignity: “We must value all men for being men, all men, weak, stupid, vicious, not only the mediocre average even, but the dismal worst.” To reject this fundamental truth destroys the basis for civilized society.
This first principle of respect and reverence for each person forms the essence of civilization, a human society, the family, and morality. To scorn people for the menial work of their manual labor, to use women as prostitutes or mere instruments of pleasure, to treat employees as mere machinery or tools, to view members of other races or nationalities as inferior — all profane human beings as objects of no importance or value.
Once this first principle and universal truth lose their authority, then a cynicism that masks itself as Machiavellian “realism” exploits human beings for advantage using what Sheed calls a Politician’s Handbook, the view that “every man has his price” and “there’s a fool born every minute.” This false realism that imagines itself as honest truth, however, is not sanity because it “omits so much,” ignores man’s essence as a person entitled to respect, and overlooks man’s variety, individuality, and “incalculability.” It fails to acknowledge man’s weakness as deserving compassion rather than ridicule or exploitation. Sanity is the true realism that sees things clearly and as a whole.
While “Man Existential” (man as he is) never perfectly conforms to “Man Essential” (man as he ought to be), it does not follow that the state ought to exert more control over its citizens at the loss of their personal liberty and responsibility. Although the unequal distribution of wealth and property and the use of alcohol cause many social problems, Sheed explains, solutions like Communism, socialism, or the prohibition of alcohol fail to take into account man’s essential nature: “If you treat men as non-responsible, you make them incapable of initiative, and one source of vitality in them is dried up.”
Without initiative or vitality, human beings feel no obligation to be fruitful and multiply in a world that lowers their morale and diminishes their spirit and love of life. Any political order or policy that ignores man’s natural desire to own property or right to freedom of worship dehumanizes him and commits the folly of “plucking out something so intimately woven into man’s nature” — another kind of insanity.
The insanity of modernity, then, attempts to reinvent man according to another image than in the likeness of God instead of restoring him to his true nature — “to be treated as he is” instead of recreated as a product of the state, a material being in need of only physical comforts, or a useful functionary in the economic force.
Sanity recognizes the inestimable value and immortal soul of persons capable of wisdom, love, heroism, and sacrifice — persons not ruled by money, competition, or “the undue thrust of self” as seen in the example of soldiers, policemen, and firefighters who risk their lives even for strangers and validate man’s moral depth and great sources of love.
Sheed warns of other distortions of man’s true nature reflected in the Puritan’s contempt for bodily pleasure as sinful and the hedonist’s glamorization of the body’s sensual appetites as the ultimate source of man’s happiness.
In opposition to these false views, marriage promises “a splendor of sex impossible outside it” because “the giving of the bodies at once symbolizes, expresses, and helps to effect, the giving of the selves. The completer the self-giving, the richer the bodily union.” This mutual giving and receiving enriches and vitalizes both man and woman and deepens the relationship because “there is no end to the exploration of a personality.”

Permanent Things

As with man’s nature, so too with marriage. It cannot be deconstructed or remade into a new model: “Marriage is what it is: God made it what it is because thus it is best for the human race. Man cannot alter it; he can only take it or leave it.” The nature of “Marriage Essential” — as God designed its purpose — is intended to be “splendidly performed” with generosity and joy, not begrudgingly or perfunctorily, not “dutifully without elation.” Because marriage is a sacrament, it bestows grace, “an energizing of God’s life in the soul” that revitalizes both body and soul in conjugal union. It intensifies the couple’s union with God “in the spiritual depths of the soul.”
Again, if husband and wife do not express reverence for each other but resort to infidelity, divorce, or contraception, they build their own Procrustes’ bed that violates the integrity of the body: “Life must be sacred, sex must be sacred, marriage must be sacred” because “what man does not reverence, he will profane.”
At the same time “Marriage Existential” never perfectly conforms to “Marriage Essential” in its highest ideal. The disappointments that accompany the defects of husband and wife, the “insufficiency of personality” or the inability of either spouse to fulfill the other with the total, complete happiness that only God gives, and the temptation to reform the spouse contrary to the person’s inviolable male or female nature or God-given temperament demands “the reverence that flows from a right vision of what man is — that this loutish man, this empty-headed woman is God’s image, an immortal spirit, loved by Christ even to the death on the Cross.”
This is a seminal work of penetrating insight and luminous wisdom about all the Permanent Things — man’s nature, moral law, human rights, marriage, and the social order — that have the same compelling importance in 2018 that they possessed in 1953.
Sanity and insanity are not hard to differentiate, and Sheed masterfully exposes the world of difference between common sense and nonsense, between the wisdom of the ages and the imaginary ideas of modern ideologies, and the right and wrong use of beds.

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