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Where Do We Get Such Dissolutes?

January 29, 2020 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


(Editor’s Note: Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun, and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
(Deacon Toner has contributed numerous commentaries to The Wanderer. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.)

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A number of intellectual historians have attempted, with understandably varying degrees of credibility, to explain why countries and civilizations succeed or dissolve. Edward Gibbon, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Carroll Quigley come promptly to mind.
From the nations mentioned in Gen. 15:19-21 through the lengthening roster of today’s failed states, the number of “dissolved” countries is astonishing. Even culture itself, the purported successor to religious faith, if we are to believe Simon During’s recent essay (The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 18, 2019), is dissolving in the acids of the newest wave of secularization.
From Plato’s Republic (especially in Book VIII) through Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, scholars have attempted to explain the rise and demise of political societies and to chart the centrifugal ideological forces that lead to Balkanization and the fracture of national core values.
A prophecy in that regard is to be found, as well, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in which we read that, before the Parousia, there will be a pervasive evil “in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth” (n. 675).
As Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out, in After Virtue, “I inherit from the past of my family…[and] my nation, a variety of…rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity.”
Suppose the plaintive question asked in the Psalms — what can the just do when the foundations of the moral public order are destroyed? — is now apposite? When the family and the nation provide, not “rightful expectations and obligations,” but disordered and sinful formation — what then?
All theorists of crisis, of challenge and response, and of civilizational cachexia concern themselves, directly or indirectly, with leadership. We recognize, at once, a kind of Euthyphro dilemma, for there is a chicken-and-egg element to any question of virtuous leadership. Do wise leaders produce a good civilization, or does a good civilization produce wise leaders?
Although this is a valuable topic in and for a seminar in intellectual history or political theory, let us here simply agree with Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), who wrote that “every nation gets the government it deserves.” By extension, civilizations ultimately have the kinds of leaders they deserve.
This offers us, at present, very small comfort. If Plato was right that, until kings are philosophers or philosophers are kings (Book V of the Republic), “there can be no rest for the cities, and I think for the whole human race.”
The philosopher-king, of course, would practice the cardinal virtues (Wisdom 8:7) and would, in short, be a good human being.
In The Bridges at Toko-ri, which is a movie based on James Michener’s novel about carrier pilots during the Korean War, fictional Admiral George Tarrant, observing the pilots’ heroism, pensively asks, “Where do we get such men?”
We get them, of course, from colleges, in turn raising this question: Does today’s college experience reliably and routinely produce young men and women of noble character? If we answer, “No,” then why we do express surprise or shock at the debauchery of our customs and country? As the moral climate of our nation continues to degenerate — as the classical glass of virtue is shattered, arguably beyond repair, by the rock of modernist ideology — there will be persistent poisoning of the cisterns (cf. Jer. 2:13) of those educational institutions upon which we rely for leaders of wisdom and virtue.
We thus have the proverbial vicious cycle: a corrupt society produces reprobate colleges which, in turn, further corrode society.
Is it that we no longer know right from wrong, good from evil, or virtue from vice; or is it that we find such distinctions incompetent, irrelevant, and inconvenient? There are, in any case, novel and meretricious criteria by which to judge what is virtuous. The traditional understanding of virtue, to cite the definition of Fr. John Hardon, SJ, is, to put it mildly, dissolved by contemporary fads, fancies, and fashions: Virtue is a “good habit that enables a person to act according to right reason enlightened by faith.”
Some years ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen admonished us: “Counsel involving right and wrong should never be sought from a man who does not say his prayers, [for]…the faith-illumined reason understands reality better than the naked reason.”
Is it not prudent and, in fact, necessary to expect our ostensibly Catholic college presidents, professors, pundits, and politicians to say their prayers before counseling the rest of us? We are biblically instructed, after all, to “seek advice from every wise man [Tobit 4:18],” not from impostors, false prophets, and demagogues — or from prayerless pretenders to political perspicacity.
To be sure, there can and should be debates about Moynihan’s concept of “defining deviancy down,” the Overton Window, the Peter Principle, and allied concepts which seek to explain moral decline and ineptitude. But we cannot be fairly dismissed as alarmist if we study the last half-century or more, concluding that our country and civilization are, to put it most bluntly, dying.
When Alasdair MacIntyre wrote forty years ago that a new dark ages “are already upon us” and that the barbarians “have already been governing us for quite some time,” he was prescient. All we have seen since that time is greater and graver dissolution.

Vanishing Virtue

The Republic collapses for two chief reasons: moral and monetary, having one source, rarely identified. There is at work in any organization the principle of vanishing virtue, by which I mean the ineluctable tendency of leaders to surrender to popular caprice.
Walter Lippmann put it this way in The Public Philosophy: “With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate. . . their constituencies. . . . The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular — not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately.”
This is the stuff of ochlocracy or mobocracy.
Often attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to the Scottish lawyer Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747 — 1813) is the observation that “a democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”
Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have made a similar observation.
These moral and monetary failures have common parentage: vanishing virtue. Over time, the standards, norms, and customs associated with virtue “chafe”; that is, people grow weary of a virtuous regimen which requires the kind of fiduciary discipline and public order which are the hallmarks of well-led and purposeful society. To attain and preserve power, leaders increasingly surrender to the popular appetites, which may be at odds with a morally (or economically) healthy society.
To justify departures from traditional virtue and practice — be it academic, artistic and musical, commercial, ethical, fiscal, legal, or military — “leaders” and the crowd produce debauched language, fallacious reasoning, and utopian promises to incite support. Denial of established traditions and standards follows. Of course, the natural law is dismissed as outdated or even as prejudiced, and God is banished from the public square. As one translation of Prov. 29:18 has it: “A nation without God’s guidance is a nation without order.”
As virtue dissolves, “[o]ur courts oppose the righteous, and justice is nowhere to be found. Truth stumbles in the streets, and honesty has been outlawed. Justice is driven away, and right cannot come near” (Isaiah 59:14; cf. Jer. 7:28).
The result is moral and financial poverty; educational contamination; rampant moral confusion; lies and fraud; corruption on a mass scale; and, finally, the death of the society which has lost its vision of history and of destiny. The nation then has the leaders — and the colleges — it deserves. That is our path today.
Yet all around us swirl the mellifluous and specious assurances that all will be well if we elect this person or support that platform or party. It is not so.
“You are doomed, you sinful nation, you corrupt and evil people! Your sins drag you down! You have rejected the Lord, the holy God of Israel, and have turned your backs on him” (Isaiah 1:4).

Hold On Firmly To Truth

Even those who should be preaching and prophesying hard truths too often appease the crowd (cf. John 12:43, Gal. 1:10, 1 Thess. 2:4), saying that what was sinful is now acceptable in our brave new world of popular permissiveness (cf. CCC, n. 2526); what was once liturgically sacred and beautiful is superseded by secularized and banal “worship services”; what was the mission of the Church — the salvation of souls — is now supplanted by, for example, worry about climate change or frenzied commitment to the ordination of, well, everybody.
As for those offering homilies: “Their preaching deceived you by never exposing your sin. They made you think you did not need to repent” (Lam. 2:14; cf. Mal. 2:8 and Ezek. 33:7-9).
“Nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good” (Pope Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, n. 14). Isn’t it time to ask, therefore, as “Admiral Tarrant” did (although in a different time, in a different way, and of very different leaders), “Where do we get such men” as those morally enfeebled and cowardly people who today lead us to personal and political perdition? (See 2 Tim. 4:3-4, Heb. 12:12, Isaiah 35:3).
Why should we repent if there is no sin? How can we reform our lives if there are no standards superior to our own appetites and urges? Whom should we turn to for guidance when those who should testify to the Truth are, as Lippmann said, “insecure and intimidated,” anxious only to “placate, bribe, appease, bribe, seduce, [and] bamboozle”?
As Hebrews adjures us: “That is why we must hold on all the more firmly to the truths we have heard, so that we will not be carried away” (Heb. 2:1). And today there is a ferocious moral and political tornado imperiling us by “every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful men, who lead others into error by the tricks they invent” (Eph. 4:14; cf. Heb. 13:9a).
The disorder we confront — the chasm of moral and political dissolution — is the result of the hubris of apocryphal leaders who have vanquished virtue. These are modern Nero types whom, so often, we mindlessly applaud or soullessly cheer. Rarely do we care and never do we ask, “Where do we get such vicious men?” We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind (cf. Hosea 8:7), of the dissolute despots we deserve. The predatory Sabaeans and Chaldeans are here (Job 1:15-17), and they look very distressingly familiar.
As Pogo told us, ungrammatically but prophetically, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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