The Plight of the Homeless, Conclusion
Every civilized society goes through a phase of “enlightenment,“ and some, if they are lucky, survive it. The sophists of the Fifth Century taught their students that man was the measure of all things, that values are conventional and not rooted in nature, that we know nothing of the gods, that might makes right. Socrates, although a genuinely irritating man in many respects, saw the problem being created by atheism and moral relativism, but neither he nor his best student Plato understood the danger inherent in their own tendency to treat political and social life in abstract and universal terms. Plato’s Republic might just as well have been called Utopia. Aristotle, fortunately, has provided the permanent corrective to the Socratic moral heresies, but it was not the students of Aristotle that dominated the later Greek approach to politics, but the Epicureans, who taught men to feign interest but cultivate indifference to their local community, and the Stoics, who preached the doctrine of world citizenship. Although both schools were to have pernicious effects during the Enlightenment, the Romans converted Stoicism into a pragmatic, albeit austere, creed of duty. The Emperor Marcus, who divided himself into, on the one hand, universal man, and on the other, a particular Roman born into a certain family, is a long way from the Phoenician confidence man who founded the school.
Good character and good intentions can partially convert a philosophical sow’s ear into a silk purse. Look how Jefferson sidestepped his own nonsensical theory of natural rights, when it was a question of defending Virginia. The Enlightenment that infected Jefferson, like the sophistic movement in 5th century Greece, entailed a rejection of the particular and local in favor of the universal, of the sacred and mysterious in favor of the secular and rational. Demystification, like so many other bright ideas, sounds better in the morning than it does in the dead of night. If my poor human life cannot be given meaning by tradition and ritual, then I will carve out my own destiny, like Robespierre or Napoleon, Lincoln or Mussolini, and if nations will not obey me, there is the heroic road taken by the fictional Raskolnikov or the all-too real serial killers who have cut such a swathe through our post-Christian world.
Most Americans, hell-bent on success, do not dream of conquering nations or murdering our neighbors. Our vast ambitions are defined by bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger blonds. In John Huston’s Key Largo, when Rocco the gangster (Edward G. Robinson) is asked what he wants, he does not know how to answer until Humphrey Bogart tells him, “I know what you want. You want more.” More is the creed of a lost people. “He who dies with the most toys wins,” reads a sign I used to see in expensive tackle shops. Like children piling up stuffed animals on the bed, we think our toys can shield us from the great emptiness we really believe in, and even if we go to church, it is neither a great cathedral built to the greater glory of God nor a humble chapel where the faithful pray. No, our churches must have big screen TVs, youth choirs waving their arms as they bellow loud commercial music that might be used to advertise the bogus beer we drink. Some of us demand song-and-dance numbers more appropriate to the midway of a county fair, and we expect to be told our Christian duty by wavy-haired, tooth-capped preacherboys who could fill in for one of the Chippendales—anything to distract us from the thought that we are going to die alone, and no matter how pretty the plot we have chosen in the “memorial garden,” our corpse is one plant that is not going to come up again in the Spring. In thinking that pagan thought we have already made our existence Hell, but we have not even the pagan comfort of thinking that our flimsy afterlife will be consoled, once or twice a year, by ritual prayer and feeding administered by descendants who are both pious and a little bit afraid.
I am saying nothing that has not been said before by the Agrarians, and by Pound and Eliot.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Dante’s vision of Hell has become Eliot’s London. Eliot was going mad as he wrote The Wasteland. He found some sanity in joining the Church of England and in becoming a kind of English patriot as the local references in the Four Quartets suggest.
For many of us, who have spent our lives moving and traveling, it is too late to put down deep roots in the soil of California—or of Illinois, on whose people and identity Edgar Lee Masters long ago pronounced the eulogy. We can do our best, however, to love the places in which we find ourselves or to move to places we can learn to love, knowing that all such particular and partial loves are preparation for the full love we shall only know when we finally make our way home to where we belong.