The Plight of the Homeless, Part One

In one of Douglas Addams’ very silly books, Zaphod Beeblebrox, the egocentric two-headed president of the universe, is condemned to undergo the ordeal of the Total Perspective Vortex.  It is an excruciating form of torture that exposes the criminal to a sense of the infinite size of the universe and his own small place in it.  The result is the annihilation of the self.  The device was designed by a scientist who got tired of his wife telling him to put things in perspective.  The nagging wife might just as well have been Adam Smith or William Godwin or any one of the liberal philosophers who insist that he look at ourselves as an impartial spectator or extraterrestrial would.

Liberals preach perspective, Epicureans advise indifference to friends and nation, and Buddhists long for Nirvana.  Today it is principally Christians, who insist upon a sense of place.  Our universe is filled with special places: this earth, to which God deigned to send his son, the land of Judea where He was born and Galilee, which he regarded as home, the cities of the Greeks that gave us our civilization, and Rome, still the urbs aeterna, the seat of an empire of which our world, so full of itself and little else, is the merest afterthought.

But when most of us think of place, it is not Rome or Bethlehem we have in mind, but the place we came from.  But how many of us live in the town, much less the home in which we grew up?  In American towns like Rockford or Charleston, to name only two of the places I have lived in, the bright and ambitious are expected to move off to Chicago and Atlanta, or, better still, New York and Los Angeles.  Small towns, even small cities are for the losers, and Garrison Keillor may continue to bleat, in adenoidal tones, his saccharine tales of Lake Wobegone, but it is from the safe distance of St. Paul, New York, and Scandinavia.

John Crowe Ransom attributed much of America’s cultural and spiritual malaise to the refusal to settle down, and it is true that many of the great American heroes have been drifters: Christopher Columbus, Captain John Smith, Daniel Boone, Johnny Appleseed, to say nothing of Charles Lindbergh and Alan Shepherd, who are known principally for their dramatic exits from America.  Americans, as we learned in school so long ago, were hardy adventurers who packed a Bible, a spare shirt, and two chickens, and headed off, in search of adventure, to the New World.

This theme, however, has been overplayed.  Outside of fairy tales and Arthurian romances, few men are foolish enough to go on quests.  Most of our ancestors were near the end of their ropes—in a few cases this was literally true—and they were looking for cheap land and the opportunity to make a fresh start.  Once they arrived, they quickly put down roots.  Although some hardy Celts pushed off to the Appalachian frontier, most settlers who had good land held on to it.  We like to think of America as a youthful country, but, by the time of the Revolution, Englishmen had been living in Virginia for nearly 170 years, and many leaders of the rebellion—Washington and Jefferson, the Adamses, the Rutledges and Laurenses—were deeply rooted in the soil of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Carolina.

The exceptions, perhaps, prove the rule: the displaced Yankee rake Ben Franklin and that tax-collector without a country, Tom Paine.  Both of them were afflicted with the Enlightenment fantasies of objective rationalism that have done so much to undermine the sense of place and loyalty our ancestors brought with them from Old Europe.  Men of the late 18th century, following the philosophers, were learning to liberate themselves from prejudice and superstition, as they called tradition and religion, and to see the universe, not as the creation of a God who made the world and saw that it was good, but as a vast mechanical system in which the place of man was very small, and the place of the individual man infinitesimal.

Enthusiasts for the French Revolution were no longer interested in improving a single nation.  Democracy in one nation was reactionary.  The true radicals, like Tom Paine and his friend Anacharsis Clootz, had to be citizens of the world.  Clootz, proclaiming the “nullity of nations,” headed the foreign delegation to the French National Assembly.  As an Hébertiste, he suffered the penalty his party would have inflicted on much of France.  His buddy Paine narrowly escaped the same fate and died in America, one of his many homelands.  His demise in Greenwich Village seems to have cursed the place to this day and made it the natural home of bad painters and worse writers.  Paine was buried in unconsecrated ground on his own farm, but his arch-nemesis William Cobbett, in a fit of uncharacteristic and inappropriate generosity, had the corpse dug up and brought to England for burial in a patriotic monument he intended to construct.  Since Britain refused to rescind the order of outlawry passed upon a disloyal subject, the bones of the wandering taxman had to pass into the hands of a receiver.  Sic semper omnibus rerum novarum molitoribus!

Even Tom Paine grew tired of his life as perpetual revolutionary and represented himself as a respectable American man of property.  There are even stories that he repented of his atheism on his deathbed.  What did he have to lose? Young men are thrilled to discover that their parents and ancestors are wrong on all the essentials, but, as the blood cools and they no longer think themselves immortal, they begin to hear the sad old music, reminding them how briefly they walk upon the earth, how faint are the footprints they leave.  “Why ask after my ancestry?” is Glaucus’ famous reply to Diomedes  in the Iliad.  “Like leaves blowing in the winter wind are the generations of men.”

Glaucus, wise beyond his young years, is not taking time in the midst of a battle to inform his Greek enemy of the obvious fact that generations are born and pass away.  Our situation is more humiliating than that.  This entire generation passes away, scattered by the winds of time, until in three generations no one is left to remember what we looked like or what our voices sounded like.  In another generation, we cease even to be a family anecdote. Our place in the scheme of things, if looked at from a sufficiently enlightened perspective, is nowhere.

But Glaucus was not enlightened.  Although Homer’s  Achaeans had a gloomy view of the afterlife, they did celebrate the deeds of their ancestors and worshipped the gods of their native places.  Despite the melancholy tone of Glaucus’ question, he does remember six generations back to the grandfather of his namesake, who was his own great-grandfather.  Like the Romans and many Christians today, Greeks paid tribute to their dead ancestors in religious ceremonies that served to consecrate the house.  Until the philosophers taught educated Greeks to think in universal terms, the citizen of a polis was rooted in the sacred soil of Attica or Boeotia and, if he was attentive, knew the names of the gods and daimones of every hill and spring.

Early Romans were, if anything, more reverent, and it would be the work of a lifetime to memorize the names of every little god who presided over the first plowing, the second plowing, the sowing, weeding, harvesting, storing—to say nothing of the malicious spirits who inflicted the plants with mold or rust or weevils.  A Medieval European peasant had almost as many neighborhood saints and martyrs as a Greek or Roman peasant, and these mysterious and friendly powers, commemorated in rustic shrines and local festivals, and in carved stone and stained glass within the church, made the landscape bristle with energy and meaning. But the festivals are now put on for the tourists who visit the church in busloads, and where the glass has not been broken, its stories are forgotten.

To be continued

This was first published in 2004

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

16 Responses

  1. Konstantin Solodov says:

    «Enthusiasts for the French Revolution were no longer interested in improving a single nation. Democracy in one nation was reactionary. The true radicals had to be citizens of the world»

    What do you think about Diogen… and Col. 3:11 „ubi non est gentilis et Iudaeus circumcisio et praeputium barbarus et Scytha servus et liber sed omnia et in omnibus Christus“.

    It seems, the ideas of “citizen of the world” and Ecumenism are not the inventions of Enthusiasts of French Revolution only.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Why would anyone living of breathing today, other then the poor skeptic groping in the dark ages or nursing their own neurosis, introduce a notion such as transcendence, or even anything beyond physical or measurable phenomena, into this type of reflection? Especially someone who tends to view the history of Western Civilization from the point of view that nothing happened in human history between Marcus Aurelius and Rene Descartes?

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Mr. Solodov is reading into this piece an argument I did not and would not make. I do not make the preposterous assertion that Jacobins invented the notion of citizens of the world, which goes back to the Stoics at least, though as the Romans developed Stoic positions, they accommodated loyalties to family and country. (Marcus speaks as if he were a kind of dual citizen.) The Stoic commonplace, however, was not a blueprint for world domination but only an assertion of a moral obligation to fellow human beings that transcends boundaries. This was the inevitable result of the cosmopolitan experiences of Hellenistic Greeks mixing with Hellenized Egyptians, Syrians, et al. The culture of the polis turned into a kind of ecumenical civilization. This might be viewed as lamentable in some sense, but the results are impressive: Meleager of Gadara, Porphyry the Phoenician prince, Lucian of Samosata.

    The French Revolution spawned both virulent nationalism and virulent internationalism, both of them advocated by bloodthirsty cynics who had repudiated Christianity and would have been very uncomfortable in the presence of either Zeno (a Phoenician!) or the younger Cato. The Christian teaching that we are one in Christ and joined together in a universal Church has absolutely nothing to do with Jacobin imperialism.

    Why do you quote the New Testament in Latin? Quoting it in English makes it accessible to the Latinless and, if there is some point that must be made about the text, you can quote the original Greek.

  4. Konstantin Solodov says:

    Mr, Fleming, do you agree with statement that the culture of nations turned into a kind of ecumenical civilization during last 200 years?

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    No. The ecumenical “civilization” is the sewage product of the liberal project. It is the enemy of all real cultural traditions, national or otherwise.

  6. Konstantin Solodov says:

    Mr. Fleming, when was this “liberal project” started?

  7. George Bagby says:

    “Man is not created to live without space or place any more than he is designed to stand on the point of a needle, and the confusion of categories which permitted this notion to arise is one of the problems for the student of intellectual culture. The recovery of the principle of status involves a series of retrievals.” -Richard M. Weaver

  8. George Bagby says:

    I just had a curious disagreement with a good friend who insisted that one of the goals of Christianity was to break down all group distinctions and consolidate all of humanity into the Church. He said that tribes are the natural condition of human beings, but that the Church’s mission is to dissolve this primary loyalty to groups. This sounded like internationalist ideology to me, and I insisted that no one actually lives on such lines. My friend helps his own family over all other families in his parish, for instance, and ought to make the distinction. Where does this notion come from, and is there any conflict between national or tribal groupings and religion?

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    Mr. Bagby,

    “My friend helps his own family over all other families in his parish, for instance” Thank God he attends to his own daily duties and obligations first.
    Secondly, thank goodness he then spares a few minutes or hours a week for folks within his own parish. Heaven forfend that he ignore both family and parish to go “practice charity” for total strangers as is so often the case in our age. It was once upon a time almost universally recognized that it was much easier to practice charity for a few minutes or days to strangers than a lifetime of sacrifice for those one most loved in the world. It was also the common practice to do whatever good you do in secret.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The conflation of Christianity with Liberal/Marxist internationalism is a long story, some of which I tried to disentangle in the ongoing series “Properties of Blood.” The mischief includes the retelling of the Good Samaritan parable as an injunction to universal philanthropy (as opposed to a condemnation of the Jewish hierarchy’s moral exceptionalism and hypocrisy). These people are almost hopeless because they refuse to read for themselves or accept the judgments of the early Church or of anyone who does not recite the platitudes of Locke, Smith, and Mill. This friend cannot, apparently, even read the story of the Tower of Babel and understand it. Of course, this is the swill his pastors have been ladling over the Bible all his life.

    Where did it come from? Much of the story can be found in the Morality of Everyday Life, and more in Properties of Blood. It starts in Florence with the magicians’ rebellion against Christianity, gets moving with Montaigne’s and Montesquieu’s rebellion against both the French Nation, the Catholic Church and all things European, comes into full flowering in the nauseating sentimentality of both Voltaire and Rousseau. Half of the so-called Great Books taught in schools are in fact liberal tracts written to subvert authentic culture and tradition. Marxists, Liberals, “conservatives”–a plague on all their houses!

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    A good symbolic starting place to consider is Pico della Mirandola’s famous Oration on the Dignity of Man. It is a short work, a kind of preface to the theses he was hurling at the Vatican. What makes Pico so significant is the vast learning he already possessed as a young man, his remarkable intelligence, his impatience with authority, and, finally, his gradual repentance and friendship with Savonarola. He was truly a remarkable man both for ill and for good, though Antony’s observation that “the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones” applies with especial force to Pico. He is, by the way, a minor character in “Born out of Due Time”.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    If there are readers who would like to discuss this oration, we have, I believe, a book event recording we are putting up, a lecture on Florentine magic from last year’s summer school about to be posted, but we could also do something for the Autodidact.

  13. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed this article and I look forward to the next as well. I never can tell when you are pulling old writing out of the old hat or creating new articles. This makes me wonder if you have ever changed your mind about much. You have helped me over the years to change or modify some of my own earlier opinions but more towards digging a deeper foundation for them than building in a more contemporary style. Today I would say architecture is all about time and money just like the intellectual life represented at our Universities. Craftsmanship, good work, generations past or future have not a damned thing to do with it.

  14. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    On some subjects, like the nature of poetry, I was coming to conclusions during my college years. And, even when I thought of myself as a radical, my political vision was of authentic communities maintaining their traditions. It took many years for me to reconcile my respect for the Roman Empire and the Church that took over some of its structure and functions, with my defense of smaller communities, but better men than I had wrestled with that dilemma and helped me to find my way. As an anti-communist, I had difficulty in maintaining my commitment to peace and opposition to imperialism, but some years before the end of the Cold War, I had come to understand there was no real conflict with defending the security and interests of one’s own people–no matter how narrowly or broadly that might be construed–with respect for the fundamental principles of justice that underly the simple formulas known as “just war theory.” At the bottom of everything I have done since I first published anything outside of technical scholarship on the ancient Greeks, was the desire to understand human nature, which I gradually realized was man made in the image of God.

  15. Allen Wilson says:

    Dr Fleming,

    The podcasts I have listened to most repetitively are the two or three you have done on the subject of the renaissance, new age, and related subjects. This may well be the most important subject area for study in our time. A discussion of the Oration would be most welcome, though such texts are hard for me to read nowadays due to having developed a low tolerance for such writings. It’s a good thing that Mirandola turned away from all that.

  16. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, though he must have retained some taste for it. His attack on astrology, instigated by Savonarola, is at some points quite brilliant and anticipates the necessary Christian response to all forms of determinism and materialism/