Saintly Thoughts

We Can't Save Everyone!

"Children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy." - G.K. Chesterton

A fundamental component of any ethical education should include the realization that human goods, as applied to the world if not (necessarily) applied categorically, are often incommensurate.  For example, human persons generally desire and expect physical safety as they go about their day to day activities, but they also expect a great deal of freedom from unwanted surveillance and official harassment in these activities.  Now, from the perspective of moderation, these concepts need not normally conflict, but we can easily see how they could if taken to extremes.  If we employed as our guiding principle "no one must die by violent means" we would soon find great restrictions on our freedom of movement and information, as authorities curtail travel to dangerous areas at night, and strip search persons going out to concerts and restaurants, and catalog all conversations seen as the least bit violent or seditious.  A cry of "absolute freedom in all things", whereby we curtail the powers of the state authorities so far that all intelligence gathering and policing ground to a halt, would produce an opposite though no less horrible result.  

Persons who have lived long and well enough to attain some level of "wisdom" intrinsically understand this.  Though they may not be able to recite some formal logical test whereby the appropriate balance of these competing goods might be measured, mature adult human persons learn the foibles of applying absolutes too broadly, and usually manage (historically speaking) to erect a system whereby the balance of competing goods remains in reasonable tension.  Granted, the system will always tend to teeter either slightly too far to the one side or the other, but by and large wisdom and lived experience tend towards a state of equilibrium--especially when perceived over a long enough period of time.  

One of the greatest responsibilities of education, I would wager, lies with instilling in youths a respect for this intrinsic wisdom which recognizes, against the terror and disproportion of absolute goods, the necessity of maintaining some balance.  By extension, this implies an education which teaches respect for the wisdom of ones elders; for such wisdom (or so thought Aristotle) was only attainable by means of lived experience and is thus unknowable by the young, no matter how adept they may be in technical matters.  It is an odd characteristic of modernity, and late modernity in particular, that education tends in precisely the opposite direction.  Each generation continues to attain new technical prowess unknown to their elders and a deeper understanding of the causes underlying the physical world.  Those who were once conceived of as respected elders struggle to keep up and to master new techniques which arise at an ever more rapid rate.  These continuous technical revolutions have brought much good into the world, but they have left little time for reflection.  Modernity continues to push the age of maturity further and further towards the moment of death.  Thus the old are no longer wise and know not how to learn wisdom.  In such a state the young, naturally, look not to their elders but to the light of their own logically coherent conceptualizations of society.  The young, having not yet learned from the pain of lived experience the humility becoming of human frailty, perceive within themselves the strength of moral fervor that will finally allow for a blossoming of human goods whereby absolute security, absolute freedom, absolute equality, and absolute absolution might all be realized.  And they who have not yet learned wisdom (and are unlikely ever to learn it) know only one means of implementing such purity of vision.  Being untutored in anything other than the power of human technique, they look to the bureaucratized state--that mighty behemoth which is modernity's image of God--as the means by which all things might be made right.  

Fools!  All have become fools!  Do they not see that any world fit for human beings will inevitably know strife and chaos, injustice and bigotry, pain and terror?  Keep these dogs at bay, by all means!  But to root them out completely is to leave a world unfit for human persons.  For such evils arise out of the hearts of all men and all women.  The only means that humanity has to abolish its evils is to abolish itself!  Such is the despair of these times that I fear such nihilism will draw more and more into its dark folds, but such is utter foolishness!  For what sense does it make to say that either all must live or all must die?  Better to accept the banal moderation befitting human existence.  We cannot save every child from abuse, we cannot save every sensitive soul from injustice and bigotry, we cannot save every person from harm and violent death.   We can, and should, structure society such that a "reasonable" number may be spared such travails.  But who defines what is reasonable?  The grown-ups who, by the firm hand of lived experience, understand their limitations.  Now, where are these grown-ups?  They are all gone, for all have been seduced by the rhetoric of enlightened "reason", which promised to show us a rational means by which human society could be cured of its age-old travails.  The wise abandoned their posts long ago.  What are those of us who remain to do?  For we are not ourselves wise, and there is no one left to teach us wisdom.  And even if there were, I suspect we have lost the capacity to recognize and listen to them.