Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Bleat goes on

Lileks rules again.

I swear, when some people hear that civilization is over, a small voice deep in the dark cranny of their heart surely whispers: good.

As Chesterton wrote much longer ago, there's a healthy pessimism, and an unhealthy - the healthy pessimism serves to remind us that we can fall short of ideals, so that we will work harder to achieve them. An unhealthy pessimism, far from saying how things can go wrong, insists that we will inevitably fail, that the ideals weren't worth aspiring to in the first place. As Chesterton puts it, the dishonest pessimist says, "I'm sorry to say that we are ruined," but he's lying - he's actually not sorry at all.

I was thinking of both of those things, while also thinking of a different Chesterton book that I'm looking forward to re-reading over the next few weeks, The Everlasting Man. His premise there is simple: that the best way to understand something is either to be a part of it, or else to be so far away from it that you have perspective and objectivity. And in a sense, that runs together in my mind with his earlier observation of the optimist and the pessimist. They aren't parallels - together they form sort of a philosophical Punnett square.

Both the optimist and the pessimist (honest variety) have their home within a country or a church, and they both also have a place in the distance. The particpating of each type, we've already been introduced to: working together to improve and enjoy the thing they both love. The observational optimist (to use a clunky phrase) thinks the best of those distant folks, finds friends across all sorts of sectarian and cultural lines, and generally lives and lets live. The observational pessimist finds all sorts of analogues in the flaws and shortcomings of his own set and in others. But in finding the parallels, each one in his way begins to think that there may be something to that distant group that deserves some respect.

Now it gets a little trickier. You can tell by the date of the Bleat that this is something I've been thinking at for a while, and I'm not sure I've got it. I think that Lileks is observing pessimism gone to seed - but I also think that, once it does, the fruit of it is that a person within a group, the participants from before, starts to sound as if he really wants to leave it. Worse, he usually never gets so far out of it as to be able to regain the perspective of the pure observers. Chesterton describes it as a constant state of reaction. The dishonest pessimist, in the end, becomes a traitor to himself much more than a traitor to his previous affiliations. He is so concerned with refuting, confronting, and denouncing that he can truly be said to be controlled by his rejected points of view. Nothing seems worth saying unless it can somehow be twisted to include a dig at his former mates. Far from being free of them, he's trapped himself in their shadow.

So there's that, all of which seems perfectly rational and plain.

What seems equally plain to me is that optimism can also go to seed, and spoil a soul just as badly. I'm not talking about the "Pollyanna" phenomenon, as if good cheer and hope were themselves to blame. I'm talking about an optimism untempered by any discretion or sound judgment. People talk about shades of grey in morality; the dishonest optimist sees only shades of white. Every failing of the soul becomes excused instead of absolved, by labelling it an illness, or bad upbringing, or circumstances, or anything and everything other than the free will of the soul in question. It's a symptom of an intellect that has long since decided to let mere moods do all the thinking.

Another effect is that any concrete and observable difference becomes inadmissible to the dishonest optimist. All things are equal - meaning equally good. All ideas are equal - meaning equally valid. The only thing they have to reject is rejection itself. And of course in doing that no evil or outrage is rejectable. For all his tsking of others over their "intolerance" and "closed-minded behavior," he doesn't actually go on to say that he is really in the right and they are really in the wrong, but only that they aren't being constructive. "It's inappropriate at this time," implying that it would be quite appropriate later. And for all his talk about how equally good and valid all things are, he does an incredible amount of apologizing to people. In this broad-minded view, both imaginary and real grievances are equally deserving of his self-abasement; that he personally has nothing to do with it and couldn't remedy the problem in any way makes no odds. (And if he was at fault, and could fix it? Well, all the better for his ego that he's accidentally correct - but you'll notice that he usually just stops at the apology, and thus in the one area he can actually help, he does nothing of much value.)

This dishonest optimism is what makes one a "squishy marshmallow." It's not a Pollyanna attitude. Many dishonest optimists are in fact depressing individuals: perpetually sad over everything that's wrong with the world, but unable to see anything that's right; lacking the courage to choose any concrete response to either good or evil, and self-blinded to the differences between. They too get trapped in the twilight, too close to their former home to miss it and too far away to see it properly.

But for all that, they have one advantage over the dishonest pessimists. The pessimists are constantly waiting for something that really isn't going to happen: in fact, something that may never have happened in all of history. He's waiting not just for the fall of one particular civilization, which occurs regularly, but the end of civilization itself. And that is really a losing proposition. Humanity has been up against it far tougher than it is today - for centuries there were far fewer people around than now, and with far less natural knowledge. A plague would wipe out a quarter of an entire continent, in a world that could far less easily spare them; and everyone lived shorter lives. If there was famine or conquest, it wasn't simply a matter of going to Costco, or hopping the next plane to Canada (as they always seem to be promising to do).

And yet in all of that, in a tougher and nastier world, people were civilized. They cared about right conduct and working hard. They had a culture and laws and shared activities. They wondered about their gods and their world. Pretty much as soon as man had enough fellows to have a society, they organized. And sooner or later, independently of each other as far as I can tell, these enclaves of man began to tell, not only their histories, but their legends. They developed language, and instantly turned it into poetry. They wrote in pictures, but also drew them. They left behind pottery bowls and pottery statues.

One could say that of course civilized people do those things, but what of before? And one would probably be correct. There may have been a before. In that case, the whole idea of civilization is even more of a miracle. Mankind give birth to civilization at the first opportunity. Moreover, whenever a civilization does perish, the surivors, far from seeing it as proof of the folly of society, immediately go about giving birth to a new one to take its place.**

In fact, it reminds me of an argument a relative made to me once, that man wasn't any better than other animals, and in fact a darn sight worse. "If we lost everything today," he said, "had no guns, no bows and arrows, no civilization or progress whatsoever - what do you think would happen to mankind?" I thought for a second and said, "The same thing that happened the first time we had none of those things - we'd invent every last one of them." The animals had their shot at us when all of that was utterly unknown, and they utterly failed.

And really, if we were no better than they, why did we alone of all the animals have the idea that, the first thing we need is to be civilized? Because it was our only defense against being eaten? Possibly. But that leaves no reason to keep going after that. Why not stop at the level of a pride of lions, or a troop of baboons, or a herd of elephants? Why not gang up in a hive like insects? I think that it runs deeper than mere survival value. The fact is, it wasn't enough merely to survive. That alone isn't civilization. Mankind wanted more. It wanted to pass itself on, not only physically with children, but culturally. Man has a mind, and wanted to pass on the life of the mind in perpetuity - in culture and religion and law and custom. And when all of those things break down utterly under barbaric regimes such as Nazism, you find that, more than scraps of food or clothes, people cling most desperately to scraps of civilization. There are simply too many instances of sacrifice, tenderness, and creativity under duress to be freaks of individuality. It is an essential trait of man.

So, the dishonest pessimist, in the long run, is bitterly waiting for mankind to stop being human. There are certainly enough brutalities and faults to give them a sense of perverse hope, too. But it is those things that are the freaks. They are common, but they are unnatural. In the account of my faith, they are damage to the integrity and dignity of man, inflicted in the Fall, and thankfully repairable in anyone who wishes to remain in the family of man. Those who don't? The common term for them is psychopath - human ability, intellect, and will, utterly divorced from the thirst for civilization that makes someone human. The pessimist who says "good" to that - to a world completely occupied by brutal homunculi - is not only a liar, but a fool. And his punishment, as Chesterton foresaw, is to be forever in the company of the squishy marshmallows they so despise - one loves all the paths, and the other hates all the paths, so neither of them goes anywhere worth being.

** This is, in fact, a main point of The Everlasting Man; cooking up this post and deciding to read the book again started working hand-in-hand. But I haven't re-read it yet, and when I do, I fear I may find that I remembered it wrong. Well, that's what God invented the comments for.

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