Nothing New Under the Sun

I’m currently reading the Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. The book is Mertons autobiography, detailing his life and the events that led to him converting to Catholicism and becoming a trappist monk. The book was first published in 1948 and something that strikes me about it is just how relevant many of Mertons observations about the culture of his time are today. The following excerpt in particular struck me as being particularly relevant in todays time.

It did not take very much reflection on the year I had spent at Cambridge to show me that all my dreams of fantastic pleasures and delights were crazy and absurd, and that everything I had reached out for had turned to ashes in illy hands, and that I myself into the bargain, had turned out to be an extremely unpleasant sort of a person-vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. I was a mess. Even the sight of my own face in a mirror was enough to disgust me. When I came to ask myself the reasons for all this, the ground was well prepared. My mind was already facing what seemed to be an open door out of my spiritual jail. It was some four years since I had first read the Communist Manifesto, and I had never entirely forgotten about it. One of those Christmas vacations at Strasbourg I had read some books about Soviet Russia, how all the factories were working overtime, and all the ex-moujiks wore great big smiles on their faces, welcoming Russian aviators on their return from Polar flights, bearing the boughs of trees in their hands. Then I often went to Russian movies, which were pretty good from the technical point of view, although probably not so good as I thought they were, in my great anxiety to approve of them.

Finally, I had in my mind the myth that Soviet Russia was the friend of all the arts, and the only place where true art could find a refuge in a world of bourgeois ugliness. Where I ever got that idea is hard to find out, and how I managed to cling to it for so long is harder still, when you consider all the photographs there were, for everyone to see, showing the Red Square with gigantic pictures of Stalin hanging on the walls of the world’s ugliest buildings-not to mention the views of the projected monster monument to Lenin, like a huge mountain of soap-sculpture, and the Little Father of Communism standing on top of it, and sticking out one of his hands. Then, when I went to New York in the summer, I found the New Masses lying around the studios of my friends and, as a matter of fact, a lot of the people I met were either party members or close to being so.

So now, when the time came for me to take spiritual stock of myself it was natural that I should do so by projecting my whole spiritual condition into the sphere of economic history and the class-struggle. In other words, the conclusion I came to was that it was not so much I myself that was to blame for my unhappiness, but the society in which I lived.

I considered the person that I now was, the person that I had been at Cambridge, and that I had made of myself and I saw clearly enough that I was the product of my times, my society, and my class. I was something that had been spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived. However, what I did not see was that my own age and class only had an accidental part to play in this. They gave my egoism and pride and my other sins a peculiar character of weak and supercilious flippancy proper to this particular century: but that was only on the surface. Underneath, it was the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called “the world,” in every age, in every class.

“If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of lite.” That is to say, all men who live only according to their five senses, and seek nothing beyond the gratification of their natural appetites for pleasure and reputation and power, cut themselves off from that charity which is the principle of all spiritual vitality and happiness because it alone saves us from the barren wilderness of our own abominable selfishness.

It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness. And nowhere, except 147 perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money. We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.

Being the son of an artist, I was born the sworn enemy of everything that could obviously be called “bourgeois,” and now I only had to dress up that aversion in economic terms and extend it to cover more ground than it had covered before-namely, to include anything that could be classified as semi-fascist, like D. H. Lawrence and many of the artists who thought they were rebels without really being so-and I had my new religion all ready for immediate use.

It was an easy and handy religion-too easy in fact. It told me that all the evils in the world were the product of capitalism. Therefore, all that had to be done to get rid of the evils of the world was to get rid of capitalism. This would not be very hard, for capitalism contained the seeds of its own decay (and that indeed is a very obvious truth which nobody would trouble to deny, even some of the most stupid defenders of the system now in force: for our wars are altogether too eloquent in what they have to say on the subject). An active and enlightened minority-and this minority was understood to be made up of the most intelligent and vital elements of society, was to have the two-fold task of making the oppressed class, the proletariat, conscious of their own power and destiny as future owners of all the means of production, and to “bore from within” in order to gain control of power by every possible means. Some violence, no doubt, would probably be necessary, but only because of the inevitable reaction of capitalism by the use of fascist methods to keep the proletariat in subjection.

It was capitalism that was to blame for everything unpleasant, even the violence of the revolution itself Now, of course, the revolution had already taken ,the first successful step in Russia. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat was already set up there. It would have to spread through the rest of the world before it could be said that the revolution had really been a success. But once it had, once capitalism had been completely overthrown, the semi-state, or Dictatorship of the Proletariat, would itself only be a temporary matter. It would be a kind of guardian of the revolution, a tutor of the new classless society, during its minority. But as soon as the citizens of the new, classless world had had all the greed educated out of them by enlightened methods, the last vestiges of the “state” would wither away, and there would be a new world, a new golden age, in which all property would be held in common, at least all capital goods, all the land, means of production and so on, and nobody would desire to seize them for himself and so there would be no more poverty, no more wars, no more misery, no more starvation, no more violence. Everybody would be happy. Nobody would be overworked. They would all amicably exchange wives whenever they felt like it, and their offspring would be brought up in big shiny incubators, not by the state because there wouldn’t be any state, but by that great, beautiful surd, the lovely, delicious unknown quantity of the new “Classless Society.”

I don’t think that even I was gullible enough to swallow all the business about the ultimate bliss that would follow the withering away of the state-a legend far more naive and far more oversimplified than the happy hunting ground of the most primitive Indian. But I simply assumed that things would be worked out by the right men at the right time. For the moment, what was needed was to get rid of capitalism.

The thing that made Communism seem so plausible to me was my own lack of logic which failed to distinguish between the reality of the evils which Communism was trying to overcome and the validity of its diagnosis and the chosen cure.

For there can be no doubt that modern society is in a terrible condition, and that its wars and depressions and its slums and all its other evils are principally the fruits of an unjust social system, a system that must be reformed and purified or else replaced. However, if you are wrong, does that make me right? If you are bad, does that prove that I am good? The chief weakness of Communism is that it is, itself, only another breed of the same materialism which is the source and root of all the evils which it so clearly sees, and it is evidently nothing but another product of the breakdown of the capitalist system. Indeed, it seems to be pieced together out of the ruins of the same ideology that once went into the vast, amorphous, intellectual structure underlying capitalism in the nineteenth century.

I don’t know how anybody who pretends to know anything about history can be so naive as to suppose that after all these centuries of corrupt and imperfect social systems, there is eventually to evolve something perfect and pure out of them-the good out of the evil, the unchanging and stable and eternal out of the variable and mutable, the just out of the unjust. But perhaps revolution is a contradiction of evolution, and therefore means the replacement of the unjust by the just, of the evil by the good. And yet it is still just as naive to suppose that members of the same human species, without having changed anything but their minds, should suddenly turn around and produce a perfect society, when they have never been able, in the past, to produce anything but imperfection and, at best, the barest shadow of justice.

Thomas Merton – The Seven Storey Mountain

In truth a great deal of the modern malaise can be pinned on this utopian style thinking that Merton identifies here, where all the ills of modern man rest upon the structure of society. Though there are few who openly call themselves communist these days due to the fact we live in a time where we can look back on the abject failure of those regimes there are still many, many people who believe that if Capitalism is replaced they can construct some utopia.

It’s undeniably a seductive thought and it often comes hand in hand with “progressive” thinking that views history as mostly a wonky line of progress from worse to better as we gain more knowledge and utilize that knowledge to produce better technologies. But as Alexander Solzhenitzen said “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human”. It’s no surprise when faced with the decision whether to accept the realities of our world and put faith in God, or to place your hope in some Star Trek type futurist pseudo-communistic utopia that our increasingly areligious society is leaning towards the latter.

The Christian view has always been to accept the current world as it is with stoicism and place our faith in Christ and the renewed creation to come. While we live we live pragmatically, because we know this is a fallen world, we know our failings and we’re aware that it is simply not within the power of man to overcome his own failings and create such a fantastic utopia with our own hands. A society after all is nothing more than a conglomeration of individuals working together and if those individuals have no inclination to develop the virtue necessary to carry out their duties to their community and place the needs of others above their own then no matter how you structure it that society is doomed to fail.

If people want a better society then they need to realize that the only solution is bottom up. A society is only as good as it’s constituent members and their willingness to place the good of others above their own wants. Forcing people to conform by the threat of force and laws alone creates a low trust society, people must feel the obligation to be a productive and helpful member of their community. Development of personal virtue and a system to encourage that precedes any thought of how society should be structured. In a society where every individual displays great virtue even a tyrannical dictatorship would be very pleasant to live in, on the other hand a society where every individual has very little virtue would be very unpleasant regardless of whether it was the most equitable democracy ever created or not.

Merton accurately identified this over 60 years ago. Things continue today the same as they ever have, with leftist idealists desperately trying to convince us that a utopia is just over the horizon if we’ll just surrender our own beliefs and submit to the way they want society to be structured. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

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