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The Bondage of "Deciding for Yourself"

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

"No one can be relieved of the duty of forming his conscience," said my interlocutor, who was a bit surprised when I said that no one can do that on his own, and no one should attempt it, since man's capacity for self-deception is boundless.


ChristPhariseesChrist Escapes the Pharisees by Johann Friedrich Overbeck via KMSKA.

"Other people and institutions can be deceived, too." He seemed to be well-read, so it was not entirely impossible that he had gotten the dictum from Kant, who says that it is all too comfortable for men to remain in a perpetual nonage, to have a spiritual advisor be their conscience, and governors to remind them all the time of the terrible dangers they run if they think for themselves.

In one of the most ironic turns of human folly, that axiom, that in moral matters you must decide for yourself what kinds of things are good and evil. It has been so deeply embedded in the modern Western mind, that nobody thinks about it at all; just as everyone merely accepts that one of the main things to be taught in school, from the time when little children paint with their fingers to when college graduates do much the same, is leadership: and all the curriculum directors and resume writers duly follow along. "Have I got my leadership badge?" says the everlasting scout. "What will I do without my leadership badge?"

For some time after Kant and the false dawn he heralded, writers like Stendhal, could purport to give us heroes, or villains, who were born too soon, who are too free in their thinking to fit into any existing social category. Such is Julien Sorel, in The Red and the Black.

He is the son of a vicious and greedy sawmill owner, but because he has brains, he despises his father and his brothers, he has dreams of making his mark on the stage of the world as Napoleon did, and he chooses the nearest way not so much to become great as to be seen and acknowledged as great.

The nearest way for Julien, a bookish young man with a prodigious memory, is to enter the seminary, and use the Church as did Richelieu, Talleyrand, and many others, as the foundation for a career in worldly power and glory. Julien has the entire New Testament, in Latin, memorized, and he can follow up immediately upon any line that is suggested to him, but not once in the entire novel does he stop to consider its meaning. He does not believe a word of it. And though Stendhal does give us an example of an elderly Jansenist priest who loves Julien and who is not devoured with avarice and ambition, he still suggests to us that Julien's atheism is something to admire, the result of "private judgment," against which the arch-conservatives and the clergy in the novel are constantly at war.

Not that Julien preaches atheism; that would be of no use to him. For everyone in The Red and the Black thinks first of utility, even in matters of love, for love is just another thing to desire, to enjoy, though Stendhal holds it forth as the greatest commodity of all.

Yet The Red and the Black is a better book than Stendhal's corrosive contempt for religion warrants. Stendhal is too painstaking a psychologist to give Julien a pass for his correct unbelief. For Julien plays the hypocrite all the time. He glories in it—and here, "hypocrite" retains its ancient Greek sense, that of playing a part on stage.

The classic French emblem of hypocrisy was the title character in Moliere's comedy, Tartuffe, a scheming, breast-beating, tear-shedding, piety-mouthing hypocrite who tries to insinuate himself into the family of a rich man, to feed off the fellow's gullibility and to seduce his wife.

Tartuffe fails, while Julien, whom Stendhal refers to as Tartuffe, succeeds, nor are we encouraged to feel horror at his success, since M. de Renal, the cuckold, is a venal and selfish man, and his wife does not love him.

Yet at every step, Julien, who does not belong by birth to the class to which he aspires, worries about how he appears and what others will say about him. Stendhal does not quote the words of Jesus, about those who sound a trumpet before them when they give alms—hypocrites, that is, play-actors who wish to be seen by men, and who "have their reward," such as it is. Julien wants that reward.

Ambition makes the world go round, and hypocrisy is its prophet. Thus we have the contradiction, a free-thinking man who is obsessed with the desire to make the right impression on people he despises, in a world of malicious imaginations and scandal-spreading tongues. It is, I might say, a perpetual middle school gone very bad.

If, however, we trust the words of Jesus, and if we permit our minds and hearts to be directed by the teaching of the Church we believe He founded, we will be like those little children that Kant appears never to want to be, but who find it easy to enter the kingdom of Heaven; but we will also be wise, as free as possible from the chances and changes of the stage-play all around us, with its time-bound obsessions. And this is something that I fear Stendhal did not understand, nor does my interlocutor.

For as a matter of fact, man is not a set of free-floating individuals. A man may aspire, like Julien Sorel, to be his own moral Napoleon, and he will end up imprisoned on the Saint Helena of public opinion and passing fads.

Thus in our time, for example, the rainbow flag is a trumpet on the street corner, announcing to all how virtuous we are—actually, what slaves we are. But because I want to be free, I turn to Him who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," the beating heart of the only real world there is and shall be.

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Acknowledgement

Anthony EsolenAnthony Esolen. "The Bondage of 'Deciding for Yourself'." The Catholic Thing (August 23, 2023).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing.

The Author

NoApologiesbioline

Anthony Esolen is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts and serves on the Catholic Resource Education Center's advisory board. His newest book is "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." You can read his new Substack magazine at Word and Song, which in addition to free content will have podcasts and poetry readings for subscribers.

Copyright © 2023 The Catholic Thing
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