Come to Rifle Satan’s Fold

Peter Leithart suggests we all learn Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of ‘This Little Babe’ during Advent this year. It’s a good suggestion:

Lyrics:

This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold.
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmored wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stands for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
this little Babe will by thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
then flit not from this heavenly boy!

Or, if you’ve got the time, find ‘This Little Babe’ in Britten’s full ‘Ceremony of Carols’ here:

 

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Always West and to the Sea

danceIn 2007, the Claremont Review of Books published a short essay by Mark Helprin on the literary tenor of the times. He begins the piece fairly negatively by denouncing current trends in the literary culture, but by the end of the essay he’s ended up outlining his own approach to writing by way of contrast. It’s stuck with me for a decade:

One seldom encounters pure nihilism, for just as anarchists are usually very well-organized, most of what passes for nihilism is a compromise with advocacy. Present literary forms may spurn the individual, emotion, beauty, sacrifice, love, and truth, but they energetically embrace the collective, coldness of feeling, ugliness, self-assertion, contempt, and disbelief. And why? Simply because the acolytes of modernism are terribly and justly afraid. They fear that if they do not display their cynicism they will be taken for fools. They fear that if they commit to and uphold something outside the puppet channels of orthodoxy they will be mocked, that if they are open they will be attacked, that if they appreciate that which is simple and good they will foolishly have overlooked its occult corruptions, that if they stand they will be struck down, that if they love they will lose, and that if they live they will die.

As surely they will. And others of their fears are legitimate as well, so they withdraw from engagement and risk into what they believe is the safety of cynicism and mockery. The sum of their engagement is to show that they are disengaged, and they have built an elaborate edifice, which now casts a shadow over every facet of civilization, for the purpose of representing their cowardice as wisdom. Mainly to protect themselves, they write coldly, cruelly, and as if nothing matters.

But life is short, and things do matter, often more than the human heart can bear. This is an elemental truth that neither temporarily victorious nihilism, nor fashion, nor cowardice can long suppress, which is why the literary tenor of the times cannot and will not last. And which is one reason among many why one must not accept its dictates or write according to its conventions. These must and will fall, for they are subject to constant pressure as generation after generation rises in unprompted affirmation of human nature. And though perhaps none living may see the change, it is an honor to predict and await it.

Helprin’s latest novel came out at the start of October and as the release date was approaching, I went back over some of the pages I’d dog-eared in his other books. Working through those pages I came across this scene from Refiner’s Fire, which functions as a sort of fictional companion to the approach outlined above:

Then they started from fright, for the Captain had arrived with the grace of a ghost, and stood tall in his white uniform amid the reclining men. Seldom did he move among them. Close to seventy, he had been an admiral of the Royal Navy, who, upon retirement, could not stand to part from the sea. When the water was as smooth as a mirror, pastel by day, rich and blue-hearted by night, he grew restless.

“For those of you who would wonder,” he said, largely in pretext, “we are at the center of the sea, off the trade routes, where few have seen fit to travel. To the northwest is North America”–he pivoted and faced the various directions as he spoke, as accurately as a compass–“to the southwest, Brazil with its jutting northern chin, and then the Amazon and the white Andes; to the southeast, Africa, being worth three or four continents; to the northeast, Europe, the clockmade heart of the mechanical world. We are roped between the four, nearest the dry shelf of Spain.

“Half a thousand years ago the Spaniards, as if sprung from seed, burst in virility upon the sea and passed this point in little ships to find and conquer a new world. Since that time we have been retracing and elaborating their routes, but have none of our own. Since that time we have become as immobile as whales upon the beach–fat, shoddy, recreant, dissolving. For there is only one condition in which a man’s soul and flesh become as lean and pure as his armor; in which he finds in the art of his language and the awe of his music, unification with his own mobile limbs; in which he can find entertainment so intense as to draw him without a twitch into complete abandonment of the things of the world; in which he gathers speed and rises to his natural task as if he were an eagle destined for flight or a porpoise propelled in arcs across the water.

“Do you doubt me? Doubt not. I learned in Algeciras what this was, as I looked upon the Spanish walls which are not walls, as the lines of earth and sea were solid in one piece inviting passage, as the poverty appeared infinitely rich. I learned in the blink of an eye. I learned as the thin slapping music beat to ceilings and beams, as the percussion of dancers’ feet seemed to exhort going out beyond the harbor and into the straits–beyond the straits.

“Doubt me not. A pair of dancers was dancing twenty years ago when I thought that I had settled in. We touched at Algeciras for only a day. The secret was that they moved when they did not, and did not move when they did. They wore black, and were as concentrated as birds startled upon alarm. Their dance was like that of the bees, for God in heaven they retracted and they turned and they jugged and they jiggled, and her back was as smooth as the gust from a fan, a sweep of vanilla, and in their movements unknown to them they pointed always west and to the sea. Though they moved up and down and to right and left, the lay of their furious dance pointed west and to the sea.

“It was that way too, five hundred years ago, when from Spain’s jutting shelf they moved to fulfill the neglected task, their dancers doubtless pointing them. They found a new world with twenty-thousand miles of pine, peaks we have yet to climb, plains like seas, plants and animals humorous, terrifying, and new. Like bees, their passionate dancers pointed them. I fear that I will die before I see such dancing anew, directing us after half a thousand years outward and to the heavens, where we must go if we are to be men.

“For we are on the brink of new worlds, of infinite space curtains drawn and colored like silks, luminous and silent, moving slowly and with grace. We have come to the edge. Our children will view a terrible openness, and the vastness will change us forever and for good. I will never see it. I am seventy and I wish only to see dancers who will arise to set the right course.

“In my heart of hearts at seventy on this ship stalled in the middle of the sea and stars, I wish for the dancers who will arise as did their predecessors in one wave linked with the past, moving when they do not move, not moving when they move. When I had passed half a century, I was awakened in the fury of a dance in Algeciras. Though a captain for many years, it was that day by the curve of her back that I became a Captain and a man–when I watched history artfully running its gates with iron grasp and steel-clad direction.” (367-369)

To further fill out what Helprin’s project looks like (and to end for now), take this excerpt from In Sunlight and in Shadow. Here the same ideas are at play, but the scope is no longer the global dance of mankind throughout the centuries. Instead Harry, a soldier recently returned home after the Second World War, and Catherine are mid-conversation in a diner at four-thirty in the morning in Commack, New York, 1946:

“We were told,” she began, “that courtly love…”

“Told by whom?”

“By our professors…that courtly love is twisted.”

“How so?”

“Demeaning. Controlling.”

He straightened in his seat, lifting himself until he seemed taller, unconsciously positioning his upper body as if for a fight–not with Catherine, but with an idea. His eyes narrowed a bit as they seemed to flood with energy. “I don’t know who told you, but I do know that whoever said this was a fucking idiot who must never have seen anything, or risked anything, who thinks too much about what other people think, so much so that he’ll exterminate his real emotions and live in a world so safe it’s dead. People like that always want to show you that they’re wise and worldly, having been disillusioned, and they mock things that humanity has come to love, things that people like me–who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing–have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard…The deeper I fell, the more I suffered, and the more I saw…the more I knew that women are the embodiment of love and the hope of all time. And to say that they neither need nor deserve protection, and that it is merely a strategy of domination, would be to misjudge the highest qualities of man while at the same time misreading the savage qualities of the world. This is what I learned and what I managed to bring out with me from hell. How shall I treat it? Love of God, love of a woman, love of a child–what else is there? Everything pales, and I’ll stake what I know against what your professors imagine, to the death, as I have. They don’t have the courage to embrace or even to recognize the real, the consequential, the beautiful, because in the end those are the things that lacerate and wound, and make you suffer incomparably, because, in the end, you lose them. (125-126)

 

Body and Soul, Word and Spirit

Maagd_in_de_tuin seal of the free university of amsterdam

Seal of the Free University of Amsterdam. Motto: Auxilium nostrum in nomine Domini (“Our help is in the name of the Lord”)

Herman Bavinck became the professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902. Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics is no stranger to this blog, but I’d never read any of his sermons or speeches before Bruce Pass recently posted a translation of the speech Bavinck gave at the commencement of his professorship in December of 1902. The title of the speech is Godsdienst en Godsgeleerdheid, or as Pass translates it, Religion and Theology. Immediately noteworthy on a first read-through was the following description of the experience of the Christian life:

The pure, the spotless, the reasonable service is this: to present body and soul as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice to God. Now, does this mean that it is self-evident that one is by nature so inclined and capable of this and that all of this obtains without serious struggle? To believe in God against the appearance of all things, to hold fast to Him as though seeing what is unseen, to depend on Him with upright faith, certain hope, and ardent love and moreover, to mortify our old nature, to forsake the world, and to walk in a new, godly life – shall that come about through a frame of mind akin to melancholy, through the kindling of the twilight of our souls? Whoever claims this has as little knowledge of God as they do of their own heart. No, because religion is not a relationship, voluntarily entered into and determined in every detail by us, but a service required of us by God. It is a demand placed before us by Him, an obligation laid on us by Him. Therefore, all true religion is a sacrifice, a sacrifice of our whole heart and of our entire soul and of all of our might unto the will of our heavenly Father and because it is a sacrifice, religion is and remains a struggle until the end of our lives. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit; what I will, that I do not do.

But is that all? Should religion be nothing more than command on command, rule upon rule, here a little and there a little? How would we, Christians who stand in the freedom with which Christ has set us free, be able to claim that? Besides, religion was not only that in the days of the Old Testament, when it was confessed with joy that the fear of the Lord is the principle of all wisdom and the pious sang, ‘How I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.’ Above all it is no more that in the days of the New Covenant, in which the spirit of slavery to fear has made way for the Spirit of adoption. Religion is not only obligation; it is also a disposition and desire. It is a matter of the head and the heart, faith and love, idea and affection, theory and praxis, doctrine and life together — a service certainly, but a service of love which never fails.

God did not give us his Word alone, but also His Spirit. The Word is first. All of our thinking and living, all of our ways, must conform to that Word. What wisdom would we have, if we were to reject the Word of the Lord? If we do not turn our face to the law and testimony, our eyes shall never rise to the dawn of knowledge. All self-righteous religion is an abomination to the Lord, but God has conjoined to the Word His Spirit, by whom he enlightens and renews us and gives us a desire to walk according to His commands. Therefore, the Christian religion is not only rectitude of mind but also purity of heart, not only knowledge but also trust, not just an idea of the intellect but also an inclination of the will, not only illumination of the consciousness but also a conversion of one’s being, in a word — a matter of the whole person, of body and soul together. For whoever is in Christ, is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, everything has become new.

Burning Metal Flows

¡No_pasarán_Madrid-700x416

An antifascist banner over a street in a besieged Madrid

Pablo Neruda was removed from his post as Chilean consul in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The poet was learning his communism through opposition to General Franco, who was turning Spain more and more toward fascism. In his poem “I Explain Some Things,” Neruda writes of the destruction of the war in Madrid:

You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics laced with poppies?
And the rain that often beat
his words filling them
with holes and birds?

I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me.

I lived in a neighborhood
of Madrid, with church bells,
with clocks, with trees.

From there you could see
the dry face of Castilla
like an ocean of leather.

My house was called
the house of flowers, because everywhere
geraniums were exploding: it was
a beautiful house
with dogs and little kids.

Raúl, do you remember?
Do you remember, Rafael?
Frederico, you remember,
from under the earth,
do you remember my house with balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
Hermano, hermano!

Everything
was great voices, salty goods,
piles of throbbing bread,
markets of my Argüelles neighborhood with its statue
like a pale inkwell among the carp:
oil flowed into the spoons,
a loud pulse
of feet and hands filled the streets,
meters, liters, sharp
essence of life,
piled fish,
texture of rooftops under a cold sun that
wears out the weathervane,
fine delirious ivory of the potatoes,
tomatoes repeating all the way to the sea.

And one morning everything was burning
and one morning the fires
were shooting out of the earth
devouring beings,
and ever since then fire,
gunpowder ever since,
and ever since then blood.
Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars making blessings,
kept coming from the sky to kill children,
and through the streets the blood of the children
ran simply, like children’s blood.

Jackals the jackal would reject,
stones the dry thistle would bite then spit out,
vipers the vipers would despise!

Facing you I have seen the blood
of Spain rise up
to drown you in one single wave
of pride and knives!

Traitor
generals:
behold my dead house,
behold Spain destroyed:
yet instead of flowers, from every dead house
burning metal flows,
yet from every hollow of Spain
Spain flows,
yet from every dead child rises a rifle with eyes,
yet from every crime bullets are born
that one day will find the target
of your heart.

You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!

(taken from The Essential Neruda, pp 63-67and translated by Mark Eisner)

The Laugh of a Blue-eyed Maiden

In his 1890 poem, An Imperial Rescript, Rudyard Kipling sees the proposed social reforms of the German Kaiser rejected when men remember their families:

Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser decreed,
To ease the strong of their burden, to help the weak in their need,
He sent a word to the peoples, who struggle, and pant, and sweat,
That the straw might be counted fairly and the tally of bricks be set.

The Lords of Their Hands assembled; from the East and the West they drew —
Baltimore, Lille, and Essen, Brummagem, Clyde, and Crewe.
And some were black from the furnace, and some were brown from the soil,
And some were blue from the dye-vat; but all were wearied of toil.

And the young King said: — “I have found it, the road to the rest ye seek:
The strong shall wait for the weary, the hale shall halt for the weak:
With the even tramp of an army where no man breaks from the line,
Ye shall march to peace and plenty in the bond of brotherhood — sign!”

The paper lay on the table, the strong heads bowed thereby,
And a wail went up from the peoples: — “Ay, sign — give rest, for we die!”
A hand was stretched to the goose-quill, a fist was cramped to scrawl,
When — the laugh of a blue-eyed maiden ran clear through the Council-hall.

And each one heard Her laughing as each one saw Her plain —
Saidie, Mimi, or Olga, Gretchen, or Mary Jane.
And the Spirit of Man that is in Him to the light of the vision woke;
And the men drew back from the paper, as a Yankee delegate spoke: —

“There’s a girl in Jersey City who works on the telephone;
We’re going to hitch our horses and dig for a house of our own,
With gas and water connections, and steam-heat through to the top;
And, W. Hohenzollern, I guess I shall work till I drop.”

And an English delegate thundered: — “The weak an’ the lame be blowed!
I’ve a berth in the Sou’-West workshops, a home in the Wandsworth Road;
And till the ‘sociation has footed my buryin’ bill,
I work for the kids an’ the missus.  Pull up!  I’ll be damned if I will!”

And over the German benches the bearded whisper ran: —
“Lager, der girls und der dollars, dey makes or dey breaks a man.
If Schmitt haf collared der dollars, he collars der girl deremit;
But if Schmitt bust in der pizness, we collars der girl from Schmitt.”

They passed one resolution: — “Your sub-committee believe
You can lighten the curse of Adam when you’ve lifted the curse of Eve.
But till we are built like angels — with hammer and chisel and pen,
We will work for ourself and a woman, for ever and ever, amen.”

Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser held —
The day that they razored the Grindstone, the day that the Cat was belled,
The day of the Figs from Thistles, the day of the Twisted Sands,
The day that the laugh of a maiden made light of the Lords of Their Hands.

For Joy, For Ease

septs painting

The Beekeeper’s Daughter by Henry Bacon, 1881

Osip Mandelstam’s poem, The Necklace, as translated by Christian Wiman:

Take from my palms, for joy, for ease,
A little honey, a little sun,
That we may obey Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat unmoored.
Fur-shod shadows can’t be heard,
Nor terror, in this life, mastered.

Love, what’s left for us, and of us, is this
Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss
Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless

To find in the forest’s heart a home,
Night’s never-ending hum,
Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time.

Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone,
That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone,
This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.

Fighting as He Went

Borghese Gladiator 2

Borghese Warrior outside of Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin

One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is how Jesus could be both fully God and fully man. How does an infinite God take on finite human nature? What does this condescension tell us about God? What does it tell us about man? And how do we understand this God-man, who was “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5)?

Herman Bavinck has a ninety-page section called ‘The Person of Christ’ in the third volume of his Reformed Dogmatics that focuses solely on questions like these. Here I just want to quote for later reference one paragraph of that larger section which deals with the “essential distinction between the holiness of God and the holiness of Christ as a human being:”

The goodness or holiness of Christ according to his human nature is not a divine and original goodness but one that has been given, infused, and for that reason it must also–in the way of struggle and temptation–reveal, maintain, and confirm itself. Infused goodness does not rule out acquired goodness. The latter presupposes the former; good fruit grows only on a good tree, but the soundness of the tree still has to be shown in the soundness of the fruit. Similarly, Christ had to manifest his innate holiness through temptation and struggle; this struggle is not made redundant or vain by virtue of the inability to sin (non posse peccare). For although real temptation could not come to Jesus from within but only from without, he nevertheless possessed a human nature, which dreaded suffering and death. Thus, throughout his life, he was tempted in all sorts of ways–by Satan, his enemies, and even by his disciples (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1-13; Matt. 12:29; Luke 11:22; Matt. 16:23; Mark 8:33). And in those temptations he was bound, fighting as he went, to remain faithful; the inability to sin (non posse peccare) was not a matter of coercion but ethical in nature and therefore had to be manifested in an ethical manner. (314-315)

‘Everybody in acting serves his fellow citizens…’

In a helpful summary of some of the economic thought of Ludwig von Mises, Robert P. Murphy quotes “Mises’s definition of the market and his understanding of its most important features” as follows:

The market economy is the social system of the division of labor under private ownership of the means of production. Everybody acts on his own behalf; but everybody’s actions aim at the satisfaction of other people’s needs as well as at the satisfaction of his own. Everybody in acting serves his fellow citizens…

This system is steered by the market. The market directs the individual’s activities into those channels in which he best serves the wants of his fellow men. There is in the operation of the market no compulsion and coercion. The state, the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, does not interfere with the market….It protects the individual’s life, health, and property against violent or fraudulent aggression on the part of domestic gangsters and external foes….Each man is free; nobody is subject to a despot. Of his own accord the individual integrates himself into the cooperative system. The market directs him and reveals to him in what way he can best promote his own welfare as well as that of other people…

The market is not a place, a thing, or a collective entity. The market is a process, actuated by the interplay of the actions of the various individuals cooperating under the division of labor. The forces determining the–continually changing–state of the market are the value judgments. The state of the market at any instant is the price structure, i.e., the totality of the exchange ratios as established by the interaction of those eager to buy and those eager to sell…..Every market phenomenon can be traced back to definite choices of the members of the market society.

The market process is the adjustment of the individual actions of the various members of the market society to the requirements of mutual cooperation. The market prices tell the producers what to produce, how to produce, and in what quantity. The market is the focal point to which the activities of the individuals converge. It is the center from which the activities of the individuals radiate. (Choice, 116-117)

I figured an economics post was way overdue, as ‘Bastiat’ is there at the top of the page on every post. I think this quote will come in handy for reference in the future, too.

Bob Murphy’s got a couple podcasts, by the way, that are usually a lot of fun.

Lewis on Eliot

C.S. Lewis ends his A Preface to Paradise Lost with a praise of middle things:

c.s. lewis a preface to paradise lostFinally there is the class [that is, of poets] to which Mr. Eliot himself probably belongs. Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’–by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power–hates civility from below: sanctity rebukes it from above. The round table is pressed between the upper milestone (Galahad) and the nether (Mordred). If Mr. Eliot  disdains the eagles and trumpets of epic poetry because the fashion of this world passes away, I honour him. But if he goes on to draw the conclusion that all poetry should have the penitential qualities of his own best work, I believe he is mistaken. As long as we live in merry middle earth it is necessary to have middle things. If the round table is abolished, for every one who rises to the level of Galahad, a hundred will drop plumb down to that of Mordred. Mr. Eliot may succeed in persuading the reading youth of England to have done with robes of purple and pavements of marble. But he will not therefore find them walking in sackcloth on floors of mud–he will only find them in smart, ugly suits walking on rubberoid. It has all been tried before. The older Puritans took away the maypoles and the mince-pies: but they did not bring in the millennium, they only brought in the Restoration. Galahad must not make common cause with Mordred, for it is always Mordred who gains, and he who loses, by such alliance.

The Right to be a Pig and the Right to be a Socrates

Circe_and_her_Swine-Briton_Riviere

Circe and Her Swine by Briton Riviere, 1896

Ryszard Legutko on thin and thick views of human dignity, duty and obligation:

Man, feeling secure and enjoying the increasingly abundant benefits of a modern civilization, was slowly releasing himself from the compelling pressure of strict and demanding rules derived from religion and classical ethics. He was no longer in the mood to embark on a painful and uncertain journey to higher goals, on which John Stuart Mill elaborated with such hope. And his hopes were high. In a famous passage of his Utilitarianism, he said that although man aspires to satisfy his drive for pleasure, he will always prefer to be an unsatisfied Socrates rather than a satisfied pig. Why? The argument was the following: man is cognizant of both states–the Socratic and the swinish–and there is no way that reason and conscience will allow him to opt for being a pig. The argument thus assumes in a unequivocal way that some ways of life are objectively better than others, that the Socratic model is clearly superior to that of a common man, and that there is nothing in human nature that can make people oblivious to this fact.

This last assumption, however, has been challenged since the very beginning of modern times. In liberal democracy, especially in recent decades, a generally acknowledged moral directive forbids looking down on people’s moral priorities, because in the present society equality is the norm, not the hierarchy. But equality, as always, has its limitations. Mediocrity has been generally, though tacitly acknowledged as a noncontroversial, if not preferred model, whereas the Socratic model, though nominally viewed as equal among others, has lost its appeal and support from the democratic mainstream as too aristocratic and elitist. In theory the Socratic way is as good as any other; in practice, it is hopelessly at odds with modern preferences. From a new perspective, the pig would seem, on reflection, a stronger competitor.

The gradual process in which the higher aspirations were being replaced by the lower tells us, no doubt, something about human nature: namely, that unless met with strong resistance or an attractive inspiration it shows a powerful tendency to be lured by the common and the mediocre. “Common,” indeed, has ceased to be a word of disapproval in a liberal-democratic rhetoric, or rather, has ceased to be used at all. When so much is common, nothing really is. This change is but a small signal of a corruption of basic categories by which for centuries people described and evaluated their conduct.

Especially striking is a change in the meaning of the word “dignity,” which since antiquity has been used as a term of obligation. If one was presumed to have dignity, one was expected to behave in a proper way as required by his elevated status. Dignity was something to be earned, deserved, and confirmed by acting in accordance with the higher standards imposed by a community or religion–for instance, by empowering a certain person with higher responsibilities or by claiming that man was created in God’s image. Dignity was an attribute that ennobled those who acquired it. As noblesse oblige, dignity was an obligation to seek some form of self-improvement, however vaguely understood, but certainly closer to the Socratic way and further away from its opposite. The attribute was not bestowed forever; one could always lose it when acting in an undignified way.

At some point, the concept of dignity was given a different meaning, contrary to the original. This happened mainly through the intercession of the language of human rights, especially after the 1948 Universal Declaration. The idea of human beings having inalienable rights is counterintuitive and extremely difficult to justify. It may make some philosophical sense if derived from a strong theory of human nature such as one finds in classical metaphysics. However, when we accept a weak theory, attributing to human beings only elementary qualities, and deliberately disregarding strong metaphysical assumptions, then the idea of rights loses its plausibility. It may, of course, be sanctioned as a mere product of legislation through a Parliamentary or court ruling, which entitles people to make various claims called “rights,” but these claims will be no more than arbitrary decisions by particular groups or politicians or judges who choose to do this rather than that due to circumstances, ideology, or individual predilections or under pressure from interest groups. It would indeed be silly to call such claims “inalienable,” because inalienability by definition cannot be legislated.

Thus, in order to strengthen the unjustified and, within the accepted conceptual framework, unjustifiable notion of human rights, the concept of dignity was invoked, but in a peculiar way so as to make it seem to imply more than it actually did. This concept created an illusion of a strong view of human nature, and of endowing this nature with qualities nowhere explicitly specified but implying something noble, being an immortal soul, an innate desire for good, etc. But on the other hand, in using this concept, unaccompanied by other qualifications, the framers of the human rights documents apparently felt exempted from any need to present an explicit and serious philosophical interpretation of human nature to explain the grounds and the conditions on which one could conceive of its dignity. This operation–or more precisely, sleight of hand, and not very fair to boot–led to a sudden revival of the concept of human dignity, but with a radically different meaning.

Since the issue of the Universal Declaration dignity has no longer been about obligation, but about claims and entitlements. The new dignity did not oblige people to strive for any moral merits or deserts; it allowed them to submit whatever claims they wished, and to justify these claims by referring to a dignity that they possessed by the mere fact of being born without any moral achievement or effort. A person who desired to achieve the satisfaction of a pig was thus equally entitled to appeal to dignity to justify his goals as another who tried to follow the path of Socrates, and each time, for a pig and for a Socrates, this was the same dignity. A right to be a pig and a right to be a Socrates were, in fact, equal and stemmed from the same moral (or rather nonmoral, as the new dignity practically broke off with morality) source.

Having armed himself with rights, modern man found himself in a most comfortable situation with no precedent: he no longer had to justify his claims and actions as long as he qualified them as rights. Regardless of what demands he would make on the basis of those rights and for what purpose he would use them, he did not and, in fact, could not lose his dignity, which he had acquired for life simply by being born human. And since having this dignity carried no obligation to do anything particularly good or worthy, he could, while constantly invoking it, make claims that were increasingly absurd and demand justification for ever more questionable activities. Sinking more and more into arrogant vulgarity, he could argue that this vulgarity not only did not contradict his inborn dignity, but it could even, by a stretch of the imagination, be treated as some sort of an achievement. After all, can a dignity that is inborn and constitutes the essence of humanness, generate anything that would be essentially undignified and nonhuman? The dignity-based notion of human rights was thus both a powerful factor to legitimize a minimalist concept of human nature, and its legitimate child. Moreover, it equipped modern anthropological minimalism with the instruments of self-perpetuation, the most efficient instruments of this kind ever devised in the history of Western societies. (The Demon in Democracy, 30-33)

As a post-script, I should note that Legutko’s point might be better made by going back even further in history than Socrates. He’s left us with a distaste for “modern anthropological minimalism,” but hasn’t sketched an alternative conceptual framework that would yield a better understanding of man’s nature and purpose. I begin my own understanding of these things with Genesis 1-3, and think these chapters could have strengthened Legutko’s valid points and saved him from error with respect to his criticisms of the 1948 Universal Declaration.

When Adam sinned in the garden of Eden, he rebelled against the obligations and duties that were on him by virtue of his being made in God’s image. God required obedience of his creature, but in an “essentially undignified and nonhuman” response to God, Adam disobeyed. As a result, we now inherit a fallen human nature from our father Adam (Rom. 5:12ff), but still have a species of inborn dignity given to us by our Creator (see Gen. 9:5-6 for the endurance of the image of God in man after the fall). We’re born rebelling against that dignity and that Creator, but redemption is about becoming a true man, learning to be a creature in a right relationship with our Creator.

Understanding this development in human nature protects Legutko’s point about the ethical obligations inherent in being a man–that is, the responsibility before God not to bear his image in vain–and avoids the error of adopting the (ironically modern) position that a man can be a pig if he wants–that is, the error in denying any kind of dignity essential of humanness, denying anything that would separate man from beast. The image of God in man has been corrupted so severely that the Son of God had to go to the cross so that he might make real men of us, but the piggish man is still a man with inborn dignity because of the image of God, no matter how convincing his prosthetic nose and curlicue tail.

There’s much insight to Legutko’s account, but he seems to let people off too easily. If dignity is never inborn, must be earned, and may be lost, then a man who has lost that virtue or never earned it could understandably argue that he was under no obligation to live up to an “elevated status” which he did not possess. However, an inborn dignity that lays claim on every man with respect to how he should live in relation to God and to his neighbors offers no quarter to swines, and will not even grant that they’re swines in the first place.