Monsters, Moralists and Happiness

So here’s a recent piece that asks the musical question, “Hitchcock: Monster or moralist?”

It’s moments like that I most miss the common sense of G.K. Chesterton who wrote:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

We live in a world which has taken the virtue of catholicity from the Church–which really does have room for an astonishing variety of fish in the Great Net–and made it the only virtue.  In so doing, it has created what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “dictatorship of relativism”.  The basic notion behind the dictatorship of relativism is that all religions and philosophies are equally superior to the Catholic faith.

Meanwhile, partly in reaction to the dictatorship of relativism, and partly due to the long Puritan heritage of the English-speaking world we have also developed the astonishing notion that a moralist is automatically a moral person, which is exactly like saying that somebody who complains about loud music is Beethoven.

And so we arrive at the incredible spectacle of a newspaper article, written by grownups, which asks:

Was Alfred Hitchcock a sexual monster? Or was he, as the French film makers Rohmer and Chabrol once claimed, a moralist whose films are steeped in Roman Catholic themes?

Why on earth is this an either/or question?  Caravaggio was a great artist and moralist steeped in Roman Catholic themes.  He was also a very nasty man.  St. Augustine was a profound moralist who prayed “O Lord, make me chaste but not yet.” 

Some of history’s greatest moralists have been monsters and vice versa. Osama bin Laden is a rigid moralist with very definite views of sexual purity. Communism was an intensely moralistic system with very definite views about social justice. Cromwell was profoundly moralistic as he slaughtered what he considered to be the inferior and lazy Irish Romanists at Drogheda.  Robespierre the Incorruptible conducted the Reign of Terror in the utter assurance of his righteousness.

I’m not saying I think Hitchcock was a moralist or a monster. I have no interest in the question.  I’m simply saying that anybody who proposes these things as two utterly irreconcilable extremes is a fool who knows nothing of human beings, nor of the true nature of evil.

Post-modernity has forgotten that evil is always parasitic on the good.  Nobody wills evil ends.  Everybody, including the devil himself, aims for some good (existence, power, intelligence, etc).  What makes their actions evil is not the end they seek but the disordered way in which they try to achieve it.

A moral illiterate hears that and interprets it to mean “Even evil people mean well”.  If the moral illiterate is feeling warm and fuzzy, he applies this by saying stuff like “See!  Even the serial killer is just a little boy who meant well!  What he needs is understanding!”  If the moral illiterate is more in the mood for polemics, he responds with “So!  You’re saying that Hitler meant well!  The next thing, you’ll be telling us the Jews had it coming!”

But both these approaches are, as I note, an illiterate reading of the Christian moral tradition.

Here’s the deal: a thief seeks a good end: wealth.  It does not follow that he “means well” when he steals.  Anybody can seek a good end.  In fact, everybody does.  In fact, nobody can not will a good end.  Which is to say, nobody can not will their own happiness.  Even the suicide seeks happiness (peace, relief from suffering, etc).  But the suicide, like the thief, tries to achieve that end by immoral means.  This is true all the way to the bottom of sin.  That great icon of evil Hitler was, like all monsters, aiming for various good ends he thought would bring him happiness (power, order, etc.).  However, he sought these things in a profoundly disordered way via murder on a massive scale.  He did not “mean well”.  He meant to steal good ends and attain happiness by profoundly evil means.

Indeed, it is precisely because they are in the business of shouting down their screaming consciences that deeply evil people can be profoundly moralistic. They can go on and on about the goodness of their ends exactly because they know in their hearts that they are using deeply evil means to try to achieve those ends.  Just listen to the Nazi agitprop on the “decadent Jew”. It’s all about moralism even as it’s working itself into a frenzy of mass murder. Moralism untethered from the justice and caritas of God—that is, from the rightly ordered pursuit of good ends–is the most powerful engine of destruction, evil and death in the universe. The devil himself is a strict moralist, first tempting you and then relentlessly accusing you of sin like a school marm every time you slip up. Temptation and accusation are his two principal weapons.

As long as we struggle with concupiscence in the flesh, we will continue to be the sort of creature who is, at once, something of a monster and something of a moralist.  Neither can deliver the happiness we are made to seek and cannot help seeking.  Only the intervention of the grace of God in Christ can lift us off that karmic wheel and into the happy life of the Trinity where we can see and (please God) live what vastly transcends mere moralism: sanctity.


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email