By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tyrants and Self-Destructive Acts

John Milton.Image via Wikipedia
"Self-destructive acts" is my synonym for "sin"  When people hear the word "sin," they automatically think of something pleasurable that others want to forbid out of envy or spite. Screwtape loves that definition. Rather, "sin" is objectively self-destructive behavior, which usually inflicts harm on others also. (Sin is also an offense against the Creator of those selves so being destroyed.) Tyrants are those who want to control and manipulate us for their own ends, not for our objective good.

What is the interest of tyrants in fostering sin? The connection came to mind in reading David Hawkes'  biography of John Milton, previously mentioned in a recent post. Read the following:

A legal slave is one who serves the ends of another; a psychological slave is one who serves his appetite rather than his reason. In both cases, their servility is defined by their pursuit of an end other than that for which they are naturally designed. It is therefore in the interest of tyrants to foster sinful behavior as a means to enslave their subjects because sin, as the Bible also repeatedly stesses, is slavery. . . . But the connection between individual moral rectitude and political liberation faded from popular view in the Western world during the 1960s, when libidinal excess and leftist politics were often associated, or rather confused. Today, when the tyranny of money over humanity forcibly demands incessant consumption and indulgence, so that it effectively becomes a duty, internalized through ubiquitous advertisement, the rationale behind Milton's ascetic radicalism may be clearer than it was a generation ago.

Hawkes, p. 218 (emphasis added).

The political tyrant, whether Hitler or Stalin or the Islamist extremist, manipulates his subjects by encouraging them to violence against others. They become slaves of the tyrant by joining in the crimes of the tyrant and becoming dependent on the tyrant for justifying these outlandish crimes and for protection from the enemies that have been created by this very violence. The tyrant makes them continually dependent on his insane programme.

Yet, in our Western democracies, we also have the tyranny of consumerism which takes many forms beyond the prosaic and trivial form of getting us to prefer one brand of soap over another. The vast and diverse contraceptive industry (just try to name the multitude of different products available, if you can) has a strong interest in fostering fornication and casual sex. The abortion industry has a similar interest in fostering the view that abortion is the safety net for this very same unlimited premarital sex. The vast pornographic industry certainly has a direct interest in fostering addiction to lust in all its forms and in many hitherto unimagined, more intense forms. Each of these "sex" industries is a tyrant in its own right exploiting our vulnerabilities in order to enslave us so that they reap our cash flows. Of course, the alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics industries do the same with highly destructive products. Note also how cities in the U.S. (Oakland, California, is one) are now seeking to exploit large-scale marijuana cultivation for the so-called "medicinal marijuana industry."

 In the West, we think slavery was abolished long ago; but slavery is everywhere. Yet, our "false consciousness" keeps us from seeing the chains. In all fairness, some credit must be given to those social thinkers who used Marxian or other insights to alert us to this false consciousness. (Yes, there are some legitimate Marxian intellectual insights we can note for the record, while, at the same time, robustly rejecting the political ideology of Marxism. Some right-wing fanatics may not like such nuance, but the nuance is nevertheless true.)

Of course, let me not focus solely on the traditional vices. The fostering of consumerist materialism is itself a vast tyranny: bigger and bigger houses, more and more luxuries, manic anxiety about how we compare with others and how to impress them with our material possessions. That over-arching materialism is the uber-empire that encompasses the contraceptive, abortion, pornographic, alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics industries as just a few of its very diverse segments.

The weaker the individual, the more enslaved to appetites that are highly vulnerable to manipulation, the better for the tyrant with a very particular agenda of exploitation. As the quote above notes, in the 1960s and ever since, there has been a riot of ignorant false consciousness: casual sex would make us "free and joyful" and substance abuse would make us "high"--yet everywhere we are in chains as degraded slaves of a multitude of fiendish tyrants. As you can see, the free market's excesses and idolatry get no pass from the Gospel. The free market is wonderful when kept in its proper and appropriate place of fostering enterprise and improving living standards for all, but Christianity refuses to give it a blank check. Keep that in mind when you see Christians and maybe some Catholics who become too closely associated with right-wing politics. The slave mentality is present across the entire political spectrum.

Update:

Having just finished the David Hawkes biography of Milton, let me give my final impressions in order to avoid confusion among my own readers as to what I really think of the biography. I enjoyed and still recommend the book for its insight into the mind, life, and times of John Milton, a seminal figure in literature, in history, and in Christian writing. When Mr. Hawkes focuses on the writings of Milton, we get that wonderful insight.

Yet, like other non-believing commentators dealing with Christian or Jewish writers, Hawkes jumps to premature (I suspect, at times, wishful) conclusions when reading the writings of a Christian like Milton. For example, when Milton emphasizes the origins and obedience of the Son in relation to God the Father, Hawkes jumps too quickly to the unwarranted inference of Arianism. I think this premature judgment of the writings of some Christians as subversively unorthodox reflects the handicap of non-believing writiers who are unfamiliar with the rich diversity of Christian and Catholic theological expression (and biblical expression, for that matter). To emphasize the obedient and servant role of the Son is not necessarily to be espousing Arianism at all. Rather, such emphasis is simply reflecting one crucial aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation. I have seen the same tendency to unwarranted theological conclusions when non-theistic biblical commentators find reflected in Scripture their own mindset or lack of faith. For example, some will view the book of Job as counseling despair in the face of the cruelties of life, when, in fact, it is a much more reasonable exegesis to see the book as emphasizing the limits of the human mind in knowing the ways of God.

(I also noticed in the biography a tendency to find Miltonic references to homosexuality based on very, very thin grounds. This tendency may simply reflect the status of homosexuality as a fashionable and exaggerated issue in academia.)

One major insight that I quite enjoyed is how Milton, contrary to our stereotypical view of the English Puritan, combined throughout his life a love of Greco-Roman culture with his Christian, biblical faith. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the historical Milton, I find this to be a very Catholic combination. Tertullian famously asked, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" My answer and, I think, that of Milton would be: both reflect the glory of one and the same God. Of course, Jerusalem is uniquely foundational as the conduit of direct divine revelation.
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