Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part II: Precision

He was finding the answer to Aston Moffatt’s last published letter difficult, yet he was determined that Moffatt could not be right. He was beginning to twist the intention of the sentences in his authorities, preferring strange meanings and awkward constructions, adjusting evidence, manipulating words. In defense of his conclusion he was willing to cheat in the evidence—a habit more usual to religious writers than to historical.
… With a perfectly clear, if instantaneous, knowledge of what he did, he rejected joy. He instantaneously preferred anger, and at once it came; he invoked envy, and it obliged him. The other possibility—of joy in that present fact—receded as fast. He had determined, then and for ever, for ever, for ever, that he would hate the fact, and therefore facts.

—Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

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The first part of this spirit of courtesy is what I’ve called precision: that is, an exacting intellectual fidelity to the facts, as best we can manage. Honesty is of course one of the pillars on which all virtue and holiness have to be built, because if you refuse to deal with reality then you can’t do anything of importance. But I chose a different word from honesty, because what I’m talking about is slightly narrower than that—it’s a specific style or flavor of honesty. More than telling the truth, precision means maintaining a clear and complete picture of reality in one’s mind, including the shades of grey that our limited intellects always involve us in.

As an example, let’s say you feel a sudden, sharp pain in your back, and turn around to find someone holding a small knife with blood on it. It is quite reasonable to suppose you’ve been stabbed by this guy, and there’s no dishonesty in saying as much. But precision would do both more and less with the data. Less, in that it would acknowledge that Knife Guy only may have stabbed you, even if it’s likely; more, in that it would point out other possible explanations, as that someone may have stabbed you, thrust the knife into Knife Guy’s hand, and run away—and no, that isn’t a likely explanation, but unlikely things happen.

But precision isn’t the same thing as giving someone the benefit of the doubt, though it is the rationale for such doubt. It is, as stated above, fidelity to the facts. This is a possible but difficult quality to maintain in juxtaposition with sincere and passionate belief, in anything; which is probably why academics so often seem religiously dubious to less scholarly1 believers. And why people with fiercely held beliefs, no matter for or against what, are often willing to fudge the facts in proportion to their investment in those beliefs. For this fidelity to fact rules out any unwillingness to deal with facts that are inconvenient or even objectively dangerous.

The peculiarly English quality that (in my opinion) makes precision a part of the Anglican patrimony may not be obvious, and I certainly don't insist that mere accuracy is something unique to English Christianity. But it is intriguing to me that Anglo-Saxon England was a great center of scholarship during the Dark Ages (SS Bede and Aidan being the most famous exemplars), that troubled period between Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages proper, when the remnants of the Roman Empire were for the most part reduced to barbarism. Charlemagne's court, which hosted a minor renaissance of learning in this transitional era, was populated largely by English and Irish scholars like Alcuin of York, Joseph Scottus, and John Scotus Erigena.

The conclusion of The Dark Knight gives an example of a deliberate refusal of the quality of precision. Don’t get me wrong, the movie’s magnificent—but its magnificence lies in its exact statement of how evil functions, how it corrupts heroes themselves, and Harvey Dent is only the obvious example.

Commissioner Gordon: The Joker won. All of Harvey’s prosecutions, everything he fought for: undone. Whatever chance you gave us of fixing our city dies with Harvey’s reputation. We bet it all on him. The Joker took the best of us and tore him down. People will lose hope.
Batman: They won’t. They must never know what he did.
Com. Gordon: Five dead, two of them cops—you can’t sweep that up.
Batman: But the Joker cannot win. Gotham needs its true hero.
Com. Gordon: [understanding immediately] No!
Batman: ‘You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ I can do those things, because I’m not a hero, not like Dent. I killed those people; that’s what I can be.
Com. Gordon: No, you can’t! You’re not!
Batman: I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be. Call it in. […] Because that’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes … the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
Gordon’s Son: Batman? Batman! Why is he running, Dad?
Com. Gordon: Because we have to chase him.
Gordon’s Son: He didn’t do anything wrong.
Com. Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So, we’ll hunt him, because he can take it.

The problems with this exchange are legion—as, for instance, that taking life advice from a man who abandoned his ideals in favor of murdering people based on flipping a coin may not be the wisest decision available; or that this child has apparently just learned, from his father who’s the head of the NYPD, and the vigilante who wants to preserve people’s hope, that it’s okay to hunt an innocent man in order to make an example of him; or that the truth always comes out eventually, and when it does, Gotham’s spirit will be more brutally crushed than if they had had it from the beginning; or that the logic that people ‘need’ to believe in Harvey Dent and therefore it’s okay to lie about him, is exactly the logic that shielded pedophile priests. The use Bane makes of the truth in the following film, to demoralize and control the city before erecting kangaroo courts to massacre its leaders, is a natural consequence of the deception.

Regardless, neither Gordon nor Wayne considers the matter with enough precision to realize these facts, because they haven’t committed themselves to caring about truth. They’ve only committed themselves to caring about Gotham. And there’s nothing wrong with caring about Gotham; but this is a perfect instantiation of how the love of a lesser good like your hometown, if it isn’t governed by the love of a greater good like the truth, will ultimately destroy the very lesser good you preferred when you gave up the greater.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
    By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!2

The one who guides his mind by precision must act differently. The uses, evil or good, that the facts may be put to, can be legitimately considered in their turn. But fidelity to the facts themselves comes first—no matter what they are. For the thing about reality is that it intrudes itself upon you; you can only hold it at bay so long, and it will go right on operating around you even while you do your best to deny it. This is exactly why science, religion, and good art are so enduring: they’re rooted in the real world and not merely in what we’d like the world to be.

So then, precision, the commitment to recognize facts however much we dislike them (and, indeed, admitting our dislike of this or that fact is a part of precision, since we ourselves are facts): I take this to be the basis on which courtesy is built. In my next, I’ll analyze its first two consequences, magnanimity and irony.

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1It should be, but isn’t, unnecessary to point out that being scholarly and being intelligent are not at all the same thing.
2Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol I.37-42.

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