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.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part III: Magnanimity and Irony

Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is in any way possible, that somehow he can be cured and made human again. The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.

—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity1

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Beginning from precision, the unwavering devotion to fact that (I personally think) underlies the English Catholic tradition of spirituality, I move to its two immediate products: magnanimity and irony. Both are grounded in a precise recognition of our own ignorance, and a kind of delight in it.

Ladies and gentlemen: subtlety.

By magnanimity, I mean a particular combination of humility and charity toward others. A lot of it is summed up in the phrase ‘benefit of the doubt,’ but it can be formulated more thoroughly and exactly: When dealing with another person, since you can’t read their minds, read their words and actions in the best possible light, conceding every extenuating circumstance.

The mere acknowledgment that we can’t read minds is a taxing work for some of us. Knowing what people really mean is an addiction. And the fact that we may divine people’s motives correctly a lot of the time makes it worse, since it bolsters the illusion that we get it right far more often than that—and there is no rush like being right at the expense of others.

Magnanimity renounces this rush. Precision rules out our emotional belief in our own telepathic powers; it points out the gargantuan difference between any two people, such that accident and misunderstanding and malign coïncidence can have profound effects on virtually any interaction; it acknowledges that every word, tone, and gesture has multiple interpretations, and that we do not always convey or achieve what we want to when we act. Magnanimity takes these facts and embraces them, choosing to cheerfully accept the limits of our knowledge of others, and to imagine every word and deed—even those which hurt us—as being, maybe, the best response that person can manage to their circumstances. For after all, it may be. We don’t know.

This acceptance of ignorance leads us into the other fruit of precision, which is irony. As Alanis Morissette taught us in 1995, nobody really knows what irony means,2 but the general sense of it is of words, situations, or narratives that contain a contradiction: so, sarcasm contains a contradiction between the knowledge or beliefs of the speaker and the words they use to express it; the assassination of Julius Cæsar provoked the totalitarian centralization the assassins had been trying to avert; and half of all Greek myth is about someone making a prophecy come true by trying to prevent it. But I’m using irony in a particular sense here, one primarily derived from verbal irony, yet extending into a general temper of the mind.

Lovers, if they’re any good at it, are continually laughing at each other. This isn’t because they despise each other, but because they see the other closely enough to see all the ridiculous aspects of their beloved, and human beings have a lot of ridiculous aspects, both as a race and as individuals. This ability to see to coëxistence of the laughable and the serious is a first step in the doctrine of irony; it discerns, and embraces, the mass of lovable contrasts that make up every human character. In particular, this kind of irony is able to see the mixture of evil and good in people: prepared to deal with evil if necessary (as precision demands), hoping for good (because charity hopes all things).

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. … Just when you’d think they were more malignant than Hell could ever be, they could occasionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of. Often the same individual was involved. It was this free-will thing, of course. It was a bugger.3

For a practical example of irony at work, we can look to Socrates. A lot of people dislike Socrates, finding the irony he evinces in Plato’s dialogues a merely dishonest technique for sneering. I don’t read him this way at all. I think his irony was subtler than that: that it was, yes, a way to poke gentle fun at the egotistic windbags he so often spoke with, but also a way of inviting them to be better. His cross-examinations of Euthyphro, Protagoras, Gorgias, and ultimately the whole Athenian people certainly have an undercurrent of laughter, but I don’t think it’s hostile laughter. I think he really wanted them to exercise the virtue and intellect that he ironically attributed to them, and that his gadfly wit was a form of affection, rather than of affectation.

I think this specific form of irony is what underlies English humor. It takes more hostile and jagged forms, of course; but the cunningly bland understatement of its dry wit and the deadpan silliness of its … wet? … wit, have that distinctive tang that runs through Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, John Cleese, Douglas Adams, and—well, time would fail me to tell of Lewis Carroll, and of Winston Churchill, and of Simon Pegg, and of Martin Freeman. And these all, having obtained a good report through jests, received not the OBE.4

So then, precision, and from precision to magnanimity and irony. In my next, I’ll talk about what I mean by hierarchy and republic.

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1This miserably timely reminder comes from the chapter titled ‘Forgiveness,’ which, I think, has become an even more unpopular virtue than chastity.
2The word comes from the Greek εἰρωνεία (eirôneia), meaning ‘feigned ignorance.’ A lot of the word’s subsequent adventures become much more intelligible with this viewed as the conceptual point of origin.
3Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. In strict theological terms these conceptions of hell and heaven are of course nonsense, but Pratchett and Gaiman were not trying to write strict theology.
4Not that I know of, anyway. I didn’t check. I guess Churchill must have.

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