The Benefit of Panic
“Woman is less qualified [than man] for moral behavior. For the woman contains more liquid than the man, and it is a property of liquid to take things up easily and to hold onto them poorly. Liquids are easily moved, hence women are inconstant and curious. When a woman has relations with a man, she would like, as much as possible, to be lying with another man at the same time. Woman knows nothing of fidelity. Believe me, if you give her your trust, you will be disappointed. Trust an experienced teacher. For this reason prudent men share their plans and actions least of all with their wives. Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison with his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she herself cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil…. In evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”
– Albert the Great
“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die.”
“Arising from whatever reason the act of government is coercive and is burdened with all the coarse and painful qualities of coercion. And if anyone asks what is the use of insisting on the ugliness of this task of state violence since all mankind is condemned to employ it, I have a simple answer to that. It would be useless to insist on it if all humanity were condemned to it. But it is not irrelevant to insist on its ugliness so long as half of humanity is kept out of it.”
– G.K. Chesterton
There was a time in my life when I, with no doubt or hesitation, would have judged today’s rise of atheism, diversification of culture, advancements of secularism, and relativism of conventions such as marriage to be all definitive signs of societal decay. I would have voiced my conjectures that we were nearing an American apocalypse, a fall of civilization due to our cheerful delight in concupiscence and drunken embrace of sin. I did sometimes imagine myself as one among a few who would stand firm amidst such a cataclysm and, like a heroic rescuer after a hurricane, help rebuild society on the bulwarks of True Religion and True Philosophy and all other fields of True Thinking. To say I was an egomaniac would be an understatement, but I didn’t see my pride at the time because I believed I had the truth, by the balls as it were. Some would say I’m still full of myself, if more skeptical. To them I raise my glass and no objection.
So what’s with the statements I quoted above? I post them not as expressions of arrogance, but as heartfelt beliefs by very intelligent men that, in time, were proved to be not only erroneous, but also, from the standpoint of moral progress, prejudiced and ugly. Each of these statements, misogynist to our ears, expressed a disposition toward women that had all the theological and philosophical backing years of study could buy. These were the orthodox views. These were Truth. And a lot of serious reflection and other intellectual work went into fashioning and justifying them.
I assume that when women started demanding the right to vote and insisting they were morally and intellectual the equals of men, the champions of orthodoxy panicked in fear that the right and just order of society was in danger of collapsing. All that men had built over the centuries risked frustration or maybe even ruin because women no longer wanted to be “women,” to live and be in their proper place. They wanted to vote. They wanted to work. In religion they wanted to approach the altar, raise their voices, teach, minister, and not have to abstain from entering a church for a period of time after that “filthy business” of giving birth. We see this same sort of panic today surrounding social changes to the meaning of marriage, the growing religious diversity of the country, the acceptance and coolness of atheism, and women still demanding equality and autonomy. I escaped this panic when I would have been more prone to it. Self absorbed and silly to a fault, I imagined social collapse, but I was really thinking of myself and my knightly role in its wake.
Maybe this is just projection on my part, but I have an inkling that more than a few of the panic-stricken souls in our postmodern era are fearful not only for the fate of civilization and their beloved institutions, but also, perhaps unknowingly, of the possibility that their worldviews may be wrong. Our grip on “truth” can loosen when we’re faced with realities that, according to our hearts and minds and guts, shouldn’t exist. Well-adjusted, morally upstanding young men and women who were raised by two moms or two dads? That can’t be! Only deceitful propaganda disguised as children’s books tell such a story. Atheists who profess their belief in absolute, object moral norms? Impossible. They have to be “anything goes” relativists, right? They must only be fooling themselves. Muslims want to build a mosque in our neighborhood? We can’t let them. They might turn out to be good neighbors and that would mean…
It may be too late for me to avoid the charge of relativism myself, but, for the record, let me state clearly and unequivocally that, yes, some of what passes for good in our society is misguided, villainous, or downright evil. Our economic and political structures suffer from corruption and injustice. Culturally, we’re hedonistic and consumeristic. We’ve mastered the art of giving legitimacy to killing so we feel safe while pleasuring ourselves in one fashion or another. We all stand in need of confession, forgiveness, and penance for the deeds we do and for traditions we retain. Not every old tradition needs foundational reform, but even the most time-tested traditions warrant questioning and scrutiny from time to time. The moral panic we experience when our world and worldviews begin to tremble often leads to hatred, bigotry, and high cable news ratings, but it also has a benefit if we’re willing to listen: it invites us to a little introspection.