Education For Peace Versus the "Grand Coalition of the Status Quo"
Dr. John C. Rao
Associate Professor of History, St. John’s University, New York City
Despite endless apologies for past errors, and effusive self-congratulation for evils overcome, our civilization actually seems to have learned very little in recent centuries about how to preserve a peaceful international order. Its dullness is primarily due to a chronic intellectual and spiritual disease which prevents it from seeing and fighting the true causes of its unjust actions, illicit warfare included. This illness ensures that when westerners abandon one discredited pathway to hell, they only do so to enter down other painfully similar ones, all of which open up new opportunities for ideologues and criminals to disturb the peace.
Anyone really eager to educate our civilization for peace must, therefore, first take some serious time out to identify that pathological fire in the minds (and hearts) of men which George Bush’s second inaugural address actually praised as a positive good. Unfortunately, detailed discussion of the dangerous nature of our western "brain and soul fever" requires my reiteration of much of what I have already said on many occasions in Feldkirch before. I have now begun to feel a bit like Cato the Elder, who ended all his later speeches before the Senate with the same warning of the primary need to destroy Carthage. If I have to play the role of Cato, so be it. An essential argument ought to be repeatedly attacked from different angles anyway. And I believe that my "Carthage" is a much more justifiable and dangerous enemy to our global community today than the crippled North African city was to Rome in the 100’s B.C.
Our modern western disease did not emerge ex nihilo. It is strong precisely because it represents something which unfailingly arouses enthusiastic support from populations the world over: what might be called the spirit of raw paganism. That spirit reflects basic desires for prosperity, pleasure, and power, both for individuals as well as for the cities and nations which men love with profound filial affection. Such immediate longings, personal and social, are generally accepted as "common sense" dictates by most individuals. It seems as though they just "are", and that they ought, therefore, to be unquestioningly satisfied. After recognizing them, the average man or society sees no need for a further investigation of their character or for moral criticism of any of their possible flaws.
Indeed, men and societies generally have incarnated all these "obvious" needs in the form of pagan gods and goddesses who represent them and give higher justification for their pursuit and ultimate satisfaction. Nothing in the existing order of things--what is popularly referred to in English as "the status quo"--is challenged by such divinities; hence, their ready acclamation and joyful acceptance on the part of the unthinking person or nation that simply wants what it traditionally wants, when and how it wants it. Moreover, the gods who represent such a raw pagan spirit are not "ancient". They are ever near, in New York City or in Feldkirch, as much as in archaic or classical Athens.
The effects of a raw paganism and the meaning of the pagan gods representing it can, of course, be modified through insight, meditation and sustained rational analysis of the data of nature. One finds such development in the Greek epic, lyric, and dramatic poets, as well as in the scientific and Socratic movements. Men like Plato placed stop signs in the path of individuals and nations tempted to accept unquestioningly their basic, parochial desires as though they were god-given realities. These heroes of our civilization encouraged efforts to correct what might not actually be "givens", but merely dangerous human misperceptions regarding nature and its workings.
Anyone who did not want to hear such higher critical guidance could find succor from that sub-class of rhetoricians which we might label "word merchants". Word merchants found that turning their potent literary talents to the discrediting of irritating efforts to investigate and tame immediate desires provided a sure-fire path to their own prosperity and popularity. They thus worked mightily to confirm men and nations in unquestioning abandonment to things "as they are" and "business as usual". All kinds of themes were employed by the word merchants to convince individuals and nations, depending upon circumstances, either to run wild with their own passions or acquiesce slavishly in the victory of others who were richer and stronger. They called up a myriad of arguments to make such libertinism and resignation seem inevitable, crucial to the survival of a beloved fatherland, and, of course, dear to the very gods themselves. All their inventiveness and skill with words was used to demonstrate that critics of unexamined action were actually impious enemies of a god-given reality; apostles of weakness and defeat; men who were frightened by life, and, consequently, advocates of permanent paralysis.
Brilliant word merchants like Isocrates quickly identified the Socratics as their implacable enemies among the elite. But Christianity, with its militant insistence upon converting whole populations to belief in the teachings of a supernatural religion with a universally applicable cure for natural, parochial flaws, represented an infinitely more dangerous threat to them. Not only was this strange, new force willing to make use of the sophisticated intellectual dialectic of a Plato; it also possessed unfamiliar mystical and popular means of opening men to a more critical use of natural tools and a deeper analysis of their motives in using them. Word merchants defending the status quo and the acceptance of nature and men "as they are" thus felt that they had to defeat this enemy of mankind before all others. They formed a broad alliance to fight a despised, universalist faith which demanded a profound change in personal and community behavior. Defenders of the traditional multiplicity of national and city gods joined that league. Some philosophers who did not wish to rock the social boat also enlisted, alongside others who simply refused to permit the human mind to pursue the hunt for truth with supra-rational tools. Average men, outraged over persistent, annoying Christian questioning of the supposedly crystal-clear requirements of daily human life, entered the ranks as well. An army of "common sense" crusaders confirming the raw pagan rejection of Christianity as the unnatural opponent of "business as usual" took the field against it.
Despite the seeming Christian victory of the late Fourth Century, this Grand Coalition of the Status Quo continued to fight underground for unquestioned acceptance of the "natural" desires of men and nations. From the High Middle Ages onwards, the word merchants began to round up the usual suspects to seek their revenge against the Christian irritant and its Socratic handmaiden more brazenly. Legalists and certain humanists, preachers, and philosophes, through inflammatory pamphlets, causes celebres, and the demagoguery of the popular press, once again held up the exciting alternative of the uncorrected parochial individual and nation to those tormented by Christianity and its allies. The flood gates shutting out immediate satisfaction of human desires were re-opened. Men and states, tired of self-questioning and moral struggle, bathed happily in the liberating waters pouring in. The raw spirit of paganism, every near and ever tempting, returned in triumph.
Our modern western illness is, therefore, in one sense, merely a recent version of the age-old, raw pagan desire to avoid rigorous thought which might then require change of behavior and self-discipline. Willful modern men and nations, like willful men and nations of all times, do not want to cultivate any knowledge designed to correct their mistakes and allow them to know, love, and serve God or nature better. What they really long for is knowledge which will make the universe dance to their arbitrary tune more efficiently. Hence, they applaud Francis Bacon’s statement that knowledge is to be gained for the power that it gives them to satisfy their wishes and build what one of his books calls The New Atlantis. Hence, also their enthusiastic acceptance of experimental sciences and mathematics. It is not respect for these studies in and of themselves that motivates them. It is their perception of scientific and mathematical usefulness as tools in providing what men and nations unthinkingly want which truly urges them onwards.
Old in one sense, modern brain and soul fever is nevertheless new in its intensity, global spread, and more brazen rhetorical fraudulence. Skillfulness and technology have given the word merchants of the Grand Coalition who promote this contagion an incomparable ability to package and propagandize the Status Quo. Never before have they made such progress. And never before have they co-opted so many of even the most ferocious of their traditional opponents. Their support for raw paganism has been accompanied by calls to worship new divinities such as "Mother Nature", "Freedom", "Democracy", and "Tolerance", and repeated use of fresh cultic symbols like the Statue of Liberty to stir up devotion to the unexamined life. Still, I believe that the word merchants have made their greatest inroads on behalf of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo through popularization of the god "Vitality" and his consort, "Success".
Word merchants have long loved equated modernity’s embrace of natural desires with an open, honest, non-hypocritical acceptance of the general "vitality" of life; a vitality that proves its goodness and validity through its ability to impose its will and win "Success". They have long refined and philosophized their depiction of criticism which place obstacles in the path of a willful, vital action as a pathetic rejection of natural human existence. Such arguments are central to Rousseau’s Confessions and the entire nineteenth century romantic obsession with "feeling" and "sincerity". They are equally crucial to the militarist, futurist, and nihilist spirit that grew ever stronger between the Franco-Prussian and Second World Wars, and has prospered afterwards under other names, pluralism included. The result has been a highly effective presentation to young, passionate, and ambitious men and women of the stark, either-or choice before them: that of either plunging into the adoration of "vital" existence and the successful life it promises or joining ranks with the slave philosophy and religion which analyzes the flaws of man and nature and leaves them to die, unsatisfied and unadmired, in the process.
Experimental science and math, whose usefulness was appreciated by the worshippers of Vitality and Success, easily fell prey to the embrace of this cult. So tempting was it, however, that even Christian thinkers, from Protestant Pietists to Catholic missionaries and social activists, succumbed to its siren call as well. Intensely depressed over their debilitating intellectual squabbles and lack of substantive progress, they began to argue that vital desire crowned by worldly success must point to some presence of the Holy Spirit which a redemptive religion should appreciate and nurture. Their blessing pressed theology and its Socratic ally, along with all the Christian and secular hopes that they represented, into the service of the limited, uncritical, parochial-minded vitalist enterprise. Science, religion, and rational speculation, eager to prove their vitality and usefulness to success, all now offered themselves for manipulation by word merchants to justify the satisfaction of immediate individual and national desire. Scientific, religious, and philanthropic activism ended by doing slave labor for a raw paganism fitting to the Dark Ages of pre-Homeric Greece rather than the heights of Western Civilization. Drugged as they were by lovely words of Freedom, Democracy, and Progress, they even whistled happily while they worked to degrade their civilization and themselves.
It is interesting to note what nineteenth century critics of such developments thought they would produce in the long run: a drab, thoughtless, materialist, Americanized "Empire of the World"; a globe ruled by statist bureaucrats and charismatic leaders, aided by purveyors of standardized pleasures, and backed, ultimately, by brute force; a true assault on life by those who claimed that they were its defenders. Listen to the words of the mid-century French journalist, Louis Veuillot (1813-1883), in this regard:
One can look to North America and the direction in which it is headed. Its rapid progress, owed to the most brutalizing work, has fascinated Europe. But already the true results of this exclusively material progress appear: Barbarism, wicked behavior…the imbecilic slavery of the victors, devoted to the most harsh and nauseating life under the yoke of their own machines. America could sink completely into the ocean and the human race would not lose anything—not a saint, not an artist, not a thinker….This people does not cry for its dead. It only knows how to shed tears of money. Fire can grip its cities, but it devours in them no monument or work of art or memory; and the money melted down is not at all money lost. One draws money from the ruins, which themselves often provide opportunity for good business.What has, in fact, evolved, is something not all that different from such prognostications, so long as one makes clear that the bureaucrats in question include the minions of multinational corporations and non- governmental organizations as well as employees of the State. The West, with its brilliant theology, philosophy, science, and socio-political life, has indeed been handed over to the task of producing nothing other than a pitiful, biblical mess of pottage. What this has meant, in modern America, the model for the Empire of the World, is the creation of a nation of anti-social adolescents who disdain the collective wisdom of the ages and all serious communal guidance. These adolescents are gross materialists who either exploit the land for what it can yield and then move on to greener pastures, or acquiesce in such exploitation by those who are stronger, with the hope that they, too, will someday join their ranks. They are barbarians who devastate all institutions capable of supporting the permanent traditions and cultural sophistication underlying a lasting civilization. They are partisans of a parochial smugness which dismisses all profound criticisms of such ravages as worthless intellectual babbling, as a ball-and-chain on the vital, profitable looting to which all men of "common sense" must dedicate themselves. In short, they are the pluralist, capitalist men, ethically free as a bird, whose culture of nothingness American neo-conservatives wish to export throughout the globe, equipped with the blessing of everyone, scientists, philosophers and theologians included. The extent of their success is visible to me every time I see the ease with which my long-indoctrinated New York students communicate with their counterparts in Europe and in Asia, and whenever I see the representatives of this mentality wined and dined by representatives of older and wiser institutions that really ought to know better.
Everywhere, the conqueror [of the world] will find one thing, everywhere the same, the only thing that war and the Revolution will nowhere have overturned: bureaucracy. Everywhere the bureaux will have prepared the way for him; everywhere they await him with a servile eagerness. He will support himself on them. The universal Empire will be the administrative Empire par excellence. Adding without end to that precious machinery, he will carry it to a point of incomparable power. Thus perfected, administration will satisfy simultaneously its own genius and the design of its master in applying itself to two main works: the realization of equality and of material well-being to an unheard-of degree; the suppression of liberty to an unheard of degree.
The police will take care that one is amused and that its reins never trouble the flesh. The administration will dispense the citizen of all care. It will fix his situation, his habitation, his vocation, his occupations. It will dress him and allot to him the quantity of air that he must breathe. It will have chosen him his mother; it will choose him his temporary wife; it will raise his children; it will take care of him in his illnesses; it will bury and burn his body, and dispose of his ashes in a record box with his name and number.
But why would he change places and climates? There will no longer be different places or climates, or any curiosity anywhere. Man will everywhere find the same moderate temperature, the same administrative rules, and infallibly the same police taking the same care of him. Everywhere the same language will be spoken, the same bayadères will everywhere dance the same ballet. The old diversity will be a memory of the old liberty, an outrage to the new equality, a greater outrage to the bureaux, which would be suspected of not being able to establish uniformity everywhere. Their pride will not suffer that. Everything will be done in the image of the main city of the Empire and of the World. (L. Veuillot, Mélanges, Oeuvres Completes, iii series, 1933, Paris, viii, 364, 366-367, 369; xi, 34; xii, 360).
There is no chance for peace in a globe whose word merchants justify unthinking, materialist human action with reference to its vitalism and profitable achievements alone. Warfare will be promoted, accepted, and defended against the "lifeless" higher critics of natural desires, so long as armed conflict offers some chance of success. I know two formerly pro-war journalists who have now turned against the Iraqi conflict not because they have come to understand its injustice, but because they cannot see that it has obtained what it set out to do. Had it been successful, they would continue to berate its opponents as obvious fools. A third anti-war journalist of my acquaintance defends his earlier wavering over the conflict because it allowed him room "for maneuvering". Maneuvering for what? Maneuvering for whichever policy was more successful. Beware of alliance with a supporter of such a mentality. His understanding of peace is merely the pursuit of the oppressive goals of war by other means. And if his peace policy is not crowned with success, then one be certain that his support for a new and more promising war cannot long be delayed.
Unfortunately, this praise of thoughtless vital action and success condemns the word merchants and the world they manipulate to precisely that painful repetition of mistakes which I lamented at the beginning of this article. Worry about historical events is another meaningless block on contemporary expenditure of energy as far as the rhetoricians and ordinary members of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo are concerned. "After all", they would argue, "energetic go-getters of the 2000’s ought not be hemmed in by the failed experiences of losers from the 1990’s. 2005 is obviously unlike 1999. Just look at the numbers. How can such different numbers be in any way related?" The free men shaped by their guidance always leap into new disasters before they meditate. In principle, their commitment to uninformed activity makes them open to encouraging repetition of all the horrible errors of the Twentieth Century, those of Hitler and Stalin included, da capo. In fact, they are even ready to reemploy the very same words to influence a population so blind to history that it cannot recognize the rhetoric that led them just yesterday down the pathway to hell.
That fact was driven home to me just recently by a reading of the Memoires of the French pacifist author, Romain Rolland (1866-1944). This gripping, poignant book deals with the period of the First World War and its immediate aftermath from a vantage point in neutral Switzerland allowing the author to maintain contact with numerous people from all of the warring countries. Rolland’s detailed account of the general development of an irrational political rhetoric used to maintain war fever and block clear thinking in the years from 1914 to 1918 describes precisely what all of us have witnessed in our own time. A specific example of such continuity can be seen in the "keeping faith with the dead" argument which Rolland shows to have been publicly promoted as obvious "common sense" in all belligerent nations by 1915/1916. Its line of reasoning emphasizes the importance of pursuing an unjust and absurd war until the bitter end; the need to force more and more soldiers to perish lest failure to do so render the sacrifice of the first batch of cannon fodder meaningless. George Bush recently latched onto this staple of mid-war logic. The fact that the President of the United States and his advisors can still reasonably hope to influence people with such arguments, nearly a century after their use by the European powers at Verdun and on the Somme, is illuminating regarding the historical blindness (or cynicism?) of the Grand Coalition and its victims indeed.
Anyone who has come to terms with the strength of the intellectual and spiritual disease ravaging the West, and who still has the courage to try to work for peace, should also consult the experience of those who have somewhat successfully dealt with the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo under difficult conditions in the past. Strange as it may sound to modern ears, the only experience that I know of which is really worth studying in this regard is the Tenth and Eleventh Century campaign for the Peace and Truce of God, directed against the depredations of an assortment of brutal, violent, robber counts and barons in much of western Europe. That movement was partly successful because it worked with three important premises in mind.
The first of these was the recognition that the proponents of peace had to become different men and women than those they were condemning if they were really to have a lasting impact. It was useless for peacemakers to throw out the villains if they operated from the same wicked principles. Hence, the need to work for peace by remaking themselves as individuals, primarily by opening themselves up to the transforming action of those higher truths which could heal the ills of a flawed nature and their own defective personalities. Secondly, the Peace and Truce of God movement saw that it needed to effect this change of outlook and personality by encouraging a certain temporary retreat from the activities of the corrupted contemporary world, an enterprise which it undertook by popularizing participation in that "time out of time" experience represented by pilgrimages, especially the lengthy pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostella. And, finally, it neither engaged in the depressing activity of counting the numbers of those who took the movement seriously, nor limited its evangelizing to the oppressed and the outraged alone. Rather, it realized that most epoch-making events in human history are the work of the few, and that even the enemy himself—the robber barons in this case—were always susceptible to possible conversion.
Translation of this historical analogy, whose impact for peace in the High Middle Ages was significant, is rather clear. Our task is to fight the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo by breaking with any of its principles of unquestioning acceptance of individual and national self-interest which still have a hold on us; to rediscover the outside, objective, higher world of truth, and not to put any stop signs on the path that this leads us to take. Our task is also that of trying to create a "time out of time", free from the drab, standardized, materialist conditions of life that the Empire of the World has created for us, so that we can really learn what that objective reality is. Conferences like this contribute to just such a break with the norm, but so do a continued cultivation of all serious theology, philosophy, literature and music. For, as Prosper of Aquitaine argued during the period of turmoil accompanying the barbarian invasions of the western part of the Roman Empire, "even if the wounds of this shattered world enmesh you, and the sea in turmoil bears you along in but one surviving ship, it would still befit you to maintain your enthusiasm for studies unimpaired. Why should lasting values tremble if transient things fall?" Finally, our task is to fight the intense depression that can come with the realization that we may only have one or two listeners attracted by what we have to say, and the bitterness that tempts us to cut off all contact with the enemy and the indifferent as though they formed part of an inevitably damned majority.
Allow me to return back to my own students once more in order to complete my argument. These poor souls have grown up in a nation whose population is dedicated to childish desires and games, and is perpetually exhausting itself, either by working to pay for them or by playing them, with no time left over for judging whether or not this huge expenditure of infantile energy is really worth it. My students are not, by nature, essentially ill-willed or uneducable. Nevertheless, they have been pressured, since childhood, to live the same unexamined life—an existence which amounts to the life-long euthanasia described by Veuillot—as that of their adolescent elders. They are frightened by what such a future requires, though calmed as they are trained for their living death by playing special games of their own, drug-taking among them, and, of course, dancing the thoughtless dance. Their only hope is to be shown that they are intellectually and spiritually diseased, and that they must use their university years as a "time out of time" to fight their malady and regain contact with what is truly real and life-giving. There are a few of them who can be touched almost immediately by contact with higher things, and it is interesting to see how many waves their rejection of the global imperial system makes, even if only within the ivory tower of the university community. These students then need two further bits of assistance from men and women who would teach them to be peacemakers: first of all, help in educating their understandable bitterness against a society which has lied to them since their birth, and which they often then want totally to destroy in a nihilistic rage; and, secondly, life-long friendship, to reinforce their "conversion" in the busy, unthinking world which they will one day inevitably enter to make a living and survive. All this is very, very difficult indeed, and our spirits can so easily be crushed by the drudgery of the labor involved.
One of my favorite books as a teenager fascinated by history was a volume of pictures illustrating the horrors of the First World War so poignantly described by Romain Rolland. It was not the photos of heaps of cadavers in the trenches and no man’s lands of northern France that most affected me, chilling as these admittedly were. Instead, the nightmarish consequences of that apocalyptic conflict seemed to come through much more clearly in a snapshot from war’s end, one depicting a young married couple walking down a street in a large European city, the husband holding their little baby in his arms with its back to the camera. The eyes of both man and wife were those of souls in torment; two persons absolutely bewildered by their new, rapidly-changing environment, their place within it, and the ultimate destination to which they were hurrying with their precious, helpless cargo. Hence, the poignancy of the caption below: Little Man, What Now?
For a very long time, I frequently wondered whether this question was ever answered for them. But such dreamy speculation about anonymous individuals’ problems has finally faded from my mind. For now, eighty-seven years after that couple’s aimless passeggiata at the end of the Great War, I find myself daily posing much the same baffled query silently to each of my own children. Because, despite my having had a solid upbringing by devoted parents, an education far superior to anything that my ancestors would have dreamed possible, and a secure, life-time position at a major metropolitan university, I am all too conscious of having no earthly control whatsoever over the life that I am leading; of being a "little man" myself in an Empire of the World that demands ever more work of me and ever less thinking just in order to pay the rent and put bread on the table. And, like my friends from 1918, I have my own helpless family caught in the undertow with me.
Both my Reason and my Faith tell me that this violent, global system is beyond my control, but that it will implode, and probably under the most cataclysmic conditions imaginable. The Marxist-Leninist version of the modern nightmare was straightforward in its horror and produced such immediate and obvious economic dislocation that its demise proved to be that of a crippled airplane slowly coming in for a crash landing. The global democratic-capitalist system developed under the aegis of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo offers enough surface advantages and hopes to a sufficient number of people to hide its subtle vices and long-term dangers. Those drinking the Marxist schnapps could taste its bitterness from the first sip and rouse themselves to try to toss the concoction away and change to something more satisfying. Those nursing the democratic-capitalist long drink, on the other hand, find some flavor in its adulterated mix until the last drop. It is only then that they see that, in addition to there being absolutely nothing left in their glass, that they have been slowly poisoned as they have drunk from it all along. The reactions of democratic-capitalist men to the sudden disaster which will end the Empire will not be a pretty sight to behold. Their response will be as violent and senseless as their hopes have been.
That brings me to the final task that the man wishing to educate for peace must perform: pray. This was the conclusion of the proponents of the Peace and Truce of God. This, in effect, was Plato’s ultimate conclusion to the problems of creating and maintaining a proper, peaceful social order as well. For he saw that there could be no good society without good individuals bringing it into being and supporting it, and yet no good individuals without the help of a good society to educate them. Therefore, unless "some god" came to save men from the dilemma, there was no possible way out of the tragic dilemma. The old Catholic formula for dealing with a bad situation was to work as if everything depended upon us, and to pray as if everything depended upon God. I think this formula has its value for all of us concerned about the cause of peace in our troubled global community today.
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