Peace with thy neighbor’s devil

Anthony Esolen wrote a critique of what he called “nice fornication”. One critical comment on the thread did a particularly good job at expressing a common sentiment that we contemporary persons have towards using words like “fornication”:

This reasoned approach, particularly its accurate but harsh language, is not, in my opinion, going to be effective…

…If we are to have any hope of re-inspiring this generation (which has been deprived of its cultural and spiritual inheritance), we will have to find words and images that help them to understand the beauty and the grace of love’s imperatives (faithfulness, refusal to subject the beloved to exploitation) while destroying the false images they have been so very carefully taught.

The language of love and beauty has been co-opted by those who value sexual attraction and its temporary pleasures over the beauty and nobility of commitment and marriage. Those of us who believe otherwise are left with “fornication” and “abstinence,” words which will be resented or ignored by young people in love, a condition which does not encourage clarity of thought.

The comment provoked indignation and led to irritated responses. I’m conflicted on what to think about it. On the one hand, the comment is perfectly tuned to the kind of rhetoric that contemporary culture demands that we use to express our disapproval of things:  one must go to exorbitant lengths to show that they have compassion and understanding for the other;  any condemnation must be played down, qualified, and expressed with hesitation; and the general atmosphere of critique must approximate the therapist’s couch. (this happens not just with moral disapproval – the same rhetoric must be used when a teacher explains a low grade given to a student, or when a boss critiques a worker’s performance). On the other hand, who doesn’t resent having to express himself in this way?

Part of the reason for the resentment is that those who have to use this rhetoric are aware that they do not argue from a position of power, since those with power can express disapproval outside the company of their peers. Everyone else kowtows, even if they have a title that appears to grant them power (teacher, boss, etc.) But this does not capture the whole reason for the resentment. There is also a peculiar indignity to this therapeutic rhetoric, which Nietzsche captures quite well in the second chapter of Zarathustra: 

PEOPLE commended unto Zarathustra a wise man, as one who could discourse well about sleep and virtue: greatly was he honoured and rewarded for it, and all the youths sat before his chair. To him went Zarathustra, and sat among the youths before his chair. And thus spake the wise man: Respect and modesty in presence of sleep! That is the first thing! And to go out of the way of all who sleep badly and keep awake at night!…

And even if one have all the virtues, there is still one thing needful: to send the virtues themselves to sleep at the right time, that they may not quarrel with one another, the good females! And about thee, thou unhappy one! Peace with God and thy neighbour: so desireth good sleep. And peace also with thy neighbour’s devil! Otherwise it will haunt thee in the night.

Honour to the government, and obedience, and also to the crooked government! So desireth good sleep. How can I help it, if power liketh to walk on crooked legs?

Irrespective of any particular point Nietzsche was trying to make, this is a spot-on criticism of the idea that one should avoid polemic and controversy with those in a position of power for the sake of peace outside of ones peer group. The commenter is right that this sort of discourse is the most effective, but its effectiveness seems largely to come from putting everyone to sleep, and of inducing an opium-fog where critique can only express itself in a dream: Peace with God and thy neighbour… And peace also with thy neighbour’s devil!

1 Comment

  1. Peter said,

    August 18, 2011 at 7:43 am

    “Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword.” Matt 10.34

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