Thursday, October 24, 2013

Staying Sane in an Age of Folly

A few aging Chinese leaders have been making public apologies for the lives they destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s, a rage swept through Chinese society against artists, philosophers, and other kind of intellectually gifted people. In those days, even possessing classical literature – including Chinese classical literature – could invite public scorn, humiliation and even imprisonment. To survive, one had to learn how to spit in the street and pepper his speech with obscenities and colloquialisms.

Many of the persecutors were young. They became infected by a wave of nationalism and worked to reform their nation from what they saw as the degenerate effects of refinement.

Hundreds of thousands died during this era of madness. Most of the victims perished simply because they had obtained proficiency in some area of human interest. Those who did not perish learned how to deny their intelligence, talent and taste until the madness passed. Rational discourse, helpful during normal times for maintaining civility and the rule of law among those of different opinions, became a sign of one’s decadence and lack of conviction. So silence didn’t help. To live, one had to actually adopt barbarity.

Many societies fall prey to this sort of madness from time to time. In the 1950s, Senator McCarthy terrified the American populace with his campaign against communism. Soon, no one who had ever read Marx or had ever studied Russian language and literature was safe. Not even the American government could contain the hysteria. In fact, for a season, the government became an active agent of the hysteria.

On a smaller scale, the Scopes Trial, made famous by the movie Inherit the Wind, represented the same sort of social hiccup. A high school biology teacher in East Tennessee referred to Darwin’s Origin of Species in class one day. So he found himself in trouble with the law. That released a religious suspicion of science that continues to plague much of American culture.

Christian denominations go through the same sort of thing from time to time.  Some group within the denomination begins to claim more holiness, theological purity, fidelity to the past -- something surely more important than friendship and human decency -- and a purge begins that sweeps away folks that just yesterday were thought of as deeply committed Christians and friends.  

The thing that connects these kinds of public moods is fear and disdain for the products of civilization: things like wisdom, education, refinement, and social grace. In times of folly, the unrefined, crass, obstinate, passionate and non-compromising demagogues take the stage. They whip the masses up against scientists, artists, philosophers, theologians or any other kinds of degenerate elements in their society they believe are working to to overturn their community’s accustomed way of life or viewing the world.  

In such times, no one is allowed to remain neutral. Everyone must chose sides.

As in China’s Cultural Revolution, the reign of folly soon erodes confidence even in one’s own cultural resources. Those Asian hooligans marked the likes of Bach and Plato as agents of foreign contamination.  However stupid, that was an understandable mistake for youthful patriot in the Eastern World to make.  It didn’t take long though for their suspicions to spread to the writings of Lao Tzu and Confucius.  Thus they eroded public respect for their own heritage, finally dishonoring even other communists who differed in some obscure point from their own high ideological standards.

When this kind of madness seizes a Christian community, quoting from a secular writer can seriously damage a leader's credibility. He will probably quickly learn to avoid making that mistake. In seasons of real folly however, he must also be cautious about quoting respected Christian scholars from the past. He must even be cautious about going too deeply into biblical studies. He must be cautious even when drawing upon scholarly sources to make the case he believes his listeners want him to make. An age of folly does not encourage reflection, even reflection upon the principles it claims to embrace. It's war is actually against reason and civility itself. So seasons of folly are times for clichés, for passionate outcries against the current popular targets, and for affirming one's own credentials as a participant in the crusade against the structures of culture and civilization.

The Book of Proverbs warns of the effects of these kinds of social movements. It depicts society as a city when two women walk the streets, asking the people to make a decision about they future.

One woman wears bells on her fingers and bells on her toes. Her house smells of fine spice. She offers the city’s inhabitants endless nights of unmentionable ecstasy.

Lets call her Dame Folly.

The other woman also welcomes people into her home, but for a great feast and intelligent conversation. This woman invites people to become wise by joining a community of those who seek wisdom.

So lets call her Lady Wisdom.

The writer of Proverbs watches with dismay as the masses follow Dame Folly and ignore Lady Wisdom. They march into the depths of hell he says, singing and laughing their way to destruction.

Lady Wisdom requires too much. Enjoying the charms of Dame Folly is easy – you just show up and join the crowd. You take up the current chant and enjoy the rush of this mass solidarity against reason, civility and rational discourse.

Erasmus wrote his little satirical story, In Praise of Folly to make the same point, He tells how the goddess Folly gains power over all other gods. Basically, its because the others gods bore the people. Folly delights them. So she often wins the struggle, at least in the short run.

Most of us have witnessed the arrogance of a young person reentering society with his newly earned Bachelors degree. He now knows everything about everything and he is anxious to share his knowledge with us. In times of sanity, wise people smile. They realize that life will soon take care of the young guy's attitude. He is intoxicated with knowledge. He is not quite ready for wisdom.  His arrogance is obnoxious, to be sure. However, we know that what he actually needs is a more knowledge. He needs to know he will never live long enough to learn very much. So humility will come as he gains a bit more knowledge. That is what Alexander Pope meant when he said "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." 

But what do we do with arrogant ignorance? What, pray tell, do we do with people who believe they are right just because they are right and are uninterested in any further discussion about it? How do we deal with people who are proud of ignorance and claim it as a virtue, or as a form of piety? What can we do with folly except hide from it during those occasional seasons in which it gains enough power to persecute and destroy?

Until the madness passes, one must learn to spit in the street. He must hide his books. He must honor banalities and pretend that the thoughts and works of the ages are nothing compared to the impenetrable paradoxes of the mad, but powerful, Chairman Mao.  

Malala Yusafzai nearly paid for her life for failing to abide by the Taliban's rule of folly. She insisted on studying. So they shot her. Unfortunately for them, she recovered and roared back into the fray.

Some people think civilization is worth putting one's life on the line.

Evidently, a few aging Chinese aristocrats wished they might have had the courage to do that rather than to have lived their safe and meaningless lives mumbling clichés, squandering all the time and opportunities they might used to cultivate a life worth living.

1 comment:

Lori said...

These are dark times and light contrasts so well... even if it is temporarily snuffed out. I will choose to be a Daniel.