December 31, 2010


The Pope Strikes Back (Theodore Dalrymple, Winter 2010, The Salisbury Review)

A great deal of the hostility to the Pope’s visit was likewise caused by his having been right, at least in some things, such as the insufficiency of consumerist materialism as a basis for a satisfactory existence. There are few human types less attractive, surely, than failed materialists, which is what the British, or at least so many of them, now are. They consume without discrimination what they have not earned: which is why many of them are so grotesquely fat as well as so deeply indebted. Indeed, there is scarcely any kind of debt or deficit to which we as a nation have not resorted in order to continue (at least for a time) on our vulgar and degraded way. A nation that behaves thus is quite without honour or self-respect, collective or individual. All this Benedict XVI has seen with a perfectly clear eye; and if what George Orwell once wrote, that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men, we might even call the Pope the George Orwell of our time.

Gratitude is seldom the reward of those who see an unwelcome truth more clearly than others; quite the reverse. But Benedict’s ‘crime,’ apart from being German, goes much further than his failure (or worse his refusal) to screen out the unpleasant consequences of consumerist materialism from his vision, which it is the duty of all right-thinking people. He lays down a ethical challenge to our utilitarian ways of thinking; in other words, he is a heretic to be excommunicated from the Church of Righteous Liberalism.

In pointing out some of the fallacies, oversimplifications, dangers and empirically unfortunate results of contemporary rationalist utopianism, the Pope is potentially provocative of the kind of spiritual crisis that John Stuart Mill recounts in his Autobiography. When he was twenty, Mill, who had hitherto been trained as a kind of calculating machine for the felicific calculus, asked himself a question, with (for him) devastating results:

Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be erected this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness answered ‘No!’At this my heart sank within me; the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been founded in the continued pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

In other words, Benedict XVI presents not a challenge to this or that piece of social policy, but to a whole Weltanschauung. And hell hath no fury like a questionable Weltanschauung questioned.

Here it is necessary for me to declare an interest, or rather lack of one. Just as one cannot write of the question of tobacco-control without declaring that one owns no shares in a tobacco company, so I must declare that I am not a Catholic, that I am not religious, that I am not therefore an apologist for the curia or anyone else. I am, in fact, not a systematic thinker at all, lacking the capacity or patience for it. And I disagree with the Pope on many things, but I do not therefore hate him.

The quite extravagant expressions of antagonism towards him — such, for example, as that consideration be given to arresting him for crimes against humanity — seem to me to bespeak a very odd, almost paranoid, state of mind. And while I hesitate always to use Freudian concepts, surely the idea of projection, the attribution to others of discreditable inclinations, thoughts or behaviour that one has oneself had or indulged in, is appropriate here.

...for a Bright to fear that reality is arrayed against him?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 31, 2010 8:23 AM
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