We were made for overcoming

Theodore Dalrymple makes the case in City Journal for public virtue as a first order priority in culture and politics. Although he’s writing nearly 20 years ago and about his native Britain, his opening sounds is as relevant in America and in this time:

A crude culture makes a coarse people, and private refinement cannot long survive public excess. There is a Gresham’s law of culture as well as of money: the bad drives out the good, unless the good is defended.

In no country has the process of vulgarization gone further than in Britain: in this, at least, we lead the world. A nation famed not so long ago for the restraint of its manners is now notorious for the coarseness of its appetites and its unbridled and antisocial attempts to satisfy them. The mass drunkenness seen on weekends in the center of every British town and city, rendering them unendurable to even minimally civilized people, goes hand in hand with the appallingly crude, violent, and shallow relations between the sexes. Britain’s mass bastardy is not a sign of an increase in the authenticity of our human relations but a natural consequence of the unbridled hedonism that leads in short order to chaos and misery, especially among the poor. Take restraint away, and violent discord follows.

Curiously enough, the revolution in British manners did not come about through any volcanic eruption from below: on the contrary, it was the intellectual wing of the elite that kicked against the traces. It is still doing so, though there are very few traces left to kick against.

For example, the boundless prurience of the British press concerning the private lives of public figures, especially politicians, has an ideological aim: to subvert the very concept and deny the possibility of virtue, and therefore of the necessity for restraint. If every person who tries to defend virtue is revealed to have feet of clay (as which of us does not?) or to have indulged at some time in his life in the vice that is the opposite of the virtue he calls for, then virtue itself is exposed as nothing but hypocrisy: and we may therefore all behave exactly as we choose. The loss of the religious understanding of the human condition—that Man is a fallen creature for whom virtue is necessary but never fully attainable—is a loss, not a gain, in true sophistication. The secular substitute—the belief in the perfection of life on earth by the endless extension of a choice of pleasures—is not merely callow by comparison but much less realistic in its understanding of human nature.

It is in the arts and literary pages of our newspapers that the elite’s continuing demand for the erosion of restraint, and its unreflective antinomianism, is most clearly on view.

“[T]o subvert the very concept and deny the possibility of virtue, and therefore of the necessity for restraint,” might as well be the mission statement of most of the Fortune 100 and many colleges and universities. That needs to change if we want to start again instinctively looking up with noble aspirations and in hope rather than down in despair due to the frustrating inclinations of our fallen hearts.

We have all engaged with “the vice that is the opposite of the virtue” we truly wish to live. If we first need to shout out in anger that virtue is for hypocrites as a condition for admitting that the desire for virtue is nevertheless embedded deep in our hearts—and that we might be the very hypocrites we’re most scandalized by—then fine. We know in a deep and fundamental way “of the necessity for restraint” when it comes to any of the truly good things in life. The natural consequences of our primal fault mean that to varying degrees we’re all hypocrites. But we were made for virtue before we brought ourselves low. Thanks be to God, whose grace makes it possible, we were made for overcoming.

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