Robert Caro: On Power

Robert Caro’s “On Power” is a great 100 minute reflection on what has basically been the theme of his entire, extraordinary writing career. I transcribed this particular excerpt from his narration, where he talks about the impact of one of the most colorful stories from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I read earlier this year:

For James Roth, Robert Moses would not move the [Northern State] Parkway one foot. Jimmy Roth, who had watched his father and mother sweating side by side on the land, told me about how in years to come his father would keep talking, over and over, about what had been done to them. “I don’t know that I blame them for talking so much about it,” Jimmy said. “I’ll tell you, my father and mother worked very hard on that place, and made something out of it, and then someone just cut it in two.”

Ina found some of the other families who were dots on the map, and I talked to them, so over and over I heard similar stories, about how Robert Moses’s Northern State Parkway had ruined their lives, too. The injustice of it. The wrong of it. There had been no need for the Parkway to run through the Roth’s farm. Looking at the maps it was clear that the route could have been moved south a tiny distance that would have saved the Roth’s farm and their lives, and the farms and lives of 22 other families with very little difficulty. To the south of their farms was an empty area of farmland. Robert Moses just hadn’t wanted to be bothered moving it, and because the Roths didn’t have any power, he hadn’t had to be bothered. And that was a lesson for me: regard for power implies disregard for those without power.

And the Northern State Parkway is very clear demonstration of that. The map of the Northern State Parkway and Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, is a map not only of a road, but of power, and what happens to those who are unwitting caught in power’s path.

In the moments when I learned about James, Helen, and Jimmy Roth, things changed for me. My idea of what the book should try to be changed. I saw what I hadn’t seen before. If my book was to analyze power fully and honestly, in all its facets, when I got to the Northern State Parkway, the story, if it was to be an honest story, could not only be about the construction of the consequences of the Northern State Parkway and the power of the robber barons. The story of the farmers was a part of the story of the Northern State Parkway, part of the Robert Moses story, part of the picture of power I was trying to learn how to draw, and not an incidental part, either.

And that, I saw now, in that moment, was what I wanted my book to me. What I guess I always wanted my book to be. What my book had to be, if it was to accomplish what I wanted it to accomplish.

In order to write about power truthfully, it would be necessary to write not only about the man who wielded power, and not only about the techniques by which he amassed power and wielded it, but it would be necessary also to write about the effect of power, for good or for ill, on those on whom it was wielded, on those who didn’t have power. It would be necessary to write of the effect of power on the powerless.

There are, of course, personal implications in a decision like this.

It took Caro seven years to write The Power Broker, necessitated the sale of his house, involved desperation, and ultimately came to fruition to some degree from sheer luck. The Power Broker manuscript numbered more than one million words, in telling the truth of both the triumphant genius of so much of New York and Robert Moses, as much as it tells the truth about the true human costs of achieving the New York that today we think of as having been there as long as anyone remembers.

Robert Caro spoke with Jeff Slate about On Power, which was assembled from two recent speeches, specifically addressing the question, “Do we need a Robert Moses today?” His answer:

Well, the quick answer to your question—“Do we need someone like Robert Moses?”–I would say no. He caused such immense human hardship, many times when he did not have to. It was a use of power that ruined the lives of people where there was really no reason to, except that they didn’t have power and he did, so he could run over them.

On the other hand, as I tried to show in the book, we do need someone with vision. You know there are very few people who saw this immense vision that Robert Moses had. Put it this way, in each of his twelve offices he had a huge map. There’s a picture of one of his offices in The Power Broker, and the map takes up a whole wall. And when I was interviewing him–when he was 78 or 79, but had boundless energy–he’d jump up with his pencil in his hand and he’d start sketching in the air, saying, “Can’t you see, we’ll put a highway here to Fire Island that’ll hook up back to Long Island there.” He saw this entire Metropolitan Region–New York, Long Island, Westchester, and the parts of New Jersey near New York City–as one picture and he was uniting it all. Because he had that vision and he put that energy behind all of his work.

So Robert Moses’ don’t come along very often, and you need the genius of a Robert Moses, and I tried to show that in the book. But you also can’t let someone like that have power, unfathomable power, with no check on him, because look what happens. I think his career is an example, among other things, of what happens when you give power with no check on it to somebody.

What’s so revealing about The Power Broker is that Robert Moses seized upon the unrealized power of public authorities to do more than any elected official ever could, due to the traditional limits and checks on the power of elected officialdom. In this way, Moses’s power was inexplicable and impossible to anticipate.

Discovering how to effectively empower someone with the scope of Moses’s vision—while at the same time limiting his power—is consequently a riddle.

Secular totalism

A fourth and final excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.” This time on secular public engagement and the necessity for mutual respect and true pluralism in order to avoid a lame secular mono-culture:

In 2005, in a lecture at the University of Lodz in Poland on “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas posed another question (again I abbreviate): Are secular men and women ready to admit that toleration is always a two-way street? Religious persons must be ready to learn toleration not only for each denomination’s convictions and commitments, but also for those of atheists, agnostics, and other secularists. In a similar way, nonbelieving secularists must learn to appreciate the creeds, reasoning, and convictions of their fellow human beings who are believers. “For all their ongoing dissent on questions of worldviews and religious doctrines,” says Habermas, “citizens are meant to respect one another as free and equal members of their political community.” Those on all sides must be ready to stand in the shoes of the other, in order to see the other’s point of view “from within.”

As Pierre Manent has pointed out, the history of the last six or seven generations seems to show that Christianity has had an easier time identifying with democracy, and done so more successfully, than secular people have done in recognizing the contributions Christians and Jews have made to the intellectual comprehension of rights. The question Habermas poses is succinctly summarized: Is there sufficient moral energy among secular peoples to overcome this failure to take religion seriously?

Civic Duties of Religious Persons

On the side of religious people, Habermas also poses a test. Among themselves, they may explain their convictions in the language of faith, and even of the Bible. But in public life, at least those believers who enter into politics or activism have a special obligation to employ a “neutral” secular language. Perhaps Habermas is thinking more of the situation of France or other secular European nations with high proportions of Muslim citizens, where he wants to put pressure on Muslims to become more open to Western views, not to stay closed within their own. Perhaps he believes that the preponderance of peoples in European nations is secular, so that among them secular speech is most readily accessible to the largest number. Whatever his motives, his warning is that language in the public sphere (specifically, governmental offices) should be solely secular, lest religious language invite social divisiveness. Yet Habermas is far more open than John Rawls on these matters.

In his lecture “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas writes:

“The citizens of a democratic community owe one another good reasons for their public political interventions. Contrary to the restrictive view of [John] Rawls and [Robert] Audi, this civic duty can be specified in such a tolerant way that contributions are permitted in a religious as well as in a secular language. They are not subject to constraints on the mode of expression in the political public sphere, but they rely on joint ventures of translation to have a chance to be taken up in the agendas and negotiations of political bodies. Otherwise they will not “count” in any further political process.”

In “Faith and Knowledge,” Habermas adds, “The liberal state has so far imposed only upon the believers among its citizens the requirement that they split their identity into public and private versions. That is, they must translate their religious convictions into a secular language before their arguments have the prospect of being accepted by a majority” (emphasis added).

For his part, Habermas does not want to put believers at a disadvantage, although he holds that all parties, including believers, must do their best to give reasons understandable to the other parties. So he lays burdens on both believers and unbelievers: “But the search for reasons that aspire to general acceptance need not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from public life, and secular society, for its part, need not cut itself off from the important resources of spiritual explanations, if only so that the secular side might retain a feeling for the articulative power of religious discourse.”

By contrast, the assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually “neutral.” In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies. It penalizes or even quarantines those with religious points of view, whose insights and public arguments are not given due weight by narrowly secular officials. Curiously, in a set of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1928, Walter Lippmann made a parallel observation about the famous Scopes trial three years earlier. In a lecture framed as a conversation, the “Fundamentalist” says to his counterpart the “Modernist”:

“In our public controversies you are fond of arguing that you are open-minded, tolerant and neutral in the face of conflicting opinions. That is not so…Because for me an eternal plan of salvation is at stake. For you there is nothing at stake but a few tentative opinions none of which means anything to your happiness. Your request that I should be tolerant and amiable is, therefore, a suggestion that I submit the foundation of my life to the destructive effects of your skepticism, your indifference, and your good nature. You ask me to smile and to commit suicide.”

The Modernist does not grasp the total surrender he is asking the person of faith to make by submitting one source of knowledge (faith) to another (reason), when the latter seems to him inferior.

The parallel challenge that Habermas throws down for secular people, then, is an even newer one: that they, now, live in a “post-secular” age and must not be content with understanding social realities in a solely secular way. They, too, must enter into the two-way dialogue by stepping into the shoes, horizon, and viewpoint of those who are believers, just as is expected of the believers vis-à-vis the secularist.

If the tender roots of something like universal democracy are ever to survive and spread around the world, these conceptions—these breakthroughs for a universal ethos of public communication, and mutual reaching out to understand others from within—make an indispensable contribution. But these new rules for public discourse also renegotiate the historical preeminence that “the enlightened” assign themselves, and the language of contempt by which they have taken believers less than seriously. These rules call upon secularists, too, to be learners, and to master the new morality of communicative discourse. It is a morality that calls for mutual respect.

“[T]he assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually ‘neutral.’ In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies.”

Everything isn’t permitted

A third excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time concerning the strange fact that in human nature we find that “everything isn’t permitted”—not everything is condoned in our heart, and not everything is approved by our conscience:

One of my favorite parts of the Sam Harris book is his attempt to explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union and Asia. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered still more horrifically under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than at any other time in Jewish history. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. First he directs attention away from the ideological character of the regime, toward the odd personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. No, the problem is the ideology, the regime, the millions of believers in atheism. Harris ignores the essential atheism of the ideologies of the regime, “scientific secularism” and “dialectical materialism.” Yet it is these ideologies, not just a few demented leaders, that bred a furious war on God, religion, and clergy. The nature of a regime and its ideology matter more than mad leaders. Yet here is Harris, limping: “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional…The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.” In other words, delusional atheists are not really atheists.

Would Harris accept a claim by Christians that Christian evildoers are not really Christians? The real problem is not that tyrants reject the “dogma” of religion, but that they derive their furors from a dogmatic atheism that brooks no rival. They build a punitive totalitarian regime far more sweeping than their own personal madness.

Enthusiasts such as Harris may dismiss the argument that atheism is associated with relativism. Sometimes it isn’t. Some atheists are rationalists of a most sober, moral kind. Nonetheless, the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoyevsky’s: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” There will be no Judge of deeds and consciences; in the end, it is each man for himself. Widespread public atheism may not show its full effects right away, but only after three or four generations. For individual atheists “of a peculiar character,” brought up in habits inculcated by the religious cultures of the past, can go on for two or three generations living in ways hard to distinguish from those of unassuming Christians and Jews. These individuals continue to be honest, compassionate, committed to the equality of all, firm believers in “progress” and “brotherhood,” long after they have repudiated the original religious justification for this particular list of virtues. But sooner or later a generation may come along that takes the metaphysics of atheism with deadly seriousness. This was the fate of a highly cultivated nation in the Europe of our time, Germany, before it voted its way into Nazism.

George Washington considered this risk in his Farewell Address: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” If morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached, since philosophers vehemently—and endlessly—disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear moral signals. Adds Alexis de Tocqueville:

“There is almost no human action, however particular one supposes it, that does not arise from a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties toward those like them. One cannot keep these ideas from being the common source from which all the rest flow.

“Men therefore have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them; for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence….

“The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions is to furnish a solution for each of these primordial questions that is clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very lasting.”

This extremely practical contribution is one reason Tocqueville saw religion as essential to a free people, and unbelief as tending toward tyranny.

Moreover, in times of stress distinguished intellectuals such as Heidegger and various precursors of postmodernism (including deconstructionist Paul de Man) displayed a shameless adaptation either to Nazi or to Communist imperatives—or to any other anti-Hebraic relativism. Even the elites may lose their moral compass.

Everyone worships. In other words, the question isn’t whether to worship, but who or what ideas or things we will worship. Every culture, similarly, has a viewpoint it seeks to achieve and so can never be neutral in its structure. If we’re interested in pluralism, it’s necessary to guard against creating a monoculture that stifles concrete difference while pursuing abstract universalism.

Nihilism

A second excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, this time on nihilism and the universal experience of nothingness:

When he was asked, What is nihilism? the answer Nietzsche gave was my neighbor’s: “The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.” Later he approached the definition another way: “Something is to be achieved through the process—and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing.”

In our age and in our kind of society—mobile, fast, free—the experience of “nihilism” is common even among fourteen-year-old “valley girls.” Boredom today is the first taste of nothingness. “Waddya want to do tonight, Beth?” Beth, chewing gum: “I dunno, what do you wanna do?” Nowadays, one of them is likely to have a cell phone to her ear. The interest of the other runs to shopping malls, movie theaters, boys in cars….

The experience of nothingness is, therefore, practically universal. Yet some in the two groups mentioned earlier seem blessedly to have been spared it. Trying to understand it, however, I prefer to speak of this experience without the -ism, prior to any ideology about it, as “the experience of nothingness.” How we are to understand that experience, in Nietzsche’s way or in any other, is a different matter.

It is an experience I well know in my own life. Everybody does.

Without being tedious, but to make certain that the point is as clear as examples can make it, let me mention Joan, who married for the first and only time when she was forty-three. Not immediately but some three years later and much to her surprise and joy, Joan conceived a child. Months of happy expectation followed. On the day after the child’s exhilarating birth, however, she learned that the dear little boy was afflicted with a rare disease that meant her son would probably live only until nine or ten, and would for all the years until then need extraordinary care. The question “Why?” arose inside her with much anguish.

A couple I know of had a handsome, athletic, extremely smart, and warmly popular son who excelled in almost everything in high school. It was only at the end of his first year in college that his health faltered, and then slowly it became apparent that he was afflicted with an incapacitating case of schizophrenia and would have to be hospitalized. His adoring parents were crushed. He was an only child. Their world fell apart.

A student I once had in class had been acing all her classes at Stanford, a perky and happy and optimistic young woman determined to get into medical school, in the tradition of her family. She had not a doubt in her mind. Her sailing was exceptionally clear. Until one day. One day it suddenly hit her very hard that she did not really want to become a doctor. Her grandmother had years ago, seeing the child care for a wounded robin, been the first to say that Janette would make a great doctor. Janette’s life dream had been implanted in her imagination from that day on.

Now suddenly, as a sophomore, some inner tunnel collapsed and all her dreams came tumbling down. The irrepressible thought had overpowered her: that she had been thrown into this project, it was not her project, she had never given it any real thought. She was just so darn good at it, and her record had gotten her into the university of her dreams, and everything looked far too rosy to endure. And it didn’t. She began to show the symptoms of the experience of nothingness that many sophomores come down with: She began to sleep a lot.

She could hardly get out of bed. She could no longer see any point to it. With her friends she was, as never before, short and cynical. They knew she wasn’t well. But she wasn’t sick, either, except with the disease of autonomy and inner freedom.

Granted that I am overcome with the experience of nothingness, how should I live? The alternatives come down to two: some form of suicide (drugs, drink, fast living, killing time will do) such as Albert Camus contemplated in the Myth of Sisyphus. Or this: creatio ex nihilo, reaching down into nothingness to create a new being. But by what light? Following which stars?

Woody Allen found his: “The heart wants what it wants.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court has abandoned the Constitution to dabble in its own philosophy of life in Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” This is not the American legal and moral tradition, but contemporary postmodernism. …

Nothingness Inside Out

I went back to reflecting on illusions and realities in later months. Something told me that Nietzsche’s mad nihilism is not the only, nor the best, theory for explaining life-crushing experiences of the sort he adverted to. I noticed that Nietzsche and Sartre, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, and all those other early writers on nihilism did one remarkable thing at variance with their theories: They wrote books for others to read. In a world that makes no sense, why would they endure the hours and hours of sitting on their backsides, moving old pens across resisting pieces of blank foolscap? If everything is as meaningless as they say, why would they do it?

And since some people seem oblivious to the experience of nothingness, what is it that those who have the experience do, that others don’t do?

I began reflecting on what goes on inside the experience of nothingness, first within myself, and then among others I could talk to about it. Here a brief summary will have to do. The normal way in which Nietzsche, Sartre, and we ourselves come to an awareness of the experience of nothingness is through four activities of our own minds and wills. The one Nietzsche and the others most stress is ruthless honesty, forcing ourselves to see through comforting illusions and to face the emptiness. The second is courage, the habit that gives force and steadiness to our ability to see truly. Without courage, we would avert our eyes, as so often we have done.

Third is the ideal of community exemplified in reaching out to others through books—the good moves outward to diffuse itself. There is a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood among those who recognize the experience of nothingness in one another. There is a sort of honesty and cleanness in it one wants to share. One of the marks of “the good” is that, as the Latin puts it, bonum est diffusivum sui—the good diffuses itself. It wants others to participate in it.

Fourth is practical wisdom, that is, practical reason applied to action, by an adult experienced enough to take virtually everything concrete into account—or at least to avoid most of the common mistakes of the inexperienced. When the experience of nothingness hits, one cannot simply take to one’s bed. Well, sometimes one does, but then one can’t stay there. Moment by moment, in a kind of staccato, action keeps calling to us. Sooner or later, I have to start acting as an agent of my own future again. “Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what should I do?”

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty, courage, community, and practical wisdom—or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

These four virtues do not constitute a complete quiver of all the virtues needed to be a good man or a valiant woman. Still, these four do constitute quite an admirable list. They are a wonderful starting place for an ethic rooted in the experience of nothingness. Here is the point at which Albert Camus began his own ascent out of the problem of suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus), on the road to the heroic and clear-eyed compassion of Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Sartre, locked inside his own solitariness, writing that “hell is other people,” faltered on the idea of community. No, hell is not other people. Hell is total isolation within one’s own puny mind. It is solitary confinement. (To step out of philosophy for a moment and into the terms of Christian faith: Hell is the solitary soul who freely and deliberately rejects friendship with God.) Hell is becoming conscious of what one has irretrievably chosen for oneself. This Hell has been deliberately chosen.

What we do with the experience of nothingness depends on our proven reserves of practical wisdom, community, courage, honesty. By the end of our lives, learning from experience, we ought to be wiser than we were in the beginning.

If you haven’t read Michael Novak’s 1994 Templeton Address, “Awakening from Nihilism,” at Westminster Abbey, do so. All of these themes are more exhaustively and better elaborated upon in that speech.

Faith, reason, and history

I’ll be excerpting four times from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, which I recently finished. The first concerns faith and reason:

Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise…Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.

Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions—which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.

To be sure, Dawkins at least does think there are some religious people who can be converted to atheism by his arguments. He describes them as the “open-minded people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.” Dawkins presents such believers with an ultimatum: Either join him in “breaking free of the vice of religion altogether” or remain among the close-minded types who are unable to overcome “the god delusion.”

On the fifth page of his book, Dawkins describes his hopes: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” It surprised me that Dawkins would turn out to be such a proselytizer. Most of all what surprised me is that, while all three authors write as if science is the be-all and end-all of rational discourse, these three books of theirs are by no means scientific. On the contrary, they are examples of dialectic—arguments from within one point of view, or horizon, addressed to human beings who share a different point of view. Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to an ever deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address. Thus, Dawkins: “Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination…Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.” Here, of course, Dawkins flatters himself. “Screwtape” would have been far more insidious.

What most surprised me in the Dawkins book, however, is its defensiveness. He describes atheists, particularly in America, as suffering from loneliness, public disrespect, spiritual isolation, and low self-esteem. In one passage he recounts a letter from a young American medical student recently turning from Christianity to atheism. A medical student? Surely at least some of the doctors and scientists working near her are atheists. Nonetheless, the student writes: “I don’t particularly want to share my belief with other people who are close to me because I fear the…reaction of distaste…I only write to you because I hoped you’d sympathize and share in my frustration.” In an appendix, which Dawkins kindly adds for such unsupported souls, he offers lists of organizations in which lonely atheists may find community and solace. He devotes not a few pages to boosting his community’s morale—how large their numbers are, how smart they are, how comparatively disgusting their antagonists are.

Building a Culture of Reason

I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art—in music, architecture, painting, and poetry—in the human patrimony.

And why does he overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person,” “community,” “civitas,” “consent,” “tyranny,” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous university of Europe (and the Americas)?

Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past—often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations—during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology. Yet on these matters a word or two of praise from Dawkins might have made his tiresome lists of accusations seem less unfair.

I don’t wish to overdo it. There have been and are toxic elements in religion that always need restraint by the Logos—the inner word, the insight, the light of intelligence—to which Christianity from the very first married the biblical tradition: “In the beginning was the Logos”—the inner word, the light, in Whom, and by Whom, and with Whom all things have been made ( John 1:1 NAB). Still, any fair measuring of the impact of Judaism and Christianity on world history has an awful lot of positives to add to the ledger. Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead—in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. …

The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience—from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lonely lily in the meadow—is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling—the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam—the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.

Literate, engaged citizens

I’m sharing one more excerpt from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land:

A friend of mine is a well-known economist at a leading American university. He’s also the gatekeeper for an elite doctoral program in his field. Asked once what he valued most in candidates for his program, he said, “an undergraduate degree in Classics.” Homer and Virgil, of course, have very little to do with things like debt-deflation theory. But my friend’s reasoning is, in fact, quite shrewd.

Since economics is a human (i.e., social) science, its practitioners should first know how to be actual human beings before learning their specialized skills. A formation in the classics or any of the other humanities is an immersion in beauty and knowledge. It has no utility other than enlarging the soul. But that achievement—the ennobling of a soul, the enlarging of the human spirit to revere the heritage of human excellence and to love things outside itself—is something no technical skill can accomplish.

As Leo Strauss once wrote, “liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.”18 A liberal education—a balanced experience of the humanities, art, music, mathematics, and the natural sciences—is designed to form a mature “liberal” adult; liberal in the original sense, meaning free as opposed to slave. Thus for Strauss, “liberal education is the counter-poison … to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing” but specialists without vision or heart.

Scholars like Anthony Esolen, Allan Bloom, Neil Postman, Matthew Crawford, and Alasdair MacIntyre, each in his own way and for different reasons, have all said similar things. For all of them, the point of a truly good education, from pre-K to graduate school, is to form students to think and act as fully rounded, mature, and engaged human beings. In other words, as adult persons of character.

As Matthew Crawford puts it, “Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out [of our addictive self-focus] to join the world beyond our heads.”20 But the dilemma of postmodern life is that we can’t agree on what a fully rounded, mature “human being” is—or should be. The fragmentation in American culture runs too deep. Recent battles over imposing gender ideology in school curricula and rewriting and politicizing civics and American history textbooks simply prove the point. So does the “progressive” intellectual conformism in so many of our university faculties.

Meanwhile, as American student skills decline in global comparisons, more and more stress is placed on developing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competence at earlier student ages. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle. Technical skills are an important part of modern life. But as we’ve already seen, American trust in the promise of technology is robust and naive to the point of being a character flaw. And a real education involves more profound life lessons than training workers and managers to be cogs in an advanced economy.

We tend to forget that “everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons, making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.” We also tend to forget that our political system, including its liberties, requires a particular kind of literate, engaged citizen—a kind that predates the computer keyboard.

True progress v. despair

I’m sharing two more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. This focuses on the idea of progress, and on Christianity’s ability to “play with death” thanks to Jesus Christ:

Americans talk about progress with an odd kind of reverence. Progress is the unstoppable force pushing human affairs forward. And it’s a religion with a simple premise: Except for the random detour, civilization instinctively changes for the better. And it’s up to us to get on board or get out of the way; to be part of the change or to get run over by history if we try to obstruct it. Hence we Catholics are routinely warned that we’re on the wrong side of history.

This idea of progress does have its appeal. As the economist Sidney Pollard put it: “The world today believes in progress because the only alternative to the belief in progress would be total despair.” We might go a step further: Clinging to a belief in progress is actually a product of despair, generously seasoned by sloth. History is cruel, social change is difficult, and a relationship with God involves a lot of unpleasant truth-telling—especially about ourselves. Better to just shift the burden of living in a flawed world at an imperfect time onto some positive force that will bring about the change we want “some” day.

It’s a heartwarming delusion. But that’s all it is: a delusion. A brief glance at the twentieth century destroys the myth. In just a few decades, “progressive” regimes and ideas produced two savage world wars, multiple murder ideologies, and the highest body count in history. And yet, as Christopher Lasch noted, people still cling to the religion of progress long after the evidence wrecks their dream.

The cult of progress is the child not only of despair, but also of presumption. It’s a kind of Pelagianism, the early Christian heresy that presumed human beings could attain salvation by their own efforts without the constant help of grace. Hence the philosopher Hans Blumenberg says that what separates the progressive idea of history from the Christian one is “the assertion that the principle of historical change comes from within history and not from on high, and that man can achieve a better life ‘by the exertion of his own powers’ instead of counting on divine grace.”

While we can and should work for social improvement—an obviously worthy goal—we’re too riddled with sin to ever build paradise on earth. As Benedict XVI put it, authentic progress doesn’t come automatically. In every age, human freedom must be weaned over to the good.23 And because our freedom can be used for good or evil, progress is always ambiguous:

“Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (see Eph 3:16 and 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

Ironically, it’s the religious subtext of progress that makes it so attractive. Again, as Friedrich Nietzsche and many others observed, progress is a kind of Christianity without Jesus and all the awkward baggage that he brings. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw this years ago when he wrote that “the idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks.”

This contrast is crucial. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Babylonians had a far darker view of history than Christians do. They saw humanity as controlled by fate, whose dictates could not be resisted. Greeks and Romans also had little hope of heaven. Many ancients believed that at death, human life ended. Hence the emperor Hadrian, one of Rome’s most cultivated and humane rulers, would write of his soul: “Poor ghost, my body’s friend and guest / Erewhile, thou leav’st thy home; / To what uncertain place of rest / A wanderer dost thou roam? / Pale, cold, and naked, henceforth to forgo / Thy jests among the sullen shades below.”

One of Christianity’s key contributions to Western civilization was to give men and women a sense of freedom from the whims of fate, a hope for life after death because of the victory of Jesus Christ. And over the centuries, that confidence in life beyond the grave has taken vivid form in the here and now.

***

THE CASTEL SANT’ANGELO IN Rome, the old papal fortress near the Vatican, is also the tomb of Hadrian. Visitors can find Hadrian’s poem about his soul on the wall. But walking eastward in Rome, the pilgrim will come to a very different meditation on death. The Capuchin Franciscans have an ordinary-looking church on the Via Veneto. But its crypt contains a series of rooms decorated with human bones—thousands of them.

The ceilings look like those of a baroque palace, except that they’re made of vertebrae. There’s a clock built of arm and finger bones. Skulls and femurs create decorative arches and columns. Through unbelieving eyes, it can easily seem ghoulish. It’s certainly a sobering encounter with our mortality. But it’s also very Franciscan. It takes death, that thing we fear most, and literally plays with it. And that couldn’t happen without a firm faith that Jesus Christ had crushed death, turning it from our ancient foe into what Saint Francis called “Sister Death,” the gateway to eternal life with God. The Capuchin bone crypt is uniquely Christian because beneath its somber appearance, it offers—for those who believe—a firm and joyful hope about what we find in Christ.

The Christian alternative to the cult of progress is not only hope, but the idea of providence. Providence is the understanding that God has a plan for each of our lives and for the whole world, and that for each of us, his plan is good. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas progress might claim that history has an inevitable arc, faith in providence has confidence that the Lord of history will one day make all things right. …

Without a final vindication of right and wrong—and without a just judge to do the vindicating—we would live in a world where good and evil have no meaning.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is that just judge. He’s not only the guide of history, but its focal point.

We didn’t create ourselves

I’m sharing three more excerpts from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land. I was struck by his reflection on the Beatitudes in general, but particularly with this reflection on what it means to the “poor in spirit”:

It’s worth pausing to reflect on each of the Beatitudes. And with the moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, O.P., as our guide, we can start to think about how we might live them in our own lives. So let’s begin.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The first Beatitude reminds us of one of the strongest themes of Scripture: God’s love for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. We see this in the Old Covenant, in which God instructs the people of Israel to care for the poor and the alien in their midst. He tells the Israelites not to harvest every speck of grain in their fields, but to leave some for the poor and the stranger who have no food of their own (Lev 19:9–10). He also commands them to set aside every fiftieth year as a Jubilee. In that year property that was bought or sold must be returned to its original owners (Lev 25:8–28).

Through the prophets God rebukes those who violate the spirit of these commands: “Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11–12).

Later Jesus says that, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, he is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, the one whom the Lord has anointed to preach good news to the poor (Lk 4:16–21).19 In our own time we tend to distinguish between spiritual and material poverty. But in the Bible, these concepts are tightly linked. The rich have wealth, but they become overly proud and ignore or oppress others. They use their money to buy influence and exploit the needy. They forget their dependence on God. The poor man, by contrast, is always reminded of his dependence. He will be humble and trust in the Lord.

We see this clearly in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man had elegant clothes and ate sumptuously. But he ignored Lazarus, who sat right at his gate, covered in sores that the dogs licked. Every time he entered or left his house the rich man would pass Lazarus, yet he did nothing to ease his needs. When the rich man died, he ended up in Hades. Now he suffered, while Lazarus sat in the bosom of Abraham.

The story underscores a simple fact: If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.

We might assume that Scripture condemns the wealthy. But that’s not the case. As the early Church Fathers noted, the Lazarus parable is really a tale of two rich men: an unnamed callous one, and the patriarch Abraham. Abraham was a rich man who never forgot his dependence on God. Whereas the wealthy sinner let Lazarus wallow in squalor, Abraham welcomed the three strangers in the Old Testament who visited him, and he fed them with rich food. Abraham was generous and shared his abundance, always remembering that everything he owned was a gift from God. The lesson is obvious: Possession is really about service. When it’s not, we become slaves to our goods instead of living in a culture of interior freedom.

Poverty comes in many forms, and Father Pinckaers names some that are familiar: illness, loneliness, age, failure, ignorance, and sin. All of these come back to the poverty at the heart of our very being: We didn’t create ourselves, and someday everything we have will be taken away by death. Even our body will turn to dust. Our poverty, in turn, puts us at a crossroads. We can either rebel against God, or let ourselves be shaped by suffering and become more open to God and others.

For believers, then, the poverty we experience purifies us. It keeps us from getting weighed down by excess baggage on the road to heaven. The first Beatitude is addressed to all of us.22 It asks us how we will respond to the blessings and sufferings of life. Even if we don’t embrace the complete poverty of a Dorothy Day, the principle of her life still speaks to us. In giving away our treasure and our very selves, we find life and freedom. Only if our hearts are open can we receive the kingdom of heaven, which is the richest gift of all.

“If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all the other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.” A frightening, but necessary, call for perpetual conversion of heart that hits me in a deep way.

Paris Commune

A touching and fascinating anecdote on the Venus de Milo‘s near destruction during the 1871 Paris Commune disaster comes in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. I’m including a bit of the wider context for this drama because it was one of the most touching sections in this great book:

III.

Like most of Paris, Washburne went to bed and slept through that night, May 21-22, unaware of what was happening, and like most of Paris he was stunned when he awakened to the news. The Tricolor flew atop the Arc de Triomphe, he was told by an excited servant at first light. The Versailles army had entered Paris.

He and Gratiot both dressed at once and raced out to see with their own eyes. It was true. Others already on the avenue were happily congratulating one another on delivery of Paris at last.

The regulars had marched in at Porte de Saint-Cloud in force at three o’clock the previous afternoon, and against little opposition advanced steadily along the Right Bank of the Seine on the avenue that connected Versailles and Paris, heading for the Commune stronghold at the heart of the city, at the Place de la Concorde.

Nothing had foretold the attack. The Commune command was taken completely by surprise. As night came on and the Versailles troops moved forward in the dark, National Guard units manning the barricades at Porte Maillot and on the avenue de la Grande-Armée, beyond the Arc de Triomphe, hastily abandoned their positions, and so another corps of regular troops poured into that quarter of the city. An enormous barricade by the Arc nearly thirty feet high that had taken great labor to build “served no earthly purpose,” as Washburne observed.

He and Gratiot followed the regular troops down toward the Place de la Concorde, fully expecting to see the National Guard defense there quickly overrun. But it did not happen. Orders had gone out from the Central Committee at the Hôtel de Ville to throw together more barricades, barricades “in all haste,” barricades in every direction. As reported later in Galignani’s Messenger, “Everyone passing was forced to bring forward a paving stone or an earth bag, and any refusal would have been dangerous. Women and children worked just as actively as the National Guards themselves.”

At about nine o’clock the Communard batteries on Montmartre opened fire on the city and the shells came in “thick and fast.”

Tired of waiting and doing nothing, Washburne mounted a horse and rode off to see more, entirely without concern for his own safety, it would seem. “5:45 P.M. Have just taken a long ride,” he wrote. “The havoc has been dreadful—houses are all torn to pieces, cannon dismantled, dead rebels, etc., etc. One can hardly believe such destruction.”

“To arms!” read an urgent appeal posted by the National Guard. “To the barricades! The enemy is within our walls! Let there be no hesitation! Forward the Republic, the Commune and Liberty.”

By late in the day more than 80,000 Versailles troops had arrived and the western third of the city was in their hands. Still, at the Place de la Concorde and elsewhere, the fighting raged on, gunfire and the screams of the wounded filling the night.

So began “Le Semaine Sanglante,” the Bloody Week.

On May 23 a city of 2 million people became a deafening full-scale battlefield. For twelve hours there was no letup in the roar of cannon. Montmartre, the symbolic stronghold of the Commune, fell to the regular army, the Communards leaving behind the dreadful spectacle of twelve regular soldiers who, because they refused to join the Commune, had had their hands cut off. Vicious street fighting took heavy tolls on both sides, but of the Communards especially. Some 4,000 Communards were taken prisoner. Any suspected of being deserters from the regular army were shot at once.

The Communard positions at the Place Vendôme, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Palace, and Hôtel de Ville continued to hold.

Everyone in Paris tried to keep out of harm’s way, indoors. Washburne, for his part, decided to make still another effort to save the archbishop. He went by carriage to the Versailles army headquarters at Passy to urge Marshal MacMahon to take possession of the Mazas Prison as quickly as possible…

Two days earlier Police Chief Rigault and a coterie of extreme Communards had met in secrecy and ordered the execution of Archbishop Darboy and five other priests. The hostages were then moved from Mazas to La Roquette Prison in the Belleville quarter, which was still under Communard control.

At approximately six o’clock on the evening of May 24, as Paris was burning, the archbishop and the others were ordered out into the courtyard of the prison. They then descended a stairway, stopping at the ground floor, where they embraced one another and exchanged a few last words. When a cluster of National Guard soldiers at the door made insulting remarks, an officer demanded silence, saying, “That which comes to these persons today, who knows but what the same will come to us tomorrow?” Darkness had come on, and the six prisoners had to be led into the courtyard and up to the wall by the light of lanterns. The archbishop was placed at the head of the line. At a signal the firing squad shot all six at once.

Late that night the bodies were tumbled into a cart, hauled to nearby Père Lachaise Cemetery, and thrown into an open ditch.

At the Mazas Prison another fifty-three priests were murdered in cold blood.

Nothing of these atrocities was reported until late the next day. Nor was it yet generally known that on the afternoon of May 24, before the execution of the archbishop, Versailles soldiers had found Raoul Rigault hiding in a hotel on rue Gay-Lussac and, upon discovering who he was, took him into the street and shot him in the head. The body lay in the gutter for two days. …

Although estimates of the total carnage inflicted by the regular troops vary, there seems little doubt that they slaughtered 20,000 to 25,000 people. No one would ever know for sure what the total numbered, but nothing ever in the history of Paris—not the Terror of the French Revolution or the cholera epidemic of 1832—had exacted such an appalling toll. At one point the Seine literally ran red with blood.

The value of the architectural landmarks and other treasures destroyed was inestimable.

Olin Warner, like Washburne an eyewitness to events, was later to write a lengthy defense of the Communards, in which he compared their initial idealism to that of the American rebels of 1776. At the time, however, in a letter to his “Dear Ones at Home” he said he had seen more than enough. “I hope it will never be my lot to see a drop of blood shed again. I never want to hear another cannon roar as long as I live. … I am disgusted with everything pertaining to war.”

On June 1, three days after the fighting had ended, Elihu Washburne went to La Roquette Prison to see the cell in which the archbishop had been held, and to pay homage at the spot in the prison yard where the archbishop and the five priests had been executed. The marks of the bullets on the wall could be plainly seen.

The body of the archbishop, having been rescued from the ditch at Père Lachaise before decomposition had taken place, lay in state at the palace of the archbishop at 127 rue de Grenelle. For several days thousands came to pay their respects, Washburne among them. On June 7, still greater numbers lined the streets to see the funeral procession pass on the way to Notre-Dame, where services were held with all appropriate majesty. To Washburne is was one of “the most emotional and imposing services he had ever attended.”

IV.

Charred beams, dead animals, shattered doors and window frames, the remains of broken lampposts, wagons, mountains of wreckage, and all the barricades were hauled away. With people working day and night, life steadily resumed. Omnibuses began running, restaurants opened. It was not that the horrors of what had happened were put out of mind, any more than the horrendous damage done vanished entirely from sight. The blackened ruins of the Palace of the Tuileries were to be left standing for more than ten years as a mute reminder. …

The Hôtel de Ville would be rebuilt, the Column of the Place Vendôme put together again and restored to its old pedestal.

The Venus de Milo was recovered from a secret hiding place and returned to the Louvre. The incomparable Greek statue, dating from before the birth of Christ, had been buried during the siege in, of all places, the cellar of the Prefecture of Police. Packed into a giant oak crate filled with padding, it was taken in the dead of night to the end of one of the many secret passages in the Prefecture, where, as only a few knew, a wall was built to conceal it. Stacks of documents of obvious importance were piled against the wall, then a second wall built to make it appear the hiding place was for the documents. When the Prefecture caught fire the night so much of Paris went up in flames, the anxiety of those in the know about the Venus was extreme. It seems a broken water pipe “miraculously” saved the statue. Once the smoking ruins were removed, the oak crate was found intact and brought back to the Louvre…

Moral and material progress

Literature can have a permanence to it that surpasses the ephemeral and fleeting nature of so much of our daily lives. Sententia Antiquae translates:

“Among the elements that contribute to the higher evolution of human life, it looks as if one might make a broad division: some are progressive, so that each new stage supersedes the last, some are eternal and are never superseded. I will not try to specify the two classes more precisely; one might say roughly that material things are superseded and spiritual things not; or that everything considered as an achievement can be superseded, but considered as so much life, not. Neither classification is exact, but let it pass.

Our own generation is perhaps unusually conscious of the element of change. We live, since the opening of the great epoch of scientific invention in the nineteenth century, in a world utterly transformed from any that existed before. Yet we know that behind all changes the main web of life is permanent.

The joy of an Egyptian child of the First Dynasty in a clay doll was every bit as keen as the joy of a child now in a number of vastly better dolls. Her grief was as great when it was taken away. Those are very simple emotions, but I believe the same holds of emotions much more complex.

The joy and grief of the artist in his art, of the strong man in his fighting, of the seeker after knowledge or righteousness in his many wanderings; these and things like them, all the great terrors and desires and beauties, belong somewhere to the permanent stuff of which daily life consists; they go with hunger and thirst and love and the facing of death. And these it is that make the permanence of literature.

There are many elements in the work of Homer or Aeschylus which are obsolete and even worthless, but there is no surpassing their essential poetry. It is there, a permanent power which we can feel or fail to feel, and if we fail the world is the poorer. And the same is true, though a little less easy to see, of the essential work of the historian or the philosopher.”

It’s in this that you can start to appreciate the distinction necessary when using the words “progress” or “progressive”, which is that the material and technological (and to a degree the social/cultural) space can experience meaningful progress, wherein one generation builds on the inheritance of what was received or corrects what was not received. But all personal and intimate progress begins again with every human person, as far as that person is able to develop the virtue and heart of a whole human being. Christopher Akers writes on the issue of moral progress:

Monsignor Alfred Newman Gilbey, the one-time Catholic chaplain to Cambridge University, understood this change well. He once remarked to the British philosopher Roger Scruton that “we are not led to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of the Christian is not to leave the world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.” Most of us may still hope that what we do will benefit those whose lives we touch, but the internal struggle is already a heavy enough task.