I was reading Rob Riemen’s little book Nobility of Spirit last night, which I have already read several times. The book is divided into several narratives to illustrate the main question of the human soul and the real meaning of freedom. As the book draws to a close, we read about the trial of Socrates for his refusal to acknowledge the city’s official gods. Finally, the book ends with the story of the Italian Jewish writer and resistant Leone Ginzburg in a Nazi torture chamber. I was reminded of the close of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with the chilling epitaph of humanity, “If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever“. Winston is also tortured on the rack and with a cage full of starving rats over his head. The last shred of humanity is wrenched from Winston’s soul as he is forced to say that he loved Big Brother.
Ginzburg was dying under torture by the Nazis, who probably concluded that physical pain was not enough to break their victim. They brought in a priest, a fellow intellectual and former friend of Ginzburg, who had become a convinced Fascist and Nazi. His job was to try to persuade Ginzburg intellectually to accept totalitarianism, to bow to authority.
What is particularly poignant in this narrative is how easily we can be knocked away from our beliefs by the knowledge that the system we support is so imperfect. The solution of authority and the “unwashed masses” having their lives decided for them can seem almost appealing. Is it not the destiny of democracy to end in tyranny?
People cannot handle freedom; it makes their lives too difficult. When it comes to this, Dostoyevsky, in his books, merely copied Plato. Didn’t it all come true? Did you see how millions cheered for our great leaders, precisely as the immortal Grand Inquisitor described it? Give the people freedom and it will lead to rampant misconduct. This will be followed by more clamouring for ‘values and norms,’ and the very next leader who is nominally gifted in the art of rhetoric will be idolized again. You yourself have seen it happen. What makes you think things will ever change?
We seem to be introduced into a kind of determinism. This had to be. There is nothing we can do other than “suck it up”. Those who did not commit suicide because of their crushing defeat in 1945 thought there would be a way to revive the ideology. It has certainly returned in our own time.
We are the ones who have understood that people are more interested in appearance than in substance.
The annoying thing is that he is right. They preach to us that culture is futile, and indeed should be “cancelled”.
Believe me, ﬁfty years after the restoration of democracy across the globe, culture will be banned. Commerce and money will reign supreme, and unless something is market oriented, democratic, and efficient, it won’t exist.
Everything will have to be new, sexy, and appealing. That’s what sells, that’s what people want.
What is the use? Why not give up now? Someone like Zemmour here in France is making the same promises that he will combat degeneration of society and uphold traditional values. It is very tempting at such a short time from the Presidential elections. For the first time, I will have the right and duty to vote in this country. Do I vote for Zemmour or try to find a candidate who believes in democracy and the dignity of the human person? So, no perfection can be found in this life and compromises need to be made. Which ones?
I see the glaring inequalities caused by economic liberalism. The oligarchy and the multi-billionaires, and then the very poor having to choose between food and heating – when they are not homeless. The Nazi priest continued:
You want to improve the world. Did you ever notice that once they are in power, all revolutionaries, whether they are Jacobins or Marxists, want one thing only: more power? And did you ever notice that as soon as the poor of this earth acquire any money, they want only one thing: more money? More power, more money; more money, more power. People never have enough.
How can we argue against something that has blighted the lives of us all. Would Zemmour or Le Pen put all that right? Is human nature intrinsically perverse as Calvin believed?
If the world cannot be improved—and surely these last decades will, I hope, have shown that this will never happen— then only one conclusion can be the right one: obey the ruling power; adapt, and try to amass as much power for yourself as possible. Doesn’t it amaze you that a Catholic priest like myself is now wearing a swastika? Isn’t the Roman Catholic Church the best institution to teach absolute obedience and the art of adaptation? Would a real priest continue speaking when the Holy Father says ‘Silence!’? Could Fascism ever have had such an astounding success in this country if we priests hadn’t been there to teach it to the people? There aren’t that many substantive differences between Catholicism and Fascism. The Germans overdo it with their anti-Semitism. Judaism is not something that we have a problem with—I certainly don’t. On the contrary, I’ve always greatly admired your intellectual tradition and your sense of being the Chosen People. I recognize myself in that. . . . Possibly, after the war, you’ll secure your own state after all—ﬁnally, your own country. And you know what will happen then? You’ll want more land! It’s quite understandable to me, actually, although from a historical perspective, the thought is a bit backward. A modern country doesn’t want more land; a modern country wants new markets. All foreign people deserve respect as long as they buy our stuff. Economic power—that is the power of the future, my friend.
What cynicism, and that attitude is far from dead. It is designed to seduce, but it silences the highest inspirations within us. Finally we are reminded of our own powerlessness. We are made to feel alone, irrelevant, useless, a fool for Christ. How much are we prepared to suffer for something that seems so weak and futile, precisely the issue Nietzsche found with Christianity? What a contrast when we read:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.