Monday, January 10, 2011

Ordo Amoris

I'm going to be brief, for the sake of tact as well as for having little to say.

When a tragedy such as the recent shooting in Arizona occurs, we tend to figure things out as a culture. Often we respond to these sorts of things in a way which I call "programmatic." We have, in my opinion, a habit of overcorrection in our society. We've been convinced by the theorists and social scientists that everything can be planned and managed. When aberrant people do aberrant things, we go to a system and try to somehow correct for the aberration. (Meanwhile, we normalize countless other aberrations - it all depends what we can convince the majority is an aberration. When a mother murders her prenatal child, this is no longer considered even problematic.)

I say all this firmly with no intention to offend those who have suffered, either directly or empathetically, from the recent events. I am sympathetic to all involved and commend each person affected to God in my prayers - the victims and their families, and, yes, even the shooter. But having been asked by several people several times already for my thoughts on the matter, I must honestly say that these reflections are the ones dominating in my mind. I fear our society's tendency to over-correct, to respond to extraordinary breaches of conduct on the part of strange individuals by disrupting the ordinary freedoms of normal folks.

The example that comes most readily to mind is in the way that the media is reporting what this tragedy "means" for politics. We're already hearing a lot about how politics has become too angry and too emotional, and how we need to calm down and become more rational. Now, I see several problems with this - for one, the fact that this idea can't eve really be managed; we could pass laws about the rhetoric of political speeches and ads, probably, but we can't really overtly reshape public sentiment, not while remaining at all free anyway. But the bigger problem is in the premise: that is, I do not think "calming down" is always tied with being more rational. The village idiot in his sedentary reserve is less risible than the blokes at the public house or the ones at the Houses of Parliament. But it is not necessarily because he has his wits more about him. Conversely, the fellows in Parliament may be very cooly intellectual indeed and go about their poking and prodding of the human condition with all the disinterest of a scientist with his rats, and I do not think politics better for it. The gents in the public house, now, they seem to have found a balance. They get angry at the things which ought to make a sane man angry, but they argue without spite and keep their reason and their emotions in check to one another, based on the mutual conviviality and a view of the common brotherhood of man. They love each other; it's love that makes them so angry when they see error in one another's ways.

Augustine said of virtue that it is the ordo amoris - the directing to each object the kind and degree of love (passion) which it deserves, no more and no less. I do not think we will gain a better political discourse by getting folks simply to be less angry - nor even to be less angry and more intelligent. Because, frankly, as I've said often enough on this site, there are plenty of causes in our world today to which the only properly ordered response is anger. But anger is not blind rage - it is a passion, governed under the reason in man and exercised in accord with virtuous will. Or, it should be. Such is what we need, and such is what we need to learn from this state of affairs that has transpired. Anger without reason will become rage; but reason without passion (more importantly, compassion) can lead to crimes even more terrible. No, we need a political discourse that holds emotion and reason in tension and orders them together according to the demand of the matter being discussed, rather than based on some arbitrary sense of propriety or political correctness.

Emphatically, I think this response the only one both feasible and just. We cannot ask people not to care about things that deserve to be cared about; we cannot expect them not to be angered by what merits anger. Nor can we expect them to know what to do with that anger, unless we endeavor to augment it with good philosophy, rationale, and discernment.

Perhaps this course is difficult; perhaps we can't even imagine what it would look like. But try either extreme and we'll end back where we started, looking at the man we've rebuilt lopsided and wondering why he cannot walk a straight line.
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