Offertory for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Moses consecrated an altar unto the Lord, offering burnt offerings upon it, and sacrificing peace offerings; and he made an evening sacrifice for a sweet smelling savor unto the Lord God, in the sight of the children of Israel.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part V: The City

And thys shewyng I toke singularly to myselfe. But be al the gracious comforte that folowyth, as ye shal seen, I was leryd to take it to al my even Cristen, al in general and nothing in special. Thowe our Lord showid me I should synne, by me alone is understood al. And in this I concyvid a soft drede; and to this our Lord answerid: I kepe the ful sekirly. This word was seid with more love and sekirness and gostly kepyng than I can or may telle. For as it was shewid that I should synne, ryth so was the comforte shewid, sekirness and kepying for al myn even Cristen. What may make me more to love my evyn Cristen than to seen in God that He lovyth all that shal be savid as it wer al on soule?1

—Lady Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love, The Thirteenth Showing

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Hierarchy is, for most people today, a much less intuitive idea than republic, i.e. the notion that every human being is equal, in dignity and rights, to every other. Obviously histories, talents, and circumstances differ dramatically from one man to the next, but when the Declaration of Independence, for example, said it was self-evident that all men are created equal, they were talking about the intangible nature of humanity. And at any rate in the Euro-American West, that does seem self-evident. At least, it’s hard to come up with another reason for thinking it’s true than ‘Well, uh … ’cause.’

'Yeah. This is gonna go great.'
'Well, if anybody gets nosy, just, you know, shoot 'em.'
'Shoot 'em?'

For the Christian, this vague sentiment is crystallized into a serious conviction by two beliefs: first, the doctrine that man is made in the image of God—man, just as such, without any qualifications of age, sex, ethnicity, intellect, goodness, or anything else; and second, the doctrine of the Incarnation, which posits a New Adam who is God as well as man, and through whom, or in whom, or with reference to whom, all men must now be known—he is the metaphysical center of humanity.

This makes republic a very serious business, and indeed, the demands made on us by a serious belief in the equality of men are much bolder than we usually realize. What would our lives be like if we seriously treated the adolescent waiter, the homeless woman, the screaming toddler, the friendly cashier, and the neighbor with the bad BO as our equals? as people with exactly the same importance and worth that we have to ourselves?

Combining hierarchy with republic sounds like a serious difficulty on the surface of it, but actually it can be surprisingly easy. The maxim that governs their interrelation is one given in Downton Abbey, one I quoted in my previous post: We all have different parts to play, and we must all be allowed to play them. Why should there be any indignity in obeying, or any embarrassment in directing, if that is our part to play?—for the word play should be given its full force. The commander does not command because he is better (he rarely is) but because it is his role, and he must say his lines like the rest; if he loses touch with that truth by paying attention to himself, whether in shyness or arrogance, he risks spoiling the play. The equalities of the republic are distributed among the asymmetries of the hierarchy because they allow for beauties to exist that would have no place otherwise: loyalty, devotion, discipline, generosity, protection, awe, adoration. There is nothing democratic in obstructing the role that someone else has been appointed to, any more than there is anything artistic in Hamlet killing all the other characters in the first act. For the point of hierarchy is that it is a diversity of function, not a diversity of importance. And if we seriously believe that differences in purpose or calling are not differences in individual worth, then the mechanic, the housewife, the President, the parish priest, and the screenwriter are genuine equals, even if the social honor that we pay their functions varies. For all those honors are paid with a smile, of irony as well as of delight.

The English, at their best, seem to have a peculiar talent for this double vision—better to say, binocular vision. The famously misinterpreted Magna Charta asserted the rights of the nobles against the king, and the famous misinterpretation that made it an assertion of the rights of the common man against the state was nevertheless in keeping with the democratic spirit of England; yet at the same time, the United Kingdom remains precisely a kingdom to this day, and the mythical glory of the monarchy has been retained, despite the habit of tactfully ignoring the practical power associated with it.

This interplay of republic and hierarchy is a favorite theme in Charles Williams, and its delicate mutual courtesies are often called by him ‘the acts of the City,’ or simply ‘the City.’

What is the characteristic of any City? Exchange between citizens. What is the fact common to both sterile communication and vital communication? A mode of exchange. What is the fundamental fact of men in their natural lives? The necessity of exchange. What is the highest level of Christian dogma? Exchange between men and God, by virtue of the union of Man and God in the single Person, who is, by virtue again of that Manhood, itself the City, the foundation and the enclosure. … This office of substitution did not need Christendom to exhibit it, nor to show of what hostility as well as of what devotion it might be the cause. Christendom declared something more; it declared that this principle of substitution was at the root of supernatural, of universal life, as well as of natural. … If the City exists in our blood as well as in our desires, then we precisely must live from, and be nourished by, those whom we most wholly dislike and disapprove. Even the Church, forgetting that sacred title given to Mary, anthropotokos,2 has too often spoken as if it existed by its own separate life. So, no doubt, sacramentally and supernaturally, it does; but so, by the very bones and blood of its natural members, it very much does not.3

Or, more compactly:

Lancelot came to the Canon; my household stood
around me, bearers of the banners, bounteous in blood;
each at the earthen footpace ordained to be blessed and to bless,
each than I and than all lordlier and less.

Over the altar, flame of anatomized fire,
the High Prince stood, gyre in burning gyre;
day level before him, night massed behind;
the Table ascended; the glories intertwined.

The Table ascended; each in turn lordliest and least—
slave and squire, woman and wizard, poet and priest;
interchanged adoration, interdispersed prayer,
the ruddy pillar of the Infant was the passage of the porphyry stair.4

The Golden Tree and the Achievement of the Grail, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1895

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1‘And this showing, I took to be true of myself in particular. But by all the grace-filled strengthening that follows, as you will see, I was taught to take it true of all my fellow Christians in general, not of any one alone. Though our Lord showed me that I would sin, by me is to be understood all. And in this I conceived a soft dread; and to this our Lord answered: I keep you, full surely. This word was said with more love and surety and spiritual protection than I can or may tell. For as it was shown that I would sin, just so was the strength shown, surety and keeping for all my fellow Christians. What could make me love my fellow Christians more, than to see in God that He loves all that will be saved as if they were one soul?’
One of the aggravating things about all translation, including translation from Middle to Modern English, is that it’s nearly impossible to get the feel of any specific word exactly right from the source text to the rendering. (Oddly enough, I’ve found this to be truer if the languages are related, since the history of a word is so intimately connected with its meaning.) For instance, I’ve translated the word even in the Middle English here as fellow; but equal, like, impartial, and level would all be equally good translations in differing contexts, as would the modern word even itself; and I find that Lady Julian’s language when left un- or half-translated has a curious charm, so that when certain authors quote her as speaking of her ‘even Christians’ it always makes me smile. One reason I sometimes quote Middle English passages in the epigraphs here, and only translate them in footnotes, is because I’d love for more people to be acquainted with the language, because it’s just so delightful.
2‘Mother of man.’ This corresponds to the other ancient title applied to the Virgin Mary in devotion, Theotokos, ‘Mother of God.’
3Charles Williams, The Image of the City, ‘Anthropotokos,’ pp. 112-113.
4From Williams’ poem ‘Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass’ in Taliessin Through Logres. The High Prince and the Infant are references to Galahad, who is one of just three knights to achieve the Holy Graal, and was assumed into its resting place (the other two were Percivale, who died in the achievement, and Bors, who alone returned to Camelot). His supernatural purity make him a messianic figure: the word Infant is doubtless a deliberate pun, since on the one hand Galahad has been called the ‘Alchemical Infant’ by Williams in an earlier poem, a symbol of the process of procuring both gold and everlasting life; and on the other, the infant Christ as well as the crucified are regularly associated with the Graal and the Eucharist in Arthurian legend. The porphyry stair is an allusion to the throne room of the Emperor at Byzantium, porphyry being a deep crimson-purple stone used in its construction; meeting the Emperor, in Taliessin, symbolizes the vision of God and of creation’s existence in God.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Why I Am Not a Capitalist

This post wasn't planned. Actually it started out as a Facebook comment, replying to a reply to a reply to a Chesterton quote I'd retweeted: It cannot be too often repeated that what destroyed the Family in the modern world was Capitalism. As I was writing, and citing absurdly long, and still lengthening, passages from Chesterton's essays on Distributivism, I realized that trying to summarize this in a Facebook comment was a useless endeavor, so I decided to turn it into a Google doc. Then I realized that, since this is one of my major and animating political concerns, the blog seemed like the right place to put it. And, well, the rest is history.

I take Capitalism (at its purest) to mean the view that: first, the only persons who are or can be concerned with any transaction are the parties transacting (i.e., no others can justly have any say in the matter, even if it affects them in some immediately practical way); second, that the only quality that makes a transaction fair is the mutual willingness of the parties to engage in it (e.g., a just price means nothing more nor less nor other than a price that a purchaser consents to pay the seller, and a just wage means simply and solely the wage an employee consents to take from an employer—regardless of the thing sold, the work done, or any constraining factors on the choice). While I don’t think this view irrational, I do think it fundamentally incompatible with Catholicism in certain important ways: the Church teaches that the goods of creation were made for mankind as a whole, the universal destination of goods (cf. the Catechism of the Catholic Church §§2402ff.), hence also her persistent teaching that we have a duty to give to the poor, as a matter of justice and not only of charity (cf. Quadragesimo Anno, especially §§3-5). Accordingly, she has also taught that the good of people in general, and not only of the parties of a transaction, must be considered by the parties to any transaction, and that there is such a thing as an unjust price, notably (but not only) in the context of monopolies whether legal or effectual, and an unjust wage.

The best material of Chesterton’s that I'm acquainted with on the subject can be found in What's Wrong With the World and The Well and the Shallows. Obviously I can't quote entire essays here, but some salient passages:

Now Marx had no more philosophy than Macaulay. The Marxians have therefore no more philosophy than the Manchester School [a group of economists drawing on Adam Smith, and favoring laissez-faire and government non-intervention in trade]. ... A Philosophy begins with Being; with the end and value of a living thing; and it is manifest that a materialism that only considers economic ethics, cannot cover the question at all. If the problem of happiness were so solved by economic comfort, the classes who are now comfortable would be happy, which is absurd. —Well, pp. 97-98

This hints at my own discomfort with Capitalism, at least with all the versions of it I've encountered and been able to understand (including the Austrian ones): they in all cases seem, and in some cases explicitly profess, to divorce economics from ethics and both from the purpose and dignity of man—or at most to locate man's dignity in his capacity for economic choice, which I utterly reject no matter how broadly economic choice is defined. For in that case, those who are powerless to choose, like the unborn, the mentally ill or handicapped, and the vegetative, are accordingly robbed of their humanity, as we have seen with a horribly compelling historical logic here in the West where Capitalism has enjoyed most of its explicit triumphs. (The fact that certain prominent Capitalist theorists, including Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand—pace Deirdre McCloskey—have expressed the view that Capitalism and Christianity are essentially incompatible is, for me, a mere footnote beside that.) Any economic system that does not begin with the dignity and happiness of man as such, questions in my view inseparable from his purpose, are inherently suspect; and that accordingly requires situating economics firmly within the discipline of ethics.

I believe the divorce of economics from ethics that (as far as I can tell) Capitalism has effected as a historical fact, whether it’s intrinsic to Capitalism or not, is responsible for our incredible wastefulness in the modern era. Yes, an increased population plays a part in pollution, but pollution isn’t the only effect of wastefulness—I think our respect for good craftsmanship has plummeted as well, because, while craftsmanship makes some money, advertising makes far more. When the idea of real, objective worth is banished from things, and profit substituted for it, the decay eventually begins to show in the things themselves; for when an evil spirit hears its name, it comes.

Perhaps the shortest statement of it is in the fable of the man who sold razors, and afterwards explained to an indignant customer, with simple dignity, that he had never said the razors would shave. When asked if they were not made to shave, he replied that they were made to sell. That is A Short History of Trade and Industry During the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. … It is not true that a man whose apple-tree is loaded with apples will suffer from a want of apples; though he may indulge in a waste of apples. But if he never looks upon apples as things to eat, but only as things to sell … if he produces as many apples as he imagines the whole world wants, with the hope of capturing the trade of the whole world—then he will be either successful or unsuccessful in competing with the man next door, who also wants the whole world’s trade to himself. Between them, they will produce so many apples that apples in the market will be about as valuable as pebbles on the beach. Thus each of them will find he has very little money in his pocket, with which to go and buy fresh pears … At the root of all apple-trees and apple-growing, it is really as simple as that.

Of course I do not mean that the practice is at present simple; for no practical problem is simple … But the principle is simple; and the only way to proceed through a complex situation is to start with the right first principle. … When God looked on created things and saw that they were good, it meant that they were good in themselves and as they stood; but by the modern mercantile idea, God would only have looked at them and seen that they were The Goods. … Nobody in his five wits proposes that there should be no trade and no traders. Nevertheless, it is important to remember, as a matter of mere logic, that there might conceivably be great wealth, even if there were no trade and no traders. —Ibid., pp. 165-168

Turning from this back to the original context of the quote about Capitalism destroying the family, Chesterton proceeds to say:

No doubt it might have been Communism, if Communism had ever had a chance, outside that semi-Mongolian wilderness where it actually flourishes. But so far as we are concerned, what has broken up households, and encourages divorces, and has treated the old domestic virtues with more and more open contempt, is the epoch and power of Capitalism. It is Capitalism that has forced a moral feud and a commercial competition between the sexes; that has destroyed the influence of the parent in favor of the influence of the employer; that has driven men from their homes to look for jobs; that has forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families; and, above all, that has encouraged, for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers. It is not the Bolshevist but the Boss, the publicity man, the salesman and the commercial advertiser who have, like a rush and riot of barbarians, thrown down and trampled underfoot the ancient Roman statue of Verecundia [goddess of modesty]. … It is done, for instance, by perpetually guying the old Victorian virtues or limitations which, as they are no longer there, are not likely to retaliate. It is done more by pictures than by printed words … Then they balance these things by photographs of the Modern Girl at various stages of the nudist movement; and trust that anything so obviously vulgar is bound to be popular. For the rest, the Modern Girl is floated on a sea of sentimental sloppiness; a continuous gush about her frankness and freshness, the perfect naturalness of her painted face or the unprecedented courage of her having no children. … When I see the Family sinking in these swamps of amorphous amorous futility, I feel inclined to say, ‘Give me the Communists.’ Better Bolshevist battles and the Brave New World than the ancient house of man rotted away silently by such worms of secret sensuality and individual appetite. —Ibid., pp. 112-113

Here of course he is speaking of the social alterations which, in this country, we associate more with the Sexual Revolution of the 60s than with the Roaring 20s (rightly or not). But the fact remains that promiscuity is naturally antithetical to the family, and also extremely profitable, both because sex sells products (whether they have anything to do with sex or not) and because industries like abortion and the contraceptive trade depend primarily, though not solely, on fornication and adultery to exist. And all this is without touching the matter of divorce lawyers profiting from the destruction of the family, which according to our Lord is also making money from adultery.

But there is another side to this, another way in which Chesterton considered Capitalism inimical to the family—not in the sense that all families would be destroyed by it, but that it allowed the family to mount no defense of itself against the crushing power of money.

I have said that the strong centers of modern English property must swiftly or slowly be broken up … There are two ways in which it could be done, a cold administration by quite detached officials, which is called Collectivism, or a personal distribution, so as to produce what is called Peasant Proprietorship. I think the latter solution finer and more fully human … I will end with one plain parable, which is none the worse for being also a fact.

A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. … Now, the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice.

… It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul) that any coercion applied to a cabman’s daughter ought, if possible, to be applied to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask why the doctors do not, as a matter of fact, apply their rule to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask, because I know. They do not because they dare not. … Their argument would be that the disease is more likely to be in the hair of poor people than of rich. And why? Because the poor children are forced (against all the instincts of the highly domestic working classes) to crowd together in close rooms under a wildly inefficient system of public instruction; and because in one out of the forty children there may be offense. And why? Because the poor man is so ground down by the great rents of the great ground landlords that his wife often has to work as well as he. Therefore she has no time to look after the children; therefore one in forty of them is dirty. Because the workingman has these two persons on top of him, the landlord sitting (literally) on his stomach, and the schoolmaster sitting (literally) on his head, the workingman must allow his little girl’s hair, first to be neglected from poverty, next to be poisoned by promiscuity, and finally to be abolished by hygiene. He, perhaps, was proud of his little girl’s hair. But he does not count. … It never seems to strike these people that the lesson of lice in the slums is the wrongness of slums, not the wrongness of hair. —What’s Wrong, pp. 191-193

I think that Capitalism perpetuates this kind of problem by its nature. Now, we may not have exactly the same problem, in this country and at this time; for one thing, our hours are shorter and our wages higher—by legal mandate, mandates obtained by political pressure and conscientious outcry, not by businessmen looking to profit. That isn’t to say that shortening hours and raising wages should or could be done indefinitely, which would be ridiculous. But consider: if the landlord can maximize his profit by renting to the poor who can afford nothing better than a slum, what is to prevent his doing so, if economics is divorced from human dignity and made to concern only human choice? if how he treats his tenants is immaterial, so long as (in both senses) they suffer such treatment? If the employer can maximize his profit by paying the poor so little that they can neither save anything up nor afford to miss their inadequate paychecks, and by working them such barbarous hours that they are too exhausted either to look for a more human employer at the same level nor acquire the skills or education to seek work at a different level, what’s to stop the employer? And what, in an economic theory where consent is the only rule and constraint barely exists (since, after all, you are technically free to abandon everything and become homeless rather than consent), is to stop any number of employers, or all of them, from maintaining a stranglehold on the disadvantaged? And what, pray tell, is all that going to do to the family?

Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, Salvador Dali, 1943

I cannot forbear to conclude with Chesterton’s own conclusion of What’s Wrong, for its sheer rhetorical beauty.

I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. … If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should have a clean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. —Ibid., pp. 193-194

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part IV: Introduction to Hierarchy

Wars were at end; the king’s friend stood
at the king’s side; Lancelot’s lion
had roared in the pattern the king’s mind cherished,
in charges completing the strategy of Arthur;
the king’s brain working in Lancelot’s blood.

Presaging intelligence of time climbed,
Merlin climbed, through the dome of Stephen,
over chimneys and churches …

Merlin beheld
the beasts of Broceliande, the fish of Nimue,
hierarchic, republican, the glory of Logres,
patterns of the Logos in the depth of the sun.

Taliessin in the crowd beheld the compelled brutes,
wildness formalized, images of mathematics,
star and moon, dolphin and pelican,
lion and leopard, changing their measure.

—Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘The Crowning of Arthur’

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In my first post of this series, I identified both hierarchy and republic as qualities that define courtesy: a simultaneous acceptance of equal worth and diverse purpose. The Western mind, since the eighteenth century or so, has found it extremely difficult to hold both of these values at once—not without reason, given the tyrannies perpetrated by many hierarchs and the rarer, but equally if not more horrifying, tyrannies perpetrated by many republics. Nevertheless, the average postmodern American is generally willing to treat it as self-evident that all people have equal worth,1 so I want to begin by explaining hierarchy a little.

Image of Arthur from the 'Christian Heroes Tapestry' (ca. 1385)

More exactly, I want to let C. S. Lewis explain it. His Introduction to ‘Paradise Lost’ is such a fine work of literary criticism that I’ve read it at least a dozen times, despite never having finished Milton’s actual epic. Lewis (who had) spends a chapter in his Introduction going over what hierarchy meant to our ancestors, and its importance not only in the civil sphere, but cosmically.

According to this conception degrees of value are objectively present in the universe. Everything except God has some natural superior; everything except unformed matter has some natural inferior. The goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors. When it fails in either part of this twofold task we have disease or monstrosity in the scheme of things until the peccant being is either destroyed or corrected. One or the other it will certainly be; for by stepping out of its place in the system (whether it step up like a rebellious angel or down like an uxorious husband) it has made the very nature of things its enemy. … Aristotle tells us that to rule and to be ruled are things according to Nature. … We must not, however, suppose that the rule of master over slave or soul over body is the only kind of rule: there are as many kinds of rule as there are kinds of superiority and inferiority. Thus a man should rule his slaves despotically, his children monarchically, and his wife politically; soul should be the despot of body, but reason the constitutional king of passion (Politics 1, 5, 12). The justice or injustice of any source of rule depends entirely on the nature of the parties, not in the least on any social contract. … The difference between a king and a tyrant does not turn exclusively on the fact that one rules mildly and the other harshly. A king is one who rules over his real, natural inferiors. He who rules permanently … over his natural equals is a tyrant, even (presumably) if he rules well. … Order can be destroyed in two ways: (1) By ruling or obeying natural equals, that is by Tyranny or Servility. (2) By failing to obey a natural superior or to rule a natural inferior—that is, by Rebellion or Remissness.2 And these, whether they are monstrosities of equal guilt or no, are equally monstrosities. … Even a modern man might obey the law and refuse to obey a gangster for one and the same reason.

The references here to Aristotle’s views are primarily political in nature; but the grand synthesis of the West, the model of the universe pertaining to all fields of knowledge that was perfected and used throughout the Mediæval era and the Renaissance, considered all of reality, visible and invisible, essentially hierarchical. This isn’t to say that they considered the political hierarchy an aspect of the cosmic—some did, such as those who professed the Divine Right of Kings; but this was far less common than most people suppose, and (especially in the Middle Ages) the educated were likelier to consider the social order an image of cosmic hierarchy than a part of it.

What surprised me when I first read Lewis’ treatment of the subject was the ‘negative’ reason our ancestors set forth for embracing hierarchy.

Line drawing by Gustave Doré, illustration for Paradise Lost

The greatest statement of the Hierarchical conception in its double reference to civil and cosmic life is, perhaps, the speech of Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus. … If you take ‘Degree’ away ‘each thing meets in mere oppugnancy,’ ‘strength’ will be lord, everything will ‘include itself in power.’ In other words, the modern idea that we can choose between Hierarchy and equality is, for Shakespeare’s Ulysses, mere moonshine. The real alternative is tyranny; if you will not have authority you will find yourself obeying brute force.

The reasonableness of this view is probably obvious. When James Madison famously wrote that faction-prone democracies have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths, he was touching on the same principle. But the negative reason takes second place to the positive, which will strike many readers as strange—though lovers of Baroque music for its mathematical perfection will probably grasp it more easily. That positive reason is that hierarchy is beautiful, or at the least, it can be.

[Milton] pictures the life of beatitude as one of order—an intricate dance, so intricate that it seems irregular precisely when its regularity is most elaborate.3 He pictures his whole universe as a universe of degrees … He delights in the ceremonious interchange of unequal courtesies, with condescension (a beautiful word which we have spoiled) on the one side and reverence on the other. He shows us the Father ‘with rayes direct’ shining full on the Son, and the Son ‘o’er his scepter bowing’ as He rose … Almost everything one knows about Milton … makes it certain that Hierarchy will appeal to his imagination as well as to his conscience, will perhaps reach his conscience chiefly through his imagination. He is a neat, dainty man, ‘the lady of Christ’s’4; a fastidious man, pacing in trim gardens. He is a grammarian, a swordsman, a musician with a predilection for the fugue. Everything that he greatly cares about demands order, proportion, measure, and control. … The heavenly frolic arises from an orchestra which is in tune; the rules of courtesy make perfect ease and freedom possible between those who obey them. Without sin, the universe is a Solemn Game: and there is no good game without rules.5 … Unless we bear this in mind we shall not understand either the Comus or Paradise Lost, either the Faerie Queene or the Arcadia, or the Divine Comedy itself. We shall be in constant danger of supposing that the poet was inculcating a rule when in fact he was enamored of a perfection.

This is not to say that there was no place for the untamed, wild, Gothic varieties of beauty in that hierarchical age. The elusive, deliciously eerie quality of some Mediæval tales (Sir Gawayn and the Grene Knyght being a prime example) had no rival until the dawn of the Romantics, who specifically professed to take their cues from the Middle Ages.6 Frankly, I think the hierarchical and rational worldview supports enclaves of Gothicism more easily than the reverse: for, even in an essentially ordered universe, it’s very easy to imagine unexplored and mysterious realms within it that human beings can’t control, whereas a universe that is fundamentally chaotic and dark tends to hollow out any temporary order that is erected within it.

The Last Redoubt (from the novel The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson) by Jeremiah Humphries, ca. 2010

But I digress. The point here is that hierarchy, as an aspect of courtesy, is—well really it almost is courtesy. Gracious, sincere, unpatronizing generosity from someone in a position to extend it is beautiful; cheerful, unselfconscious, dignified acceptance of someone else’s generosity is beautiful; mutual delight in one another’s excellences is supremely beautiful. A person may dislike being treated with unique honor out of humility, but if so, they are probably to that extent still paying attention to themselves; a humility profounder still accepts honor from others because it is insulting to refuse a gift. That’s part of why false modesty is so annoying.

This also hints at how hierarchy and republic, inequality and equality, are combined in the spirit of courtesy: namely, that the work of others, whether as inferiors or as superiors, is worth accepting because their functions are just as dignified as ours, and we ought to allow them their place. Downton Abbey struck this chord magnificently in the Earl’s gentle rebuke to Cousin Matthew for refusing the services of a valet, when he says, ‘We all have different parts to play, and we must all be allowed to play them.’ But to do justice to the double character of courtesy, the commingling of hierarchy and republic, I’ll need another post.

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1Which is not to say that they apply this principle very consistently.
2Remissness here should be understood more or less as ‘abdication.’
3Anybody who’s studied fractals will probably get this part. If you haven’t, just google fractals and spend a few minutes looking at pictures of them. It’s trippy.
4I.e., Christ’s College in the University of Cambridge.
5Not even Calvinball, which forbids its players from either questioning the masks or doing things the same way twice.
6Unless one counts the witchcraft hysteria of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as being, unintentionally and among other things, an expression of this same æsthetic impulse.