So we come to the end of yet another year and the beginning of still another. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. We look back on how things have changed since this time last year, and what we hope will change in the year to come.
One of my own accomplishments of the past year was to transcribe, edit, and re-publish the classic moral treatise A Gentleman Instructed in the Conduct of a Virtuous and Happy Life, by Fr. William Darrell S.J. (I had heard someone refer to it, found there didn’t seem to be a good copy available, and so set about polishing it up from a version on the internet archive). This was a dialogue written around 1700 for the moral instruction of the British gentry and remained a popular resource for long after. Fr. Darrell draws heavily from St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, among other works, and laces it all with a delightful dose of sarcasm, making it as entertaining as it is edifying.
I don’t bring it up merely to plug my own efforts, but because working on the book reinforced an impression that has long been growing on me. As I read over this work from the dawn of the 18th century I kept feeling a sense of familiarity. This book is nearly a century older than my country, and yet so little of it is out of date.
Oh, granted, the matter is generally different. Fr. Darrell talks of immoral plays buffooning sacred subjects and encouraging lascivious behavior. We have films and shows instead. He speaks of gentlemen whose lives are consumed by sports and entertainment so that they can hardly speak on any other subject. Only the sport is hunting rather than football. We find gentlemen and ladies who spend all day devising new comforts and moving from entertainment to entertainment, yet still imagining themselves to be righteous before the sight of God, and that anything further is a mark of unhealthy extremism.
Different Times, Same Behavior
Again and again, it was the same pattern, and rarely did I find a point that had been genuinely left behind since the 18th century (e.g. pride in one’s family line or maintaining distinction of rank). Even then, in such cases it was simply a matter of fashions changing. No one boasts of their family history anymore because it is not the sort of thing people value; they boast and brag of other things. The matter changes, but the form remains exactly the same, down to the defenses (“For I find these men are the great champions of virtue that are not able to be vicious, and those declaim most against pleasure that are past enjoying it”).
As I say, going over all this served to reinforce an idea that I have long held; namely, that for all the rapid pace of advancing technology, all the social upheaval, all the talk of how different things are today from how they have ever been before, the truth of the matter is that, on a fundamental level, very little has changed. We’ve re-arranged the societal furniture, we fixate on different ideas, and we have different tools wherewith to do so, but at the end of the day this is all window dressing. The essentials remain exactly how they have always been.
That is to say, the world doesn’t change, only our experience of it does.
Take the most obvious example of a great, world-changing development in the rise of the internet. It’s certainly wrought great changes in the human experience both for good and for ill, as much of the world now has the means to instantly communicate with each other.
But again, at the end of the day the internet isn’t really anything new, just different. Viewed objectively, the internet is ultimately just a very efficient postal service. Exchanging communication across distances has been a feature of human civilization from the beginning; this is only a much faster means of doing so. That carries its own implications for the effect the internet will have on the organization of society, but at its core, it doesn’t change any of the basic principles or factors involved. Detraction, calumny, insults, and lies remain exactly the same whether done over the internet or in person.
The main difference between communicating over the internet and communicating via letter is simply that it’s faster and that it’s done via machine rather than by manpower, allowing for both greater reliability and greater anonymity.
Modernity Diminishes Personal Accountability
Which brings us to the main point. To the extent that the internet and other such things have really changed the world, it is not that they have altered the nature of man or morality or even society. It’s that they’ve made it easier to escape consequences; to not only be a substandard kind of man but to remain so. And society is defined by the kind of men who comprise it.
To be a gentleman of the kind described by Fr. Darrell is perhaps no more difficult now than it was in the year he wrote, save for the fact that to be a vulgar, immoral fool is now far easier.
As an example, Fr. Darrell has a long chapter on reputation and detraction, which he condemns as one a particularly vile sin, all the more so for its popularity. How much less do any of us in the mass media age value anyone’s reputation, the most valuable of his earthly goods? Yet both the modern man and the man of the 18th century who destroy another’s good name for sport or money or attention are, to that extent, the exact same kind of man. And to be that kind of man will mean to live a certain kind of life, and to have a society of men will mean to have a certain kind of society.
As St. Augustine put it, “Let us live well and times shall be good. We are the times. Such as we are, such are the times.”
So, looking forward to the coming year amid the collapsing Enlightenment order, keep this in mind; the change of technology and the national org chart doesn’t change anything about human nature. If you want to see a healthy society again, the first step is to become the kind of man who would make up such a society. And the criteria for that have not changed an inch since the Garden of Eden and never will.
The world doesn’t change. It always follows the same rules and same patterns. Do this sort of action, get this kind of result. You can change the trappings and you can set up technological defenses against some of those results, but you can’t change the patterns. So start learning and following them.
Photo Credit- Tim Mossholder at Upsplash