12 September 2016

Just society and smallholder competencies

I recently read, on the recommendation of my Solidarity Hall colleague Grace Potts, a Washington Post op-ed which piqued my interest somewhat. It is written by a Latin Christian woman of thirty-two years, on the subject of chastity – and she approaches the topic in a way which celebrates the liberating potential of personal virtue, in a serious and honest way (that is to say, without being sentimental or sanctimonious). In several ways, I very much appreciate this. It’s a relief from both extremes of the sort of egocentric hedonist ‘radicalism’ which treats sexual pleasure and its pursuit as the sine qua non of liberation, and also from the stultifying, creepy Puritan sublimation and inversion of sexual desire into its rigid control and regimentation (of the sort which finds its expression in chastity rings and father-daughter balls).

And yet there’s something more than a bit uncomfortable about this piece. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m coming from the other side of the spectrum: a young father who had two kids by the age of 28, and whose collegiate life was (to my regret) not particularly chaste. My girlfriend (now wife) and I had a child before most of my extended family considered it wise or prudent, from an economic point of view – and I most certainly do not regret that decision, even though it came at a certain cost to me. So it’s slightly strange to see chastity being justified on the basis that it can fulfil a ‘feminist dream’, which in the author’s view is apparently synonymous with the lifestyle options of the urban haute-bourgeois: ‘good friends, a great family, hobbies… one of the best jobs I’ve ever had… learning how to scull on the Potomac River’. Is that really how we want to craft the case for chastity – or, for that matter, for any of the other smallholder competencies (patience, thrift, modesty, industry…)?

The smallholder competencies rely on certain smallholder assumptions about the way life works. The smallholder virtues are to a very significant extent based on the acknowledgement that we have control only over our own behaviour and its consequences within a limited social and environmental range. Chastity is valuable – and here Miss Bryan has it right – because pregnancies happen, because sexually-transmitted diseases are a real danger, and because sex is associated with emotional bonds that are not to be taken lightly. Chastity is valuable because sex is a good which is fully realised only in connexion with child-bearing, child-rearing, and the mutual, sobornyi work of keeping a household. Aristotle is the best for this realisation: virtue of all sorts is needful because we human beings are not self-sufficient, we are not powerful, we are neither gods nor beasts, and we must rely on each other when times inevitably get tough. It’s a demand of social justice in such a world, in other words, that we comport ourselves virtuously, so that we are able to look after each other when an unforetold disaster strikes.

But once we enter onto the grand arena where mastery of man and nature becomes the goal, the need for the smallholder competencies vanishes from the horizon. Hence, the existence and predominance of the very egocentric hedonist ‘radicalism’ Miss Bryan is critiquing here. Why bother striving to be virtuous when we have pills and ‘medical procedures’ for that? Also, when disaster strikes a prole who doesn’t have the means and expertise to overcome it herself, she should expect only the ‘help’ her enlightened technological masters will offer – which will, of course, be in the forms of pills and ‘medical procedures’. Whereas the smallholder competencies have a virtuous (pun intended) levelling effect, placing them at the service of consequentialist, haute-bourgeois expectations corrodes the basis for the virtues themselves, and sorts society into ‘experts’ and proletarians – masters and slaves. We run the risk not only of cheapening, but actually destroying, the real case for the smallholder competencies when we make them a mere means, a method of striving, for the end of ‘making it’ into the world of the mastery-driven and success-justified world of the haute-bourgeois. In fact, this is one of the major points Christopher Lasch, informed by a radical reading of Aristotle (along with Marx and Freud), drives home time after time after time.

It’s also somewhat telling that the author herself equates ‘virtue’ with ‘lifestyle’ at certain points. That’s not wrong, of course – the way in which you live and the habits which you build are the basis for virtue. And she redeems herself immensely by her comparison of building virtue with taking up a sport and practising it. But by this point in history, ‘lifestyle’ connotes something akin to consumer choice, and has almost more to do with self-presentation as self-edification. I think Miss Bryan recognises this, because she seeks to address it with Pope John Paul II’s exhortation to love others perfectly. Still, absent that reflection, it’s all too easy for self-development to turn into a kind of narcissism, a spiritual dead-end – the equivalent of taking the talent and burying it in the ground.

Clearly Miss Bryan cares about chastity for its own sake, as a good Catholic and follower of Pope John Paul II, and not only because it allows her to go sculling, make friends, make a lot of money and so on. For that reason, I kind of wish she would go further with this op-ed. I rather wish she would question the need for the sort of ‘liberation’ which takes the form of striving for individualistic self-fulfilment, and instead place the smallholder competencies within the framework of, say, the Catholic social doctrines.

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