Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Sex and Neo-Platonism Commission

...sed noli modo

No cross, no crown. With that economical maxim the old Methodist preachers summarized their theology. “For I reckon that the sufferings we now endure”, writes Saint Paul, “bear no comparison with the splendor yet unrevealed.” Secular versions of the idea are not difficult to find. “Anything worth having is worth striving for”. On the other hand, we hear that such and such isn’t worth the hassle, or the aggro, or the whatever—suggesting that if such and such were something else, it might be worth it.

I have been led to ponder these ascetic tropes in the course of the recent “debate” about the wisdom of increasing the federal debt ceiling. In particular I was struck by President Obama’s advocacy of a “balanced approach” that involves “shared sacrifice.” To sacrifice means voluntarily to give up something good or desirable with the aim of achieving something better and more desirable, or at least something of necessity on which the very possibility of the good and the desirable may depend. He speaks also of sharing the pain. No pain, no gain. Again the language used to express the view that present unpleasantness is the necessary prerequisite of future bliss has been interesting. We hear of having to “take the plunge” or “take our medicine”. The British Prime Minister, who of course talks Brit-speak, bravely “seized the nettle” of budget reform. One of President Obama’s curious expressions was new to me. He said we had to “eat our peas”. That one doesn’t work for me. There is nothing more delicious than peas, especially when young and not overcooked, and even more especially when served up with a little chopped onion and maybe some shards of fatback. The pea is much to be preferred to the lotus, and we have already done too much national lotus-eating.

As regards the fiscal crisis, I actually do believe in a balanced approach, if by that what is meant is a program that might balance our books. They are very unbalanced at the moment, so unbalanced in my view that the only plausible road to equilibrium necessitates both significant economies (aka “cuts”) in the bankrupting entitlements of Medicare and Social Security and significantly augmented revenues (aka “new taxes”) for the national Treasury.

What makes the achievement of this balanced approach a mere pipe dream is the Augustinianism rampant in Washington. Augustinianism has infected our Congress, and holds the President as a thrall. Yes, I do refer Aurelius Augustinus, alias Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430); but the Augustinianism I have in mind is that of the callow youth, not that of the mature bishop. He was one of the most famous Christian converts in all history, and the history of his conversion the most famous in all literature. Like the Congress, like President Obama, Augustine knew what he had to do, but sought ingenious ways to postpone it.

Young Augustine longed for the God of the Christians, but two obstacles blocked his way: sex and neo-Platonism. That is a dilemma that even across the ages most readers will be able to at least half understand. Augustine fretted a great deal about these matters, and with regard to the sex bit he prayed especially hard. He prayed one of history’s more famous prayers: Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, he implored the Lord, sed noli modo. “Give me chastity and continence—but not yet!” In other words, he chose to temporize by turning the question of his salvation over to a Sex and Neo-Platonism Commission— of course with sex and neo-Platonism “off the table” from the start.

Sex probably is better off the table, actually, and the concept of neo-Platonism on a table is too postmodern for my old mind. I am sure you grasp my point nonetheless. It concerns the fecklessness of our elected officials. Augustine’s actual moment of conversion, when it did come, was dramatic and nearly instantaneous. He walked into a garden with a bible, sat beneath a tree, and heard the sing-song voices of children at play repeating the phrase Tolle, lege; tolle, lege. “Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it.” He picked it up and read it. I’d give the same advice to our elected officials. The it could be, among so many other volumes in our grim library of discontents, the national balance sheet, the front page of most world newspapers, the report of the last Budget Commission, or the last poll of public opinion concerning the quality of work done by the Congress. Just tolle,