How The World Thinks with T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral has a wonderful scene just after the tipsy knights slay St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. In this scene, the knights approach the audience to give an account of their dastardly deed. The Four Knights responsible for his death each break the fourth wall to appeal to our reason, sensibility, civic duty, virtue, and goodness. The effect is eerie. They seem almost reasonable. Clearly, they are tempting each member of the audience to see the "rationality" of evil. And at first glance, their causes can seem quite legitimate. The purpose is obvious, if you find yourself agreeing with any of their principles then it would seem you too, O Reader, might be the kind of person who would kill Becket. In a way, this tale is an Examination of one's conscience and a contemplation upon one's own ethic.

If you're not familiar with the tale, Thomas Becket was a king's right hand, playboy, top servant, living the fat life, until one day King Henry II thought it wise to make Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury so as to have The Church in his pocket. Almost overnight Thomas has a conversion, gives away all his possessions, prays frequently, fasts, and defends The Church's rights against an increasingly hostile State. During this period the Lay Investiture Controversy was hot and was a constant issue in Ecumenical Councils. Thomas was eventually cut down on December 29 going to Evening Prayer. A drunken Henry II asked, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" and four tipsy knights responded with violence for the sake of The State. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a story of people visiting Becket's tomb once it had become a major pilgrimage destination in the Medieval world.

A group acting this play out might be left with the question, "Who's side would you be on? Becket right? Then why have the knights approach us and try to persuade us?" I had the eerie sense that this was a demonic styled temptation like that of Christ's own in the desert. Furthermore, the arguments sounded almost like those I hear of today, even by Christians. They sound almost reasonable. This isn't too odd since the Knights themselves are Christians. This led me to a string of questions.

  • How do we fall into such traps?

  • How do we know which side is right?

  • What are the ethical theories tacitly employed to deceive us?

  • How do we refute them?

  • How do we live such that our habitual state becomes impenetrable to such influences?

To answer these I'll go through each Knight's case, say what its modern iteration is, name a few examples of how we still use it today, name the beast with its proper ethical theory, and slay it.

Knight I: Reginald Fitz Urse

"We know that you may be disposed to judge unfavourably of our action. You are Englishmen [insert American!], and therefore you believe in fair play: and when you see one man being set upon by four, then your sympathies are all with the under dog. I respect such feelings, I share them. Nevertheless, I appeal to your sense of honour. You are Englishmen [insert Americans], and therefore will not judge anybody without hearing both sides of the case...I am a man of action and not of words. For that reason I shall do no more than introduce the other speakers...[who] will be able to lay out before you the merits of this extremely complex problem.""

1. Appeal to Fair Play Reginald Fitz Urse here is appealing to a principle of "fair play." He has not said "murder" because this description would immediately condemn him. He thus makes the audience dwell upon whether or not it was "a fair fight" rather than whether it was "murder" or not. In logic this is a Red Herring Fallacy, changing the topic by sleight of hand. Ironically Sir Reginald was the first to stab Thomas Becket.

2. Appeal to a Fair Trial Sir Reginald is also appealing to a fair jury. Despite the fact the audience just saw him murder Becket, the issue of whether or not "it's a fair court case" becomes the predominant thought in one's might rather than whether or not the audience member just saw Urse murder Becket. There is a twist on Justice here. Justice, as defined by a legal positive law, is thought superior to natural law. Again, this is a sleight of hand. The audience knows the natural law against murder has been violated and stand as "witnesses," and yet, his appeal to a fair trial seems to trump this. He flips the script so that positive law does not serve natural law, but natural law is subservient to positive law. This is largely the assumed ethic of every group of Protestants today, including Anglicans. The Catholic Church alone stands with a clear teaching on the proper ordering of Natural and Positive Law.

3. British/American Pragmatism Lastly, he claims he's a man of action and not of words. This works within the philosophical school known as American Pragmatism. Pragmatism is the idea that you decide the veracity of a moral principle based on its consequence. Action or Principle X did or did not work for me, therefore it is not a principle. It's error lies in that it makes universal claims based on subjective, singular experiences.

Pragmatism purports to be "practical." They don't believe in any real, absolute principles, though they frequently will speak of "my principles" or "our family's principles" or "our culture's principles." These are not absolute truths they believe but ideas they have tried, experienced, or ones they have found "work for them." What constitutes "works" is never defined, and thus not only are their principles arbitrary but so are their ends. This is a veiled form of relativism. They might even speak of the intellect, judgment, and virtue, but it all begs the question, "Whose account of virtue?" Catholic virtue has objective definitions, objective purposes, which no amount of "testing" or "experiencing" changes, any more than trying to use a table for defecation changes its purpose. It just makes you look weird, especially if you say "it works for you."

The Pragmatist is annoyed by discussion because they want action. Their normal mortal enemy is the Idealist who is so far up in the clouds that they can never act. Pragmatists assume if you're not a Pragmatist, you must be an Idealist. Likewise, Idealists assume if you're not an Idealist, you must be a Pragmatist. Idealists think and never do. Pragmatists do without ever thinking. Both are foolish positions. The Catholic position is that universal principles and particulars are needed to make a practical judgment. But if you're going to say it's a universal principle, you can't add "for me," it's for everyone, otherwise it ain't "universal." Likewise, acting on principles without looking at particulars is a kind of blind legalism like the Pharisees.

The Christian Pragmatist is a strange thing because they want to act as if they only care about 'the matter of things.' They want to know what to pick up, right now, and what to do with it. This works if they are obedient like soldiers. Most aren't. They find forms of things to be a waste of time and purpose to be something each person can decide for themselves. Thus both are a waste of time to talk about when The Pragmatist is trying to figure out how to live today. Since they only care about particular details they are always looking for someone exactly in the same situation they are in to learn from.

Where this becomes odd is -- none of us is a 15th c. BC Jew, nor a 1st c. AD Jew. To be a Christian Pragmatist then comes with the strange thought, "What are The Holy Scriptures for exactly? I'm in a radically different context as all of its characters, even Jesus. None of the saints can help me either since they're all in prior centuries." As a result, they chase people living in the same time period as themselves. They thus trust people who have never finished the race of life before, more than people who have run the race victoriously. This is ultimately, ironically, very impractical. They no doubt would find reading Murder in the Cathedral as an exercise in examining one's own conscience to be a ridiculous waste of time incapable of helping them in their day to day existence.

Thus Reginald's claim to be a man of action but not of words is a kind of self-deception. He refuses to analyze the ethical principles that made him a murderer. That principle is, "pick your own principles" but call it virtuous, rational, and an exercise of an intellect concerned with practicals. Sir Reginald has gotten to live the fat life at the King's table, and executing the king's will regardless of the nature of the act is what "works" for him. How is the average American Pragmatist or Christian Pragmatist like Reginald though? They both agree the world has no Providential Order placed upon it by The Creator, and thus it is up to each person to decide what principles "work for them" judged solely on experience. This can be as "harmless" as what time you wash the dishes, where you go for a run, how you dress, or as severe as whether or not murder is the practical thing to do. One can wrap the language of "practical judgment" and "virtue" and "holiness" around all this as Reginald and his crew is able to do. But this is all subterfuge, for those words all have different meanings in the Pragmatist's moral schema.

And since the Pragmatist and the Christian Pragmatist have the same principle, "pick principles based on consequences and call it practical judgment," the Christian Pragmatist has no ethical defense against Sir Reginald's murder of St. Thomas Becket. There within lies the irony. And there within lies the point the Pragmatist will spit and sputter and get upset about and say "Nuh uh," precisely because they are unable to see their own principle. Trustworthy is the saying, "You don't know what you don't know."

Does this sound familiar? It's one of the most common American attitudes since the birth of American Pragmatism a little over a century ago with thinkers like John Dewey (1859-1952) or William James (1842-1910). Dewey "revolutionzed" education by saying we should train children not only for a job but also to be active ethical citizens of our country. The only problem is, by "ethical," he meant "Pragmatist." Let's churn out some Reginalds at K-12! James is most famous for his defense of "religious experience" most oft used by evangelicals, though he meant things like crystal balls, seances, and tarot cards. "Those are spiritual experiences too so let's not be discriminatory." Combine these two thinkers and you have someone who feels their way about ethical and religious principles, who dabbles in multiple belief systems, and forms one gigantic incoherent mess. Pragmatism one of America's prevailing assumed habits of life, a dogma so assumed that it's rude to question. "My values are my values" after all. Besides, Pragmatism never hurt anyone, right?

And that my friends, is how The World thinks.

We'll continue next time with The Second Knight's response: William de Traci who will appeal to his disinterestedness, that is "he got nothing out of it." I suspect Southern Stoicism might show up.

Saint Aelred Catholic Church

4951 Macon Highway
Bishop, GA 30621
  • Facebook - White Circle