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How The World Thinks with T.S. Eliot, p. ii

January 21, 2019

 

This is part 2 of analyzing the Four Knights reasoning for murdering St. Thomas Becket from T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. We analyzed the First Knight's Pragmatism last time. Enter The Second Knight: William de Traci. Williams's account of the murder of St. Thomas Becket is as follows:

 

"We are not getting anything out of this. We have much more to lose than to gain. I am not a drinking man ordinarily--to brace myself up for it. When you come to the point, it does go against the grain to kill an Archbishop, especially when you have been brought up in good Church traditions...I am awfully sorry about it. We realised that this was our duty, but all the same we had to work ourselves up to it...and at best we shall have to spend the rest of our lives abroad. And even when reasonable people come to see that the Archbishop had to be put out of the way--and personally I had a tremendous admiration for him--you must have noticed what a good show he put up at the end--they won't give us any glory...there's no mistake about credits for being completely disinterested in this business.

 

1. If not pleasure nor utility therefore virtue argument.
 

The argument is that William will receive no money, no glory, nor honor, and we're left to imagine what it is he'll receive for the deed. Within the classical Aristotelian schema of ethics which The Catholic Church subsumed, there are three possible ends of human activity: (1) pleasure (2) utility: e.g. wealth, honor, etc. (3) virtue. William's argument is quietly suggesting if he's receiving no pleasure nor utility out of this, then you, O Reader, ought know this was the virtuous thing.

 

The mind trained to think like a Christian then can be stumped by this. He seems to have a good argument, and yet, he clearly murdered Becket. Why's Eliot put this man before us? Ought we be understanding, pitying, and merciful to Sir William since he was just doing his duty, and now he'll spend his whole life wandering in exile? The answer is an emphatic no. As Virgil oft tells Dante in The Inferno, evil is never to be pitied nor sympathized with. If we do sympathize with evil, then sympathy is no virtue. If sympathy is a virtue, then it cannot be exercised toward evil, since virtue by definition is always to the good. Frequently The World turns empathy and sympathy into a de facto virtue without any concern about what or who ought to be pitied. Many humanity departments on the university level teach this poppycock. Reader beware!

 

2. The Ethic of Disinterestedness
 

Sir William de Traci is espousing an ethic of Disinterestedness, made popular by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The Supreme Court, Protestant Theologians, and many lay Americans owe their ethic to him. What Plato and Socrates are to The Catholic Tradition, Kant is to the Protestant traditions. He is famous for his categorical imperative that says we ought will that which we can imagine all people willing. 

 

Sir William de Traci's appeal, "even when reasonable people come to see that the Archbishop had to be put out of the way" is a clear sign of Kantian "reason."

 

Kant was worried that if an ethical action ever gives pleasure, utility, honor, or anything to the one doing the action, that this would poison or corrupt the action. We could ask, "Did you go to the homeless shelter because it's good or because it makes you feel good? Or because you got a photo for your social media? Or because of service hours?" If ethics is rooted in desire, then it seems doomed to be selfish. Kant's solution is to eliminate ends altogether. If there is no personal reason for why you did a good action, then we can be assured it was good. Is this not William de Traci's "we got nothing out of it?"

 

Moral actions normally consist of the (1) the intention (2) the object (3) the end/purpose. For Kantianism ends don't matter; teleology is dead here. What is left then are intentions and objects, just people willing good for people because people are ends in themselves. In the Catholic Church we call this the heresy of "Moralism." Let's see why it's a heresy.

It is desire that makes humans act to ends. If you eliminate all ends, then you tacitly are destroying desire. Kant calls this a necessary "disinteredness" for ethics. I call it "joyless." And indeed Kantians are a joyless lot if you've ever met the consistent ones. What is left is dead duty. Suffering becomes good for its own sake, since its evidence that you were selfless when acting.

 

Mix in some Protestantism and things start getting stranger and more unhappy. They'll start to describe this sad state as "their sacrifice for Christ." Protestants don't have a tradition of martyrs or St. Francis so they don't have stories of going joyfully to a cross. The Kantian Protestant however tries to delight in suffering, as if its a good in itself. In Catholicism this is a spiritual disease we call encratism. We're called to redeem suffering, not be masochists. Unfortunately being Catholic is not enough to ensure we don't fall into Kantian Protestant thought.

 

Consider sex as an ethical action. If we're Kantian Protestants it should be disinterested, which is to say we get nothing out of it. Put away reproduction, correction of affections, family, even pleasure, and what's left must look like two insects during mating season acting merely out of instinct. It's a "duty," not a joy. It is a disinterested act, not a part of the happy life given to the faithful by God through the sacrament of marriage. That's a strange form of Christianity.

This removal of ends for the sake of a disinterestedness, selfless moral act is called "Moralism." It's a heresy because it suggests people should only be acted upon as if they are good for their own sakes, and never as something you might get virtue out of by cultivating a life with them. While you avoid the fear of selfishness, you end up treating each person as The Good. We have a name for that in Catholicism - idolatry. This Protestant idea of Moralism eventually bred the Secularist idea of do-gooders who believe Love (Charity) can be achieved without God, a Neo-Pelagianism. It is also a heresy because it acts against human happiness. It tries to get you to act out something that is not true of God nor Man.

 

Kant's fear of people doing "ethical" actions for the wrong reasons is real. In Catholic Theology we call it concupiscence: the habitual inclination to will our own wills rather than God's, "Thy will be done." But we must acknowledge without desire man would not move, he wouldn't even get up in the morning. He'd die in bed. Desire is good. God made it. He likes it. It is to be healed from The Fall, and to find its fulfillment. Salvation then can be described as "the redemption of Man's love." Even Plato and Pope Benedict XVI have both written on this. The true cult of the Divine must be one concerned with healing Man's eros, not destroying it.

 

This kind of Moralism is not only destructive of people's lives but it radically contradicts The Christ. In the Ordinariate Form of The Mass we follow the Kyrie with Jesus's Summary of the Law.

 

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.


If you annihilate desire, you annihilate the possibility of love. You might succeed in doing away with "selfishness," but you also succeed in annihilating the possibility of good. Man without desire simply will not act.

 

The solution here is to be a little more "selfish," just in a different sense than the one we know is evil. Don't act on arbitrary desires or principles, but we can say, "Damn straight I need to go to Mass, mind prayer and spiritual reading, give alms, eat healthy, get outside, enjoy a sunset or a walk, build a fire, drink a beer, and so forth -- because if I don't know what it is to love myself, then I won't know what it is to love my neighbor." Our desire must be transformed into Charity, but this won't happen if I kill desire.

 

Thus it is that Sir William de Traci is a Kantian. He is "disinterested in the business" of killing the Archbishop Becket. And while he sees that as evidence that it was the ethical thing to do, I see it as positive proof that his action was not loving. He sees it as a defence, I see it as a condemnation. Ironically the one who walks about joylessly fulfilling duties as sacrifices all disinterested is little better than Sir William de Traci. If the Kantian were to protest William, William could look at them in the eye and say, "We're not so different you and I." It is precisely Becket's love of God that had the Kantian William see him as one to "dutifully dispatch."

 

And that's the way The World thinks...with T.S. Eliot.


Stay tuned for Part Three. The First Knight tells us the disinterestedness is true but not a complete justification for their action. The Third Knight: Hugh de Morville steps up to finish their defence of why murdering Thomas was the right thing to do. We'll delve into the argument from the community. Was not Becket a rebel rouser who created disorder for The State just when she was on the verge of complete collapse? Was this not against Natural Law?

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