In his classic work Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton uses a masterful analogy. In discussing the relationship between authority and adventure, he writes,
Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
As good Americans we tend to believe that absolute freedom and tyranny lie at opposite poles. We are mistaken. Instead, they have a tendency to bend around and shake hands. Plato recognized this long ago in his Republic. After discussing various forms of government in Book VII and how the good in each gets perverted, he turns his attention to democracies:
The ruin of oligarchy, [said Socrates] is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnified and intensified by liberty overmasters democracy — the truth being that the excess of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government . . .
The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery. . . . And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.
Socrates continues in the discussion to say that democracies create “a new kind of drone.”
I thought about both Plato and Chesterton when listening to a reaction from one commentator on the Supreme Court’s decision on homosexual marriage. He agreed with the decision not for legal or moral reasons (which I would disagree with but at least understand in part), but because, “thankfully, the Court recognizes that we live in the 21st century.” That is, the Court should essentially approve of whatever we happen to be doing at any given time.* This may look like freedom, but in fact enslaves us to a particular moment without any benefit of perspective. Maybe we must come to terms with the fact that this is what democracy means now. Perhaps it has always been so and we failed to recognize it. In any case, this method leaves ourselves only to the walls inside our own heads.
This is why “great” revolutions often end up making things much worse than the regimes they overthrew. Of course no one intends this at the outset or even recognizes the possibility, partly because revolutionaries perceive a truth, or part of the truth, with crystal clarity. This truth will give them the motivation they need for revolution. But because this truth is only part of the whole Truth, it leads to a frozen dogmatism. The fences melt away in our rush to embrace freedom, and all end up huddling at the center whether they wish it or not.
One of the great virtues of Nicolas Berdyaev’s The Russian Revolution is his keen vision that sees past the political aspects of Communism and into its spiritual core. Of course the Soviet state adopted atheism as its official policy, but Berdyaev puts the roots of communist origins within the deep and ardent tradition of Russian spirituality.
Anyone who has read 19th century Russian literature recognizes the depths of profound insight and feeling those masters tapped. Their intensity of feeling led them to examine the nature of suffering perhaps as no other epoch has. The first modern globalization movement allowed more sensitive souls more exposure to more suffering. Some, like Dostoevsky, took suffering and had it transformed by the cross. But others failed to do so, and developed what we might call a “naked” hatred of suffering. As one early Bolshevik proclaimed, “Suffering has no right to exist.” Everyone must be happy.
This rejection of the meaning of suffering cannot bring one closer to our fellow men, because of course we do suffer and always will. To reject suffering sets one up to reject the experience of mankind, and then, mankind itself. Suffering without the Cross gives way to tyranny.
The early revolutionaries had within them a deep asceticism. All things not geared fully towards improving the material lot of the people must be expunged. Beauty itself became a debauched and corrupting luxury. Everyone must do without so that nothing ever gets wasted, either in the mind or on the ledger sheet. Such asceticism, without grace, again leads to tyranny. But let us not miss the fact that this tyranny has its roots in a certain idea of freedom. Communists wished the people to be free from suffering, free from worry about the future, free from the competitive aspects of capitalist societies. Now we know that such freedom leads to a drabness and narrowing of life.
Berdyaev wrote in 1931 and he had a keen insight for the westerners to whom he wrote. Westerners at that time and now, fundamentally are skeptics, and they assumed that the Soviets shared this basic outlook. Not so. The communist has deep (though misplaced) faith, and the people understand and embrace this faith. The state could not hold together for any other reason. This faith flies in the face of “evidence” against it. Most communists rejected the physics of the early 20th century, for example, because Einstein and others smacked of mysticism, and we must exorcise all mysticism so that the people will have true happiness. In the end pure rationalism becomes entirely irrational and ridiculous. Still they press on. Our failure to recognize this faith led us to combat it by all the wrong means. One thinks of Nixon trying to impress Khruschev by showing him better refrigerators. It showed our misunderstanding and our bankruptcy. Was this all we had to offer? If Khruschev was not impressed, we should be surprised.
The first part of Berdyaev’s book focuses on the spiritual failures of the revolutionaries themselves, but then he adroitly and appropriately turns the tables. How did such a movement come about? If the revolutionaries showed great spiritual hunger, we must consider the fact that churches in their locales could not feed them. The rise of communism comes from the failure not just of capitalism to produce a just society, but from the Church to live out its calling. He writes,
Christianity has not put its truth into full living practice. It has found its realization either in conventional formula or in theocracies which deliberately ignore freedom (which is the fundamental condition of any genuine realization), or it has practiced a system of duality, as in modern history, when its power has weakened. And therefore Communism has made its appearance as a punishment and a reminder, as a perversion of some genuine truth.
As I and others lament the recent high court decision on the validity of homosexual marriage we do well to follow Berdyaev’s example and point our fingers in the right place. For what we see before us comes fundamentally from the Church’s failure to explain the true nature of marriage not as an emotional bond between two people, but as an image of salvation itself, the marriage of Heaven and Earth. In Eastern churches, the bride and groom process around the congregation during the service wearing crowns. These crowns represent crowns of the martyrs. Marriage, like monasticism, is a kind of martyrdom, a death out of which new life emerges. What we see before us should serve as a “punishment and a reminder” of what we should have proclaiming and living out all along.
*One sees this in many places in our culture. Take, for example, the rise of graphic novels. Rather than be comfortable with the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, we hear ardent insistence that “graphic novels are just like books.” In my limited experience it seems obligatory for authors of young-adult fiction to include a mean teacher in the story who fails to allow a student to hand in a book-report on a graphic novel. The theme is the same — whatever we happen to be doing must be affirmed by all.