Sunday, July 22, 2012

When Curmudgeonliness goes Too Far

The secular community, since it exists for our natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit.

Thus wrote C.S. Lewis in the essay "Membership". Though I have a great deal of sympathy with C.S. Lewis's preference of private over public life, I think it goes altogether too far. In fact, it seems positively miserable.

"Variety's the spice of life" said William Congreve, "that gives it all its flavour". This seems obvious to me, and yet so many people don't seem to take it into account. People who think that there is never enough hours in the day for work; people who think sport is a waste of time and can't understand why anyone would spend a moment on it; people who think history is bunk; people who see national, ethnic and sexual differences as nothing but regrettable barriers between fellow humans.

And C.S. Lewis, in describing "all economies, politics, laws, armies and institutions" as a "meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit", seems to me also to be offending against the diversity of life.

I can understand the theory that there is nothing higher than the scenes Lewis describes. This is the same sentiment behind Belloc's famous line: "There's naught in life that's worth the winning but laughter and the love of friends."

But is that really everything in life that has value in itself? How about standing in the town centre, jammed against ten thousand others, whooping at the top of your voice for the New Year? Sitting in the cinema during a horror film and screaming with the rest of the audience when the killer jumps out of nowhere? Sitting in the warmth of a public house and savouring the hum of chatter in the air? Cheering at some platform speaker giving the troops what they want at a political rally? Attending a formal debate and becoming utterly absorbed in the impassioned rhetoric? Joining in a protest march or a Corpus Christi procession or a St. Patrick's Parade?

Not only do I value those things in themselves; but they add to my savour of that private world which I value just as much as Lewis. What are these two friends to talk about over this pint of beer? Books, knowing Lewis. But what are the books going to be about? Two friends sitting over a pint of beer talking about books, and so on ad infinitum?

I would not enjoy solitude or intimate company so much without my awareness of a wider world beyond. It adds to my relish of a quiet cup of tea in a café, or a solitary morning walk under glowing clouds, to know that-- somewhere in the world-- there are concerts and football matches and economic conferences. Can I even regret that there are armies? Life would seem to be missing something without them.

Chesterton and Lewis lived at a time when collectivism seemed set fair to overwhelm the private sphere. (In the essay I have quoted above, Lewis complains that university societies have changed from intimate discussion groups to large, organized associations.) Today, I think we are closer to the opposite extreme. Private life is in the ascendent; public life has been eroded.

In his wonderful book The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens complains of the changes in urban and suburban life since World War Two, and the social isolation it has created:

It is a world transformed. No Act of Parliament, not even thirty of them, could possibly have as much effect on human behaviour as this upheavel in our physical surroundings, mostly concentrated into two or three frenzied decades. The urban poor have been uprooted and displaced as thoroughly as if they were refugees, the networks of family, trade, friendship and habit bulldozed away. The better-off have suburbanized themselves, devouring the countryside on whose edges they hoped to live, and exchanging crowds, dirt and old, down-at-heel housing for the clean solitude of the outer city and the tyranny of commuting. Most of the places where people met each other other on equal terms have been destroyed or removed, leaving the supermarket and the garden centre as the only places where we encounter strangers, apart from when we are in our cars.

To wish away either public or private life seems to me a sin against the world's wondrous, giddy diversity.

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