Sometime before I got married, I headed north to L.A. to pay a visit to Jason, a guy I was friends with in high school. He now works as a studio executive at a major studio in Hollywood. We have differed over the existence of God of God e existence of God at least since junior high, when these sorts of conversations first arose. On the day I visited, we spent several hazy afternoon hours sharing bourbons, sitting at the white vinyl bar his roommate had brought into the apartment. During our conversation, he told me he believed in virtue but thought man could discover its origin and foundation within himself — springing from his nature — and so did not require the commandments of an extrinsic, if personal, God.
I didn’t argue, in part because I never think of the right thing to say when talking with Jason, and in part because I thought he was partially right. Man can find a foundation for virtue within his nature. He can discover that goodness is not something added on to man, but rather the fulfillment of the kind of thing man is. A good knife is not a knife plus something alien to it, but merely a knife that performs its work in an excellent fashion.
However — and this didn’t come to me until several days later — I don’t think the account is complete. If God created man, if He has the authority of an author, then man’s ultimate guide will not be his nature but the creator of that nature. God and His rules will not be extrinsic but integral. Commandments will indicate what a man must do to be a good man —— to fulfill his nature. Obedience assumes new status, such that St. Augustine defined virtue as having one’s will in accord with the will of God. “What does God want?” becomes the first and final question.
That notion returned to me after a conversation I had with Father John Sanders, principal at St. Augustine’s High School here in San Diego. While explaining his philosophy of education, he told me that “young men like lots of rules. They feel most secure when there’s a heavy structure.” He cited a researcher who concluded, “There are two things a young man must know to succeed: what are the rules, and who’s in charge.” I don’t think that stops when the man is no longer young, and certainly not when he becomes a father.
The rise of the dopey dad in the popular imagination is an oft-noted phenomenon. It seems to me that at some point, children inquire as to the foundation of Dad’s authority. If what they find is not enough to convince them that his authority — his “right to be obeyed” — is legitimate, not enough to counteract whatever forces are working against him, then the claim that “I’m your father!” ceases to be a self-evident reason for obedience. The dad who invokes it after that risks coming off as a spluttering, impotent pretender to the throne — dopey.
I wonder if this is not partly caused by Dad’s own confusion, his own ignorance about “what the rules are and who’s in charge.” If a man is forced to carve the rules out for himself and stops to think about the foundation of those rules, he becomes vulnerable to attacks of doubt. What if he is wrong? He may have had a hand in making the little men and women who are his children, but he did not make man.
From The Last Gentleman, by Walker Percy, a great senser of sensibilities:
“Over the years, his family had turned ironical and lost its gift for action. It was an honorable and violent family, but gradually the violence had been deflected and turned inward. The great-grandfather knew what was what and said so and acted accordingly and did not care what anyone thought. He even wore a pistol in a holster like a Western hero and once met the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and invited him then and there to shoot it out in the street.
“The next generation, the grandfather, seemed to know what was what but he was not really so sure. He was brave but he gave much thought to the business of being brave. He too would have shot it out with the Grand Wizard if only he could have made certain it was the thing to do.
“The father was a brave man too and he said he didn’t care what others thought, but he did care. More than anything else, he wished to act with honor and be thought well of by other men. So living for him was a strain. He became ironical. For him it was no small thing to walk down the street on an ordinary September morning. In the end he was killed by his own irony and sadness and by the strain of living out an ordinary day in a perfect dance of honor. As for the present young man, the last of the line, he did not know what to think. So he became a watcher and a listener and a wanderer.” The degeneration takes several generations, but it still illustrates that creeping doubt — what if I am wrong?
In contrast, consider the Jesuit Father Isaac Jogues. Jogues, a Frenchman, was 29 when he landed on the shores of North America to work as a missionary to the Huron Indians. The year was 1636; the place was not far from where I grew up in Upstate New York. By 1642, he and his fellow priests had helped in the conversion of a scant hundred-odd souls. The harvest that year was poor, and sickness abounded. Jogues was chosen to lead an expedition to Quebec for supplies. On his return journey, he was captured by the Hurons’ bitter enemies, the Iroquois. They beat him, pulled out his hair, beard, and nails, and chewed off his forefingers.