Life & the Limit

I heard a trenchant aphorism the other day,[1] derived from what Amazon has learned about the best way to package books: Structure, not padding.

My first job was as a shipping clerk for a small academic publishing house in Indianapolis. Every day I would pack up hundreds and hundreds of books for mail delivery, in those thick padded envelopes. When I dropped off each day’s shipment at the Post Office downtown, there was always a batch of returns waiting for me, that had been jostled about too much en route to the buyer, so coming out of the package looking like a used textbook on its fifth undergraduate. It drove us crazy, but at the time there was no way to prevent such a thing. And the way I saw postal workers throwing packages around – some of those guys were phenomenal athletes – it was no mystery how it happened.

Well, Amazon has this nailed. I have bought hundreds of books from them, and only two or three have ever arrived damaged. They shrink wrap a book or two to a flat, much larger piece of sturdy cardboard, then throw the bundle in a box just the right size, that pins the cardboard in place: perfect. No padding at all: just pure structure, everything warped down to a fare thee well and tight as a drum, just like I used to do with the gear lashed to my boat in the Grand Canyon. If an ammo can cuts loose in a rapid, it can kill you. Or just disappear forever in the River, together with the camera inside it.

Speaking of the River, when we had a day of big rapids in the Canyon – most days – the boatmen all took particular care to pump up our boats in the morning, as tight as possible. We used Army surplus rafts in the early years, left over from WWII, and they leaked appallingly. Heavy bastards, too; about two tons, fully loaded. In the rapids, you want as much maneuverability as you can get. Nothing is harder to push around with a pair of oars than a mushy tube of rubber as heavy as a loaded pickup (other than a boat full to the brim with water). So we would pump like crazy before the big drops, bringing the rubber of our boats to an adamantine stiffness.

Structure, not padding. It’s a general principle, applicable everywhere: music, with its series of highly ordered formal systems that constrain and enable novel development; logic, mathematics and metaphysics, where learning supervenes upon categorical and terminological clarity, and is produced by the work of its attainment; the polis, where law and custom, hierarchy and authority constitute the limes within which social play may proceed; all the organs of society, from sport to worship, from bureaucracy to language, from commerce to craft, from dress to rites of passage, where forms and their transformations are the main matter of social discourse and their keeping the means of its life; but above all in the family, and all the edifice of powers and principalities, thrones and dominions founded thereon.

When my children were small, they bickered with each other hellishly. We told them to stop, we punished, we rewarded, we separated: nothing. We consulted an earthy, sensible family therapist who taught us that their bickering was a way of trying to discover the limits and order of their relationship, the boundaries and rules. But, being children, they couldn’t ever know for sure whether they had reached an absolute limit. So they kept at it. If we wanted the bickering to end, we had to establish simple, readily discernible limits for them, make them clear and definite, and enforce them absolutely. Then, they would understand the rules that governed their play, and would settle down happily with each other.

The same principle applied in our relations with them. Bedtime rituals and routines had to be set in stone, or they would become the itch of endless negotiation and whining, bargaining and passive aggression. Ditto for customs and rules about eating, study, TV, you name it. “Look,” she said, “kids are just like us: they are spending lots and lots of time and worry and sheer work trying to figure out where the limits are, so that they can know that they are behaving properly in relation to the world. If they don’t *know* where the limits are, and can’t *feel* them, in the form of pain, then they will keep pushing and pushing and pushing until they do. It’s their *job.* They can’t relax and feel happy until they understand where the limits are, so that they know they are safe within them. So, *show them the limits.* They’ll be happier, and so will you. Then, once you are all clear on the limits, you’ll be able to get on with the really fun, loving, and good business of family life – the stuff it is meant to be about in the first place.”

It made perfect sense. Even infants don’t want padding, but swaddling. So much for all the garbage we had picked up from the PC parenting books, about “creativity” and “letting young minds bloom.” We took her advice. It was like a miracle. Everyone in the house was happier, even the cats. This at the most basic level: we all got more sleep.

I look about at the chaos – moral, economic, sexual, philosophical (these being all aspects of the same basic phenomenon) – of the Boomers and their heirs, and I see the effect of generations raised with no clarity about the limits. I look at my own adult children, and see that unlike almost everyone of their generation, they are morally relaxed. Not because they or their parents are particularly good or clever, but just because we took some simple advice when they were very young. And in their confrontation with the world, this gives them confidence, an eager courage borne of the conviction that they have a good idea what is right and can do it if they choose. They know where the limits lie; and this is in no small part due to the fact that there, at those limits, their mother and I still stand, flaming swords in our hands and death in our eyes. They know goddamn well, still, that when I start counting, the last thing they want to have happen is for me to get to three.

This business of my counting to three in a voice of thunder is, paradoxically, one of their happiest childhood memories. We sit around the table and howl with laughter at their stories: “Remember the time I did x, and Daddy started counting? Oh, man, did I ever scooch my little tuckus back where it ought to be. I never found out what happened at three, but I did not want to find out the hard way. Dad, what would have happened if you had ever got to three?” At this point, they all fall silent and look at me: the smiles still wreathe their faces, but the question is serious. I never tell. Instead, I let the smile fall off my face, and in deeper tones that echo back from fathomless doom, I say, “You don’t want to know.”

They laugh, delighted. The world is still solid.

The Limit, you see, is still there. Beyond it lies chaos, the unknown. The Father is its personification; as the limit and firmament that contains the outer darkness, he is himself, potentially, death.

The essence of authority, of power, is death, and the danger thereof. The Father is the author of life – “king” comes from “kinning” – and may demand and collect it at any time – “lord” comes from “larder,” the judge who determines who shall be fed, and who cast out of the feast and into the outer darkness of banishment, where there is wailing, gnashing of teeth, and death. Our human fathers, likewise; or else they are to us no more than clowns, or fools.

The lethal power of a father is terrifying to children, when they know they have been bad. But, by the same token, it is thrilling, and comforting, for – provided their father is righteous and dutiful, is in his own life and doings ordered toward the Limit – they know that his terrific power will be deployed first in their defense and nourishment, even unto his own death – which is for them the most terrifying idea of all. The father is for children the paramount embodiment, expression and agent of the Limit, and only within his bounds may they live. Should he die before they attain adulthood, so likely will they. But should he prevail, and should they survive under his wing, then may they win through. By his blessing at their final passage from his daily care, they may know that they are themselves properly fitted to the Limit, and therefore ready to assume the awful responsibility and authority of bringing forth life, and eo ipso dealing death, and, ergo, ordering themselves righteously thereunto.

Structure, not padding.

The latter history of the West, since – when, WWI and the end of the Belle Époque? 1840? 1789? The Reformation? – has been a steady and relentless process of deleting limits, in every department of life, and the depravation of social order and moral structure this has brought about has had the natural consequence that moderns everywhere are horribly anxious. They can’t find the Limit, unless they “hit bottom” somehow. So like children they thrash about looking for it. They are more and more wild, and not in a good, hale, healthy way such as that of Chingachgook or Odysseus, who were archetypal Fathers, but in a way dissolute, desperate, disordered, precisely diseased. They rebel against the ineluctable authority of the Limit, even as they search for it and regret its absence, like a boy who aches for his dead father. The search takes the form of rebellion, of transgression. Transgression *is* a search for the Limit.

Because their dearth of sensibility to moral order – which is to say, to ontological order, to *religious* order – makes moderns so anxious, modernism is mostly about adding padding to life. Leftism, liberalism, PC, and a fortiori sexual libertinism sans consequences (so, the abortion of life, in all its ramifications): these are mostly about emotional padding for everyone, an equal distribution of insulation from the buffeting the world administers to all of us, a substitution of ever more desperate and finicky ersatz niceties of politesse for the uncomfortable realities, and a retreat from confrontation with the Limit: with the reality of death, with the rigors it imposes upon us, and with the difficult, painful choices we must therefore make.

It’s none of it any good at all, of course. The painful choices still end up being made, as they must, but more poorly than they might have been; for, we all of us hit absolute bottom in the end, one way or another. There is one question, and one only: shall we live, and so die, nobly? Or, not?

Structure, or padding. Which will it be? Without the structure, no amount of padding will suffice. It’ll all get ripped out by the Limit. We are all going to die, and when we do, we shall be judged. We shall feel the cut of the Limit. Everyone knows this, in his heart; or else, no one but saints would ever try to be good.

There is, in the final analysis, no padding. There is, only, structure. To be is to express, and to obey, some structure. To think otherwise is to disagree with reality.


[1] H/T: Bruce Charlton; accreditation: Orson Scott Card.

28 thoughts on “Life & the Limit

  1. Dear Kristor,

    When you write about children, you kind of refer to what I consider the most curious aspect of Christian thinking, in fact, even older than that, as it is also in Greek Philosophy: the idea that people will follow their own desires and the necessity to set limits for thise desires.

    The whole history of Western Civilization, I would say, Western Conservatism itself is very much limits-oriented BECAUSE it is very much desire-oriented. From Aristotle to Kirk, we assume desire, therefore, of course, we need limits to it. And of course it always means tension and often conflict. Nobody really likes to bounce back from walls, do we? It can be painful, especially to our pride.

    Looking at the simplest kinds of limits now i.e. the rightful interests of other people, don’t you see a way out from this tension by simply giving up desire (like in Buddhism) and joyfully becoming what other people need and want from us, thus bringing our motivations in line with the purpose of limits and thus not needing those limits anymore? (Other limits are still needed of course.)

    Instead of limits like “be selfish only to this extent and no further, because beyond these lines lie the rightful interests of your sibling”, can’t you try to teach them more like “be happy and develop a desire to help and benefit your sibling” ? Thus taking away this tension, this potential conflict?

    My wife and me became very good at stopping thinking like an “I” and thinking like a “we”, turning individual selfishness into group selfishness, and the result is that basically there is no need for limits between us, we just don’t negotiate with other, there is no if you do this for me I will do that for you”, no need for rules anymore, we just got the point when we instinctively do whatever at that point benefits the family as a whole best, and the only possible debate now is what is the best method, best way for maximizing common utility, so to speak. I see this as a useful step in my journey to get rid of my individuality.

    This is a big and complicated topic. One thing is clear. The more selfish we are, the stronger are our individualistic desire, the more our desires conflict with the interests of others or with other considerations, society, decency, religion, you name it, the more limits we need, thus the more tensions we suffer, the less harmony we have, and the more potential conflicts we have. Desire and limit, rebellion and authority is the core conflict of Western history.

    Western Premoderns accepted both selfish desire and limits. Moderns generally wanted to remove limits, setting desire “free”. (Quotation marks because desire and freedom are not compatible: appetite enslaves, desires tend to become addictions.)

    The Moderns were wrong but they won, by popular vote.

    So maybe it is time to reconsider, maybe the Premoderns were wrong and the proper way to handle selfish desire is not limit it the Western way, but to try to give it up altogether like the Asian way and learn to sincerely desire not what is good for me, but what is good for us, for other people, for family and society, lessening the need for limits

    (But they can never really be elminiated – good intentions are not enough for good results. Nevertheless a good intentioned man needs fewer limits than a selfish one.)

    • I mean, what I am trying to say is that by accepting both selfish desire and the need to limit it, Western Premodernity basically accepted that we always live in tension, in disharmony, torn between “I want…” and “I can’t…” Asia, or parts of her at least. always put harmony as the highest value, thus, trying to at least changing desires to desire the same thing as what the limits are trying to protect, thus bringing it into harmony: teaching people to try to not have the kinds of desires that must be limited.

      Given how Moderns destroyed Western Premodernity and thus limits, shouldn’t we give a try to that?

      But this may be hard as for some reason Western people are just more, how to put it, motivated, fiery, desiring, _restless_, almost enjoying disharmony, almost finding harmony boring, than Asians. I don’t know why.

      • Christians do not place selfish desire at the center of their philosophy, as Buddhists do. The Christian concept is known as idolatry, and covetousness can be mentioned here, but these concepts are founded on the concrete realities of God existing and leading to our accountability/property/duty. So Christians do have a tradition of denying self, as well as a tradition of selfless charity, and in the NT a tradition of voluntary communal sharing (Acts 2) but selfish desire is not more central than the logos and his creation and his glory. It is not more central than: “I AM.”

      • Interesting thoughts, Shenpen, but in the West we have a long tradition of unselfish charity and philanthropy, whereas Asia is still mired in nepotistic selfishness (see the recent posts at The Thinking Housewife on this topic). In my own extensive experience with Asians, in Asia and America, I have yet to see the desire for “what is good for us, for other people, for family and society” that Shenpen claims is found amongst Asians. For family, yes. For others, for society at large—no.

  2. Kristor, you are always generous with your reflections! Thank you for the post.

    Shenpen, how are we to know what harmony is unless we know the composition — by knowing the limits. It isn’t about setting limits to one’s selfishness; rather, it is knowing the order of the world and one’s proper role and orientation in it. Harmony is another way of describing such an order. To reach harmony, we need to know the tune that we need to sing. When such a score isn’t made available to us, we struggle through cacophony in a trial and error attempt to get the music right.

    • Thanks, Joseph. You said just what I would have, but far better than what I had been working up.

      I would add also, Shenpen, that my experience with very young children is that their basic impulse is not selfish desire but the play of love, expressed in wholly gratuitous acts of sharing. Think of the very first games your babies played. The first was probably Peek-a-boo. But I wager that the second, beginning just after they learned to sit up, was what we used to call the Giving Game. His face suffused with pleasure, baby gives a block to Mummy, and rejoices at her voluble delight thereat. She solemnly gives it back. He takes it, laughing at this tremendous joke. He gives it back to her. She reciprocates. Again they both laugh. It can go on and on.

      Often this starts in the high chair. Daddy is feeding baby. Baby takes a bite. Then, he grabs a fist of food and reaches out to put it in Daddy’s mouth. If Daddy takes it, and shows his pleasure, baby is intensely satisfied; he has achieved something Important.

      Fetch is the version of this game that we play with our dogs, using sticks instead of blocks, and ducks instead of Cheerios.

      Coinherence, Exchange, Love – and Sacrifice, typified first in the infant’s gift back to his mother of what is originally hers: these are bedded at the very core of our natures. How deep? As deep as mother love; so deep, that mammals not uncommonly sacrifice to care for the helpless young of other mammalian species.

      To love – to will the good of others – is our most natural way of acting. The Summary of the Law is a summary of the way of being that is normal to our natures as they are first created; in commanding us to obey it, Jesus commands us to return to the innocent virtue of childhood, and of Eden.

      But note that love prerequires clear relations of dominance. The baby is under no illusion about the natural superiority and authority of his parents, or of his much older siblings or other relatives (or even senior pets). Nor is his natural subjection to his seniors a source of irritation to him; on the contrary, it is a source of immense comfort, the very foundation of his quotidian adventures. Where such clarity is lacking, relations are confused, and thus troubled (viz., modern marriage or democracy).

      Sooner or later then comes along some relation that is not so easy for baby to parse. It is then that he must try by pushing to discern the limit that is not obviously given by circumstances. It is then that one begins to hear cries of “Mine!” or “Bad!” It is then that the parent must make a particular, conscious effort to clarify the limit: to give Law. Only when the Limit has been somehow given is harmony achievable.

  3. Wonderful reflections on an important topic. Helpful, too, as I deal with my young children. Although my daughter has had to learn the hard way, repeatedly, what happens when Daddy gets to three, my son (who is younger than his sister) picked up on it the first time it was directed towards him. I don’t think I’ve ever had to get to three with him.

    The etymology of lord is not as you give it, however. As can be confirmed with The Online Etymology Dictionary, lord comes from

    hlafweard, literally “one who guards the loaves,” from hlaf “bread, loaf” (see loaf (n.)) + weard “keeper, guardian”

    Incidentally, larder comes from Latin lardarium “a room for meat,” from lard “lard, bacon.”

    None of this substantially alters your argument, of course.

    • Huh. It was that etymology on which I was relying. My assumption was that the keeper of the loaves was the keeper of the larder, where they were kept. The lord, then, is in charge of the rationing and distribution of food to the members of the household. It never occurred to me to look up larder, once I learned that the loafward was in charge of regulating food.

      If the larder is the room for meat, then the pantry must be the room for bread. These days, of course, we keep everything everywhere: in the cupboard, the freezer, the fridge, as well as in the pantry, the larder, and the cellars.

      Interestingly, this all ties back to the tradition that the lord of the house is also the high priest of the household. As loafward, the patriarch is given the offerings of food – game from the forest, wine from the vinyard, bread from the fields – consecrates the offering to the god, and shares out the food. The first fruits go to the god, and then the rest is distributed to the household. Thus, grace at meals and the Mass as a means of grace.

      Love these old connections.

      • I’ve always mentally rendered hlafweard as “bread guard,” as that most accurately reflects the Old English meanings of hlaf & weard. I avoid “ward” as it can refer to “the one who is guarded,” as in “Bruce Wayne’s youthful ward, Dick Grayson.” Then again, the “guard” meaning is preserved in words like warden.

        As reflected in lines such as “give us this day our daily bread,” bread once meant “piece of food”; hlaf (modern loaf) was the Old English word for what we call “bread.” Since a piece of hlaf accompanied most every meal, the semantic shift is pretty straightforward: “piece of food” > “piece of a specific food” > “that specific food.”

        An early Germanic form from the same root as weard was borrowed into Old French and got a g added to the beginning (because [gw]- was the closest Romance languages could get to the word-initial [w] sound of English); later, the descendant of that Old French word was borrowed into English as guard. This w- > gw- (spelled “gu”) transmogrification happened more than once, accounting for not only ward/guard, but also doublets such as warranty/guarantee. Less obvious but still from the same process: war/guerilla; cf. Italian, Spanish guerra, French guerre ‘war.’

        Sorry for getting off topic.

  4. I have bickering kids. I would love to hear concrete examples of limits on bickering kids. E.g. Micromanaging. When Kid A tries to micromanage and play “Mommy,” entirely unnecessarily, to Kid B, and Kid B complains, one scarcely knows whom to punish. Repeatedly, I find myself saying, “_____, stop micromanaging your sister. _____, technically, she’s right, you weren’t supposed to do that.” Or “_____, you’re over-reacting. You’re not really hurt. _____, you did bump into her pretty hard. Please try to be a little more considerate.” This business of playing Solomon only seems to make them worse, however. At least it doesn’t make them any better. After all, they can never be _completely_ sure on whom Mom’s censure will fall more harshly, because Mom is always trying so hard to acknowledge, to a perfect T, the truth on both sides of the case. So they seem to figure they might as well keep nagging each other, managing each other, and pushing each other around, metaphorically and literally. Putting limits on it is extremely difficult. Usually it happens only when I’m at my most frazzled: “If I hear one more word of bickering between the two of you, you will both be punished. I don’t want to know what it’s about.” Usually I’m too conscientious to take that route, however.

    • Your penultimate sentence describes a pretty good solution. Kids, you can bicker, but if I catch you at it, for any reason, you will both be sitting in the penalty box for quite a while, no matter what the details of the case. So, go ahead and bicker if you each want to spend half a day in the penalty box. If you then decide that you *both* want also to pay the legal and court fees for adjudication at Mommy court, be my guest; any sentence there handed down will be *in addition* to your time in the penalty box and your half of the legal and court fees.

      Penalty box for us was the kids’ rooms, on their beds. When I was a kid, it was the bottom stair. We dreaded sitting on the stair. Boredom is almost the worst thing you can do to a kid.

      My mother loved to tell the story of how she once heard my little sister, three, screaming and weeping, and hustled toward where we had been playing together to see what was wrong. As she went, she heard me whisper to my sister, “Shhh! Be quiet or Mom will come, and then we will have to sit on the stairs.” Upon which, my sister *instantly stopped wailing and weeping,* whispered back, “OK – let’s play,” whereupon we quickly settled down again to our business. Happily. My mother tiptoed away, grinning. She never told any of us that story until we were parents ourselves. When she did, I remembered the event, and my gratitude to my sister, and how to show my appreciation I was super nice to her as we played.

      As to your specific problem of micromanaging, we had a simple rule: You’re not the boss of me. Mommy and Daddy are the boss of me. The only exception was when we officially and publicly deputized an older child to manage a younger sib, for a specified period. Such deputizations always came in the following form: “I hereby temporarily devolve upon you the responsibility of caring for your sister, and protecting her life with yours. This is a high privilege, and a heavy duty. Exercise your authority wisely, as Solomon would have. Do as little as you can to keep her safe, but at all costs keep her safe. I hereby charge and command, etc.” They were accompanied by an instruction to the ward, that she was to obey our deputy to a fault. We made it clear that if any injustice occurred during the term of the deputization, on either side, the heat of my rage would cause me to glow (although never to explode). Somehow we never had any trouble. My daughter loved to mother her little brother – she called herself his little Mommy – but they got on famously, and still do. She would be “bossy in the game,” but not for real.

    • PS: Once you decide to enforce the limits as an implacable tyrant, it should take only one or two infractions for your kids to ascertain that you mean business. After that it should be clear sailing, if they are at all rational. Again, it’s their *job* to discern whether or not you do mean what you say, and thus what the limits *really* are (whatever you might have said about them). So, once you announce the new regime, you may expect to be tested, and you should plan to follow through, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel.

      Also, this sort of change in the basic ground rules of the house is likely to come as a pretty rude shock to your kids. It should be announced formally, in a family meeting. I think it important that the husband, as the official executioner of the household, make the announcement, but on behalf of both parents: “your mother and I have decided, etc.” Children are smart, and it will help them understand this new way of doing business if you explain the rationale quite candidly: everyone will be happier if limits are clear, simple, and solid.

      Finally, it would probably grease the skids on the launch if you queried the kids about what areas were unclear to them, where they thought it would be good to have some rules, and invited them to make suggestions. Just don’t extend them any political authority.

  5. In sum, people are miserable because they are free.

    I often used the “one, two, three” method, and I never got to three, not even once. It was like an announcement of a nuclear strike coming. They always jumped on “one” and were busy as my “two” trailed off. What’s funny to me is that they have never found out what happens when I get to three!

  6. Very nice piece. I am guessing that you were riffing on the piece by Orson Scott Card I excerpted on my blog?

    What came out of reading this was your comments about death as the limit.

    This is, indeed, an extremely padded limit nowadays. The mainstream secular belief that death is an absolute end means, in practice, we cannot think about it at all – because to think about it you need to be able to think both sides of it.

    When death is a void, then it becomes something we must not get close to, in case we fall in sooner than we otherwise might.

    Maybe for a limit to work needs to know that there is something real on the other side – even if that is something real you don’t at all want to experience, even if you don’t know what that reality is – you don’t know what would happen if the count actually got to three… it is not that you think ‘nothing-ness/ void’ would happen, but that something very bad you don’t want to experience would happen.

    In this sense a belief in the afterlife is apparently necessary – even if that belief is (as for the pagans) a belief in a horrible, ghostly, shadowy, partial world of Hades, Sheol – the underworld.

    A limit is a line of abrupt transition.

    • Aha! So *that* is where I picked up that aphorism. I’d been wracking my brains trying to remember, and finally gave up. It never occurred to me, of course, to google the phrase … not because I’m such a troglodyte, but because *I couldn’t remember even that I had encountered it online.* See, it’s cause I’m old. Too much to remember …

      I shall edit the post this instant to add a tip of the hat to you, and an attribution to the redoubtable Mr. Card.

      Your discussion of death is intriguing. I do think it follows rather directly from the subject of the post. You are right, I think: if there is nothing at all outside the limit, sheer unadulterated nothingness, then there is no way to get to it, is there? I mean, if you punch through the limit and there is only nothingness, then *you can’t punch through the limit;* because, if you did, then you wouldn’t exist anymore to be outside the limit. But in that case, the limit isn’t a limit; there is, then, no limit, and one may do as one pleases, without let or hindrance.

  7. @Kristor, shenpen

    The notion of transforming one’s desires to be in harmony with reality does not strike me as at all alien to Christianity, even if it’s a less common understanding. Consider George Macdonald on how to understand God’s commands or prohibitions (emphasis mine):

    We must not answer ‘Because the Lord says so.’ It is because the Lord says so that the man is inquiring after some help to obey. No man can love his neighbour merely because the Lord says so. The Lord says so because it is right and necessary and natural, and the man wants to feel it thus right and necessary and natural. Although the Lord would be pleased with any man for doing a thing because he said it, he would show his pleasure by making the man more and more dissatisfied until he knew why the Lord had said it.

    He would make him see that he could not in the deepest sense — in the way the Lord loves — obey any command until he saw the reasonableness of it. Observe I do not say the man ought to put off obeying the command until he see its reasonableness: that is another thing quite, and does not lie in the scope of my present supposition.

    This seems to me to combine the points made by shenpen and Kristor quite neatly: perfect happiness consists of desiring to do good and doing it; duty consists of doing good whether or not you desire to.

    On the other hand, there is indeed a question I haven’t resolved — what is the proper understanding of perverse (sinful) desire? Do our desires have some underlying reason, such that there is a corresponding good in God’s Heaven that properly satisfies each of them, while our sin is rooted in having deceived ourselves that our desires’ satisfaction can be found (more easily, we think) in the wrong place, the wrong time, in a manner contrary to the will of God? Or do there exist purely evil desires, so that they can never be satisfied according to the Logos, and the only way of ‘transforming’ such a desire is to get rid of it entirely? I could argue for and against both.

    • I believe Kristor addressed this recently here and I could find little disagreement, but sinful desire is often the result of simple error. A better understanding of the Order of Being would result in a sinful desire falling into its proper light, and can then be overcome perhaps without conditioning or bondage. I have seen this happen to myself: As I have learned more about the true nature of men and women and especially the glory of God’s creation, I find myself less interested in sexual immorality, and more interested in my wife. Even as a protestant I have begun to see things about sex acts which Catholics are legend obsessing over. Natural law is neat. But sometimes a person needs conditioning or bondage to avoid sin. Pluck out yer eye, cut off yer hand.

      By the way, I reject the notion that anything is naturally good beyond what God has ordained. I disagree with Macdonald. This seems to set up the notion that the good is higher than God, and that God is bound to do The Good, therefore lowering his status as supreme sovereign. This is what perhaps leads to your irresolution and your conjecture that there is perhaps An Evil which cannot be physically accounted for. I see that God comes before good and evil, and that whatever he says, goes- and there is little else stabilizing his dealings with us outside his promises which he will not break, according to his character.

      • “A better understanding of the Order of Being would result in a sinful desire falling into its proper light, and can then be overcome perhaps without conditioning or bondage. I have seen this happen to myself.”

        Yes, I have had similar experiences, which is what raised the question for me.

        On the other hand, frequently I experience strong desire for highly specific goods and experiences which _do not exist_ on Earth; at all. Because I have no clue how to fulfil these desires, they are not a temptation — except perhaps in potential, if I am deceived into thinking there is some way to vicariously satisfy them. (e.g. There is a lot of stuff in New Age that would claim to provide. All well worth ignoring in my opinion. But I can imagine an alternate history wherein I fall prey to gurus promising otherworldly visions.)

        But to sum up, the instruction seems to be uncontroversial: if you understand your desire and can direct it to its proper God-ordained object, do that; if you don’t understand why you have a desire, and following it is a defilement to your conscience, cut it off.

        “By the way, I reject the notion that anything is naturally good beyond what God has ordained. I disagree with Macdonald. This seems to set up the notion that the good is higher than God, and that God is bound to do The Good, therefore lowering his status as supreme sovereign.”

        Because God _is_ the Good, you are setting up a false dichotomy here. Obviously God is bound to do the things which are of God; not even God can both do and not-do a thing. And because God is the Good, all the things He does are in a relation and harmony, which we can either perceive or fail to perceive; but if we fail to perceive it, that is our problem. It does not mean the harmony is not there.

        I suppose another way to say this is: God is the Logos, the source of all meaning in the world, and everything He does is meaningful. (Surely you would not assert that God can do something that is meaningless?) Reason is the faculty by which the mind perceives meaning; but a reason that perceives something contrary to God’s meaning, or perceives as meaningless what God ordains, is short of perfection; perfection would consist in perceiving what God ordains as meaningful.

        And doctrines such as the Beatific Vision suggest that such perfection is meaningful to hope for, even if it is something that is only attained in Heaven. But then, in any particular instance, it strikes me as acceptable to take Macdonald’s attitude: to do whatever God ordains whether or not you understand the purpose for it, at the some time seeking to understand the purpose of God’s decrees….

    • On the other hand, there is indeed a question I haven’t resolved — what is the proper understanding of perverse (sinful) desire? Do our desires have some underlying reason, such that there is a corresponding good in God’s Heaven that properly satisfies each of them, while our sin is rooted in having deceived ourselves that our desires’ satisfaction can be found (more easily, we think) in the wrong place, the wrong time, in a manner contrary to the will of God?

      Yes. Leave out the question mark, and that’s almost a paraphrase of Aquinas. We can desire only what is good; and we can err in that.

      Or do there exist purely evil desires, so that they can never be satisfied according to the Logos, and the only way of ‘transforming’ such a desire is to get rid of it entirely?

      Yes; sort of. An errant desire for a true good cannot be truly satisfied under the Logos, because the order of being will contravene its satisfaction. It is a desire for what cannot be achieved: you can’t perfectly satisfy a desire for an objective state of affairs that contravenes the Divine Will. This is why sin always leaves us either hungry, or sad.

      And, to transform a defective desire into a perfect desire *just is* to destroy the sinful desire. No man can serve two masters; you can’t have your cake and eat it too. When a man finds himself more interested in virtuous relations with his wife than in immorality, what has happened is that the immoral desire has been deleted from his mental economy, or is at least on its way out, to be replaced by the virtuous desire.

  8. When my sister visited Oswego back in November, we had a conversation about our common high-school experience. Among those whom we remembered was the high-school driving instructor, who never ceased to urge that the main rule of the road was, “stay in your lane.” Denise and I decided that this was actually one of the most fundamental lessons of our entire education. One could say with justification that one of the intolerable features of liberal modernism is that no one bothers to stay in his lane.

    The driver code is a good symbol of “structure.”

  9. It seems like early experiences with orderly limits form children’s ability to limit and control their own behavior as adults.

    But I have to ask: how is it that you are all getting this one-two-three thing to actually work?! Am I the only one who is having to say things like “Two and fifteen-sixteenths…you’d better do it right now before I get to three, I’m really serious…okay, two and sixteen-seventeenths, I mean it this time“? My husband never counts and they always obey him right away. With me they just figure they’ve got an extra 3-6 seconds to keep up the horrid behavior before they actually have to comply.

    • My daughter tested “three”—many, many times. She was a slow learner, but now hops into action no later than “two.” My son picked up on it right away, and I seldom need to say “two” with him.

      To solve your problem, I suggest you surprise your children and actually get to “three.” Then you have to make your punishment swift, certain, and draconian. They will get the picture.

      I’m pleased to say that I haven’t had to resort to that in a long time—but it’s only because I was willing to put up with a mewling and miserable child (temporary discomfort) to get an obedient, happy child (long-term benefit).

  10. Setting limits for children is one thing. But the basis of modern thought is the testing of limits not blind adherence to them. Although Odysseus returns home to set his house in order, he does not strike me as respecter of limits but an explorer.

    • No one said anything about blindness being a desideratum. Nor did I suggest that we ought not to test our limits; indeed, as the therapist pointed out to me and my wife, testing limits is *our job;* it is what we do by nature, as our first order of business. If you are going to live safely on the plateau, you have to explore it so that you can learn to recognize when you are close to the cliff that defines it.

      If they are to last very long out beyond the pale, explorers have to be more alive to the limits than those who remain at home.

      • Thanks for your reply. So why, in your opinion, can’t modern people find the inescapable limits?

      • One of the key tenets of modernism is that limits are only a social construct – that they are not real, but only an instrument of social control, of oppression. So moderns teach their children that they can define their own limits, and encourage them to transgress. I have heard only one commencement address out of about a dozen that did not urge the graduates to disregard what their elders told them and go out into the world to make of it what they would – to invent their own reality. The exceptional address that urged the importance of tradition and realism over idealistic progressivism was given by a classicist.

        How did moderns get this crazy idea that there are no given limits? They have not yet hit bottom.

  11. I would interpret those commencement addresses to be telling young people to experiment in order to discover reality rather than assuming that their elders were correct. You call it inventing their own reality. Since discovery is an ongoing process there is some truth to your version: everyone invents their own version of reality as they discover a bit more of what is there. But that’s a good thing whereas you think it involves the ignorance of historical truth, revelation or perhaps simply common sense.

    All adventurers run risks but some apprentice with the pros and make sure they are well-equipped before they set out naively into dangerous territory. You’re saying that modern adventurers are reckless. Thanks again.

    • You’re welcome.

      I agree that it would be rather obtuse to advise graduates to be hidebound, timid or old-fashioned. One wants each new generation to add its own voice to the performance of the patrimony to which they have presumably been introduced by their education. One wants them to be courageous – courage being an aspect of prudence, which entails a due respect for the limits.

      But there is a big difference between honoring and developing a patrimony on the one hand, and on the other dismissing it altogether as irrelevant, wholly superseded, worthless – as, in fact, both wicked and false. The advice one routinely hears at graduation ceremonies, in my experience, tends rather toward the latter. I have literally heard young men and women urged by their elders to *pay no attention to their elders.* The irony was exquisite.


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