Some habits can be relatively benign, even when addictive: caffeine, the athlete’s highs, haute cuisine, tidiness. A benign addiction to coffee can tend to its own daily limit, where the marginal cup of coffee decreases the sought after acuity of thought that motivated the habit in the first place. And you can only run so many miles every day without crippling your ability to run.
Some habits – as prayer, music, discipline, training, courage, thoughtfulness, care, attention, gratitude – are virtuous, and incline us more and more to virtue in every department of life. Virtue is in itself, and in all its varieties, an addictive pleasure, that tends to the general increase of virtue and to the correction, harmony and vim of the whole organism. The virtuous addiction to prayer, for example, tends to permeate life, integrating, settling, and healing it.
Benign addictions then are self-limiting, while virtuous addictions salve and ennoble the whole person, more and more. Both sorts tend toward balance, toward what the Greeks called krasis – the just mixture of ingredients in a mixing bowl or Receptacle (a krater).
But many addictions catch the addict in a vicious positive feedback loop wherein ever stronger doses of the addictive pleasure are needed in order to reproduce its characteristic hedonic effect. Eventually the doses, and the need for them, grow so large as to be all-consuming, toxic, and so eventually lethal, somehow or other: to the body, the balance sheet, the career, the family.
Such cycles of vitiation are often explained by recourse to the acclimation of the nervous system to a given dose of the addictive pleasure. But this is like ascribing the sleep produced by laudanum to the drug’s dormitive virtue. The acclimation of the nervous system to a given dose is explanandum, not explanans. It is just a different way of specifying the phenomenon to be investigated. The nervous system does indeed grow acclimated to a repeated dose, but this is only to say that the dose no longer scratches the itch it once scratched, and that itched before there was ever a scratch – the very thing we sought first to understand.
Whence the original itch? What is it that the nervous system seeks, and cannot for long find in its accustomed pleasures? Again likewise, satiety is the preferred explanation of the parsimonious. The nervous system homeostatically seeks that state of its own affairs wherein all its state variables lie within the tolerances of their genetically programmed target or reference ranges – when there is enough blood sugar and oxygen, the hormones and neurotransmitters are all in proper balance, cognitive dissonance and perplexity hover below the threshold of intolerable anxiety, and so forth: krasis, i.e. But it won’t do: satiety, too, or rather the want thereof, is a dormitive virtue explanation. When we say that a circuit in the brain craves ever greater doses of Percodan in order to achieve its own satiety, we have again done no more than to restate the phenomenon: addictions can enslave the addict to a vicious cycle.
The question of why the addict requires ever larger doses is really the same as the question why he felt motivated to take his very first dose: what is it that he is seeking, and cannot find in life without his fix? Never mind the last fatal injection of heroin: why bother to take the first? The question is the same either way.
Pain, then, perhaps. Percodan is a perfect case in point. People get addicted to it in the first place because it is prescribed to palliate their excruciation. We often indulge in pleasures to mask pain that cannot be ameliorated at its root.
But again, pain too is a recursion to dormitive virtue. The parsimonious parse pain as being only what it feels like when an important state variable of the nervous system strays far outside its target range. OK, fine. But that’s not the question. What we really want to know is, why do they thus stray?
The answer is often – perhaps usually – that life is chancy, and difficult, and inherently painful. Whether or not this is responsive, it is true. After all, we are in the first place homeostatic systems that can respond to environmental stressors only because the stressors are really out there, and would destroy us if we could not counter them intelligently. If there were no such stressors, we would not need to be homeostatic. We get messed up, then, because life is just a mess.
But notice that a recourse to disorder, to messiness and ill chance as the reason of our discomfitures, is still missing the point: namely, that if there is a point to life, which in missing we feel pain – to which we may respond either virtuously, or by turning to this or that vice – then what is that point? Pain makes sense only as an index of failure or defect of some good, no? Pain as mere insatiety – the lack of good – begs the main question: What is that good?
Furthermore, why do the good things of life, however truly good they may be, fail at the last to satiate that deep hunger within us? Why do we seek always something more than the good things we have already achieved? Why is there never enough money to set avarice to rest, never enough food to sate gluttony, never enough titillation to dull the bitter nagging prick of lust? Where in life is there heartsease, full, complete, lasting, and sufficient?
A merely this-worldly philosophy cannot begin to answer this question – but nor can it do without some answer. Things all seek their proper ends; it is this regularity that founds all science, of all sorts. Thought about the reasons of things cannot then even get started except by a prior implicit presupposition that there is an answer – i.e., that there is a reason of things out there to be understood – and that it operates pervasively in the world. It cannot do without the Good, for you cannot get any subsidiary goods, or any regular urges toward their realization, except in virtue of the Category of the Good, and of its palmary exemplar.
Secular thinkers abjure the Good, but then smuggle it – or rather, him – into their models, using monikers like “strange attractors,” “equilibrium,” “least path,” “lowest potential energy,” “reference signal,” “solution space,” “fitness,” “parsimony,” “elegance,” and so forth. Such smuggles all invoke the Good without admitting to any indication of him. They satisfy the inquiring mind only because they presuppose the Good, as all talk of values must, but without any recognition of that his reality, which is so fundamental to all their analyses.
If there is no God, there is no explanation.
Why then are we insatiable? Because he has so made us all his creatures that we may find our complete and proper rest only in him. Since he is himself the highest Good, of which all other goods are participations, how could it be otherwise?
Notice then that the Good is infinite. There is a zero of goodness in nonbeing – conceptually, at least, if not possibly in fact – but no maximum. So our rest is to be found only at our accession to infinite Good. Anything less is bound to fail us, and indeed soon to irk, and crank.
So any pursuit of goodness in its subsidiary forms is doomed, unless it be seen and met properly, as a participation in the Good. And there is no way to form a coherent concept of a thing except by treating it that way. For, a thing that is not somehow a means of Grace is in the final analysis utterly meaningless, signifying nothing, pointing to nothing, working nothing. If such a thing were somehow to exist, it would be formless, and so utterly unintelligible, by any mind. It would spell complete epistemological defeat. But there can be no such thing: it is impossible to be utterly formless, and empty of meaning; only nonbeing can be utterly without meaning, and nonbeing cannot be actualized. So all things are participations of the Good, and their goodness all derivative of his. No creaturely good is good in and of itself, but only insofar as has its source, being and end in God.
We pursue subsidiary goods nonetheless, like maniacs, as if they were sufficient unto themselves. The Good in such goods cannot be altogether extirpated from our awareness. If it could, we wouldn’t want them at all, and would simply cease. Nevertheless the more we pursue subsidiary goods as our ultimate ends, and instead of the Good himself in whom they all subsist and live, the more are we bound to miserable errant idolatrous slavery – to vicious addiction.
It’s a fantastic, absurd misprision.
Only in God may we find satiety, for only in him, and by his Grace, can our infinite alienation from him be healed. All other activities are in themselves bootless, and leave us soon empty, craving ever more. They do not answer. They cannot. So men who are nowise bound toward Heaven are nowise bound together, at all, and fall soon apart. They scratch and scratch and scratch, harder and harder, and their itch is never relieved. In the limit, they rend and tear in pieces the living flesh that maddens them by its wild urges – their own, or that of a suitable scapegoat, or of their fellows and familiars, till the whole polis turns upon itself enraged.
And this is why the economy – the material outworking of the morality of society – of avowedly secular man is bound to devolve ever more and more into wickedness and futility, to addiction, foolishness, falsehood and frippery, to vice and depravity, and so to disease, morbidity and death. Whatever the particulars of its political and economic order, a society of merely secular and thus morally rudderless men must inevitably tend to their dissolution, and so to its own. Whether they live in an ostensibly free society or not, and howsoever they reckon their own freedoms, wicked men will choose wickedness. Their utility functions will be whacked, and so the invisible hand will conduct them and their polis into the pit, and by their own preferences, no matter what is written in their laws, or who interprets or enforces them, or how.
Law is a wonderful thing, but it cannot make up what is lacking in the customs – the moral habits – of a wicked people, or repair their depredations. So all artificial utopian schemes of reform must founder, that have not grown organically and without conscious direction from the soil of a repentance and metanoia general among men.
Mere policy can never do the trick. The only way out of the vicious spiral is the conversion and re-enchantment of life, in all its departments, by a vision of its transcendent meaning. To be at all effective, this vision must be more than compelling and beautiful and ennobling. It must be all those things, yes; but it cannot be any of those things, unless it is first of all true, so that men can see its truth, as plain as the sun in the sky. In no other way can it seem the least bit credible, or attractive.
Only insofar as they are enlightened by such a vision can men understand the quotidian decisions by which they knit their lives as either meaningful or important, or as capable of achieving real goods. Only thus can the desires of men be ordered to their proper goods, so that their utility functions are not whacked, and they make preponderantly good and virtuous decisions. Only insofar as men are themselves internally ordered by a true common cult can their society be a culture ordered by a way, an order, a tradition, that aligns with the Order of Being, so that their political and economic institutions actually work as they should, to help men live well, and virtuously. Only thus may the way of men be a fit subsidiary of the Way of Heaven, durable and indeed prosperous under the tremendous relentless assaults of the sky, as being rightly reckoned and meetly ordered thereto.
I do not mean to argue that a culture founded upon the true cult proper to man will certainly be righteous. Even Israel, chosen and blessed of the Lord and his beloved bride, has in all her dispensations often played the harlot. But I do mean to argue that any culture founded elsewhere is not in the end founded at all, and simply cannot be righteous; so that it must soon and more and more fail, and falter; must dwindle, and eventually disappear.