Daredevil Morality and the Neighbor Problem

Drawing toward the end of the Our Father, as you well know, we petition God to “lead us not into temptation.” We make this request because we know that temptation is not, as geographers like to say, ubiquitous. Its properties and potencies vary from place to place. In one place temptation is as faint and tenuous as wood smoke from a distant chimney, in another as overpowering and lethal as a cloud of mustard gas.

In asking God to “lead us not into temptation,” we also acknowledge our weakness, our inability to withstand temptation that is sufficiently strong and specially tuned to our own peculiar hungers and hankerings. We can hold up to a whiff of wood smoke, but will go down before a cloud of mustard gas.

Any man who would remain righteous must remember these two things: temptation is not ubiquitous and he himself is weak. And with these things in mind, he directs his steps accordingly.

Except, of course, when he doesn’t. For even when God obliges, and leads a man not into temptation, but directs him to the path of righteous, he will take himself to temptation with all the whistling alacrity of a lecher loping to an assignation. He drools when he gets a whiff of mustard gas!

But, as I said, the better part of virtue is to know the limits of one’s strength and to stay within those limits. The man with a weakness for gluttony should not test his power of restraint by packing his refrigerator with cakes and ice cream. The man with a weakness for wrath should not seek out the company of men who get on his nerves. The man with a weakness for another man’s wife should not contrive to find her in a solitary spot.

Except, of course, when they don’t. For each man is weak before blandishments that test his own peculiar weakness. He is not only easily tempted, but also easily tempted into temptation.   If we liken the occasions of his special weakness to a lantern, we may liken him to a careening moth.

If there is such a thing as a prudent father moth, and if such moths impart to their children precious pearls of lepidopeteratic wisdom, it seems that to give the widest possible berth to flame of every sort would be among those pearls. “If you see one flickering far off in the distance, fly away my little ones, fly away.” Every prudent father moth must say something of this sort.

We needn’t concern ourselves with imprudent father moths, who impart nothing but lepidopeteratic folly. My Coleman lantern is speckled with the crisp remains of their offspring.

But to push this fable just a bit farther, I ask you to imagine a strutting moth, a sort of dusty daredevil, who is able to plunge toward a flame, but then veer away at the last instant. Being a vain and self-satisfied creature, this daredevil moth tells his eager children that, although he has no desire to see them reduced to crisp remains, there is something low and cowardly in a moth that seeks safety in the gloomy recesses of the forest. “The trick, little ones, is to circle the flame,” he will say. “Best of all, singe your wings.”

Now it seems to me that there is a sort of daredevil moralist among men, whose counsel resembles that of the strutting moth. Sin, he agrees, is very bad; but only somewhat better is fastidious avoidance of the occasions of sin. For in daredevil morality, moral excellence is demonstrated by direct and unmediated combat between temptation and the naked will. Moral merit is not earned in the shadows of the woods, but in the searing corona of a flame.

A prudent man with a weakness for drink will avoid occasions of insobriety. He will keep no liquor in his cupboard and will decline invitations to revels. But this is not enough for daredevil morality because he has not put his will to the test. He has leaned on the crutch of physical isolation. Daredevil morality demands that his cupboards groan under the weight of liquor bottles (for the benefit of thirsty guests), and that he roister until midnight (although on nothing but lemonade). For perfection, it might ask him to hold a tumbler of whiskey, occasionally raising it to his nose, sniffing its aroma, and then shaking his head with a rueful smile. Only then would his naked will have passed the ultimate test of daredevil morality.

We Christians are under an injunction to “love our neighbors.” It is an important duty, most especially in the eyes of non-Christians, who cry out with the vehemence of a tent-revival preacher when they detect this delinquency in one of us. “Oh you wicked child of perdition,” they roar, defining neighbor and love in surprising ways.

It seems to me that a prudent man who aims to keep this commandment will choose his neighbors with care, for he knows that he is weak, and there are many people whom it is exceedingly hard to love. He will not take up residence amidst the human counterparts of skunks and snakes and weasels and swine. He will avoid the sin of misanthropy by avoiding occasions of misanthropy. “Show me a philanthropist,” he says to himself, “and I will show you a man who has led a sheltered life.”

“Fie on that,” cries the daredevil moralist. “Love has no merit unless it blossoms on the threshold of hate.” Well, to tell the truth, that is not quite how he would say it, but the way he would say it comes to the same thing. A man is not truly “loving his neighbor,” daredevil morality maintains, unless the neighbor he loves is the most grating, vexatious and unpleasant neighbor he can find. Or, as the world is presently constituted, can find him.

This is folly. Hatred is a sin, and the prudent man treats it as such. This means that he knows that the temptation to hatred is not ubiquitous and that he himself is weak. He directs his steps accordingly.

20 thoughts on “Daredevil Morality and the Neighbor Problem

  1. Pingback: Daredevil Morality and the Neighbor Problem | Neoreactive

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  3. This is great! ‘Course I only think so because it is precisely the kind of advice I give my “little ones.” I also strive to reinforce the principles by example. That’s right, my morality is the cowardly kind. But I prefer “a wise man knows his own limitations.”

  4. Yes, but your analogy fails somewhat, where it speaks as if every temptation is a matter so cut and dry as a moth being incinerated by a flame. We should avoid all avoidable, near occasions of sin. This is obvious. But we also have moral duties that bring us into the thick of things, that require us to face tasks and obligations that involve moral difficulties and pitfalls.

    A disappointment of mine with many modern-day Christians is that they ignore the Patristic teaching that the virtues are an integral whole. Charity without prudence and fortitude is not charity. Fortitude without temperance and justice is not fortitude. Etc. In our day, we tend to prefer offering up a sham version of the most easily-imitated virtue: charity. It’s not easy to fake being temperate, or being wise, or being stalwart, or being just. It is easier to pretend to have faith, hope and love. So, these are what we pretend to have, and we advance a optimistically feckless feel-goodery, unencumbered by the difficult moderation of the more palpable virtues. Also, many modern Christians fail to distinguish between the Evangelical Counsels and the Commandments. They mistake Jesus’ advice for the most rapid path to personal, spiritual perfection, as though it were advice for the State, or advice for the married man with children, who has chosen a less perfect path and therefore has duties towards his wards which he would not have if he were entirely free. The monk, the hermit, the single man, yes: let them love their enemies to the point of taking no care for their life or the losses they incur. Let laity imitate this as far as possible; and indeed, if it comes down to having to choose between Christ and even their own wives and children, let them choose Christ and consider the loss of their family to be gain for Christ’s sake. But let no husband or wife, or king or magistrate, think that they are allowed to ignore the moral obligations they have to defend others, to put the commonweal first, and therefore to be less free in their self-renunciation when it would come at a price to someone besides themselves. The virtues are an integral whole. We face many moral challenges in observing all of our moral obligations, properly, together.

    If one has a duty to work near the flame, or if the flame is coming towards one’s self uninvited, simply fleeing the flame is worthless advice. That would in fact be cowardice and moral failure. Virtue lies in the balance between two vices, two excesses, as St. Thomas and all of Tradition teach us. One sins very much by hating his enemies on a personal level, wishing them ill and spiritual death. One also sins very much by “loving” his enemies without any regard for prudence, fortitude, justice, etc. One can love his enemy while he burns him at the stake; one can hate his enemy while he gives him the kiss of peace at Holy Mass. Modernity is noted for its superficial appraisals of such matters.

    • Certainly life will often require a man to pass through one temptation in order to avoid another, more serious temptation. In other words, one must often run the risk of sinning on one way in order to bypass the risk of sinning in another. But to do this is not to engage in what I call daredevil morality, since the moral daredevil runs risk for its own sake. Or, to be more precise, because he believes it raises him to a higher level of moral excellence. But your general point, that lived morality must be integrated, is entirely correct.

  5. Now it seems to me that there is a sort of daredevil moralist among men, whose counsel resembles that of the strutting moth. Sin, he agrees, is very bad; but only somewhat better is fastidious avoidance of the occasions of sin. For in daredevil morality, moral excellence is demonstrated by direct and unmediated combat between temptation and the naked will. Moral merit is not earned in the shadows of the woods, but in the searing corona of a flame.

    Indeed. Contrast this with Frank Meyer:

    The conservatives of the last century were sound in their fundamental philosophical position, upholding the objective existence of values based upon the unchanging constitution of being as the criteria for moral thought and action. They staunchly held the line against the assault of utilitarianism, positivism and scientism, but, on another level they failed philosophically, deeply misreading the nature of man. They would not or they could not see the correlative to their fundamental philosophical position: acceptance of the moral authority derived by transcendent criteria of truth and good must be voluntary if it is to have meaning; if it is coerced by human force, it is meaningless. They were willing, if only the right standards were upheld, to accept an authoritarian structure of state and society. They were, at the best, indifferent to Freedom in the body politic; at the worst, its enemies . . . .the glory of man’s being is that he is free to choose good or evil, truth or error

    • From God’s point of view, sure. One only gets credit for moral goodness if it is voluntary.

      But in the public sphere, in civil society, the commonweal is not obliged to wait for such voluntarism from problem elements. As St. Paul states in the Scriptures, the State does not bear the Power of the Sword for nothing. That’s New Testament teaching, and thoroughly born out by the Universal, Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and the Patristic Tradition. It is not at all “meaningless” to defend order and justice and truth, even at the point of a barrel, against people who aren’t keen to volunteer to be decent chaps. This is a central reason why the sovereign, armed power exists in the first place. Absolutely, attempt to persuade people and increase voluntary mortality as much as possible. But, let’s not imitate the Leftists in their utopianism.

      • I don’t agree at all with the former statement. If I fail to commit a mortal sin because you stop me and only because you stop me, I am not damned. Because I didn’t commit the sin. Meyer is a grotesque monster. Methodological individualism is problematic, at best. Meyer casually assumes it, as if it were self-evident.

      • Scripture and Tradition teach us that the intent to commit mortal sin is itself mortal sin, even if we are prevented from carrying it through by mere circumstance.

      • If one desires to commit a mortal sin, if only one weren’t impeded, it will result in damnation. But a man who is in fact impeded is a lot less likely to desire to commit a mortal sin.

        One also should distinguish between positively getting “credit” for virtue, versus in the negative sense of “not being held liable for vice”.

        In the latter sense, restraining the wicked is very effective, because the temptation to want to commit an impossible sin can come only from direct pride, not concupiscence, whereas the temptation concupiscence gives to commit a possible sin is often much more overpowering.

        In the former, it’s true that one must voluntarily undertake the good, and this cannot be coerced. But even then, the removal of positive obstacles, such as temptation to vice, can only be conducive to voluntary virtue.

    • It occurs to me, the view of those who agree with Meyer is one profoundly lacking in charity. For those like him, it is enough to secure salvation for oneself, without regard for the weakest among us. The teaching of the Church, on the other hand, is that correcting sinners is a duty for one in authority, and the penalty for dereliction by one in authority in this regard is the loss of his own soul.

  6. I remember having an opinion similar to Meyer’s when I was in my existentialist phase. Now I think it is advice suited to an angel (which I was not in my existentialist phase). I suppose it is sort of splendid “to see, to know, and yet abstain,” but if one has to pick one of these, it is abstain. A mere human needs all the help he can get, and sometimes that means not seeing and not knowing. No soul is unstained, I know, but I no longer think that the relatively unstained soul that spent some time dancing on the barnyard fence is superior to the equally unstained soul who held back from the mire.

    • I have warned my son, fairly successfully, away from a number of follies that I committed forty years ago in my daredevil phase. But it’s a moral paradox: If I hadn’t been wayward and self-destructive, my admonitions would certainly have been less vehement and convincing. To the extent that there is moral progress (an errant generation in repentance convinces the new cohort not to play daredevil), it requires such a paradox. Before there could be a law against murder, there had to be a murder. The seven-fold retribution that God lays potentially on any avengers of Abel is an anti-dare-devil measure.

      • In response to another commenter, I likened a moral daredevil to a man who dances on the barnyard fence while professedly trying to to keep his soul unstained. In my rackety youth I was more inclined to dive from the fence into the barnyard.

      • Why do you say that God’s protection of Cain is an anti-dare-devil measure? The Fathers of the Church indicate that Cain’s punishment was already severe enough, contrasting the curse God pronounced to Adam with the curse upon Cain (the curse for Adam was on the fruit of the earth only, sparing the man; that upon Cain was upon the man himself), and then indicate that God’s providence wished to see Cain’s stock preserved, seeing here – especially St. Augustine – the beginning of the great divide in mankind, between the city of man (which Cain immediately builds with his descendants, who no longer intermarry with the other descendants of Adam), and the City of God.

        It seems to me that God’s protection of this murderer, when He elsewhere commands the death of murderers and approves of the legitimate power doing so, is not indicative of God’s general desire to discourage the doing of justice upon murderers, so much as a particular intention of His providence. That seems more consonant with Holy Tradition.

  7. I was reminded here of the Khlyst sect which operated in Russia during the early 1900s leading up to the First World War. They went a step further, feeling that to actually achieve grace they needed to commit as much horrible sin as they could in orgiastic rituals of sadism and debauchery, seeking forgiveness directly after to obtain ecstatic visions. Flirting with the devil indeed.

    The description of choosing which neighbors you have and so making our obligations more attainable is a very robust defense against the daredevil moralists (most of whom are other Christians demanded that we take Muslims as our neighbors).

    There is more we can say to extrapolate this lesson to society at large, not just individuals, for even the daredevil moth should consider himself a special breed, should he not? Surely he must know the vast majority of moths are not like him and will in fact divebomb to their deaths in moral failure. So why would he promote his policy to be undertaken by the whole of society? Why does not he himself simply move to Baghdad and live next to the burning lantern? There’s something else at play here.

    • I’m glad you caught the implicit topical reference. I think it is much easier to have good will towards men if some of those men are a long way away. In this arrangement I have more love for my neighbor and all those who are not my neighbor.

  8. Gandhi, who was said to be celibate, apparently had young women brought to his bed, naked, to test his resolve to remain celibate.

    Being a heathen, he thought this was noble and high-minded, a true test of his adherence to his principles.

    We Christians can recognize it for utter sheer dangerous folly.

    • My impression is that Gandhi spent his life playing a character called “Gandhi”, and this exercise in conspicuous self-restraint sounds like part of the act. Either he was dancing on the rim of a volcano, which is folly, or he was really not interested in naked young women, which is ostentation.


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