The Bow of Banishment

“Thou shall abandon everything beloved
Most tenderly, and this the arrow is
Which first the bow of banishment shoots forth”

Dante Paradiso XVI

“It is a miserable thing to go from house to house; for where thou art a stranger, thou darest not open thy mouth.”

Ecclesiasticus 30

It has often been remarked that a man will become a right-winger by simply standing still.  If he lives long enough, a man of fixed principles will find that moral immobility has changed him into a reactionary and a reprobate.  His former friends will shake their heads and say that he has sadly changed.  In the absence of a deathbed conversion, his descendants will dance, and then quite possibly urinate, on his execrated grave.

Orthodoxy likewise carries a man out of the Church into heresy, just as patriotism carries him out of his country into treason.  It is in the very nature of modernity that the loyal must be at last banished, the faithful at last excommunicated, the true at last chastened and penalized.

Dante was himself condemned to the older form of exile, but the modern man of fixed principles knows the arrows that Dante says are shot from the bow of banishment.  The first arrow is the pain of saying goodbye to a beloved and familiar world.  The arrows that follow are the discomforts of living as half a man in a strange country where he is not wanted and does not belong.  As Dante put it,

“Thou shall have proof . . . how hard a road the going down and up another’s stairs.”

Dante is referring, I believe, to going down to meals and up to bed with the timid tread of an unwelcome guest.  Anyone who has walked the hard road of a houseguest knows what this is like.  Few things fade more quickly than a householder’s welcome, and the hard road of a houseguest is especially hard for the houseguest who has nowhere else to go.

As the son of Sirach says in Ecclesiasticus, it is hard to be a vagrant living  on charity, because, in addition to tiptoeing up and down other men’s stairs, a man with no home darest not open his mouth.  A man feels free to open his mouth in his own house, because he is in that house by right, and if he feels the urge to cavil at the meals to which he comes down, or at the bed to which he goes up, that is his right as well.

A man feels a similar freedom to open his mouth in his own country, because he feels he has a similar right to be there.  His right to be there carries the right to open his mouth and object, reprove, admonish and complain.  I know I have felt this freedom fill me like a divine afflatus when I stepped off the airplane after some weeks of tiptoeing reticence in a foreign land.  The felt freedom to have and express opinions is a large part of what it means to be at home, whether in one’s own domicile, or in one’s homeland.  The felt need hold one’s tongue is a large part of what it means to be a guest.

And this felt need to hold one’s tongue is one of the arrows that shoots from the Dante’s bow of banishment.

This is one reason Hilaire Belloc said,

“I have said we live as part of a nation, and that there is no fate as wretched as to be without a country of one’s own—what else was exile which so many noble men have thought worse than death, and which all have feared.”*

Belloc made this remark after speaking with a Frenchman who had gone into voluntary exile to escape punishment for some crime.  The man was an anarchist, and we may suppose that his crime was a terrible crime of anarchy.  But Belloc parted from the man with a feeling a pity, because he could see “that hankering for France all those years had soured his temper.”  Whatever his crime, the man was maimed by the arrows that flew from the bow of banishment.  He had said goodbye to everything he loved, and had thereafter trod the hard road of an unwelcome guest in a land where he was not welcome and did not belong.

Most readers of the Orthosphere are going into exile by standing still.  Because they have tried to adhere to fixed moral principles, they will be reviled as reactionaries and reprobates.  Because they have tried to remain orthodox, they will be anathematized as heretics.  Because they have tried to be patriots, they will be banished as traitors and denounced as renegades.  Thus they will be pierced by every arrow the bow of banishment can shoot, and when that happens, they will suffer in the silence of beggars who darest not open their mouths.

*) Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902)

15 thoughts on “The Bow of Banishment

      • I’m not close to my family and don’t believe I will have one of my own; I’m uninterested in my job and alienated by my colleagues and, of course, the world around me to a very broad degree; lastly, I have no local friends. I’m in my early twenties, so while indeed I have time and energy, despair has crept into my psyche and I’m afraid this will be it until death: a mindless, asphyxiating trudge through a society whose every dimension I find alarming and repulsive.

        You’re older than I am and have found a small niche for yourself, a palm in the desert, via your career (recent tremors notwithstanding). Anything stood out to you over the years which has made things more bearable? Faith in Providence isn’t cutting it for me at this level — it’s enough to render suicide a non-option, but not enough to get me moving into first gear towards a positive attitude vis. the world. Is there a secret ingredient I’m missing, or am I simply experiencing a temporary misery which is shallower than I assume?

      • I’m very sorry to hear you are in this desolate place, and strongly advise you to undertake escape. Despair is a sin, and this means escaping a place of despair is our duty. Enduring misery is a virtue when misery cannot be escaped, but it is merely morbid when there are ways to be something other than miserable. If you found yourself caught in a cold thundershower without an umbrella, you would not conclude that God wanted you to be cold and wet. You would run for the nearest shelter that God provided. If that was only a tree you would be content with that, but you would see the hand of providence in the tree and not the cold thundershower.

        You may need to seek out the help of a therapist, but the advice of the good ones will come down to a “change of scenery.” You get out of a rut by getting out of the rut, and what this means is that a change in behavior precedes a mental change. You cannot make yourself happy through direct mental effort, but only by moving your body out of places that get you down, and into places that lift you up. I don’t know where those places are, and neither do you, but they do exist. They are evidently not to be found on the well-worn paths you are walking now, so you need to force yourself off of those well-worn paths. Shake your life up. Eat different food at different times in different places. Do things you’ve never done. Go places you’ve never been. I don’t mean fly to Bali. Just shop in a different grocery store! But when life begins to seem like nothing but an interstate highway to the tomb, you should take the next exit and explore some backroads.

      • Adam, to Professor Smith’s sage advice, I would add a word or two. Let me say first that your situation sounds pretty bad. But, outwardly, and from the perspective of most human beings who have ever lived, you are fantastically lucky. You are a 21st Century American, after all. You can read. You have a computer. And so forth; the familiar litany of what makes life so great for moderns. Those things truly are wonderfully good, and it behooves us to be grateful for them.
        But, of course, even very wealthy fortunate men, successful in life, with loving families and many friends, can find themselves in a Slough of Despond, with no apparent way out. Despair lurks ever around the corner for all of us.

        So does joy. The key is to get out of that Slough, and into a different frame of mind. The small changes to your routine recommended by Dr. Smith can help. I can think of something else, that has always helped me: get out into the woods. Arrange to be by yourself in the woods for a week or two. Or the mountains, or the desert. Hike a lot; chop some wood, or repair a stone wall, or clear out a bunch of dead wood, or clean up a bunch of trash. Do something physical, and hard. Take care while you do to look out for birds, insects, and other small creatures going about their business. Reflect upon the life that continues always out there in the wilderness, without any push from humans.

        I was once a whitewater boatman in the Grand Canyon, and lived on the River for many months – years, when you count them all up. In the darkest periods of my life since I stopped rowing professionally, it has helped me enormously to remember that the River and the Canyon and all their denizens are there still, active, living – and waiting for me, ready to welcome me whenever I should return to reenter their life.

        Lift thine eyes unto the mountains, my friend, whence cometh thy help. God bless you.

      • I also advocate (and make use of) the wilderness cure, although nowadays my wilderness is most often a lonely country road or the placid reaches of a local river. The human body wants to be used. It wants to be tired. The outdoors also full of opportunities to undertake challenges and exercise physical courage. When I am in low spirits, I find that it helps to set myself challenges. I will cross that creek by balancing on that log. I will scale that crag. I will vault over that fence. This has become more important as I’ve aged and by ability to balance, scale and vault declines. Finally, I find it highly therapeutic to enter into the life of nature imaginatively. To sit beside a stream and imagine the entire journey of that water. Or to sit on a hill and imagine the sculpting of that scene. This requires a little science, but the purpose of the exercise is not scientific. The purpose is to transcend the personal and social worlds by entering into the world of things. I find rivers especially good to think.

  1. Professor Smith, we are grateful for your wise words today and over the years, especially your advice to Adam. Having no like-minded relatives in one’s twenties (or at any age) has the potential to crush the spirit of all but the hardiest of men. Might I suggest that Adam seek for true friends where they are most likely to be found: in church. Specifically, he will find fervent young men and women at a Latin Mass, if he is Catholic, or at the Matins or Vespers services, if he is Eastern Orthodox. There are pockets of banished men and their children and grandchildren in almost every corner of America, and they still try to attend divine liturgies in person and unmasked. Ultimately, we are all searching for true friendship with Christ, and there is no better place to do so than where two or more are gathered in His name.

    May the Holy Spirit continue to Inspire your wise words, Professor Smith, and to guide Adam toward Christ and true friendship.

  2. It has often been remarked that a man will become a right-winger by simply standing still. If he lives long enough, a man of fixed principles will find that moral immobility has changed him into a reactionary and a reprobate. …

    Orthodoxy likewise carries a man out of the Church into heresy, just as patriotism carries him out of his country into treason.

    I strongly agree with these observations – but only as contingent realities: there have been at times no such large-scale changes by which a man standing still in his political views became a right-winger by his inaction, or that a man by remaining religiously orthodox became considered heretical. Centuries have passed where such could not have been observed. It is a feature of our own times, but not of all times.

    Whatever his crime, the man was maimed by the arrows that flew from the bow of banishment. He had said goodbye to everything he loved, and had thereafter trod the hard road of an unwelcome guest in a land where he was not welcome and did not belong.

    I have two observations about this: The Frenchman may have left behind nearly everything he loved, but he did NOT leave behind the one thing he certainly loved more than France: his life of (arguably unjust) freedom. Plato shows us Socrates making the exact opposite choice, submitting to death because he loved Athens too much to leave it merely because some called him heretic. The Frenchman might have loved France more than his own skin, many patriots do.

    Secondly: you have painted most excellently a picture of the lack of comfort found in being away from home as a guest elsewhere. You have disrupted your hosts’ routine, you must creep around quietly not to disrupt even further, and you may express fully your disgust at some favorite hometown dish that turns your stomach. When you get back home, that breath of relief is palpable. For a man who leaves “home” permanently, as a choice, though, he has another option: adopt his new-found place as a new home. Learn the local customs, make a place for yourself there, befriend new people, and learn to like (or at least not hate) many of the new foods and other changes – adapt. The man who has spent a decade or two bemoaning his “loss” of France (a France that would have become unrecognizable if he had succeeded?) and not adapting to his new “home” has nobody but himself to blame for not making it into a real home where he became welcome, instead of a long-stay guest suite.

    • Societies do not always drift leftwards, but they mostly drift leftwards. This isn’t really driven by a revolutionary desire to institute a communist regime, but by a long series of kind-hearted gestures. There is always one person/group/class/idea next in line for equalization, and it seems as if no harm will come of raising this person/group/class/idea to equality.

      Some people can adopt a new-found place as a new home, but many people find that they never get over being homesick. People who happen to be part of the first group should stop shaming people who happen to be part of the second group.

  3. Wise counsel — all of it. Adam, I see that you’re English. One of the fellows here, Dr. Bruce Charlton, is an Englishman who has experience trekking around your beloved country. He may have some good advice for you. You may go to his web site from the side links; his email is in his Blogger profile at the bottom.

    I was lucky enough to profit from two extended summer stays in England because a kind Irish family welcomed me into their home in London (not as an unwelcome guest, as in Prof. Smith’s latest post) during the summer break when I studied across the Channel. I returned two years later with one of my brothers (another Adam — good name) for another summer. During those times, I (alone the first summer and then with my little brother the second) traveled around Great Britain . . . by train, bus, and foot. It was a blessed season in my life, and I remember it fondly. That first (solitary) period, while I was in Dorset, I visited Dorchester to see the Roman sites. I heard about Maiden Castle close to the town and made an afternoon walking around the ancient Celtic earthworks. I remember the day very clearly, as it left quite an impression on me. Traveling around, you can behold spectacular natural and man-made wonders — places that people have been eager to visit for centuries (even millennia). While Maiden Castle was interesting, I doubt that it’s on anyone’s bucket list. Nonetheless, my experience there was very moving . . . perhaps it was the quietude, as no other visitors were present on the grounds that afternoon. There I was, treading in the footsteps of folks who were possibly distant ancestors . . . whose whole way of life disappeared during the Roman occupation. All that was left were green hills, and there I was, a young American student, alone in a distant country, climbing those hills in the beautiful, golden August sunshine, watching the wind move the grass along the formations. It was both sad and lovely, contemplating the power of time and the weakness of human memory. And just a few miles away was a charming, comfortable little English town, with people going about their business — shopping, walking their dogs, gossiping on benches — rather unconcerned about the shadow of oblivion up the road. It reminded me of Wilder’s Our Town — how mindless we are about matters beyond the day’s concerns. Someday, everyone who was in Dorchester that afternoon will be dust . . . and some have since so begun that transformation. Will anyone wander around meadows where that town will have once stood, wondering about the ancient English people who lived their lives beneath the same sky?

    I see that I have selfishly gone off on a tangent, pleasantly recalling some old lessons learnt. The point of sharing my Maiden Castle story was that you can easily escape the modern rot, for a spell, at least, by visiting your own country. As the comments above state, just going into the wilderness — or even pastures in agricultural areas, allows for healing in the soul. There is an order there that is wholesome to behold. It’s a bit like Samwise’s encouraging realization in The Return of the King: “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” Beyond the Mordorescense of the modern city, you can find rest in the Lord’s fields and forests, remnants of Eden, to which many weary sojourners yearn to return. Lothlórien was a fictional but truthful image.


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