Psychomachia: Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

As my dogged readers know, this year I’ve been fitfully trying to work on a book about the vices and virtues. It has morphed a few times, as projects will, but took its final form as The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins. I meet with my publishers today to design a cover–which will prove a challenge, as we’re running out of funny photographs of popes. (If you’ve got any, folks, please send ’em.)
InsideCatholic was kind enough to run seven short installments that will form the core of more comprehensive chapters on each of the sins, and now I’m turning the tables — to offer reflections on each of the Seven Contrary Virtues. Given the norms of our society, we might as well dub them the Contrarian Virtues, since they cut straight across the grain of the way we live, and even our aspirations.
The flippant amoralism that made Oscar Wilde’s plays so piquantly outrageous was once the province of isolated individuals — flamboyant aesthetes wearing green carnations, crypto-cynical statesmen who wrapped Realpolitik in velvet platitudes, and sociopaths hammering rocks on chain gangs. The history of the 20th century amounted, in one sense, to the mass-marketing of such morals. This happened most obviously in sexual ethics. As Maggie Gallagher observed in her neglected classic of social criticism Enemies of Eros, attitudes once reserved to corrupt elites and the underclass became common property in the 1960s, when bohemianism and egalitarianism met and had an affair. Their love-child, the Sexual Revolution, was popularized in magazines like Playboy that encouraged Everyman to adopt the mating behavior of decadent aristocrats seducing flower girls. Both sexes of every age were taught to emulate the randomized randiness of the stereotypical 16-year-old boy.
The flower girls found their revenge, of course, in the form of modern Feminism — a medley of toxic ideological elements patched together in service of righteous anger at the beastliness of men. Men like Hugh Hefner really did deserve to have to listen to women like Betty Friedan, who famously compared her comfy suburban home to a concentration camp. But did the rest of us?
The fallout hit hardest the millions of women who were encouraged to forego childbearing altogether, or into late middle age, the better to work alongside Organization Men in the same tedious jobs men tried, of an evening, to put out of their minds by reading . . . Playboy magazine. How much more meaningful and serious is a life spent selling paper supplies in Scranton than one engaged in shaping human souls that were formed inside one’s body. What a classic swindle — which served at once the Marxists who sought to apply the dialectic of class struggle to the family, and the capitalists who wished to double the labor supply and abolish the family wage. (It’s no accident, as Allan Carlson points out, that the sole monied sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment, back in the 1920s, was the National Association of Manufacturers.) The “family wage” — a goal the Church had supported for over a century, which had been offered voluntarily by millions of employers — was outlawed as part of the Civil Rights Act. This to my mind outweighs the good done by the Act in repressing racism.
Combine these new economic realities with the universal embrace of contraception, and none of us should be surprised at the plummeting birth rate in the West. As a wag (okay, it was me) once said: “If Feminism were a plot to wipe out Europeans from the earth, how exactly would it look any different?” (Margaret Sanger developed birth control in the hope of weeding out everyone else — which leads me to believe that somehow, somewhere, Jesus is snickering.) But it wasn’t the flower girls who started the fight, even if they will finish it. In the form of aborted children, Feminism worldwide has racked up a higher death toll than Nazism, and competes now with Communism. So pardon me if I’m reluctant to call Pope John Paul II’s profound reflections on the dignity of women “Catholic Feminism,” any more than I’ll dub monasticism “Catholic Communism,” or the German social market economy “Catholic National Socialism.” It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Aware that such articles are countercultural — and not in the fun “friendly-hippie-girl-who-smells-of-patchouli” way — over the next seven weeks or so I’ll be working through my own particular take on the Seven Contrary Virtues that were listed alongside the sins in the funky, proto-sci-fi Christian epic The Psychomachia (or War for the Soul) by the fifth-century poet Prudentius. I’m reading a literal translation of this work, and it certainly ain’t The Aeneid. In fact, it would read much better if it came as a graphic novel — a thought inspired by this exquisite illuminated edition. But who can resist a poem that describes the battle for purity as follows:
The next person to step out on the grassy field is Chastity, the virgin, shining in armor. Lust, who has come from Sodom, is armed with torches. The vice thrusts a burning pine knot dipped in sulfur and tar into the maiden’s eyes. But without fear she strikes the hand with a stone and the blazing torch is knocked away. With only one thrust of her sword, she pierces the throat of the whore and stinking fumes with clots of blood are spat out; the foul breath poisons the nearby air.
That’s enough to purify my own thoughts of hippie girls for some time to come. I look forward over the next seven weeks to unfolding the Virtues — keenly aware that more people read the Inferno than the Paradiso. It’s hard to see the fun, on the face of it, of reading in depth about Humility, Kindness, Temperance, Chastity, Patience, Liberality, and Diligence. Done poorly, it could read like the lives of the saints, minus the fun stuff like bleeding relics and talking bears.
But have no fear! Just as I’m sure that, for those of us who need them, there will be beagles in heaven, so I know with the surety of faith that in the virtues we can find snark — for those of us who need it.

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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