The Moral Life Takes a Holiday

When New Jersey-born novelist Philip Roth, arguably America’s most acclaimed author, turned eighty last month, his home town of Newark rolled out the red carpet, determined to honor a local luminary whose fame had reached into every corner of American cultural life.  Did I say fame?  Maybe the more honest appellation should be infamy, since the amount of raw sewage found in the novels of Philip Roth easily exceeds that of the city of his birth, where there are at least waste treatment plants to cope with the ordure.   And while that fact is not likely to disabuse the citizenry of Newark—anymore than, say, the awfulness of Andy Warhol has persuaded Pittsburghers to pull the plug on the Warhol Museum—the time has come for someone to blow the whistle on this guy.

For instance, in a radio interview some years ago on NPR, Roth was asked by “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross about a certain disconnect between the sexual habits and hang-ups described in his early fiction (Portnoy’s Complaint comes instantly to mind), where unbridled adolescent libido is celebrated, and later forays featuring much older men, for whom the whole landscape of carnality seems to have been ravaged by repeated failures of love.

The ever-ingratiating Ms. Gross did not quite put it that way, of course; nevertheless, the impression she gave her listeners was that somehow the thirteen year old Alexander Portnoy, whose countless masturbatory fantasies drove the story forward, had at last metastasized into the dirty old man his parents direly predicted he’d become.  Only now, of course, he feels so little pleasure in a life of perversity that the prospect of erotic exhaustion is greeted with weary relief.  As regards all that “sexual caterwauling,” he confesses, “I couldn’t meet the costs of its clamoring any more.”  Final entropy thus awaits him.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

However, when the interviewer ventures ever so mildly to suggest that perhaps it might have been the very “sexual hyperactivity” of so many of his characters that finally immobilized them, Roth will have none of it.  “What hyperactivity?” he asks scornfully.  “There are no sexual norms that an adult can take seriously!”

Perhaps not such norms as Philip Roth might care to recognize, but surely they continue to animate the lives of at least some of his readers, since without them there can be no shock value to a fiction whose satisfactions depend on how well he succeeds in scandalizing us.  And certainly the novel itself as a literary form demands the maintenance of a fixed and stable moral universe, otherwise there is nothing for the characters to collide against.  No pillars, as it were, left to profane.  Isn’t that why blasphemy can only carry real artistic punch so long as something sacred remains in place?   Does anyone seriously set about blaspheming the Greek gods?

The theme of adulterous love, therefore, which we find so richly itemized in the writings of Flaubert and Tolstoy, is no mere triviality.   Just think what a quick read those twin towers of 19th century literature, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, would be without all that weight of middle class morality to rail against.  Not to mention the cumulative weight of moral disapproval that both authors finally pronounce upon the souls of their characters.  Meanwhile, the pile of smut so copiously dispensed by Philip Roth seems to exist solely to sell books.

In the circumstance, it is worth asking about the extent to which those norms are still operative among the reading public today.  Or have we all become more or less like Philip Roth, spirited little solipsists for whom the pleasure principle, especially in its most forbidden venereal form, trumps all?  In a recent poll conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, it was revealed that nine out of ten people engaged in sexual intercourse before marriage; and that women were no less promiscuous than their male counterparts in breaching that particular bastion.  The conclusion, which the authors of the study were not slow to draw, indeed they took gleeful and protracted pleasure in telling us, is that “premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans…has been for decades.”

Never mind of course the fact that those who engineered the study have been for years and years in the forefront of groups agitating to dismantle those very standards.  Still, what are we to make of the argument that people should pretty much be allowed to fashion their own moral universe?  Not that they haven’t done so already.  The question rather is this: is it morally permissible that they be free to do so?  Are we to extend a free moral pass to people who engage in behaviors that, until quite recently, nearly everyone regarded as beyond the pale?  As subversive, in fact, of those very institutions of marriage and the family on which the whole of civilization itself depends?  And when people persist in doing it, should there not be some sense of shame—however residual and atavistic—attaching to such behaviors as were once pretty widely regarded as wrong and, yes, sinful?  What are the larger consequences to a society that permits so unfettered an exercise of sexual license?

Can we not at least agree that society has a stake in the survival of some recognizable ethos?  That without a moral framework, even if it functions only in the most intermittent and episodic way, life as we know it becomes insupportable?  In other words, if society were only the sum total of so many discrete human beings, each pursuing exclusively self-serving ends, doesn’t that force the rest of us to endure the consequences of so many autonomously arrived at decisions?   In the face of the solipsistic imperative, I am saying, there really does remain something to be said for a public morality, the sanctions of which have historically been sustained by people of decency and faith.  That what some of us persist in calling, however quaintly, the moral imagination, i.e., ethical perceptions beyond the borders of the self-centered self, is still something worth trying to shore up.

“We live in a society that glorifies autonomy,” writes Heather King in her memoir entitled Redeemed, which is the story of a life once spent in its frantic pursuit.  “But autonomy doesn’t free us from bondage to ourselves and our desires—only humility does.”   (The fact that her book is subtitled “Stumbling Toward God, Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding,” suggests the real possibility of overcoming its false glamor.)

No sooner, incidentally, had the Guttmacher report been released than the federal government weighed in with the usual secularist solution, stealing several moral bases along the way.  It seems that some Assistant Secretary for Children and Families over at the Department of Health and Human Services, where the abstinence-only approach to young people had just come under fire from the folks at Guttmacher, had decided that the time had come to vacate the high ground in its efforts to discourage young people from having premature sex.  The interest of the federal government in this area, he announced airily, was no longer moral but strictly medical.  “The longer one delays, the fewer lifetime sex partners young people have, the less the risk of contracting sexually transmitted disease.”

Right.  And a necessary first step inasmuch as health concerns are not matters about which governments ought to remain cavalier. But it is hardly sufficient where the survival of a free people likewise depends on habits of virtue and discipline.  And here the flourishing of a moral life is something which government really does have some stake in promoting.  When people choose to live in an undisciplined and morally dissolute way, indeed, when a lifestyle of degeneracy carries them and their transgressions with them straight into hell, is that really a matter of total indifference to the rest of us?  A society crawling with countless pleasure seeking monads, is that morally ok so long as they just do it hygienically?  To live without any reference to the good of others, or to God, is that to be the shape of the new public order we wish to encourage?   A world made safe for Philip Roth?

The authors of the Federalist Papers did not think so.  The final barrier to the abuse of power, they argued, was neither wise laws nor a just constitution; it was the people themselves, the strength of their attachments to a morality grounded in justice and self-restraint.  For the men who founded this country, there could be no common good unless people were determined to live, not just for themselves, but for others.  In the absence of what Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray used to call “the living repository of a moral tradition,” whose expression the people themselves embodied, there could be no freedom for anyone.

In living out the myth that here in America each of us must be entirely on his own, absolutely at liberty therefore to take ourselves straight to hell, we should not be surprised at the failure to sustain a corporate and generous vision of the good, nor of the incapacity to impart even the most minimally demanding discipline of the moral life.  Such has become the face of the New Pluralism: total suspension of moral judgment and value from the ordinary decisions of men and women.  How far we have come in this country from that “deliberate sense of the community” that once fired the imagination and the lives of so many citizens of this once great land. Leaving us with only the sad detritus of acedia and lust on which, alas, poor Alexandria Portnoy continues to feed.

Editor’s note: Above image is of novelist Philip Roth. (Photo credit: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...