We Have Seen This Show Before

Contrary to some modern protests, there exists a norm or standard of right reason which applies to everyone in every place and time.

Amid the scattered remnants of Heraclitus, a wise old Greek who lived twenty-five hundred years ago, there are one or two fragments that have managed to find their way into the text of Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece on the meaning of time and history, which he reproduces in order to illustrate something of what his own poem is trying to say. Here is one of them:

Although the Law of Reason is common, the majority of men live as though they had an understanding of their own.

Just so. But what exactly does Heraclitus mean by that? And might it be applicable in some way to ourselves, to the disordered age in which we are now living? Eliot certainly thought so, having placed it, after all, right at the beginning of his poem. And it is no recondite point being made here, either, but rather a plain and simple transhistorical truth, which should be instantly obvious to everyone. 

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And what is that truth but the fact that there exists a norm or standard of right reason—let us imagine that we are Greeks for the moment and call it logos—which applies to everyone in every place and time. And while many of us live as though it were not so, it nevertheless stands tall in the saddle of every soul, enjoining one and all to observe the moral order of the universe.  

There are things we may not do, in other words, even as there are things we must do; and we give ironic testimony to the good of the one by doing the evil of the other. Isn’t that why we call hypocrisy the homage vice pays virtue? Or that the Law and the Prophets are mostly observed in the breach?  

Thus, we all know, for example, that we mustn’t do to others what we would not wish others to do to us. And we know it not because Confucius once upon a time solemnly told us so, but because it is simply true, which accounts for Confucius having perhaps been among the first to tell us, indeed, to codify it as the Golden Rule.   Thus, we all know, for example, that we mustn’t do to others what we would not wish others to do to us. And we know it not because Confucius once upon a time solemnly told us so, but because it is simply true.Tweet This

Or that, as a certain Hindu proverb has endearingly put it, “One should never strike a woman; not even with a flower.” And please note that there is no addendum attaching to it, to suggest that if one must strike a woman, possibly a two-by-four will serve just as well. Better a bat than, say, a bouquet, right? No, of course not. There is never a good reason for the use of force upon an innocent woman. 

It is a prohibition inscribed in the very constitution of our being, a being created by Another to whom we show loyalty and love by obeying the moral law He placed within us. And never mind that it remains largely unwritten, it is still binding in the most fundamental way. It is, in a word, nonnegotiable. If life is a vale of soul making, as the poet Keats tells us, then the making of it will depend on standards we do not make but which make us.  

In fact, it enjoys a kind of real if mysterious presence in the mind and the heart of everyman, but only because, in the first instance, it remains rooted in reality, in being. As George Steiner puts it in a remarkable book he wrote almost forty years ago called Real Presences: “Any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence.” 

Such is the Logos tradition, and the whole of the West—from Homer to Dante to Eliot—remains indebted to it. To think otherwise is, to recall the last despairing words of Macbeth, tantamount to seeing life as no more than “a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.”  

There is no instance of mind or heart that is not, therefore, compact of meaning in some way. And meaning, when you get right down to it, is but another name for God, or Truth, or Logos.  In the Tractatus, the philosopher Wittgenstein argues that “the meaning of life, that is to say, the meaning of the world, we can call God. To pray is to think about the meaning of life.” 

I often remind my students of that fact, lest they be tempted not to study on Sundays owing to the mistaken impression they have that only prayer, not work, may be permitted on the Lord’s Day. If God is the great “I AM WHO AM,” which is the name given to Moses when he dared to ask Him, then nothing and no one can remain neutral with respect to God.  

And so, like the love that nature herself imparts to a mother’s offspring, she cannot help but feel some attachment, however fleeting, to the child she carries. Does she need a law written in stone to know that her unborn child possesses a natural right to be born? That not unlike her own life, her child is to be perceived as precious, indeed, as an irreplaceable instance of why no life is unimportant. Certainly not in the sight of God, who waited for all eternity to create that particular child.  

Only a barbarian would think otherwise. And what is barbarism but the absence of a standard to which all of us have recourse. Without which, how do we hold terrorist groups like Hamas responsible for their barbarities?

And, yet, we so often behave as if there were no truth, no secure ground on which to stand, preferring, as it were, to live as though we had an understanding all our own. Alas, how seldom the criteria of our understanding extend to the impartial exercise of justice or truth. Not the ordo amoris of which St. Augustine speaks in setting out the upright condition of the affections, according to which every object is given that love appropriate to it. One should love one’s wife and children more than, say, one’s lawnmower or car.

What is the consequence of living a life in defiance of such strictures? Nothing less than a renewed descent into another and more sinister dark age, where only the wicked and the powerful may prevail. “If slavery is not wrong,” to quote Lincoln, “then nothing is wrong.” If it isn’t wrong to kill little children in the womb, or old people in a nursing home, what is wrong? 

Pull the rug out from under logos and what you’ve got is chaos, a condition aptly described by the poet Yeats, who, exactly one-hundred years ago, put it all down in twenty-two unforgettable lines called “The Second Coming.” Here are six of the most prophetic. See if they do not remind you of the mobs lately loosed upon the world, their hatred of the Jews so eerily reminiscent of the fascist youth of yesteryear. And pray that we will not remain silent in the face of such barbarism: 

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


  • 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.

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