Sense and Nonsense: Our Time

Cicero, the Roman orator and philosopher, was concerned with this moral question: How can one be honorable and virtuous in a corrupt regime? He was not upset by the immorality of individuals but by the corruption of institutions designed to check and counteract these individual disorders of soul. When these institutions are corrupt and overlook the corruption of the body politic, the path to tyranny is open, he thought. Tyranny is a likely consequence of the disorder of a soul that manifests itself in efforts to use the instruments of government for private gain or glory. This tyranny is not likely to offend anyone. It will be quite popular, embodied in political figures who are quite “charming” and “sincere.”

Our news is full of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, drought, and other natural disasters that worldwide media make us think are happening daily in our backyards. We bomb Serbia, Iraq, even Sudan. Timor is a war zone. A new mass shooting happens every month. Christians are persecuted on a wide scale, with little protest on their part.

Even our spiritual forces manifest themselves largely as instruments whose major purpose is to alleviate disaster. Nothing is transcendent. We rarely get out of this unbroken circle of urgency. Crisis (not the magazine!) has itself become the chief instrument for growth of governmental power and control.

Our culture is full of talk of such things as “globalization” and “new world orders,” of doctrines named after the current president that allow, indeed encourage, in the name of “humanity,” an international incursion into these disasters. The sovereign national state is rapidly becoming obsolete, even in theory. A much larger “world-state” is charged with meeting all disasters and preventing their human causes. At the root of these causes, in many circles, is the very existence of human beings themselves.

What is perhaps most unsettling about this often much-praised world-state trend is the potential for tyranny on a scale never before imagined. We have few checks and balances to prevent it. It will not be a tyranny of brute force but, as in much of the 20th century, of ideology, a tyranny that presents its case in the name of man and his world or cosmic good. Ecology and population control are probably the two most tyrannical movements in the world today. They are rapidly dwarfing any national sovereignty’s ability to prevent their takeover of its internal autonomy and order.

Behind all of this is, as the Greeks long thought, the disorder of the human soul. The real disorders are not seen at the public level but hidden deep in the soul. Perhaps 100 ways exist to interpret the recent impeachment process in our time. In essence, it represented a disorder of soul projected onto the public order in a way that revealed the soul of the democracy as its worst, as helpless and unwilling to acknowledge even that there is a disorder. The instruments of government designed to prevent this manifestation did not work because a sufficiency of virtue and good sense is required in the people capable of recognizing corruption at the deepest personal level. “Our time” begins, not at the level of the world, but at the level of our souls in their willingness to acknowledge and live by standards of what is good, not merely of what we want and choose.

Yet even this public disorder of those who get by with what they want, and of those with no willingness to stop it, goes back to a theory of mine that there is no longer any connection between what we know and what is. We choose our order of polity and soul on no other basis than what we want. We allow no other criteria. Those who affirm a natural or revelational standard are considered to be the most dangerous human enemies.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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