The New York Times’ obituary for Michael Foot, who led the Labour Party in the general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power in 1983 and who died in March at the age of 96, quotes the following passage from a campaign speech Mr. Foot delivered that year:
We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth . . .
It is not clear, absent the lack of immediate context, whether by “we” the socialist politician meant humanity born onto this earth or, more exclusively, his saintly comrades in Labour. Since his exhortation was part of a political stump speech, the presumption is in favor of the latter, and yet it is more than possible that the speaker really had in mind the former. Certainly, in an age in which politics has become religion, and religion, to a substantial degree, politics, the second understanding would not have struck Foot’s audience as being in any way exceptional, or exceptionable.
Aristotle observed that, although all men claim the status of Man, only the man who devotes himself to the pursuit of knowledge actually deserves it. Under the Christian dispensation, one might rather argue that the man who is most fully Man is he who loves most fully, and dedicates his life to acting upon that love. I was moved to consider this possibility after the earthquakes in Haiti last winter, when it seemed almost that the world had ceased for a time to turn; that the human race had foresworn the pursuit of mammon, the lust for power, and the quest for knowledge in order to devote itself to the relief of the pathetic, poverty-stricken victims of brute nature. Of course the world had not stopped, and the illusion that it had was the result of just another experiment in virtual reality, a creation of the mass media. But should it have stopped? For a Christian especially, the question is not so ridiculous, so absurdly sentimental and impractical, as it might at first appear to be.
Political liberalism arrived at a theoretical affirmation of the proposition long ago. Christian theology, far more alarmingly, is halfway there, at least. And it is easy to see why. Jesus Christ, True Man and True God, and His disciples devoted their earthly lives to charity, and so did the saints who followed them. A religion that professes an ideal of co-suffering might quite logically affirm that no one is morally justified in enjoying the goods of this earth so long as anyone lacks them, and that material enjoyment is licit only as the earned reward for the eradication of poverty and misery from the face of the earth. Socialism, which Claude Polin argues is the expression of a distinctly Western impulse produced in minds prepared by Christianity to receive it, certainly affirms it, and so does liberalism, which is only socialism-and-soda in a Waterford glass. James Burnham said that liberals, including liberal groups, nations, and civilizations, are “morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself.” But there is obviously, as Burnham pointed out, a paradox here, since to feel morally disarmed is to feel guilty, and liberals do not believe—at least they didn’t, before liberalism was superseded by advanced liberalism and multiculturalism—in collective or inherited guilt, just as they deny the fact of inherited intelligence or cultural superiority. But Christians, brought up on stories pertaining to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Babylonian captivity, and the Lord’s teaching that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons, are believers in the guilt of groups. Belief makes them susceptible to liberal assumptions of collective guilt, and to the conviction regarding a collective responsibility for the world that liberals teach. Unlike liberals, however, Christians tend toward a literal, rather than a theoretical (I mean smug and self-congratulatory), view of that responsibility.
For the past year I have subscribed to L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of Vatican City, in its weekly edition. There is much that is good in the paper, and a regular reading of it has certainly improved my Italian. Yet Pope Benedict’s insistence on looking above the billion-odd heads of the faithful to address the wider world for whose welfare he has been given no direct responsibility, and his constant calls for lo sviluppo umano integrale (the whole development of man), are irritating, tiresome, and, so far as I can tell, without grounding in scripture. They may, however, find basis and justification in the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, prepared during the papacy of Pope John Paul II. The section entitled “The Social Doctrine of the Church” contains a paragraph explaining that these teachings developed in the 19th century as a result of the Gospel’s encounter with the new industrial society that revolutionized relations between man and man, man and the state, and man and nature. The section “Justice and Solidarity Among Nations” might similarly have explained that the Church’s teachings on international relations developed as a result of the Gospel’s encounter with the institutions and mechanisms of liberal internationalism, which they accept and appear to take for granted. Thus, Paragraph 2439 states that “Rich nations have a grave moral responsibility toward those which are unable to ensure the means of their development by themselves or have been prevented from doing so by tragic historical events.” According to Paragraph 2440, “It is also necessary to reform international economic and financial institutions so that they will better promote equitable relationships with less advanced countries” (italics in the original). The Catechism does not acknowledge the enormous obstacles inherent in reconstructing Third World societies, including the recurrence of “tragic historical events” endemic to the history of those countries, nor does it suggest the grounds on which its faith in the economic and financial institutions of global liberalism rests.
The liberal conscience is tormented, the liberal mind undone, by two stark realities. The first is that the global village is really a vast global slum; the second is that the modern communications system that created the “village” informs us on a 24-hour basis of unpleasant situations and conditions in remote places that we are incapable of changing, and that we should be better off never having heard about in the first place. (Knowledge is not always power.) The difficult—helping Haiti out in an emergency—is hard enough. Indeed, it is harder than the impossible—eradicating world misery—which is the task to which socialism, liberalism, and modern Christianity are calling us. (“Where there is no solution,” Burnham said, “there is no problem.”) Christ’s poor were the widows, the orphans, the lame, the blind in a tiny occupied country in the Middle East, barely more than a collection of villages. They were what we might call the personal poor, a different case entirely from the vast, unknown, almost abstracted masses of the world poor, toward whom charity is a bureaucratic response rather than a biblical action, like giving alms.
But all of this is almost incidental to my broader point.
Michael Foot asserted in his speech that providing for the weak, the hungry, the battered, and the crippled is “our only certain good and great purpose on earth.” One can—almost—hear the voice of Christ speaking those words, but He did not speak them, and they are not true, either in the political or in the theological context. Instead they express an extremely narrow view of politics—an apolitical view, in fact—and an equally narrow understanding of Christian theology, or any other theology I know of.
The world does not, it could not, it must not revolve around the claims, or even the needs, of the poor and the oppressed of the earth. Charity, even bureaucratic charity, is both a human obligation and a divine injunction, but man has many other things to be about in his Father’s house, some of them having value and validity equal to those on the agenda of the British Labour Party. It is important for intelligent people, those in positions of power especially, to understand this, if only for the reason that the better part of the world is coming more and more to resemble Haiti, which it will very likely approximate in the future. If the civilized world should ever become convinced that its moral duty lies in deliberately merging itself with either the barbaric Third World or the semidepraved world of the lower classes of the West, that would be the end of civilization, and civilization is a moral duty of mankind, as the ancients understood. Aristotle said that the aim, business, and justification of government is the attainment of human excellence, and he was right, as always. Civilization, said Evelyn Waugh, “has no force of its own beyond what it is given from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all.”
The world is really doing quite enough for Haiti, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, and other similarly benighted places. As for the British Labour Party, it has already done a great deal too much for the British poor, today among the most drunken and loutish in Western Europe, the youthful poor especially. “Michael Foot was a genuine British radical,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in tribute to the deceased. “He possessed a powerful sense of community, a pride in our progressive past and faith in our country’s potential for a radical future.” Now that really gives Britons something to look forward to.
I myself am most impressed that Michael Foot should have written a number of books, among them The Politics of Paradise: A Vindication of Byron. I am not a great admirer of Byron or his poetry, and I have never read Foot’s study of him. But I admire the author for so much as wishing to create so elegant, impractical, and decadent a thing as a book the British working man will never read.
This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.