When Aeneas lands, after seven years of wandering, shipwrecked on the shores of Africa, his great concern is to discover the nature of the country into which fate has cast him, and the temper of the people who live there. His fears are put to rest when he stands in the rising city of Carthage and sees on the walls of a temple the depiction of his own story, of the siege and downfall of Troy. He knows then that he has arrived at a place where “there are proper rewards for the praiseworthy, where there are tears for the world’s affairs and mortal deeds touch the heart.” In other words, he knows he will be treated justly because he is in a country where people recognize things for what they are and react accordingly to them. If something is honorable, they honor it; if something is tragic, they weep for it. One might call this the capacity for proportionate reaction to moral reality. “Cast away fear,” says Aeneas to his companions, “your fame here will bring you safety.” Aeneas is confident that when the people of Carthage recognize who the Trojans are, they will treat their visitors with honor.
Conversely, a wanderer wrecked on the shores of a country where no proportion is shown in moral reactions would be well-advised to retain a good deal of healthy fear. An Aeneas looking about him in contemporary America might have felt less sanguine about his prospects of honor and safety, for public life has become a forum for ever more inappropriate responses to ever more bizarre forms of behavior. The wince of recognition has become familiar, so familiar that example seems superfluous: the lawyer for the Menendez boys has jurors over for milk and cookies after the declaration of a hung jury; Amy Fisher’s mother gains a sympathetic ear for her laments that her daughter will be unable to enjoy Thanksgiving at home; Susan Smith kills her children and becomes the “victim” of the pressures oppressing women today.
There was the New York Times‘ picture of O.J. Simpson’s lawyer Robert Shapiro with an arm fondly draped around Dennis Fung’s shoulder at the conclusion of Mr. Fung’s testimony: the photo’s caption informed us that Mr. Simpson himself cordially shook hands with Mr. Fung. Now, put this in perspective: Mr. Simpson’s lawyers had just spent a great deal of time attempting to demonstrate that Fung had participated in a scheme to frame O.J. for murder, so what possible purpose could the concluding love-in, conducted in full view of the jury, be intended to achieve? Well, because Mr. Shapiro had been guilty of making a joke about Mr. Fung that appeared to be in poor taste, it then became important for Mr. Shapiro to convince both the jurors and the public at large that he was not a bigot; in the face of this need, the question of who may or may not have hacked two people to death, and of who may or may not be framing an innocent man for a capital crime, faded into comparative insignificance.
Such behavior reflects not only the loss of a capacity for morally proportionate reactions but also the primacy of political behavior. When society loses the belief that there is intrinsic meaning residing in things themselves and hence a proper, and an improper, way to view reality, the resulting confusion is a perfect field for the assertion of political power. People simply do not know how to act, even when they have been personally injured, and it is left to those with the loudest and most persistent voices to tell them. This accounts for the extreme, almost hysterical touchiness, exhibited in our society when confronted by the mildest example of “racism,” or “sexism,” or “homophobism.” The reactions are not proportionate to whatever offense is committed, but rather proportionate to the public profile of the offended group. Thus, the Menendez boys claimed the mantle of child-abuse victims; Amy Fisher and Susan Smith are female and therefore, according to the tenets of feminism, more sinned against than sinning.
In the absence of a sense of ordered reality, the power of politics (which in our democracy means the power of organized special-interest groups) is unlimited, even to the extent of blurring the distinction between man and the lower animals. When a California woman was killed by a mountain lion last year, and the lion subsequently destroyed, the woman’s children and the lion’s cubs were both left motherless; donations for the support of the cubs far exceeded donations for the support of the children. In an earlier incident, when a five-year-old girl was severely mauled by another mountain lion, to the point of suffering brain damage, there was widespread resistance to killing the lion; the caller to the California Fish and Game Department who said that humans are always replaceable, whereas mountain lions are not, gave expression to what is rapidly becoming common educated opinion. These are the reactions of people whose consciences have been completely formed by politics; they simply do not know that people are intrinsically worth more than animals. Animal rights advocates, environmentalists, conservationists all speak for animals; there is no group that speaks for people-who-have-been-mauled-by-animals. Lacking a public profile, such people are simply invisible. Among the truly civilized it is considered grossly offensive to imply that there is any primacy to be accorded to humans—such bias is labeled “speciesism” and filed with all the other abhorred biases.
When people lose all belief in a morally ordered reality, there can be no lacrmae rerum because there are no longer any real things, any res of independent meaning and value, to inspire tears. To many, the abandonment of the conviction that some intrinsic meaning resides in the world’s affairs and commands human feelings rather than being subject to them, no doubt seems like a liberating thing. On the contrary, when the human understanding of reality is cut loose from its moorings to truth, people become completely subject to the shifting demands of politics. The personal judgment of human beings, grounded in each person’s understanding (however dim) of a real moral order, gives way to pressures brought to bear by whoever happen to be the current rulers of society, who assign value by sheer force of will. As a result, human moral reactions and beliefs must submit to a master that is tyrannical, completely capricious, and inevitably unreasonable.