The Gentlemen's Agreement that Nihilism is True
Compromise with the zeitgeist on fundamentals is only redeemable through a renewed faith
Recently, I heard this phrase (the main title of the article) on a podcast. The host, an Orthodox priest, Father Andrew, was talking about the tendency in the modern zeitgeist to operate under a certain set of assumptions about the world. His guest, Jonathan Pageau (who obviously was not being a gentleman in that sense), talked about a T-Shirt that said, “Obviously Santa Claus Exists.”
Pageau is an iconographer; someone who, rebelliously it seems, treats art as something sacred, divine, mystical, even enchanted; he represents a modern search for the sublime. Sacred is the new counter culture.
But the Santa Claus shirt hit me (and not just because it’s been a topic here before): I’ve always maintained that Miracle on 34th Street was the best Christmas movie. To be sure, there are plenty contenders, so I have always found myself awkwardly defending it as objectively better than It’s a Wonderful Life or — pick your favorite version of (Scrooged” is still my favorite) — The Christmas Carol. Love Actually is a popular one for my wife and I, and of course, my second favorite: Die Hard.
Miracle on 34th Street always won out for me and here’s the reason why: it forces us to confront a deeper and higher meaning to the question — not the “is Santa Claus Real” question, but THE question (no, not that one) — what is Truth. After all, if the floods of letters coming into the courthouse is enough to prove that there’s a Santa Claus to the nice judge in New York (granted, yes, he probably had an election coming up soon), then is that good enough for the rest of us — or no?
Can you prove that the “big guy” can get down the chimneys of billions of homes all in a night? No. Could you prove he didn’t exist by confronting 6 or 7 years olds with video of their parents putting together the toys that purportedly came from… the big guy? Sure you could. But does that make him not real? Because the idea of him and what he represents has intrinsic value. It’s not just a “feeling” or a cool idea, or a gimmick, but a tangible, real phenomenon, with a history and substance and consequences. Santa Claus is real for the same reason that love is real. Not just a mother’s love, or erotic love, but love for your dog, for a stranger in need, for your country.
On the latter topic, our latest reading in “Great Ideas Through the Arts” was Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws. He had the following to say about the most valuable virtue in a Republic:
“This virtue may be defined as the love of the laws and of our country. As such love requires a constant preference of public to private interest, it is the source of all private virtues; for they are nothing more than this very preference itself.”
Which brings us to the topic at hand… the counter culture of the day… the faithful. There is no better example than the recent Kanye West Christian conversion, followed by the briefest of Presidential campaigns. It’s another example of my wanting to support something before I even had any rational reason why. My endorsement here was very tongue-in-cheek, as it wasn’t until very recently it became apparent why it made a sort of real sense. I had not seen this ad until it was mentioned by Pageau:
Kanye mentioned faith, and families, and prayer, and (GASP! EGADS!) God, and this was, for weeks, the source of a lot of jest and jeering.
Pageau’s line was “pay attention to the fools”; many consider West a fool, but he’s a fool in the same sense that the fools and jesters in Shakespeare were fools, in that he is going against the “gentleman’s agreement” in the court (the court here being the world of media and entertainment. In this case, it is the agreement that faith and God and prayer are not that important. “Sure. We all like families,” the gentlemen say, “but we can hold it all together without all that religion stuff…right?” The fools are often the ones tapping into something we’ve decided is untappable that ends up being something we lost and shouldn’t have. It’s inevitably sacred and mystical — and in every way real.
Speaking of entertainers and fools, I don’t watch “ghost hunter” shows for the same reason I don’t watch most reality TV shows: I don’t hate myself. Really though, it’s because the format is painful - repetitive, predictable, with a lot of “filler”… “clickbaity” for lack of a better term.
The actual challenge with ghost shows, of course, is that it seeks to show what which shouldn’t be shown, or rather that which, once shown would lose its allure and value. What would happen if we really did start scientifically proving the existence of ghosts, and communing with them? Besides the fact that we would likely end up having to give them the right to vote (wait…too soon?), the mystery would be gone. When you’re dealing with the “paranormal, “ once the inaccessible nature of the thing is gone, its value is gone. It ceases to be “paranormal” and becomes normal. It would likely be closer akin to discovering that aliens were among us than it would be to bringing us closer to any understanding of our Creator (not that the two must be mutually exclusive). This is why the “m word” was never, ever, ever uttered again past the second act of “The Phantom Menace”, because NO rational person wanted the Force to be explained away as a disease with cool side-effects.
There is a consistent call to “follow the science” or “believe the science” or (my personal favorite - and I even have a response in my yard) “science is real.” Notwithstanding the aphoristic nature of the latter — which if you think about it just a second or two, you could come to ask: what does “believing” or “trusting” in science really mean? — if science is “real”, and it’s provable, then we don’t have to believe in it. It’s real. If it’s shown to be true, then there is no belief required. It just is.
As a belief system, science is a dead letter. It doesn’t really give us a “why” to do anything; though often it can provide a “how.” Science can slaughter millions of lives or save one precious life. It can rationalize slaughtering hundreds to save thousands, or slaughtering millions for other pretenses of “the greater good.” Science is wholly inadequate at sacrificing many to save one… which is sometimes the most…. rational, and humane choice.
The Star Trek Trilogy (II, III, and IV) was mediocre sci-fi (unlike the first movie which was brilliant and quite underrated), but great movie making. At its core the entire trilogy was about one thing: disproving the original, hypothesis posited by Mr. Spock that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (after all, if nihilism is true what difference does the number of lives make anyway?). The fact that Spock’s cold, utilitarian notion is completely destroyed over the course of the three movies makes sense, though. It’s the same reason that the most Malthusian villain of all time (you know) is so effective as a villain. The reason is that we know the the individual souls lost randomly are not less important or valuable because of “mouths to feed” or “scarce resources” to feed them.
And if we know this, the gentleman’s agreement is off. Nihilism is not true. There is a meaning to things. There are truths that are immutable. There are wrongs which we need to strive to make right, and inevitably we must, as neighbors and friends and fellow humans be bold enough to call them wrong in order to make them right.
We must speak them even if we’re considered fools — or worse; lest unimaginable evils become assumed as true, good, and proper. We must fill the world with good, even when we can’t prove it. Because it is good, the goodness will be apparent.
On the Christianity front, I heard a homily a couple weeks ago which closed with:
“The question you need to ask yourself is… if you were arrested for being a Christian, would the prosecution have enough evidence, from the way you live your life, to convict you.”
If you’re a person of faith, this is the right question. If you’re not, then find faith. Most importantly something you can’t prove scientifically, because in a paradox of paradoxes, it’s not real belief if you can take it apart, put it in a box and look at if from all angles, because then, you close the box and don’t think about it anymore, and it is the thinking about it, the wondering, even the doubting, that is required.
Faith is something we need now more than ever, not just because our society is going through a long struggle, but because in some ways the most critical things are likely going to get worse before they get better. And we need it because we need the anchor of uncertainty in the “why”… (not just the “how”) lest it become “because we can get away with it.” And, as discussed, “science” is not going to cut it.
More Montesquieu, and this time on the importance of virtue in a Republic, and being bold enough to care whether something is objectively good and true or not, as opposed to whether it means “your side” is winning the moment:
“When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before has become indifferent; they were free while under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be free to act against law; and as each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master, that which was a maxim of equity he calls rigor; that which was a rule of action he styles constraint; and to precaution he gives the name of fear. Frugality, and not the thirst of gain, now passes for avarice. Formerly the wealth of individuals constituted the public treasure; but now this has become the patrimony of private persons. The members of the commonwealth riot on the public spoils, and its strength is only the power of a few, and the license of many.”
Nihilism is not true, because mystery — like love, and heaven, and Santa Claus — is real. (Below is the flag that we have put up in front of our house. It was one of our country’s first revolutionary flags. It will be up until — at least — July 4th.)