For Who Gives In And Turns His Eye

As he was being imprisoned and tortured daily before being executed by the Ostrogothic king who had removed him from his place as magister officiorum (a royal chief of staff for the civil service and court officials) and tortured for what appears to be some sort of political matter, the late Roman intellectual Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius wrote the following in his gloomy and contemplative work called Consolation Of Philosophy:

For who gives in and turns his eye
Back to the darkness from the sky,
Loses while he looks below
All that up with him may go [1].

Although it remains obscure why the learned Boethius was imprisoned and tortured and eventually killed by the king, whose kingdom was itself soon to fall to the Byzantines, it is striking that in his final attempts to console himself, the intellectual sought to convey dark philosophical truths in a moving and elegant poetic form. This part of a much longer poem suggests that those who turn away from seeking the light, who avert their gaze from the truth lose the potential that they would have in their falling away. It suggests the sense of loss that comes from a failure of moral courage, a loss in human potential and achievement.

This turning away from the truth can be for a variety of reasons, but its results are lamentable and tragic, especially in that they serve to implicate many otherwise decent men and women in the evils of others that they fail to resist. As it is said, “In order for evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.” Moral courage is rarely something that pays off in the moment; it is often inconvenient, lonely, and immensely dangerous to stand against the fashionable evils of a particular place and time. Those who have the moral courage to stand up against evil may be thought of as either close-minded or bigoted on the one hand because of a rejection of the politically correct tolerance of their ages to certain kinds of evil, or may be thought of as dangerously radical on the other hand for the way in which their moral stance overturns long-held and wicked traditions in the name of moral progress.

There may be a gradation of moral sentiment in a given population that can at least theoretically be motivated against evil (if sometimes on dubious grounds) but that seldom can be mobilized from the start because it is inchoate in form. For example, even within the antebellum South (which was certainly a corrupt culture) there was a moral hostility to the internal slave trade because of the way that it tore children from their parents and the way in which it subordinated the concerns of the plantation owner as a pater familias to the raw and unfettered influence of the market, making a mockery of the anti-capitalist claims of the moral superiority of the Southern squirocracy to the capitalist market culture of Yankees. Of course, the internal slave trade [2] was enduring and profitable because the refusal of slaveowners to provide incentives to labor (like freedom) or obey the Sabbath land rest laws led to a ruinous exploitation of land and humanity and the general impoverishment in both moral and economic terms of those lands over which slave culture held a death grip.

In such a time it was easy for people to turn a blind eye to evils happening elsewhere. Yet thanks to those like Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney, it became impossible for that evil to be localized in the South, but rather he (and others like him) sought to expand the evil of slavery across the whole nation, not willing to accept any sort of shame for their desire to rule despotically over others. An evil that is long tolerated will rebel against any vestiges of seeing itself as evil at all, and will in the name of demanding tolerance and equity with righteousness seek to condemn and punish and attack all who still dare to call an evil an evil. It matters little whether the evil springs from the right or the left, from a desire to liberate mankind from morality and decency on the one hand or from equality and justice on the other.

Ultimately, whatever sort of evil wishes to entrench itself, there is a similarity in the way that it spreads like a cancer until it ultimately overthrows the legitimacy of authority where it has taken residence or until it is arrested and removed. First an evil seeks to ingratiate itself at the founding of an institution or polity, appealing to laziness or greed among those who are the early leaders in an effort, allowing them great power and influence and wealth at the cost of great harm to people and habitats that those elites often rule from afar, being insulated from their immediate effects and only interested in the profits on their investments and in the resulting power and influence that they will gain as a result of the success of their efforts. Through inertia, this initial lapse becomes imbued with the aura of precedent that gives rise to established tradition, making it harder to eradicate. Then, this tradition shows its hostility to any institutional or societal ideals that are hostile to the evils of that tradition, by turning that evil into a matter of identity.

This tendency is immensely and lamentably common among humanity. One sees it in the lip service that is paid to ideals of justice and equality that are paid by leftist regimes the world over that end up leading to the massive increase in power and resources held by the state that are acquired for the enjoyment of an unaccountable and corrupt ruling elite that make laws for others that do not restrain their own conduct. One sees it in the lip service that is paid to regimes to morality and family that are paid by rightist regimes the world over that end up leading to the corrupt acquisition of wealth by a few at the cost of abject misery for many, or the use of the military to crush any elected regime that might dare to seek the best interests of marginal groups who wish to enjoy their “fair share” of the spoils of economic development.

How can we avoid this tendency by which institutions and authority become seen as spoils to be fought over rather than sacred responsibilities to seek after the well being of others? It is by no means easy to develop or preserve rigorous standards of morals and ethics that reverse or prevent the corruption of power in all its forms. It is hard for those who are actively corrupting their world to recognize themselves as evil, when they often think they are doing good for both themselves and for society at large. All too often political debates take place in atmosphere where false dilemmas are common and where the full range of options available for statesmen is deliberately not expressed in public discourse, because an awareness of those options would lead to greater dissatisfaction with those options that are readily available.

It is hard to stand up against this evil for many reasons. For one, an evil may be focused in another place but its effects can spread far beyond. To the extent that we believe the low cost of goods and services to be dependent on cheap labor, we will be resistant to see the poorest among us and in other nations increase their standard of living, lest it threaten our own position. To the extent that we believe it to be improper to condemn others for evil, lest we appear too moralistic and too Puritanical, we will give evil enough of a place to feel at home that it will soon seek to spread (as was the case with slavery in the antebellum South, or the horrors of Sharia law and the darkness of Islamic jurisprudence in today’s world). For another, to stand up against evil may invite unpleasant political and economic and evil legal consequences, as the force of law and threats of boycotts and sanctions can often be used to silence those who would speak out against the fashionable evils of our time. These are tried and true techniques by which the evil one has made those who wish to speak the truth aware of the price that is to be paid for being a just man (or woman) in a dark and wicked world.

There are no easy dilemmas to the moral questions that we face in life, wherever we may be. The same has been true in all ages of human history. Given the numerous tensions and difficult questions we must wrestle with, questions of justice and mercy and truth, it is all too easy to seek easy answers by resolving those tensions in one extreme or another or to desire to wash our hands of the questions as a cowardly Pontius Pilate did with his own moral dilemma nearly two thousand years ago. It is easy to hold onto ideologies and philosophies and to act unjustly towards people, or to honor people with our lips while we act in such a way that degrades and dishonors God and man. To stand in the light of truth, and to seek that ascent towards the nature and likeness of God that is our just inheritance is to come face to face with the darkness inside of us all. May we all be brave enough to stand up against that darkness.

[1] David Ewing Duncan, Caldenar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine A True And Accurate Year. (New York: Avon Books, 1998), 94.

This is also the same time period and place discussed previously here:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to For Who Gives In And Turns His Eye

  1. Pingback: So That Crows Flying Over It For The Balance Of The Season Will Have To Carry Their Provender With Them | Edge Induced Cohesion

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