Tag Archives: morality

Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Shopkeepers?

Although I celebrate the principle of historic preservation, there are times when it can go a bit too far.  The recent case here in Washington of the hideous Christian Science Church near the White House is a good example of how people confuse “old” with “historic” in this country.  However there is a different topic in historic preservation which often gets overlooked, and that is the historic business.  The question I want to pose to the reader is, do we have a moral duty to shopkeepers to preserve their old business, or does that business have to rise or fall through its own merits?

My favorite city in the world, Barcelona, is a very ancient place, founded by the Carthaginians and later populated by the Greeks and Romans.  While no garum shops survive from Roman days – although you can find their amazingly well-preserved ruins in the underground streets atop which sits the City History Museum – there are some businesses still trading that existed a century or more ago.  Set Portes restaurant down near the harbor, for example, has been serving seafood and rice dishes since 1836.

As of January 1st of this year, many of the older shops in Barcelona and throughout Spain are facing almost certain closure.  A national law which we might translate as the “Urban Lease Act”, created substantial changes to the property leasing market throughout Spain.  It contains a number of common-sense reforms, such as clarifying rights and responsibilities for landlord-tenant agreements for university students, but as part of these reforms, the new law also does away with existing rent controls for commercial properties.  This means that many historic shops which lease their premises, and have existed for 50-100 years or more, are now facing extinction.

One early victim, the nearly 70-year-old Canuda bookshop in the Gothic Quarter, has already shut its doors.  So has the superb Monforte toy store, which first opened its doors in 1840.  And it has recently been announced that the lovely old Quilez grocery/delicatessen/liquor store, where I used to go to buy a very specific brand of Russian vodka one cannot find in this country, is going to have to close as well.  The rent hikes on its prominent and prestigious building, located on the corner of a fashionable shopping street downtown, were too great to bear.

Of course, the change in the law will not affect all historic businesses the same way.  As one might imagine, luxury dealers in items like women’s accessories or jewelry/watch dealers will probably survive.  And although it will be too late for many historic businesses, Barcelona city officials are now scrambling – better late than never – to try to come up with some sort of municipal plan of action to save what is left, perhaps through tax breaks or zoning changes.

So this situation brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece, which is whether we have a moral obligation to protect businesses such as these from changes in the economic environment, or whether the effects of the market on such businesses are morally neutral.

No one likes to see a beautiful old business shut its doors, leaving a hole in a community where it had long-standing ties.  There is something tragic about the loss to the fabric of a neighborhood when this happens, even if it the business in question was only open for a few decades rather than a few centuries.  The departure of several old taverns in my Washington neighborhood of Georgetown for example – particularly The Guards – left me and many others genuinely saddened by the loss.  Georgetown’s commercial district more and more comes to resemble an outdoor shopping mall for people who do not live in the neighborhood, and less of an actual neighborhood for those of us who do live there.

Yet the impetus to engage in commerce, lest one forget it, is in most cases not a charitable one.  Commercial property ownership is not entered into with the expectation that one will lose money by engaging in it, any more than a commercial business sets up shop just to be nice.  The parties are there to make a profit, and to ignore the profit-making principle is to sentimentalize their motives.  In fact, to argue that a business should be preserved simply because it sells nice things that no one wants to buy is arguably a form of idolatary, in which we are asked to worship a golden calf in the form of a book or a marionette or a bottle of gin.

It seems to this scrivener that if there is a moral obligation to preserve an historic business, it is at best one limited to specific instances and not a universal principle – although I rely on you, gentle reader, to upbraid me in the comments box if you disagree.  When customers are not buying, or profits are non-existent, that is unfortunate, and perhaps it is time to shift to trading in something else.  However, that does not mean that the original commercial enterprise must be renewed ad infinitum simply because it is old. Otherwise, we would still have blacksmiths and wig makers on every corner.

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

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Don’t Touch That Stove!

We are all familiar with the expression, “getting burned” by someone or something.  We use it in the obvious sense, such as when we touch something very hot, and we also use it to mean that we have learned from a previous, negative experience.  We may also use the expression to mean that someone has given us a particularly harsh level of criticism.  Yet while this “burning” level of criticism rarely benefits anyone, we have now witnessed the banishment of virtually any type of corrective criticism in Western culture, to the point where no one seems to realize that something rather more important than someone’s personal feelings are burning.  And this state of affairs stems largely from the confusion of the fluctuating standards of personal taste with the unchanging standards of personal virtue.

While I cannot say that my opinions are any less…well, opinionated now than they were 20 years ago, it is clear to The Courtier that his opinions on many matters have softened somewhat as he has gotten older.  This is not so much because of an abandonment of a sense of standards, or a befuddling of a line between good and bad.  Rather it is a realization that some things, which are not intrinsically right or wrong in themselves, simply come down to a question of taste.

For example, both watching a basketball game and eating chicken wings are, in essence, matters of personal taste; for me, these things are both awful, and I do not enjoy them. We can certainly talk about whether or not we like these things, and why, without addressing any deep, important questions of our time.  Depending on our answer, we may not be asked over to Phil’s house next week to participate in the combination of both these things, but that’s as may be.  What is disturbing about our present age, however, is that we have confused expressing our personal taste, and the relative nature thereof, with the expression of concern over moral issues, which are not in fact relative.

If someone were to say to you that they do not care for a particular reality television program – and sadly one is spoilt for choice these days – because the people in it behave in a completely depraved fashion, the common response to such a statement is not one of, “We should complain to the broadcaster and get this off the air.”  Instead, the response is dismissive: “If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to watch it.”  Is that simplistic response really a legitimate answer to this type of criticism?

It should be obvious that since I do not want to watch said television program, because I find it morally objectionable, I do not need to be told not to watch it when I express a criticism of its moral content.  Obviously I have already reached the conclusion that there is something wrong with this content, otherwise I would have said nothing, and my purpose in raising the issue is not really for my own benefit.  Rather, it is for the benefit of both of us.

To put it another way, if I see a pot bubbling away on a hot stove, I know that it would be dangerous to touch that pot without some sort of protection.  Otherwise, I shall end up burning my hand.  Yet what is my obligation when I see that you are about to pick up that bubbling pot without using a tea towel or an oven mitt: do I simply stand there and say nothing, because I am not supposed to judge your actions?

Let us take this analogy a bit further, and look at what happens next.  Ask yourself, what happens when you decide to behave stupidly, and pick up that boiling pot, while I keep my mouth shut.  When you cry out in pain and anguish, am I supposed to just ignore you and go about my business? No: you would expect me to help and comfort you, providing you with some type of treatment, and taking you to the doctor if need be.

Now imagine that not only did I say nothing before you picked up that pot, since I cannot judge your actions, but I did nothing, as you stood there screaming and crying after injuring yourself.  If I did not help you, you would criticize me for being inhumane, and you would be right to do so.  You might even conclude that I was lacking in basic human decency, and that I was a cruel person with no feeling toward others.

Therefore why is it acceptable for me to assist you after you have ruined your hand, but not acceptable for me to warn you not to burn your hand in the first place?  For surely the latter is far easier than the former, let alone less costly and time-consuming for both parties.  If of course you do not listen to my warning and burn yourself anyway, then we can take that as it comes,  However if I can persuade you not to burn yourself in the first place, aren’t we both better off, in the end?

Our culture has gone so far in the direction of not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, that we are terrified to open our mouth and say that something is wrong or inappropriate, for fear of being criticized or shunned by our peers.  I must stand by and watch you burn yourself on the stove while saying nothing, and then clean up afterwards, again while saying nothing.  This is utter nonsense.

If we are to bring Western society back from the selfish malaise into which it has fallen, we need to start asking the questions which our contemporary culture does not want us to ask.  In doing so, we will be rejecting the assumptions which we are told are those held by reasonable people.  And if that is what is to happen, gentle reader, then I say, so be it.  I am not going to stand idly by and watch you injure yourself.

At the same time, remember that being right does not absolve you from helping another pick up the pieces when things fall apart.  We must be the very first at hand when someone needs our assistance and we are in a position to provide it, even if we find it unpleasant or inconvenient.  Otherwise, we are standing by the stove, saying, “I told you so,” as our fellow man writhes in pain from his poor decisions.  Not only does this do no one any good, but it is simply a variant of the gross selfishness which got us into our present mess in the first place.

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Distinctions and Differences: The Myth of the “Catholic Vote”

One of the more comment-worthy statistics to come out of Tuesday’s election results was that the majority of self-identified Catholics voted for Mr. Obama, despite the efforts of the bishops to point to the threat of this Administration’s HHS Mandate against Catholic institutions.  In the aftermath, I made the point of responding to those posting about this statistic in my different social media timelines that polls tend to lump together all voters who self-identify as Catholics into a single bloc or category, referring to us collectively as the “Catholic vote”.  And simply put, gentle reader, I would argue that for practical purposes the term “Catholic vote”, at the present time, is little more than a myth, unless we are willing to draw some clear distinctions and differences.

Thinking that the term “Catholic vote” describes some sort of electoral bloc is easier for many, since public understanding in this country of exactly what the Catholic Church is, what it teaches, and how it functions continues to be astonishingly poor.  For example, many continue to believe that we worship statues, think of the Virgin Mary as a goddess, and do not want people to read the Bible – none of which, I emphatically assure you, is true.  I was recently informed by an Evangelical Protestant, to my utter surprise, that I did not believe in the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Holy Trinity.  This was news to me, and all I can say is, if Sister Barbara my 5th-grade religion teacher finds this out, then I am in serious trouble.

Yet this sort of thing not only happens to Catholics on a personal level, but we see and hear it in the media as well, and with particularly alarming frequency given that 1 out of every 4 Americans is, at least nominally, a Catholic.  Unfortunately, sometimes the source of the confusion comes from Catholics themselves, who misrepresent the position of the Church, either maliciously or out of ignorance.  Particularly when it comes to moral issues, there are many prominent Catholics who need to go back to Sister Barbara themselves for a refresher course on what being Catholic means.

For example, the Catholic Church has taught for two thousand years that elective abortion is evil, and a sin against the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a compendium of the thinking and teaching of the Church on the faith with extensive references to Scripture and the early Church Fathers from the first centuries of Catholicism, we can read the following:

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.

Putting aside whatever your personal opinion may be on abortion, gentle reader, look closely and dispassionately at this text and concentrate on the way it is written.  There is simply no wiggle room here on this issue, is there?  The meaning of this section of the Catechism is plain on its face.

However despite the absolute, crystalline clarity which is plain to anyone reading the above statement, there are millions of Catholics in the United States who flat-out reject this teaching.  In fact, I have seen very prominent Catholics argue, bewilderingly, that the Church has not been clear on this subject, or who prognosticate that the Church will one day decide to throw this teaching out the window. Simply put, this is not going to happen.

Yet understanding the fact that there are millions of ordinary Catholics who think that the Church will change and, eventually, “come around” on this issue, is a good way to show why, at the present time, the “Catholic vote” is not really the most useful term, if one is trying to learn anything about politics by employing it.  It tells us absolutely nothing about electoral trends, although unfortunately it tells us a great deal about the failure of efficacious Catholic religious instruction over the past forty years.  It effectively puts someone like Mother Angelica of EWTN and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco in the same political category, and it would be difficult to imagine a more strange pairing.

Catholics are too culturally fractured today to all be stuffed into the same ballot box under the term, the “Catholic Vote”.  This is as a result of a number of factors, including bad catechesis, a lack of courageous preaching from the pulpit, and the poor example of two generations of Catholics more concerned with making everyone feel good about themselves, rather than confronting the realities of sin and secularism.  Seeing the number of Catholics who showed up to vote may tell us demographically whom the Catholics voted for, yes.  However, we need to take the time to draw the distinctions necessary here, in order to understand the often profound differences of both opinion and practice, which exist among Catholics in America today if we are to learn anything from these figures.

Franciscan friar voting in Arizona in 1906

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Three Years Old, And Still Idealistic

Three years ago today, I started the Blog of the Courtier with the encouragement of several friends, notably author Dawn Eden and the American Papist, Thomas Peters, for whose encouragement and guidance I will always be grateful. Posting five days a week (give or take), every week, for three years gives you a lot of content to sift through as you look back over how the blog has developed – particularly since, as my readers know, my posts tend to be on the long side, and oftentimes deal with complicated subjects. To give you some idea of statistics, the blog presently stands at 760 posts in over 1,000 categories, and has received over 1,000 posted comments from readers. Not bad for a somewhat esoteric publication which does not aspire to be all things to all people.

Of course, all blogs differ greatly, in that they serve different purposes – whether as commentary on current affairs, sharing humor and personal experiences, publishing photographs, giving tips on how to do something, etc. Yet what all hold in common is the fact that they are, by definition, informed by the views of their creator. Factors such as the writer’s background, education, and experiences are going to provide a certain point of view to the material created for publication.

When I write a blog post on this site, it is not intended to be a newspaper article or an encyclopedia entry, where the goal is to try to remove the personality of the author from the writing as much as possible. Rather, a blog post here is predominantly composed of this scrivener’s thoughts on matters which he finds interesting. I doubt that those of you who are regular readers visit these pages because you are looking for news reporting: you are looking for commentary, and in the case of regular readers, you are looking for my commentary in particular.

The more you read these pages, the more clear it becomes that I have certain views about how we ought to bring back our society from the depths to which it has sunk, and instead encourage the exercise of virtue, intellectual curiosity, and good manners practiced by the best of the courtiers of old.  Yet when you read my commentary, gentle reader, keep in mind that I am no paragon myself.  I am far from being the ideal courtier, even if that lofty ideal has served as an inspiration to me in my own life for many years, long before I began this blog.

As a matter of fact, it was an ideal that Count Castiglione himself, the patron of this blog, did not believe he fully lived up to either. Rather it was something he strove to achieve, and did his best to aim for.  In the introduction to his “Book of the Courtier”, Castiglione penned a few words to his friend, the Portuguese Cardinal Miguel Da Silva, addressing the question of why he was trying to hold up such a lofty (and to many minds) unattainable standard. I think it is important for us to read his words today, when our society has adopted such a lowest common denominator as the standard for our behavior, entertainments, morality, and the like.  I could not hope to craft a better apologia for my work than what Castiglione himself wrote about his own writing:

Some say that since it is so difficult and nearly impossible to find a man as perfect as I wish the Courtier to be, it was superfluous to write of him, because it is folly to teach what cannot be learned. To these I answer that I am content to have erred in company with Plato, Xenophon and Cicero, leaving on one side all discussion about the knowable world and ideals; among which, just as are included (according to those authors) the ideal of the perfect State, of the perfect King and of the perfect Orator, so also is the ideal of the perfect Courtier. And if in my style I have failed to approach the image of this ideal, it will then be much easier for courtiers to approach in deeds the aim and goal that I have set them by my writing; and even if they fail to attain that perfection, such as it is, which I have tried to express, then he that approaches nearest to it will be the most perfect; just as where many archers shoot at a target and none hit the mark dead center, then he that comes nearest to it is better than the rest.

Still others say that I attempted to paint my own portrait, as if I were convinced that I possessed all the qualities that I attribute to the Courtier. To these I shall not indeed deny having tried everything that I should wish the Courtier to know, and I think that a man, however learned, who did not know something of the matters discussed in the book, could not really have written about them; but I am not so lacking in self-discernment as to fancy that I know everything I have the desire to know.

My defense then, against these and perhaps many other accusations, I leave for the present to the verdict of public opinion, for while the many may not perfectly understand, yet more often than not they detect by natural instinct the aroma of what is good and what is bad, and without being able to explain exactly why, they relish one thing and like it, and reject another and hate it. Therefore if my book wins general favor, I shall think it must be good and ought to live; but if it fails to please, I shall think it must be bad and soon to be forgotten.

And if my critics are not satisfied with the verdict of public opinion, then let them rest content with that of time, which in the end reveals the hidden defects of everything, and being the father of truth and a dispassionate judge, ever passes on men’s writings a just sentence, of life or death.

Thank you for your patronage of this blog, gentle reader, and I hope to continue to provide you with worthwhile commentary, practical information, and the like in the year ahead.

The Count and The Widow

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God and the Discothèque

Today being Bastille Day, as I have every year for many years I mark the occasion not by celebration, but by wearing black and stopping in at church to pray for my ancestors who were killed by godless leftists in the French Revolution. It is rather fitting, then, that tonight the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown, named for the 19th century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, will be screening writer-director Whit Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco”.   Both de Tocqueville and Stillman regret the cheapening of traditional values in their own communities and times, but each holds out hope that – in America at least – through the influence of religion such values are by no means dead and buried, despite the best efforts of moral relativism.

In his thinking and writing de Tocqueville – whose parents had had to flee the guillotine – was committed to the restoration of order and tradition in France, so that the ideals of classical liberalism he believed in could grow naturally, rather than through violent means. Stillman, working in the arts rather than public policy, has been chronicling the decline of the urban haute bourgeoisie of which he is a member, as ideals become cheapened through association with and the ascendancy of the seedier side of life. Both in their respective worlds witnessed an erosion of the high value formerly placed on good moral judgement, true talent, and even personal style, and its replacement by an embrace of lowest common denominator pandering.

In “Democracy in America” de Tocqueville (himself a Catholic), noted that Catholicism was flourishing in the United States, alongside many other religions, which in conjunction made sure that while religion did not rule the state, it informed the way people behaved toward one another and in public life.  He was pleased to note that, as of 1831 anyway, worship of the state had not trumped the worship of God in the United States, as he had witnessed in France. The accompanying siren song of libertine moral relativism was kept muffled in America by the fact that there was a common moral good, upheld by religious people as being more important than the good of the state:

Hitherto no one, in the United States, has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible with a view to the interests of society – an impious adage, which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all the tyrants of future ages. Thus while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.

Stillman of course is working in the arts rather than political theory. Yet in “Last Days of Disco” as in his other films, Stillman casts an accusing glance at the embrace of libertine behavior.   What are supposedly well-brought-up girls like his two central characters of Charlotte and Alice (played, respectively, by Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny) doing mixing with men who embrace moral relativism over virtue and self-sacrifice? In probably the most well-known part of the film, Stillman has the idealistic young attorney Josh (Matt Keeslar) criticize the message of amorality which he perceives as integral to Walt Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” in discussion with Charlotte and Alice:

There is something depressing about it, and it’s not really about dogs. Except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types, which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond Cocker Spaniel with absolutely nothing on her brain. She’s great-looking, but – let’s be honest – incredibly insipid. Tramp, the love interest, is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind – an oily jailbird out for a piece of tail, or whatever he can get…He’s a self-confessed chicken thief, and all-around sleazeball.

What’s the function of a film of this kind? Essentially as a primer on love and marriage directed at very young people, imprinting on their little psyches the idea that smooth-talking delinquents recently escaped from the local pound are a good match for nice girls from sheltered homes. When in ten years the icky human version of Tramp shows up around the house, their hormones will be racing and no one will understand why. Films like this program women to adore jerks.

This is a process which continues today, of course. For example, if decades ago the press in the United States was captivated by the (admittedly choreographed) wedding of the elegant and talented Grace Kelly; today media in the United States appears captivated by the (unabashedly choreographed) wedding of – and I am being exceedingly kind here – the inelegant and untalented Kim Kardashian. Whereas the former event allowed us to dream, the latter gives us nightmares. And I suspect – though admittedly without being able to state for certain – that both de Tocqueville and Stillman would agree to some extent that this is a natural result of a decline in the standards of what people ought to aspire to or seek to emulate, as a result of American society turning its back on traditional values of morality, and the attempts to marginalize religion in favor of the worship of celebrities, or of oneself.

Nevertheless, rather than wring their hands, de Tocqueville and Stillman are not pessimists – at least not as far as America is concerned. In looking at the America he observed first-hand, de Tocqueville saw that there was much good coming out of the American experiment with democracy, even if it was by no means a perfect system.  His belief that the role of religion in American society is ultimately a positive one should give those who would otherwise despair some hope that not all is yet lost.

Similarly, Stillman sings a lament for the trashing or watering down of American ideals he believes in,  but never adopts the attitude that the United States will somehow fully succumb to selfishness. The importance of the words of traditional religious hymns, which come to bear repeatedly throughout “Last Days of Disco”, give him and us at least some sense that the role of religion in American life is, while under attack, never going to be completely barred from the public square.  Indeed, the character of Josh, arguably the most religious of the bunch, gives an impassioned proclamation that, “Disco will never die!”, even as he and Alice head off into an old-fashioned, self-sacrificial type of happy ending in which disco music is merely something fun to dance to, rather than providing moral guidance to live by.  And Stillman ends his film not with the soul-disco classic “Love Train”, which appears over the first part of the final credits, but instead with the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace”.

In the end, both de Tocqueville and Stillman remain hopeful that, even if it will be a difficult path back, virtue will ultimately triumph, and this will come about because the important role religion plays in American society will provide the stability that such a re-emergence of virtue needs.


Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny navigate the “Last Days of Disco”

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