In Philosophy where truth seems double-faced, there is no man more paradoxicall then my self — Sir T. Browne
I am more liable to believe in the traditional Catholic teaching of Purgatory, not due to the nature of God, but due to the nature of man. For man, knowing he needs improvement, and believing he must do something about that, spends his entire life creating temporal purgatories where he seeks to mend these faults. Indeed, if man were in charge, Purgatory would necessarily exist, and the best evidence I have for this consists in a simple anecdote. For I discovered myself heading toward one of these modern purgatories this week, dreading the thought of entering the building as much as what would occur within. Though my thoughts were naturally bent downwards on depression and death, I lifted my heavy head upwards and in a quick an ample move, I contorted my burly body in such a way that my right arm moved leftwards as my left arm, grabbing the inside portion of my dark, wool coat proceeded in the opposite direction, thus creating an awkward situation for my brain, which naturally told my legs to continue on in the forward motion they had previously been going. It so happened that this contortion of limbs and movement occurred so swiftly that the uppermost button of my coat flew to the ground as quickly as did Ananias upon confirmation of his deception of the Holy Ghost.
On entering the building, I gave the chap my card, gathered my newly tattered coat and turned to a friend who had also just entered. I laid hold of that disobedient button and held it up to him, asking him, in the usual misogyny that characterizes my rhetoric, if his wife knew how to sew on a button. To my joy it turned out she was a skilled sewer of buttons, and I concluded our brief dialogue with a declaration that I had been coming to this horrible place of self-mortification for far too long, for my body had outgrown my coat, and my buttons were beginning a small rebellion. The problem I often run into is not that I am too small, but rather that I am far too large for my own good.
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I find myself in a modern gymnasium on a fairly regular basis. Now, a young man needs only one quality when he enters a gym. He needs to have a very small view of himself. The smaller one sees himself, the less likely his ginormous head will get in the way of the weights his arms are lifting. There is nothing more obnoxious than a over-sized head when one lifts weights. It is not the smallness of a person that tends to be the problem at these places of pain. For the bigger a person is when he enters, the more he must lift. The worst is a man who is genuinely small, but his head is so overgrown that, upon lifting the weights, his body is either thrust forward due to the disproportionate amount of weight in regards to his small frame, or, the dumbbells come into contact with that huge head, laying him flat on his back. Thus, to keep myself from what would be an inevitable meeting with the floor, I proceed to the upper section of this particular gym and use machines that are less likely to cripple my frame.
On days when the gym is busy, nearly every machine is being used, and it is almost musical as all the mighty men move, and grunt, and wheeze, and curse in similar fashion. The machines are so uncomfortably close to each other, one wonders if we are not all one organism working together. As I lift a rather insignificant amount of weight, sweat drops from my furrowed brow, that brow which gains wrinkles upon every second I spend in the wretched place, and I feel so utterly, utterly alone. As the weight is lifted both arms and soul are crushed; I gasp for air and ask my Father to call me home; I open mine eyes, hoping to see His, only to feel the burning sensation of sweat meeting pupil, only to be reminded of how little I am lifting.
But as my eyes are opened, I see another pilgrim across the way. They are also grunting and torturing themselves. And I realize I am not alone.
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The problem with the modern is not that he is too small; it is that he is far too big. He is not too slow; he is too swift. He does not know too little; he knows too much. He is not pressed for time; he has too much time on his hands. He is not poor; he is too wealthy. The problem with modern society is that it proceeds to the gym to get bigger, not smaller. He can run around his world like he does the track, feeling as if he has improved himself all the while arriving not one step further than he began. For the real problem with modern man is not the economic crash or politics or war or even death. The real problem with modern man is not even that he is too evil, or even that he is evil at all.
The real problem is that he is far too good.¹
The paradox of the modern is that, though he believes there is nothing wrong with himself, he spends so much time on self-improvement. He goes to school to learn; to the gym to get fit; to counselling to fix his marriage. Modern man is the most rational of all humans that has lived; he is Superman without the kryptonite, who still feels as if he needs to do push-ups. But the paradox does not just reside in man’s ideology about himself. He does not merely believe himself to be perfect, yet in need of self-improvement; he believes all people to be perfect, and his neighbor is in more need of self-improvement than anyone.
But it is true that the New Moralist has arisen from the ashes of this philosophy of sand. The New Moralist does not believe there is “no wrong.” He believes there are multiple wrongs, and everyone ought to consider all of them as right. The traditional moralist believed we should improve ourselves with an objective standard and direction. The twentieth-century moralist believed we should improve ourselves without any standard or any direction whatsoever. The New Moralist believes we should improve ourselves by unimproving ourselves and calling evil good.
The traditional moralist argued that man ought to go to the gym to improve his physical build. The old moralist argued we ought to go the the gym to improve our math. The New Moralist believes everyone ought to go to the gym to be crushed by the weight. For all moralists may speak with the same rhetoric but merely have different ends in mind. While the traditionalist told everyone to love his neighbor because his neighbor was a man, the postmodernist told everyone to love his neighbor because he could not be sure his neighbor existed. But the New Moralist teaches us to love our neighbor because that is the best way to hate him.
We live in a society of purgatories that are currently in the process of being flipped upside down. The man who makes it out will be so unimproved by improvement he will be surprised to find himself in the Inferno.
¹Stolen from Chesterton, Orthodoxy.