Consolation and Lamentation in the City of Man




Of late, much ruckus has been raised around the “feverish city” we currently endure. Within the intellectual civil war currently taking place in the conservative movement, it seems to me that a majority of conservatives (even if not an overwhelming majority) can at least agree that our civilization is in some form of a feverish… The post Consolation and Lamentation in the City of Man appeared first on VoegelinView.
Of late, much ruckus has been raised around the “feverish city” we currently endure. Within the intellectual civil war currently taking place in the conservative movement, it seems to me that a majority of conservatives (even if not an overwhelming majority) can at least agree that our civilization is in some form of a feverish state; this would encompass even the social conservatives who subscribe to the doctrines of classical liberalism in politics, advocating for free markets and limited government, yet still vehemently disagree with the postliberals and the integralists over both the source and redress of our ills. One thing is clear, though: most conservatives see that the state of our society isn’t quite so dandy, that, if you like, it suffers from a metaphysical high fever. The disagreements arise in the discussion of what exactly living in this feverish state means.
I, however, would like to explore another facet of the feverish city; after all, I will leave the heavy lifting of detailing its conditions and remedies to the theologians and philosophers. Yet, I reckon a brief examination is in order so as to abet our understanding of the fever and fret in modern America. As Socrates teaches in Book II of Plato’s Republic, life in the feverish city is one conceived in contempt for simplicity. The state of being is never satisfactory as it merely is—there’s got to be more! Unnatural wants lead to the swelling of desire until men give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth; then they wage war, but war more aptly described in Saint Augustine’ City of God as the libido dominandi—the “lust for domination” which reigns as supreme lord of the earthly city.
To quickly note one more thing about the feverish city: it seems to me entirely analogous to the cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic—it is a “world of becoming” instead of “being,” a place of shadows and bondage. It is, in the end, entirely fake, and quite alienating, too. In Book IX, Socrates describes the men of the feverish city, chained in the cave, with tyranny-producing, democratic souls, as those who “move at random throughout life.” “Their pleasures are mixed with pains—how can they be otherwise? For they are mere shadows and pictures of the true.”
The feverish city is real, after all, we’re living in it, but, at the same time, it is the least real thing of all. It degrades, corrupts, and corrodes the souls of its men. It makes us slaves to our sin, our depravity. It breeds a pathetic, culture of death. It is, in its entirety, bad for the human person; it’s misaligned and disordered. Socrates’ description of the feverish city and the cave as “mere shadows and pictures of the true” is apt, but its truth is further developed by Saint Agustine, in his Confessions, where he claims “for you [God] evil does not exist,” because “whatever is, is good; and evil… is not a substance, because if it were a substance, it would be good.” The same, for him, is true of the false: “falsehood is nothing but the supposed existence of something which has no being” (Book VII). Therefore, the feverish city does not simply promote the false and evil, but it bolsters a state of non-being.
My concern, thus, is for the state of the conservative soul in the feverish city, for, in due time, those who escape the cave, see past the feverish city, encounter the light, and make the “ascent of the soul” as Socrates describes, life back down in the cave is rather miserable. In the cave, the enslaved men tell he who has encountered the truth it is better never to think of ascending, and if he try and loose them of their bondage, or “impose” this truth, goodness, and beauty onto them, “they would put him to death.”
Conservatism in the feverish city, in the cave, therefore, is agonizing—it requires one to see the good, yes, but then to not only realize his fellow man is chained, living in the world of shadows, bereft of being itself, but that true being which he has seen is despised by him. In the words of Christ our Lord,
If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you. If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.
The conservative is despised because he has seen the light, he has escaped the cave and is no longer of it—and the feverish city abhors what is not its own; thus, in such a state, his is a disposition replete with lamentation.
To return to Plato’s Republic, by degrees the anarchy characteristic of the democratic soul in Book VIII soon “finds a way into private houses.” By this, Socrates means that the “son is on level with the father… having no respect or reverence for either of his parents.” “In such a state of society,” he says, “the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are alike; and the young man is on level with the old.”
Distinctions disappear in the feverish city because reverence has vanished; and a society incapable of reverence is a society incapable of memory. Besides, how could it be? Where, past all of the sanctimony, would any memory possibly reside? Reverence demands humility, for in order to approach anything in reverence first requires transcending oneself, recognizing a world rich with knowledge and perspective—knowledge and perspective which build traditions which, in turn, establish memory. So, in the feverish city—where pride and self-love lord—where is there room for reverence, and what need is there for memory?
Yet the man who escapes the cave must retain memory, especially if he is to survive his descent back into the cave; as Socrates says, speaking of the light—“the universal author of all things beautiful and right,” and the “immediate source of reason and truth”—it is “a power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eyes fixed.” In Book IX, he speaks of the just city laid up in heaven, whereby, choosing to behold it, the just man must founds within himself.
One thing is clear: the man who beholds the true, the good, and the beautiful, must keep his gaze fixed on them; the one who sees the ills of the feverish city must found the healthy city deep within his soul. Yet, in the feverish city, where the false, the evil, and the putrid are raised up on the public altar, the conservative is the only one with memory, and so his nature is rather sombre. After all, everything he loves seems to be lost; more still, he alone bears the weight of this loss, he alone even cares loss has occurred. Significance itself has been destroyed along with distinctions. In this sense, in the feverish city, the conservative reaches the point of absolute mourning, where, as Roger Scruton would say, he mourns the very loss of loss.
Our memories, though, make us who we are, they constitute our very being; thus, it is appropriate that the feverish city would have no memory, because, as we know, it has no being.
One must simply open his eyes to see that this is the state of life in Western society today, particularly in America. There is no true being, let alone a unity of being. Everything is hollow, fickle, and cheap. Nothing stands. Nothing lasts. We lack any knowledge of who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, or who we are to become; We have no memory, and thus we have no being. We are a distracted people living in the shadows. Consequently, the man who sees the shadows for what they are is not merely lamentful—he is driven out to the cusps of cynicism and resentment.
The memory of beauty in the feverish city is heartbreaking, for to encounter the majesty of the Western canon is to also see the modern world for all its filth. How does one triumph over cynicism through that? How is one not overcome with resentment when he witnesses the perpetuation of a society which destroys men’s souls? I have struggled deeply with this because our Lord does not call us to hatred, cynicism, and resentment, but to forgiveness, hope, and love. So, where does the conservative turn to for consolation in the feverish city?
The answer is found in the very fact that we feel loss; there is, if you like, a consolation in lamentation. In fact, this idea has been explored throughout the Western artistic tradition. This struggle imbues much of the poetry of John Keats, to take just one example. In exploring the nature of melancholy (Ode on Melancholy), he writes,
She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die…
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.
Beautiful things seem as though they are bound to die; sorrow enters through this realization. This is why melancholy dwells in the temple of delight, and is “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” (Ode on Melancholy). These excerpts from Keats do not just explore living as a conservative in the feverish city, though; they explore the tragedy of life and confront the existence of sin—which is itself the absence of being, of beauty, truth, and goodness; they stand before the fact that loss dines at love’s table. From here is where the consolation springs: in the lamentation we encounter love, it is why we are lamenting in the first place. Beautiful things must be stored in our memory, for in this sense they never die, they never really are lost, which is why Keats is able to write (in the opening of Endymion),
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness…
This idea of beauty in the tragedy of being, of repose in a fickle world of constant change, and of consolation in lamentation, is developed further, again, in St. Augustine’s Confessions, where he movingly writes, of our Lord,
You are steadfast, constant in yourself; but we are tossed on a tide that puts us to the proof, and if we could not sob our troubles in your ear, what hope should we have left to us? How then can it be that there is sweetness in the fruit we pluck from the bitter crop of life, in the mourning and the tears, the wailing and the sighs? Does their sweetness spring from hope, the hope that you will hear them?
Through the precious blood he shed, Christ Crucified redeems our humanity, our sin, and the ugliness, evil, and putridity of life. He is truth, goodness, and beauty. He died so to conquer death in his resurrection, and it is to him we run when we are burdened and heavy-laden, for there we find rest in this inconstant world. Why? Because Christ our Lord was crucified so we could participate fully in his life, so his joy may be in us, and our “joy may be full,” not despite, but through the tragedy of life. In him, the logos, is true being, where the timeless is wed with time. In him we are consoled.
Therefore, to find consolation in the feverish city, and for his alienation from the world to be reconciled, the conservative ought to attend the Mass: where Heaven and Earth touch, and where he experiences, and is united to, the Platonic trinity in the flesh, in the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—in the Most Blessed Sacrament, the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so, the answer to the dilemma John Keats presents us with in Ode to a Nightingale,
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow
dwells deep in the manifestation of the Logos himself, the way he presented to us in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
Harken to his voice, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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