While I’ve talked about my discovery of Jack Vance, the other writer who is rapidly growing on me is Anthony Trollope. Part of this is because he deals with a theme which, as you might guess, holds my interest as well: the corrosive effects of liberal individualism. In particular, the distorting effects of capitalism.
The description of human nature found in enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Smith, Kant, Hegel et al. was really a positive vision of humanity which displaced the Medieval Christian one before it (yes, I know that there are substantive differences between these guys, but bear with my broad strokes for now). But as Kierkegaard noted, although the rise of liberal institutions founded on Enlightenment principles paved the way for greater freedom for the individual, the flattening effect that rationalist schemes were having on society, were leading to the production of unformed individuals who were being offered increasingly banal choices. In short, we were becoming consumers groomed for achieving worldly success.
In The Way We Live Now (which I am still in the middle of), the majority of the characters are mercenary. While some of their goals or motives are noble, everyone seems to view themselves as self-interested, individual monads competing against each other. Institutions like marriage almost seem to only exist as part of a crass, utilitarian cost/benefit scheme.
The Warden, meanwhile, brings up the question of what it means to lead a virtuous, God-fearing life in such a world. The novel concerns Septimus Harding, who is the warden of an almshouse, and a scandal over of the disparity between Harding’s income and that of his benefactors. Both conservative and progressive forces come off rather unpleasantly. Archbishop Grantley conflates the defense of the Church and tradition with the safeguarding of material privilege; the reformer John Bold, while actually kind of in the right, fails to see that there is anything to his more traditional opponents beyond personal interest and account the human cost of his activism before it is too late. In both cases, the good has been watered down to economics and cut off from any transcendence. Harding’s concern to make the choice which would prevent him from losing his soul comes across as an aberration.
(I don’t mean to come across as the sort of character who would like to see the Pope in rags and the Cathedrals torn down; rather, it’s a matter of when a position which should be seen as a call to service becomes hijacked by careerism)
Trollope was talking about the Church of England, but we can make something of a confessional extrapolation to the Catholic Church. Especially since we’re in one of those media hullabaloo moments. Yes, there is careerism, politics and all sorts of knavishness in the Church which should rightly be called out. No, the solution is not for the Church to recant all her politically incorrect dogmas and, well, become a copy of the Episcopalian Church.
The idea that there could be substantive theological reasons for why, say, the Church does not allow women to be ordained as priests doesn’t enter into peoples’ heads because we interpret things entirely in terms of individuals pursuing their own self-interest. The notion of submitting to the will of God is so foreign to our world, that it can only be interpreted as a smokescreen for something else.
Rod Dreher about a month ago, touched on this with regard to why, structurally, there could never be a “Catholic Moment” in America:
The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholic Christianity (also Orthodox Christianity, and some forms of Protestantism) cannot be reconciled with the expressive individualism that is the hallmark of late modern civilization.
[…]who will argue with O’Neill that our culture is hostile to the idea of vocation — and, more broadly, with the idea of sacrificing individual desire to higher truths, or causes? Our entire culture is built around the apotheosis of the Self, of the self’s will, the self’s desires, the self’s autonomy. This has required a progressive liberation of the Self from rules, mores, institutions, and customs that bind the Self. We are well within a cultural era in which truth is believed — whether or not people recognize it — to be determined by emotion far more than reason.
I don’t entirely condemn this, because in some cases, it has resulted in a more humane condition, and in any case I am as personally formed by and implicated in this condition as anybody else. The point here is neither to condemn nor to praise, but simply to recognize it for what it is.
I think that part of what makes Victorian literature appeal to me is how the era holds things in tension. Pre-modern institutions were still exerting a strong force on the mores of the times, but other forces were aggressively grinding against it. There’s yet to be the sort of apocalyptic confrontation with meaninglessness that you find in T.S. Eliot, but the beast is out there, and the air is foggy.