The following is Part III from a chapter of Rocco Buttiglione's book Exiting a Dead End Road: a GPS for Christians in Public Discourse, published by Kairos Publications in Vienna, and edited by Gudrun and Martin Kugler. The book can be ordered here. Part I is here and Part II is here.
Controlling the passions
In a certain cultural tradition the control of passions is equated with the destruction and humiliation of those passions. The will is opposed to passions and has to subdue them.
I think it is more proper to see the relation between intellect, passion and will rather in terms of education. The instinctive side of man is not bad; the body is not an enemy of the soul. The instinctual drives are not bad. In principle they are aimed at evolving the good of the person. They come nearer to this good through the world of emotions.
However, we cannot trust them completely. They have a certain leaning towards the individual self satisfaction and the oblivion of other values at stake in the action. In the moment of passion some values are seen by the soul with absolute evidence and force. In one sense, those values are really there. But the forcefulness of the passion can make us blind to other values that are equally at stake.
Passion is like a lens that makes some things more evident but changes the proportions of reality. We must educate our passions by widening their scope according to the real order of reality. This order includes not only the objective hierarchy of values (some values stand higher than others) but also the subjective order according to which they are given to me. All children have an absolute value that I must recognize but my children are entrusted to my care in a way that is absolutely unique. The task of education is that of making use of the force of passion in the service of the objective good. This demands, of course, also a certain measure of self restraint. Without self restraint there is no self possession and without self possession there is no freedom.
Freedom is not only the fact of not being subject to the will of another but also the capacity for making one’s own passions obey to one’s will oriented by the knowledge of truth. Here lies the paradox of human freedom. On the one hand freedom demands the absence of external coercion. On the other hand it requires the capacity to lead one’s own actions according to objective truth. Objective truth cannot be imposed upon the will; it demands according to its inner nature to be recognized and accepted and loved. Without objective truth, however, man cannot be free. Education is such a fascinating task, at the same time necessary and impossible, because it has to do with freedom and love. It has to do also with credibility.
Education in the truth
The child enters into the path of virtue (meaning by virtue the habit of searching for truth and acting according to truth) because he or she loves and trusts his or her parents and listens to them when they tell him or her what is good and what is bad and consign to him or her the life experience they have gone trough. The word tradition derives from the Latin word tradere and means to consign to the next generation the values that the ancestors have experienced as true. Tradition is not something fixed and unchangeable. The next generation accepts the spiritual heritage of the forefathers as a general hypothesis to be tested in their lives. Through this trial, what is really valuable and of permanent importance is distinguished from what is only linked only to the specific contingencies of the life of the other generations. A true tradition is continually tested, and challenged and renewed. Goethe tells us that “what you have received from your ancestors you must rediscover yourself, in order to possess it truly”. The critic is not opposite to tradition but is a part of its living body.
Our spiritual vacuum
Now it seems that this process has been interrupted in our civilization. After the war the generation that had made the war found it difficult, in Germany and in Italy, to tell their children what they had gone trough. Sometimes the horror was unspeakable. The generation of the fathers of those who are about sixty today, had earnestly believed in the religion of nationalism and that religion had failed, leading millions of men to war to sacrifice their lives and destroy the lives of others in a massacre without example in history. This has created a spiritual vacuum in which only material values survived. Our fathers worked hard for us and to rebuild Europe -- but the question on why this was worth the while remained largely unanswered. With the student revolt of ’68 this break between the generations became apparent: the older generation could not consign the values they cherished, because they could not explain the reasons underlying those values and could not make sense of their own life experience. And the new generation rejected them without having any idea what could be substituted for them. The living process of tradition was interrupted.
As I said, only vital values survived this devaluation of all values (Max Scheler speaks of the Entwertung aller Werte but we have lived this experience in a form that was much more radical). T.S. Eliot explains, that when all values are dead what is left is only “usury, lust and power”.
Under these circumstances it is easy to lose memory of the greater freedom and to reduce freedom to the lesser freedom. We do not feel bound to search for truth and we do not want to live the experience of belonging to a person (or to a community, a nation, a church or a great ideal) in an act of self giving love. We rather want to be left alone and to be able to follow the impulse of the moment. We are concentrated on ourselves and, at the same time, we are completely exposed to the manipulation of our sentiments and ideas (if we still have any) through the media. We do not seek our inner truth and we are prone to assume the imitation of the protagonists of the star system as core of our life experience. As a result, we do not really love our life and we are not really interested in entering into ourselves or to our true happiness.
The movie Avatar is an impressive representation of this condition of mind. We live another life that is not our real life and we play the role of the heroes of a legendary saga whilst we become emotionally starved, oppressed and depressed because of the absence of love and meaning in our real life. We have gone so far that it becomes difficult to remember or to understand the true meaning of the word freedom for many people. The indispensable effort of self control has been banned under the name “repression” and the result is the instability and precariousness of “frittered lives and squalid deaths” (T: S. Eliot) in a world in which “the word of God is unspoken”.
The essential difference between men and animals
I think that what I have endeavored to explain is what Benedict XVI means when he speaks of the “anthropological question”. If we lose the perception of the true meaning of freedom then we lose at the same time the “anthropological difference”, that is the element that constitutes the difference between man and all other animals, the greater freedom based upon the search for truth and the encounter for truth. Immediately linked to the “anthropological question” is another issue that frequently returns in the speeches of the Pope. It is the “emergency of education”.
The only answer to the anthropological question is an education leading to a full and uncompromising experience of true humanity. The chain of tradition may be restored only through men and women who incorporate in themselves the world of values in such a way that they coincide with their own lives. Only in this way values may become convincing and generate a true force for change. In one sense this means that we need saints. Also on other occasions, in other epochal crises, the continuity of our tradition has been challenged and has been restored through the witness and the teaching of martyrs and saints. God never abandons his Church deprived of the witness of martyrs and saints, but people (and first of all the clergy) do not always recognize the witnesses among them.