Vice is the opiate of masses…

-by Dr. Matthew Tan, The Divine Wedgie

“A diagnosis that is common to the thought of Nietzsche and Marx concerns the pacifying strength of fantasies.

At the risk of oversimplification, we can say that for Marx, the fantasy concerns the artificial worth injected into things by capitalist modes of production, which for him religion played a part by redirecting the vision of the have-nots to a realm beyond things. For Nietzsche, meanwhile, the fantasy is one of an artificial morality imposed by the weak on the strong. Regardless of the source, these fantasies acted as a narcotic that was consumed at a societal level, blinding whole communities to the reality of things and preventing the administration of the cure.

If fantasy was the sickness, the cure lay in casting off these fantasies and the structures that sustained them to reveal the reality of the world. For Marx, it was the integral connection between a person’s identity with his dialectic with the world, while for Nietzsche, it was the necessity of the rule by those that are able to embrace the flux of life over those that seek to block that off that flux by hiding behind a veneer of order.

While we can debate over whether these two were correct in their particular diagnoses of the fantasy, the diagnosis of the fantasy itself is something for the Christian to consider seriously. This is because doing so sheds new light on what the vices do as negations of the virtues. The vices are not just bad things that people do.

In in the classical and medieval mind, the virtues were what helped a person attain his or her end as a flourishing being. A person living a life of virtue is one that is able to immerse themselves deeply into the reality of the cosmic order, and in the reality of the supernatural order. In doing so, they were also able to see themselves for what they really were, their abilities, limits, desires and so on. Armed with this knowledge, persons living the life of virtue are able to live in the present.

By contrast, the vices recognize no such order. Instead, the vices are powerful narcotics which produce upon consumption, fantasies about ourselves, our relationship with the world, and ultimately our relationship with God. Rather than receive our status as creatures of God, for instance, we imagine ourselves to be creators over and against God. As R.J. Snell argued in Acedia and Its Discontents, vice is a refusal to accept any limit and to be frustrated by any that come our way.

Importantly, if we are attentive, we find that the limits are those that we face all the time and in the present.

What this causes us to do is to indulge in fantasy, which comes in two forms. The first fantasy, one that was identified by Evagrius of Alexandria in the sixth chapter of his Praktikos, is nostalgia, where we recall blissful moments of the past where those limits were overcome. The other is speculation, where we imagine our lives in states where those limits do not exist (it can be in terms of wealth, sex, status, jobs and so on). In casting our minds to these states, we think of those moments as salvific, which by contrast reframes the present as a state of damnation. We find the present repulsive and even futile, and prefer to indulge in fantasy and speculation – with all the audiovisual aids and substances concocted by pop culture – thinking that our connection with reality lies in those moments, when those are exactly when our connection with reality is eroded.  This is because those moments do not exist. The past can no longer be retrieved, and the future speculation can never arrive. Insofar as we are stuck in either the past or future, we are indulging in fantasy. What does exist, what does connect us to reality, is the present moment we find repulsive on account of their limit, the limit that we find to be a denial of reality and an impediment to God’s providence.

By contrast, as Julian Carron said in “A Leap of Awareness”, limit constitutes the very site of God’s providence. Writing from another angle, Romano Guardini argued in The Living God, that the experience of the overcoming of limit occurs precisely where we are most cognizant of that limit.  This is the present moment that the vices prompt us to find repulsive. As Guardini writes in a chapter entitled “God’s Providence”, “There is a way of coming to experience [Providence] as a reality, and it is a way that is constantly recurring: it is ‘the now’.”

It is the precise moment when we realize that we are not the ones that provide our own providence that the reality of Providence emerges as an experiential reality. Indeed, we find that Providence is the very structure of reality, and the life of virtue is a constant attunement to that reality. If we feel we have missed that moment, do not worry, for as Guardini says, the moment of providence is constantly recurring, and the offer to reconnect with reality is made new every single moment.”

Love & virtue,
Matthew

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