Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wisdom of the Ancients

If you were to ask me about my lugubrious disposition, you wouldn’t be the first person to do so. Many people wonder why I’m so glum. “Life is so wonderful,” they tell me with a gleam in their eye. “Think of the goodness of humanity. If you could just look for the sublime in this world, Mr. Viator, you’d find it.” I must concede that my sanguine friends have a point. There’s something to be said for seeing the glass half full. Heretofore I have darkened my mind by focusing rather perversely on untoward topics in my readings, when all along I could have been viewing the big blue sky above the clouds. Even Caligula, Calvin once remarked, could find beauty in a flower. Let us tap into the wisdom of the ancients and revel in our newfound joie de vivre. It’s all in the perspective.

The founder of the Ming dynasty, Hongwu, once expressed his noble intention to “stamp out evil people.” Would that political leaders in our country today expressed the same righteous zeal to root out the dark forces of the world! According to the Webster’s dictionary, the word “evil” refers to “anything morally bad or wrong,” or “anything that causes harm, pain, misery, disaster, etc.” Who in their right mind would not want to wipe that out? Blot these evildoers from the face of the earth, I say. Exterminate the brutes with righteous indignation!

Let’s fast-forward about 500 years in the same part of the world. Historians and moralists criticize the so-called excesses of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution under Communist China in the mid 20th century. But did you know that Chairman Mao wanted his people to be happy and productive workers? Talk about a humanitarian and visionary! He even provided learning centers throughout the country where people could re-educate themselves. If the first schooling was not enough, you had yet another opportunity to pursue your studies. German officials had promoted this work ethic a decade or so earlier in Poland. Say what you want about Auschwitz, but the inspirational motto “Arbeit Macht Frei,” inscribed over the gate, could lighten up any workplace with its bold promise of freedom, I should think.

Since we’ve broached the topic of the Holocaust, I would like to quote Adolf Hitler: “Force without spiritual foundation is doomed to fail.” What I take from this insight is that one should not push one’s views on others without first looking inward and cleaning up one’s own act. Take the log out of your own eye! Granted, Hitler was a genocidal maniac, but there was the moralist side of him from which we can spiritually profit. I’m starting to see hope for humanity where I had earlier seen only pain and despair, and all I had to do was alter my vision, as my friends have convinced me to do.

Some of those pessimists who haven’t yet made the leap into the light, as I have, might remark: “Look, that’s fine and dandy, but doesn’t Christian piety require you to admit that we’re sinful creatures, and this sin taints everything in this world? How can you be so Panglossian?” I take their point, but remember what the 15th-century noble Gilles de Rais courageously asserted during the dark days of the Hundred Years War: “There is no sin, no matter how great, that God cannot pardon.” Even when things look bad, don’t forget how much God loves us. Rais inspires all of us with his faith and conviction even after a tribunal found him guilty of torturing, sodomizing, and sadistically murdering at least 150 children in his private castle.

This great cloud of witnesses exhorts us to be vigilant against evil in the world, have a positive outlook at work, cultivate spiritual values, and find refuge in divine grace. Perhaps St. Paul, tapping into the collective unconsciousness, had these teachings of Mao and Hitler in mind when he encouraged the Philippians:

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever thins are lovely, whatsoever thins are of good report; if there by any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.