Satisfaction, Distraction, and the Human Condition

One of the most remarkable features of the age we live in is that the most meaningful and important things in the lives of individuals and societies — things like religion, ethics, and education — must struggle for relevance against a tide of nihilism. The comfort which has come with the satisfaction of all of the basic material needs of humans in the modern world along with the various distractions that have been invented to occupy and pacify the human mind have made the task of educators, missionaries, and anyone else who still believes in the importance of ideas perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. Whereas Christians of earlier generations had to confront the passionately held beliefs of those with rival philosophies and religions, Christians today must confront an enemy which is far more destructive, a sort of passion for apathy, or what might appropriately and simply be called nihilism.

It is a universal truth of the human condition, elucidated by St. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions, that “the human soul on earth is always restless.”1 The combination of satisfaction and distraction in the modern world, however, has provided a seemingly endless string of temporary alleviations for this restlessness, preventing the restless human soul from ever finally reaching a point of satiation or boredom with worldly things. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter heaven,” not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with wealth but because the rich man is so entrapped by his wealth that he fails to search after something higher and more ultimately satisfactory.2

The rich man of Christ’s statement, who is nearly synonymous with modern man generally, has separated himself from the human condition and so, in a sense, from his own human nature. He does not “redeem the time” by seeking to live a life of meaning and significance but instead merely passes the time.3 As Henry David Thoreau pointed out already about those around him in the middle of the nineteenth century, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”4 Most of these “games and amusements” have assumed a nature that is unrelated to the life of man in the truest sense of that phrase. As Fr. William F. Lynch has pointed out, modern man has “create[d] a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”5

One of the oldest forms of play, and the most essential, is the communal play of religious ritual. Religious ritual, however, is not a mere amusement, unlike the play of modern man. Just as the play of children, such as the care little girls give to their baby dolls or the war games of boys, is a kind of preparation for the sorts of tasks they will have to encounter as adults, liturgy is a form of pure play for the soul. Fr. Romano Guardini, a Catholic priest and thinker, once wrote, “it [the soul] must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.”6

Even when modern man does find himself, usually through accident or coercion, confronting something of significance, such as one of the great books, he refuses to confront it with his whole being. He confronts it as if he were a neutral observer. As Michael Vander Weele writes, there has been an “attempt to defuse reading by separating it from the rest of life.”7 We must, however, “read with our lives.”8 Modern man has forgotten the fundamental truth enunciated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that “God and the devil are fighting … and the battlefield is the heart of man.”9

The first and most basic question, then, for the Christian, for the educator, for anyone interested in a life of thought and meaning, is what to do to overcome this indifference to the great existential questions. The only really viable answer to that question is to live such a life oneself. Mahatma Gandhi perhaps more than any other well-known figure of the last hundred years embodied and most succinctly stated this principle: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. … We need not wait to see what others do.”10

1 Michael Vander Weele, “Reader-Response Theories,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, eds. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 128.
2 Matthew 19:24 (King James Version).
3 Ephesians 5:16 (KJV).
4 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ch. 1.
5 Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.
6 Fr. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, (accessed 12 November 2013).
7 Weele, 128.
8 Ibid.
9 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book III, Chapter 3.
10 Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 12 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964), 158.

Reality and Fiction

One very popular modern opinion is that there is a disconnection between reality and fantasy. Video gamers, civil liberties groups, advocates for the entertainment industry, and other groups, for example, frequently insist that violent, misogynistic, or otherwise objectionable content in video games, music, and movies do not lead to violence in real life. Anyone who makes the contrary insistence in favor of the truth of the old adage that “you are what you eat” is viewed as antiquated and curmudgeonly. This debate reflects a deeper and older disagreement over the purpose of fiction and its place in human life more generally.

On the one hand, there is the position that the purpose of fiction is to escape from real life. Though the original idea here is certainly an ancient one, in his book Christ and Apollo, Father William F. Lynch traces its current popularity to “the growing encroachments of automation and the terribly repetitive, unfeeling nature of much of our daytime work.”1  As a result, he says, “we have been led to create a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”2  He concludes that “this night-time culture is largely an attempt to provide a sensational and sentimental dream life in which real time is arrested or forgotten, and the coming of the next morning indefinitely put off.”3  In other words, under the oppression of the tedium of real life, man has come to turn to fiction as a temporary escape.

From this view of fiction emerges the assertion of a separation between reality and fiction. If the primary purpose of fiction is to provide an escape from reality, there must not be a connection between the two. Just as fiction is designed to remove one from reality, reality must stand at a remove from fiction.

The opposite assertion was perhaps first clearly put forward by Plato in his Republic. There, he pointed out that life imitates art and concluded from this that only the highest ideals should be allowed to be exhibited. From these, the audience can draw examples to imitate. While Plato’s ideas of banishing poets from the ideal state and allowing art to contain only positive examples for imitation are extreme and ultimately untenable, there is little doubt that his position is closer to the truth than is its opposite.

All art makes an impression on its viewers, even if they do not believe that it does or desire that it do so. All art derives its existence from the philosophy of the artist. It reflects his values, his concerns, and his desires. Even the idea of art as mere amusement, as a simple pastime and escape, is itself a philosophy which produces a certain kind of art. There must be something the artist and his audience choose to escape from and a reason for what they choose to escape to. Clay Motley, for example, has pointed out that there is a definite link between the popularity of Western movies, which overemphasize masculinity, to periods in which cultural movements which may seem threatening to men, such as feminism, are in the ascendancy.4

The careful cultural consumer, then, must be aware of trends while remaining mindful of the influence everything consumed has upon him. Just as there is no food or medicine taken into the body which does not somehow affect the body, there is nothing taken in by the mind which does not somehow affect the mind. Cognizance of this fact should shape and inform one’s approach to arts and entertainment, whether one is reading a classic or a comic book. The questions that must be at the forefront of one’s mind are those provided by James Vanden Bosch in his explanation of moral criticism of literature: “What does it want me to be, or do, or assume, or assent to, or value?”5  Every artistic creation seeks to make its viewers want to be, do, assume, assent to, or value something; the question is not whether but what.

1 William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Clay Motley, “’It’s a Hell of a Thing to Kill a Man’: Western Manhood in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven,” in Leslie Wilson, ed., Americana: Readings in Popular Culture, Revised Edition (Hollywood: Press Americana, 2010), 72.

5 James Vanden Bosch, “Moral Criticism: Promises and Prospects,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 64.