Thursday, January 11, 2007

Independent Collegian Column: Charles Peguy

Sordid Love and Good Stories

Patrick Beeman

Posted: 1/11/07

Charles Péguy was a gifted French writer who lived before World War I. In fact, it was the Great War that took his life at age 40. He's largely been forgotten by his Catholic coreligionists as a result of his passionate love for the Church, which has not been too popular as of late, and is more often than not written off as "zealotry" - too "John the Baptist" for our modern, restrained times. He has also been neglected by Western secular thinkers who become very easily distraught by the religious fervor and complications which, to be fair, did complicate his life. But complications are the spark of life.

Life is indeed a story. And no one wants a story without suspense, temptation, and the possibility that the hero may lose his soul as a result of the challenges he faces. Just think, would "The Lord of the Rings" be a great story without Frodo's accepting a task too great for a hobbit and nearly losing his life in the process? Would the stories behind Christianity be worth believing without God becoming a baby, having the possibility of freely suffering, and ultimately dying? Would your own life be worth remembering were it not for your acts of courage in the face of temptation, the loves which have caused you pain or those moments of severity which punctuate all of our lives, such as consciously awaiting the death of a loved one? Probably not.

Péguy's life is a marvel to behold. He shows us how in this life the possibility of evil - as mysterious as this truth is - in turn makes possible heroism, love and courage. You can't have heroism without danger; and you just can't have courage without fear. Only if there is something of which to be afraid can a person gain that virtue which is basically "readiness to die in battle." The man who enters battle fearlessly because he enjoys bloodshed isn't courageous, but foolish. He deserves no moral approbation. But let's consider a more everyday example.

A columnist friend of mine, who shall remain anonymous, but demanded that I refer to him as "very good looking" if I used his story, recounted to me that last week he was backing out of his parking space at a certain retail facility when he heard a crunch. He had bumped into the car behind his (no doubt because he was too intent on listening and singing along to Muse, his sorry excuse for music). At any rate, he inspected the vehicle and noted no damage, so he decided to cut and run. That was until one of the store's patrons called out to him, made him get out of his car and marched him into the building, calling out the make and model of the vehicle.

The woman, against whom my friend committed the offense, also inspected her vehicle, noting no damage. She sent him on his way and thanked him for doing the right thing. However, and my friend recognizes this, he deserved no moral praise. He didn't do the right thing. He had an opportunity to develop the virtue of courage but buckled when he thought of the likely consequences. You see, then, how the possibility of harm makes possible an act of virtue.

Peguy had many similar situations in his life. In one instance, he unexpectedly, (without asking) fell deeply, torridly, passionately "in love" with a woman with whom he had collaborated. The problem? He was already married. And unlike many men in his circumstances he remained absolutely faithful to his wife, his family and the teachings of the Church. He demonstrated moral courage and paid dearly for it. As a result of his fidelity, he suffered immensely. But he suffered well, for the sake of loyalty to the truth - the guiding principle of his life.

I leave you with a slice of Péguy's wisdom, and I ask you to consider what the following means with regard to moral courage: "It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive." Does this mean there are certain things we advocate as students because it is posh to do so? That we would support one class of people's so-called rights while infringing on the rights of other, say, unborn persons? That we would rather do nothing in the face of evil than be seen as the modern-day John the Baptists "crying out in the wilderness?" That we would have the dissimulating audacity to be "personally opposed, but …"
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