Not enough has been said about how Pope Francis—a man of strong intuitions and vivid language—lives in and has been formed by literature. He regularly cites and recommends imaginative works like José Hernández’s Martín Fierro, Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, and Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. And he thinks by their patterns. Whereas Benedict strove for a concise, clear scholarly expression, Francis seeks the striking images and strong characterizations of the storyteller. Over here are the good guys, over there the bad.
I’ve always felt closest to Francis while reading his favorite books, and this week I read The Betrothed. It’s the story of Lucia and Renzo, two villagers in northern Italy whose parish priest calls off their wedding after he is threatened by a local landlord who has his eye on Lucia. So begins a grand tale in which two people with the commendable desire to marry are thwarted by craven clerics, absurd legal judgments, and the malice of the powerful. The book is especially rich in contrasts between good clerics and bad, and some of Francis’s most searing rhetoric—regarding both curial reform and communion for the divorced and remarried—is lifted from its pages.
Earlier this month, I read Simon Leys’s translation of the The Analects of Confucius. There is much I want to say about this book that teaches silence. Let one thing suffice for now. Confucius says that “a gentleman enlarges his learning through literature and restrains himself with ritual.” Anyone who has felt the opening of a new world through literature, the disclosure of another soul, will understand the first part of this statement. The second part will seem more obscure until one realizes that for Confucius “ritual” is not a narrow category but one that encompasses everything from what we would call liturgy to the common courtesies of everyday life. In this picture of a man enlarged by reading and disciplined by observance, Confucius gives us an image of the good life. I wonder what Francis, our consummately literary and unritualistic pope, would make of it. He wants us to expand our hearts and the Church—rightly so. But as we expand, we should feel all the more keenly the need for restraint.
I'm a slow and picky reader. I tend to prefer dense, intellectually hefty books, in part so that the slowness of my consumption of a text will be matched by the richness of its content. This has some advantages—for one, I end up wasting less time reading fluff and derivative analysis—but also its disadvantages. One big disadvantage is that I often find myself picking up and dropping a large number of books that ultimately don't prove sufficiently interesting or illuminating to justify a full read. I'm in the midst of one of these periods right now, and so, while I cast about for my next project, I've been revisiting snippets of old favorites.
One such favorite, which never ceases to amaze, is the eighth book of Plato's Republic. Here Socrates offers a pathology of spiritual decay, showing how failures of education and moderation lead to the destruction of the soul. He tells the story of the soul by means of a political allegory, wherein the elements of the spiritual constitution are mapped onto elements of society. The result is awe-inspiring. Plato writes of the Democratic Soul:
Yes, I said, he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he-is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.
Along with Plato, I've been thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of democratic society. This led me to re-read Hume's brilliant essay “That Politics May be Reduced to a Science” (found in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary), where he argues that the form of a government can protect it from destruction at the hands of weak or foolish ministers. Hume's thesis, which lies at the root of constitutional regimes the world over, is worth questioning. How does Hume's emphasis on form and procedure (as opposed to Plato's emphasis on education and character) affect political culture and the development of political agents within such societies? Does the social and political logic of liberal constitutionalism point us down the road toward a certain way of living and thinking? Metaphysics, ethics, and politics are intimately related. What sort of metaphysics is implied by liberal democracy? What sort of ethics?
I'd like to use this space to plug a film I thoroughly enjoyed: Hail, Caesar! Directed by the Coen Brothers, this Hollywood romp offers us a slice of the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer who wrangles (and sometimes ransoms) unruly actors. The film boasts a murderer's row of talent, and in the course of Mannix bouncing from crisis to crisis we get to see Channing Tatum tap dance, Scarlett Johansson perform a water ballet, and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich sing cowboy tunes and show off his rope tricks. Great fun all round.
But there's an unexpected religious theme running through the movie, as the Coens skewer the ways Hollywood tries to put the transcendent onscreen (disclaimer spotted in the credits: “This film contains no visual depiction of the Godhead”). Mannix's biggest problem is the star of Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who gets kidnapped from the set of the Roman epic (and is sucked into the ideology of his absurd Communist kidnappers). As it turns out, that film-within-a-film is subtitled A Story of the Christ, and features a plot that might as well be a parody of this year's Romans-find-Jesus film, Risen. In an uproarious scene, Mannix gathers a roundtable of religious leaders to weigh in on the way Jesus is portrayed in their film, and the Orthodox patriarch instead takes issue with the film's Roman hero's feat of jumping from one chariot to another; after an argument about the Trinity erupts and is calmed, the combative rabbi avers “Eh, I have no opinion.”
Hollywood religiosity takes a drubbing here: it's as much an illusion as anything else on the soundstage. Baird Whitlock can deliver a stirring monologue on Christ despite having just had the Communism slapped out of him. Hollywood's sops to religion, it seems, are like the USSR's overblown appeal to socialist writers—grand spectacles without substance. But Eddie Mannix's simple Catholicism is a different thing. His day of managing clashing egos and fending off the press is punctuated by recourse to the confessional, where he shares his struggles with quitting smoking and sometimes striking movie stars in anger. And though the priest is wearied by Mannix's frequent penances, the comfort of absolution is portrayed sympathetically. An intriguing touch in a film ready to skewer everything—there may be something sacred after all, it's just the thing that's hardest to put on screen.