The specialty of rule hath been neglected, And look how many Grecian tents do stand Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions
… Take but degree away, untune that string, And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets In mere oppugnancy.
Shakespeare, Ulysses, Troilus and Cressida
The extent of discord that we see around us is surely unparalleled in my lifetime. I need not rehearse it: from our political and social situation, to the Church, to our neighborhoods and homes.
In a rightly famous passage in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare sets forth in the mouth of Ulysses a view that had been at the heart of Western Civilization. The human good depends, and even consists especially in right order: an order in which each must play his part, exercising authority and obedience as fitting, according to a beneficent natural order.
Ulysses’s speech proceeds in stunning fashion:
… right and wrong… lose their names, and so … justice too. Then everything includes itself in power, Power into will, will into appetite, And appetite, an universal wolf, So doubly seconded with will and power, Must make perforce an universal prey And last eat up himself.
Authority has been overrun and replaced by appetite. Real authority is never raw power; rather it has true power when it is rooted in the truth of an objective natural order and the human good. Such authority is an irreplaceable agent of human flourishing, both in those who exercise it and in those under it. It is a masterpiece. Those in a position to exercise it—at whatever level—have a sacred duty to step up to it.
The disorder of our day stems fundamentally from a failure of authority—a failure to exercise it, by all of us who have it. This is not surprising, as authority has been long ridiculed and attacked, in theory and in practice. And we have not restrained our appetites but rather have let them grow wild. So we are left with misused and misdirected power in service of unbridled appetite—the wolf that ultimately eats up all that is good, and its very self.
Yes, we can and sometimes should point to glaring instances of failures in the authorities all around us. It can be terrifying. They could have and should have done better. For us. And in real ways, we and our loved ones are suffering and will continue to suffer because of it.
But now what? If we simply wallow in pointing to the failures of those authorities, then in turn we will fail to exercise our part. And it need not be so. The truth is this: the failure of those above and around me—while a serious challenge to me—never in itself constitutes my failure. If I fail, my failure will be mine.
“O, when degree is shaked, Which is the ladder of all high designs, The enterprise is sick.”
Yes, the enterprise is sick. Very sick. So now is the time for me to step up, to play my part. Where I owe obedience, I must still render it. Where I have authority, I must execute it, the best that I can. And whether it be recognized by others or not, and whether I significantly change the larger situation or not, I will have done what is needful.
I will still suffer because of others, and with others. But God grant me the strength to discern and to do my part for the good of all I love…and that others not suffer unnecessarily because of me. Not on my watch.
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