The Culture of Grievance and the Necessity of Gratitude

For a nation to exist in relative peace there must be a common history, and our most accessible commonality is human nature with its sins and its nobility as its story is told in good books

The problem posed by the Baltimore riots is not racial but endemic, for it is the problem of a society that is too often aggrieved. The background for this culture of grievance is egalitarianism, the belief that because in some supra-lapsarian world, in the days before Adam disobeyed and before Cain murdered, all men were created equal, therefore the perfect world of Eden should still exist. This illusion of equality was an Enlightenment theory which the Founding Fathers probably themselves did not believe except as a politically useful abstraction. It is a rationalist theory always to be distinguished from the deeper understanding of the common humanity that unites us. 

While the Enlightenment theory breeds emulation and discontent the latter, the appeal to the broad experience of our common humanity, is a reservoir of sympathy, patience, and friendship. In another mood the Founders were acutely aware of the dangers of the abuse of power in the hands of fallible mankind. But the egalitarian-utopian idea—as the influence of Christianity has given way before the strange combination of rationalism and sentimentality that marks modernity—has taken its place in the public square as the practical premise of American life, believed by all save some Catholics, selected readers of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and of Saint Thomas, and the occasional Calvinist. Its victims are human souls nourished on discontent; its beneficiaries the legal profession.

The utopian theory destroys anything it touches. It destroys thought because one idea can be no better than another, all being opinions. There can be no difference in marriage between a man and a woman and other arrangements, for all are equally expressions of someone’s will, no difference between a falsehood and truth, for both are expressed in words unmoored from reality, no difference between cowardice and courage. It destroys civil society because it suppresses self-knowledge and feeds a false sense of entitlement in a world in which inequality is an intransigent reality. One need not be a Christian, committed to belief in original sin, to know that there is something wrong with the world, something that appears as a discordant note struck at the climax of a great symphony, an error almost insulting because so much of the world seems right.

For habits deep-set in our culture, fed by the egalitarian illusion, there is no sudden cure, but to rediscover those commonalities that belong to the human estate, flawed and glorious as our common nature is, would be a necessary beginning. That there are many grievances is not to be doubted. Apart from the general complaint of politicians that the world is still an imperfect place which they are set to rectify there are the grievances of the public-sector union members, the grievances of property-owners against tax rates, of gender-equality advocates, of college students against the system that supports them, of public officials against parsimonious taxpayers. These grievances are partly real, partly illusory, partly self-serving fictions framed against the egalitarian-utopian thesis.

But in this forest of grievances African-Americans are on the facts most aggrieved. Other racial and ethnic groups have suffered grievously, the Irish under the ‘fair-minded’ English in the eighteenth century, the Jews in Europe from 1800 to 1945. Evil as these are, comparisons are moot, for slavery is our particular evil. The history of African-Americans’ aggravation did not end in 1865. Having been first enslaved, then freed and made the chosen children of the Federal regime who first gave them a decade of vengeance and cultural triumph, then for immediate political advantage in 1876 remanded the black population to the custody of the colonels and captains who had led the charges at Manassas and Bull Run, a decision which opened seventy-five years of peonage, from which they were released only by the displacing invention of agricultural machinery.

Our fellow-citizens were then made the objects of political interest by the politicians who had abandoned them between 1876 and 1955, and who then committed them to public schools that often seem designed to create a class fed on ignorance and grievance. And all this against the presumption that all men are equal and that in the world which followed upon Adam’s fall a life free of difficulty and injustice is possible, the counterfactual reality necessarily being the fault of others.

The appeal to this history of grievance, irrefutable as are the facts, cannot help Baltimore. What might help would be the rediscovery of those things we share. This cannot happen suddenly and entirely, but achieved only partly such a reform would mitigate grievance. For a nation to exist in relative peace there must be a common history, and our most accessible commonality is human nature with its sins and its nobility as its story is told in good books. It would be difficult but possible to imagine that with the history of the world as the history of oppression overcome—with the abandonment of the corollary proposition that progress means the destruction of every form, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic—our national future might be brighter. Such a literature exists; to know some of this history and this literature, with its beauty and complexity, is to possess the mirror in which we can see our own nature reflected and ponder our own path. And it is all there, at hand, from Plato to Alastair McIntyre, from Homer to Eliot and Faulkner.

Of course the sixth grade may not be deeply reflective; Plato and Homer may be too demanding at first. But there is a reason why Parson Weems’ colorful story of George Washington and the cherry tree will be remembered when the kind of education C. S. Lewis described as “fat foreign children doing exercises and grain elevators” is forgotten. Our first president was a man of conscience, a sinner who told the truth. Properly a children’s literature that passes from Pinocchio, whose very nose revealed his wickedness, and Red Riding Hood, who would never have been threatened by the wolf had she obeyed her mother, opens a consideration of good and evil that leads to questions that were standards in graduation exercises: was Julius Caesar a democratic friend of the Roman people or a tyrant in waiting? And further along lies the consideration of such questions as the complexities of love pursued in a world shadowed by deep-buried loyalties and enmities, which is the matter of the once-standard, still often referenced, Romeo and Juliet.

Beyond these lies the Bible, and to be educated outside the circle of its influence as God’s revelation is not to be educated at all. It pages present the great themes of belief, hope, restraint, sacrifice, duty, adventure, patience, repentance and forgiveness, all appropriated in the sunlit knowledge of a just and loving Father. The effective consequence of an encounter with the Trinitarian God who is love is gratitude, which is why the Great Sacrament is called Eucharist. Life in its light puts grievance out of court, for to know oneself not as equal but as a sinner forgiven is to foster not only gratitude to God but sympathy for our neighbors whom we are taught to love as ourselves. Jesus inaugurated his Kingdom with an action: “When he had given thanks….” The prayer cited in the late-first century Didache begins: “We give you thanks, O our Father.” For centuries out of mind the canon of the Roman Rite has begun: Verum dignum et justus est…nos tibi semper, et ubique gratias agere: It is fitting indeed and just always and everywhere to give thanks to Thee, Holy Father….”

It is remarkable that until day before yesterday the Christian West had no significant literature of grievance. That awaited the great rationalist utopians of the nineteenth century: Robert Owen (1771-1858), Aguste Comte, (1798-1857), and above all Marx (1818-1883), whose life’s work was the political exploitation of a godless bourgeoisie threatened by the insecurities of early modern Capitalism. The men who built Chartres and Laon labored for their bread and lived half our lifespan. There were occasional complaints about the covetousness of clerics and episodic rebellions against unjust landlords, but it is not easy to discover a thematic literature of grievance, rather one finds the poetry of the redeemed heart.

The library of Balliol College, Oxford possesses the common place book of Richard Hilles, a London merchant, a Catholic, who died in 1535, unaware that the religion that suffused his imagination would shortly be gone. The book contains, dates, recipes, prescriptions, and poems, among them a Christmas poem Richard had either copied or composed. It began:

Make us merry in hall and bower,
This time was born our Savior.”

The last verse ran:

In this time now pray we,
To Him that died for us on tree,
On us all to have pitee,
God is our Savior.

Richard’s Christmas happiness persisted in the eighteenth-century London Carol: “God rest you merry, Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, Remember Christ Our Savior was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray. O tidings of comfort and joy.” This is the happiness of the redeemed. As late as mid-nineteenth century, although in authorial voice Charles Dickens often represents the grievances of his characters who lived in the appalling conditions of urban life in early industrial England, the men and women of his novels are themselves almost never aggrieved in the modern sense. The pre-modern summary was the oft-quoted: “Man, please your maker and be merry, and give not for this world a cherry.”

Gratitude is irrepressible; it will break through amidst the culture of grievance. Ultimately it must be fed by realities that lie beyond the help of any book but one, but the ground can be ploughed by keeping alive the literature of nobility, adventure, endurance, fidelity, restraint, and hope. Our fading civilization needs it. Baltimore needs it. Although securing it for ourselves is difficult, and for Baltimore even more challenging, failure to do so will deprive us of that common history from which the good life, and civil peace, grow.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About James Patrick 4 Articles
James Patrick is a teacher and sometime apologist, founder and chancellor of the College of Saint Thomas More in Fort Worth, 1981-2011, and presently Senior Fellow of the Dallas-based Companions of Christ the Teacher, a society which seeks to promote and exemplify teaching, especially teaching the great heritage of Christian wisdom, as a work of mercy and a God-given vocation. His books include studies of Oxford philosophy, early American collegiate education, and the Gospel of John.