“The thin polish of easy morality” and our present crisis

What does it mean when a crisis brings out our worst qualities, rather than our best?

A mask-wearing patient is wheeled to an ambulance in New York City March 26, 2020, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

I read an article on Albert Camus’ book The Plague recently. It said, in part:

Like his hero, Camus gives us hope. He believes that the deadly crisis will encourage solidarity and bring out the best qualities in people, that endurance and courage will prevail. Camus writes, ‘No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague’ and the emotions of exile and deprivation, fear and revolt. The chastened people return to normal life with a clearer vision and deeper understanding of the precarious nature of human existence. He concludes, ‘what we learn in time of pestilence is that there are more things to admire in men than to despise. … By refusing to bow down to pestilence, they strive their utmost to be healers.’

I cannot fault this statement as an interpretation of Camus’ book. Nor would I fault it as the kind of encouragement one needs to hear during these days of uncertainty. But I fear that, taken by itself, it may give a false picture of humankind and what we might expect in the weeks to come if the crisis lingers. No one article can do everything or say everything that needs to be said, of course, especially articles that must abide by the very stringent length restrictions of modern journalism, so there is no implied criticism of the author intended here. But if I were to recommend an important book to read now, it would be Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure.

Born in 1919, the son of a professor at the University of Chicago, as a youth, Gilkey attended John Dewy’s University of Chicago Laboratory School. In 1939, he graduated from Harvard with a degree in philosophy but, to his credit, promptly took off for China to teach English.

In 1943, imperialist Japan rounded up the nearly 2,000 non-Chinese civilians living in Beijing and imprisoned them 200 miles away in an abandoned and decrepit Presbyterian missionary compound near the city of Weihsien. In this cramped prison compound were housed teachers, missionaries, bankers, lawyers, medical workers, families with children, and in the early months, before Rome ingeniously secured their release, a large group of Catholic monks, whose ability to live communally in such crowded conditions with apparent joy proved an invaluable model to the rest of the camp inmates.

Although there were no instances of torture, murder, or physical brutality during their two-and-a-half years of internment in the camp, the confinement brought other challenges: the living quarters were cramped and overcrowded; the make-shift hospital, though staffed by devoted medical workers, was constantly under-supplied; theft became rampant; sanitation was difficult when not downright disgusting (e.g., 20 non-working toilets for 2,000 people); and although there was no starvation, food was often scarce and people complained incessantly about the quality of what they were fed, fretting that others were getting more and/or better than they were. For Gilkey, who kept copious notes, it became an invaluable time to observe human nature “under pressure” in a time of crisis.

Two days after the war started, Gilkey and some friends recorded their guesses as to when it would end. “Like most of those in the early church waiting for the second coming,” he later wrote, “the vast majority of the guesses were eager, optimistic, and quite wrong.”

Although Gilkey had been raised in a religious home and trained in humanistic philosophy, during his early days in the camp, he wondered whether any of that had value anymore in his new situation. “What’s so important anyway about the way a person looks at life?” he wondered. “Isn’t this a typically intellectualist way of looking at our crises?” “The real issues of life,” he thought, “are surely material and political: how we can eat and keep warm, be clothed and protected from the weather, and organize our common efforts. These matters are resolved by practical experience and by techniques, not by this or that philosophy or religious faith….” “It was not that I thought religion wrong,” says Gilkey; “I simply thought it irrelevant.” Impressed by his fellow prisoners’ ability shortly after their arrival at the camp to arrange for water, food, sanitation, and medical needs, Gilkey concluded, “The capacity of men to develop the technical aspects of civilization…is limitless.” “Never again,” he assumed, would he “despair of man’s ability to progress in both knowledge and practical techniques.” Time spent in the camp, however, changed his views dramatically.

Months later, he would write:

A realistic view of man tends to undermine the confidence a technological culture has in its own progress. Since we all want to believe in something, our secularized culture has tended to adopt an idealistic view of man as innately rational and good, as able to handle himself and his own history with the relative ease with which he deals with nature. Consequently, the scientist rather than the politician, the knower rather than the moralist, has seemed to us to be the guarantor of security and peace, the harbinger of a better world.

What he learned in the camp, however, says Gilkey, is that this vision is “a false dream.”

Crises occurred that involved not a breakdown in techniques, but a breakdown in character, showing the need for more moral integrity and self-sacrifice. The trouble with any new humanism…was not its confidence in human science and technology. It was rather its naïve and unrealistic faith in the rationality and goodness of the men who wield these instruments.

“I began to see,” writes Gilkey, “that without moral health, a community is as helpless and lost as it is without material supplies and services,” and that “a democratic society can possess no stronger law than the moral character of the people within it will affirm and support.” The problem was that very few people seemed regularly capable of the self-sacrifice that was required.

A prime example arose during a dispute when he was, for a time, head of the Housing committee. Eleven single men living in a 12 x 12 room discovered that there were nine single men living in an identical-sized space across the hall. “Here at last was a perfectly clear-cut case,” thought Gilkey. Surely the obvious inequity could not be denied and the need for common sacrifice would be so potent that the resolution would be easy and straightforward. It was not to be.

“Sure we’re sorry for those chaps over there,” said one of the men, “but what has that got to do with us?” “Fair or not fair, if you put one of them in here, we are merely heaving him out again. And if you come back here about this, we are heaving you out too.”

“The thin polish of easy morality” had worn off, writes Gilkey, and many in the camp were reduced to their baser instinct for self-survival. Most did not admit straightforwardly that they were being selfish; usually they masked it with all manner of excuses and rationalizations.

“Everyone saw only the logic of his own case,” Gilkey noted woefully. “If that is at all typical of human affairs, then what sort of reality is there to the concept of ‘impartial reason’? For when it is needed most desperately, that is, when the stakes are high for both parties and they begin to be overwrought, then impartial reason is sadly conspicuous by its absence! Does it fly away every time it is needed, to return only when harmony reigns, when the conflict is over? If that is so, then surely reason is more a symptom or effect of social harmony than it is a cause—and if that is so, from whence can we expect social health to come?”

“Rational behavior in communal action is primarily a moral and not an intellectual achievement, possible only to a person morally capable of self-sacrifice.” “I came to believe,” writes Gilkey, that “moral selflessness is a prerequisite for the life of reason—not its consequence, as so many philosophers contend.” His experiences were forcing him to conclude that “men are neither so rational nor so moral as they like to think,” and that “in any situation of tension and anxiety, when the being or security of the self is threatened, far from the rationality and common-feeling his liberal humanistic upbringing had caused him to expect in such situations, he found that “the mind simply ceases to be the objective instrument it pictures itself as.”

The wonderful order established in the early days of the camp began to fall apart as the weeks and months passed the depths of chronic human selfishness and moral blindness threatened to tear them apart. Gilkey’s early indifference to the moral character of the camp society and the people within it faded as their “splendid institutions were threatened with collapse from within.”

Meaninglessness and its accompanying moral diseases began to overtake people who had always gotten their sense of meaning and purpose from their job or their social rank. In the camp, no longer did president of this company or director of that office mean anything anymore, only the work they did now, baking bread or pumping water or cleaning the latrines. And yet, as the bickering and complaining increased, people felt less and less valued for their efforts. One either acted out of a deep personal sense of meaning or became one of bickerers and thieves.

“My thoughts seemed to have run into a strange dilemma,” Gilkey would later write. “Two things that apparently contracted each other had become transparently clear in this experience. First, I had learned that men need to be moral, that is, responsibly concerned with their neighbors’ welfare as well as their own, if human community was to be at all possible; equally evident, however, men did not or even could not so overcome their own self-concern to be thus responsible to their neighbor.”

Faced with what seemed an intractable dilemma, Gilkey “began to recall some of the theological ideas [he] had almost forgotten in the bustle and activity of camp life. Among the most relevant, it now seemed, was the old idea of original sin.”

Liberal humanists often express amazement that their apparently intelligent Christian friends believe many things about God which cannot be proved. At least the Christian can answer that what he believes about God cannot be disproved. But the main article of faith of the humanist, namely, the goodness of mankind and man’s consequent capacity to be moral, is refuted by any careful study of human nature. If it is unreasonable to hold a religious faith that cannot be demonstrated, surely it is irrational to defend a humanistic faith that the evidence so universally contradicts.

“The ethical issues of human community life are, therefore,” contends Gilkey, “the outward expression in action of deeper, more inward issues, we might say religious issues.” As Viktor Frankl found during his imprisonment in Auschwitz, man requires a deep sense of meaning and purpose to survive, and this will be his salvation in times of crisis when all former hopes of “getting ahead” seem lost. Without some deeper sense of meaning and purpose—one greater than merely “staying alive” or “becoming successful”—men and women were reduced to their baser instincts for survival, or they would simply allow themselves to die.

Like Camus, I too want to give us hope. But we should understand the dangers of false hope. In Man’s Search for Meaning, his account of his time in Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl tells the story of a man who was certain that they would be liberated from Auschwitz by Christmas. When Christmas came and went and there was no liberation, the man died shortly thereafter, his hopes dashed, his sense of meaning and purpose lost.

It is not evident, as our Camus essayist suggested, that a “deadly crisis will encourage solidarity and bring out the best qualities in people, that endurance and courage will prevail”—at least not always or perhaps even for the most part. That, I believe, would be a false hope, one I suspect Camus himself did not hold. Perhaps some days he did, and others he did not. Perhaps like the rest of us, he just wanted it to be that way. Camus’ story, after all, was an allegory of Europe besieged by Nazism. That story did (and still does) provide examples of tremendous heroism in the face of adversity. But we would be wrong to see the story of World War II and the Holocaust primarily as examples of man’s humanity to man. Camus might have hoped that French endurance and courage would prevail, and in many ways it did, but even now the French are reluctant to admit how small the Resistance movement was and how much acquiescence in cruelty occurred during those dark days.

So too, we are seeing many examples of kindness and generosity, of people pulling together in times of need, but one cannot help but notice the stories of hoarding, scams, and thefts of even crucial medical supplies. After several days respite, the partisan sniping and bickering, the constant second-guessing and invective against any proposal, has returned in force. Read Shantung Compound and ask yourself about the self-interested bickerers whether you don’t recognize them.

But then may I suggest you go further and ask yourself, Who am I like in this story? Am I like the few good people whose virtues shone like the sun—people like Eric Liddell, the gold medal runner whose story was dramatized in Chariots of Fire, who spent countless hours engaged in activities with the young people in the Weihsien camp, and who died of a brain hemorrhage shortly before liberation? Or am I more like the mass of others whose self-justifying selfishness nearly destroyed the place?

Our Camus essayist writes, “The chastened people return to normal life with a clearer vision and deeper understanding of the precarious nature of human existence.” I suspect many of us will return to “normal life”—if that’s what we want to call it—with a “clearer vision” of the precarious nature of human existence. Whether we discover, like Camus, that “there are more things to admire in men than to despise” depends on what we are looking for. If we are looking for superlative virtue untainted by vice, we are likely to become disappointed and cynical. If we spend our time looking for things like generosity, kindness, compassion, and self-sacrifice, we will find them, perhaps even in ourselves, and they are traits to be admired, emulated, and repeated, both now and after the crisis passes.

Did Gilkey have anything hopeful to say? Looking back after two-and-a-half years, he said this: “The unwanted is often creative rather than destructive. No one wished to go to Weihsien camp. Yet such an experience, resisted and abhorred, had within it the seeds of new insight and thus of new life for many of us. Almost because of its discomfort, its turmoil, and its boredom, it eventually became the source of certainties and of convictions with which life could henceforth be more creatively faced. This is a common mystery of life, an aspect, if you will, of common grace: out of apparent evil new creativity can arise if the meaning and possibilities latent within the new situation are grasped with courage and with faith.”

Some have suggested that we should change the Our Father to say, “Lord, put us not to the test.” That’s a defensible translation. But let there be no doubt: we are being put to the test. We will either live up to it with courage and faith in God’s grace, or we will be torn apart by it. God is not absent; he is intimately present now more than ever. But he is not going to win this victory for us without us. He wants us to shine like “gold tested by fire.” So we had better “gird our loins” and remember why Saints Perpetua, Francis, and Teresa of Calcutta are the models provided by the Church for us to imitate, and not the rich, powerful, and influential men and women of history that the secular world sets up on their pedestals of worldly greatness.


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 38 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.

9 Comments

  1. I would add just one more name to those saints who for us ought to be models of unselfishness- St. Damian Veuster of Molokai. He risked it all to serve others.

  2. Apparent reason is laid bare in times of crisis. The test of genuine reason is self-control and humility in times of peace and plenty.

    • Inigo, you knocked it out of the park! Thank you very much! A Truth to live by and die by! Earthly living would approximate Heaven if we did, like so many others before us have done and others are indeed doing now. Let’s step into Heaven here and now in self-control, humility and self-sacrifice, the True Sources of Joy, Love, Power and Peace. True Reason only comes from God, human reason is a very deficient impostor and crumbles under the pressure of tribulation just as easy as it does under the elation of success.

  3. Had Gilkey hung around a year or two longer at Harvard he might have bumped into Pitirim Sorokin who took a position there in 1940, and later in 1949 founded the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism, and in the mid-1960s rose to become the president of the American Sociological Association.

    Sorokin proposed that personal and cultural disruption do not always produce polarization and then aggression. He documented a range of predictably Freudian responses to evil, but then found—scientifically—a contradiction to Freudianism and many Western schools of thought. He discovered “creative altruism” as a research-able and yet unpredictable path of reintegration.

    He also found that creative altruism is usually preceded by a period of self-isolation and usually forced introspection–as with the coronavirus today?

    In his preface to The Ways and Powers of Creative Altruism (1954), Sorokin cites A. H. Maslow on the shunning of “love energy” by the empirical sciences:

    “It is amazing how little the empirical sciences have to offer on the subject of love [….] Particularly strange is the silence of the psychologists. Sometimes this is merely sad or irritating, as in the case of the textbooks of psychology and sociology, practically none of which treat the subject . . . More often the situation becomes completely ludicrous. [As a rule] the world ‘love’ is not even indexed [in psychological and sociological works]” (“Love in Healthy People,” in Montagu, ed., The Meaning of Love, 1953).

    As a Russian and survivor of an early Bolshevik death sentence, several arrests and a short time in prison, and then exile (he emigrating to the United States in 1923 and was naturalized in 1930), Sorokin—nevertheless—fully anticipated the advice of Randall B. Smith who writes (above): “If we spend our time looking for things like generosity, kindness, compassion, and self-sacrifice, we will find them. . .”

  4. Thank you Dr. Smith. I had a very heated discussion with my 15 year old just yesterday as to why Christianity was still relevant. His contention was that this crisis is demonstrating how the secular world can be the new champion of charity and compassion outside of a belief in God. I tried to argue that this was a mass media interpretation – no dice, his generation believes that science is the end all to all the mysteries of the universe. “So what is the purpose of life?”, I asked him? “To get rich”, was his quick answer.

    • A 15 year-old and “his generation believes that science is the end all to all the mysteries of the universe.” Turns out that the witnessed and singular experience of Christ also calls for a “science”–the science of Christology. The followers, as a Church, might just as easily have ignored this event just as if Newton had ignored that fact that an apple fell out of a tree.

      Giussani quotes another thinker: “This science [Christology] is neither deductive nor a priori. It is an inductive science [like chemistry!] which developed from an event, from an objective fact, from a first-hand experience noted down and written in the documents collated in that small library called the Books of the New Testament. These books, it should be understood, neither supplied nor conserved the first-hand experience in its entirety…They gathered information, oral traditions, which originated from him who was the object of these traditions” (C. Tresmontant, Problems du christianisme, 1980, in At the Origin of the Christian Claim, 1998).

      The singularity of the Incarnation (more than a manifestation), however, precludes any further replication/verification in the laboratory under the flat-universe “scientific method.” Better, then, for the self-satisfied illiterati to close their eyes to the whole thing, including the persistent extension one actually does find in the sacramental/Eucharistic Church itself, and which sometimes is ignited in the (factual) lives of the saints.

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