“A man is wise when all things taste to him as they really are.”
Josef Pieper quotes this anonymous axiom from the middle ages in his little book on the Virtues. A strong proponent of the natural law tradition, Pieper teaches us that conformity to reality – reconciling our lives to the way things really are is a check against all kinds of neuroses. Okay, he doesn’t use that word, at least not in my English translation of the book, but that is exactly what he’s talking about. Modern man rarely “tastes things as they really are,” but “tastes only himself in all things because he has regard only for himself.”
That’s pretty harsh and we don’t want to hear it. Or, if we do countenance his indictment, it is usually on behalf of someone else for whom the shoe fits. We don’t escape Pieper’s net so easily. Individual men suffer individual sins to be sure. It is equally true that whole cultures suffer psychological and moral myopias collectively, and that means you’re probably more guilty than you perceive.
Consider the ancient Jews of Elijah’s day and down through the history of the kings. It is inconceivable to me that mothers and fathers could sacrifice their live children to horrible gods like Molech, making them “pass through the fire,” a euphemism for burning them to death inside the statue of the god in which a blazing furnace had been kindled. But they did. We’re horrified at the apparent violence of their cultures. No sir, idolaters of that sort we most certainly are not. The ancients might not have liked it very much (who could love that god?) but they surely did those things.
Or consider the Jews after the Babylonian Exile, who spent 70 years in the East largely for being idolaters. When they returned to the land, they were pretty well cured of that sin. They even had whole societies dedicated to the scrupulous teaching of the law to avoid that fate in the future. They multiplied laws and codes and other such fences to prevent themselves and all others from transgressing the law of God. They were well- motivated and successful. These same peoples show up on the pages of the Gospels – not as idolaters – but with a whole new sin tendency: they were hypocrites. We know them as the Pharisees. They self-righteously kept all kinds of things that weren’t in the law, forced others to do so, and violated the commandments anyway. Jesus pointed this out, so they killed him.
Sin tendencies change. So what about us? Pieper’s diagnosis is that we are completely self-centered culturally. We throw away more than half of our marriages because we can’t love another person successfully, we throw away unborn children because they are inconvenient, and we borrow money like mad because we falsely believe that possessions are the measure of our lives, and we selfishly consume far more than we need. Okay, maybe you’re not participating in all these things, but you and both know that the god of self is a pervasive moral influence in our lives. In such an environment it is difficult to raise children with virtue or to attain it ourselves. Worse, we have nearly lost our capacity for moral virtue altogether.