By Anthony Esolen
Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).
Which is better for your own sake, to think that most people will treat you well, even if that is not quite true, or to think that most people will treat you badly? If it is the former, then people who discourage you do not have your best interest in mind.
Why would they do that? What is the benefit? But what would life be, without the fierce delights of enmity? Why, people might fall back into peace, or at least a complaisant tolerance for one another, unless there was some concerned citizen to ensure that every honest mistake will be interpreted as a crime and every crime as a full-scale attack.
In the 1945 film The Valley of Decision, Pat Rafferty (Lionel Barrymore) is an old and embittered man who was crippled for life in an accident at the steel mills. The mill owner, Mr. Scott (Donald Crisp) is both rich and fair-minded, caring more about making the best steel in the country than about the wealth he could glean by selling his independence to the industrial giant, Andrew Carnegie. He has seen to it that Rafferty is paid his regular salary for the rest of his life, but that only rankles the old man all the more.
If you are searching for reasons to hate, the work in those steel mills could provide plenty. It was filthy, grueling, and dangerous. The film takes place before the progressive reforms of the late nineteenth century—for in those days, Christian progressives such as Jacob Riis and Dorothea Dix were near to men who built up the nation in stone and steel—and we see as much in what the men, on strike, demand of Scott: most important of all, a shorter work week. He agrees, but Rafferty is near to poison the men’s minds and tell them that it is all a trick. Rafferty is not by nature an evil man. He loves his daughter (Greer Garson), who has, against his orders, taken work as a servant in the Scott household, where she is treated well. But he has a cause, and the cause has devoured the man. He delights in enmity. The results are fatal.
I mention the film because it is often helpful to step aside from the fury of the time and to see the same patterns of behavior under very different circumstances and embodied in very different people. Race, sex, and ethnicity are not at issue here. These are Irish immigrants against other Irish immigrants. They might as well be Guelphs and Ghibellines in the Florence of Dante’s childhood, or Whites and Blacks (Guelphs all) in his adulthood, once the Ghibelline party was cast out. They might as well be kin by marriage but nursing murderous grudges, as in the Iceland of Njal’s Saga, when the wise counsel for peace that the hero Njal gives is so often ignored.
There is a good reason why Dante places the sowers of discord in the same category with liars, counterfeiters, grafters, and other frauds. It is not that they love violence. Sometimes they do, but mostly they do not. They want something, and they use discord in order to get it; but they do not admit to anyone, perhaps not even to themselves, that that is what they are doing. They profit by the deceit.
More than such things as a pitched battle at Montaperti, or at Gunnar Hamundarson’s farmhouse, or on a bridge over the Allegheny, sowers of discord do spiritual harm to those whom they egg on (the word has to do with the edge of a sword and not with the thing under the chicken). If you believe that the world is against you, you are on your way toward ensuring that it will be so. You will see things askance, and your behavior will match it. People will sense it, usually unconsciously, and they will shy away from you, which will confirm you in your first opinion.
I speak from embarrassment and experience. When I went to Princeton, and I heard for the first time the nasal twang of the boarding school boys, asking each other whether they went to Deerfield or Groton, and what their house servants were like, and whether they were at the big regatta last summer, I felt as if I had walked into the set of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but in the crass American style, flush with money and suntans from Bermuda. My defense was to join the crowd that looked down upon the people we assumed were looking down upon us. That was unfair, and it did harm.
From a distance, I see that the short and odd-looking fellow who could never stop talking about Groton was probably self-conscious, not sure whether his brains or his breeding got him into the school, and just searching for something to say. The balding kid whose sole desire was to be admitted to the most exclusive clubs, and who got into none of them, was lonely and unhappy. My fellows in our first semester class for math majors often knew one another from their competitions in New York, and that too may have been their lifeline.
Most of the time people aren’t thinking bad things about you, because they aren’t thinking of you at all. They have troubles enough of their own. And human life, day-to-day, is a muddle. I am not talking here about evil principles, which must be repudiated (such as that an innocent human life is disposable, like garbage; or that a man can marry another man; or that some people are better than others because they come from the right hereditary lines; or that belief in God should be held under state suspicion; or that children belong to the state, and their parents tend to them only by permission; or that good and evil themselves are empty words, to be filled by the caprice of an electorate). I am not talking about evil actions, which must be condemned and sometimes punished by law. I am talking about your daily approach to the world. If it is one of suspicion, you will not have to wait for offenses. They will come, and you will be a cripple.
And I do mean that the offenses, or what you take to be such, will come. They must. That is the thing about seeing askance. There will be things to see. You may be right in what you see and wrong in how you see it. You may be right in how you see it, but you may mistake the motives. The bald kid really is a snob—a little bit at least. The girl did pretend she didn’t hear you, but it was because she was nervous and she forgot your name. The teacher did snap at you when you complained about your grade, but he always does that, or he never does it, but he just had a fight with his wife, and the next bothersome thing, whatever it was going to be and whoever was going to be responsible for it, would set him snarling.
The converse is also true. If you assume that people are going to like you, they usually will, because, whether you are aware of it or not, you will be acting in likable ways. Your ease with them will tend to make them easy with you. You might even become friends.
Friendship is the ultimate aim, isn’t it? Or is it? Do not use hatred of some wrong, or a desire for some right, as the pretext for sowing discord, to hurt your near enemies regardless of what happens to those, usually notional and distant, whom you purport to help. And do not let someone else promote you as a pawn in his own battle against those he hates. Finally, remember that Christians should demand justice for themselves, but they should tremble to demand it for themselves. God may grant it.