Walker Percy Wednesday 103


For two years I was caught between passionate liberals and conservatives among my fellow inmates at Fort Pelham. Most prisoners are ideologues. There is nothing else to do. Both sides had compelling arguments. Each could argue plausibly for and against religion, God, Israel, blacks, affirmative action, Nicaragua.

It was more natural for me, less boring, to listen than to argue. I was more interested in the rage than the arguments. After two years no one had convinced anyone else. Each side made the same points, the same rebuttals. Neither party listened to the other. They would come close as lovers, eyes glistening, shake fingers at each other, actually take hold of the other’s clothes. There were even fistfights.

It crossed my mind that people at war have the same need of each other. What would a passionate liberal or conservative do without the other?

. . .

Instead, I find myself wondering, just as I wondered at Fort Pelham, what it is the passionate arguer is afraid of. Is he afraid that he might be wrong? that he might be right? Is he afraid that if one does not argue there is nothing left? An abyss opens. Is it not the case that something is better than nothing, arguing, violent disagreement, even war?

More than once at Fort Pelham I noticed that passionate liberals, passionate on the race question, had no use for individual blacks, and that passionate conservatives could not stand one another. Can you imagine Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson spending a friendly evening alone together?

One of life’s little mysteries: an old-style Southern white and an old-style Southern black are more at ease talking to each other, even though one may be unjust to the other, than Ted Kennedy talking to Jesse Jackson—who are overly cordial, nervous as cats in their cordiality, and glad to be rid of each other.

In the first case—the old-style white and the old-style black—each knows exactly where he stands with the other. Each can handle the other, the first because he is in control, the second because he uses his wits. They both know this and can even enjoy each other.

In the second case—Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson—each is walking on eggshells. What to say next in this rarified atmosphere of perfect liberal agreement? What if one should violate the fragile liberal canon, let drop a racist remark, an anti-Irish Catholic slur? What if Jesse Jackson should mention Hymie? The world might end. They are glad to get it over with. What a relief! Whew!


Work, its moral meaning or import

Here’s a relatively recent piece from David Wiggins of course invoking the historical figure he is most familiar with — Aristotle:

One who agrees to speak about the ethical meaning of work might be expected to say something about its religious significance. Given limitations of time and competence, let me simply offer two remarkable utterances from the closing chapter of Simone Weil, The Need for Roots:

Death and labour are things of necessity and not of choice. The world only gives itself to Man in the form of food and warmth if Man gives himself to the world in the form of labour. But death and labour can be submitted to either in an attitude of revolt or else one of consent. They can be submitted to either in their naked truth or wrapped in lies . . . .

Man placed himself outside the current of Obedience. God chose as his punishment labour and death. Consequently labour and death, if Man undergoes them in a spirit of willingness, constitute a transference back into the current of Supreme Good which is Obedience to God.

If you prefer this over the quasi-Aristotelian account I have offered of the meaning of work – if you prefer to meditate here upon the person who undergoes labour and death in a spirit of acceptance – you arrive by another route at something not altogether alien to the conclusion that we reached before. On both accounts, the power and the possibility to do proper work is something that is central to the life and being of a human person. To have no work to do – to find nothing one can do that makes any difference to anyone or anything – is among the very worst things that can befall someone, even if he or she can escape starvation. There is, however, at least one notable difference between the Aristotelian and the Weilian outlooks. One who acts in the spirit thatWeil enjoins upon us has to accept whatever labour presents itself and be ready to adjust his or her expectations and putative satisfactions to the way things have to be. They must deploy their talents as best they can wherever it falls to them to labour. For others that may be more difficult. What these others may look for (in something of the spirit still of Aristotle, see Rhetoric 1367 a32) is work or occupation which, however hard it presses upon them, is not felt as any constraint or external compulsion upon them. In the world as it is they will often lament the shortfall between the work they find to do and the ideal we have described, according to which work at once reveals reality and places demands upon the their best powers and faculties. Something important will disappear from the world when human beings no longer even lament this shortfall but simply acquiesce in it.