The Empty Self vs. the Rich Soul
January 2004By Mitchell Kalpakgian
Mitchell Kalpakgian is author of The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature.
On any given weekend many individuals will enter a video store and take home not a classic movie, but five or six videos of mediocre to vulgar quality. On any typical school day a large percentage of children will receive their daily dosage of Ritalin. On any weekday night many families will pass long hours in front of the TV or on the Internet, and on the weekend spectator sports events will occupy most of Saturday and Sunday -- and even Monday nights. Estimates by the Couple to Couple League indicate that over 80 percent of married couples of childbearing age will purchase their supplies of contraceptives and pills as a staple of modern life. These indisputable facts reflect an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual starvation which finds relief, not in real nourishment, but in the junk food of modern civilization -- the ersatz instead of the real. Hollywood movies imagine themselves as great art, so-called information highways are touted as the equivalent of education, the news media and television assume an aura of reality, and professional sports pose as noble heroism. Despite these attempts at pleasure, peace, entertainment, excitement, and garnering tidbits of information, man has an inner life that these substitutes for the real thing do not satisfy.
In The City of God Augustine explains the hierarchy of Being in the order of nature. Of the beings that exist, those which have life (plants) rank above those which have none (rocks); among living things, "the sentient are higher than those which have no sensation, as animals are ranked above trees." Among the sentient, men, endowed with intelligence, occupy a higher place than animals, and above men are the pure spirits, the angels. In this order of nature only God, angels, and men experience an inner life. While rocks have being, plants reproduce, and animals experience pleasure and pain, only God, angels, and men possess a rational and spiritual nature endowed with the power to know, love, and choose. This inner life, which John Donne in his Devotions describes as "a little world," is the intellectual, emotional, and moral realm in which man discerns the true, the beautiful, and the good:
It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world.... And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world.
Indeed, this inner world is one of profound depths that encompass a vast range of thoughts, sensitivities, and perceptions. St. Thomas Aquinas writes that man is capax universi, capable of understanding the whole of reality. Man philosophizes about all of reality from the origin of life to the end of human existence, and he contemplates all the mysteries and miracles of creation from the glory of the stars to the wonder of love. Man experiences a full range of emotion -- the tenderness of adoring a baby, the affection between parents and children, the bonds of close friendship, the ecstasy of eros, and communion with God. Man senses beauty in all its myriad expressions, from the human form and nature's glory to music, painting, dance, poetry, and architecture. The inner life spans a wide distance from the lightheartedness of mirth to the sorrow of tragedy to the peace that passes all understanding. Thus, the inner life of man is a world copiously rich and full, capax universi, capable of loving and knowing, and designed to grasp the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Just as the body requires nourishment and rest, the soul also demands completeness. The inner life is intended for fullness and wholeness, for as Christ said, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (Jn. 10:10). The inner life requires the food of joy, love, truth, goodness, beauty, and God to experience the depths of happiness. A bona fide moral education in homes and a real intellectual cultivation in schools enrich the resources of the inner life and deepen the sense of this capacious "world." Teaching the young the riches and traditions of the Christian faith develops in them an inner life of prayer, reflection, and contemplation, and lifts the mind and heart to the reality of God. The purpose of civilization and culture is the transmission of ideals that enhance the inner life and inspire the soul to seek the things that are above. The sacrament of marriage, like all the sacraments, deepens this inner life by penetrating the mystery of the heart's profound desire to give and to receive. A human life, then, requires a steady diet of the wholesome, life-giving food for the mind, heart, and soul that refreshes the entire being of the person. Families, schools, societies, churches, and culture all play vital roles in the formation -- or deformation -- of this inner life.
Because nature abhors a vacuum, the inner life does not remain a void. Deprived of natural joy, human love, universal truths, divine wisdom, and transcendental beauty, the soul, heart, and mind seek substitutes for reality and fill the emptiness with alternatives that lack substance. Absent the blessings of family life, the joys of marriage, the classic expressions of truth and beauty, the riches of the philosophia perennis, the wisdom of the past, and the eternal verities of religion, the inner life atrophies and seeks satisfaction through imitations of the real thing. Obsessive-compulsive habits of eating, drinking, and spending replace a normal life of simplicity, frugality, and moderation. Mindless entertainment, restless consumerism, inane video culture, and sports mania detract from the time spent in the human interaction of conversation, friendship, and hospitality. The inner world, then, becomes a wasteland, and the happiness of a rich inner life deteriorates into the boredom of the empty self -- a life in which man can only "measure out my life with coffee spoons" and "spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways," as T.S. Eliot writes in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
In Gulliver's Travels Swift satirizes a presumably utopian society of horses, the Houyhnhnms, because they are devoid of an inner life. While the horses imagine themselves to live in a utopia because of their superior health and the absence of social evils like alcoholism, war, and venereal disease, they have no family life. They show no special tenderness or fond affection for their own children: They exchange their offspring with other families so that equal numbers of male and female reside in each household. Exercising rational control of their passions and appetites at all times, the Houyhnhnms congratulate themselves for resisting the deadly sins of gluttony, avarice, lust, and wrath. However, the horses have no life of the mind or soul. They do not wonder at beauty or goodness, they do not contemplate God or eternity, and they do not delight in music, athletics, poetry, or art. Practicing benevolence and humanitarianism, the Houyhnhnms love their whole race and exchange goods with one another; no member of their society is deprived of the basic necessities of life: "They will have it that Nature teaches them to love the whole Species." Nevertheless, even though the horses give the impression of living contented, fulfilled lives, their existence is drab and monotonous. They have no aesthetic sense, no spiritual life, and no intellectual pursuits. They neither laugh nor cry, experience neither love nor sorrow, and have no desire to enlarge their minds or broaden their understanding. Emotionally stunted and intellectually undeveloped, the Houyhnhnms simply survive, but they do not live abundant, rich lives and show no sense of a mind capax universi. Despite their physical health, peaceful society, and distribution of goods, they live an empty existence.
No normal, human inner life is possible with the destruction of the family. In Huxley's Brave New World the family is obsolete because children are conceived in test tubes in assembly-line production in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. The young are reared in government-controlled nurseries where they are conditioned for their social destiny as determined by the Controllers of the state. Love and life are separated, and sexuality and procreation are divorced in Huxley's futuristic dystopia. The motto of the day is "civilization is sterilization," and the words "mother" and "father" are words of reproach: "To say one was a mother -- that was past a joke; it was an obscenity." Natural childbirth rather than test-tube conception in a modern fertilizing room carries with it a stigma, the pejorative phrase "gross viviparous reproduction," and fatherhood is equally disgusting: "The word for father' was not so much obscene as...merely gross, a scatological rather than pornographic impropriety." As incubators and test tubes replace mothers and fathers, and nurseries assume the role of families, the emptiness of the inner life requires the cult of pleasure to fill the void. The drug "soma" ("euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant"), the feelies (pornographic movies), and sexual license ("everyone belongs to everyone else") fill the vacuum. The junk food of modern culture replaces real nourishment for human beings.
The inner life also requires beauty and truth for its fulfillment, but these transcendentals have been replaced by convenience and ease in Brave New World. Mustapha Mond, the Controller of this dystopian society, explains that a brave new world demands censorship to eliminate the influence of the past upon the present: "We haven't any use for old things here.... Particularly when they're beautiful. Beauty's attractive, and we don't want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones." Thus Shakespeare's plays, the Holy Bible, The Imitation of Christ, and the works of Cardinal Newman are all notably absent from the schools, libraries, and society of the new brave world. The ideological revolution, according to the Controller, has been "to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness." Whereas in ages past "knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value," utility, efficiency, ease, and instant gratification are the summum bonum in the utopia of the modern world. The empty self devoid of beauty and truth requires constant external stimulation, sensationalistic entertainment, and an endless supply of drugs and pills. To minister to the emptiness of the inner life, Lenina, typical of the women in her society, "wore a silver mounted green morocco-surrogate cartridge belt, bulging with the regulation supply of contraceptives." Happiness is redefined as "seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labor, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies."
The empty self knows neither the ecstasy of love and joy nor the agony of tragedy and death, and it reflects no sense of mystery, wonder, or contemplation. It does not experience moments that illuminate the heart of reality like the scene at the garden of Ostia in St. Augustine's Confessions, where he describes the depths of the inner life of the soul. Augustine and his mother, Monica, experienced the palpable presence and nearness of God at the garden of Ostia after Augustine's conversion -- an answer to his mother's prayers:
We proceeded step by step through all bodily things up to that heaven whence shine the sun and the moon and the stars down upon the earth. We ascended higher yet by means of inward thought and discourse and admiration of your works, and we came up to our own minds. We transcended them, so that we attained to the region of abundance that never fails, in which you feed Israel forever upon the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by which all these things are made, both which have been and which are to be.
At this moment Augustine and Monica discern Divine Providence in their lives and the personal, tender, sensitive love of God for each of them: "Thou lovest us, Lord, as if we were the only one." They encounter the mystery of a God "most hidden and most present, most beautiful and most strong, stable and incomprehensible." Monica's and Augustine's hearts are melted by God's love, and they are in awe at the hand of God in their lives: "Your love pierced our heart like an arrow, and we bore within us your words, transfixing our inmost parts." Experiencing the depths of human and divine love, Augustine and Monica experience a peace that the world cannot give, and encounter a foretaste of Heaven.
But the empty self lacks passion and depth. Like the cold, insensible Houyhnhnms and the dehumanized, deadened inhabitants of Huxley's dystopia, the empty self -- unlike the Psalmist -- never cries, sings, praises, gives thanks, or wonders. The empty self knows no powerful pleas for mercy like "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord" (Ps. 130) or pangs of longing like "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God" (Ps. 42). No rapturous transports -- like Romeo's wonder at the miracle of love and his awe at Juliet's beauty -- move the hearts of the impoverished soul. As Shakespeare writes:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!...
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear --
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
The empty self does not know the thrill of beauty which Gerard Manly Hopkins captures in famous lines such as "Glory be to God for dappled things --/For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow" or "The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shining from shook foil." The empty self does not know the dark night of the soul or the valley of the shadow of death that John Donne plumbs in "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day," a poem that depicts the broken heart and inconsolable grief of a husband who laments the loss of his beloved wife:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy;
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations and lean emptiness.
He ruined me, and I am rebegot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are
Thus neither love nor death, neither goodness nor beauty, and neither sin nor guilt stir the heart or move the soul of the empty self. No one in the society of the Houyhnhnms or in Huxley's Brave New World speaks in the impassioned eloquence of Shakespeare's King Lear, outraged by the enormity of the evil he has suffered:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanes, spout
Till you have drenche'd our steeples, drown'd
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking
Strike flat the thick rotundity of the world!
Crack nature's molds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man.
In all these examples, from St. Augustine to King Lear, the heart is full, the soul is moved, the conscience is awakened, and the mind is alive. The agony of suffering and the ecstasy of joy are felt profoundly, and sentiments pour forth from the riches of an inner life that overflows with song, tears, wonder, gratitude, and love.
Why is the empty self devoid of these emotions? Because nothing can come from nothing. If the heart is not formed, then cold, insensitive beings like the Houyhnhnms result. As the family is deconstructed, will we too eschew fatherhood and motherhood as "gross" and "obscene"? As education is reduced to political ideology and moral relativism, how will the mind ever acquire a taste for the love of absolute truth or savor the goodness of real wisdom? If a person subsists on a diet lacking intellectual, spiritual, and emotional substance, the emptiness will never be filled. The heart, mind, and soul atrophy without proper nourishment. As Socrates explains in the Gorgias, the confectioner pampers the body with sweets whereas the physician acknowledges the difference between nutritious and unhealthy foods: "Thus cookery puts on the mask of medicine and pretends to know what foods are best for the body, and, if an audience of children had to decide whether a confectioner or a doctor is the better judge of wholesome and unwholesome foodstuffs, the doctor would unquestionably die of hunger." The confectioner, Socrates explains, is a caterer who "panders" to intemperate desires that are never gratified, resembling a leaky cask or a sieve that empties as soon as it is filled. The empty self resembles the man whom Socrates describes as constantly itching: "Can a man who itches and wants to scratch and whose opportunities of scratching are unbounded be said to lead a happy life continually scratching?"
Whereas the empty self is constantly itching, the rich soul is replete with energy and substance. The empty self is addicted to titillation, violence, sensationalism, and sloth, and gorges itself on the confectioners' sugar that does not satisfy the hunger of the soul. In contrast to the souls of fools, the rich soul knows the real thing from its imitation, the substantive from the ephemeral, and the transitory from the eternal. Romeo's love for Juliet is the real thing, the powerful attraction of a passionate man for a sensuous woman whom he longs to marry -- not the mechanical, impersonal, contraceptive jumping into bed of the couples in Brave New World. Monica's maternal love is the real thing, a mother's heart praying longingly day and night for her wayward son's conversion -- not some cant about motherhood as absurd and "obscene." Hopkins's sense of beauty is the real thing, a sense of awe and wonder at the inexhaustible, copious nature of beauty in all the colorfulness and variety of nature's combinations from "Rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim" to "Landscape plotted and pieced-fold, fallow, and plough." As Hopkins writes in another poem, "For Christ plays in ten thousand places." Nothing is truly beautiful that does not reflect God. David's longing for God ("As the hart panteth after the water brooks") is the real thing -- not the need for more soma, more pills, more drugs. Donne's dark night of the soul as he passes through the valley of the shadow of death is the real thing, the agony of losing a loved one -- not some stoical apathy to human loss or some cold rationalization about the "stages" of death and dying. King Lear's righteous anger over his "serpent-like" and "pelican" daughters' cruel ingratitude is the real thing -- honest passion at the enormity of life's injustice -- not passive tolerance of or acquiescent indifference to the ugliness of evil.
Instead of real nutrition, the empty self gluts itself on husks and pits. "Safe sex" pretends to be love, cohabitation poses as marriage, and same-sex unions ape matrimony, but they do not penetrate the transcendent mystery of love as total giving that Romeo and Juliet experience: "My bounty is as boundless as the sea,/My love as deep; the more I give to thee,/The more I have, for both are infinite." Feminism claims to offer a woman her rights and to elevate her power, but it does not glimpse the maternal heart of true femininity that Monica's genius exemplifies. In Augustine's words to God, "Could you refuse your help to her or despise her tears with which she asked from you, not gold or silver or any mutable and transitory good, but the salvation of her son's soul?... No, you could not." The world of advertising, image, fashion, and glamour disguises itself as the quintessence of beauty, but never detects the secret of true beauty that Hopkins's poetry seizes: All human natural beauty -- spiritual in origin -- reflects the glory of God: "I know the beauty of the Lord by it," Hopkins remarked about the bluebell. In our Culture of Death, where abortion and euthanasia in their commonplaceness desensitize consciences and harden hearts, Donne exposes the hard truth: Death is absolute evil and a product of Hell, "the grave of all that's nothing." In the politically correct world where non-judgmental tolerance is the ultimate proof of goodness, and moral outrage is the capital sin, King Lear demonstrates honest realism as he erupts with thunderous anger at the unnatural depravity of "the marble-hearted" ingratitude of his daughters to whom he "gave all" and received nothing. Whereas the ideology of moral relativism feigns neutrality about right and wrong on the basis of a diversity of opinions, Lear is repelled by the horror of evil and does not equivocate: "Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,/More hideous when thou show'st thee in a child/Than the sea monster." While the empty selves of the Houyhnhnms and Huxley's brave new world act smugly complacent in their imaginary paradise devoid of God, the Psalmist attributes all true happiness to the reality of God's Providence: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name" and "O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good." Thus the real food of the soul -- truth -- nourishes the inner world and enriches it with abundant life: a copiousness that overflows into moral sentiments, refined feelings, and passionate hearts that distinguish man as the image of God. The rich soul reflects a whole universe, the entire range of human thought and feeling, and can repeat, with Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France: "We preserve the whole of our feelings still native and entire, unsophisticated by pedantry and infidelity. We have real hearts of flesh and blood beating in our bosoms."
Instead of "real hearts of flesh and blood" that recognize the difference between good and evil, that know when to cry, rejoice, wonder, or give thanks like David in the Psalms, empty souls resemble creatures that C.S. Lewis called "men without chests" -- men without magnanimity, chivalry, nobility, honor, principles, or conscience. Men without chests are half-alive, dehumanized, heartless. Their inner life is the "wasteland" spoken of by T.S. Eliot. The menu of life offers choices beyond the addictive junk food of the mind we are constantly offered that promises much but delivers nothing. The bill of fare also features the natural, God-given cornucopia of family, religion, wisdom, art, love, beauty, and joy -- in short, the real thing. As Savage, the visitor to the brave new world who is disgusted by the dehumanized lives of the empty souls, protests: "But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness...."