The Double Line

History progresses in the line of evil and in the line of good



Asking someone “How are you doing?” can get personal. What if someone takes the question literally? Maybe someone like Mr. Pilgrim. He’s no pushover. Suppose he flips the question and asks “How are you doing?” Or he might even ask “How are we doing?” If he raises this question, he might answer it himself. Be ready for “We’re going to hell in a handbasket.” And that’s a declaration with a long history.

The Phrase Finder notes that Hieronymous Bosch’s The Haywain (c. 1515) pictures sinners on a haycart headed toward hell. In print the expression dates back to The History of Popery (1682): “noise of a Popish Plot was…an intrigue of the Whigs to destroy the Kings best Friends, and the Devil fetch me to Hell in a Hand basket, if I might have my will, there should not be one Fanatical Dog left alive….”

Still, Mr. Pilgrim might surprise us. Maybe he’s into pop culture. Following Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spiderman), he could suggest a remedy for what ails us. We need only repeat, frequently, the mantra “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.” Spiderman pinned a poster on his wall saying just that!

Even that mantra has a history. The psychologist Émile Coué (1857—1926) used it in his program of optimistic auto-suggestion. (Sure, there are limits to the power of positive thinking. When Spidey’s aunt visited him in the hospital, she told him, “Careful, Spidey, you aren’t Superman.”)

Well, let’s hope that Mr. Pilgrim finds a way between the Scylla of Pessimism and the Charybdis of Optimism. Good luck!

Meanwhile, let’s consider a third way, the path of chastened realism. Perhaps its most insightful proponent in recent times is the Thomist thinker Jacques Maritain.

In The Peasant of the Garonne, written in his 80s, Maritain calls for a sane philosophy of history. By then, his own history included his conversion, and that of his Jewish spouse, Raïssa, to Catholicism, living through two world wars, a flight to North America to escape the Nazis, and a key role in drafting the UN Declaration of Human Rights. At the close of Vatican Council II, his friend Paul VI entrusted to him a Letter to Intellectuals. 

For Maritain, a part of understanding history is the axiom of the double line: “the history of the world progresses at the same time in the line of evil and in the line of good.” Sometimes, he adds, “one sees the effects of this simultaneous double progress erupting in a kind of explosion.”

If we have our eyes open, we can see more than one such explosion. A pair of them come quickly to mind.

The first is that never have we known more about health and healing and never have we been so ready to write off the lives of the preborn and the sick and elderly.

A second is that never have we been so ready to appeal to our human rights and so unable or unwilling to come to terms with what justifies them.

But our established disorder need not be how history ends. For the Spirit “over this bent world still broods,” and with good reason. He does so, as Hopkins adds, “with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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