THIS COLUMN RUNS the gamut between lint-picking and nit-picking. The lint-picking is what I engage in when looking for an idea and the nit-picking follows when people who move their lips when they are reading silently read my stuff. I think lint-picking is the harder assignment. It comes down to this: Where does one get an idea when he needs one? And close at hand is another problem: Where are the sources of that idea written down?
Today the idea came and now I can’t find my quotation. My filing system is where I put stuff to lose it. A filing system can be so complex that it enslaves you; or it can be so simple that nothing is in it, or at least nothing has any clue for the finding. I have written things down in a notebook for years and years and I know exactly where everything is except what I am looking for; there is a complete record of everything I have ever said in a public speech, but everyone knows that I keep saying it over and over again; and I have a complete collection of good jokes and stories from 1942 to 1952, but I can’t find any place to use them.
So why all this review of my troubles? As Sam Johnson said so well, “Knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it” (Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Vol. I, p. 558, Everyman’s Library, etc., etc.). See? It’s easy. The trouble is that I wasn’t looking for that quotation. I found it while looking for the one I haven’t found and want to use for this column. I looked in Bartlett. I looked in my own notebooks. I read all the underlinings in my copy of Boswell on Johnson and all I found is the profound truth from Johnson that a man either knows something or knows where to find it. Well, I know it even if I don’t know where to find it.
So Johnson says something like this somewhere but he says it better: “If a man wants to rent a room from you, don’t ask him if he has enough money; just ask him what his philosophy of life is.” The closest I could find to that was this: “If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons” (op. cit., I, 268). This is all a condemnation of the easy tolerance of our day that says, ad nauseam, “It really doesn’t matter what a man believes so long as he’s sincere,” or “That’s what you think and that’s what he thinks and it really doesn’t matter.”
It really does matter what a man believes, and we had better believe that and pretty soon. The whole planet is divided desperately these days regarding beliefs—ideologies, if you like—and differences are tearing us apart. If you think you can be at peace in your corner of the vineyard, simply living out your kind of freedom and doing your own thing, then you are as naïve as any other teen-ager. What is equally serious and closer to home is that we are so full of rejoicing over our pluralistic society that we are missing something basic about unity (in unity there is strength, remember?). Unity of action can come about only on the basis of unity of belief, and pluralistic believing will lead to disintegration—dis-integer!
To pick one out of the blue, what do you believe about the work ethic? This is being bandied about as the kind of thing one should be up on for good table talk. It is sometimes related to the Protestant work ethic, it usually is condemned as somehow or somewhat bourgeois (and what could be worse than that?), and the knowing ones among us know all about Max Weber and John Calvin and how this sort of thing began in Geneva and was picked up by the Puritans and anything related to Puritans is definitely a bad thing in our new society. “Let joy and mirth be unconfined.”
What I am plumping for in all this verbiage is simple enough: Unless we begin to take the work ethic seriously, unless we reintroduce a few Puritan moralities, unless we start to tell the truth and refuse the bribe, we may as well say good-bye to all those nice things everyone wants today but hopes someone else will produce for him. I made myself quite unpopular at a college convocation one time at the end of the semester when everyone was getting ready to go home for the holidays. “Suppose,” said I, “that the last man to check out the jet plane on which you will fly home did his job just as faithfully as you have done yours here during the last semester.” A groan went up. The students all knew that the man on the jet can be depended on to do the right thing. What makes them believe that when there are so few things they do believe?
What makes any of us believe that sort of thing? Have we been educating anyone recently in morality? Or has the separation of church and state finally led us to the place where morality cannot be taught or even talked about, where one evades value judgments like the plague. Milton thought that one did his job as “ever in the taskmaster’s eye,” and some have sincerely believed that one’s daily task, when it is taken out of the monastery and worked at in the street or in the shop, is a daily offering to God. To think about good Sam Johnson again, if a man makes no distinction between right and wrong, you had better count the spoons. Even Huxley, no religionist, said, “The Bible talks no nonsense about rights, only about duties.” If he is even close to being right on there, what is all this stuff we keep hearing about rights and “I wanna be free”?
The glory of Protestantism and the glory of Calvinism and the glory of Puritanism was and is that an emphasis was placed on the incarnation of one’s beliefs in his daily round. When people really believe this sort of thing, it makes a difference in what they choose to do and how they carry it through. One does not, for God’s sake, do shoddy work. And my thesis is simple enough: That great middle section of our society—neither the intellectuals nor the indigent—must be converted or reconverted to a whole series of beliefs that have to do with honesty, integrity, hard work, the bourgeois virtues, or we can quit complaining about dirty trains, planes that crash, autos that go back to the factory by the thousands, the TV man who doesn’t really fix it, the plumber who doesn’t show, the people who steal books from the library, the vandals, the police who take bribes, the shakedown artists at every level.
What a man believes determines how he acts, and it has always been the task of the Church to circulate and fasten down some eternal truths toward belief and then toward action. The excluded middle in our society had better be included or the whole edifice will come crashing down.
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