A cardinal sin

I was convinced despair was one of the seven, but the internet, on the whole, disagrees. That’ll teach me to break my rule here against Wikipedia. We can’t in any case readily inhabit the outlook of a truly religious age, with only God’s shadow left to us. There is a difference between despair and depression, for example; but what to make of it is up for grabs. The latter term undermines the attitude by casting it as a sickness — indeed, an affect rather than an attitude. My topic then (whatever Aquinas would have thought) is a considered view of the world, not a mere feeling about it, and how this might be morally wrong, in much the same way that I hold stupidity to be a moral failing, not sustainable as a concept except on those terms, that is, as being a choice.

To see this moral dimension, it may help to consider that an aspect of despair is misanthropy. If we abandon faith in human goodness, we are actually breaking faith with our more hopeful fellow men. The difficulty here is that what is supposed to save us from such despair is faith in God, who alone possesses the transcendent goodness to raise us up out of the mire. That thought is not enough to conjure the absent deity into existence.

Contemplating the world, from its most intimate manifestation in the life shared in common with those dear to us to its mendacious Zeitgeist, the grand stage of war, pestilence and tyranny — in microcosm and macrocosm — I see no light. And I see that as a personal failing, though I can do nothing for it. If that seems unreasonably harsh, it may help to recast the failure as a collective one, since macrocosm and microcosm are of a piece.

  1. Alec Edgington said:

    If I may offer a glimmer of hope, are you not contradicting yourself when you say, on the one hand, that despair (and stupidity) is a choice, and on the other, that you can “do nothing for” the feeling you describe?

    As regards stupidity, at least, I find it hard to see it in that way: at least as the word is commonly used, isn’t it more like a lack (of intelligence, in some domain or other) than a choice or action? I suppose acting stupidly while knowing that it is stupid is a moral failing, almost by definition.

  2. The apparent paradox of my way of seeing stupidity is meant to illuminate the difficult thought. There probably is something worth saving or worth acknowledging in the problematic concept of “intelligence” as something one can have more or less of, but even granting it more than its due, it is no help to the individual who just doesn’t have the necessary teraflops for a Fields medal. Stupidity in my meaning is a quality of action (though it solidifies into character in the usual way). If, when faced with an occasion for action (or omission) you fail to make reasonably full use of the information and faculties at your disposal (including also imagination, empathy, etc.), that is stupid, and it is not the province of the uneducated alone. It’s like a spider not weaving a proper web. Perhaps it is the misanthrope in me speaking, but I would go so far as to say it is the preponderant human mode. Turning to despair, I acknowledge it’s harsh to see it that way; that’s why I reach to theology as an exemplar: not so long ago, my thought would scarcely have seemed puzzling or paradoxical. Now we can see its strangeness, which I think dissolves in macrocosm. Man is in the process of turning away from the light. We read it in the paper, and we see it in our lives and private circles. The intellectual superstructure (such as the LRB) is rotten too. Reason is our light, that God gave us, as he gave spiders webs.

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