Ends & means

“We stand today at a crossroads. One path leads to despair & utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice.”

The quote is from Woody Allen, & was supplied by one of the commenters to my column yesterday over at Catholic Thing. It was a side-splitting, but accurate paraphrase of what I’d just said about the nature of our politics:

“We have two positions I called, for shorthand, ‘capitalist’ & ‘socialist’ — both worshipping false gods. The first, in my humble but obstinate opinion, worships the Money God, & the second worships Satan more directly. The first thinks Christianity is a waste of time. The second thinks it is something to be destroyed, from both without & within; along with industry, enterprise, & anything else that smacks of human freedom.  …

“Another way to caricature the two positions might be, ‘the culture of desecration’ versus ‘the culture of death’. Democracy gives us the right to vote between them at approximately four year intervals.”

I can’t honestly call Woody Allen one of my favourite filmmakers, for I’ve never actually seen one of his films. (Indeed, I’ve hardly ever seen any movies.) However, I’ve heard many quotes from him that impressed me as translations of ancient prudential wisdom into a post-Yiddish, Brooklyn atheist dialect.

Atheism is only interesting for so long as it can maintain some religious associations, after which it becomes a void. Woody Allen had the wit to stand his ground as a Jewish atheist, just as my atheist mother stands the cultural ground of Gaelic Calvinism. Both rollick in a deliciously dark humour, from actual historical sources. Neither would be funny if they abandoned tradition entirely; & in her nineties, my mama still lisps the old hymns which once she sang in confident mezzo-soprano. (“One needs air just to whistle in the dark,” she confessed recently.)

Woody Allen depends on the Hasidism he mocks. And so he mocks it lovingly. One thinks of his own reversion to Rabbi Raditz of Poland, “a very short rabbi with a long beard, who was said to have inspired many pogroms with his sense of humour.”

One of his disciples asked, “Who did God like better, Moses or Abraham?”

“Abraham,” the Zaddik said.

“But Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land,” said the disciple.

“All right, so Moses.”

Woody Allenism is among the many things implicit in the rich Hasidic teaching. But Hasidic teaching is not among the things implicit in Woody Allen. He was born merely smart: smart enough to cling to his guns & Talmud even while abandoning the hereafter.

There is another, less amusing side to him, that was cumbersomely presented in a French television interview, decades ago. Woody ranted about the barbarization of America, the aesthetic degeneration of New York, the septic materialism of the film industry. From the bits I saw transcribed, he was forgetting to make a light joke of it all. The truth, I suspected, was that there was nothing in it to joke about. He was watching the encroachment of the actual void; the disappearance, into the black hole of post-modernism, of everything that made life tolerable. One cannot be a connoisseur of sex & death, without noticing their evacuation. One needs air to whistle.


Should anyone happen to read my column on “Ends & means,” let me add here a point I found no space for. Its absence was immediately spotted by a fine latter-day Schoolman, who is Deacon to St Patrick’s in the capital of our Dominion. Strictly speaking, the phrase “end justifies the means” is empty; so that, “the end cannot justify the means” strays into Error.

“A good end cannot justify a bad means; nonetheless, most means are indifferent & cannot be just unless justified by a good end. ‘Guns don’t kill people; postal workers do,’ to quote a recent script I heard an actor read.  For an act to be moral, all factors must be just. Indifferent means, such as the use of a gun, has to be justified. In the concrete, there are no indifferent means, inasmuch as the end either does or does not justify a means that is abstractly indifferent.”

True, though I stuck my ground with the colloquial, having dropped a hint that while everyone “knows what we mean” by the phrase, we really don’t know what we are talking about. It was from Thomas Aquinas I lifted the metaphor of “reflection,” of the good end in the good means. Along with this, a Thomistic notion at which I incompletely hinted, that sides with Aristotle as against Democritus: that when “ends” are kept from view, “means” begin to take on the character of a necessity, that belies human freedom.

Or to put this in fighting words: there can be no morality without teleology.

Given world enough, & time, I should love to apply this to the determinism which most “libertarians” vest, both consciously & unconsciously, in “market forces.” (Or if you will, they worship the Money God.) Market forces are held to allow this, to deny that, & one must acknowledge & finally obey them.

This is like saying you can’t get out of bed in the morning, because the “gravity forces” are working the other way. Anything worth accomplishing in this world must, to some degree, resist market forces.