Our floors at Saint Anne’s are hard on ornaments and recently a wise man was shattered by the fall, losing his head, and revealing that he was hollow. This happens and not just to ornaments. Too often we feel like we know something, but reality is hard and what we thought we knew turned out to superficial. We lacked substance and what looked solid shattered.
Physical reality is not getting harder, it is what it is, but we are often in the wrong place with the wrong characteristics for that place or time. If we are made of ceramic, the edge of the bookshelf is a bad place to hang out. We do not know ourselves. Prudence should have suggested putting the ceramics up high, away from edges, or at least over carpet.
Prudence teaches us to drink a bit less at the company party than we might at home or to leave the last piece on the buffet table if the boss has yet to eat. Prudence is not weak, but recognizes our own limitations. Prudence also is opposed to being governed by our passions, but passion is so . . . passionate. . . that it is hard to prefer prudence to passion. Does anyone pick oatmeal as their favorite food? Yet oatmeal is a solid breakfast and other more exotic choices come and go.
Passion, awesome appeal, can be deceptive and cause us to miss real value. When linked to a good cause, say conservatism or Christianity, passion destroys moderation and leads good people to do bad things. We can end up in funny corners cut off from the mainstream of thought, art, and society. This hollows us out and makes us more fragile than we should be.
Crowds can go mad, but there is a gravity to mass movements that prevent the insanity that comes from the fringe. The general culture must appeal generally and so misses extreme error while a tiny group dedicated to remaking everything (say in terms of a “Biblical worldview”) ends up making extraordinary errors because they are cut off from sufficient numbers or too much in the power of a small number of gurus. The tiny group can throw up a facade, but lacks the resources, especially artistic and intellectual, to do more. This is dangerous when things take a fall, as they always do.
The prudent person, the real conservative, never ignores the mainstream, but is not captivated by it either. The sincere, decent man who seeks to escape the madness of the multitude often ends up in a compound walled off from other ideas. No walls for ideas are good, ever.
In Praise of the Hollow Man?
But let us pause in this analogy between my busted ornament and how we can go wrong. My broken wise man was hollow and we have it on TS Eliot’s authority that this is a bad thing. So it is, if as we use being hollow as an analogy for flash without cash, appearance without substance. But before moving on, this is obvious, has been said by my betters, but was not the problem of my little ornament: it was made to be hollow so it could be light, affordable, and portable. If it had been solid, it would not have been as useful as it was.
God help us, but we can go so deep as to be unaffordable. . . useless to a culture that needs wisdom. We will not venture an opinion, because we might be wrong or smash against reality. We read, study, check and recheck until we are an unaffordable luxury: ponderous, wasting resources where they are not needed or even seen.
We endure, but are not used in service to the family of humankind. After all, the hollow figure was molded, not merely hollow. It was an accurate reflection of a greater model and as such a beautiful image of the best any of us can be. The Good exists and we are shaped by seeing the Good, but we are fragile. We are molded, but not eternal, at least not yet. What to do?
Prudence says (rightly) we must be strong, but the culture needs what little wisdom we might gain. We break under the strain. What to do?
Get the Glue.
Yet there is glue and Hope is patient, so the wise man may yet return to the stable placed more prudently as a result of the tumble. This happens in real life as well. Hope, the virtue and not my wife (!), sees us and does not give up, because we can be repaired. Of course, the seams will show if someone stares, but who does that? So it has been in my life. The saying is true: “A bird with a broken pinion never flies as high again.” I broke my wings early on and have never flown as high again. God help me, I have tried to sing.
Those of us who aspire to wisdom, have fallen, and long to return to the stable can do nothing else.