“Altogether, the Old Bailey, at that date, was a choice illustration of the precept, that ‘Whatever is, is right;’ an aphorism that would be as final as it is lazy, did it not include the troublesome consequence, that nothing that ever was, was wrong.”
As must be, I am taking “A Tale of Two Cities” into my heart, reading and rereading this book that I have read before. A profoundly perennial story, it is true to the human heart in every time and place. Though situated in the two cities of Paris and London in the late 1700s, the days leading up to the horrific excesses of the French kings and queens, the judgment by guillotine that followed, and the tensions and challenges that posed for England across the Channel, it is a story for Everyman and Everywoman.
(The Old Bailey has long been known as the central criminal court for England and Wales; in the 19th-century it was a local court situated next to the Newgate Prison, and the scene of public hangings. Dickens was very critical of the public justice of his time, as his writings at large indicate.)
But as I read, I live, as must be. Over the weekend I was walking out of a building and someone came up to me, “Mr. Garber?” He told me that he had heard me speak a month earlier on “vocation and the common good,” not surprisingly I suppose, and since then had read the Visions of Vocation book. And of course I listened.
He then went on to tell me what he had learned, walking through the argument of the book from beginning to end—and he did it very well. When I asked him more, he explained that he was on the national leadership council for his fraternity from his university days, and planned to give copies of the book to all the others on the council.
“Why?” He told me he had been asked to give particular leadership to the question of hazing, a problem plaguing fraternities across America. Awfulness and bullying is written into the “it’s just way it is” in fraternities everywhere, and mostly the world turns a blind eye, as do the universities and fraternities. Then he smiled, “Maybe they asked me because I’ve been a Secret Service agent for 20 years, and they know I know when and how to say ‘no!’”
What intrigued me was to hear how thoughtful he was about the moral meaning of a Story that makes sense of all the stories, and what the loss of a metanarrative means for our common good. We flounder in every way that matters because we cannot flourish when we don’t know who we are and how we are to live. E Pluribus Unum is always hard, but horribly more so when we cannot agree on the nature of the world and our place in it, even in the most foundational ways.
If the best we can do is, “Whatever is, is right” then who’s to say that hazing and bullying is a problem. I personally may not like it, but “wrong?” Please. It may press my buttons, and it may cause me distress, but “wrong?” Come on. And of course “vocation” is not a different conversation. It is in and through our lives and labors that we live into what we understand about the meaning of the universe– as students and professors and university administrators, but also as butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers. And Secret Service agents too.
There are no important questions for which there are easy answers. Life is complex, for all of us, and we all live within the mess of a very murky world. And yet, if all we have is moral indifference to the way things are and ought to be, if all we have to offer is “whatever,” then why is hazing ever wrong? and why is bullying ever wrong? Dickens could see that in his own time and place, telling a tale that continues to be told generations later.
If we have ears to hear, we should listen.
(The book is from the complete works of Charles Dickens, published in 1875, and the pages are in two columns. He wrote his novels week by week, in the city newspapers; we would call it serialized. I have assumed that the format of the book is simply from its earliest versions.)