Third Conversation: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 3

Birth and death. The parameters of human existence. Binding us to the earth, irrespective of our wants and wishes. Fyodor Mikhailovich was right: if you held onto that, you’d probably have no difficulty in practicing humility. But there was a problem.

            “Humility,” I said, “isn’t a very fashionable virtue. In fact, you could say that most people today actually regard it as a failing. Working in a university I’m actively encouraged, you could even say compelled, to be the opposite of humble. It’s no longer enough to teach and keep up with developments in your field, you have to keep telling the world how world-beating and world-changing your teaching and research is. It’s not good enough to be good enough—it has to be better than anything else that’s going on, which it obviously isn’t because everybody else is having to say the same about their work.” I saw him looking rather quizzically at me. “No, really, this is what we actually have to do, every time we apply for a grant or just when we have our work reviewed every year. And it’s not just universities, it’s the same in business, sport, politics … everywhere. I suppose politics always has been about ambition and self-promotion, but these days it often looks more like a celebrity gameshow.”     I getting a bit carried away, but realized that he might not have a clue as to what I was talking about—especially the celebrity gameshow part.

            “Sorry,” I broke off, “that was probably all a bit irrelevant. I don’t suppose you want to waste your time here listening to me banging on about my work troubles!”

            “Not at all, not all,” he replied, as politely as ever. “But, I assure you, it was much the same in my time, even if we didn’t have ‘celebrity gameshows’, whatever they are. And, of course, I have to admit that there was a lot of self-promotion and vanity in the world of literature—and I can’t claim that I was immune. When you’re desperate for recognition, even a little success can make you lose your head.” He shook his head and smiled wryly. He took another small sip of his beer. “But that’s as may be. What is certainly true is that humility is and always has been the basis of any truly Christian life—just look at the teaching of any of the Church Fathers or the lives of any of the saints. Some people have thought my portrait of Zosima was exaggerated, but it wasn’t at all. There are many Zosimas amongst the saints and I myself met people—and not only Elders and monks—who showed that kind of humility. Of course, there have always been Church leaders and spiritual teachers who like to dress in fine robes and find their pleasure in honorific titles; Princes of the Church, as they say, who talk down to those in their care as if they were God himself on his heavenly throne when, really, they’re no better than lackeys, desperately anxious to let you know how familiar they are with the great men of this world, dropping the names of princes, generals, and millionaires. But none of the true teachers of the Church has ever been like that. The true Elder makes no distinction between great and small. All he ever sees before him is a child of God, a suffering being crying out for fulness of life—in other words, someone who is no different from himself. What, then, can he do for them if he is in the same predicament, you might ask? What can he do? He can pray with them, pray for them, and ask them to pray for him. Perhaps the only difference, if difference there is, is that he believes God hears, though he doesn’t know any more than they do how God will act. But the prayers themselves, the prayers have already sowed a little seed of love.”

            “I see all that,” I said, “and Zosima is a beautiful model of that kind of humility. But the fact is that most charismatic religious leaders seem to end up being like those Princes of the Church you described, with their TV shows and Mega-Churches. But even if a Zosima-like saint were to appear in our time, how would that work out in everyday life? I mean, we’re not likely to start going around prostrating to each other, like he did to Dmitri. That sort of thing doesn’t mean anything in our society. It just doesn’t happen. People would say it was religious mania—and even in your novel many of those who encountered him saw pride rather than holiness.”

            “Yes, yes, yes—of course, you’re correct, entirely correct. “But remember, Zosima himself insisted that his disciple Alyosha was going to have to leave the monastery and live in the world. That’s what Zosima himself wanted. He knew that we can’t copy how things were in the past. We—or rather, you—have to find our own path. This beer is good by the way, I like it. Now …” he stretched himself and stood up. Was he about to go? 

            “Now, I think I’d be more comfortable standing. Do you mind?”

            “Of course not.” I made to stand up too, but he waved me back.

            “No, no, do carry on sitting, I just need to move about a little.”

            He took a couple of steps, turned, and bending forward looked me full on, leaning his hands against the edge of the sofa that was at right angles to our chairs.

            “You see, humility does not come from the head but from the heart. It’s not an idea that you have to put into practice: it’s a whole way of life.  It’s rather like the Frenchman’s libertéégalité, and fraternité. Leaving liberté and égalité to one side (though we may come back to them), it always seemed to me that their vaunted fraternité was for the most part an empty word. Do you really think the rich bourgeois sipping his Château Lafitte actually feels any fraternitéwith the street cleaner out there in the rain and snow or with the old woman in the poorhouse—let alone with his African ‘brother’? Of course, you’ll say that it’s different now, that is, in your time. Now you have democracy. Everybody is on first name terms, everyone’s as good as anyone else. Well, I don’t—I can’t—follow every detail of how the world has changed since my lifetime, but it seems to me that those who are rich in this world’s goods are no more fraternal in their dealings with the underpaid, the unemployed, the homeless, the blacks and all the rest who can’t afford Château Lafitte and cigars than they were in my lifetime.”

            “You don’t have to persuade me,” I replied. “I’m sure you’re right. Even in this country, this wealthy country, they’re talking about the new slavery and the poor are having to use food banks, which certainly don’t stock Château Lafitte! But ‘what is to be done?’ Socialism? That wasn’t a good word in your vocabulary, was it?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked sharply at me and stepped over to the bookcase where he tapped the spine of a well-worn and rather thick paperback. I recognized it straight away as Marx’s Capital (though I should admit that its being well-worn is more down to the fact that it was a second-hand copy rather than to intensive study on my part).

            “Socialism,” he said solemnly. “No, that’s not a bad word. Bad things have been done in its name, of course. As I just said, I don’t follow what has been happening in your world in any detail, but I know what my country, my Russia, suffered for seventy years. Alas, that was how it had to be because the socialists had forgotten or denied that before you can have socialism you have to have brotherhood and brotherhood is not an ideal: it is an immediate conviction of the heart. You don’t have to worry about whether your brother really is your brother or not, he just is your brother. And you don’t first have to persuade yourself that every other human being is your brother or sister before you start treating them that way. You just have to see that that’s how it is and that you owe everyone everything you owe to a brother. It’s who we are. The moment you start asking yourself ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ you’ve already forgotten what the words mean. Instead of ‘I’m just as good as the next man’, which was what people were saying in my time (and what to my mind is what the French égalité mostly comes down to), it’s ‘every man is as good as me’.”

            He breathed deeply and smiled what seemed to me to be a rather melancholy smile. 

            “And this,” he continued, “is what our uneducated and coarse peasants knew by instinct, even the convicts, and it’s what we educated men and city-dwellers forgot, corrupted as we were by …” he paused again and tapped the spine of Capital again. Rather meaningfully. 

            “Capitalism,” I suggested.

            “Capitalism. Money. The most universal and insidious form of the lie, especially the lie that money can make you free. That’s what the convicts in the camp believed, and every time it let them down. If they got money, they spent it on vodka and then—extra punishment followed as sure as night follows day.  Money doesn’t make you free, it just binds you all the more surely to a world of lies. So it’s no wonder that you find yourself having to shout louder than the others and make all sorts of ridiculous claims about your work if you want to sell your wares. That’s the market and, to put it frankly, capitalism and humility are quite simply incompatible.”

            “So socialism without fraternity isn’t socialism and Christianity without humility isn’t Christianity. But if humility is incompatible with capitalism, that also implies that capitalism and Christianity are incompatible, doesn’t it?”

            He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips but said nothing.

            “And yet,” I continued, talking so myself as much as to him, “many of our politicians today still spout the rational egoism you already denounced so long ago, always telling us that economic self-interest is the real motive power of social change and improvement. They say that society improves by calculating what makes each of us individually better off. It’s all economics. By the way, do you know that it’s now well-known that public policy is decided by the application of algorithms—just like you predicted.”

            “I’m delighted you noticed—I don’t think all translations pick up on that. And, indeed, brothers don’t need algorithms to tell them that they belong together.”

            “And where does this leave Christmas,” I wondered aloud, “where’s the humility, where’s the Christianity, in a month-long fest of capitalist values?”

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