Stoic rules

Friday afternoon and Saturday morning

Issue: "Supreme Court dividing line," May 6, 2000

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus describes how in Catholicism's "Good Friday liturgy, the priests and deacons lie prostrate, collapsed, before the cross. St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York is directly across from Rockefeller Center, and at the entrance to Rockefeller Center is the great sculpture of Atlas holding up the world." Neuhaus continues, "On Good Friday, the doors of the cathedral are opened, and you can see the great cross from the street. Turn in one direction and there is the mythical Atlas holding up the world, turn in the other, and there is the One broken by the world. Which image speaks the truth? Is the world upheld by our godlike strength, or by the crucified love of God? Upon that decision everything, simply everything, turns." Good Friday this year was followed five hours later by the forcible seizure of Elián on a very bad Saturday morning. Janet Reno smashed not only the doors but the dreams of Cuban-Americans who were looking forward to Resurrection Sunday. Ms. Reno had become Atlas, holding up by herself what she claimed to be the rule of law. She showed once again that the Clinton administration, often characterized by the hedonism of its leader, has a stoic side that should not be underestimated. A bit of explanation may be necessary. Two of the ancient Greek philosophies, stoicism and hedonism, have dueled through the centuries, and they have dueled in the Clinton administration. Hedonism, doing whatever feels good physically, has obviously dominated the Oval Office at times. Presidential trysts with Monica Lewinsky fitted perfectly the image of America around the world as a country made up of wealthy but morally adrift people searching for kicks at all costs. Pornography is the raunchy end of hedonism and Disneyland the clean side, but both are portrayed by Fidel Castro's propagandists as the essence of America today. That's a one-sided portrayal, though. The 90-hour-a-week Wall Street and dot-com workers of business and technology, and the Janet Renos of the administration, are mainly stoics, doing what feels good according to their moral codes, sacrificing momentary pleasure for the longer-run satisfactions provided by disciplined endeavor to expand the reach of technology, business enterprise, or government. Even though Bill Clinton survived, hedonism in high places obviously has a limited appeal to those not in on the action, but stoicism has much longer legs. And so it is internationally. Communism has always appealed to covetous bullies who lust after power for the opportunity to crack open the heads of the rich. But it also has appealed to some stoics who declared their willingness to forsake worldly pleasures and work tirelessly to overturn a system that they believe breeds poverty and war. And the appeals often are combined in one question: "Will you take upon yourself the burdens of the world, doing whatever it takes, to rid the world once and for all of the mire of capitalism [the chief sin] from which no individual through his own power can escape?" It's no accident that Fidel Castro still wears army fatigues: Regardless of the women and cigars he grabs, his clothing still symbolizes stoicism. It's appropriate that stern Janet Reno has displayed the stoic side of the Clinton administration, emphasizing that duty demands assaults at Waco or Little Havana. It's not strange that some journalists despise Bill Clinton but rally to Ms. Reno. Elián's future, unless he is somehow saved from it, will include Communist mind control of two varieties. Since all of us have holes in our souls, he will be taught to fill his by worshipping Castro. The Castro cult, however, will disintegrate as did its equivalents in formerly Communist countries. Elián's training, therefore, will also emphasize a stoicism rooted in hatred: "Sure, that America in which you lived for a time is rich, but it is a country of low-life hedonists. (How embarrassing for Mr. Castro that the Cuban economy stays barely alive by catering to such folks.) You, Elián, are better than that." And Elián is. All of us, created in God's image, are. What Elián won't learn, unless someone finds a way to smuggle to him such knowledge, is the positive alternative to stoicism: enjoying the world that God has made in the way He offers. Who can rid the world of sin? Not Atlas; his statue in New York is magnificent, but Atlas can only carry on his shoulders the world as it is. To see what truly changes lives, look across the street to the cross, and the worship around the world that sandwiched the Saturday on which Elián was seized.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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