There was more than one fire on Sunday. Both were arsons.
We know the identity of the first arsonist. His name is Chae, the police have him in custody, and he has made a confession. The details of his crime are simple, but his motive confounding. Frustrated with an unrelated land deal that he had made, Chae broke into Sungnye Gate (better known as Namdaemun), emptied a bottle of paint thinner on the wooden floor, and lit it. He fled to Ganghwa island, but was quickly snatched up by the authorities. The wooden parts of Namdaemun are a total loss.
Namdaemun is in Seoul, South Korea, and was the southern gate of the old city wall. It dates to 1398, and was constructed at the beginning of the Choson Dynasty. Though this dynasty has faded away, and though Seoul has long since outgrown the walls, Namdaemun has stood, and was once dubbed “National Treasure #1″.
I would very much like to find our second arsonist. His target was different, but the same. He did his work sometime between the early 50’s and the early 70’s, and his fire still burns today; I extinguished a small piece of it on Sunday. His motives, too, are confounding.
My part of this took place in church, during an adult study class after the worship service. Some nice young ladies, working from materials provided by a bishop, had prepared a lesson on the subject of extreme poverty in the world, and what we can do about it. Thousands of people a day, it seems, die because they are simply too poor to live. Many others have to subsist on a dollar a day. Naturally, we all want to help such people, and the topic of discussion was the difference between temporary solutions and permanent ones.
Temporary solutions to an immediate need were characterized as charity, and permanent solutions to problems were characterized as justice. Concerning these distinctions, many stories and anecdotes were traded among the group about homeless people we’d known, or poor people who’d been part of our lives. The question of how to respond to illegal immigrants came up, and in some of its details the question seemed intractable; what sort of help is appropriate for people who shouldn’t be here? Such is the conundrum of social justice.
And that conundrum was itself the fire. Burning away were knowledge and understanding, with ashes of ignorance left in their place. As I say, I don’t know who the original arsonist was, but his handiwork was there on our study materials—materials that told us that charity was something temporary, and justice permanent. I quietly readied my fire hose, waiting for the conversation to bring me a good opportunity…
The Choson dynasty was founded after the overthrow of the Goryeo dynasty, from which the word “Korea” is derived. To shore up its image of legitimacy, the Choson took its name from a much older dynasty, also called Choson. Legitimacy (or at least the perception of it) matters; the only alternative to a proper transfer of power is an improper one, and this implies war, conquest, deceit, and villainy. Such things are contrary to orderly civilization.
Civilization. Properly defended, it can last a long, long time. The Choson dynasty survived until 1910, and is one of the longest monarchical lines in human history. Luck plays a part in that kind of longevity, but luck can’t do it alone; good planning is needed as well. Aside from building good, stout walls and gates like Namdeamun, the Choson recognized the need to reinforce their people. They chose to promote Confucianism, with its clear ideals and prescriptions for a well-ordered society.
Confucius taught that in all relations between two people, one leads and the other follows. For example, the king leads the subject, the father leads the son. Even in egalitarian relationships, such as between two friends, immediate circumstances will dictate that one, at least for the moment, takes the lead. It is the duty of the other to dutifully follow. It is the responsibility of the leader to watch out for his follower, and to lead well. Circumstances dictate who is in which role, and roles naturally change with circumstances. In Confucius’ view, when everyone understands their proper position relative to everyone else, and when everyone is dutiful in their proper roles, society runs smoothly.
For Confucius, a sound society was based on its people. In Book II of the Confucian Analects we find:
The Master said, “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given to them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame.
If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.”
(Translation by James Legge, 1893)
The ideogram used in the original text for “virtue” can also be translated as “moral excellence”. By instilling such ideals in its people, the Choson strengthened civilization’s security, just as Namdaemun gate strengthened civilization’s security.
And this brings me back to my church fire, because the study of virtue has an even richer tradition in the west than it does in Korea. An ancient formulation in western thinking recognizes four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These four are the hinge on which all else turns. Other virtues have also been recognized, but the central importance of these four has been agreed to by virtually every philosopher throughout the whole of our history. To them, Christianity adds three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.
Justice, I explained to my church group, is the act of giving to somebody that which is his due. This is a continual process that happens in ways both large and small; if someone speaks to me, he is due a reply, and it is an act of justice when I speak back. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, it was an act of justice when the rest of the world gave Kuwait back. Justice restores, and the requirements of justice depend on what has come before.
Now, no one has some inborn right to a house, or to money, or even to food. These are things we have to get for ourselves, and through our labor. One can earn a right to them by various means of acquiring them—but then one might not earn that right. Whether someone is due a home or not, we want them to have one, and we may be moved to give them what they lack regardless of what has come before. This is charity. It is charity whether we do it in a temporary or permanent fashion, and we commit a grave error if we misidentify charity as justice.
There are two problems with the misidentification that the church group was putting forward. First, to claim that charity offers only temporary solutions, as opposed to justice and its permanent ones, is to sneer at charity. We must not do that. The capacity for charity is one of man’s most ennobling traits, and we demean ourselves if we belittle it. Even some small, stopgap measure, however imperfect, has within it a kernel of the profound love that charity represents. Civilization must never tolerate any disparaging of that kernel.
The second problem is one of policy. If we get used to the idea that, say, housing the homeless is an act of justice, then we get used to the idea that everyone has a right to a home, and by implication, that those of us with homes have a responsibility to those that don’t; they are owed it, it is justice. We have a justice system with the power to settle such problems. If a man is owed something, the state can restore it to him, by force if necessary. Applied to the homeless, this result in redistributionist policies, in which material wealth is taken from the wealthy and given to the poor by fiat. We may call it justice, and we may be glad to see the homeless housed, but it is manifestly unjust.
Do not misunderstand me, I am all in favor of helping the homeless, the poor, and et cetera. But it is vital that we identify this help for what it is. When it is charity, call it such—charity is a beautiful thing. To call it anything else is to spread confusion among people, and leads to more disastrous problems later on. This simple confusion of words does not advance civilization, it retards it.
There was a time when such confusion did not exist. I actually know very little about the virtues; I only have charred scraps that I have picked up here and there. But one scrap proves to me that this new confusion is the result of arson:
The Four Cardinal Virtues
by Josef Pieper, 1954. Page 122
Every child knows that in the list of cardinal virtues fortitude comes third. This enumeration is not accidental: it is a meaningfully graded series.
There was a time when this stuff was taught to everybody, and in sufficient detail for them to know which virtues were higher than the others. Somewhere between 1954 and the 1970s, these teachings were snuffed out. Do you find that alarming? You should. The teaching of moral excellence, of virtue, to the general population is no different from a strong city wall; it is a bulwark of civilization against the encroachment of barbarism. Ending one is no different from burning down the other. We know who burned down Namdaemun. Who torched the practice of teaching virtue?
Namdaemun before fire: http://flickr.com/photos/gameimp/528159164/
Namdaemun during fire: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Srmn.JPG
Namdaemun after fire: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hojusaram/2257360962
All Namdaemun pictures are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0