Archive for ruled

Conscience, Law, and the Buffalo Hunt (Part Two)

1 March 2012

From Seven Ox Seven, Part One: Escondido Bound, the second of three excerpts from pages 219-228.

Copyright © 2007 by P. A. Ritzer

And to whom or what were the lawful and the lawless passing on their responsibility and freedom when they passed them on to the state? Well, at least in the United States of America, a republic, they were passing on their freedom and attendant responsibility to a seemingly innocuous form of government, a representative government, a government of elected peers. But those peers, too, were human. They, too, only ruled as well as they were willing to form their consciences to the rule of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” and to act in accordance with those consciences. Besides, once a matter like the slaughter of the buffalo was referred to the state, the state, in regard for all its citizens, was required to rule at a higher degree of generality than that of the individual conscience with its single subject, so that the general law of the state would be less adaptable than the more immediate and specific law of the individual conscience. Ergo, the individual lost freedom. For at that point, even if circumstances presented a situation in which the individual could act in a certain way in good conscience according to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” he might no longer be able to do so according to the laws of the state, because he had relinquished his responsibility and freedom to the state and was the more subjected to it.

Tom considered a simple hypothetical case in this matter of the buffalo. In that case, those hunting the buffalo, lawful and lawless alike, would continue the slaughter despite the obvious signs of it being wrong, if in nothing else than the prodigious waste of meat. Elected representatives of the people, outraged at the waste and the precipitous reductions in the numbers of the animal, would eventually pass a law to forbid the killing of the buffalo. Given that scenario, the following case unfolds. A man out on the prairie comes upon a lame buffalo bull that has been left behind by its herd and is obviously going to die. The man has a family who, though they have some food and are not starving, could make good use of the meat from the bull. Now, however, according to the new law, the man with the family must not kill the bull, and so the lame buffalo moves on to die in some remote place where the meat will go to waste. Before the law, the man could have legally killed and butchered the bull and fed his family with the meat, and he could have done so in good conscience. Now, after the law, his only legal option is to not kill the bull. His conscience must now weigh the law against the hunger of his family and the waste of the meat. If the man decides in good conscience, after weighing the matter, that it is better to kill the bull to feed his hungry family rather than to let the meat rot, he has decided, in good conscience, to break the law. This is no small matter, because in a free society laws should exist to protect the unalienable rights of the citizens; therefore, the conscientious person, in good conscience, should normally obey the law.

In such a case, then, the law, the conscience, or both have been compromised. This conflict between conscience and law comes about as a result of the refusal of earlier hunters to form or obey their consciences. It is a result of those earlier hunters’ failure to rule themselves, a result of their having handed over responsibility to the state, which, by its nature, must rule in a more general way than the conscience. That the man in the hypothetical case is not a hunter illustrates another point: when citizens turn over responsibility to the state, not only do they turn over, with it, their own freedom, but also that of every other citizen, even the most conscientious.

Tom reflected on how his hypothetical case also illustrated the communal nature of man, the latent sacramentalism awaiting men’s acceptance of and cooperation with grace. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” If one is diminished, all are diminished. So John Donne let the world know in poetry, some two and a half centuries before, what the Church had been teaching for some sixteen centuries before that, having been taught it by Christ. Neither man nor a man lives in a vacuum. The act of a single man changes the world, the universe, regardless of how private or public the act. A good act has the capacity to yield good consequences far beyond the immediate effect; so does an evil act have a similar capacity to yield evil consequences. Therefore, for man (the creature in whom matter and spirit are combined in one nature, created with free will, in the very image of God), all his actions entail responsibility. Responsibility is a natural concomitant to human actions. To shirk responsibility is but an illusion, as the shirker is responsible for that shirking. And because human actions entail responsibility, each human action deserves its due consideration. When humans fail to accept the responsibility for their actions; when they refuse to give those actions due consideration; when, after such consideration, they refuse to act on the conclusions of an informed conscience, then events like the slaughter of the buffalo result.

Thus, Tom considered three broad categories of men: the conscientious, those who formed their consciences and acted according to them; the lawful, those who waited for the state to pass laws to legislate their behavior and thereby relinquished their freedom and its attendant responsibility to the state; and the lawless, those who had no respect for the law and would defy the law as they saw fit, until they were prevented by the state from doing so, thereby passing on all of their freedom and its attendant responsibility to the state. Consideration of these led Tom’s mind onto consideration of another category of man, call them the semi-lawful.

(continued in Part Three)

Conscience, Law, and the Buffalo Hunt (Part One)

1 February 2012

From Seven Ox Seven, Part One: Escondido Bound, the first of three excerpts from pages 219-228.

Copyright © 2007 by P. A. Ritzer

Tom, for his part, still reflected as he rode along through the region in the dust of the trailing herd. One thing of which he was sure was that the slaughter was wrong. The hunting of the buffalo was not wrong. The skinning of the buffalo was not wrong. The sale and use of those skins for clothing, industry, or any other legitimate use was not wrong. Even the reduction of the vast buffalo herds to make way for other uses of the land was not necessarily wrong. What was wrong was the greed behind it all and what that greed had wrought.

What that greed had wrought was the waste of untold tons of meat (and even the waste of many of the hides for which the animals had been killed, due to hasty skinning, curing, or both). It had wrought a slaughter that, if it continued apace (and there was every reason to believe that it would), was sure to wipe out the species without due consideration of all the ramifications of that extermination. It had wrought further enmity between whites and the Plains Indians and the further reduction of those peoples to a pathetic dependency.

It had wrought all of those things and more, Tom could see. And yet, as disturbing as all that was, there was another work of that greed that encompassed all the rest, and that was the work of perverting freedom into license. Tom believed that such a large-scale perversion of freedom was detrimental to, and indicative of, the relative health of a nation, especially of one that had been founded with the security of the inalienable right of liberty as one of its central tenets and had recently fought a bloody civil war to preserve itself and abolish the singularly most glaring and festering contradiction to that tenet. Where freedom degenerates into license, he mused, man has already relinquished the mastery of himself to his passions, and it only remains to be seen who or what will succeed his passions as his master. In such circumstances, a free society is very much in danger.

There is no true freedom without responsibility. In light of that truth, Tom thought of some of the buffalo hunters he had met along the trail and before. Despite the common characterization of the buffalo hunter, some of these hunters were respectable people, some of them whole families, and many of them regretted the wasteful slaughter of the buffalo, actually lamented the part they were playing in it. Yet, they licentiously continued in it, killing as many as they could as quickly as they could, before there were no more to kill, because they were desperate to get as much as they could out of the slaughter, desperate to secure their part of the fortune that the buffalo hides represented. Had a law been passed to stop the slaughter and preserve the breed (and there were several attempts at such legislation throughout the 1870s), they would have gladly obeyed it and been glad for it, and yet, as long as there was no law, they would continue to play their part in the slaughter up to the very extinction of the animal.

Due to greed, and the pride behind it, these hunters were willing to reject their God-given stewardship of the earth. They were willing to relinquish their own judgment of what was right and wrong, as well as their freedom to act upon it, because they wanted to get all that they could get, and they did not want to fall behind anyone else who might be profiting from the same motivation and the same refusal to govern himself according to right and wrong. Tom thought about how that tendency was not so uncommon, how that tendency was, indeed, universal. Still, there were individuals, call them the conscientious, who, through prayer, reflection, or both, came to know such tendencies in themselves and to see the evil in those tendencies and, with the help of grace, to overcome or check those tendencies, to greater or lesser degrees. In doing so, the conscientious were forming their consciences, and in doing so according to objective truths, these individuals were subjecting themselves to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” cited in the Declaration of Independence, a subjection without which a free society must degenerate into anarchy or tyranny or the ugliest amalgamations of both.

A free society depends upon the will of the individuals in that society to take personal responsibility for their freedom, to govern themselves according to objective truths of right and wrong, Tom reasoned. When the individuals of a free society refuse or even just neglect to take responsibility for their freedom, when they refuse or neglect to form their consciences and to be ruled by those consciences attuned to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” then those individuals choose license over freedom, and they give in to a progression toward disorder or toward being ruled by something other than the self guided by conscience.

Tom saw just such a progression in this matter of the buffalo. He considered those hunters, not the lawless element of that occupation, but those respectable ones, call them the lawful, as they were willing to submit to the laws of the state. He considered those lawful, who would willingly and gladly stop the slaughter, and even feel relieved to do so, if only the state would enact a law requiring it. He considered how those lawful were passing on the responsibility for their actions to the state, and with it, they were passing on their freedom, their right of liberty, their right of self-government. He thought of all that it had cost in human sacrifice to establish and preserve a nation that had been founded to protect freedom and other human rights. Then he thought of how such shirking of responsibility and freedom and relinquishing of rights were unworthy of that sacrifice, and of how it would be better to have one’s freedom and rights usurped rather than to have them so carelessly discarded.

Interestingly enough, even the lawless element of the buffalo hunters (those apparently most opposed to being ruled by others), though they might refuse or neglect to discern the wrongness of the slaughter that the lawful had discerned, and, in fact, because they refused or neglected to do so, they too were passing on their freedom to the state, because they would not even accept responsibility for their freedom to discern. These lawless too were giving the state greater power with which to rule over them, even if they intended to defy that power. Both kinds of men, those who had some respect for the law and those who did not, were willing to let their freedom be overwhelmed by the dictates of the state.

(continued in Part Two)

Revisiting Dr. Seuss In Parenthood (Part One)

5 January 2012

The following commentary first appeared in Saint Austin Review, July/August 2005.  It appears here with some revisions. Quotations in quotation marks and block quotes are from the works being considered.

In this election year, we might give special attention to the case of Yertle the Turtle and consider well the growing weight of government and taxation, especially considering the founders’ conviction that it must be a limited government–as established with the Constitution, “deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed” (as the Declaration of Independence would have it)–that best secures the “unalienable rights” with which our Creator has endowed us. 


Copyright © 2003 by P. A. Ritzer

I remember my brother saying, years ago, that he looked forward to having children of his own, so that he could again watch old Disney movies. I, for my part, in my parenthood, have discovered the joy of revisiting Dr. Seuss and sharing his works, his stories, his words with my children.

This is not my first revisiting. The birth of my nephew and godson in 1990 opened the door for the first revisiting, which went so far as to include sharing with him and his parents a breakfast of green eggs and ham. It was during this first re-acquaintance that I remember declaring that Dr. Seuss was the Shakespeare for children. This declaration, besides being inspired by an adult appreciation for the genius of these works that I had so enjoyed as a child, may also have been an enlightened response to a long-remembered concern, voiced by my parents, and possibly initiated by my teacher, that at second, third, or fourth grade (some grade that was still on the first floor of Sacred Hearts School), perhaps I was too old to be reading Dr. Seuss. My youthful appreciation for these works has since been further vindicated, at least in my eyes, by the discovery that these classics were prescribed for my wife, long before she met me, to alleviate the stress of medical school exams, by a good friend and classmate, with whom she read the works in a stairwell amidst their echoing laughter. The prescriber is now a psychiatrist for both children and adults.

I offer no blanket endorsement or recommendation of the thought and works of Theodor Seuss Geisel. I do not know his thought and have not read all his works, nor have I revisited all his works which I read as a boy. But rather, what I wish to do is to share, as an adult and parent who struggles to live a Christian life in our modern world, an appreciation for the values expressed in at least some of the words, stories, and works of Dr. Seuss.

Certainly, in Green Eggs and Ham the reader is taught a lesson about deciding to dislike foods before one tries them, but does not the persistent Sam eventually wear down the nameless green-eggs-and-ham-hater’s pride- and ignorance-based prejudice, so that he might lead a fuller life with his discovery: “’Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do! I like them, Sam-I-am!’” Thus, the changed fellow can come to the grateful conclusion: “’I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!’”

And, in our culture in which the words nip, tuck, and augmentation have become commonplace, might not the young reader benefit from considering the case of Gertrude McFuzz, a “girl-bird” who “had the smallest plain tail ever was. One droopy-droop feather. That’s all that she had. And, oh! That one feather made Gertrude so sad,” when she compared herself to “a fancy young birdie named Lolla-Lee-Lou,” who “instead of one feather behind, she had two!” This state of affairs leads a jealous Gertrude to one day shout in anger, “‘This just isn’t fair! I have one! She has two! I MUST have a tail just like Lolla-Lee-Lou!'”

Despite the admonition of her wise uncle Doctor Dake, who assures her, “’Your tail is just right for your kind of a bird,’” she throws tantrums, until he tells her of the pills of the pill-berry vine, which will make her tail grow. And although one pill gives her tail another feather, “exactly like Lolla-Lee-Lou,” she decides to “grow a tail better than Lolla-Lee-Lou.” And she does, by gobbling all the pill-berries down. She grows a tail so stupendous that “that bird couldn’t fly! Couldn’t run! Couldn’t walk!”

It takes her uncle and his assistants two weeks to fly Gertrude home. And Dr. Seuss relates:

And then it took almost another week more

To pull out those feathers. My! Gertrude was sore!

And, finally, when all the pulling was done,

Gertrude, behind her, again had just one . . .

That one little feather she had as a starter.

But now that’s enough, because now she is smarter.

And how much smarter or wiser might the young reader be after considering the case of Yertle the Turtle, king of the Pond on the Isle of Sala-ma-Sond, where “the turtles had everything turtles might need. And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.”

They were . . . until Yertle, the king of them all,

Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.

“I’m ruler,” said Yertle, “of all that I see.

But I don’t see enough. That’s the trouble with me.”

So, Yertle begins to build a higher throne on the backs of his subjects, by commanding the turtles to stack themselves up, one on top of the other, beneath him, so that Yertle can see more and exclaim: “’I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me! For I am the ruler of all that I see!’”

But the burden on the common folks grows to be too much to bear, so that “from below in the great heavy stack, [comes] a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack,” who petitions the king from his distress at the bottom of the stack, “’I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.’”

By now, though, the power-drunk Yertle has lost all sense of proportion, and after silencing Mack, he begins to call for more turtles that he might build his throne higher than the moon, when:

That plain little turtle below in the stack,

That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,

Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.

And that plain little lad got a little bit mad

And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing,

He burped!

And his burp shook the throne of the king!

And from that throne, shaken by the common movement of the lowest subject upon which his corrupt foundation of exploitation is built, falls the mighty Yertle, “that Marvelous he,” into the depths of the mud. And “that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!”  The tyrant is thus deposed, “And the turtles, of course .  .  . all the turtles are free As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

(to be continued in Part Two)