I have been reading The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, a play that French poet Charles Peguy wrote more than a century ago. For the French especially, Joan of Arc’s life and death are an inspiring patriotic touchstone to return to in times of national crisis or self-doubt. (Though the French are not the only ones Joan inspires: Such radically non-French personages as Mark Twain and Winston Churchill were also drawn to her story.)
Peguy’s play takes place before Joan enters history, while she is still at home tending sheep. She has not yet heard the heavenly voices commanding her to lead the French army to victory against the English and the traitor Burgundians. She is thirteen years old and deeply unhappy—as 13-year-olds can be—with the state of the world, which for her essentially means France, where the Hundred Years War (not so named then, of course, since you have to know when an event will end before you can give it a numerical name) is going on and on and on. Year after year poor peasants, good country people, have their crops stolen and their homes ransacked by the battling armies. Joan asks, as each one of us asks when long assailed by our own seemingly endless national and domestic tragedies—as the Jews in the Old Testament asked throughout their own trials—“How long, O Lord?” In Joan’s view, “God grants fewer and fewer of our wishes.” With a sort of prophetic passion, Peguy then places in her lips a bewildered denunciation of war:
It’s always the same thing, the match’s not even. War wages war on peace. And peace, of course, does not wage war on war. Peace leaves war in peace. Peace kills itself through war. And war does not kill itself through peace. Since it did not kill itself through God’s peace, through the peace of Jesus Christ, how should it kill itself through man’s peace?
Peguy’s play was published in 1910. Four years later, in Sept. 1914, Peguy died at the age of 41, at the first battle of the Marne.
The chaotic and destructive character of our own times—destructive of bodies, minds, and even souls, so far as we can judge this side of eternity—can cause us too to ask, “How long, O Lord?” In this country that has from its beginning been a destination for those seeking sanctuary from tyranny, poverty, and persecution, we have been witnessing a decades-long onslaught against human life: against the young, the old, the handicapped, those despairing of their capacity to negotiate the demands of life, those whose difficult or restricted lives appear to threaten the freedom and wellbeing of others, and, most recently, those confused young people egged on to believe they can be architects of their own sexual identity. Along with these we have also witnessed encroachments against the free exercise of once-mainstream religious beliefs.
Our current human life crisis dates from the 1960s, when the first liberalized state abortion laws appeared, though in another sense it can be traced back to the European revolutions of the 1800s, and in another sense to the Enlightenment (and perhaps in another sense, digging down all the way to the roots of our rebellion against the implications of human nature, to the Garden of Eden). However, the more recent intensification of the assault on human life, its meaning and its identity, has emerged with shocking suddenness.
If, as we have all repeatedly been directed to do over the past 18 months, I attempt to better understand how we got here by “following the science,” I will find there, if not a full-blown explanation, at least a suggestive analogy that makes more understandable the deterioration in our attitudes and treatment of the unborn, the old, and those seemingly lacking both utility or quality of life. For among the most self-evident of the fundamental physical laws is entropy, “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity,” or, when the concept is applied beyond physics, “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.” Yeats turned the idea into memorable poetry in “The Second Coming,” a poem written not long after Peguy’s work: “Things fall apart;/The centre cannot hold; . . . The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere /The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
Tutored by the Whig school of history to view the human story as a long and largely uninterrupted march of progress, we are perhaps more surprised by moral, social, and religious regressions and fallings away than we should be—or than is good for us when we happen to be living in an era of enormous slippage of earthquake proportions along the San Andreas fault of Enlightenment rationalism. As T.S. Eliot reminded his own post-World War I era, “there is no such a thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause . . . we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.”
While this may seem a depressing way to view the human story, it actually helps us to avoid complacency in tranquil times and despair in times of decadence and turmoil. Erosion, slippage, the downward pull of the moral equivalent of gravity (another physical law!)—these are perennial challenges. We are inclined to see the light and dark of history in ways opposite to their true proportions—imagining that long eras of light should be punctuated by only brief dousing into darkness. However, the reverse shows the truer picture. Tolkien (whose fantasy The Lord of the Rings is sometimes foolishly termed escapist) also knew this well and built it into the mythology of Middle Earth. In a letter he famously wrote: “I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some examples or glimpses of final victory.”
Therefore it is important for us to recognize that, even if the Supreme Court improbably rolls back Roe next year, thereby returning to each state legislature the right to determine whether and how abortion will be legal, we are not the nation we were in 1973. Today, the Americans who await the justices’ abortion decision in the case of Dobbs are much less religious, much less likely to be married, much less tolerant of moral or legal restrictions on behavior, much less self-disciplined, and much less united around a common understanding of the good life or the good society. Legalized abortion did not cause all these alterations, but it certainly did not help. There is no reason to believe that returning abortion to state legislative control would, except here or there, restore public consensus around the sanctity of human life.
Earlier I mentioned how much the law of entropy contributes to our understanding of human societies. At least one other law of physics can also enlighten our current situation: the law of centrifugal force. Recent events have hardened divisions among Americans and created a disturbing coalescing of allegiances according to opposing tribes—whether racial, ethnic, religious, political, or geographic. In such a combative and emotional environment, it is difficult to see how any Supreme Court decision on Dobbs will, in the short to medium term at least, contribute to greater recognition of our common bonds of unity as fellow citizens and human beings or prevent further fracturing of our country along lines of perceived self-interest, tribal affiliation, or defense against the ideological other.
Perhaps in our current circumstances, the most positive unifying force we could hope for would be the need to defend ourselves against a shared enemy—a Zombie Apocalypse might do the trick (or, in light of the 2021 U.S. report on UFOs, an invasion by space aliens). But on second thought, perhaps even a potential threat of cosmic magnitude would merely expose how unwilling our contending factions are to cooperate with their current opponents in any way—even at the cost of human lives.