My mom likes to tell us about the noble effort in the town of Clendenin, West Virginia, to stop spitting outside the Smoke Shop. They put up a sign saying “Do not expectorate” because a sign saying “Do not spit” would have been vulgar. Needless to say, those old boys from the Smoke Shop would be leaning on the panel spitting. Don’t be confused: they knew. Mountaineers are always free. . . as the state motto says.
There was a lesson for me in this: government can be a busy body, is often inefficient, and a little rebellion against prissy rules is good for the soul. Of course, chewing tobacco is unhealthy and spitting on the sidewalk is unpleasant. . . but the sign was absurd.
The government should never confuse vulgarity with immorality or immorality with what should be illegal. Social norms change over time and from region to region. What is rude in one place (belching) may be necessary in another. Safe to say no one has ever been damned for getting social norms wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t be Rudebut rudeness is not the same as sin.
This mistake wouldn’t matter if the confusion between being a good Houston, American or Packer fan were not confused with being a good person. Since social norms obviously change from place to place, some of my students believe that morality should be subjective (relative). Because “chewing with your mouth closed” is not good advice in all cultures, you might think that any the general prohibition (“do not kill”) might not apply to all of humanity. When we equate party manners with the laws of Nature and Nature’s God, we make both senseless. Manners do not bear the seriousness of morality and so we often ignore good manners when we shouldn’t. Moral laws should never be compared to something as trivial as table manners.
I started thinking about it while preparing for a session of the Republic for college at Saint Constantine School. The insufferable big-headed host of the chat is Cephalous (!) and one of the miracles of the dialogue is that he leaves before killing the chat with his popular wisdom. No one wants to grow up to be Cephalus any more than a man should aspire to be Polonius in Hamlet (“Be true to yourself!”).
Whenever an insufferable character gives what looks like “good” advice, beware. The clever author warns you that things aren’t as good as they seem. When Polonius says “be true to yourself”. . . we are reminded that what we think of as “me” is often a crazy mix of social ideas and our own insane desires. By all means, be true to yourself, but know yourself first!
Socrates asks Cephalous how to be a good old man and Cephalous says his friends made a big mistake. They spend most of their time complaining about what they can no longer do. They are miserable, but”. . . the real cause is not old age, Socrates, but the way people live. This seems true enough, but if we keep reading, we see Cephalus giving advice on how to be a good Athenian. That might have been good advice on how to live a “normal Athenian” life, but it won’t make a good man and, as the Republic continues to demonstrate, only a good man can be happy. Some of his advice is just plain bad. He is happy to have money in old age so that he can redeem the gods with many sacrifices. It’s the equivalent of the mafia don who thinks they can redeem God by building a cathedral. We will be grateful for the cathedral, but God is not fooled.
Cephalous thinks he paid his debts to Athens because he was a good man. It’s like believing that if one of West Virginia’s good old boys hadn’t spat, then he could go to heaven. This is a mistake, a bad one: justice is not found in spitting or not spitting. John the Baptist suggests that some brutal men will be in the Kingdom and Samson proves it. Samson was horrible at a party.
In all likelihood, there will be those in the Kingdom who have stood under a “do not expectorate” sign and spat.
We see that a Polonius or a Cephalous can deceive us by giving us a correct conclusion (live well to be happy) which hides a bad understanding of what it is to be: good, happy, even alive! You have to live well now to be happybut live well May include being a “bad” American, a difficult Houstonian or even being rude.
Don’t chew, it’s bad for you, don’t spit on the pavement, it’s bad for us, but if you do, then God still loves you!