“Should Life All Labor Be?”

by Professor Jack

The title above is from Alfred Tennyson’s Homeric poem “The Lotus Eaters,” in which he pictures a people sated on the narcotic of hedonism and pleasure. Odysseus and his men encountered these strange sybarites when their ship was blown off course. The Lotus Eaters inhabit “a land in which it seemed always afternoon.” “Let us alone,” they say, “Time driveth onward fast, / And in a little while our lips are dumb. /   Let us alone. What is it that will last? / All things are taken from us, and become / Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past.”

Homer’s Odysseus and his mariners were tempted away from their journey by the enchanted shores of the Lotus Eaters. “Oh rest ye, brother mariners,” those sensualists call out, “We will not wander more.” In spite of warnings, some of the mariners ate of the enchanted fruit and had to be dragged back on board the ship. The land of the Lotus Eaters has ever since represented the seduction of once-purposeful people to a life of self-satisfaction. It is the broad way that leads to destruction spoken of by Jesus. It is the indifference of modern, affluent societies that has led to historical amnesia and spiritual torpor.

It is said that only a third of Americans supported the Revolution in 1776. Another third opposed it, and yet another third was indifferent. Those indifferent masses are the enduring nightmare of all who care about the future of the nation. Many have no skin in the game. They are net takers who contribute little to the life of our republic. They are those who care little about first order affairs; their days are spent, as is the case with multitudes of youth, in hedonistic pursuits: the latest tunes, fashion, entertainment and self-absorbed pastimes of many sorts. Older such pococurantes settle in with hobbies, golf or tennis, pornography, travel or sports, and other secondary and tertiary matters more in line with lazy affluence. Innumerable churches promote this head-in-the-sand posture towards history by purveying an inner-directed, happy-clappy religion with little apparent public dimension.

Indeed, the public expression of the Christian faith is often considered off-limits in our hip, postmodern congregations. I have noticed that it is usually youth ministers, fresh from their seminary studies of “missional” and “emergent” church models, who promote a quietism towards popular culture and partisan issues. By doing so, they perpetuate among young Christians the indifferentism that the cultural left finds so easy to manipulate.

The late, and great, Vaclav Havel spoke of “the attractions of mass indifference and the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.” He considered obsession one of the greatest dangers to civilization, but indifference to be an even greater danger.

Tyrannies always depend on the vast mushy middle to remain complacent and pliable. Compliance can, after all, be bought by welfare handouts, by rewards for not working, and by the demagoguery that appeals to the populist urge to blame others for one’s own problems. The mushy middle is easily swayed by images of cool, by prefab gestures of compassion, and public pieties such as diversity and multiculturalism. Their votes are guaranteed by more food stamps, by a few more months of unemployment compensation, or by a late-in-the-game, well-produced TV commercial. Millions of people go to the polls and decide on the basis of hair style, skin color, high-sounding platitudes, the last TV ad they saw, or the alleged sins of this or that candidate.

How ironic it is that most elections come down to winning the momentary and fickle allegiance of great numbers of people who ultimately care little for either the freedom or tyranny their casual votes ensure.

“Should life all labor be?” Yes, because it takes intention and action to preserve a free nation.