April 24, 1948
Your letter was certainly “heavy enough to sink a lifeboat.” And what it did sink was the last shred of philosophical respect I had for the Catholic Church.
Your letter really stunned me, in a way. The position of the Catholic Church, as you describe it, is completely logical. It is precisely what I would deduce from their basic premises and it supports me in my hatred for those premises. But what I did not know was that the Church realized and consciously accepted the consequences of their premises as you described them. I knew the philosophical ideas of the Catholic Church in a general way, but I did not know their exact attitude on the application of their ideas in practice. I thought that since their ideas were contradictory, they would act in a contradictory manner, attempting to reconcile their ideas as best they could. I did not know that they had consciously chosen to follow the most evil line which could be deduced from their premises, that instead of choosing the best elements of their dilemma, they chose the worst and proceeded on that.
Do you know my first reaction to your letter? It was a horrible feeling of guilt that I had given those people any sort of respect or consideration at all. I felt almost as if I had been caught belonging to a front organization and associating with Communists without knowing it. May I ask you a rather naive question? The first question that occurred to me was: How could Pat respect them, knowing all this?
Here is what baffles me: If I understood you correctly, the attitude which you describe as the Church’s attitude towards social systems seems to be an exact description of the worst kind of “expediency” as practiced by our present day “middle of the roaders.” You say their position is “the ideal political form may be impracticable at any given time or place. So the Church does not declare
that any one form or another is necessarily best for all times and places, but can permit, accept, allow rather less than ideal forms as most workable for this or that given time and place.” Isn’t that a description of the policy of expediency? All the arguments which we make against the vulgar exponents of expediency apply to the above attitude, only a million times more so. If there are no standards, how does one decide what is workable for any given time or place? If there are no principles, how does one decide what is practicable?, etc. I am not saying this to argue with you, as I know that you do not share this attitude. I am merely indicating the kind of questions that would arise in my mind. If it is inexcusable for some bewildered little businessman to advocate a policy of expediency in the hope of getting by with it for the moment—how much more dreadful it becomes when such a policy is advocated by thinkers who deal with fundamental philosophical principles.
But it is even worse than that, if I understood your exposition correctly. It would seem as if the Catholic Church is willing to tolerate any social system—except the only good and proper one, which is Capitalism. Did I gather this correctly? I understood you to mean that the Church can accept any other system consistently, because any other system is imperfect and does contain elements of evil and will require suffering and sacrifice; but the system which works to make men happy is the one which the Church cannot accept. To me, this seems to be a position of total evil. As you know, my fundamental definition of evil is the action of damning the good for being the good. (For example: A man who opposes the Capitalist system because he thinks that it is a bad system, is merely ignorant, not immoral. A man who opposes the Capitalist system because it is good, is truly evil.) The theme of my new novel—or one of the aspects of it—is a protest against the penalizing of ability for being ability. In other words, the penalizing of virtue for being virtue. That is the essential pattern of any sin or evil, and that is the attitude of the Church toward Capitalism, if I understood you correctly.
Of course, I know that they could not arrive at anything else or at anything except evil, starting from the premise of man’s original sin. Of all human conceptions, the conception of original sin is the most vicious and destructive one, much more so than the philosophical crimes committed by Hegel. If I were to select only one idea as the most depraved ever conceived by man, that is the one I would pick. And your letter actually gives a better demonstration of the evils of that idea than I
have ever put on paper so far. Apparently, the idea is not merely that “man is imperfect” (and I’ve always known that the idea was much worse than that). If man is only “imperfect”, there is no reason why he should not try to perfect himself; and if he discovers the best social system possible to him, he should certainly adopt it. But when a school of thought rejects a social system which has been demonstrated in theory and in practice to be the best, then it can mean only that that school of thought holds man as essentially depraved, irremediably depraved as far as his earthly existence is concerned.
I know which paragraph you thought I would pick out particularly. It’s the paragraph about the necessity of man sacrificing himself to God, isn’t it? But actually that paragraph did not shock me as much as the description of the Church’s attitude toward Capitalism. Sure, I know that they preach man’s sacrifice to God, without any clear meaning ever having been defined about how or why man must do it. But I would like to defend God against them. The philosophical conception of God does not necessarily imply that man must be sacrificed to Him. It is, however, a strange thing that all religions, and all philosophical systems that attempted to describe man’s relation to God, have always made of man a sacrificial animal. Why?
I do not know whether the fact that Christianity was the first system to establish the conception of a human being as a free, spiritual entity, is a beneficial achievement if, at the same time, Christianity introduced the conception of original sin. True, philosophically, the first is a great achievement. But, historically, if these two ideas were preached together—then, I think those who preached them were responsible for a monstrous crime. To declare that man is a free, moral, independent, and responsible entity—and then to load him with the responsibility of some undefined sin which he did not commit, that is, to load him with guilt and evil about which he had no choice, is a monstrous thing in terms of morality. The conception of morality can apply only to the realm of free choice. That which is not open to a man’s choice, cannot be either moral or immoral. To tell a man that he is free and at the same time evil, with no volition on his part, is unspeakable.
It seems to me (again if I understood your letter correctly) that the crime committed by the philosophers who subscribe to this doctrine is infinitely worse than anything done by Hegel or Marx—worse precisely because it is on a much higher plane and deals with much higher
subjects. Marx seems nothing but a cheap hoodlum by comparison. If Marx denies the existence of the human spirit and says that man is a bunch of meat, he cannot injure any thinking or honest person, because it would take no more than five minutes of serious thought on this point to discard the whole of Marx right then and there, with no further damage done. But to teach man that he has a soul, and then to damn that soul by definition—well, I don’t suppose I have to describe to you the logical, psychological and spiritual consequences of that. We see them all around us.
The doctrine of man’s essential depravity did exist in Oriental philosophies. But it did not exist in Greece and Rome. If Christianity introduced it into Western thinking, together with the idea of an individual soul—was the net historical result beneficent, or monstrous?
The question puzzling me most right now is why you have been much more tolerant of Catholic thinkers than of lesser people whom you have damned for a weaker version of the same crime. You have always refused to tolerate (and rightly so) a businessman who refuses to recognize principles and preaches expediency. You have refused to tolerate any part of a “mixed economy” or any suggestion that we ought to have “some State control.” Then why do you give a respectful philosophical consideration to a system which preaches these very same things, only in a much deeper, and therefore more vicious, form? I am asking this, not as a reproach to you and not in order to pick a fight with you, but most strictly as a question, just for information, because I do not really know what your attitude is on this issue.
To finish off with Mr. Gallagher—no, pardon me, Mr. Sheen, I did not read his book for the purpose of getting information.[*] I read it by request. Mr. Williams of Bobbs-Merrill sent it to me and asked for my opinion of it. I supposed that he wanted an endorsement from me which he could quote, if I happened to like the book. So I read it, because I would always be glad to have my name used to help sell any book of which I approve. In this case, of course, I didn’t.
Yes, I would like very much to have the two gold dollars. Only, if you remember, you promised to let me pay for them. I don’t want to accept them as a present, since I asked for them, and I don’t think it’s right to accept a present by one’s own request. Frank has not decided how he’ll wear his dollar, but I want to wear mine on a long, thin chain, like a medal. Or, borrowing
your style of expression, if I were irreverent I would say that I want to wear my gold American dollar in the way others wear a cross. But please don’t bother finding a chain for me. I will have to find one myself and try it for the kind of length I want.
It is a funny coincidence, but I didn’t want to remind you about the gold dollars until I had sent you the California gold I had promised, that is, the oranges. I had just shipped them to you when I received your letter. You have probably received them by now. It took me so long because I asked our neighbor, who is a specialist and a Sunkist orange grower, to select and ship the proper kind of oranges. He had to wait until the right season for them. I hope you will find them good even though they are full of vitamins, as you said once before.
This letter is too long, so I will not go into details about my work at Warner Bros., but I will mention that it is still going wonderfully. I am getting an enthusiastic response from everyone concerned, including Jack Warner himself whom I have finally met in person. It still looks as if the picture is going to be just as uncompromising as the book. I hope so.
Love from both of us,
P.S. Because of the heavy discussion above, I forgot to tell you how enthusiastic I am about your column of April 11, in regard to Mr. Koestler and the ex-Communists. It is a brilliant column, actually a philosophical essay. Frank and Albert [Mannheimer] both read it and simply cheered. Also, I created a minor sensation at Warner Brothers’ studio, at the writers’ table in the restaurant, when I brought them this column. Koestler had been here a couple of weeks ago and gave a lecture, which was considered as a big intellectual event here. I did not go, of course, but the day after the lecture the whole writers’ table was talking about it at luncheon. The general impression was that Mr. Koestler is “confused,” that he does not know where he stands nor what he advocates. He said such things in his lecture as “Communism is not to the Left, it is only to the East,” meaning that Stalin is bad, but Communism as an idea is all right. So I brought your column to the table the other day, and I wish you could have heard the general enthusiasm. One of the writers asked
me for a copy of your column, so I hope you won’t mind if I give it to him. He makes speeches here once in a while, and his main theme is that we should not forgive the “liberals” who played with Communism. He said he wants to use your arguments about the navigator and the witch doctor. I will close now, with the collective compliments of the whole writers’ table to you for that column.
*AR’s wording suggests that she is mocking author Fulton J. Sheen by associating his name with Gallagher & Shean, a vaudeville comedy team. The two comics addressed each other as “Mr. Gallagher” and “Mr. Shean” in their performances and in phonograph recordings of their songs, which sold well. Al Shean also helped advance the entertainment careers of his nephews, the Marx Brothers.