Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lord of the World, III: Benson Seeks a Calling


A question that everyone asks — or should ask — at some point in his or her life is, What is the meaning and purpose of life?  As Socrates is reported to have said (sometimes Plato’s reporting seems a little . . . off), “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  What does it all mean?  Why should we bother?

R.H. Benson
The quick and easy answer to that question, at least from the Aristotelian-Thomist point of view, is that the meaning and purpose of life qua life is to become more fully human.  From the Christian standpoint — the one from which Robert Hugh Benson operated — the reason one becomes more fully human is to prepare a solid foundation to move to the next level (what Fulton Sheen called the third story of the house of life) and become an adopted child of God, and use this life to prepare for the next.  Life, that is.

Many people, at least those who have the means to be able to think for themselves without fear of the consequences, have little problem with working to become more fully human.  It’s an obvious conclusion we reach by using our reason, unimpeded by external pressures.

Can't put it down. . .
Don’t worry.  This is not another lecture on the importance of widespread capital ownership as the principal means by which people secure and maintain their other natural rights, and thereby become more fully human through their exercise, or the importance of reading Fulton Sheen's lost-lost classic, Freedom Under God.  If you haven’t gotten that point by now, giving Aristotle’s argument about the necessity of private ownership of capital in order to pursue “the good life” of virtue isn’t going to do much good.

No, it’s a lecture on how one can pursue the good life (in the Aristotelian sense), and move on to the next level of becoming an adopted child of God (or the equivalent in your faith or philosophy), and yet still be uncertain if you’re doing the right thing the best you can.  We can know in general what to do, but are we doing the right thing(s) in particular?

A.C. Benson's memoir
That was a question that confronted Benson his entire life; even his brother Arthur commented on it in the memoir he wrote.

Benson seemed suffused with a sense that he was constantly seeking and yet not finding the particulars of his true calling, his “vocation.”  This meant exploring the multitude of ways in which people work to try and discern God’s Will for themselves, a search unique to every person, yet based on universals about the human condition.

What makes Benson, almost the quintessential “Catholic” writer, attractive and useful to non-Catholics, even non-Christians, is his accomplishment of successfully presenting a specific body of truths within a society that, in large measure, either rejected those truths as hostile to their being and way of life, or to the whole concept of what it means for something to be true.  This is the theme not only of Lord of the World, but of every work of fiction (and quite a bit of the non-fiction) that Benson wrote.

Nevertheless, the fact that Benson felt himself constantly in search of his own vocation did not mean that he could not help others in their searches.  Perhaps he felt that others might profit from his struggles.  It might even be construed an advantage to have a man who evidently felt something at loose ends to use his possibly more highly developed sense of vocation to discern that of others — except when those others were clearly making no effort to help out in the matter, and, in fact, obviously believed that the task of seeking a vocation didn’t even have any meaning.  This latter group Benson saw exemplified by the upper classes of English society, the milieu with which he was, by nature and by nurture, most familiar.

Inspiration for Waugh's The Loved One?
A constant theme running through much of Benson’s fiction, especially the later, “contemporary” or “mainstream” novels (below), was the loss of the sense of purpose on the part of the English upper classes.  It seemed to Benson that, on the whole, the purpose of the upper classes was to have no purpose — a theme he presented in the darkly whimsical A Winnowing, a book about life that seemingly talks of nothing but death.  He may have struggled with finding his particular vocation (he was never in doubt about his vocation in general), but he appeared to have little sympathy for people who not only didn’t bother to search for their vocations, they didn’t seem to feel that there was any need to do such a thing.

The nineteenth century may have been the twilight of an upper class in England that retained even a vestige of noblesse oblige. This faded quickly by the end of the century, however, and within fifty years would infect the United States as well. When Benson wrote, the rich in America were still flexing their muscles, so to speak, wondering where this new class that technology had enriched far beyond what could be attained by human labor fit into the scheme of things.

Pope Pius VII
This was something that concerned the popes as well, from the unexpected endorsement of democracy by the aristocratic Pius VII, to the revolutionary encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI, and even John Paul II and, evidently, Francis.  There seemed to be something special about the United States; Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop Ireland might not have been the mindless Jingoes they appear to their blasé and sophisticated countrymen of today.


Sources for Benson’s novels and related material:






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