An Aristocracy of the Virtuous?

Christianity, Cancel Culture, and Ressentiment

“Forgive me my impatience, but I hope you will reveal your plan for me soon. I can’t shake the feeling that you must have saved me for something greater than this,” says the eponymous Maud of Saint Maud, Rose Glass’ directorial debut feature film of 2019. “Not that I’m complaining or anything,” Maud adds, as she descends the stairs from her depressing and dilapidated bedsit to the front of the notably bleak unnamed British seaside town in which she lives and works.

A convert to Christianity, Maud is a palliative care nurse to Amanda Kohl, a former dancer, choreographer and minor celebrity. Unlike Amanda, who is worldly, knowing, and manipulative, Maud is humourless, joyless, and priggish. She is also kind and caring, however. When Amanda responds to a compassionate gesture by referring to Maud as her “little saviour,” Maud interprets the utterance literally. “Father, thank you,” she says in a rapturous state. “I always knew you had something more planned for me... To save a soul, that’s quite something.”

Maud, if it wasn’t clear enough already, is pious. She is not just simply pious, though; she is mad. Hallucinating and suffering from delusions, it becomes increasingly apparent that Maud is, in fact, psychotic. When Amanda taunts her at a party for her seriousness, deriding God, Maud slaps her dying client. Later, at the film’s denouement, when Amanda insists that God isn’t real, Maud stabs her to death with a pair of scissors, believing her to be possessed by the devil. In the final scene, Maud self-immolates. While she clearly believes she is an angel ascending to heaven, the viewer is left with no doubt that Maud is merely burning alive.

Saint Maud is, in many ways, an excellent film. All the same, it offers a depressingly unimaginative depiction of Christian subjectivity, closely mirroring Freud’s haughty and influential understanding of the source of religiosity. Thus Maud is not only delusional, she is lost, lonely, and vulnerable, too. “You used to be out all the time,” a one-night-stand jeers after raping her. “We could see you were struggling for a while and no one did anything,” says an erstwhile colleague, apologetically. Maud, in short, is a convert to Christianity because she is helpless. Overwhelmed, she seeks a father to protect her. It is a measure of her child-like desperation that, as Glass wishes us to think, the father she selects isn’t real.

In a remarkably crude manoeuvre, the association of religiosity and insanity is confirmed early on when Amanda gifts Maud with a book of William Blake’s visual art. The film, however, is often more nuanced, illuminating Maud’s essential goodness and the cynicism and vacuity of Amanda and her friends. For example, while Maud gives unhesitatingly to a beggar, Amanda takes solace in the fact an old flame who no longer wants to fuck her “wears plugs.” If the pleasure principle is indeed the meaning of life, Saint Maud Glass shows us that it will not make us happy. For Amanda, an unrepentant hedonist, dying is “dull.” 

Still, a more subversive film would take a different tack. It would not merely imply that hedonism is slightly crass. Rather, when Maud levitates in her room it would let us believe she is levitating. Instead of being priggish and bonkers, Maud would be cheerful, modest, and sagacious. In the twenty-first century, a truly radical depiction of Christianity would allow us to accept that the holy belong to an aristocracy of the virtuous. It would show how Christianity, rather than being a symptom of mental illness in the individual, is, in fact, an excellent – if not the “best"—“root of energy and sound ethics,” as G. K. Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy (1908), his essay recounting the “elephantine adventures’ he went on “in pursuit of the obvious” during the fin de siècle. 

A more intellectually curious filmmaker would prompt us to at least consider the notion that there is a secret society of the humble among us, who see more and see further, as C. S. Lewis did in his wartime radio lectures, Broadcast Talks, published later, in 1952, as Mere Christianity. Certainly, that is precisely what many of our most accomplished public intellectuals are doing today. Without doubt, as an ethical creed, Christianity has much to teach us. Whether or not Jesus was merely a man or indeed the Son of God is quite incidental; Christian ethics are cogent. To the dangerous excesses of cancel culture, empty virtue signalling, and moral relativism which have proliferated over the last few years, they offer a forceful corrective. 

In Book 3 of Mere Christianity, Lewis elucidates what Christian behaviour entails. Morality, in general, he argues, has three parts. It is concerned, first, with “fair play and harmony between individuals’; second, it focuses on the internal harmony of the individual itself; and third, it is about the purpose of human life as a whole. In contrast to most modern systems of ethics, which tend to concentrate on the first aspect alone, Christianity takes each facet of morality equally seriously. It recognises that people cannot be made good by law and that, without good people, a good society is impossible. What is required for this life and the next, it claims, is people of a certain character.

Lewis thus isolates four “Cardinal” virtues and three “Theological” virtues that Christians ought to live by. Namely, Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude, and Faith, Hope, and Charity. Unlike Glass’ Maud, good Christians are balanced, moderate people who think carefully about their every action with little regard for reward. Above all, they are not prideful like she is. On the contrary, pride, for Christians, is the “essential vice, the utmost evil.” One can choose to accept or reject the idea that, since it is through pride that the devil became the devil, it is the “complete anti-God state of mind.” But what one cannot dispute is that pride is immensely anti-social.

“Pride,” Lewis writes, “is essentially competitive.” It involves desiring something, not for its intrinsic worth but for the position it establishes for oneself in relation to others. Pride, in other words, is about power, its acquisition and retention. For there is nothing that makes a person feel quite so superior, Lewis perceptively goes on, as being able to move other people about “like toy soldiers.” While other vices, such as intemperance or unchastity, often bring people together, pride invariably means enmity, because that’s what, at root, it is. In a now genuinely post-Christian age, it is surely no accident that cancellation has supplanted class warfare as a mode of struggle? It is enmity unleashed, a simple individual jockeying for place merely redescribed as politics.

At some point in the 2010s, the Animal self which displaced the Human self of Christianity in the 1960s was traded in for the Diabolical self; physical pleasure gave way to the pleasures of the spirit, pleasure, namely, derived from observing other peoples’ mistakes, discomfort, and misfortunes. Cancel culture is, of course, convenient, insofar as it operates as a job creation scheme for liberal elites. But with the decline of Christianity, collectively, we lost our capacity to forgive. The notion that we might “hate the sin but not the sinner’ could hardly be any more alien to modern ethical culture. Lewis explains that it is not that Christianity

wants us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them... But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again.

This, amidst a global war against fascism. Simply stated, Christianity represents the adult’s moral perspective, the modern identitarian’s, vindictive and myopic, the child’s. 

Christians practise charity in the broadest sense. For them, evil is mostly banal (goodness spoiled, or gone wrong) as opposed to radical. Original or otherwise, we are all sinners and capable of redemption. Those who claim to be motivated by altruism, meanwhile, are profoundly uncharitable, both unable to love their neighbour, seeing malice in every minor perceived wrongdoing, and opposed on theoretical grounds to giving to those less fortunate than they are through institutions outside the state. Marxism, in particular, (the ideology of choice for a substantial section of the professional middle class) is, as it stands, merely an elaborate reason constructed to justify selfishness: an ugly ideology for ugly people, getting uglier and uglier all the time. 

In Mere Christianity, Lewis issues a warning. “The real test is this,” he writes:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on, we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.

Lewis describes the universe we inhabit now. The fallen people who populate it must cease to rebel, realise that they are on the wrong track, finally lay down their arms, and repent. 

Lewis counsels that we ought not to hate and enjoy hating. We ought not to revel in resentment. The irony of course is that that is precisely the charge levelled at Christianity by Nietzsche. It is the religion of ressentiment, of subterfuge, of hatred disguised as love—the intellectual and institutional expression of the will-to-power of the weak. If Nietzsche’s characterisation was ever true it is not true anymore. Ressentiment is the exclusive monopoly of the Left. A regressive trait does indeed lurk in the “good" person, but the “good” person is not a Christian, they are a social justice warrior, proclaiming, on the one hand, the need for “a kinder politics,” while viciously persecuting detractors and heretics on the other, loudly announcing who is and is not “on the right side of history.” The Christian, by contrast, is merely humble. They do not invoke their goodness. They simply enact it instead.

Since society has ceased to be even residually Christian the vices have had free play. They are exhibited by both those who purport to be virtuous—our modern, secular ascetic priest caste—and those who do not—the Gordon Gekko impersonators who dominate business, finance, and much of politics. It is not only the vices, however, that have been allowed to wander unconstrained and do damage. As Chesterton remarked, the virtues wander too, more wildly, and indeed more destructively: “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.” 

For example, there are undoubtedly those on the Left motivated by love in the Christian sense, but without being anchored in the concept of sin, it leads only to the infantilisation of the working class in practice and utopia in theory, which culminates in turn in its opposite: dystopia. Lacking the coherence of Christianity’s historically tested moral scheme, the virtues, alone, come to grief. The commitment to truth makes truth pitiless. A preoccupation with humility, fixing itself on what can and can’t be known, makes us stupid. Obviously, Chesterton had never met a postmodernist (modesty is not the term that springs to mind). But the point holds. Anarchy in the field of ethics will not do. In the words of Lewis: “it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road... we must go back.”

Contrary to Freud’s suggestion that religion makes life easier to bear for those who either inherit or embrace it, to live a truly Christian life is, clearly, exceptionally difficult. The existence of free will makes us responsible for our actions. God accounts for the peculiarities of the “raw material”—our particular psychological make-up or childhood conditioning—but there are no excuses for what we choose to do with it. It is, indeed, impossible to demur from the view that there “is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.” What is indulgent is the moral posturing and censorship of complexity that affluent and overeducated social justice warriors engage in.

If it is not condemned as delusional, however, an allegiance fit only for the broken and unhinged (the stance adopted in Saint Maud), then Christianity is portrayed as “reactionary.” In the dreadful dystopian political superhero action film, V for Vendetta, for instance, the fascist regime that governs Britain is deeply Christian. At the beginning of the film, a party propagandist refers to America as “the world’s biggest leper colony. Why? Godlessness.” Norsefire achieves “strength through unity” and “unity through faith,” while persecuting a familiar cast of “undesirables” including Muslims, Jews, immigrants, atheists, and homosexuals. Yet, patently, maltreatment and victimisation are antithetical to the church’s teachings as they are expounded in the Bible. A Christian society, as far as we can tell from the New Testament, would not be undemocratic, inequitable, and repressive. It would, on the contrary, be authentically egalitarian. 

To be sure, the institution of the church has a chequered history. It was precisely the way it deployed the words anathema sit, for example, that prevented the French philosopher Simone Weil from crossing its threshold, notwithstanding her otherwise total commitment to the Christian faith. It has, indeed, been inquisitorial and totalitarian. But its spirit, as it is embodied in Christ, is not. Far from it. Christianity is socialistic and democratic. Why not, then, show it as such? 

My neighbour is a pious Christian. He attends church every Sunday, rises early most mornings to pray, participates in Bible study groups on weeknights, and volunteers at a food bank on Saturday’s. You wouldn’t know it, though—unless, that is, you enquired. He is a humble, intelligent, joyful person, more interested in finding out about you than boring you with details about himself. He belongs to a secret society that, if it is left to film and popular culture, few of us are destined to learn about. 

In short, instead of a convert, Maud ought to have been an inveterate Christian in attitude. Instead of psychologically unstable, she ought to have been conspicuously strong. And instead of presenting the very idea of doing God’s work on earth as pathological, it ought to have been rendered as noble. Saint Maud might then have done justice to the idea of sainthood and true Christian subjectivity. The virtues, however, are seldom heeded as they should be.

A guest post by
Writer and historian of ideas