Alienation is a concept widely and wildly appealed to by numerous thinkers and for various reasons. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Shaw, each used the concept for their own purposes, though each also in respect to man’s seeming estrangement from his fellow man. I shall return to this.

I once had a colleague – – at which institution I shall not say – – who, after reading St. Augustine’s Confessions for the first time in turn confessed “I don’t get (St.) Monica: I’d never chase my son across the Mediterranean to make sure he went to heaven.” On another occasion this same colleague said when we were discussing Camus’s The Plague, that “the Gospel just breathes through Camus.” This gospel was putatively the gospel of self-validation. In that this was a well-respected professor, you can see the level of theological acumen at said nameless institution. Both of these instances came to mind the other day when reading some illiberal nonsense blathered by Richard Rorty, about how he would seek to inflict his will on his evangelical and fundamentalist students (see here), and twist them from the thought of their parents. These instances tells us what most know already, that the academy, regardless of how much effort you have put into the faith of your child, feels that its bounden duty and obligation is to save them from you. But secondly, it puts in sharp relief one of the few interesting things I found about Camus’s The Plague. The key interpretive scene occurs one evening when Rieux (the narrator) and his friend Tarrou go for a swim in the harbor. Afterwards they take a few minutes and Tarrou essentially gives us what Camus was saying. Tarrou says that he must work against the plague because he has already had it. He grew up the son of a lawyer, who took him to court one day. There he saw his dad, a prosecutor, intimidate and brow-beat a fellow into a confession. It was a capital murder case. The father thought this great stuff, something to impress the boy. Tarrou turned away in horror, knowing that now he must do everything to fight what his father was. He ended up joining a group who seemed opposed to the tyranny of his father and the government. While not saying as much, it appears the group was communist. Eventually Tarrou realizes that the group he was helping, in order to rid the world of enormities like his father, was itself committing enormities. This apparently is what prompted him to leave Europe and head to Oran. Then comes the money line, what he means by plague: that everyone has it, and the truly good person is the one who does not breath in anyone else’s face. This echoes, of course, Rousseau’s statement in The Social Contract that man’s breath is fatal to his fellow man. For Rousseau, however, the meaning is the opposite of what it is here for Camus. In Rousseau it is organized society which produces the plague: culture, industry, the arts (aesthetic, agricultural, mechanical, pedagogical), these destroy the pristine man. For Camus on the other hand, it is our desire and ambition to inflict our attitudes and will on other people that constitutes the plague. Much of the academy has become the plague Camus lamented.

Thus my colleague had completely misread Camus, for like Rorty this particular prof never missed a chance to slander the faith of our young evangelical wards, and at every turn to inflict them with a new version of the Gospel. What is more, this new gospel of self-validation, of creating your own essence, also misses one of the central tenets of the Gospel, the one that stands athwart all the nonsense about alienation. Alienation does exist, of course; but the question is, alienation from whom, and by what means?

Rorty, a truly horrifying person, cannot ever say what the essence of a human is, for in his version of pragmatism he has all but destroyed “what is” as a rule for “what ought to be” (that our ideas about how life should be structured bear any resemblance to that reality we encounter every day.) But how is this different than what Camus’s bete noir, Sartre believed, that “other people are hell.” Why? Because other people are always trying to afflict themselves on us, compromise who and what we are. Ironically, this is exactly what Rorty himself seeks to do: impose his (non)version of reality on his students. In essence, Rorty wants to make his wards in his own image, have them bow to his own will. (The differences between Camus and Sartre as Existentialists can be seen in their respective responses to the Nazis: Camus joined the resistance; Sartre joined Vichy). In this regard, Rorty’s actions assume not just the horrifying, but the demonic.In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the stronger demons wished to consume the weaker ones, and all were after the souls of men. The longed for strong souls, but had only weak ones for their fare. In this regard, Rorty seeks to consume the minds of his pupils, turning them into his own version of “twice the son of Hell.” (My thanks to my former student and friend A. B. Byrd for this insight.)

Rorty’s act is the exact opposite of what St. Monica was after. In that St. Augustine was alienated, he was not alienated from man, but first from God, and thus from himself, i.e., his true self, what God had created him to be. In this regard, Augustine actually could not have become what God had always intended for him apart from his mother, Monica. In a brief conversation one night with the eminent Pr. Peter Brown of Princeton, after he had delivered a fine lecture on the central place of spiritual fathers in the monastic world of the Eastern Mediterranean, I noted to him that the presence of a spiritual father seems not to have been the case with Augustine: he goes to St. Ambrose, but he feels he should not bother the great bishop. Peter Brown was quick to agree, and for some time I felt I had scored a point (for or against whom, I have no idea). But now I think that the whole point of the Confessions was to venerate Monica. She was the one who first gave Augustine the Gospel, he tells us, drawing it from her breasts; she was the hound of heaven, who would not let him be; she it was who constantly set before him the claims of Christ; and it was with her that at the end of her life he experienced the ecstasy of heaven. St. Augustine sought glory and pleasure; these Monica fled, and implored him to do the same, and instead to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.”

Here in Lent we seek not ourselves and our own comforts, but are seeking to reorient our lives toward Holy Pascha (Easter), to the resurrection of Christ. It is there that we find what real human nature is. And it is a nature that is not an abstraction, but one lived with other humans, within the body of Christ, within the Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ, at once human and Divine, shows us what true humanity is, and that union with Him in His death and resurrection and glorified life are the true ends of our existence. St. Monica sought not to have St. Augustine conform to her, but to have him conform to Christ. This is what true life entails, and it is something we cannot find by ourselves. By ourselves we can do but one thing: go to Hell. To attain to the image of Christ and the age to come, we need everyone else. As St. Basil the Great asked about hermits: whose feet do they wash? I need to wash other people’s feet, I need them so I can work out my salvation. Alienation can only be resolved when we come to that fulness of what humanity is, when we come to the first true human, to our Lord Jesus Christ, and to his body, the Church. Within this communion we seek only the good of others, and not our own. In this regard our alienation from one another finds its termination in Christ.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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5 Responses to Alienation

  1. Aaron Michaud says:

    Oh….my. I just read the article on Rorty…I’m horrified, to put it nicely. He (and the author of said article) has no qualms about comparing himself and his intellectualism with Nazis and their intellectualism? What a truly disturbed man. And the fact that he believes that there is no definite truth in the world is even more horrifying. Perhaps that is a universal thing for many liberals – I haven’t really thought about it. That fact does not make him or his view seem any less heretical or dangerous; instead, it only intensifies those qualities. I don’t think the writer – Robert Lux, I believe? – really knew any liberals who weren’t extremists. But I digress: Rorty’s apparent belief that parents’ influences upon their children are dangerous ones is – to me, an undergraduate student who very well might have had the chance to study under him – a horrifying and – frankly – a disgusting proposition. Parents, like St. Monica and even God the Father, are immensely important to our development. Certainly, we must sometimes question them, for how else will we grow intellectually and emotionally? But to even consider the thought that they might be dangerous to me seems a crime of some sort. True alienation, as I believe you were getting at, comes not from our parents’ backwoods, unintellectual sheltering of us, but from the absolute desertion of them and their beliefs. For some of us, it is simply as easy as following the ideologies of our parents (assuming, of course, that our parents’ ideologies are the right ones). However, while St. Monica was trying “to have he [St. Augustine] conform to Christ,” I believe he never would have had she been the only influence upon him. Intellectualism was a key factor to his finding Christ and realizing “true life,” or the “fulness of humanity.” I don’t think you necessarily disagree with that fact… In fact, perhaps you explicitly condone or support it: In reading philosophy, history, literature, theology, the Bible, and other subjects, we are communing with humans, even if we do so in privacy. We are communing (or should be) with and – in our minds – actively debating with those long-dead or distant writers, using the understandings given us by our parents as a foundation for our arguments. Through this process, and not by Rorty’s total abandonment of parental advice and love and ideologies, we search for and – in many cases, I believe – find the truth. That’s probably why Rorty believes there is no truth: because he does not follow the path that will lead him there, because he has abandoned emotion and the probably more simplistic ideologies of his parents most likely entirely – if not almost so – in his pursuit of knowledge and personal gain. His eye was on the target, but not the arrow.

  2. roland778 says:

    The educational establishment does not wait until college to begin the process of alienating students from the beliefs of their parents. It begins in elementary school. Rorty at least has the virtue of wearing his extremism on his sleeve (like a swastika patch?), so you know what he is up to. Too often the corruption of the young is more insidious.

  3. M. Serra says:

    Thank you for your words, Gary. I’m reminded of an epigram of Michael Casey’s:

    “Zeal which is not from God leads to hell.”

  4. Aaron Michaud says:

    While this is true, I wouldn’t call him a better person for it. And, to be truthful, I don’t think that the alienation of students from the beliefs of their parents is nearly as prevalent in grade school as it is in college. I distinctly remember most of my teachers in elementary and middle school (not so much in high school, though) actually encouraging me to consider the wisdom that my parents had to offer; though, I will admit, they did also offer alternate suggestions or advice, I’m assuming to simply make me think more on my own. I will agree with that statement though, that when it does happen, the corruption of young children – because they are so much more impressionable – is far more heinous than the corruption of college-level adults.

  5. Benjamin says:


    So true. An apparently harmless elementary school is where most of it starts. “You can be anything you want to be, just be true to yourself” quickly translates into thought like Rorty’s, I think. As far as I can tell, the greatest danger to the young ones in my life (my brother-in-law and sister-in-law) is their current public schooling, and the friends that they make there that become conductors for such philosophy.

    I love the St. Basil the Great quote “whose feet do they wash?”. What a blessing that every friendship is an occasion for a particular blessing towards sanctification.

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