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Philosophical Essay



Anthony Steyning

subtitled: Dignity is not a Coat


unedited, February 2006, draft



Une Vieille Dame Digne is a bit of a stock character in French theatre and literature, and it's my privilege to have known a number of dignified older ladies. Hang on: dignified? Digne doesn’t mean dignified, digne means something quite different in French, and yet it seems to be the going translation.


In English dignified means solemn and imposing, all decorum, all show, all pomp, all exterior.  Like dressed up tradition by definition celebrating borrowed, hand-me-down values but not necessarily delivering an awful lot coming from within the person. It reflects the sort of dignity favoured by a society lamentably prizing style over substance, a land of appearances, a place where life on the surface seems to mean so much. Thus I’m aware of far too many dignified people who are spiritually impoverished but carry on as if they own the air we all breathe, frozen in station as they are, cushioned by un-self-earned wherewithal and attired accordingly.


Luckily I also know a good number of people much more deserving of high regard who are noble in the true, the underplayed sense of the word. People critical and kind but dressed in simple, well-worn and sometimes even shabby attire. But however undignified by conventional standards, how utterly digne these persons are! For digne by French definition has an interior sense, describing someone worthy and honourable because wise, restrained, of quiet courage and conviction, blessed with an immense degree of integrity, not some pompous, icy airhead or big public bore.


Une vieille is an old broad. Une vieille dame is an old lady. But Une vieille dame digne, ah, now we’re talking! And she doesn’t always live in France, just because she was first spotted there. And a country in its native tongue not having an adequate word for digne, having to be the poorer for it. Of course there are not only ladies but also plenty of noble men, even though the word noble doesn’t quite describe the innate human qualities I’m pining for, either. Still, I’ll take a noble man over a nobleman or some other snot however prominent, any old time.


But why is it that so many un-deluded souls, people of character and honesty are so lowly positioned in society, sitting on park benches and in quiet cafés or waiting patiently at bus-stops? Is it because they’re disillusioned or tired? Not fighters because of this, bereft of all ambition, brilliant but undefined, leaving the fray to others, the climb to the scalers, the hunt to the hunters, the chase to the chasers, precious, serene, appreciative of life’s smaller pleasures and simply too smart to fall for our collective gods and demi-gods? And even though considered insignificant by some, fools and ne’er-do-wells by others, overlooked by all but the keenest observers, why won’t these talented people do more for us ordinary twerps? Why the hiding, or is it we’re in too much of a hurry to spot them, that they’re not undercover at all, only needing to be appointed by acclamation? That on the run, out of breath, sick, or sick with worry it’s us not taking the time to contemplate and look round, the time to pick quality over quantity and expeditiousness, ever falling for the easy, the slick, the quick, the innocuous and the close at hand, apt to display a shallow lack of rigueur, after starting yet another day on earth. Too busy, in other words, to seduce those truly dignes to come out of their shell at the very minimum to instruct us all on the good graces of being.


You know them, don’t you? You know of whom I speak. But you walk by them, sometimes sitting right next to them, ignoring them, those real leaders of our world, the ones who won’t manipulate and only do what we allow them to, which is not nearly enough. What, haven't seen them? Something wrong with your eyes, with your ears? Yes, I know, it happens to me too. That’s me all right: un-attentive, self-absorbed, in a rush, with a predilection to blame the wicked universe when I’m down, followed by maudlin, silly hope and subsequent self-induced grovelling in some quarters described as… prayer.


All gospels are built on trepidation. There’s no Gospel saying: And God spake ‘Cease to be pathetic!’, and this is truly a shame, for one of dignity’s pre-requisites is not to cave in to beautiful cowardice. On the contrary, dignity represents free man’s greatest conquest, taking precisely that real courage and humble self-belief that I’m trying to identify. Indeed, if one has no dignity, one truly has nothing. And if old French ladies can have it, why can’t more of us?


I guess the key word here is free, that pre-requisite for dignity. For while nominally a ‘good’ person, even Religious Man is not free. Not really: the non-aggression, folded hands, the I-am-serious frown, the I-am-kind half-smile, the I-am-vulnerable tilted head, the dogma of it all, it’s all scary-cat kiss up and deliberate innocence. As I alluded to elsewhere, a lot of bad habits found their way and got locked into formal creed when the circumstances creating these had long vanished. And hanging on to them in certain cases appearing to be misguided obedience to a near criminal degree. Yet Dogma by definition seems unable to modernize itself, its proponents too submissive, too addicted to be able to take it all with a grain of salt, complaining about the dictatorship of relativism while embracing absolutism to a preposterous degree. For instance, the last Pope was ‘free’ to deal with communism because there was no political communism millenniums ago, no Commandment saying ‘Thou shalt not interfere with political processes’ or this atavistically obedient man wouldn’t have lifted a finger despite all evident misery caused by the red plague. And yes, precarious primitive society, constantly facing total wipe-out, urgently needed to tell itself to ‘Go forth and multiply’ or all humanity might have disappeared. And so this notion of constant breeding got written in stone. But today, with grave demeanour forbidding modern means of birth-control that would prevent the globe from littering itself with millions of small cadavers, preventing groups from liberating itself of living pain, hunger and disease for some followed by their predictable premature demise on the grounds that it contravenes sacred Dogma, is obstinacy of the saddest kind and unforgivably places theory over truth yet again. The sanctity of life upheld with… death: certitude and artificial consolation be damned!


There's little doubt, and one doesn't have to be religious oneself to reckon that once a man, by some deemed to have been a cross between an itinerant evangelist and a principled anarchist, really walked this good earth. A real man, not some super-functionary, not some over-solicitous deputy or obstinate subaltern, but one who rid himself of orthodoxy’s enforcers of his day by doing the imperative, la chose digne i.e. effecting radical evangelical change. Never mind the lore, never mind the miracles, this flesh and blood person’s name: Jesus. Creating that single greatest instant in Christianity when it was suddenly made to modernize. Moving from a culture of Fear, Punishment and Retribution as promulgated in the Old Testament, to one of pragmatic Love and Forgiveness in a Testament renewed by his actions and example: as creeds go a great and rare spiritual innovation alas not repeated anywhere since, even though five hundred years earlier both Socrates and Buddha had been principled citizens also successfully standing up against the morality of their day. Too bad, as by now some religions desperately need just such person to rise and alter mores again. For it should be impossible to look a dying child in the eyes then walk away saying ‘Sorry, kid! Couldn’t help you getting into this mess, but don't you worry, I’ll pray for you after my dinner, before I go to sleep', but for some mechanically misguided, this not seeming particularly difficult at all …

And all kinds of sophisticated, modern surgical tools and methods in Rome's finest clinics heaven-sent, when going to a cave in Lourdes should be the chosen path, yet not the use of a modern piece of rubber for others, far, far away. All of this reeking of applied, weak, dogmatic human double-standard of the most reprehensible kind. I thought the Pope believed in the mother of God, but when he didn't feel well he went to the American Hospital. A matter of religion used as an extension of narrow egotism: Lourdes for them not for one of us, Krakow and Rome, yes, Calcutta, Botswana and Tegucigalpa, no! Incomprehensible also because it seems that 'God' gave us brains to be put to good use, not to be inconsistently put aside. In nature disease and aggression keeping species balanced, preventing anyone or anything from suffocating the landscape that in the end might threaten all of life. Human ingenuity eventually overcoming many of these biological controls, but needing to continue 'His' natural balancing act, 'His' work here, not to suddenly render itself stupid and ridiculously selective because of the parchment of another day. I mean, once you believe in God, why not accept He tries desperately to improve things here, looking for a little help. Not waiting for someone piously throwing His own words back at Him. For what are we, book or man?


So that what all this really shows is that ensnared, inhibited thought however ‘elevated’ and fatally weighed down or 'solemn', will not deliver freedom, making clear that what has become doctrine is incapable of supplanting L’Homme Digne, making prisons rather than paradise. And that the said Religious Man on his own is not free, just as Impoverished Man is not free, Rich man is not free, Criminal Man is not free, Oppressive Man is not free, Covetous Man is not free, Rapacious Man is not free and certainly neither is Self-Loathing Man, looking for but unable to face himself. All, except for that one man or woman, that universal Homme or Vieille Dame Digne.


“We can’t all have self-esteem, what kind of a world would it make?” is what some think but not dare utter, while working their entire social posturing round that notion. And naturally, if one is running out of servants this is of terrible worry, but a world without down-trodden, isn’t that what it’s all about, something to be majestically proud of?  Worthy, I say… of any god’s praise?


“It’s the economy, stupid!” is a popular contemporary political mantra, at election time.


“The key’s within, stupid!” would be a good prodder for fulfilment of the most personal, non-political, non-religious kind. And that key, my friends, deep, courageous Dignity.

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