Perils of Permissiveness

There are words that I could wish had never been invented. They can corrupt thought, disguise reality, bewilder the simple, and subvert the truth. One of them is “permissiveness.” It is too recent a word to command a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. But to insist on definition is sometimes to expose. Let us therefore try.

Permissiveness seems to be that condition of society which permits the open practice, without shame, rebuke, or chastisement, of what was once regarded as wrong. That seems to be what the new term means. Improve on the definition if you can.

Permissiveness has certain well defined spheres of application. It refers commonly to promiscuous sex and fornication. And a fine illustration the latter word provides. Fornix is Latin for arch, and the heavy architecture of ancient Rome provided many arches. They may still be seen round the oval of the Colosseum, numbered in Roman numerals; the great crowds dispersed from their cruel sports by the gateways corresponding to their ticket numbers. These arches were the haunts of prostitutes, who plied their trade with the minimum of concealment. “It’s the archway and the greasy pie-shop,” says the poet Horace to his discontented farm-manager, “which make you yearn for the city.” Disgusting doings under the archways were at least more poorly lighted than similar doings in the modern film.

“Permissiveness” generally extends to cover adultery and marital unfaithfulness, sexual perversion, the destruction of the unborn, and the promotion of alcohol among the young and the inexperienced.

There is real substance to a fear, expressed of late, that compassion could prove a major casualty in a world inured to violence. Any week’s news might show reason for such apprehension. The crumpled dead, the hapless refugees, the murdered hostages, the work of the ruthless bomber, crowd newspaper and screen.

To be sure, there is the other side to give good hope—the work of those who heal and serve the disabled, who battle against hunger and degradation, and who with endless patience and small encouragement lift the suffering and the defeated.

There is evil abroad, nonetheless, and we do well to be shocked by it. “Supped full of horrors,” Macbeth confessed that he grew insensitive to that which one had daunted him. Such hardening can take place at other levels in the mind than that of fear. Television should take note.

In her somber book On Iniquity, Pamela Hansford Johnson showed that those guilty of the grim Moors Murders had numbed their minds by the depravity in which they soaked themselves, depravity that once shocked and now meets permissiveness, eludes the censor, and finds the shop counter. The author tells of a young Englishman who was in Germany when the Nazis degraded Jews in the streets. At first he was sick at the sight and rushed down a side street. The next time he felt he should look, and stopped for a full minute. The third time he watched. The fourth time, as he stood with the jeering crowd, the sight seemed less revolting. He was becoming, he told himself, “objective.” And with this came realization of his peril. This was not a part of life, a social phenomenon for study. It was the breath of hell. He packed and made for home.

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He was becoming permissive. Thus it begins. And if the advocates of permissiveness reply that they did not mean such crimes at all, the challenge still stands. Begin to pull moral standards down and there is no dividing line.

It is a crowded world, and the crowd can dominate a lesser mind. Isolated, a man may be a cultivated person. In a crowd he descends the ladder of his civilization and can become barbaric. The finer qualities of man are things of delicate growth and are easily withered by fear. A panic over food supplies and population growth spawns a “lifeboat policy.” The atomic weapons of great nations, devices of unimaginable horror, are the children of fear.

In a pessimistic moment R. L. Stevenson defined man as “a devil, weakly fettered by some generous beliefs.” If that is true, the sooner a permissive world returns to imperatives and convictions that restrain, the brighter will be the hope for humankind.

The crumbling of old moralities, I have observed with consternation, seeps lower and lower down the age scale. When I was small, rough little boys who might steal apples nevertheless looked on cheating with contempt. To own up and take the consequences was considered the proper thing to do. Is it quite the same? Or can we feel the groping of the soft fingers of permissiveness round this and other strong, hard realities—loyalty, truthfulness, courtesy, compassion? I think we can.

I am now going to be positive. As a historian, I assure you that Toynbee was right in this: all human cultures grow round a central core of moral ideas and ideals that command obedience, respect, and general observance. There is right and there is wrong, both unquestioned. This is what is called the “ethos” of a people, of a culture.

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Early Rome had something called pietas. We have borrowed the word twice, as “piety” and “pity,” neither of which represents the old Roman virtue and mainstay of society: a loyalty to family and state, a courageous sense of duty, trustiness. Try the truth of this in all societies. Some central core holds all together.

Israel had its Decalogue, its Ten Commandments and all that framed and applied them. The commandments were stern, brief, and authoritive: Thou shalt not.… Israel also envisaged a “covenant,” a promise of God conditioned by man’s obedience. Historian and prophet were full of the theme: hold to the covenant and a nation stands; break it and a nation dies. Hear the somber poetry of the great Isaiah from his twenty-fourth chapter:

The earth dries up and withers,

The whole world withers and grows sick,

And the earth itself is desecrated by the feet of those who live it it,

Because they have broken the laws, disobeyed the statutes and violated the eternal covenant.

For this a curse has devoured the earth

And its inhabitants stand aghast.

For this, those that inhabit the earth dwindle.

But this anticipates. The “ethos” of Western civilization, once called Christendom, is the Christian faith, its central beliefs, its ethics. Hence the love of liberty of which we boast, the reverance for human life, the old stabilities of marriage, honor, care for the weak. They derive from the deep truth that Christ died to save lost human beings. This moral core, the heart of it all, the strength by which it stands, is embedded in the Bible, the book that transformed Britain when it was let loose upon the people in the days of the first Elizabeth. All this is history. It is thus that Britain, indeed the English-speaking peoples, rose to stature, leadership, and strength. It is thus that nations rise and serve their era, and make their contribution to mankind.

And thus they pass away, for commonly in the story of a nation’s rise and fall comes the time when the authority of the ideal is questioned. There comes a moment when, in the phrase of the great and mordant historian, the Roman, Tacitus, a group discovers that “what authority had kept hidden” can be challenged and outfaced. There comes “permissiveness.” It is the beginning of the end, unless, intelligent enough, frightened enough, dowed sufficiently with courageous leadership, or swept by a revival of faith, a people rallies and returns to strength.

Unless that happens, “as surely as water will wet us, as surely as fire will burn,” that people dies. There is always another race, disciplined, moral, rigid in its attitudes, waiting to apply its strong thrust to the crumbling structure.

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I heard a youth say pathetically once: “No one tells us now what we should do.” The boy was miserable. Young people find security in discipline. They are unhappy to be without direction, plagued by disorder, and left to ruin life in the effort to learn that which they should be taught. Permissiveness has its victims as well as its exploiters, and the victims are commonly the young. It is they who are denied the rich joys of life that they might enjoy with discipline, self-control, and patience.

I have spoken as a historian, but it requires no deep knowledge of history to see that permissive morality leads to misery and bondage. Literature is full of examples. The tragic story of Samson, which ends the record of the judges of Israel, was put into poetry by Milton. Samson Agonistes is full of moving lines of self-reproach. “Thou art become a dungeon of thyself” the stricken creature groans. Matthew Arnold echoed what Horace had said of Rome eighteen centuries before, writing of the “secret loathing” that fell on “sated lust.” And Oscar Wilde, in “Reading Gaol”: “You cannot win, who play with sin, in the gaming house of shame.” It is old truth.

The self-disciplined and the upright must share with the wreckers the same beautiful globe, marred by the evil of those who have splashed, stained, and scarred it by their sin, and their sabotage of that which keeps it habitable and healthy. But let it be remembered that God has the last word. As Proverbs 21:2 puts it, “man’s ways are always right in his own eyes, but the Lord has the verdict on his life.”

The revolt against authority, which is the beginning of death, begins in each one of us. The permissive society grows out of undisciplined individual lives. Any human community is the total of the units that compose it, give it tone and character, and, for good or for evil, color it. We all know that we need a Master, that we need rules and discipline to live by, and that we cannot rail against the evils of society at large unless we have declared war against the evil that lies in our own lives. No one can shift the burden of that responsibility from his own shoulders.

Professor H. Butterfield, the well-known Cambridge historian, wrote in Christianity and History in 1948:

A civilization may be wrecked without any spectacular crimes or criminals, but by constant petty breaches of faith and minor complicities on the part of men generally considered to be nice people. If we were to imagine a great war taking place, say, in 1960, we who too often measure guilt by its consequence might well be wrong in imagining that a tragedy so stupendous could only be the work of some special monster of wickedness. If all men had only a reasonable degree of cupidity, politics would still be driven into predicaments and dilemmas which the intellect has never mastered. If there were no more wilfulness throughout the whole of human nature than exists in this room at the present moment, it would be sufficient to tie events into knots and to produce those deadlocks which all of us know in our own little world, while on the scale of the nation state it would be enough, with its ramifications and congealings, to bring about the greatest war in history.
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The war did not come in 1960. Civilization and peoples can die with a whimper as well as with a bang, as T.S. Eliot put it. The world limps on, and none of us can do more than keep the battle rolling, combat evil where we find it. And is not the first confrontation in ourselves? Butterfield said in the same remarkable book:

It happens to be a fact that I can recognize responsibility in myself—I can feel more sure about the fact that it was possible for me to have helped doing this or that, than I can about the matters that belong to scholarship.

No honest person will deny the personal application of that remark. We are all, in our more candid moments, too conscious of the fact that we bend more easily to ill than to good, that we seek with greater ease the good of self than the good of others, that our very virtues are too often based more on fear of punishment than on love of good, and that pride, self-assertion, arrogance, the very essentials of all sin, mingles like a pervading poison with all our practice of good.

Does this then lead us to another definition of permissiveness? Is it also to be described as “that state of the spirit in which that which once stirred shame and revulsion is first tolerated, than accepted and finally embraced”? Thus men die. And the way back is to retrace the abandoned path and recover the old standards, faith, and loyalty.

A greater man than the Cambridge professor had something to say about this. In conclusion, listen to him:

Please, my brothers, considering all that God in his mercy has done, offer him your persons, no dead sacrifice, but alive, holy, something God can accept, and the only service you can really render. Stop trying to adapt yourselves to the society you live in, but carry on the transformation which began with the new life in your minds, so that you can try out for yourselves how good, satisfying, perfect God’s will for you is.

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