Which Is To Be Master? (UPDATED)

     My most recent novel, In Vino, provides the culmination of several themes threaded through the Onteora Canon. One of the most important of them is expressed compactly in this passage:

     [Ray] glanced around the table. All the glasses were empty. No cheese and only a few crackers remained on the tray he’d prepared. “Would anyone like more of anything?”
     No one answered in the affirmative. He grinned.
     “I’m glad. The word I’d planned to use for the theme of tonight’s get-together is ‘enough.’ Enough is the ideal point in the production or consumption of anything, the point at which one should be satisfied and turn one’s attention to other things. The willingness to say ‘enough’ at the proper time, and to act on it, is what we mean by moderation.”
     “Epictetus,” Rowenna murmured.
     Ray smiled. “One of the best known of the Stoic philosophers,” he said, “even though nothing he wrote has survived. He seems to have had an intuitive grasp of what’s meant by virtue. He was especially passionate about the importance of moderation: not to exceed what is just and proper in all things.”
     He sat back with his hands behind his head.
     “He who loves knows the importance of ‘enough.’ To say ‘enough’ at the proper time is an act of love,” he said. “Love of self, most obviously. Excess is always harmful to one’s body and often to one’s mind and soul as well. But there’s more. ‘Enough’ also says to the object of enjoyment that ‘You have pleased and satisfied me, and I love you for it. I know your powers and virtues, and I refuse to abuse them. I look forward to when we will meet again.’ It’s the furthest thing from self-denial.”
     “Yet the Church venerates quite a lot of saints specifically for their practice of self-denial,” Rachel said.
     Ray nodded. “It does. But the message in that veneration tends to get muddled. Their austerities were necessary for them, for their progress in holiness. They weren’t meant to be models of life for everyone, past and future…though some did live in places and times when a little austerity might have been to the benefit of a lot of other people.”
     He held up his glass. “There are eight more bottles of this delicious stuff in a case on the floor behind me. Do you intend to leave them here, Matt?”
     The vintner nodded. “With my compliments.”
     “Thank you. But I’d guess that you don’t expect Father Monti and me to break into them after the rest of you have gone home. Am I right about that?”
     Lundin chuckled. “You are, Father.”
     “And we won’t,” Ray said. “Because we understand ‘enough.’ It’s part of our ethic as priests not to abuse the good things of life. It’s also part of what we try to teach our flocks: Take enough, and be well and happy.
     He panned the table.
     They seem to get it. Will they get the next part?
     “A great part of what’s wrong in modern society comes from the refusal to allow that ‘enough is enough.’ The acquisition of wealth and property becomes a matter of ego, a way to measure yourself against others. Or you might consume without stopping to distract yourself from an inner emptiness that food, alcohol, drugs, and expensive toys can never fill. But these are not temptations that can be fought directly. They can only be beaten by cultivating an old virtue.”
     He sat back and waited.
     “Which old virtue, Father?” Rachel murmured.
     “It’s called temperance,” Ray said. “The disciplining of one’s own habits and desires, acquired through the conscious practice of ‘enough.’ It’s one of the four cardinal virtues.”
     The neurophysiologist’s gaze sharpened. “What are the others?”
     “Prudence, justice, and fortitude,” Ray said. “They don’t get a lot of attention these days. But it’s getting late.” He rose. “Perhaps we’ll discuss them on Thursday. Are you all okay to get home, or does anyone feel he’d like a ride?”

     I’ll let that stand alone for the moment, but I will get back to it later in this essay. Make sure you have plenty of coffee available; it’s likely to be a long one.


     One of the subjects Americans have become shy about in recent years is religion. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, people generally dislike to be preached at, which is why door-to-door religious solicitors seldom get a warm welcome. On the other, the function of religion in human life is supremely, even terrifyingly important. A religious faith provides ethical premises that, if taken seriously, guide one’s actions throughout life. The quality of those premises will determine whether one will be regarded as an asset to others, a pox upon Mankind, or somewhere in between.

     Moreover, everyone has ethical premises. Yea verily, even the man who believes that “whatever I can get away with is right.” It’s a terrible, savagely destructive ethic, but it’s an ethic nevertheless. Arriving at a wholesome, entirely constructive ethic without the assistance of a religious faith is too difficult for most people. It takes a lot of intellectual horsepower, more than most people possess. This suggests that the absence of religious faith from a society is an indicator of bad times to come.

     One of the gravest tragedies of modern times is the ongoing corruption of the great religions of the West. All of them have suffered from it, mainly at the hands of clerics who strive to force their own personal preferences into the teachings of their faith: to make doctrines out of those preferences, as if they were integral to the faith they claim to represent. Frankly, I can’t imagine a worse sin. I expect that those clerics will suffer terribly for it in the afterlife.

     This is a subject so vast, with implications so ominous, that I could write about it for a whole year without exhausting it. It’s responsible for the distance many persons feel between the teachings of the religion they absorbed in youth and their personal convictions and conduct. It’s also responsible for the rejection of religion as such by an increasing percentage of the First World.

     A greater tragedy is difficult for this novelist to imagine.


     Tom Kratman, one of today’s premier practitioners of military fiction, wrote the following in the Afterword to his novel A Desert Called Peace:

     [I]t has been said more than once that you should choose enemies wisely, because you are going to become just, or at least, much like them. The corollary to this is that your enemies are also going to become very like you….

     If I could speak now to our enemies, I would say: Do you kill innocent civilians for shock value? So will we learn to do, in time. Do you torture and murder prisoners? So will we. Are you composed of religious fanatics? Well, since humanistic secularism seems ill-suited to deal with you, don’t be surprised if we turn to our churches and temples for the strength to defeat and destroy you. Do you randomly kill our loved ones to send us a message? Don’t be surprised, then, when we begin to target your families, specifically, to send the message that our loved ones are not stationery.

     This seems lost on the current enemy, but then, he’s insane. It’s very sad. Yes, it’s very sad for us, too.

     Gentle Reader, it cannot be put better than that. The Islamic assault on the West is founded on the ethical premises of Islam and nothing else. Among the reasons it’s been able to do so much damage is that in the main, Westerners have refused to recognize its underlying lesson – one that Tom expresses most succinctly in another place:

Never go to a religious war without your religion.

     The ethical premises of the West are those of Christianity. The ethical premises of Islam are fundamentally hostile to those of the West. Islam preaches continuous warfare, by any means expedient, against all other religions, Christianity in particular. Simply observing the behavior of majority-Muslim states toward their non-Islamic minorities ought to have taught us this – so why do Western nations continue to admit Muslims to their polities?

     Simply put, because we’ve set our religions aside as somehow irrelevant to such things as immigration and sociocultural assimilation. “Oh, religion doesn’t enter into that,” say the bien-pensants. “America has freedom of religion, right?”

     And that is largely the fault of those who have corrupted the West’s mainline faiths. We would not have set them at so little regard, otherwise. Tragedy heaped upon tragedy, as bodies pile up like cordwood.

     There will be a reckoning.


     It’s time to return to the first segment of this tirade, with emphasis on this compact ethical prescription:

Take enough, and be well and happy.

     That is a central tenet of the original Christian faith: i.e., the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind, when He wore the flesh and traveled throughout Galilee. He did not teach that poverty is a necessary precondition for salvation. Indeed, He often enjoyed dining, presumably well, at the tables of the well to do of that time and place. He did counsel fasting for particular purposes, but He did not insist upon privation as a way of life.

     Enough – temperance – is a virtue essential to a good life. Its opposite, gluttony, ruins bodies, lives, families, nations, and souls. Gluttony proclaims – whether or not we choose to hear – that we are not our own masters: i.e., that we are enslaved by our appetites and our possessions.

     But “enough” doesn’t mean that we must forgo all the pleasures and satisfactions of the world – only that we must master them, not the reverse. Most people do manage this, most of the time. (Yes, yes, we all overeat now and then.) Some do not. Some become famous for their excesses and become subjects for tawdry television shows. An unfortunate number of people aspire to do likewise.

     (Here I must insert a disclaimer: This is not a condemnation of wealth per se. Many persons of great wealth don’t live like Ayn Rand’s “fat, unhygienic rajah.” Their wealth is a tool of production, which they employ for that purpose and not to wallow in excess. Hopefully they produce something worthwhile, but that’s a subject for another time.)

     The emphasis so many Christian clerics put on personal sacrifice is one of the reasons so many lay Christians feel a distance between themselves and their nominal religion. They don’t want to feel guilty about living well – and why should they? If the lives they enjoy are made possible by their own efforts, honestly earned and properly tempered, wherein lies a reason for guilt?

     If you can refute me, I will hear you gladly.


     “I could say that we won because we were on the side of the godly,” he said with a grin. He took her hands in his and squeezed them. “But it was simpler than that. They were stunted creatures, Fran—terribly stunted within themselves. They were corrupt, and they’d suffered the ultimate corruption: they were no longer their own masters.”

     [Ted White, Phoenix Prime]

     Ted White’s short novel about an emergent superman isn’t a religious book. Yet it contains a great deal of insight, the greater part of which is summarized in the brief passage above. Which is to be master: you, or the World? Can the attractions of the World – the traditional shorthand for earthly possessions and pleasures – overcome your ethical premises? That is one of the three fundamental forms of personal corruption.

     But the complete rejection of the World as somehow unworthy of you is another way in which the World can corrupt you. It’s a form of extreme vanity, a demotion of all other persons and things to a secondary status: the negation of the humility appropriate to every individual. Do you need to fast for some specific purpose? Then by all means, do so – but what point is there to continuing privation once the purpose, whether temporal or spiritual, has been achieved? Do you need to deny yourself some particular pleasure, because it can possess you utterly, and thus completely unbalance your life? Then do so. Any alcoholic could tell you what lies down the opposite path. But don’t imagine that what’s necessary for you is therefore necessary for others.

     Therein lies the true meaning of temperance: enough.


     To close: When it comes to religious belief, Americans should be reserved much of the time. The best evangelism has always been by example. Yet we should be willing to talk about our faiths, why they’re important to us, and – if and when appropriate – “what’s happening in the temple” that strikes us as misguided or perverse. That’s the path of moderation in discourse, which is critically important to the preservation of wholesome religion at this this supremely difficult time in Western history.

     Religious faith must be reintroduced to public discourse. We need wholesome faiths – religions whose precepts are actually good for people and social harmony – more than ever before in our history. If you can talk about your faith calmly and temperately, allowing for disagreement on nonessential subjects, you ought to do so when the opportunity presents itself. To do so will restore to our conversations the subjects of ethical principles and why they matter. Practically speaking, there’s no other way to do so.

     May God, the Source of all good things, bless and keep you all.

     UPDATE: Have a fine old video from Clay Christensen:

     And thus be it ever, where free men shall stand.


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  1. I had an aunt, on my father’s side, who was a preacher in the Church of God. She pastored the small church she led for years.
    And, yet, her most effective preaching wasn’t vocal. It was in her life, which she lived by her Christian values, and served as a powerful sermon on Christ.
    I really miss her; she was one of a kind.

    • enn ess on November 10, 2021 at 3:16 PM

    It’s really quite simple but has been forgotten by society. The answer to the title – Which is to be master – can be summed us in a very simple phrase. I already have my master – God and Lord Jesus Christ. I bow, kneel, and fear no one. The End!

    • Toastrider on November 10, 2021 at 3:28 PM

    Temperance is a good thing. But it must come from within and be cultivated as such.

    I will not stand for someone attempting to impose temperance upon me.

    It’s much like the disconnect leftists have in equating charity with forcible redistribution. They insist the latter is the former, conveniently forgetting that charity is a voluntary act.

  2. 1.  “The ethical premises of the West are those of Christianity.”  The premises was those of Christianity.  In the world we find ourselves in now, the premise is “the purpose of power is power.”

    2.a.  For reasons beyond the scope of this comment, I walked away from my protestant Christian faith about when I was eleven.  As a teen, had a HUGE dislike of anyone trying to bother me with their Sky-father.  It was only in my late-twenties when – via a love of history – I was baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic faith.  Oddly, that was just one year before my wife’s first lymphoma.   Jesus truly does have a Jewish sense of humor.

    2.b.  Since becoming a writer, I will mention the faith, almost always RC, of my characters, but I never dwell on it; the snarl from my teen years is too reflexive.  But, it’s there, in fourteen books and one million words.  Certainly I write to entertain but would like to think that just maybe I can pique someone’s interest into opening a Bible or dropping by Men’s Night for some beers at the parish hall…

    I do what little I can.

    • NITZAKHON on November 12, 2021 at 6:31 AM

    There is an old Yiddish saying:

    Who is wealthy?  He who is content with what he has.


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