I was watching the film Les Miserables the other day, which is a fascinating film and an amazingly Catholic film, and while one could write several long papers about the movie and themes within it, this one line in particular struck me. The men of the revolution are all in the upper room, rallying around the colors of the world. Their song resonated in a strange way with me. The lyrics to refresh your memory: ‘Red: The blood of angry men! Black: The dark of ages past! Red: A world about to dawn! Black: The night that ends at last!’ The men are rebelling against the tyranny, the apathy, the injustice of the ruling classes. This is, as those who are familiar with the history of France will know, a completely legitimate claim for those who were living in France at the time. (How they went about rebelling might have left a lot to be desired, however. Guillotines are rarely a good implement…)
Anyway, what started me thinking was the thought of ‘The dark of ages past.’ This is, once I thought about it, a common complaint cried again and again by the youth of every age. I should know, as I myself have gone through that experience of thinking about how much better myself and my peers are than those who have gone before. There is a perpetual sense of impatience and contempt by the youth in developed societies for the older classes. ‘They are old and decrepit,’ we cry; ‘Of what use are they to us anymore? Look at the mess they have left us!’ This is repeated age after age, and usually, the older, wiser, and more experienced, of society return the contempt in full measure: ‘The youth are immature and foolish, driven only by passion and hormones. They are too irresponsible to become anything better.’ So it goes, back and forth.
This realization joined with an observation I had had some time ago about how philosophy develops, which was that quite often people feel the urge to tear everything down that came before in order to build their own philosophy or edifice. This is exactly what the young men in Les Miserables wanted; everything must go so that we may build anew. My question, or questions, I should say, are these: Why must everything go? Must we continually tear everything down that came before so that we may start again? Why do the youth always think that there is nothing to be gained from the generation before while the previous generations feel that the youth waste their lives and experience in frivolous passions? While there are always corruptions and desecrations that must be stopped and wrongs that must be righted, must that always mean that it all must go? Does one bad apple indeed ruin the entire batch?
History provides a chilling conclusion, time and again: the people revolted in France, razing everything down from before, and (even though they had a great cause), ended up with Napoleon and guillotines. The people in Czarist Russia obliterated everything having to do with royalty and ended up with Communism. (Brilliant). Descartes discarded everything he knew of philosophy that had been handed down, and unwittingly paved the road for the later caravans of relativism and post modernism. This isn’t to say, of course, that the systems against which the people rebelled were perfect or that they didn’t need to be changed. But what of the mindset behind it all? What is this collective pride we have that keeps the youth from recognizing that there might be at least something of value from generations past? What is it that keeps the old and wise from recognizing the virtue that could be had from the passion of the youth?
There is something hard to swallow, indeed, about admitting that someone else might be on to something good and true, for the simple reason that the person is not you. I think easily of times (many of them) when I burned with resentment and shame for no other reason than I knew that the wisdom of age and experience had shown me to be wrong. I imagine there is a feeling of resentment and the temptation to despair when a man lives long enough to see his entire life’s work upended and destroyed by the new and upcoming generations. But what is it that we are missing? We are missing the call to build something eternal, something beyond our world and our physical senses. The work of Christ, the evangelization of the Gospel and Christ’s saving power, these are never destroyed. They require the passion and energy of the young, the wisdom and experience of the aged, and the cooperation of both. It is not a bad thing to be young and exuberant, just as it not a bad thing to have traded in the energy of youth for the wisdom of age. But just because we are one or the other (and that’s not to say there cannot be a mix of the two) does not mean that we must be resentful of those who have the other. None of what we have on this earth is truly ours, simply because everything we have is a gift from God. So let us not hold too tightly to those things which will be asked of us anyway when the Master returns, but rather use them while they are lent to us, and use what next we are given when what first we had is taken away. It is not ours, so forgo attachment. Let us indeed do away, then, with the dark of ages past, but let it be the dark of pride and vainglory, the suffocating black of blind ambition and resentment, and let us welcome instead the red of Christ’s blood that heralds the dawn, He who is our true treasure.