Monday, November 24, 2014

The Church Fathers and 1984

The Church Fathers and 1984 

I finally read Orwell’s famous 1984 this semester for AP Lang/Comp. Although I did not find it particularly appealing, I cannot deny the genius of its author. Woven into the delicate paradoxes of the story are countless political, philosophical, ethical, relational, linguistic and metaphysical questions. . . .

Very early on in the novel, I encountered the Party’s official and incredibly paradoxical slogan inscribed on the white walls of the Ministry of Truth (minitru):

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

Up until this semester, my knowledge of 1984 was peripheral and limited. I came to it without any expectations or any preconceived notions. When I read the first maxim in this slogan (War is Peace), my initial “connection” was not one which associated the Party with our modern government or with another dystopian reality. Instead, I associated it with the writings of the early Church and Desert Fathers on passions and sin. In all honesty, evil totalitarian slogans and the writings of the Church Fathers do not even belong in the same sentence, but let me explain myself. . . .  

“Conflict is Control”

However, before I do that, let me give some context to the phrase, "War is Peace. . . ."

To begin, the maxim, “War is Peace,” has quite a few interpretations. In one sense, it can be interpreted to mean that constant external strife creates internal stability. War with something “outside” of a country inevitably creates unity within a country. In another sense, it can be interpreted to mean that people are united under a common enemy. The Party creates a sense of “revolution” to purge the old world and to usher in and establish the dynasty of Big Brother. The society’s common enemy is ideological: anything other than what Big Brother permits. Although it seems contradictory, this constant state of social turmoil becomes the social norm. The people define normality and stability—or “peace”—as continuous conflict. Lastly, Oceania (Europe) is always at war, so those born during the days of Big Brother do not remember a time without war. In essence, their idea of peace is equivalent with warfare. The two words take on the same semantic meaning. Warfare means normality and normality means peace. 

However, in all of these cases, “war” or “conflict” is a means of manipulative control. To accept this paradox of “War is Peace” is to accept the idea that war and peace are interdependent and inseparable. With war, comes peace and where peace is achieved, war has taken place or is taking place. In the context of 1984, the maxim “War is Peace” is more honestly translated as “Conflict is Control.”

“Struggle is Salvation”

Now, I immediately thought of the Church Fathers when I read the words “War is Peace” because of their many teachings on the relationship between spiritual struggle and joy. In a way, they also believe that a kind of external strife creates internal stability. Many of them speak of how to achieve peace by warring with the passions—with sin. According to them, a man does not achieve peace only after warring with his passions, but he achieves peace and joy while warring with them.

St. John of Kronstadt says to “fight against them [the passions] valiantly and vigilantly unto your last breath, looking upon them as dreams of your imagination, as illusions of the spirits of evil.” 

Here, St. John establishes that we do, indeed, “war” against our passions. 

St. Anatoly of Optina writes: “Are you fighting against your passions? Fight, fight, and be good soldiers of Christ! Do not give in to evil and do not be carried away by the weakness of the flesh. During the time of temptation, flee to the Physician, crying out with the Holy Church, our mother: “O God, number me with the thief, the harlot, and the publican (i.e., with the repentant), and save me!”

Here, St. Anatoly also affirms that our interaction with sin should be one of struggle, wrestling, prayer and valiant spiritual effort. 

James 1:2-4 also says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Here, James, the brother of Jesus, concludes that trials and tests—the “wars” against sin—are indeed profitable. That they are meant to bring completeness and perfection. 

As the Party does in 1984, the Church Fathers also believe that “War is Peace.” However, what differentiates the two from each other is their understanding of war, of peace, and of humanity. With Big Brother's totalitarian government, war is unpleasant and unavoidable conflict, peace is stability and control, and humanity is without hope or goodness or consciousness. In the writings of the Church Fathers, war with sin is also an unpleasant and unavoidable conflict, but peace is freedom from passions and humanity has hope and the ability to wage a war which can, with God’s grace, be won. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post!! I had really never thought of anything in 1984 being at all Christian, but you make great points--Christ Himself is the ultimate paradox, being both man and God, both dying and rising from the dead...even some of his parables can seem paradoxical at times until we take time to reflect on them...keep posting!!! :)