New Winner of Best Imprecation Ever: Shakespeare’s Misanthrope (with some reflections re: chastity)

The_Miser study for Timon of Athens
Study for Timon of Athens by Thomas Couture

We do not recommend cursing people.

But: When an imprecation, justly uttered, rises to the level of sublime art, we take notice; we admire. (Especially when the curse backhandedly identifies profoundly important things.)

You may recall our survey of King Lear’s ingenious curses. Perhaps you remember our citation of Queen Margaret’s greeting for the evil man (Richard III) who killed her son. Maybe you have been meditating on Psalm 55.

Whatever the case, you have not encountered anything, when it comes to wishing people ill, until you have heard the imprecatory prayer which Shakespeare’s Timon utters against his native Athens.

Timon of Athens–one of Herman Melville’s favorites–offers us the Bard’s portrait of the victim of cruel fortune turned misanthrope. Timon begins the play with countless friends, including all the city’s senators. His banquets never end. Until the bills finally all come due at once.

Then Timon’s friends, upon whom he had lavished gifts and aid (while they flattered him), all turn away. None of them answer his pleas for help. His creditors crowd around his door, and he cannot even step into the street.

[WARNING: What follows is a PG-13 Shakespeare soliloquy. Maybe even R.]

Quitting his native place forever, standing outside the city wall, Timon says:

Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall,
That girdlest in those wolves, dive in the earth,
And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!
Obedience fail in children! slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench,
And minister in their steads! to general filths
Convert o’ the instant, green virginity,
Do ‘t in your parents’ eyes! bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives,
And cut your trusters’ throats! bound servants, steal!
Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,
And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed;
Thy mistress is o’ the brothel! Son of sixteen,
pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire,
With it beat out his brains! Piety, and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries,
And let confusion live!
Plagues, incident to men,
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt
As lamely as their manners. Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ‘gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,
And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains,
Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,
at their society, as their friendship, may
merely poison! Nothing I’ll bear from thee,
But nakedness, thou detestable town!
Take thou that too, with multiplying bans!
Timon will to the woods; where he shall find
The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound–hear me, you good gods all–
The Athenians both within and out that wall!
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low! Amen

Wow.

I put by favorite part in bold. Regarding those few lines:

On the one hand: a heartwarming vision of stable social life. A community governed by the principle of reverence, which produces order and concord. Here people thrive, because they learn from the wise, and respect each other, and have the foundation of trusting friendship.

On the other hand: confusion reigns when the principle of reverence is overthrown. The young do not learn; they do not develop themselves with discipline and training. Instead, they dissipate their powers and make trouble. People do not trust each other, and no one can get a good night’s sleep.

I find it particularly interesting that Timon’s curse involves multiple allusions to utter sexual self-abandonment. His chilling speech, which spells out what social life should be, by casting it in clear relief, shows us the relationship between reverence, chastity, and peace. The Church also has spoken of this relationship:

The chaste person has learned how to accept other people, to relate with them, while respecting their dignity in diversity. The chaste person is not self-centered, not involved in selfish relationships with other people. Chastity makes the personality harmonious. It matures it and fills it with inner peace. This purity of mind and body helps develop true self-respect and at the same time makes one capable of respecting others, because it makes one see in them persons to reverence, insofar as they are created in the image of God and through grace are children of God. (Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, no. 17)

May the good God keep us reverent. May He spare us the fate of Athens under Timon’s curse.

P.S. I had occasion to re-read this passage from the Vatican, because it is quoted in the U.S. Bishops’ 2006 Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of Persons with Homosexual Inclinations.

I decided to re-read that, because I wondered if we need to address with more sensitivity, or more nuance, or more practicality, the claim that we are wrong to evaluate homosexual acts as immoral in every case.

But I think that the 2006 Guidelines actually do offer everything needed. We all need training in chastity in order to conform our concupiscent tendencies with the objective truth of how God made us. Our Bishops have explained all this with great love.

In other words, we do not need to argue that: everyone has always thought that homosexual acts are immoral; therefore, they must be immoral. That argument does not convince.

Rather, we can argue: If this were the first generation after Adam and Eve; if all of us alive today were the first human beings living with the great chasm between who we were made to be, and who we are inclined to be–

If this were Generation Alpha, and we had no moral tradition of any kind, we could and we would learn to find sodomy, masturbation, artificial contraception, fornication, and all unchaste acts to be repellent, as soon as we managed to train ourselves to be chaste.

And bingo! that leads us to another interesting conclusion: Maybe this is why the prohibition of sodomy became immemorial moral tradition in the first place. Namely because the people who train themselves to be chaste wind up having families and stable, well-governed, and peaceful communities, and they pass along the fruits of their discipline to generations yet to come. And the people who don’t train themselves to be chaste wind up dead and altogether forgotten.

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