Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.



Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!

- Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17, first published in 1808.

I can’t get no satisfaction …

- The Rolling Stones (1965)

The world has come a long way in the two hundred years since Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion was first published. Some, no doubt, would call the distance traveled over those two centuries a mark of the world’s “progress” but, if so, it has been an agonizing and tortuous progression in the wrong direction. More specifically it has been an arduous journey downwards, a descent into an abyss more deadly than Jules Verne’s voyage via the heart of a volcano to the earth’s centre; a descent more akin, in fact, to Dante’s journey into an inferno infinitely and eternally more perilous than any volcano. Jules Verne, besotted with scientism, sought his inspiration and his answers in geology; Dante, immersed in scholasticism, found his inspiration and his answers in theology. Verne’s Voyage au centre de la Terre, written in the 1860s, is already dated, a fossilized remnant of extinct scientific theories; Dante’s Divina Commedia, written more than five hundred years earlier, is as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Put simply, and bluntly, geology is built on rock that ages whereas theology is built on the Rock that never ages

Dante’s mid-life crisis, in which he finds himself wandering aimlessly in the dark wood of sin, lost and disoriented, and in need of guidance, serves as a metaphor and a warning to each of us. If we lose sight of the permanent things we will lose sight of the meaning of life itself. We will not know the way out of the mess in which we find ourselves; we might even be in such a mess that we begin to believe that there is no way out. We might begin to believe that the dark wood is all that there is, and that there is no world beyond it. If so, we will ignore the guide who offers to show us the way out of the wood, believing that he is mistaken, or a liar. If the path doesn’t exist, only a fool would look for it. Dismissing the guide as a fool we will continue our aimless wandering. At this point we are as lost as it is possible to be. Nobody is more lost than the person who doesn’t even know that he’s lost.

This is the situation in which the modern world finds itself. It is lost in the dark wood of sin and doesn’t even know that it is lost. It has woven the tangled web so tightly about itself that it has deceived itself with its own deceit. Oh what a tangled web we weave.…

Dante differs from the hopelessly lost souls of modernity because he knew he was lost. And he knew he was lost because he knew he was a sinner. He faces his sin, and the infernal consequences of not doing so, and is purged by the experience. Following reliable guides he finds his way Home. Unlike today’s lost souls, Dante could trust his guides because he lived in a culture which believed in the existence of an infallible Guide. Following the servants of this trustworthy Guide, the Mystical Body of Christ, he escaped the wood and found the true path.

Humanity had come a long way from those days of Christian unity to the days of materialistic presumption in which Jules Verne was writing his scientific fantasy. The individualism of the Reformation and the anthropocentricity of the Enlightenment has filled the world with what Chesterton called “tangled things and texts and aching eyes”. Tangled things and tangled texts, all woven together into a tangled web of self-deceit. No wonder we strain our aching eyes for a glimpse of genuine light amid the darkness.

Humanity has also come a long way from the unsatisfying science of the 1860s to the unsatisfying sex of the 1960s; from rock that ages to a rock that merely rolls. The Rolling Stones were providing a mantra for the so-called swinging sixties when they claimed that they could get no satisfaction. Rolling stones may gather no moss but they gather no satisfactory relationships either. In this context we should remind ourselves that the very word “satisfaction” comes from the Latin word satis, meaning “enough”. One who can never get enough and always wants more is never satisfied. On the contrary he is addicted. He is enslaved by his habit. It is for this reason that the world is enslaved by its so-called “freedom”. It is living a lie, deceiving itself with the self-seductive nonsense of Orwellian doublethink. Thus fornication is repackaged as sexual “liberation”, which is akin to saying that hallucinogenic drugs are perceptually “liberating”. Indeed the parallel is singularly apt. Sex is a drug to which the world has become addicted, and, however much it might deceive itself, an addict is not “liberated” . Forever fixated on its next fix, the world finds that it can get no satisfaction. It is, therefore, no surprise that the lack of satisfaction leads to discontentment, and to anger. And let’s not forget that the sixties, for all its cant about “love”, was a very angry time. In the absence of a sense of having enough we find instead a sense of outrage. Put simply, one who loses his temperance loses his temper.

J.R.R. Tolkien discussed the connection between temperance and sexual satisfaction with customary eloquence in a letter to C.S. Lewis:

Christian marriage is not a prohibition of sexual intercourse, but the correct way of sexual temperance – in fact probably the best way of getting the most satisfying sexual pleasure, as alcoholic temperance is the best way of enjoying beer and wine.

And so we discover the most shocking truth of all, that the most satisfying sex is likely to be found in a healthy marriage! The essence of such a marriage is the self-giving of both spouses, body and soul, to the other. It’s not about meeting each other half way, the sort of half-hearted marriage that begins with a pre-nuptial agreement and ends in divorce, but in each giving themselves fully and completely to the other so that the two become one flesh. This is the highest meaning of marriage, as it is the highest meaning of the marital act, and it gives complete satisfaction. This good news is unheeded by the hedonistic culture, which sees only itself in narcissistic self-absorption.

Humanity has come a long way from the unsatisfying sixties and its summer of lust to the cold winter of today’s loveless culture. In a world which sees sex as merely a product of human appetite, children are ignored, abused or destroyed. If sex is only a product, children are merely a byproduct to be disposed of and discarded at will. Apart from the fifty million or so unborn children who have been killed since abortion was legalized in the United States, to say nothing of the millions killed in other “enlightened” countries, broken families cause unmitigated misery even to those children who are not exterminated in the womb. The survivors of the abortion holocaust find themselves in fragmented families in which fatherless children are abused by their mothers’ “partners”.

And it’s not only children who are the victims of a society that sees sex as merely a product of the passions. Women are also treated as a byproduct to be disposed of and discarded at will. Since their so-called “liberation”, women have become sex objects in a far nastier way than was ever the case in the days before they were “liberated”. In the past, men respected a woman’s honour and certainly didn’t expect her to gratify their every lustful desire. Today women are expected to spread themselves as a supine sacrifice to the god of instant gratification. Feminists insisted on being taken down from the pedestal of idealized femininity on which gentlemen had placed them and became in consequence mere pedals to be trodden under foot by the cads of a post-gentlemanly age. In shunning chivalry they courted chicanery.

Nor are women and children the only victims of a sex-addicted culture. Confused by their role and purpose in a world that sneers at masculine virtue and the heroism of fatherhood, lonely men pawn their souls for pornography, divorced from real life and real love, or succumb to the sodomy of Gomorrah.

In truth, Paolo and Francesca, in the second circle of Dante’s hell, are not as grotesque as the denizens of today’s particularly gross inferno. Stunned, stoned, and rolling from one fruitless relationship to another, today’s “liberated” populace discovers the old truth that Satan offers no satisfaction to those who fall into his web of deceit. And indeed this “old truth” is as old as it is true. It is as old as Satan himself. It is nothing new, and nothing less, and nothing other than the original truth of original sin. The tangled web we weave was first woven by Adam and Eve. This is the sad truth at the darkened heart of humanity. But the good news is that the web was unwoven by the New Adam and the New Eve. The astonishing news is that the deception of the devil is always defeated by the reception of Christ.

We have come a long way from the Garden of Eden to the hell on earth in which we find ourselves and its sympathy for the devil. There is, however, a path out of the abyss. It is a purgatorial path, paved with penance and crowned with thorns. It is the path taken by Dante, the road less traveled that leads to the narrow gate of paradise.

C. S. Lewis and Modern Fairy-Tales for Grown Ups

C. S. Lewis and Modern Fairy-Tales for Grown Ups