Monday, February 7th, 2022

Concerning Strangeness

The word conspiracy theory is much bandied about today. Now this meditation is not about analyzing the history, meaning, or fitness of the word. But behind the word rests a real phenomenon to consider, and the phenomenon is this: people believe that other people believe strange things. And we should say that by strange we mean the word in its commonest sense: unusual, with a connotation of uncomfortableness.

We may begin by saying that strangeness implies order. We know a thing is strange because it is a departure from a pattern we expect. Already that is important. This implication works against anyone who claims that there are no real patterns of order in the world—or at least no patterns when it comes to human action and identity. But if that were true, human beings could never be strange or do strange things. Yet we all know that they do; that we do.

There is a danger lurking, however, an epistemological one. If a given situation appears strange, we may be disinclined to believe what we see or are told. Sometimes, this is good: it is charitable to give the benefit of the doubt to our neighbor—not to be quick to believe he is in the wrong or is guilty. It can even be laudable to make excuses for the shortcomings of others. Moreover, it is intellectually humble to suspend judgement, as when we admit that we need more information before the mind can settle upon something.

Yet again, the danger arises when we are committed to disbelieve simply because of a thing’s strangeness. This tendency is a kind of reverse credulity. The credulous person believes too quickly, decides uncritically, is easily deceived. But the person who withholds assent on the sole criterion of strangeness is little better off.

The fact of the matter is, un-graced human action is strange. When man departs from the natural and divine law, his actions deviate into the painful, absurd, ugly, and destructive. This is because human choice and action flourish only when they proceed along lines of order and reason; and it is fair to say that by “lines of order and reason” we mean virtue. Furthermore, the Catholic knows what sort of person he is without the divine assistance. Without grace, any sort of deviation is possible; without grace, any sort of harm can be inflicted, and no species of self-serving is off the table.

Those who have been the victims of history’s tragedies have had to learn this the hard way. Evil is strange because it is a departure from what is good. Human beings do harbor deviant and disturbing motivations, do execute harmful plans—and, if unopposed, achieve their wicked ends.          


{Art Credit: Goya, A Way of Flying (c 1815); The Met.}

Lightning Meditations