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Throwing Stones in Glass Houses

January 26, 2015

Look in the mirror, and what do you see? Yourself.

Throw a stone at the mirror, and what do you see? Yourself… shattered, disfigured, broken.

The old saying goes that you shouldn’t throw stones in glass houses. That is, one should not criticise others for faults they themselves have. To do so is blatantly hypocritical, and self-righteousness, lancing edicts from an ivory tower that is in truth not so mighty.

That surely is a simple lesson, no? Well, its oft ignored. I talk of countless stones being thrown at the houses of formerly lionised heroes by various movements (in and of themselves good) – revisionist history, postmodernism, cynicism etc.

Theodore Roosevelt? Wasn’t he a racist? Thomas Jefferson – wasn’t he a slave owner?

And therein lies the basis of our moral judgement that they weren’t virtuous, and we cast our stone at the glass house of virtue. And of course, over time, the house shatters into thousands of shards. Suddenly, the vision of virtue is faded from the landscape, and as we discussed before, only remnants remain. What virtue is lies beyond grasp. To assemble all the glass together is nigh on impossible – it lies shattered.

What people misunderstand is that while the specifics of these heroes’ faults – racism, slave owning etc. – have been overcome today, we ourselves still have many specific faults with similar root causes. Furthermore, it is not in the dark of these lives that we learn, but in the light they cast.

. To study the great men and women of old is not to say that they did not have faults, but to realise that they had virtues and strengths which we lack. There is no fault in asserting that ours is the best of all ages, while realising that the past had some things which we could do to remember. Theodore Roosevelt had his faults yet his words in ‘Citizenship in a Republic’ and ‘The Strenuous Life’ are like a clarion call to rouse one’s moral fibres. I remember reading Citizenship in a Republic for the first time. It was a bloody long speech. Yet there is a heart and majesty, and truth, to the speech. I was enthralled.

It is similarly so with Jefferson as with Roosevelt. Everyone dismisses him simply because he owned slaves. No one knows that he personally drove the fight to outlaw the importation of slaves to the state of Virginia. That he himself struggled with the issue immensely, including logistic issues with freeing thousands of uneducated people unable to support themselves that no one stops to consider nowadays. And in the process they discount a man who was one of the most brilliant minds of his age, when an honest assessment of the moral dilemma could result in a deeper understanding and appreciation of his character.

This is problematic, that people seem to take some sort of twisted, iconolastic glee in destroying anything sacrosanct.

Let us continue now with shards of a conversation I had with a learned fellow recently. I bold the particularly poignant touches. He said:

I think the main problem is that people are so incredibly defensive of whatever ignorance they have cobbled together into a barely coherent world-view that they smash anything that doesn’t fit, lest they have to learn, to understand the world as it really is. This happened, as we’ve discussed, because of the disintegration of Western culture. It’s every man for himself, with no template to follow, and such ugly, empty worlds we are building without the aid of our forefathers.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

I replied as follows:

I think the iconolastic mentality is the ‘default’. It is easier to destroy than to build. One blow of the hammer can crush a structure, yet it takes hours to mend. When arguing, its easy to launch a flurry of rhetorical questions assaulting a view, or be the pedantic nitpicker and deconstruct an argument. It is much harder to create a view, to make it cohorent, and still have reserves left to fight off the iconolast. In a way, the natural order is disorder. And I understand this mentality. Why, my room always seems to drift from perfect tidiness into a slightly unkempt sheaf of papers, until I impose order on it! The difference today is that we don’t have the cultural institutions to impose that order in our lives. Existentialism gave a supposedly great gift – that we might create meaning in our own lives. Yet this is a great burden. It is also, I would argue, an immovable burden, because meaning is often created socially (eg. rituals, coming of age rites etc.) , and so our capacity individually to find meaning is necessarily limited.

Looking back, we gain the appreciation of the difficulties that both heroes and supposed fools faced. No one today would say that the Papacy of the 15th century was particularly well governed at all. “Why did further reform not occur after the Council of Constance?” we could ask. With hindsight its to easy to condemn. But the Papacy faced the dual threat of conciliarism – or so it was perceived – and was faced with the immediate task of rebuilding Rome. After all – and here is another example – though the Avignon Papacy can be much condemned, it was in part driven by real problems and anarchy in Rome. We condemn the Papacy (rightly so) , forgetting the formidable obstacles it faced, just as we do Jefferson and Roosevelt.


We shall study the Papacy soon, but the point is that throwing stones is a bad idea. In destroying idols, we lose the potential for inspiration and higher virtues. In declaring imperfection, we make it easier to rationalise our own faults. In striking the glass house of virtue, we spite our own reflection.

There is an old saying. There are two ways of spreading light. To be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.  We must take care not to shatter the mirror, and destroy the light it shines. Remember, remember that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.


NB: I said I had meant to write about ecclesiastical history, yet I have not. This is because I have found the history much more complex and intricate than I first thought. Sentences turned to pages in the literature I read. The Avignon Papacy was not a paragraph to write about, it was a chapter in a book. I will return, but only when I can give you a true, holistic account of events.


From → Foundations

  1. your secret admirer permalink

    I really like this Australia Day Edition of you blog Harlan.

  2. Thankyou, your secret admirer. I am glad you enjoyed the post. Now, go, and spread virtue and light!

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