John Mark Reynolds- Contributor
Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey
Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy,
at Biola University. His
personal website can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.com and
his blog can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.info.
Giovanni: hero for a
[John Mark Reynolds] 3/22/04
Biola University produced a compelling version of Mozart opera
Don Giovanni. Introducing it, the conductor
described it as a treasure of the West, the musical equivalent
of Michelangelo’s David.
It is a retelling
of the “Don Juan” myth, the seducer
of many women. This cad gets away with his behavior and is even
applauded for it. Mozart makes the audience laugh at the pain
Giovanni causes and then delivers a righteous judgment. The music
underscores the ambiguity. It teases the listener into laughing
at pain and then demolishes our fatuous tolerance for vice in
soaring arias that reveal the depth of hurt caused by sexual
The role of a gentleman
in society is central to the opera. Many of the Don’s victims cannot understand how a “nobleman” could
be ignoble. Surely they are safe with such a great man! Both
the noble ladies and the peasant women cannot understand how
the Don could betray the Christian social order. Such a man either
cannot really exist, surely the tales about him are rumors, or
he must somehow be a great man in order to defy convention. Just
as Milton’s Satan can appear to be a hero by the very boldness
of his rebellion, so Giovanni is given undeserved admiration
for the vastness of his crimes.
In this way,
Mozart prefigures our cult of celebrity. Fame replaces the
virtues as the measure of excellence. The Don
is rich, well bred and famous, so he is tolerated and even idolized.
Some of his victims are willing to judge the Don by his own standards
and not those of Christian Europe. His boldness is to demand
that he be treated on his own ethical terms and not those of
the community he exploits. To be attractive and wicked is to
be safe in the cult of celebrity. It is only the aging Lothario
who is run down by Entertainment Tonight.
And yet, the Don can
only function if the society retains its traditional moral
code. The women of Europe are particularly
vulnerable to the Don, because he stands at the transition point
between the Medieval and the Modern. He exploits the traditional
respect for the lord while encouraging talk of “liberty.” He
snakes between the cracks of the transition to become an epic
libertine. As our own culture wobbles between Christian values
in many areas and more “post-modern” values in others,
there is once again room for a man of no convictions beyond his
own personal pleasure to gain power to harm others.
At the very center
of the opera is a scene where the Don and the crowd sing of “liberty.” First the Don hails
liberty and then the crowd, but they are singing of two very
different things. The peasants and even the gentry at a great
party become drunk with the promise of political freedom. The
late eighteenth century and early nineteenth were times of great
political optimism. For most people, this liberty meant the right
to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This
pursuit centered in the ability for free men to own private property.
For the Don such talk was music indeed, for he could exploit
this quest for personal happiness to his own ends. Libertarian
ideas would degenerate in his hands to mere licentiousness. The
crowd imagined Christian men being set free from all unnecessary
restraints. Good men could be trusted with more liberty than
the polity of the Middle Ages had given them. The Don wished
to be set free from Christian restraints to do harm.
In this, the Don has
more in common with the French Revolutionaries than with the
citizen soldier of the American Revolution. In
America, the cry for liberty was modified by the slogan, “No
king, but King Jesus.” Liberty did not mean equality, nor
did it mean the freedom to do whatever one pleased. It meant
the ability to choose any good, without the prodding of the restraint,
that a man might wish. Liberty was understood within the context
of Christian church membership and morality.
France, however, the cry was for secularization. The liberty
was modified by demands for equality. But as
Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn argues in his seminal Liberty
or Equality, one cannot have both. Men gained the freedom
to place prostitutes on the alter of Notre Dame, but lost the
ability to hold hereditary wealth.
The “brotherhood” of
the French Revolution was not the Christian common wealth of
the American Puritans, but more
like the secular brotherhood amongst thieves. Secularism proved
unable to restrain the “great man” and his pursuit
of power and pleasure. The American Revolution ended with the
moderate man, George Washington, under the rule of law. The French
Revolution moved from one type of Don to another: first Robespierre
and then Napoleon.
It is no accident
that the sexually perverse Marquis de Sade became a sort of
hero in this era. A vast literature still exists
attempting to understand this monstrous man. The fascination
with him in modern culture, which is very real, is a measure
of how far America has moved from its Puritan roots, at least
in its ruling class, to adopt a more French notion of liberty.
The libertine is now to be understood and not condemned, since
he represents another aspect of “modern” liberty.
Against this terrible
madness, Edmund Burke, the great English parliamentarian, raged.
He did so effectively, creating in England
an alternative vision of liberty. It is no accident that he sided
in Parliament with the American Revolutionaries, whom he saw
defending Englishmen’s rights while he assaulted the Revolution
In his On
the Revolution in France, Burke
defended a freedom that began in God and the community. He
noble man who would betray his class for personal gain. Burke
with the American federalists created a Christian tradition that
could be open to the expansion of individual liberties to the
greatest extent possible.
His passion and reason
prevailed in English society. Combined with the great Wesleyan
revivals, England was saved a French
Revolution and acted as the bulwark against the tyranny of Napoleon.
True liberty was saved for one hundred years. Eventually, under
the reign of good Queen Victoria and her pious consort Prince
Albert even the English upper class felt a touch of this “libertarian
conservatism.” However, in America and England, the ideas
of the Don were not silenced, only forced into abeyance.
Lost to the Don is the community ethic of the Middle Ages that
still lingered in the rural parts of Europe. Instead, he has
replaced it with the individualism of the Modern Man unconstrained
by Christianity. So long as an evangelical Christianity dominated
the Anglo-Saxon world, this vision was unappealing.
The English speaking peoples, having become more diverse through
immigration and colonialism, were free to pursue liberty under
the law. However, the blows on traditional Christianity from
Darwin and higher criticism of the Bible began to undo this happy
situation. Secularism was connected in the public mind with French
notions of liberty, even if not connected by any absolute logic.
The decline of Christianity meant the rise in the ethics of
the Don. An enforced equality, sold as liberty, allows the Don
to exploit more people. It destroys the traditional barriers
of class, Church, and family that would bring his career to an
Modern society shorn
of Christianity cannot stop the Don. He speaks the language
of liberty, but it is really only his liberty
that concerns him. Because he acts in the best short term interest
of the powerful men, he has appeal. He combines his evil with
celebrity. Because he is “interesting” and “amuses,” he
is allowed to thrive. Many individuals are hurt and thus deprived
of their liberty, but the Don is free, at least momentarily,
free as Satan in the Garden of Eden.
Don Giovanni, or men like him, become our ruler and our idol.
This is particularly dangerous in the present social scene. America
has become a meritocracy. Those with ability end up at the top
of the social heap. Many of the billionaires on the most recent
list from Forbes Magazine came from middle class families and
created their wealth. Bill Gates is the ultimate example of a
man who created much more wealth than he inherited.
There are still advantages
to being born “at the top.” A
bright child of old money has social connections and good education
to magnify any skills he possesses. When native ability is combined
with the advantages that come from inherited wealth and breading,
a new aristocracy is formed. However, the proclaimed egalitarianism
of American culture does not allow sensible conversations about
class and noblesse oblige.
Just a century
ago, America was aware of class and the obligations of the
rulers to those they ruled. Having been allowed through
liberty, inherited wealth, Christian leaders served and policed
themselves to a remarkable degree. Theodore Roosevelt had his
drunken brother placed in an asylum when he slept with a servant.
Arthur Conan Doyle volunteered as an older, wealthy man to serve
without pay as a doctor in the Boer War.
The social compact
still existed in World War II. George H.W. Bush, too young
to serve in that conflict, tricked the recruiter
to become the youngest fighter pilot in the Pacific. John F.
Kennedy served with distinction on his famous PT boat. Even during
the Vietnam War, it was still considered necessary to serve in
some capacity, whether in the National Guard or in the war to
maintain social and political viability. It should not be forgotten
that it was Kennedy’s Ivy League ‘brightest and best’ which
got America into the war. Whatever the merits of their planning,
these men still believed government service was a duty.
The younger generation of liberal elite was already turning
against this social compact. Either through the social hedonism
that wasted the early years of the young George W. Bush or in
the destructive anti-Americanism that tainted the brave service
of the Boston Brahmin John F. Kerry, individual feelings and
needs began to trump those of the nation.
Slowly, the American
ruling elite turned away from the social obligations of Theodore
Roosevelt to the ethics of “liberty” espoused
by Don Giovanni. Confiscation of wealth from the “rich,” trading
liberty for equality, is combined with sexual immorality. We
now have leaders who favor homosexual marriage, trade in wives
for money, revel in libertine behavior, and wish to pay for it
all by taxing the “elite” of which they are members.
Where is Burke when he is needed?
Don Giovanni was unique in social setting. Now we have an entire
generation of Giovanni, Don Johns willing to do or say anything
to live in power and comfort. They will give the masses sexual
liberty in exchange for the control over their purses. It is
hard to see how such men can be stopped at this late date. However,
Mozart points out the ultimate problem for the culture of American
Sadly, for the Don, Heaven is not easily fooled. The courts
of God move slowly by our calculation, but they cannot be bought
or charmed. When all of earth has been made impotent, God rights
all wrongs. The Don has become the sort of man who is unfit for
Paradise. Having worshipped himself and his own pleasures, the
Christian God will allow him to enjoy himself without true Beauty
Too many conservatives are afraid to factor the reality of hell
into our discussions. Don Giovanni fears hell and so discourages
all talk of it. Our secular Dons pretend to be sure it does not
exist. If there is an afterlife, it is surely governed by a jolly
old Santa who will wink at our faults or a bright light that
cannot know them. Everyone will get to go to heaven on their
own Giovanni-like terms.
Plato was willing to note the importance of eternal punishment
for the man captivated by his erotic nature. Having
rightly argued that evil is bad for a man regardless of the judgment
of God, in Book X of Republic; Plato adds that the tyrant
also faces an eternity of torment from God. In the end, Don Giovanni
is damned. His soul is carried to hell where no roughish grin
will end the torment. The lord who betrays his calling will become
miserable in his soul and be damned. This is a fact of human
nature, captured by Mozart, as sure as any law of science. CRO
2004 John Mark Reynolds