national opinion

Monday Column
Carol Platt Liebau

[go to Liebau index]

Latest Column:
Stopping the Meltdown
What Beltway Republicans Need To Do

Subscribe to CRO Alerts
Sign up for a weekly notice of CRO content updates.

Jon Fleischman’s
The premier source for
California political news

Michael Ramirez

editorial cartoon

Do your part to do right by our troops.
They did the right thing for you.
Donate Today

CRO Talk Radio
Contributor Sites
Laura Ingraham

Hugh Hewitt
Eric Hogue
Sharon Hughes
Frank Pastore
[Radio Home]

















John Mark Reynolds- Contributor

John 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 and his blog can be found at

The Modern Man
Don Giovanni: hero for a decadent culture
[John Mark Reynolds] 3/22/04

Recently, Los Angeles' 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 immorality.

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 traditional 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.

In Revolutionary France, however, the cry was for secularization. The liberty there 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 France.

In his On the Revolution in France, Burke defended a freedom that began in God and the community. He derided the 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 end.

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 Don Johns.

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 in hell.

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.

But even 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

copyright 2004 John Mark Reynolds



Blue Collar -  120x90
120x90 Jan 06 Brand
Free Trial Static 02
ActionGear 120*60
Free Trial Static 01
Applicable copyrights indicated. All other material copyright 2003-2005