In Benjamin Wiker’s book Saints vs Scoundrels: Debating Life’s Greatest Questions, he proposes what might happen should some of the greatest saints meet up with some of the greatest scoundrels and then postulates how the saint may have changed the scoundrel and, therefore, all of history. What if King Henry VIII had let Saint Thomas More truly speak freely to him? What if the great writer Flannery O’Connor could have met the highly praised Ayn Rand and called her out on her flat characters?
Here are four surprising lessons to learn from these debates:
1. Philosophy made in the image of man will always fall short
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view of justice was basically an elaborate coping mechanism for him to excuse the injustices he perpetrated upon women and his own children (whom he abandoned!). Rousseau tried to pass off his “natural man” as the original tendency of man and his only passions as his sexual passions. But in this view, man and woman are no more than mere animals having their way with each other and then leaving in the night. This is how Rousseau lived his life, never committing to the women he was with and forcing his one companion to abandon their children. But it was also an extension of his childhood and the injustices brought upon him by his own father.
Wiker writes that had Rousseau actually met Saint Augustine or had a profound conversion, the world would be quite different. Possibly, there would have been no sexual revolution, no French Revolution, no Marxist Revolution! Wiker writes, “None of us truly knows what might be the world-changing results of even our smallest actions or inactions.” We should take care to treat others rightly, then, and with true justice.
Another example of this is Ayn Rand. She had a narcissistic view of the world, which was a mechanism she built to help her cope with her childhood with a family who paid her very little mind. She was little more than a prop to her parents and, in trying to then rise above that reductionism, elevated herself but demoralized others into mere props.
In Wiker’s book, Flannery O’Connor drives at this point through a criticism of Rand’s flat characters and uncomplicated but drawn out writing. In a thrilling piece of narrative, Wiker writes Flannery as saying to Ayn: “I don’t find any real characters in your book, any real personalities. I find a mess of ideas walkin’ around on two legs, but they are thin ideas on wobbly legs… And I got a feeling that’s how you see actual people too. They’re either carrying your philosophy, or they’re not…they’re just something to hang your pet ideas on, not real flesh and blood men and women… Seems to me that’s just what the communists do.” Rand was outspoken against the communists and socialists but failed to see that her ideas of people reduce them to exactly that– cogs in a machine, not complicated, gloriously good or horrendously evil flesh and blood.
“The drama of people’s lives are written by what they do or fail to do as much as they are by what others have done or failed to do to, or for, them,” Wiker masterfully writes. Love is the opposite of narcissism and radical individualism, but in it, we are all elevated and fulfilled.
2. Saint Edith Stein studied Nietzsche
In Nietzsche’s philosophy and view of morality, religion was a construct either of the weak to empower themselves or of the mighty to lord it and themselves over others. In this view, he saw Judaism as a type of “slave morality” and Christianity as the tree that sprung from the root of Judaism. For him, Christianity was unnatural because is elevates the weak over the strong, which is contrary to the laws of evolution.
Edith Stein knew this philosophy inside and out and saw its fulfillment in the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, of which she was a martyr. Stein knew exactly what a truly godless society, a society where man is the only creator. It looked like massacre, chaos, and darkness. It was in her study of philosophy that Edith Stein was guided to the Catholic Faith; it was in finding that there was reason beyond human reason that she came to believe in the Christ. Ultimately, this led her to life as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Carmelite nun, and she embraced her cross in the gas chamber at Auschwitz concentration camp. She gave her life freely, she stayed behind knowing that the Nazis would come for her and kill her, and she gave her life out of love for God and love for her fellow man. It flies in the face of what Nietzsche proposed!
Wiker beautifully depicts Edith Stein as saying, “For the Christian, the true follower of Christ, there is no such thing as a stranger, for even the enemy is to be loved. Our neighbor is always the one who needs us most; it does not matter whether he lives next to us or whether he is related to us, or whether we like him, or whether he is morally deserving of such love, or whether he is a friend or an enemy. He must be loved.”
3. Each Christian must be an argument for the truth of Christianity
In writing his debate between Saint Francis of Assisi and Niccolò Machiavelli, Wiker reflects on the duty of each Christian. Machiavelli rejected the existence of immaterial beings (God, angels, etc.) and therefore of such things as miracles. But St. Francis was a walking miracle!
Wiker writes of Francis: “Saint Francis was a man so entirely defined by Christ that he bore His bleeding wounds; a man so translucent to God’s grace that he could read minds; a person so holy that those who were hopelessly sick, crippled, or epileptic were instantly cured by his prayers, or sometimes simply by touching him.” That is the responsibility of each Christian! Atheistic materialism is denounced entirely by living arguments as Saint Francis.
4. Saint Thomas More strove to serve both his kings
Saint Thomas More was a trusted advisor of King Henry VIII until Henry wished to divorce his first wife in order to marry another. More vehemently opposed this and then left his post as Lord Chancellor because he could not serve a king who wished to oppose the laws of God. This, of course, landed More in the Tower of London and later, his head on the chopping block.
But what More strove to do is something we would all do well to remember and act upon: we cannot serve earthly kings if we do not do so in the service of God the King. Thomas More and King Henry VIII had, at one time, been very close friends, but the king’s ambition got the better of him and he saw More as a roadblock to his earthly and spiritual dominion.
Wiker, knowing his subjects intimately, writes Thomas More as saying to King Henry VIII: “Again, I serve you best by serving God first. And indeed, even now I serve you with most loving loyalty. I pray for your soul in the very cell where you have unjustly sent me. I have made it the work of my own penance and prayer, pleading to God that you would ‘make merry in Heaven’ with me one day. I thus serve you, on my knees and with my tears.”
Earthly power and earthly tenure ends. It ends for all of us. And so, to best serve each other, we must have our eyes on the eternal and serve God through goodness and grace, that we all might reach Heaven together and reign forever with the King of Kings.
For more vivid representations of some of the greatest saints and foulest scoundrels, for moving revelations and pious reflections, pick up a copy of Dr. Benjamin Wiker’s book Saints vs Scoundrels: Debating Life’s Greatest Questions.