Common-Sense Morality

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” Isaiah 5:20


The common sense ideas of morality are committing the error stated above. A lot of them seem on the surface to be beautiful and good but in practice and once one has got under their surface they appear as they truly are: inimical to well-being and tools of coercion whereby the social structure is maintained.


A lot of the best classical literature concerns this theme. It takes what was seen as at the time common sense morality and shows through dramatic invention the imbecility and evil of that morality.


“The hunch-back of Notre-dame” by Victor Hugo shows this on so many levels. The main antagonists of the novel are a priest and a Knight both of which are obvious images of not only the eminent powers of the time but also of the eminent moral systems. The priest being a picture of religious piety and devotion and the knight being an image of that idea of morality called chivalry (the idea that one should hold the door open for the woman, and other such commandments that on the surface seem good and proper but once one digs one sees that they are nothing but a mechanism whereby the role of woman in society is secured).


I think it says something that Hugo has both these characters displaying intentions to use the gypsy princess – who here is an image of beauty, even pre-civilized and untamed beauty. That he has them acting maliciously towards her. Driven towards this behavior by a lust which masquerades as love. That the priest is driven furiously by this lust is especially telling! Hugo is showing how the moral structure that is Christianity causes the very actions and desires which it castigates. That in a sense this is necessary because in order for it to exist – as a means of redemption – it must create in its adherents guilt!


I think it says even more that Hugo has Quasimodo (the king of Fools!) as the hero of the story. Who despite being hated and ostracized by everyone never-the-less manages to retain a love that causes him to sacrifice himself to the dead gypsy princess. That he has what society as a whole has chucked away, has called worthless and evil, that he has this off-scouring of humanity play the most beautiful role in his story, and do the most commendable actions whilst having those that society applauds and reveres commit the most selfish and destructive acts is showing in a visceral way the way in which our common-sense notions of good and bad just don’t work!


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