A few days ago I remarked in comments: ‘What puzzles me is why, all around the world, public health seems to have acquired such singular importance, to the point where it is used to bulldoze cultural and social institutions like pubs.’
In the same comments someone else wrote:
It’s because we’ve lost the Church. It used to be quite good at making us behave ourselves because it stood for God and the Afterlife. Then the Church stopped believing in God and the Afterlife and promptly lost all moral authority. People don’t want to wait for the Afterlife any more, they want immortality NOW. Enter Public Health with promises of Eternal Youth but only if you let them tell you how to behave.
Other commenters expressed doubts about this. But I would like to pick up this suggestion and expand upon it a bit.
Why did anyone believe in an afterlife? The answer, perhaps, is that justice demanded it. Justice demands that wrongs be righted. Justice demands that the young life that is cruelly stamped out, or the life that is lived in toil and suffering, be repaid or rewarded. And if this debt was not repaid in this life, then it would be repaid in the next. The afterlife represents the unpaid debt, the amount owing, the balance due. Divine justice must inexorably ensure retribution in the fullness of time. In that afterlife, the poor would be rich, and the rich would be poor. All things would even out in the end, and would do so with an iron inevitability. Such was the way of nature- to raise up what had been brought low, and to strike down what had stood tall.
Such a belief no doubt consoled a toiling peasant, bilked by his landlord, taxed by his king, oppressed by his bishop. In due course, all would be reversed. In the world to come, these rich landlords and proud kings and pompous divines would serve snivelling as his footstools for all eternity. Just wait and see. And, in a static feudal society, the peasant could entertain no other hope. And the intensity of that hope was so great that it metamorphosed into the most perfect certainty.
And to the extent that the landlords and bishops and kings did not enjoy lives that were very much better than the serfs and villeins beneath them, they too would also entertain similar hopes and expectations of their afterlives.
To the extent that men have ever lived difficult and brief lives, to that extent they lived in expectation of a compensatory afterlife of ease and longevity. For such men, their brief natural life served as a small antechamber to the vast hall of the afterlife that lay beyond it. A mediaeval cathedral’s towering columns and traceried ceilings and stained glass windows and incense and choir provided an inkling of the life to come. God would do far better, of course. This brief natural life paled into insignificance before the majestic world to come. The faithful were to asked to endure the trial of their brief lives with fortitude and piety, before finally stumbling gratefully through the doors of death into the world beyond.
But when men’s lives began to improve, and their burden of toil and suffering began to ease, and they began to live longer and longer lives, the need for a compensatory afterlife began to dwindle. Justice no longer demanded it so loudly. Why should someone who had lived a long and prosperous and fulfilled natural life expect a long and prosperous and fulfilled unworldly afterlife? Was it not more likely that, in the scheme of divine justice, that a long and happy natural life would be followed by a compensatory long, unhappy, and tortured afterlife? In this manner, as men became more prosperous, they gradually ceased to look forward to a life of bliss in the hereafter, but to instead dread a life of eternal torment. While the peasant in the cathedral saw the prospect of heaven in its exquisite architecture, the rich man saw instead the prospect of hell painted as a doom upon its walls. Faced with such a prospect, the rich might at first act to enhance their prospects by endowing a monastery or two with their wealth, and employing its monks to pray for his soul in perpetuity, because he would need their intercession.
And, furthermore, once men began to live long, happy, and fulfilled lives, what need did they have for an afterlife, particularly one that now promised endless torment? Why believe such scary nonsense? The idea gradually became as repellent to the rich as it had once been alluring to the poor. The natural life that had once been a small antechamber before the vast cathedral nave beyond gradually expanded into a larger and larger chamber, and the cathedral shrank into a church and then a chapel, and finally a mere tomb or unmarked grave. Beyond this life there eventually came to loom not the titanic prospect of heaven and hell, but absolutely nothing at all.
And justice now had to be played out within the confines of a natural lifetime. The peasant who would stoically endure a life of toil and suffering in sure certainty of eternal bliss thereafter would now have to fight for it in this life, and overthrow bishops and kings and landlords in order to fulfil the demands of justice, and equalise what had been unequal. So began an age of revolutions, in which kings and churches and landlords were overthrown. Justice could no longer wait upon God: it had to be dispensed now.
Men now had to be rewarded in this life for the good work they had done, and punished in this life for the evil they had done. The good were to be showered with honours and prizes, and the evil were to be imprisoned or executed. And so penitentiaries and prisons and penal colonies multiplied. Heaven and hell was to be created on earth, now that it no longer could be found beyond it.
And rather than looking to the doctors of the Church for salvation in the afterlife, men turned to doctors of medicine to ensure them them health and longevity in their earthly lives. Our medical doctors have become our new bishops and priests. . Where once a Christian had a duty to lead a virtuous life that would be rewarded in Heaven, modern man now had a duty to lead a healthy life which will be rewarded with extended longevity. The damned were those condemned to the worst imaginable fate: the premature death. The saved lived on into a not-quite-perpetual old age.
An entire Christian eschatology has been dismantled from its foundations in the afterlife, and re-assembled in this life. The cathedral has become a gymnasium, its pews replaced by exercise bicycles, its deacons replaced by burly Atlases and Schwarzeneggers, its sacraments exchanged for spring water and vitamin pills. On its walls are depicted an updated version of the mediaeval doom, in which sinful smokers and drinkers descend into hell on one side, while a muscular elect bound up to heaven on the other. In place of the cult of the immortal soul, there is the cult of the immortal body.
The mediaeval universe was a haunted by innumerable demons. Ours is an equally demon-haunted world. The very air is thick with demons, but they now come in the form of carbon dioxide and tobacco smoke and radon gas and traffic exhaust and radioactive fallout and free radicals and ozone.
Libera nos, quaesumus, Domine, ab omnibus malis, praeteritis, praesentibus, et futuris.
Modern mediaeval man carries with him the same eschatological system as his mediaeval forebears, only transposed from the next life into this life. He is as much a flagellant as any of them ever were, but he punishes himself not with whips and chains but with marathon cross country runs, and upon infernal instruments of torture constructed of beams and weights. Like them, he hopes through his present suffering to earn a future reward. Ten press-ups now will earn him ten whole days of prolonged life later, just as surely as a papal plenary indulgence would once have earned him forgiveness of all his sins.
Nothing has really changed. A lost Christian cosmos has been replaced by a botched and stunted replica of it, complete in every detail. And it is a cult which faces the same fate, sooner or later, as its Christian forerunner. For, despite the insistence of this new proselytising cult of health, men will prefer to live well now than hope to live well into an uncertain and incontinent old age. Earthly immortality is no more achievable than heavenly immortality. This will becoming painfully apparent when the athletically fit fail to live lives of the promised longevity. Or when lifelong smokers live to record-breaking ages. To exercise upon a trampoline will come to seem as pointless as praying to a patron saint. The gymnasia will empty and be closed down just like the churches before them. And people will look back on those who sweated inside them with the same incredulity as we now look back upon St Benedict rolling in nettles, or St Simon Stylites standing on his pillar.