Monkeys playing in Ruins

“The monkeys called the place their city, and pretended to despise the Jungle-People because they lived in the forest. And yet they never knew what the buildings were made for nor how to use them. They would sit in circles on the hall of the king’s council chamber, and scratch for fleas and pretend to be men; or they would run in and out of the roofless houses and collect pieces of plaster and old bricks in a corner, and forget where they had hidden them, and fight and cry in scuffling crowds, and then break off to play up and down the terraces of the king’s garden, where they would shake the rose trees and the oranges in sport to see the fruit and flowers fall. They explored all the passages and dark tunnels in the palace and the hundreds of little dark rooms, but they never remembered what they had seen and what they had not; and so drifted about in ones and twos or crowds telling each other that they were doing as men did. They drank at the tanks and made the water all muddy, and then they fought over it, and then they would all rush together in mobs and shout: “There is no one in the jungle so wise and good and clever and strong and gentle as the Bandar-log.” Then all would begin again till they grew tired of the city and went back to the tree-tops, hoping the Jungle-People would notice them.”

Kaa’s Hunting, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Growing up somewhere famous for wine, I went on a few wine tours as a young adult. Neither myself nor any of the people I was with really knew anything about wine or wine tasting and the staff at the various wineries we visited seemed quite accustomed to this among their clientele. Essentially, we were getting driven around in a minivan as we slowly got drunk and perhaps bought a bottle or two that took our fancy. This was a lot of fun but I had some sense at the time — and certainly do now — that I was a phony. I had little appreciation for the wine outside its power to inebriate and I now look back at my young self as something like a savage trying to use a knife and fork for the first time.

I think the connection between the Bandar-log in Kipling’s beloved story and my own aping of the pass times of more sophisticated people must be obvious. I wanted to start with an anecdote about myself as I will be having a go at almost everyone and I don’t want to pretend I’m an exception — though I certainly try to be. This is also similar in theme to a post from last year around the same time. As I write, it is the evening of Ash Wednesday so it is unsurprising I had similar thoughts to these during Lent last year.

I don’t want to simply re-tread what I wrote last time which was that we collectively deserved to have lost the nice things of the past because of the increasing vulgarity of our society which includes all economic and social classes. My mentioning of the disgraceful way many people behave at the Melbourne Cup each year is a good example. As is the feral behaviour of Australians visiting places like Bali — a destination that (unfortunately for the Balinese), can be cheaper to visit than many regional areas of Australia.

My homeland has never had formal or hereditary institutions but they certainly existed in the mother country. I say “existed” because the British Royal family has disgraced itself many times over the last century and only the quiet dignity of Queen Elizabeth II kept them from worse. The only real equivalent are people who are simply rich such as celebrities who appear in tabloids who are more akin to Kipling’s monkeys than most people of far more modest means. A significant portion of the population (including a great many blue-bloods), are simply pretending at class though they actually have none.

Owen Benjamin has discussed similar ideas in many of his streams. I wouldn’t know where to start to link to a direct example so I will paraphrase. He considers (I believe rightly), that what makes you noble is your personal morality. How you live, what you value etc. Anyone can be a noble and he titled his most recent comedy special “Noble Savage”. I believe he has also suggested that those who became the hereditary nobility in many societies are descendants of those that were the most moral and thus became the most powerful. Though the apples may have fallen far from the tree and rolled down into a pile of manure is beside the point. I think he has something here though one might be able to discover counter examples. The dominance of the Khans across Central Asia for example, does not strike me as a moral people coming to rule over those of weak morality. 

However, in support of what Benjamin says, it is true that people who live moral lives are less susceptible to corruption. How for example, can you be caught in a honeypot if you are a faithful husband? How can you be bribed if you aren’t covetous? How can you fall for flattery when you’re full of humility? How can you be be greedy when you’re grateful? People who live moral lives are far more powerful than they realise and our Lord himself has said exactly this within the beatitudes.

Owen isn’t (and certainly doesn’t claim to be), a perfect man. He’s not someone I look to for his knowledge of theology for example. I also wouldn’t listen to him if I were looking for a model of polite language as he has quite a potty mouth. However, there is an endearing rawness about him and whatever his faults, he is certainly aiming for truth and has an eye for it though not the full picture. I should quickly add that I see the full picture no more clearly than he does.

There are also still many in the upper crusts (though they aren’t easily visible), who do live conventionally moral lives. One obvious hint of this is unlike many of the vulgar rich, they don’t flaunt what they have. But all of us can be noble if we aim to live good lives, work hard, have families and put God first. If we are unwilling to compromise with sin (though we will still certainly struggle), we will grow in nobility. 

The monkeys who play at civilisation be scattered, those who embody it will both survive and thrive.

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