Once upon a time the coming of the New Year was marked by the making of resolutions, but this old custom no longer seems to have the force it once possessed.
The reason, surely, is that many people no longer believe in the idea of resolution itself -- the idea that we are endowed with free will and that by exercising it we can to a great extent control ourselves and our lives in accordance with choices we are equally free to make.
If we want a measure of how unfashionable this idea has become, all we need do is spell it out a bit.
Thus: to believe in the power of resolution is to accept not only the idea of free will but the efficacy of discipline and determination. For implicit in the making of a resolution is that the goal being chosen is difficult to reach.
Furthermore, the difficulty is assumed to arise not from external obstacles but from within: from such weaknesses of the flesh as lust and avarice and such spiritual vices as sloth and indolence.
Finally, to make a resolution presupposes that we are capable of overcoming these weaknesses and vices and that we are therefore responsible for our own failures. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
But neither, in this view of the nature of things, is the fault in our genes; nor is it in how we were treated as little children by our parents; nor is it in the social conditions in which we were raised or now live. The fault is not astrological, it is not biological, it is not psychological, it is not political, it is not sociological. In this view of the nature of things, the fault is purely and entirely moral.
In the year just ended alone, I have had occasion to comment on several vivid examples of how much at odds this whole sense of life is with the climate of opinion that prevails in the contemporary world.
One such example was the case of a man who had massacred nine children and two women but who was convicted on a reduced charge of manslaughter because the jury, following the judge's instructions, decided that being a cocaine addict gave him what the law of New York State calls "a reasonable explanation or excuse."
A second example, this one drawn from the realm of sex, was the debate (if so one-sided a discussion can be described as a debate) over the AIDS epidemic.
According to one of the leading medical authorities on AIDS, "We could stop transmission of this disease today" if homosexuals would give up such joys of gay sex as anal intercourse with dozens or even hundreds of other men every year. To this the cry came back that it is naive to expect self-control of people who are driven by the need for promiscuous buggery. They simply cannot help themselves.
But the most generalized example of the erosion of the old belief that we are the captains of our souls and the masters of our fate was Gov. Mario Cuomo's extraordinary attack on the idea of individual responsibility, or (as he put it) "that individuals can make it on their own."
Usually when this idea is assailed by liberal theorists or their political acolytes, the tactic is to deride it as a form of "social Darwinism" that allegedly permits only the fittest among us to survive, and consigns the weak and the infirm to an early death, preferably by starvation. In speaking of the Reagan administration, indeed, Gov. Cuomo has himself more than once reached back into the 19th century to dredge up this charge of social Darwinism.
In the year just past, however, he went the social-Darwinist libel one better by reaching all the way back to the 4th century to denounce the belief in individual responsibility as the modern version of the Pelagian heresy. (Some historians, by the way, see the heretical Pelagian denial of original sin as the source not of modern conservatism but rather of the utopian liberalism to which Cuomo subscribes; but that is another story.)
In addition to being considered a naive illusion, the belief in free will and individual responsibility is now very widely taken as the embodiment of a view of life lacking in all compassion. It demands more of people than they can do, and it judges them harshly for falling short: so we are often told.
Yet what we are almost never told is that the idea that we are responsible for our vices and our failures has a corollary: that we are responsible also for our virtues and our achievements. So it is that the pleasures of satisfaction, self-respect and pride are as integral to a life lived under the aegis of individual responsibility as are the pains of frustration, guilt and shame.
Given this fact, in what sense is it compassionate to discourage the pursuit of the only true happiness afforded us during our short stay here on earth, and to encourage instead a sickly wallowing in bitterness and self-pity?
How good a thing it would be, then, and how great an antidote to demoralization, if we could all resolve to start making New Year's resolutions again. And the best resolution we could make for 1986 would be to stop looking with such murderous "compassion" upon ourselves and everyone else as well.