Image for post
Image for post
The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1988

She is the one so often crossed and cursed
by those who, rightly, ought to sing her praise,
yet vilify her name and speak her ill. — Inferno Canto VII

Buff Babbit Paul Ryan, hot on the heels of the Pyrrhic victory of passing the AHCA, is visiting New York today. He will be visiting Success Academy in Harlem at the invitation of education privateer Eva Moskowitz, and we can only hope that this will lead to some Betsy DeVos-grade video and the ensuing GIFs.

But as the Speaker takes his victory lap, I would like to try to explain the consciousness of my fellow boastful solider. We are of similar background and vintage, and–while I hear people express puzzlement about Ryan’s motivations–his dilemma is all too plain to me.

To understand Ryan, you must understand the education of the boastful soldier in the Empire. The young solider, who may or may not be naturally boastful, is taught from a very young age that he is the master of his own destiny, that–whatever benefits he came into the world with–what he ends up with the is the fruit of his own hands. This no doubt has some evolutionary advantage. Making ends meet in a predatory economy is no easy task–whoever you are–and a zero-sum mentality provides incentives for success. And, as success comes, the solider turns boastful.

Frequently what happens then is that the boastful solider is called to Rome, with two possible outcomes. Either he is dazzled and awed by the diversity of humanity, humbled by the narrowness of his own experience, and–while he remains grateful for the drive that propelled him to the capital–he sets it aside in order to make a more accurate appraisal of his talents and their role in his success. He sees, as Dante’s Virgil tells us, that God has appointed Fortune to apportion goods inscrutably, divorced from human virtue.

He set a sovereign minister, ordained to move —
in permutations at the proper time —
vain goods from tribe to tribe, from blood to blood,
in ways from which no human wisdom hides.

For others, however, this doctrine of Fortune is intolerable. It is not that they reject it, they cannot even contemplate it. (And to do so is not so easy, self-overcoming being a notoriously difficult task.) To do so would threaten their self-understanding so deeply that there is no length they will not go to to deny it. As Virgil says earlier in Canto VII–which aptly, concerns materialistic clerics sentenced to Hell–it is precisely those who benefit most from Fortune who “vilify her name and speak her ill.”

Why such a paradox? The reason is that Fortune, fully accepted, would negate the mastery that is central to the identity of the fortunate, which depends on having earned what one has. This will often result in the emphasis of certain hardships. Ryan’s father died of a heart attack at age 55, but he has solved this problem–with his will, or so he thinks–via a ruthless devotion to fitness. And if everyone would just follow his lead …

Of course, embrace of Dante’s vision of Fortune is not a sufficient condition for salvation. Rep. Roger Marshall famously embraced a sort of Christian fatalism by quoting Jesus saying that “The poor will always be with us.” That, too, will have you rolling boulders with the Speaker for all eternity — good way to get in the old cardio.

Originally published at on May 9, 2017.

Just another boastful soldier.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store