St. Justin Martyr

Corruptio optimi pessima

The Romans never became the philosophical equals of the Greeks, but, with their instinct for the practical and love of linguistic economy, they gave us a nourishing harvest of Latin aphorisms. This is one of them: ‘the corruption of the best is the worst’. The Greeks and the Germans love to expostulate for pages on what sayings like that mean, and when they do so, we call it philosophy. But the wisest men of old, like Heraclitus, were probably closer to the source when they managed to pack reams of sapience into a handful of words. The wisdom is transparent, and even the illiterate can listen and fathom its depths. At first we are perplexed that the German people can produce one day a Bach, and another day a Hitler. But if we grasp the lesson of the present adage, we will find a way past our perplexity.

Step on an ant and you create an inoffensive formic corpse; kill a human, and you have produced the most repellent cadaver known to our nostrils. “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds / lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” (Shakespeare, sonnet XCIV) Our bodies are the most complex compounds of matter and the noblest physical objects we know of (especially our brains). And ants, for all their segmented elegance, are by comparison rather simple. This is why, by the way, for all you viewers of the film ‘Spotlight’, that the world is right in being especially outraged by the spectacle of the clergy abusing the young. It is because they aspire to be the best that when they fall, the plummet is abysmal. (Nonetheless, the extensive sexual abuse of the young among those who are teachers, coaches, doctors and even just family members will eventually hit the headlines as well; sadly, the problem is endemic to our sexually ‘liberated’ society, and in no way peculiar to the clergy of any church.) But back to the very idea of corruption.

You cannot abuse trash. You cannot torture filth. The very nature of those acts is reserved for victims possessed of intrinsic value. The higher the value and the closer something is to nobility, the more wicked will be its perversion. And this brings us to the example that occasioned these reflections. The corruption scandals in Brazil do not concern me nearly as much as comparable crimes in the USA. I am citizen of both countries, so I have a special right to express my amateur impressions. Watching Brazilian politicians wrangling and quarreling in recent times reminds me more of a bunch of rowdy boys yelling and spitting at each other than a group of adults debating policy. The country’s democracy is still so very young and its instincts still jejune. They seem at times to be ‘playing’ democracy, as children play house.

At the risk of offending my Brazilian readers, the corruption here, though more manifest and melodramatic, is lower-grade; it is not yet of the very best. The United States I grew up in has had its periods of greatness, of enormous productivity, generosity and promise. But then, it has had over two centuries of rehearsals. Although it has risen to great heights, it has recently plunged to depths paradoxically known only to the fallen best. The corruption there is more subtle, more accomplished, more exquisitely camouflaged (and even more perfidiously financed). Its art is understated, but all the more sinister for that very reason. North American corruption is like professional ballet, and seems effortless; Brazilian corruption is like sweaty, adolescent break-dancing.

So Brazilians can be oddly comforted by the fact that, despite appearances, things are not as bad as they can get, since the country has not yet become as good as it can get. Hopefully one day Brazil will grow into a great success of a country. Only then will it be able to emulate the Americans, and try its hand at more Mephistophelian depravity.

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