Why Church Teachings on Chasity are Undeniably True (Part 1)

02-04-2018Liturgy CornerAnthony Esolen

Many years ago, in one of the standard editions of The Tempest that I had ordered for my students, I read an angry little essay whose proximate target was the mage Prospero, and whose ultimate target was anyone alive, particularly men, who would uphold a view of sexual morality one or two steps higher than, "I get to do what I want." The author inveighed against Prospero's supposed "control" over the sexuality of his daughter Miranda.

You may remember Miranda. She is the original Wonder Woman, that is, the woman worthy of wonder: that is what her name means, and if you are named Miranda, you are named after Shakespeare's admirable young woman; I don't know of any previous appearance of the name. "Oh wonder!" exclaims Ferdinand when he sees her for the first time. It is more than love at first sight. It is devotion, and admiration of excellence.

Prospero for a time pretends that Ferdinand is a spy come to take his island from him, and compels the young prince to perform heavy physical labor — moving and piling up some "thousands" of logs — that is worthy of a menial servant. Ferdinand's noble spirit rises against the injustice, but when he thinks of Miranda, it is as if there were no labor at all:

  • There be some sports are painful, and their labor
  • Delight in them sets off; some kinds of baseness
  • Are nobly undergone, and most poor matters
  • Point to rich ends. This my mean task
  • Would be as heavy to me as odious, but
  • The mistress which I serve quickens what's dead
  • And makes my labors pleasures.

Nor is Miranda merely an object of wonder. She has a great capacity for wonder in her own right. When she sees Ferdinand for the first time, she who has been raised on a desert island and has never seen any young man before, she judges rightly as to the character of the creature she first thinks is a spirit, and as to the kind of being Ferdinand is:

  • I might call him
  • A thing divine; for nothing natural
  • I ever saw so noble.

So also when she bursts out in exclamation, seeing for the first time in her life a smallish group of human beings, and judging them by what God made them to be, rather than what sin has done to some of them:

  • O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!
  • How beauteous mankind is!
  • O brave new world That hath such creatures in it!

Now the power the Miranda possesses, both as subject and object, is ineradicable from her innocence and purity, which in her assume a distinctly womanly form. I imagine that everyone has seen a man who appears unpleasantly handsome, because the vicious life he leads has begun to show in his countenance — the leering eye, the cold smile, debauchery in the lip and jowl; or a woman unpleasantly beautiful, because of a vicious life of her own — the look of a whore, perhaps, without the poverty and suffering. Miranda is what she is because of her virtue, the very thing that the feminist critic found appalling. It is as if the critic were railing against Prospero for having fed his daughter good food and given her plenty of fresh air and sunshine for the health of her body.