When I wrote my last post here some days ago, I did not expect it to be particularly controversial.  The point seemed straightforward: that it was healthy for people to take personal responsibility for actions done in their free time; specifically, that even seemingly neutral things like entertainment promote increased virtue or stagnation (and, as C.S. Lewis reminds us through the mouth of Screwtape, in the spiritual life stagnation means going downhill).

But the popularity of Game of Thrones is such that its trees rather overshadowed the aforementioned forest; and the post, though not designed to cast shade (pun intended) on fans of the show (who number such respectable Catholics as Ross Douthat), did have the aura of a minor condemnation.

Reader “PLKrakauer” said what I wanted to say probably better than I said it, suggesting that discernment is

… an appropriate way to evaluate dozens of decisions every day.  “God gave me this day, this hour, this minute.  What can I do to best serve Him with it?” Sometimes it will be falling on my knees to pray; sometimes it will be fixing the toaster that my poor wife has been asking about for too long, and sometimes it will be to log on to Facebook to see whether there are any interesting posts from National Catholic Register.  The important thing is to develop the constant awareness of God’s presence, and the importance of responding to His call completely.

This is precisely the point I wished to make.  There is a distinction between discerning the wise use of one’s time (something that even the secular world is starting feebly to promote under the phrase “conscious living”), and censorship; between asking if one should watch X, all things considered, and asking if one could watch X without, you know, getting into trouble.

That being said, “the wise use of one’s time” may in fact include the consumption of material which is not exclusively vetted by (say) EWTN.  One reader (“John”) subtly raised this point (I think) when he asked the following rhetorical question:

Why read Sartre, Camus, Freud, or Nietszche? Why read Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens?

It’s a fair query, especially as I have read most of those authors, and some of them are at least as quite as poisonous as anything GoT dishes out (albeit in a different medium—which makes no small difference, n’est cest pas?).  So what’s my excuse for indulging in poison?

Even as early as highschool (and I was homeschooled) I consumed “dangerous” reading: Lucretius and Dumas come to mind.  In college, I read a slew of works which were long on the Index of Forbidden Books: Bacon, Galileo (eventually removed), Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Locke, Pascal, Gibbon, Kant, and Rousseau.  (Interestingly, certain other suspect authors—Camus, Joyce, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Nietszche—were never on the list, either because the Church wished to avoid scientific conflict (Darwin, Freud) or because there was a general rule against heretical works (Nietszche), or because no one bothered to raise an objection with the Holy Office.)  In graduate school my quondam forbidden reading expanded to include Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Michel de Montaigne, and Victor Hugo (removed in 1959).

Is it hypocritical to confess such dangerous reading, while also asserting that I don’t plan to watch GoT?  Is the moral content of the HBO show really any more questionable than what one finds in, say, Freud?  Is consuming philosophical programs for the downfall of culture really less bad that consuming programming that portrays that downfall in fictional form?

That depends.  Mostly, I think, it depends upon what your motives and weaknesses are.  As in the previous post, I can only speak for my own.  My college assigned many of the Dangerous Books (and I adopt its motive) on the theory that reading them increased understanding: understanding of how we got into the mess we live in today, this hive we call modernity.  Clinging to an old-fashioned belief in the value of intellectual argument to move souls, we suspected that seeing the flaws in Nietzsche might well translate into refuting various power-worshipping ideologies; the flaws in Hegel, into refuting the blind worship of progress; the flaws in Hobbes, into refuting statism; etc., etc.  Obviously, such a program of education assumes a strong grounding in faith and right reason; and indeed, in college the Dangerous Books belonged to Junior and Senior year, after students had already consumed and internalized a fair dose of the Right Stuff (Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Augustine, and Aquinas).  And such an education has long been recognized by the Church as legitimate: even in the heyday of the Index, it was understood that scholars (and even run-of-the-mill lay people with the advice and consent of a wise spiritual director) might “indulge” in the dangerous pastime of delving into enemy intellectual territory, as long as their goal was to better defend the good, the true, and the beautiful.

This sort of defensive understanding is a possible motive for viewing Game of Thrones as well: more than one commenter expressed a viewing interest based on the show’s reflections of our culture.  And as a mirror of modern interests and preoccupations, the show has “historic” value.  The discerner then must face the secondary (but no less significant) question of personal risk.  An educated Catholic exposed to the thought of Marx is not about to be deceived; a Catholic without the spiritual and intellectual resources for dialogue with Marxism runs the risk of being converted to a Marxist.  A typical middle schooler with a solid parental relationship and no interest in the occult can read all the Harry Potter he wants without issues; a middle schooler whose friends are dabbling in Ouija boards and whose parents are already disrespected may find the books an incentive to engage in deleterious behaviors.  Anyone repulsed by violence and depravity, who watches GoT as a learning experience, is unlikely to come to harm by it; anyone who feels increasing fascination with the show’s portrayals of humanity’s darker side might need to check their attachment.  “All things are clean to the clean,” and, conversely, to someone who is wholly corrupt, few things are safe.

That, ultimately, is why societal censorship, except in the most extreme cases, is not the best answer: because people are different, and the snakes some handle safely and scientifically are poison to the rest of us.  And that also is why I think the solution to dangerous things—for countries, schools, religions, and families—is rarely censorship, rarely the outright denial of access: You may not touch this thing.  Instead, the catholic and Catholic approach—for everything from Narnia to Hogwarts to George R.R. Martin to our old enemies Nietszche and Hegel—is discernment: Why do I want to engage with this?  What good will it do me?  What good can I do with it?

Now, if only I knew perfectly how to practice and teach that skill, we’d be talking.

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“Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life—we must take and turn to a Christian use.”—St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, bk.2, ch.40.