Thou mayest. I first encountered the phrase years ago in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. There, a character proposes it as the best translation for timshel in Genesis 4:7, God’s exhortation to Cain: “and if thou doest not well, sin croucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it.” Saying ‘thou mayest’ is, of course, not quite a command: it denotes both permission and possibility, while sidelining the question of authority. It intrinsically elevates the recipient, by honoring their choice in the matter by placing the responsibility for compliance upon them. Thou mayest—you really may.
I have been thinking again about this in light of the recent discussion about Netflix. (For those exhausted by it, I understand—but this is, I think, not directly about the substance of the question.) What sort of argumentative and rhetorical act was I pursuing in announcing that people should Quit Netflix? Was it the beginning of some Quixotian effort to get everyone to, uh, quit Netflix as Brad East intimates here?
I suppose it’s fair to think that I did, given that I did title it “Quit Netflix” (even if I never thought that it would reach outside of the narrow audience of This Friendly Neighborhood Newsletter).
But I don’t even think I’m so idealistic as that, nor am I so self-deluded. I pointed in my follow up to the idea of monasticism as a model, which I take to be in part a principled abstention from certain ordinary and worthwhile activities for the sake of devoting oneself to a higher activity. Monastics exist in part to remind the world of its own transience, to break the link of necessity that so often holds us in its grip. By their life and witness, those who undertake monastic orders signify the “Thou mayest” that lies near the heart of the Gospel.
And so with the exhortation to quit Netflix. It seems to me that discovering and enjoying our own freedom is a crucial part of our sanctification. In finding that we live beneath a choice we discover a terrible good. That discovery is an indispensable moment of self-awareness, a moment of reflexivity that radically changes the moral content of the action that follows thereafter.
Only when we acquire habits, we slowly forget what it feels like to have such a choice. That is partly why habits are so necessary, and so dangerous: they remove from us the intolerable burden of making an innumerable number of choices with the full resources of our person. By cultivating virtuous habits, we no longer have to deliberate or reflect about the right choice in a wide-range of situations—which frees up the personal and emotional resources to undertake even more difficult goods. But habits also lull us to sleep: we slowly acclimatize to the moral atmosphere and environment they create, and we forget that life could have ever been other than it is.
The question is, what sort of therapy is necessary for a people who has been drugged in such a way by social media, streaming television, sports, and the like? Embracing Netflix or pop culture (or Twitter, or Facebook) is simply a given for many people in our society. These media have an air of inevitability about them, such that it becomes unimaginable to many of us that we could really live otherwise. How do we remind people not only that they may be free from the sleepy habits and rhythms Netflix inculcates? How bracing should our rhetorical tonic be?
At the same time, people need reasons and arguments for why the course of action we are calling them to is worthy. If the tonic is to be any more than a self-indulgent screed, it must in fact contain some healing elements.
But I think those who are slumbering need those reasons presented with a sharp enough bite that they respond, even if they initially think what they’ve heard is batty or even offensive. If the argument is that something so seemingly trivial as Netflixing matters more than we think, then level-headed, modest, Thoroughly Responsible rhetoric is liable to reinforce the perception that we are simply discussing trivialities—rather than seriously facing up to the possibility that people are wasting away their lives not with seashells
, but Stranger Things.