The Meditations were written around 167 A. C. E and contain the memoirs and musings of Marcus Aurelius. Historians view him as one of the most favored and benign of the Roman Emperors. His memoirs are a Stoici manual on how to live one’s life and place emphasis on accepting one’s lot. In Mercy Among the Children, David Richards Adams’ character Sydney embraces this philosophy as his bible, “carrying it around in his back pocket for days” (183) and lives his life according to its rules. Sydney’s son Lyle rejects this code based on how poorly it seems to serve his father and the rest of his family.
It is tempting but inappropriate to judge Lyle against the seeming purity of his father’s ethics; Lyle would have been a better man if he were more like his father, but the best alternative for Lyle would have been to follow some middle path, avoiding both the pain and humiliation his father’s pacifism brought and the violence and regret he experienced on the path he actually chose. Lyle portrays his Father as a very noble and strong character whose most outstanding characteristic is the nobility of his spirit.
However, just like the Nobility of society, this nobility subsisted on the blood, sweat and tears of others and wouldn’t have lasted without the help of people such as Jay Beard and Ely. Sydney simply would stoop to defending himself during his trial for a crime he is innocent of, as “… he sat in court by himself for the first three days. It was who went… by taxicab… “(128). He refuses to realize that “no man is an island”ii and that his actions; or in this case non-actions, only bring harm to the people it is his familial duty to protect.
Sydney’s pacifism eventually forces a concerned neighbor, Jay Beard to defend the family from a mob that has gathered outside of the Henderson’s home. In fact, Lyle realizes early on that it would be better to look to Jay Beard as an example than to his own father saying to his sister Autumn: “I would someday like to become like Jay Beard-I have to! “(185). Sydney uses his books to justify his pacifism and inaction. The problem with living out the morals in books about ethics is that you also need other tools to survive in the society that we are born into.
He “… read Aristotle and spoke of civility and equality-but Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great”(170) and emperor Marcus Aurelius spent most of his reign successfully fighting defensive wars against Germanic invaders. These philosophers agree it is not ethical or honorable to render yourself helpless, forcing others to help you out of basic human sympathy. Instead of being in awe of what a great and purposeful man Sydney was, after reading this book I am struck by the strange moral selfishness of the man.
Though he had the strength to withstand any attack on his morality, his beliefs forced his family to the brink of ruin. Lyle’s decision “to protect family, by any means” (170) from this ruin is the start of his active decision to totally reject the teachings of Sydney. This decision unfortunately leads him to a life of violence and crime, pushing him along a downward arc that ends with him causing more direct harm to his family then his father ever could. After fighting and beating Griffin Porier, Lyle develops an “inner hardness against other living beings” that eventually leads to his humiliating the peaceful Hanny Brown.
Stealing food and supplies for his desperate family eventually leads to his burning down Leo McVicer’s store and then his alliance with the enemy of his father, Mat Pit. None of these events leave Lyle un-affected and they haunt him until eventually he becomes abusive to his family, “taking out rage on mother, who shook as shouted at her”(247). Of course, Sydney would never have done such things, and neither would Lyle, had he been more like his father. Throughout the novel, Sydney and Lyle’s acts and states of mind demonstrate a theme of the folly of subscribing to doctrines of extreme Pacifism or Violence.
If Lyle had not wholly rejected his father’s ways, he could have thought out every action instead of being a slave to public opinion and fear. When Lyle steals the communion chalice from the church, he commits this crime thoughtlessly, later justifying it with revenge motives. Had he heeded his father’s words, “they cannot do and not destroy themselves,”(171) the Sheppard clan would not have gained power over him. The philosophers that Sydney follows moderate their pacifism with wisdom, knowing when to act.
Lyle thinks in terms of “what would my father think”, but he seems to need to rebel so much that he takes a directly opposite tact. He immediately understands his mother’s motives for hiding the tax letters that the government has sent, but instead of showing and acting on this understanding (as a better man might have), flies into a rage, tormenting her as Mathew Pit had tormented Trenton (247). Lyle wants more than anything to be a great man and even though “no one fucked with … even down as far as Tracadie they had heard of … ” he waits in vain to hear his mother say he is a brave man (282).
The fear he has instilled in the town and the innocents he has abused; like Hanny Brown, block him from ever being a great man even though he has the freedom and the intelligence to act like one. Mercy Among the Children asks the reader whether goodness is a luxury. Sydney’s fate shows that maybe it is; he leads a horribly depressing life and indirectly harms his family through his extreme pacifism. Lyle’s struggle to justify his vow to help his family at any cost ends up leading him too far from his father’s example. Where goodness to Sydney was a harmful luxury, to Lyle it was a painfully absent necessity.
The novel shows that ethics for some must be moderated with wisdom, for others stoicism with compassion and pacifism with action. Sydney seems to be hiding behind his philosophers, taking only the parts he needs to justify his inaction, and does not qualify as a standard against which to judge his son. Lyle should have been more like his father if he wanted to be a better man, but only to a certain extent. He would have been far better served had he taken a middle road. This novel forces the reader to re-examine the effects of his or her personal code of ethics on those around them.