It used to be thought a grievous moral offence to betray those we should naturally be loyal to. Dante, in his fourteenth century work the Inferno, reserves the ninth and innermost circle of hell, the one where Satan resides, for those who have committed treachery, including to family and nation. Paul, in describing the end days of the world, an ultimate state of disorder, writes:
There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. (2 Tim 3)
When he says "without love" he uses the Greek term "astorgos" which means "without natural affection" or "hardhearted toward kindred". Society is breaking down when the natural bonds of love and affection wither and people become self-serving and more willing to commit acts of betrayal.
Our forebears understood how desolating it would be to allow a society to descend into infidelity. If we cannot see ourselves as connecting in a stable way to others, to those who will be loyal to us and not betray our trust, then we will imagine that we can only rely on our own self and withdraw deeply into a solitary existence. This is a bleak picture of the human condition, one that we do not want proven in society. It makes sense, then, that betrayal and treachery should be thought to be the worst of moral offences, as transgressions that should rightly shock us, or at least disturb us as a reminder of how we might be alienated from natural human ties of love and loyalty.
Elizabeth Fenton, who made a difficult journey to Tasmania in 1828, made this connection between infidelity and alienation. Her ship was manned by a Mohammedan crew, two of whom were European converts. She wrote of one:
He makes me quite melancholy. He is English by name and complexion, but his tastes, manners, and his scruples, not to say his religion, are Arab...His taste seems to lie in laying bare the unsightly movements of the human heart and crushing its better feelings, or dwelling on them with bitterness and ridicule...
Poor fellow! though it always makes me nervous to hear him speak, I pity him too; he may not always have been what he now is; has he been made this [way] by disappointment or alienation from the humanising relationships of life?
And of the other:
Among this crowd there is, - Oh! sad to write it, - a Greek, a native of Athens, a Moslem now by adopted faith and practice. Little reckons he of past time; Marathon is no more to him than Mozambique. He would rather have a curry than all the fame of his ancestors.
We get to a culture of infidelity by many thousands of cumulative transgressions. We gradually sap away the level of trust in society. In modern times this includes:
- all the middle-class white women who work as English or history teachers but who rarely sway from portraying their own ancestors in negative terms as racists or oppressors. This normalises infidelity, it makes it seem as if it is alright to break faith with our own people.
- the acknowledgement of country ceremonies. This is a healthy act of fidelity for Aborigines, but for others it means acknowledging the elders of another group rather than their own. It would be like honouring a stranger's mother and father rather than our own.
- the acceptance of high levels of divorce. The idea that marriage is "just a bit of paper" and that vows made in a church are just romantic theatre but have no wider meaning.
- promiscuity. Embarking on a lifestyle of promiscuity before marriage is a breaking of faith with our future spouse - it is a giving away of parts of our self that belong to our future spouse.
- "conservative" politicians who treat their nations as economic zones, the purpose of which is to maximise GDP. As Paul wrote, this is an example of an end days mentality in which men will be "lovers of money" and therefore "treacherous".
- feminism. The idea that men and women are hostile and competing social classes, with men having oppressed women throughout history. An ideology that undermines trust between the sexes.
There can also be infidelity in our relationship with God. If God is our creator, from whom we have the gift of life, and from whom we are invested with a soul and higher purposes, then when we act against God's purposes for ourselves there is a break in faith, an infidelity. It makes little sense though to practise fidelity at this level, but then to break with the very same virtue in our wider relationships. If fidelity is a virtue then not only should we reject infidelity in acting against God's purposes, we should reject it as well in the breaking of faith with a spouse, or with our parents, or with our people.
Fidelity is not some sort of boutique virtue. If we are not faithful in our relationships, if we do not honour our word, if we do not give due reverence to those who brought about our being, then we are creating a wasteland. There are too many middle-class Westerners, even those who consider themselves "moral", who are lacking in this very virtue.
We need to re-establish fidelity as a core virtue, to the point that we once again respond viscerally with abhorrence to the vice of infidelity - to deception, to the breaking of oaths, to treachery. Fidelity should be considered a core aspect of character, particularly for men, whose relationships with each other are rightly ordered to loyalty and whose sense of moral integrity and reputation have fidelity as a key component. But for women, too, fidelity should be considered a marker of a mature, moral womanhood.