Evil: modernity's uninvited guest

I've been posting a lot recently on different models of the atonement (and there's more to come!) but recently I came across a potent reminder of why we need it in the first place. Usually affirmations of human depravity come from theologians, and we are tempted to think they make such affirmations only because their job depends on it! But recently I have come across quite a few unabashedly secular authors saying surprisingly religious things about the human condition. A recent, eloquent and persuasive example is an essay by Theodore Dalrymple (by the way, if you have not read absolutely everything written by him, you have your homework assignment; he's that good).

It is titled 'Modernity's Uninvited Guest', a very appropriate title, given Dalrymple's thesis: put very simply, we weren't supposed to be worrying about evil anymore. It was a basic tenet of Enlightenment thinking that people are basically good, and only become evil through exposure to bad environments. The problem of moral evil, then, was reducible without remainder to natural evil, a problem which was presumably within the capacity of rational planning to resolve: if only we could engineer a society in which most people were clothed, fed and entertained, we would stop being so nasty to each other. Or, assuming there was still a remainder of nastiness, we could eliminate or at least bring it under control through application of detailed psychological knowledge.

Well, in Western societies we have achieved those goals to a great extent, but unfortunately things didn't quite work out the way we hoped:

Whether men behave better or worse, individually or in the aggregate, than they did before the Enlightenment, is probably a question that we cannot answer approximately, let alone definitively. But what is certain is that moral evil has not only failed to disappear but has taken on a more deliberate, calculated character. Whereas the torturers of Damiens [a would-be assassin of Louis XV who was tortured to death for attempted regicide] did their evil unself-consciously because it was the natural or preordained thing to do, modern evil is done after intellectual reflection, divorced from any tradition that might guide conduct.

The two greatest moral catastrophes of the twentieth century, wrought by Lenin and Hitler, were perverse effects of the Enlightenment. Lenin and Hitler were creatures of the Enlightenment not in the sense that they were enlightened, of course, but in the sense that they believed they had the right and the duty to act in accordance with their own unaided deductions from their own first principles. Everything else they regarded as sentimentality. Lenin preached no mercy to the non-proletarian, Hitler none to the Jew. The truth of their theories, supposedly rational and indubitable, was more evident to them, more real in their minds, than the millions killed as a consequence of those theories. If a syllogism ended in a command to commit unspeakable evil, you did not doubt the premises or the argument but obeyed the command...

That evil has not disappeared pari passu with German measles puzzles and troubles us. Evil remains a conundrum, as evidenced by Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s recently published book On Evil. Eagleton is not one of those Marxists for whom, like the late historian and Stalin apologist Edward Hallett Carr, the problem of evil does not exist. “I don’t think there are such things as bad people,” Carr once said. “To us Hitler, at the moment, seems a bad man, but will they think Hitler a bad man in a hundred years’ time, or will they think the German society of the thirties bad?”

Eagleton sees clearly that this will not do. Helping him in this recognition is that he is a Christian as well as a Marxist, and no Christian can believe wholly in social determinism. The problem of the human heart is real, not just a remediable social artifact. The relationship between society and human behavior is dialectical, Eagleton believes. Society has its effect, but it is acting on an already imperfect nature, which in turn is bound to produce an imperfect society.

Significantly, Eagleton begins his book by citing the case of two ten-year-old British boys who abducted, tortured, and killed three-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993. Here is the opposite of childhood innocence, for the two boys knew that what they were doing was deeply wrong but went ahead and did it anyway. The human mystery is that neither their environment nor their nature can fully explain them. Man is not only wolf to man; he is mystery to man.

I think Dalrymple is absolutely right. For all the advances we have made in understanding nature, including human nature through psychology and biology, there is still an irrational, inexplicable remainder of evil that haunts the human psyche. It is indeed sobering to ponder Dave Sedaris' question, posed in his reflection upon the nastiness elicited when people pass through airports:

We’re forever blaming the airline industry for turning us into monsters. But what if this is who we truly are, and the airport’s just a forum that allows us to be our real selves, not just hateful but gloriously so?


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