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Modernity and its Discontents

As Theodore Dalrymple writes in the current issue of City Journal, "Civilization makes progress, but evil persists:"

And in a certain sense, the promise of the Enlightenment has been triumphantly fulfilled in our modern societies—surely as regards natural evil. Thanks to rational inquiry, to take but one instance, the infant-mortality rate since Jenyns wrote has fallen 98 percent. We live lives cleaner, more comfortable, and freer from pain than those of any people who have ever existed. Nobody today has to endure one-hundredth of the physical tortures, brought by illness and the efforts to treat it, that Philip II of Spain and Charles II of England had to endure.

Nor can one say that no moral advance occurred because of the Enlightenment. Just as we are freer from disease, so, too, our mental lives are freer. Of course, dictatorships over thought still exist in the world, but they are on the defensive and have come to seem somehow unnatural. Freedom is now the default setting of human thought. No one can tell us what to think, say, or write, at least not without our consent.

But an uninvited guest has arrived at this banquet of human advancement: evil. 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 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.

This post-Enlightenment way of thinking continues to have its defenders. The celebrated British historian Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, said not long ago that had the Soviet Union turned out much better than it did, the deaths of 20 million to achieve it would have been a worthwhile price to pay. One cannot accuse Hobsbawm of thinking small.

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.

So the Enlightenment project has failed, at least in explaining man fully to himself. However successful it has been in other regards—and we are all, even its bitterest enemies, children of the Enlightenment—we do not know ourselves any better than we did in Jenyns’s and Johnson’s day.

Sure we do -- it's all in the genes.