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Theodore Dalrymple
Modernity’s Uninvited Guest « Back to Story
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Man did not stop when he conjured the concept of God. The evil in Man is born of his desire to be God. The one who says who will live and who will die; who will suffer and who will be spared suffering is over those a God. Did Man come to believe in something named God so he could be one leaving only his victims to call it evil.
Eliot Gates, can you cite instances of apes slaughtering millions of their own species?
I'm a relative newcomer to Mr. Dalrymple - much recommended by my friends - but thoroughly enjoyed this witty and perceptive piece, esp. since I'm a fan of Samuel Johnson and have read, and discussed, his famous Review of Soame Jenyns.

Whittaker Chambers
The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary
By Richard M. Reinsch II
Publisher: ISI Books

Interview with Richard M. Reinsch II, author of
Whittaker Chambers

Why is a book that evaluates Whittaker Chambers’s writing even needed at this point?

Chambers’s thought is peculiarly redemptive in that his answers recall forgotten teachings and wisdom from an era outside of philosophical modernity and the assumptions it makes about the nature of man, his capacity for reason, and his need, or lack thereof, for God. Chambers focuses on the fallout from the enthronement of a positivist reason, a mode of knowing that is exclusively concerned with scientific and rationalist technique that when combined with state power will liberate man from the unfortunate mistakes, oppressions, and culture that precede him. Eclipsed is the idea of our choices having content that point toward higher realities above man’s subjective will. The modern conception that Chambers rejects holds that man is no longer a tragic figure, laboring under uncertainty and filled with existential tension, but knows through reason that his control and techniques can usher in an uncompromising future. In short, man can literally make himself and his future. These are ideas and lessons that still remain to be heeded in the post-modern West.

I think I am agreeing with Jim here. Original sin people, let's not forget it.
What on earth is the point of this article? Apparently to be a clearing house for Mr. Dalrymple's inventory of unsold (and unsellable) merchandise. "The problem of the human heart is real, not just a remediable social artifact. The relationship between society and human behavior is dialectical..." Is anyone watching the store at CJ?
What an essay. Fantastic. Brilliant.

Thank you.
At bottom, evil does not exist at all until we say so.
Re: Norman Hanscomb
Yeah, more or less. One wonders many a time.
Maimon Schwarzschild August 28, 2010 at 3:27 AM
Jenyn's verses about Johnson, at least the excerpts quoted, don't seem to me to be vengefully scurrilous. Rather the contrary: wounded, but scrupulous to give Johnson and his virtues their due. "Moral, generous, and humane.. A scholar and a Christian": Jenyn doesn't seem to deny any of this. And after all, it's true that Johnson often behaved just like a bear; rude, and sometimes like a brute. It's not true that Johnson was self-sufficient: as Boswell, the Thrales, and some others had the wit to realise. But Johnson tried mightily to seem so. Jenyn actually comes out well in these lines, doesn't he?
Reading (most of) thr comments highlights a different sort of evil Mr Dalrymple is obliged to face; namely, reading the comments.

It also reminds me also of a reference I came across in a fascinating if logicaly poor book, to pearls and swine.

Please keep up the high standards,though, Mr D.
I love Dalrymple.
Harm and evil are to be distinguished from one another; natural disasters and illness will then properly be seen to be morally neutral. Evil pertains to morality, morality to harmonic relational arrangements, and exultation of the self above this norm provides the stimulus for violation. The Enlightenment has offered us freedom to think as we wish, but we are yet this stimulant. The initiators of new systems of morality such as Lenin are therefore the greatest perpetrators of evil, both in effect and individual depravity. For the originator of new morality is by necessary implication god.
It would be more useful to your readers, and certainly more scholarly for future retrieval, to document your sources. How can I verify that the quotes of Carr and Hobsbawm are accurate and not simply neocon inventions? Please name titles, publishers, and dates of publication so that I can verify the quotes and the context.
Let's not forget Fulke Greville
Chorus Sacerdotum (from Mustapha)
O wearisome condition of humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity;
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
What meaneth nature by these diverse laws?
Passion and reason, self-division cause.
Is it the mark or majesty of power
To make offenses that it may forgive?
Nature herself doth her own self deflower
To hate those errors she herself doth give.
For how should man think that he may not do,
If nature did not fail and punish, too?
Tyrant to others, to herself unjust,
Only commands things difficult and hard,
Forbids us all things which it knows is lust,
Makes easy pains, unpossible reward.
If nature did not take delight in blood,
She would have made more easy ways to good.
We that are bound by vows and by promotion,
With pomp of holy sacrifice and rites,
To teach belief in good and still devotion,
To preach of heaven's wonders and delights;
Yet when each of us in his own heart looks
He finds the God there, far unlike his books.
At its core the Enlightenment is predicated on rationality. From a purely rational standpoint the moral imperative to not cause suffering to others so they should not cause suffering to you is self-evidently true. Unfortunately, human nature is the result of evolution. This has conditioned us to desire whatever we perceive to be satisfying to our "self" even if we must cause suffering to "others" to achieve our goal. We try to constrain this conditioned nature with laws and penalties but these can not recondition the basic animal desire. Some religions such as Buddhism provide techniques to transform this conditioned human nature but this is generally a very difficult, life-long, and painful process not well suited to the demands of the modern world. Research now being done in the neurosciences may eventually lead to more efficient methods of reconditioning human consciousness to correct its evolutionary defects. Like any technology this approach brings with it the potential for both great good and great evil in the absence of true wisdom.
Dear Dr. Dalrymple,

Your writing is, as ever, entertaining, although in this instance you leave your conclusion a bit more open-ended than in most of your posts. I would be forced to concur with Johnson's review of Jenyn, notwithstanding Pope's agreement with the latter.

My own understanding of the two types of evil is admittedly limited, and I suffer from the admitted myopia of a fairly well to do citizen of a fabulously wealthy nation; nevertheless my understanding of moral evil (evil of human choice) seems rather straight forward. This evil of choice is the result of a lack of love.

This understanding is of course engendered by my religion (Christianity), as well as the my admittedly rather limited education in western values. Christ taught that the greatest command was to love; first God and then one's neighbor. The various acts we have learned to characterize as evil, including your examples of Hitler and Lenin, all stem from a lack of love. Neither Lenin nor Hitler professed any love for God as both were atheists; likewise both subordinated any natural affection they might have felt for their neighbors to their ideology. From a Christian perspective the evil that followed was not only predictable, it was inevitable.

As to the matter of "natural evils", or the various disasters which befall humans from the elements around us, I must profess I have an unease of mind. I must, however, state that I believe Calvin and those of like mind to be completely mistaken to think that everything that happens in this world happens because God wills it to be so. While I admit to the omnipotence of God, I do not believe this forces me to conclude that God controls or wills everything that comes to pass. While it may be less than complete in explanation, I look to the book of Genesis for an answer. Man's free moral choice removed him from a state in which he was immune to the destructive forces of nature. It is the tragedy of scripture that man continues to suffer as a result of this tragedy, it is the triumph of the gospel that this suffering need not be permanent, and may in fact be only fleeting. God does not desire human suffering, but to exercise his power in a manner which would prevent it would also prevent the exercise of man's free will. Hence, God's allowance for man to make his own choices, results in choices which have led to human suffering.

Christianity answers this dilemma by showing that God was willing to undergo this same suffering, in the person of His Son, so that man might ultimately be delivered from his own bad decisions. God demonstrated perfect love, which will eventually bring a perfect end to suffering. To the extent that we on earth can reflect this love to any small degree, we may to some small degree alleviate our neighbors' suffering, and perhaps our own as well. When we choose to follow a path without love, as demonstrated by Hitler and Lenin, than we inevitablhy inflict suffering on our neighbors and ourselves.

I have read enough of your articles and books (I especially enjoyed Our Culture, What's Left of It) to know that you are not a religious man. Nevertheless, I felt complled to compose this post as an apology (in the classical sense, not the modern nonsense)for a Christian (admittedly post-enlightenment) view of evil.


I was quite surprised that you didn't put Mao with Lenin and Hitler. He was responsible for at least as many deaths, but seems to be ignored by many.
Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is an eye-popping exploration of eschatalogical quandaries with a certain piquancy following its references. City Journal makes great contributions to its readers in all sorts of ways via its diverse set of contributors. But this piece, even in that context, is outstanding.
I believe that the Enlightenment - or, at least, the scientific movement which accompanied it - has helped a great deal in explaining man to himself. As a thoughtful atheist (though brought up in the Scots Presbyterian tradition) I have come to see man as an ape - no more and no less. Of course, we are rather intelligent apes who (or rather, a very few among whom) have accomplished remarkable feats. Yet, at bottom, we remain apes and we understand our own nature best by keeping that in mind.
I enjoyed reading this well written article. It is the quality of the writing that amplified my disappointment in some often used , but unsupportable (to my mind) opinions.
2 of them to be precise. It isn't that I necessarily believe the opposite of these statements, but rather I expected more from this piece than such huge leaps of presumptuousness, especially in regards to points that seem to be central to the authors supporting his point of view. These 'leaps' happening at significant points in the article left me with the impression that the author was more ambitious to prove an assumed belief rather than to enter into a sincere exploration of what may be true or not. But I only bothered to write about this because of the respect I had for the writing and how much I enjoyed it. Not as a dismissive criticism, but rather as maybe helpful.

These quotations are the two opinions to which I am referring :

1) "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."

Even if the second sentence was true it hardly proves the first.

2)"..., 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."

The idea that we can know what they knew at the time may be a necessary point to assume in a court of law, but it is useless in an actual exploration of human nature or the soul. Especially in the case of 2 people so very young. Are we going by what they reported about themselves? Could there be 2 less reliable people in the world than 2 people identified as torturing and killing a three year old ? Are we basing it on some scientific method that can go back in time to determine somebodies state of mind ? Unfortunately in a court of law sometimes we have to make judgments about things that can't be known definitively , but that doesn't mean we need to make the same loose decisions when trying to pursue a deeper understanding of life .
Along the same lines I would say it is premature to say nothing in their nature or environment that can explain them.

The other thing that might be worth mentioning is what seemed like a strange desire to scrutinize Marxist writers in particular during this article . I didn't see any reason in the article why Marxism, or Marxist writers would be highlighted. It made it feel like there was a personal "axe to grind" that cast a weird shadow on whatever else was being illustrated by the writing.

Thank you. I enjoyed reading this & thinking about the historical & current notions of evil.
While I usually enjoy Mr Dalrymple's writings it is hard to say what was the point of this one. It seems, indeed, to have been written merely to employ his fingers.
Beautiful article.
I would love to comment but I have not the time, and if I took the time, my answer would infuriate all readers. But I will give you the short version, To Wit: most "Christians" do not understand either their religion or their God, much less the world they live in, which is NOT ruled by God, but by the Evil One. A careful reading of the Bible, backed by much prayer to God for understanding, backs up every word you have just read.