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Modernity’s Uninvited Guest

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Modernity’s Uninvited Guest

Civilization makes progress, but evil persists. Summer 2010
The Social Order
Arts and Culture
The devil presents Saint Augustine with the Book of Vices.
Art Media–Alte Pinakothek, Munich/Heritage-Images/The Image Works
The devil presents Saint Augustine with the Book of Vices.

It is an unenviable fate for an author to be remembered, if at all, for a devastating review of his principal work by a much greater writer; but such was the fate that befell Soame Jenyns at the pen of Doctor Johnson.

The book that occasioned Johnson’s scorn was A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, which Jenyns first published anonymously in 1756. Johnson’s review brings to mind Truman Capote’s famous remark about Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel, On the Road: that it was not writing, it was typing. For Johnson said of Jenyns: “When this [author] finds himself prompted to another performance, let him consider, whether he is about to disburden his mind, or employ his fingers; and, if I might venture to offer him a subject, I should wish, that he would solve this question: Why he, that has nothing to write, should desire to be a writer?”

In this case, however, the criticism was rather unfair; and Jenyns, by all accounts an amiable man, was mortified and harbored a deep but concealed resentment against Johnson for the rest of his life. After Johnson died, Jenyns published some vengefully scurrilous verses about the great man:

Here lies poor Johnson. Reader, have a care,
Tread lightly, lest you rouse a sleeping bear;
Religious, moral, generous, and humane
He was—but self-sufficient, rude, and vain;
Ill-bred and over-bearing in dispute,
A scholar and a Christian—yet a brute.

Another of the scholar and Christian’s objections to Jenyns’s book was its inadequacy to treat its subject. Johnson granted that the nature and origin of evil were a “very difficult and important question.” But they were also one, he added, that “this author’s endeavours will not free from the perplexity which has entangled the speculatists of all ages.”

For Jenyns, as for all writers of his time, the word “evil” conveyed something much wider than it does today. It meant all that caused mankind suffering. It included “moral evil”—extreme human wickedness—but also “natural evil,” the suffering brought about by epidemics, earthquakes, droughts, floods, and the like. It is not surprising that the word should have undergone a change of meaning, for in the intervening period the proportion of human suffering caused by moral, as against natural, evil has increased dramatically, thanks to our growing mastery of nature. When Jenyns wrote, for example, half of all children died, principally from infectious disease, before they reached the age of five; the causes of every known disease remained utterly mysterious, notwithstanding the pedantic flummery of the epoch’s physicians.

A Free Enquiry appeared the year after the Lisbon earthquake, which killed some 30,000 people and destroyed in five minutes what it had taken centuries to build. The earthquake caused a philosophical crisis throughout Europe, for it was difficult to see the divine justice in this catastrophe, visited alike upon the virtuous and the vicious, the provident and the improvident, the humble and the proud. Earthquakes still happen, of course, but their effects have become attenuated in countries where many people are rich, educated, or leisured enough to worry about the origin of evil. The recent Chilean earthquake, many times more severe than its predecessor in Haiti, killed under half of 1 percent as many people because of Chile’s farsighted precautions against earthquakes. We have reached the stage when the harm done by what once would have been called acts of God seems as much the effect of moral as of natural evil.

To explain natural evil, Jenyns had, like many believers before him, to reconcile the presence of terrible human suffering in the world with the existence of an omnipotent and wholly beneficent deity. His answer was optimistic, his theodicy derived, as Johnson pointed out, from Alexander Pope’s attempt in his long poem An Essay on Man to “vindicate the ways of God to Man.” Jenyns came to the same conclusion as Pope (though it is more likely that his conclusion determined his reasoning than the reverse): namely, that whatever is, is right. In short, the sum of happiness in the universe was, is, and will always be the greatest possible.

How did Jenyns (and others before him) arrive at this remarkable conclusion? It is impossible to conceive of any system such as a universe without subordination of parts to a whole, Jenyns said. This means that there must be beings of different capacities and advantages, “to the comparative want of which advantages we give the names of folly, weakness, deformity, and imperfection, and very unjustly repute them Evils.” But they are not really evils, for the whole system of super- and subordination could not exist without them. The positive advantages that we do enjoy, meanwhile, are the free gift of a benevolent God, who could, after all, have refrained from creating anything at all.

Jenyns goes on to say that such supposed evils as poverty, “inquietudes of mind,” and pain are necessary to the operation of the universal system. Without poverty, “none could have submitted to . . . the drudgeries of life,” which would make for even greater poverty; “inquietudes of mind” could have been avoided only by depriving man of the very inclinations and passions that make him the creature he is, between beast and angel; and as for pain, “what numberless lives would be lost in every trifling pursuit, or flung away in ill humour, was the piercing of a sword no more painful than the tickling of a feather?” The evils of existence are necessary to prevent even greater evils; and therefore we cannot really count them as evils at all.

Doctor Johnson finds this unctuously complacent, the opinion of a man who, born into the gentry, has never known the pangs of want or poverty. It is not true that the poorest or hungriest man is the most active in improving his situation, for extreme poverty and hunger often depress the spirit rather than stimulate it. Besides, the question is not whether poverty, misery, and pain are required for the operation of the system as a whole—Johnson is willing to admit that perhaps they are—but whether the quantity of these evils currently experienced is necessary and inevitable. Of course, the distinction between avoidable and unavoidable suffering requires judgment and often cannot be made with absolute certainty. “To these meditations,” as Johnson puts it, “humanity is unequal.”

The free market is sometimes said to work in much the way that Jenyns said that the universe worked: the evil that it sometimes brings—increases in unemployment during recessions, for example—is unavoidable, except by embracing an even greater evil, such as general impoverishment. This does not mean that unemployment is not an evil but only that, to quote Jenyns, “there is no more pain in it, than what is necessary to the production of happiness.” But it seems indecent for a man beyond the reach of destitution to preach to a man whose house is about to be repossessed that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds—just as Jenyns’s privileged, healthy, and prosperous preaching about evil seemed indecent to Doctor Johnson.

Nevertheless, it was not quite fair to Jenyns to say that his optimistic theodicy was only the complacent consequence of his good fortune. Alexander Pope, from whom he took it, was much less fortunate. Not only was Pope born Catholic in a country in which it was difficult for Catholics to make their way; he suffered immensely throughout his life—or what he once called “this long disease, my life”—from Pott’s disease, a tubercular infection of the spine that turned him into, in his own words, “a spider.” Johnson, in his life of Pope, movingly describes the effects of Pope’s illness:

He was then so weak as to stand in perpetual need of female attendance. . . . When he rose, he was invested in bodice made of stiff canvas, being scarce able to hold himself erect till they were laced, and he then put on a flannel waistcoat. One side was contracted. His legs were so slender, that he enlarged their bulk with three pair of stockings, which were drawn on and off by the maid; for he was not able to dress or undress himself, and neither went to bed nor rose without help. His weakness made it very difficult for him to be clean.

That such a man, laboring under so many disadvantages, became a wit, a bon viveur, and the foremost literary figure of his day, acclaimed in France as in England, seemed an illustration of the truth that out of evil good may come. In fact, one could believe (as Johnson hints) that Pope’s misfortunes were the source of his greatness, for they imposed single-mindedness upon him. Literature was one of the only fields in which his disabilities did not preclude a triumphant career.

So perhaps Pope, unlike Jenyns, had earned the right to declare that “whatever is, is right.” Still, the genius required for Pope to overcome the natural evil was exceptional; and though good may come of evil, it does not invariably, or even often, do so. To think otherwise is—as Johnson wrote of Jenyns—to decide “too easily, upon questions out of the reach of human determination, with too little consideration of mortal weakness, and with too much vivacity for the necessary caution.”

Jenyns’s explanation of natural evil, flawed though it may be, underlies his subsequent explanation of moral evil. Since natural evil is inevitable, he explains, man had to be created not only capable of evil but willing to commit it, so that the natural evil should not be unjustly visited on the innocent. Evil in man is the counterpart of evil in nature. And since no man is perfectly good, he has no right to complain if evil should befall him.

The superficiality of this argument requires, from a modern standpoint, little commentary. But even Doctor Johnson—a man with a delicate sense of personal imperfection who once stood several hours bareheaded in the rain in the Uttoxeter marketplace, in penance for having been disrespectful a half-century earlier to his father, who had run a bookstall there—did not criticize it strongly. Both he and Jenyns were a world away from our modern concerns about evil. Accustomed to our comforts and our delicate sensibilities, we would find their world unbelievably harsh; yet their notion of evil strikes us as naive and almost innocent. Despite the violence of Johnson’s review of Jenyns, the two men agreed more than they differed. They lived on the cusp of the Enlightenment but were both, at least in their treatment of evil, pre-Enlightenment in outlook. The burning question for them was not “Why do men behave evilly?” but “Why is there evil at all?”

The distinction between the pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment attitudes toward evil was illustrated the year after Jenyns published his book, when a man named Robert-François Damiens tried to stab Louis XV with a knife. The king was hurt but not severely. (It is one of the ironies of history that in the Age of Despotism, the autocrat moved unguardedly among his subjects, while today, guards surround the elected head of even a small democracy as if he were a jewel above price.) Damiens was publicly executed in the Place de la Grève after enduring prolonged torture. For most of the population, this was only as it should and had to be; it was the natural fate of all regicides or attempted regicides. As it was for Ravaillac, the assassin of Henri IV a century and a half earlier, so it must be with Damiens. Precedent was indistinguishable from natural law.

A few philosophes (Louis XV among them) were horrified, however, by the brutality of Damiens’s execution and by the suffering he was made to undergo. This suffering was neither natural nor inevitable, the philosophes maintained; it was not inscribed in the constitution of the universe but undergone because men chose to inflict it. That regicides had “always” met this fate was not sufficient grounds; the question had to be examined in the light of reason. In other words, the philosophes diverted attention away from theodicy—the explanation for the existence of evil in a world created by a perfectly benevolent deity—to the behavior of men. As Pope, half a harbinger and half an opponent of the Enlightenment, put it: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of Mankind is Man.”

The Enlightenment held out the hope that with enough of this “proper study,” man would come to know himself sufficiently to eliminate the evil and suffering that had always beset his existence. Man would obtain something like a Newtonian knowledge not only of the universe but of himself, with all the predictive and mechanical advantages that such understanding had brought in the study of inanimate nature.

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. Self-understanding may even have regressed since Johnson, for no man was better at self-examination than he. If more people proved adept at it, perhaps the prevalence of evil would decline. Johnson was highly imperfect, knew himself to be so, and always struggled against his imperfections without expecting more than partial victory. He did not approve of Pope’s theodicy, but he could agree with the famous lines summing up the human predicament:

Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

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