There have been times recently when I have scarcely dared to open the newspaper for fear of discovering the latest enormity committed by our fellow human beings. You all know the feeling. At this rate, will the human race survive? Does it deserve to survive? Significantly, the first to express this feeling of disgust at humanity was God himself. The Book of Genesis (6:5–8) records: “When the Lord saw that man had done much evil on earth and that his thoughts and inclinations were always evil, he was sorry that he had made man on earth, and he was grieved at heart. He said: ‘This race of man whom I have created, I will wipe them off the face of the earth—man and beasts, reptiles and birds. I am sorry that I ever made them.’”
There seems to be a fatal flaw in the human personality which has always been there, and which has been designated by the term “original sin.” As the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made.” This propensity towards moral frailty contrasts strongly with the extraordinary and continuing physical success of humanity as a species. The universe we know is about 13 billion years old, and there have been success stories before. The dinosaurs thrived and dominated the earth between 230 and 66.4 million years B.C., but during this long period they did not develop mentally and so did not survive when catastrophe struck suddenly at the end of the Cretaceous period.
By contrast, hominoid creatures evolved at some speed, and at an accelerating pace. It was not just the brain which developed. Man contrived to walk erect, leaving hands and arms free to carry and shoot, and his hands became bi-functional, of vital importance not only in survival but later in writing, art, and music. We can trace the creative activities of man back at least 50,000 years and possibly twice that long, and about 10,000 years ago in Africa further changes, amounting to a revolution, occurred in the way we provided for ourselves.
At that time, food was gathered or grown enough to provide for between 5 and 10 million people. Thereafter propagation accelerated, but provision rose much faster, and 8,000 years later, in A.D. 1, there were 300 million with longer lifespans and much higher living standards. The rate of population increase appeared slow. In the 730 years between A.D. 1000 and 1,750 it averaged no more than 0.1 percent a year. Then came the population take-off. The 1,000 million-mark was passed in A.D. 1800, the 2,000 million by 1930 and the 3,000 million in 1960. We reached 4,000 million in 1974 and 5,000 million in the 1990s. The third quarter century of the twentieth century was the age of the population explosion, with many countries more than doubling their numbers in a generation—Mexico from 27 to 60 million, Brazil from 53 to 108 million, Iran from 14 to 30 million, and China from 554 to 993 million. The peak rate of increase, 2 percent a year, was reached about 1960. Since then there has been continuing increase but also rapid deceleration, and world population will soon stabilize. What is remarkable, however, is the continuing economic expansion. Until about 1800 only England had achieved a sustained growth rate of over 1 percent a year. By the first decade of the twentieth century several European countries had reached growth rates of over 5 percent in some years, but the United States, Russia, and Japan were expanding even faster, and in the last two decades of the twentieth century, China and India have reached sustained rates of between 5 and 10 percent a year. World growth is now such that every year over 100 million more people achieve living standards which, half a century ago, were confined to perhaps three-score million middle-class people in the West. The world is becoming full of affluent people.
Yet the world is also a dangerous, fearful, and nervous place, and the danger springs not so much from nature but from violent human activities. The contrast between physical success and moral stagnation (or decline) has been blatant for over 2,000 years and has led to anguished comment. In the early fifth century A.D., St. Augustine of Hippo was writing his City of God (twenty-two books appearing from 416–22). The Roman Empire, the largest, richest, and most powerful civilization in history, was beginning to disintegrate, but its wealth and luxury were still ubiquitous and all around him Augustus could see the City of the world and all the evidence of physical success and moral failure—fortunes built on slavery, humans torn to pieces by beasts or men killing each other to entertain the masses, gluttony on a prodigious scale, sexual debauchery, the use of torture and horrific capital punishments, fraud, corruption, and abysses of misgovernment and public crime to drive decent men insane. Men, instead of improving, had become worse, and the advent of Christianity, even when backed by the government—as it now had been for a century—merely held the rising tide of depravity at bay. No Godly city could be built on earth—that was sure—and mankind was incapable of improving or redeeming itself except by God’s mercy. Only supernatural Grace, a free gift of God, munificent, undeserved but bounteous, could prevent the human race from destroying itself and drowning in its self-created ocean of iniquity. To judge by the large number of manuscripts which have survived, and the dog-eared condition of many of them, Augustine’s work was by far the most widely circulated and read of the entire Middle Ages.
The most imaginative and generous-minded of the writers of those times, such as Dante and Chaucer, saw the human race as a tragic-comic mixture of decency and wickedness, whose inconsistencies and contrasts made them the stuff of literature. And in the sixteenth century, a greater mind than either presented a matchless series of portraits of men and women who epitomized, often within themselves, the Manicheanism of a species teetering on the knife-edge between magnanimity and self-destructive degradation. No one wrote more powerfully than Shakespeare of the majesty of humans:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a God! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
The last sentence reflects Shakespeare’s dismay that even the finest of humans were horribly earthly and frail creatures, and in his agony at the condition of the species, he sometimes gives way to a grief close to despair:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Of course Shakespeare put these grim words into the mouth of an aging tyrant near to his nemesis. We do not know—can never know—the personal view of the poet on the value and future of humanity. What would we not give for an hour’s conversation on this topic with the man who seems to have understood the human dichotomy better than any other in history?
During the Middle Ages, human depravities did not abate—increased, rather, with the growth of wealth and technology—but they were balanced in Europe by the existence of a church whose countless priests, monks, and nuns were dedicated to a life of prayer and service, which enjoyed the disposal of about one-fifth of the wealth of society and, despite much corruption and idleness, used it to create buildings of unprecedented beauty, adorned them with matchless art of a quality never before imagined, and dispensed charity on a scale not equaled until the modern welfare states.
But even in this vast section of human activity dedicated to altruism there was the cancer of human vice. Humans are not only highly intelligent but imaginative, and facile in ideas, which mesmerize them. The cleverer they are, the more important their ideas seem. Among the clerisy, the intelligentsia of Christendom, the fatal propensity developed to treat ideas as more important than people. Thus we have the ferocious doctrinal battles of the later Middle Ages, culminating in the revolt of Martin Luther in 1519. Differences in theological ideas were expressed in a language of unbridled violence. As the great scholar Erasmus—someone who never made the mistake of putting ideas before flesh and blood—warned: “The long war of words and writings will end in blows.” So it proved, and on an immense scale.
The Reformation itself was the first leap into secularization, the elimination of institutionalized altruism and the transfer of its assets to the burgeoning forces of capitalism. In England the monasteries were plundered and their wealth seized by the crown—and used for war—or distributed among the secular nobility, mostly soldiers, and epitomized by the condottiere Earl of Pembroke who drove out the pious nuns of Wilton at the point of his sword, shouting: “Out, out, ye whores! Go and spin for a living!” The trades and professions of Christendom had created chantries and private chapels spectacularly furnished with artworks—the Italian Renaissance would have been impossible without them—these too were seized and the spoils used to finance a new secular plutocracy.
The blows came too—a century or more of warfare of a new and pitiless kind, war begun in theory about religious differences but degenerating quickly into more secular power politics, so that the participants entirely forgot their original aims. In the Thirty Years War armies fought for the first time all year round, with unprecedented firepower, all rules of chivalry and morality abandoned, prisoners and wounded not ransomed but slaughtered, and the resources of entire societies harnessed to the destructive process. Yet as the place of religion in human lives shrank, there was no diminution in the ability of humanity to create wealth and push forward the physical frontiers of success. It was indeed this continuing demonstration of human ingenuity which led thinkers in the eighteenth century, not only to repudiate religion and embrace secularization with enthusiasm but, in particular, also to sneer at the ancient notion of Original Sin—the fatal flaw in human character—and to argue that man was perfectible, and could be made perfect by human organization and will. This was the underlying thesis of the Enlightenment and its violent culmination, the French Revolution. Its archetypal actor was Robespierre, the first modern intellectual who took the doctrine that ideas are superior to people to the point where he and his kind had thousands of innocents slaughtered in the name of “Reason” and what he called “salutary terror.”
He in turn gave place to Napoleon Bonaparte, the first modern ruler-dictator, whose wars in pursuit of personal ambition and in the name of the new and intensely destructive force of nationalism cost the lives of about 5 million people at a time when world population was a little over 300 million. Worse, Napoleon, a generation after his death, was reborn as a French national hero and became the prototype of the dictators who flourished in the twentieth century and many of whom became mass-killers on a prodigious scale. Some of these monsters modeled themselves on Napoleon, in one way or another, and it is easy to compile a list of two dozen of them, ranging from Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung, through tyrants like Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Castro of Cuba, to savage African buffoons like Idi Amin and Bokassa. The horrors and misery they perpetrated made the twentieth century the worst age since the human race came into existence, in terms of moral turpitude. Between them, the three anti-God regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung were directly responsible for the death of 120 million people. Mao Tse-Tung’s regime accounted for 70 million of these, and on the evidence of Jung Chang’s meticulous investigative biography, he must be accounted the most evil man who ever lived, of whom we have detailed knowledge, without any redeeming qualities whatever.
The growth of secularism and the spread of ideologies based on the proposition that ideas matter more than people are not the only factors in this moral declension. Often we see, in human affairs, a tendency or discovery not in itself harmful or evil, pushed by the enthusiasm in pursuit of ideas which is such a strong characteristic of fallible men, to become a menace to society. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a conjunction between two processes, each in themselves enlightened. One was the attempt to spread public health in the cities by sanitation, vaccination, informed diet, better medical services, and improved housing. The other was the work of Charles Darwin in showing how organic life evolved and how the fittest survived. The conjunction produced the science or cult or program of eugenics, the physical betterment of the human race which was akin to the attempt to perfect it intellectually and morally that had been the fatal fallacy of the French Revolution. Eugenics flourished between the 1870s and World War II and was the faith not only of a large part of the medical profession but also of progressive thinkers and propagandists such as H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. In the pursuit of ideally healthy human beings, they were cheerfully prepared to eliminate (that is, sterilize) the mentally unfit, the criminally insane, or even the merely retarded. Not until their doctrines were presented in an extreme form by Hitler, who wanted to exterminate not just the mentally sick but entire races, such as gypsies and Jews (the latter of whom he regarded as a fatal “bacillus” liable to infect the entire human race) did the enormity of the idea become obvious, and eugenics collapsed in the stinking ruins of Auschwitz.
The perversities of social Darwinism and the attempt to create master races by eliminating the “unfit” were much more widespread than we like to admit, and became more systematic, as states secularized themselves. Bismarck, while waging what he called his “culture war” against Catholicism, the only church in Germany which resisted his expansion of the all-powerful secular state into every aspect of life, created a new empire of the German race based upon the military virtues of Prussian manhood. Russia had always persecuted Jews, but as a new secular state emerged in the 1880s, the pogroms became systematic and ubiquitous. The new secular Turkey of the Young Turks inaugurated its campaign of genocide against the Armenians in 1909 and to a large degree carried it out in 1915. The creation of an atheist state in Russia from 1917 onwards was the prelude to huge exercises in social engineering under the dictator Stalin, in which a score of subject peoples were dislocated, moved thousands of miles, decimated, or starved. Stalin, well entitled “the breaker of nations,” inaugurated processes imitated by Cambodia’s Pol Pot, whose de-urbanization program cost the lives of one-fifth of the population, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China, when tens of millions died. The torch of terror has now been passed to the Islamic World, where it has been eagerly grasped, notably by the ruling group in Iran, who swear they will “complete the work Hitler left unfinished” in exterminating the Jews. The impulse here, it is argued, is the reverse of secular, since Islamic fundamentalism is blamed for the bloodthirsty enthusiasm with which the campaign against entire races or religious communities is waged. But beneath the religious sloganizing secular forces are at work in search of power, wealth, territory, minerals and the technology of war. None of the leaders who exploit the religious fanaticism of young men is noted for piety of observance of Koranic injunctions—behind the jihad is cold secular calculation in terms of actual observance of the faith, attendance at mosques, pilgrimages, and other statistical criteria. Islam is in gradual decline, like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and other world religions, especially in their heartlands. The fundamentalist descent into terrorism is more a symptom of long-term sickness than evidence of radical health, and it is likely that by mid-century, and perhaps long before, large parts of traditional Islam will have collapsed into secularism.
I take no pleasure in the prospect, though this may help to solve the problem of international terrorism. For in the long term secularization holds more dangers for the human race than religious fanaticism. I recall the words of Father Karl Rahner, the Jesuit, reflecting on the efforts of modern totalitarian states to drive out the spiritual element from society. “If ever God is banished from the world so that even His image is eradicated from the human mind, we will cease to be human and become merely very clever animals—and our ultimate fate will be too horrible to contemplate.” Even with religion, and its restraints and exaltations, the story of mankind has been ferocious enough. Without it, what might we not have done to each other? I was struck by a story Nancy Mitford told about Evelyn Waugh, whose Catholic-convert piety contrasted strongly with a nature full of malice. She once reproached Waugh after a particular act of mental cruelty he had inflicted and said: “How can you reconcile your belief in God and your church with your odious behaviour?” He replied, grimly, “Nancy, I may be as bad as you say I am—and worse—but, believe me, were it not for my Catholic faith, I would scarcely be a human being.” The expression on his face, she recalled, as he said these terrible words, was unforgettable.
Man’s destructive passions has been mitigated by religions inculcating the love of God, and the fear of divine punishments. Not so effectively, you may say, and rightly. But how well has the secularized world fared in erecting an alternative system of rewards and retribution? We have had International Courts of Justice for over a century, but injustice flourishes in the world more than ever. We have laws against war criminals, designate “crimes against humanity,” and, from time to time, put some bedraggled survivor from a collapsed regime into the dock. But who benefits, apart from the lawyers, who thrive on the interminable processes? Hitler died by his own hands, but his two partners in gigantic crime, Stalin and Mao, died honored in their beds, and Mao is still celebrated as the matchless leader of the world’s most populous state, with which we all do eager business—its 20 million political prisoners in their Gulag notwithstanding.
Still, we have the system of Nobel Prizes, an even richer source of cynicism among the worldly wise, and of despair among the lovers of justice. Some of those awarded the Nobel Peace Prize could just as easily have figured on lists of war criminals. Take the case of Fritz Haber, who invented chemical warfare for the Kaiser’s armies and provided the poison gases which, on the Western Front alone, killed 650,000 men. In 1919 Haber’s name stood with other scientists on the list of war criminals the Allies planned to try and execute. But politics intervened, and in due course Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on ammonia synthesis. His institute then went on to manufacture Zyklon B, the gas used to murder millions of Jews in Hitler’s death camps. Today, a Nobel Prize is as likely to be bestowed on someone notorious for anti-American tirades as for intrinsic merit.
Certainly, a secularized world has not been successful in making it a safe world—even apart from the risk of war—or a decent world. The growing violence of states in the twentieth century was inevitably echoed in increased violence by individuals. And the problem of dealing with it has been compounded by the ultra-liberalism which, in the West, has accomplished secularization and penetrated every crevice and orifice of society. Thus, in Britain, in the half-century since capital punishment was abolished, the numbers of murders has increased ten-fold, even though many unlawful killings have now been reclassified as manslaughter. At the time when hanging was replaced by life imprisonment, parliament was repeatedly told that “life will mean life.” But, of course, it rapidly came to mean ten years or less, and as a result the number of innocents killed by convicted murderers released after a nominal life-sentence has passed the hundred-mark. This is an estimate for the true figure is one of the Home Office’s most closely guarded secrets. Not that anyone wishes criminals to spend their entire lives in modern prisons, which have become overcrowded dens of fear and vice, where rape, AIDS, drugs, and violence are ubiquitous, and where violent criminals cannot be punished further for anything they may do.
I have been pondering the words of Goethe, who in 1808 at Erfurt silently rejected the kingdoms of the world Napoleon spread out before him, and lived to see the monster’s downfall. He observed: “Whoever possesses art and science has religion too, and whoever possesses neither of them had better have religion.” I accept this saying insofar as I understand it, for I believe art, science, and religion are inseparable, a tripod of the human spirit on which civilization rests. There are scientists today, ultra-materialists, who believe that a human being is of no more significance than a piece of rock or the whiff of scent on a discarded handkerchief, and who argue that religion and science are mutually exclusive. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, appears to argue that belief in God disables anyone from practicing science, and one of his Oxford colleagues recently said on the BBC that “religion is the crack-alley of the intellect.”
My own belief is that the spiritual dimension is essential to science in providing insights the purely physical cannot supply, and that its concomitant, a belief in absolute morality, is a necessary safeguard in preventing the rise of a brutal technological adventurism which may deprave and ultimately destroy us. Knowledge of what created and animates life—the universe—necessarily includes debating God’s existence and is the ultimate prize of science.
Nor do I believe that art can flourish for long without a spiritual element. I grieve over what happened to painting in the twentieth century, vitiated by a kind of barbarism not unlike the actions of governments which cost the lives of scores of millions. When I visit galleries today, I long for the fifteenth century, with its tender Madonnas and the outstretched arms of the infant Jesus on their knees, and even the paintings of the martyrs in woeful suffering have a purpose missing from the pointless images of violence now cast up, or the descent into depths deeper than any Hell of Hieronymous Bosch. I recall attending the opening of Tate Modern. I found a room there empty except for a large video screen and three children, a girl of about ten and her younger brother and sister. They were sampling modern art—a video of a man masturbating. That this kind of episode was no accident I deduce from the latest obiter dicta of Charles Saatchi, said to exercise enormous power over our art:
I know I sound like some ghastly creep, but there is something enchanting about seeing children sitting around a Chapman brothers piece showing penises coming out of girls’ eyes, and drawing it neatly to take back to their teacher.
Pushing aside this distasteful nihilism, it is worth remembering that art produced in an age of faith often reveals human beings at their most constructive, rational, and eirenic. I recently had the pleasure of painting the glorious west façade of Strasbourg Cathedral. This noble edifice is surrounded by a parade of secular European history and progress, modernistic glass and steel buildings of unspeakable ugliness and repellent design, housing the European Parliament, the Court of Human Rights, the international this and that—and of course thousands of identikit bureaucrats. Here we have the basic machinery which recently tried to foist on Europe a constitution which repudiated their Christian past. Yet in the midst of this moral chaos is the Cathedral, actually built by Europeans cooperating together, designed and decorated equally by French and Germans over five long centuries of devotion and worship, a building which grew almost organically under the overarching religion which they all shared.
It is when one looks at such stupendous creations of the human mind, body, and spirit, and into the rich past which made them possible, that the sense of despair about the future begins to lift, and hope is re-ignited in our hearts. And the lesson is clear. Somehow we have to bring back into our private lives, and into our public life, the spiritual element, the sense of awe at the magnificence and possibilities of creation, the pride in goodness and altruism, the fear of wrong-doing and materialistic arrogance, the poetry of the numinous and, above all, the love of our fellow human beings which is inseparable from the belief that all human life, in some way, is created in the image of divinity. We have to do this, or perish, and to do it we must take risks. Humanity was made to live spiritually and to do so we must live dangerously. Karl Jung loved to quote an apocryphal saying of Jesus Christ: “He that is near me is near the fire. He that is far from me is far from the Kingdom.” How do we live near the fire and so near the Kingdom? That is for wiser heads than mine to say. What is clear to me is that humanity is now poised between continued but precarious survival, and the abyss of self-destruction. And I believe that our fate will be decided by the extent to which we can retain the flame of spiritual belief in our lives to warm and illuminate them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 3, on page 10
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