by Mark Malvasi
“The worst lies,” declared the French writer Georges Bernanos, “are problems wrongly stated. “ How applicable that observation is to so many concerns at present, not least the tragic events that took place in Boston.
The chatter that fills the airwaves with speculation about the ideology that motivated two young men to detonate bombs on a crowded street is misplaced. People mean well, of course. They want to know why anyone would commit such an enormity, but their thinking is flawed. As a consequence, they misstate the problem and obscure understanding, beguiled by superficial appearances and a relapse into outmoded ways of thought.
It does not matter what ideological madness prompted this action, for evil does not inhere in any particular system of political ideas or religious beliefs. The battle is not against the symptoms of the current upheaval, not even against the temporary forms that tyranny and injustice have assumed. The problem lies in the nature of modernity itself. The bombers’ ideology, and ours, arises from the conceit that human beings can fashion their own social, political, and moral order without reference to anything outside of, or beyond, themselves. In this fundamental sense, it does not matter whether we use the pulpit, the school house, the army, the ministry of propaganda, or the concentration camp to impose our will and maintain our strength. The purpose of such a system is not merely to control men and women. It is, rather, the utter and irrevocable transformation of human nature itself, whether by words and images or bullets and bombs. Although the methods differ, the results are the same: the obliteration of the person. “The abolition of man,” as C. S. Lewis called it, was to be man’s final triumph.
The age that began with the promise and accomplishments of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific, industrial, and French revolutions is ending in futility and violence. The vision of universal human progress has given way to the reality of persistent human failure. The expansion of power over nature and humanity has forced upon us a recognition of the equally vast abuse of that power. This chastened and humble acknowledgement of our errors, sins, and limitations is salutary, and represents the evolution of our consciousness, especially since the great intellectual and political movements of the past contained more than their share of the arrogance, pride, lust, ignorance, and stupidity that have always guided human behavior and defined the human condition. Yet, the outrages and the horrors of the twenty-first century (to say nothing of its predecessor) have emerged precisely from our continued efforts to fit reality into the parameters of one or another intellectual and political system. It is a Procrustean enterprise.
We may sensibly have abandoned the material determinism of Karl Marx, the famous dictum that “circumstances determine consciousness.” At the same time, we fail to identify the determinism that has edged its way into our own thinking. All objections notwithstanding, we still dream of boundless, inexhaustible power used to benefit humanity—power directed toward “the relief of man’s estate,” in the words of Francis Bacon. The Tsarnaev brothers, I submit, were motivated by a similar impulse. However different our ideals, neither we nor they imagine or seek a future of universal human misery. Like us, they believed their deeds would change the constitution of being and rid the world of evil, and, again like us, confident in their essential goodness, they never considered the terrible costs of the progress they were trying to effect. No wonder that even so ardent a socialist as George Orwell could lament that among the greatest catastrophes ever to befall Western civilization was the loss of faith in the immortality of the soul. That conviction not only reminded men that a part of them lived forever, and they had an eternity to suffer for their crimes. It also demanded that they accept the humanity they shared with their victims.
Mark Malvasi is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and teaches history at Randolph-Macon College. He is the author of The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere Circa 1500-1888. His most recent book, a collection of poems, will be published by Cranberry Tree Press in 2013.