Monday, December 2, 2013

Evil and Sainthood Part II

It is always worth revisiting the same theme on a blog, because no matter how many times you think you've said what you meant to say about a given topic, you realize immediately afterward that in fact it eluded you.  The unexpressed thing, whatever it was, got away.  There's a passage in T.S. Eliot's Four Quarters which captures the familiar dilemma:

"Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it."

Funny-- because I doubt there's a more pitch-perfect way to put this.

The abiding obsession which I never seem to get a verbal handle on, despite the blog's small print and the infinite and forgiving data banks of Google, mostly has to do-- at least lately-- with one of the big ironies of our moral lives: the fact that our most egregious egotism and narcissism present themselves to us in the form of altruism-- and we are taken in.  I think we can see something like this at work in the odd family resemblance between evil and saintliness, but the point deserves some clarification.

It must seem like a rather cheap trick to partisans of saintliness for me to accuse their ideal of partaking in "evil," when it is evidently so different.  And indeed: the search for signs that an ideological position secretly embodies something it opposes is a parched well to draw from, intellectually.  Yet people persist in watering at this well-- they argue that X, apparently utterly different from Y, is really a crypto version of Y after all, etc.  (They are especially inclined to make this argument when they are afraid that, in its absence, they might themselves end up looking rather like Y).

A case in point is that of G.E.M. Anscombe, who was a proponent of the "Just War" tradition of Christian military ethics-- a tradition which stands in opposition to pacifism and for occasional military intervention in defense of fundamental values.  Anscombe was a brave critic of the atrocities committed by the Allies in the Second World War, including the firebombing of Japanese and German civilians-- but she must have experienced some concern that, as a "Just War" theorist, she would be accused by pacifists of having laid the groundwork for such actions.  She therefore attempted to pull the rug out from under them in advance: it was actually pacifists, it transpired, who laid this groundwork.

This is, on the face of it, a spurious claim, given the definitional and vehement opposition of pacifists to war crimes.  Ah, but by condemning all violence, pacifists had rendered one form of violence as distasteful as another.  So war crimes no longer seemed especially reprehensible to a public reared on the pacifism which was born of the First World War.  "War is hell," after all, as the pacifists had taught them.

The stages of this argument aren't utterly faulty, but it seems too clever by half that we end up with a situation in which the most thoroughgoing opponents of violence are in fact responsible for murder.  We begin to suspect that Anscombe has an apologetic interest at stake in this argument-- that she is concerned about being tarred as insufficiently hard on violence by her opponents.

It would therefore be quite understandable if someone took what I am doing in the evil/saintliness analysis for something similar.  They might imagine that saintliness and evil are two poles on an x-axis, and I-- finding myself somewhere in the middle, resent my comparative proximity to the evil pole.  So, deviously, I yank the saintliness pole down to the level of its opposite.  Now we're on a sort of parabola, with myself conveniently poised at the moral apex.

Yes, it would be understandable to assume this is what I was doing, and I can't rule it out-- as stated above, our selfish motives never present themselves to us as what they are.  But the trouble with Anscombe's argument is not that there is anything prima facie absurd about a case of apparent opposites coming together in unexpected ways.  History is full of unlikely bedfellows which turn out to be not so unlikely after all.  The trouble with Anscombe's argument is rather that it is very difficult to find in history, or even to imagine, cases of pacifists who were insufficiently critical of war crimes.  Had Anscombe produced more evidence of such, her argument would have been more interesting.

So my task-- I suppose-- is to adduce as much evidence as I can of saints and evil-doers courting one another in history.

On this score, I was relieved to find someone who's much more a partisan of saintliness than I am fretting over a similar point last week.  Ross Douthat was taking note of the most fundamental point I was trying to make: that "saintliness" and "evil" (that is, violence, cruelty, group-think, massive destruction of life), are both concerned with finding a way around the problem of "decadence" which (it is claimed) afflicts modern society.  Both the saints and the evildoers think life ought to be more of an adventure, more fraught with peril and self-sacrifice and group cohesion, than bourgeois life makes possible.  The military metaphors in the literature of saintliness abound.  The Temptation of St. Anthony is a violent struggle-- albeit one conducted against beasts of the air and of the mind.

Douthat is aware of and concerned about the family resemblance between saintliness and evil: "There is a very natural, historically-recurring linkage between a cultural analysis that worries about the loss of virtue and meaning and ambition and struggle, and a political project that seek to remoralize the culture by demanding participation in some sweeping common effort."  For the latter, read: war, as Douthat quickly makes clear.  Read evil.  Douthat (honorably) does not seek to defend saintliness by denying any association with warmongering-- he simply argues for a guarded attempt at walking the thin line of saintliness that stays a hair's breadth away from its sinister cousin.  "[T]he correct perspective is one that both recognizes the dangers of a morally-numbing materialism and resists the temptation to fight those dangers by manufacturing artificial crises and crusades. But that’s a hard tightrope to walk," he writes.

It was the "historically-recurring linkage" mentioned by Douthat that I was trying to illuminate in my last post, and for every example of it I quoted there, one could find ten that I didn't.  Machiavelli, for instance, was clearly a partisan of evil-- of violence and cruelty-- but he-- and this is the part that is often missed in our popular recollection of his teaching-- was also a moralist.  His great ethical value was "virtue"-- his great terror "corruption" (decadence?)-- and to forestall the latter he recommended military drills of the populace.  What he most deplored was "the pusillanimity of those who have interpreted our religion in terms of laissez-faire, not in terms of virtu" (278, Walker trans.)-- which we might see as the prescient rebuke of the 15th-century saint to the bourgeois liberals of future generations.

And indeed, if we fast-forward a few centuries, we find Georges Sorel making very much the same points in his classic apologia for violence.  He too was both ultimate sinner and moralizing saint-- and saw no contradiction in the roles.  Sorel sought release from the perceived banality of modern existence-- and he did so, like the saints-- through an ideal of self-sacrifice-- self-martyrdom on behalf of a great cause.  The nature of the cause was basically irrelevant.  "Lofty moral convictions," argued Sorel: "[…] never depend on reasoning or on any education of the individual will, but on a state of war in which men voluntarily participate and which finds expression in well-defined myths […]  For a long while our fathers regarded from an almost religious point of view the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which seems to us nowadays only a colorless collection of abstract and confused formulas […] This was due to the fact that formidable struggles had been undertaken on account of [it]." (T.E. Hulme trans.)

It is this deadly proximity-- referred to by Douthat as "the perils of anti-decadence"-- that I was trying to get at in my last post.

Saints might well wonder, though, whether this critique is somewhat self-refuting.  If ideals of self-abnegation end up resulting in evil, then what ideal might we invoke to counter evil?  Why am I opposing evil myself if it is not from some vague notion of altruism (which most of us take to simply be a watered-down saintliness)?

I think the way out of this difficulty lies in challenging the last assumption-- i.e., that altruism is a form of saintliness.  Most of us, including myself some days of the week, tend to think of morality as the x-axis mentioned above, with Gandhi and Jesus on one end and Hitler and Stalin on the other.  We therefore think we ought to be some kind of saint.  And if we aren't-- it's simply because we are selfish, flawed and finite beings.

But there is in fact a tension between saintliness and altruism, at least as far as I can see.  Saintliness-- in its most rigorous and acetic form, is a life-denying doctrine.  Yet altruism, and any ethics worth the name, is nothing more than a synonym for a protective and affirming instinct toward life, wherever it manifests itself-- a desire to foster life in oneself and others.  A life-denying ethics would seem to be a contradiction in terms.  What this means for saintliness in practice is that it denies itself certain evils, but it also denies itself things of real value-- possibly the only things of real value.  In particular, sainthood means giving up warm interpersonal relationships for the sake of painstaking scrupulosity.  Yet these relationships are some of the (always all too few) redeeming features of existence.  To hate them is to hate life.  But this, let us remember is what Jesus asked us to do: "If anyone comes to me," said Jesus, "and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple." (Lk 14: 26 NIV).

Orwell-- my own definition of moral purity if there is one-- has once again said all this better than I could: "The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals."

It is this unwillingness to tolerate the pains and frustrations of living an ordinary human existence that the saints and the partisans of evil (especially in their totalitarian variety) have in common.  They are both looking for some commitment larger than one to friends and allies and family-- they want total commitment to something infinite, and therefore imperishable- something that can't be lost, that can't disappoint or frustrate their attachment.

It is therefore the apparently most self-mortifying asceticism that disguises the most passionate aversion to pain.  It is the greatest "self-abnegation" that is often the most self-centered choice-- the one that deliberately refuses to do something for the sake of others that risks bringing pain to oneself.  This is the paradox of saintliness.   This is why it has such a curious affinity to evil.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you posted this, because I was planning to write a response to your earlier post that would have been largely irrelevant in light of this one. However, this post leaves me thinking that your analysis of the flaws in sainthood doesn't lend any support to your historical critique and perhaps even undermines it. Your historical critique seems to be that saints, like evil people, criticize liberal modernity for its petty, bourgeois, unromantic conception of the good life, and that because the evil (fascist, etc.) version of this viewpoint leads to horrendous consequences, sainthood should be prima facie morally suspect because it shares some of the same features.

    In this post, though, you (as I understand it) try to vindicate this presumption against sainthood by criticizing sainthood primarily for condemning contingent and particular attachments to individual people and groups in favor of absolute detachment and asceticism. This point seems entirely unrelated to the flaws of romanticism, since one can have a romantic viewpoint which exalts particular attachments. (Indeed, both historical fascism and the ideas of the Savage in Brave New World, which Douthat is discussing in the post you mention, could be construed as [evil and benign, respectively] views of this kind). Furthermore, one could plausibly argue that the Orwell quote you endorse, and some of your own remarks, are actually criticizing sainthood for being insufficiently grand and romantic - for forsaking the difficult and rewarding work of cultivating deep interpersonal relationships for the arid, safe, and ultimately rather dull pursuit of asceticism. Am I misreading you here? How are the two lines of criticism supposed to fit together?