Thursday, August 11, 2011

The triumph of Rousseau

Dr. Theodore Dalrymple — the pen name of Anthony Daniels — has written some fifteen books "of scathing social commentary on everything from crime to travel to, most recently, what he calls 'the toxic cult of sentimentality' in modern society. In his writing and in conversation, he returns frequently to the criminals he's known and treated." His familiarity with criminals is partly based on some fifteen years as a prison doctor in Britain. He was interviewed by Brian Carney for the Wall Street Journal about our need to understand murderers like Anders Breivik.
.... A Breivik is a deeper mystery. Of him, "you can say, 'This man is highly narcissistic, paranoid and grandiose,'" and this may lead you to seek reasons for that in his past—"his father disappeared at the age of 15 and so on and so forth." But uncovering such facts doesn't solve the mystery because "whatever you find, you would also find among hundreds or thousands or even millions of people who didn't do what he did." There is, he says, "always a gap between what is to be explained and your alleged explanation. So there's always a mystery, and I think that's going to remain." ....

The human impulse to explain the inexplicably horrific is revealing, according to Dr. Dalrymple, in two respects—one personal, one political. First, it says something about us that we feel compelled to explain evil in a way that we don't feel about people's good actions. The discrepancy arises, he says, "because [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau has triumphed," by which he means that "we believe ourselves to be good, and that evil, or bad, is the deviation from what is natural."

For most of human history, the prevailing view was different. Our intrinsic nature was something to be overcome, restrained and civilized. But Rousseau's view, famously, was that society corrupted man's pristine nature. This is not only wrong, Dr. Dalrymple argues, but it has had profound and baleful effects on society and our attitude toward crime and punishment. For one thing, it has alienated us from responsibility for our own actions. For another, it has reduced our willingness to hold others responsible for theirs.

"Most people," Dr. Dalrymple says, "now have a belief in the inner core of themselves as being good. So that whatever they've done, they'll say, 'That's not the real me.'" .... [more]
Dalrymple on the rioting in London. Depressing.
The Weekend Interview with Theodore Dalrymple: Unraveling the Mystery of Murderous Minds - WSJ.com