Friday, November 2, 2018

"Good intentions are not sufficient to make us good men and women"

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, 
and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. 
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. 
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

From Jordan Peterson's Forward to a new anniversary edition of The Gulag Archipelago (the cover picture below is from the book in my library — the one volume abridged version.): it still acceptable—and in polite company—to profess the philosophy of a Communist or, if not that, to at least admire the work of Marx? Why is it still acceptable to regard the Marxist doctrine as essentially accurate in its diagnosis of the hypothetical evils of the free-market, democratic West; to still consider that doctrine “progressive,” and fit for the compassionate and proper thinking person? Twenty-five million dead through internal repression in the Soviet Union (according to The Black Book of Communism). Sixty million dead in Mao’s China (and an all-too-likely return to autocratic oppression in that country in the near future). The horrors of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, with their two million corpses. The barely animate body politic of Cuba, where people struggle even now to feed themselves. Venezuela, where it has now been made illegal to attribute a child’s death in hospital to starvation. No political experiment has ever been tried so widely, with so many disparate people, in so many different countries (with such different histories) and failed so absolutely and so catastrophically. ....

And it is exactly the necessity for interminable sacrifice that constitutes the terrible counterpart of the utopian vision. “Heaven is worth any price”—but who pays? Christianity solved that problem by insisting on the sacrifice of the self; insisting that the suffering and malevolence of the world is the responsibility of each individual; insisting that each of us sacrifice what is unworthy and unnecessary and resentful and deadly in our characters (despite the pain of such sacrifice) so that we could stumble properly uphill under our respective and voluntarily-shouldered existential burdens. But it was and is the opinion of the materialist utopians that someone else be sacrificed, so that Heaven itself might be attained; some perpetrator, or victimizer, or oppressor, or member of a privileged group. A cynic might be forgiven, in consequence, for asking: “Is it the City of God that is in fact the aim? Or is the true aim the desire to make a burning sacrificial pyre of everyone and everything, and the hypothesis of the coming brotherhood of man merely the cover story, the camouflage?” Perhaps it is precisely the horror that is the point, and not the utopia. .... And we should also note that the utopian vision, dressed as it is inevitably in compassion, is a temptation particularly difficult to resist, and may therefore offer a particularly subtle and insidious justification for mayhem. ....

The dangers of the utopian vision have been laid bare, even if the reasons those dangers exist have not yet been fully and acceptably articulated. If there was any excuse to be a Marxist in 1917 (and both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche prophesied well before then that there would be hell to pay for that doctrine) there is absolutely and finally no excuse now. And we know that mostly because of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. .... It was Solzhenitsyn who carefully documented the price paid in suffering for the dreadful communist experiment, and who distilled from that suffering the wisdom we must all heed so that such catastrophe does not visit us again. Perhaps we could take from his writing the humility that would allow us to understand that our mere good intentions are not sufficient to make us good men and women. Perhaps we could come to understand that such intentions are instead all too often the consequence of our unpardonable historical ignorance, our utter willful blindness, and our voracious hidden appetite for vengeance, terror and destruction. Perhaps we could come to remember and to learn from the intolerable trials endured by all those who passed through the fiery chambers of the Marxist collectivist ideology. Perhaps we could derive from that remembering and learning the wisdom necessary to take personal responsibility for the suffering and malevolence that still so terribly and unforgivably characterizes the world. We have been provided with the means to transform ourselves in due humility by the literary and moral genius of this great Russian author. We should all pray most devoutly to whatever deity guides us implicitly or explicitly for the desire and the will to learn from what we have been offered. May God Himself eternally fail to forgive us if in the painstakingly-revealed aftermath of such bloodshed, torture and anguish we remain stiff-necked, incautious, and unchanged.