Modernity’s Uninvited Guest

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Theodore Dalrymple is fascinated by evil and by books that feature the word “evil” in the title, like Soame Jenyns’ A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, which was first published anonymously in 1756. Dalrymple considers evil to be modernity’s uninvited guest:

For Jenyns, as for all writers of his time, the word “evil” conveyed something much wider than it does today. It meant all that caused mankind suffering. It included “moral evil” — extreme human wickedness — but also “natural evil,” the suffering brought about by epidemics, earthquakes, droughts, floods, and the like. It is not surprising that the word should have undergone a change of meaning, for in the intervening period the proportion of human suffering caused by moral, as against natural, evil has increased dramatically, thanks to our growing mastery of nature. When Jenyns wrote, for example, half of all children died, principally from infectious disease, before they reached the age of five; the causes of every known disease remained utterly mysterious, notwithstanding the pedantic flummery of the epoch’s physicians.

A Free Enquiry appeared the year after the Lisbon earthquake, which killed some 30,000 people and destroyed in five minutes what it had taken centuries to build. The earthquake caused a philosophical crisis throughout Europe, for it was difficult to see the divine justice in this catastrophe, visited alike upon the virtuous and the vicious, the provident and the improvident, the humble and the proud. Earthquakes still happen, of course, but their effects have become attenuated in countries where many people are rich, educated, or leisured enough to worry about the origin of evil. The recent Chilean earthquake, many times more severe than its predecessor in Haiti, killed under half of 1 percent as many people because of Chile’s farsighted precautions against earthquakes. We have reached the stage when the harm done by what once would have been called acts of God seems as much the effect of moral as of natural evil.
The Enlightenment held out the hope that with enough of this “proper study,” man would come to know himself sufficiently to eliminate the evil and suffering that had always beset his existence. Man would obtain something like a Newtonian knowledge not only of the universe but of himself, with all the predictive and mechanical advantages that such understanding had brought in the study of inanimate nature.

And in a certain sense, the promise of the Enlightenment has been triumphantly fulfilled in our modern societies—surely as regards natural evil. Thanks to rational inquiry, to take but one instance, the infant-mortality rate since Jenyns wrote has fallen 98 percent. We live lives cleaner, more comfortable, and freer from pain than those of any people who have ever existed. Nobody today has to endure one-hundredth of the physical tortures, brought by illness and the efforts to treat it, that Philip II of Spain and Charles II of England had to endure.

Nor can one say that no moral advance occurred because of the Enlightenment. Just as we are freer from disease, so, too, our mental lives are freer. Of course, dictatorships over thought still exist in the world, but they are on the defensive and have come to seem somehow unnatural. Freedom is now the default setting of human thought. No one can tell us what to think, say, or write, at least not without our consent.

But an uninvited guest has arrived at this banquet of human advancement: evil. Whether men behave better or worse, individually or in the aggregate, than they did before the Enlightenment, is probably a question that we cannot answer approximately, let alone definitively. But what is certain is that moral evil has not only failed to disappear but has taken on a more deliberate, calculated character. Whereas the torturers of Damiens did their evil unself-consciously because it was the natural or preordained thing to do, modern evil is done after intellectual reflection, divorced from any tradition that might guide conduct.

The two greatest moral catastrophes of the twentieth century, wrought by Lenin and Hitler, were perverse effects of the Enlightenment. Lenin and Hitler were creatures of the Enlightenment not in the sense that they were enlightened, of course, but in the sense that they believed they had the right and the duty to act in accordance with their own unaided deductions from their own first principles. Everything else they regarded as sentimentality. Lenin preached no mercy to the non-proletarian, Hitler none to the Jew. The truth of their theories, supposedly rational and indubitable, was more evident to them, more real in their minds, than the millions killed as a consequence of those theories. If a syllogism ended in a command to commit unspeakable evil, you did not doubt the premises or the argument but obeyed the command.


  1. Foseti says:

    If you’re enjoying Dalrymple (and you should be), the Skeptical Doctor blog tracks his writing.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Excellent! Thank you for the heads-up, Foseti. (It looks like I’ve been reading Dalrymple since 2003 — long before there was a fan site tracking his every article.)

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