The Road to Hell

Another version of this article appears also at Provocative Penguin:

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in”

– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

During revolutionary times one usually finds lurking the utopian tendency: the urge to perfect the world and the expectation that the Kingdom is at hand. Although it is has taken different guises through the ages – from Plato to Christ to Marx to Ray Kurzweil and the Transhumanists – the Kingdom is epitomized through the words of the prophet Isaiah: a paradise where the lion lies down with the lamb, and Man having recognized the image of God within his soul attains perfection (Isaiah 11:6). The dreams of these utopian revolutionaries are often about a new dawn, a new man; freed from ignorance, sin, and alienation.

In the present day, when the political left and right, as well as the religious fundamentalists hostile to both socialism and capitalism, all herald the revolutionary coming of a new, better world, I feel compelled to breathe life into an old, but important, lesson. But you will have to go against your inclinations, as I am confident you will be reluctant to hear me. It has to do with good intentions, or, in the words of Pascal Bruckner,“[t]he ravages wrought by a rhetoric of good intentions”.

In the shadow of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Gulag, and other of the twentieth century’s myriad horrors, Karl Popper reflected on the utopia outlined in Plato’s Republic: “Everyone who has set out to create heaven on earth has brought only hell.” Flashes of the Terror during the French Revolution, where, amidst the cries of “liberty, equality, fraternity”, the injunction against murder – the First Commandment – was suspended, and even the Marquis de Sade was given shudder. When Moses returned from Sinai to find the Israelites’ golden calf, he immediately called for the people to separate into believers and the non-believers, and the non-believers were slaughtered (Exodus 32:26-28).

Popper, late in his life, reflected on this massacre of the Israelites who rejected Moses very simply: “That perhaps was how it all started”. Jesus Christ, who found himself a carpenter in this world, famously explained his mission in this way: “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Whether Christ was advocating ideological or physical violence is of little concern. What is of concern is the sense of antagonism and divisiveness that pervades his words:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39)

There are echoes here of Moses’ call for the Levites to set themselves against the non-believers, and murder of their own ‘family’, upon finding the idolatrous golden calf at the foot of Sinai.

We see that the urge to graft the perfect ideal onto the imperfect actual is most often carried out through violence, division, and discord. Alexander Solzhynitsyn – the great historian of the Soviet Gulag – lived the violence endemic to Marx and Engel’s ideas, and wrote about the necessity of war for Marx’s communism. And despite that we have the world’s history in sanguine detail at our virtual fingertips, a recent article on the new rise of Marxism in theGuardian quotes a liberal arts student who “wasn’t around when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union”, and who “tends to see [Marxism] more as way of understanding what we’re going through now”, untainted by the Gulags. Solzhynisyn quotes Lenin himself, who somewhere between 1914 and 1915, said: “We cannot support the slogan ‘peace’ since it is a totally muddled one and a hindrance to the revolutionary struggle.”; “To reject war in principle is un-Marxist. Who objectively stands to gain from the slogan ‘Peace’? In any case, not the revolutionary proletariat.”  Violence and utopianism, seemingly paradoxically, have gone hand in hand from the very beginning. But why is this the case? Was the Psalmist wrong when he penned the famous verse Mark the perfectman, and behold the upright: for the end of that man ispeace.”? (Psalms 37:37)

There is a curious passage in the works of Immanuel Kant which has stuck with me over the years that goes: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” And yet, the Utopian – often uninterested in man’s nature, or unwilling to investigate this ‘crookedness’ endemic to our souls – spends his days laying the groundwork for the coming of a Perfect Kingdom, where all that is bent and unequal will become straight and equal. The Utopian takes it upon him or herself to declare war on the timber “from which man is made”. The arrival of the Kingdom, I hope you can discern, requires a new type of transformed human being whose timber is perfectly alike and easy to work with. A firm pair of carpenter’s hands is thus needed to knead out our ‘all too human’ kinks and knots.

While combing through a book by the French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul, I came across a wonderful quote by a little known author named Francois Leplantine, which goes: “Utopists abhor what the poets love: the fauna and flora, the trees that send their branches outward in such an unpatterned, capricious way, the bridge and the streams, and the untamed instincts of men”. You can see the distinction between the utopian-planned-rational and the poetic-unplanned-instinctual very clearly by contrasting one of the few remaining trees left in the glass mausoleum also known as your downtown core.  Allow a branch, growing haphazardly, grotesquely, every which way, with its tumorous knots, and freakish families of sprouting buds, to appear in relief against your utterly planned downtown Kingdom, replete with geometric traffic grids, precisely rectangular glass skyscrapers, and monotonous condominium cocoons.

The idea is that when the Kingdom arrives, all that was barred will be open, all that was limited will be unlimited, all that was opaque will be transparent, and all that grew grotesquely and uncontrollably will be designed and set down according to the plan devised by our human will. But the challenges we encounter, the limits of our bodies, the opaqueness of our minds, our radical diversity and our unwilled grotesqueness are integral to our humanity. In fact,at the close of the 19th century, Hermann Lotze observed that “If there were ever to come a future in which every stumbling block were smoothed away, then, indeed, mankind would be as one flock; but then, no longer like men but like a flock of innocent brutes they would feed on the good things provided by Nature, with the same unconscious simplicity as they did at the beginning of [the] long course of civilisation.”

Rather than attempting to build in the difficult key of humanity’s distressed leitmotif, we have – time and time again – characterized it as an off-tune aberration to be corrected. Throughout history, our human imperfections have been understood as terrible stains and distortions of an otherwise pure, inhuman, realm: our political structures as impoverished reflections of an unchanging idea of Justice, our limited bodies as vessels for a truer divine Soul, the hellish means of history as a slaughter-bench toward the germinating end of history where all contradiction has been ironed out… Can we blame ourselves? The greatest religions and philosophical systems are attempts to offer a straighter, truer Ideal, against inequality, the sad limit of the flesh, and having to say a final ‘good bye’ to the ones we love.

In his Penses, Pascal offered a fascinating maxim: “The soul sees nothing that does not distress it on reflection”. The most optimistic in our human family are interested in a future without the limitations and imperfections that lead to having to tarry with pain, anxiety, sorrow and affliction. In their own ways, these ‘do-gooders’ promise pharmacologically induced perpetual euphoria, germ line engineering to perfect the genetic makeup of a child, and quiescent culminations of political and social contradiction.  But students of literature know best that it is the imperfect characters, replete with their cleft lips and chronic moroseness, which appear most clearly to our souls. Indeed, it is a dark thought that the artifacts that persist through time in moving us – from the sunflowers of Van Gogh to the symphonies of Beethoven – are borne of tears, longing, uncontrolled passions, and unfulfilled desires.

But the answer is not to romanticize our imperfections, or become content with the status quo. The drive to intuit and interact with Ideals, such as Perfection, Universality, Freedom, Justice and Peace, is one of our most important conceptual moves. Problems arise, however, when we attempt to bring these Ideals directly into human affairs – in the case of the new biosciences, the sculpting of the genome itself into perfect, Ideal, forms without blemish. We bring violence into the world when we attempt to complete it, to perfect it, to remove once and for all its imperfections, faults and defects. The Sun provides warmth, but would destroy the Earth were it to draw too near. Likewise, culture remains intact so long as we are content withapproximating, but never desire to arrive at, ideals. While the ideal of Freedom has been one of the primary animating forces of history, can we even imagine a world of absolute and total Freedom? Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about the French Revolution, offered this reminder:‎“Claim too great freedom, too great license, and too great subjection shall befall you.” When Ideals are brought down to Earth, and the Utopian carpenters begin untwisting and unbending life, unbearable terror and violence follow in the wake… Yet life without the guidance of Ideals glimmering on the horizon would be unimaginable.


~ by dccohen on August 18, 2012.

One Response to “The Road to Hell”

  1. A part of this problem of inclusion/exclusion that may be quite specific to our times is how the binary choice or decision about being on one side of the question or the other has become too hard, such that right and wrong reflect the digital binary of the techno-utopians. The ability to think in shades rather than absolutely is something that is given too little attention, and even within philosophy, fields that make a virtue of this ability to account for and engage with gradations and context (I think here of hermeneutics) are all too readily side-lined in favour of the political with-us-or-against-us or the scientistic fetishism of ever more attenuated logical and semantic analysis.

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