In a previous Wide Angle Post, we saw dazzling nebulae and listened to the ravishing symphony of streams and winds and waterfalls. We saw the pinnacle of creation – not a towering Mount Everest, not even a vast, trillion-starred galaxy – but man, male and female. Man, the sub-creator, the commissioned ruler, the caretaker and love-giver of creation. And we heard, like a refrain reaching its crescendo, “It was good, it was good, it was very good.”
And it is good: The beauty, the freshness, the fertility of the earth; the love and heroism and passion of mankind. It is very good.
And it is very bad. Nature revolts. Tsunamis wipe out tens of thousands of people. Earthquakes crush and destroy. Hurricanes sweep away entire cities. Draught and disease kill untold millions.
But the harm caused by nature pales before the harm caused by her supposed caretaker and love-giver. It is man who crashes jet airplanes into buildings filled with other men. Man, who packs his fellow-man into cattle cars and ships them off to gas chambers. Man, who tortures and controls and hates; who brutalizes, degrades and destroys.
Listen to how Dostoevski’s character, Ivan, in The Brother’s Karamazov, described it over a century ago: “A Bulgarian I met. . . was telling me all about the atrocities being committed. . . they set fire to homes and property, they cut people’s throats, they rape women and children, they nail prisoners to the palisades by their ears and leave them there till the morning and then hang them, and so on; it really defies the imagination. We often talk of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but that is. . . insulting to beasts. . .”1
What Ivan was describing in the 1870s has happened countless times before and since. He could have been talking about Germany in the 1940s, or Cambodia in the 1970s or Rwanda in the 1990s or Liberia and Sierra Leone at the millennium or Syria today, or some other place tomorrow. It goes on and on and on.
We have beauty and cruelty, hand in hand; wisdom and insanity, side by side. We have the glory of Bach coming out of Weimar, and the barbarity of Hitler coming out of the Weimar Republic. There is a little Bach in Hitler, and a little Hitler in Bach, and a little of both of them in all of us.
What can explain these extremes: goodness and depravity, love and hatred, stunning beauty and appalling ugliness? Western man often tells the story of humanity in terms of progression, evolution, and growth. The plot follows crude and simple man as he plods, and occasionally jumps, forward. From stone to iron, from iron to refined metals, and from metals to polymers. He goes from fingers to abacus to supercomputer. Up he goes, always up.
But part of the story is left out. It is not just from stone to iron, but from stone-headed axe to iron-tipped spear, from iron-tipped spear to lead bullet, from lead bullet to atom bomb. We jump, but we usually land further down, not further up. The story of man’s progress has been one of technological advance and spiritual decline. As the songwriter Jackson Browne once put it: “Now the story’s told that Adam jumped, but I’m thinking that he fell.”
1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers. Oxford University Press, 1994