It has been a significantly long time since I last blogged anything. Over this long hiatus, I never felt I should blog on particular topics because of how busy I have been with teaching and writing for my dissertation and spending time with my wife and family (4 children ages 6 and under) and then just getting some quiet time for myself. I think I am at the point of being able to provide some thoughts on things that have been coming to me in the films I have been watching and the books I have been reading (or listening to via audiobooks).
It all started when I listened to Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews; it is a decent work, a bit dated now, but overall a good introduction to a lot of history concerning the Jews and the events that have shaped humanity. Because I became fascinated with wanting to read more and learn more about the Holocaust and Post-Holocaust events, I went to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. I did not know what to expect when I listened to a recording of Eichmann in Jerusalem. I knew very little about Eichmann prior to the book; but something struck me about how Arendt characterized Eichmann (as the banality of evil) and this converged with something that Fr. Ford (CUA Professor) had said about his experiences in post-WWII Germany, that the evil confronted in the Holocaust (and one can extend to evil anywhere in the world) for the most part did not come at the hands of maniacal human beings who were thirsting for blood. Sure these kinds of people existed before, during, and after the Holocaust; but for the most part, the evil manifested in our day and age is not often something spectacular but ordinary in a way; as Fr. Ford put it, it was ordinary Germans who kept quiet about the disappearance of neighbors and friends.
This “ordinariness” of evil surprisingly showed up in two very different films I watched with my wife. First, my wife and I saw Apocalypse Now (1979). In short, it is about a soldier (Capt. Willard played by Martin Sheen) who is being sent on a secret mission by his superiors to kill a rogue Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) who has taken the war into his own hands during the Vietnam War. Kurtz is spoken of as a highly decorated office who has gone crazy and has caused the slaughter of innocent people. (SPOILER ALERT: Skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film.) Toward the end of the film, Kurtz details how he has gotten into the position he has – being considered rogue, etc. He recounts a story of how he lead some soldiers to help inoculate children from a village with the Polio vaccine. Upon leaving the village, he saw that the elders of the village had cut off the inoculated arms of the children without any hesitation. For Kurtz, this was the type of human nature he wanted to embody and in some sense the kind of human nature he needed to win the war. What is the kind of human nature though? It seems to be an instinctual human being who is capable of living and fighting for his own survival without the need to get emotional or upset or disturbed by doing what had to be done to fight and win. In the end, Kurtz comes off as a very rational person who wants to embody a certain ideal of human nature. He is not some monster; but in some sense very ordinary.
The “ordinariness” of evil re-appeared in the second film my wife and I watched last night, After the Truth (Nichts als die Wahrheit, its German title). This film relates a fictional account of what might have happened if Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor known for his activities at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, had been arrested and put on trial in Germany in the 1980s. The story mainly follows Peter Rohm, a young lawyer and Mengele scholar, who decides to defend Mengele in court. (SPOILER ALERT: Skip to the next paragraph to avoid key details of the film.) Part of Rohm’s defense is to show how ordinary some of the activities of Mengele had been in the 1930s and 1940s as part of the medical establishment of the times. The fictitious Mengele defends his activities as a compassionate doctor of his time. A second part of the defense is due to Rohm’s own mother testifying at how she unknowingly participated in the killing of two patients (via injections) at a psychiatric clinic she worked at when she was 17 (1939/1940); after learning about what had happened, she refused to participate in any more such injections; yet she knew that patients regularly died during the night over the period of time she continued working there as a nurse in training and yet she did nothing and hid her past after WWII ended. The evil that is recounted in this film while at times is extraordinary but oftentimes appears as ordinary. Mengele and Rohm’s mother do not come off as monsters in the film; rather if anything the filmmakers aimed to drive home the point that evil lives very close to us and sometimes is in our own homes without us knowing what lurks in the human heart.
Where I am going with this reflection on human nature? I have used two very different reflections to get at the point I want to make; human nature is inclined to perpetrate evil if given the opportunity. Let me get at this one final way. Below, I am including a post by Peter Berger that deals with the exact topic I have been treating from a slightly different perspective:
…How is it possible that human beings could commit such horrible atrocities? Again and again this question is asked—with regard to the Holocaust, and to such more recent events as the mass atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. Commonly the question is given weight by the recollection that previous to the outbreak of genocidal violence the affected two groups lived with each other peacefully for long periods of time, even intermarried—Armenians and Turks, German Jews and their Gentile neighbors, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, Tutsis and Hutus. (In that respect, the Cambodian case is distinctive, describable as auto-genocide, with no or religious or ethnic differences between victims and murderers.) Of course each case is unique. Thus there has been a strong animus in the Jewish community to subsume the Holocaust under some general category that would depreciate its uniqueness (as when, as is sometimes done, the mass murders of Hitler and Stalin are described as similar). I think that this desire to insist on the uniqueness of each particular horror is understandable as well as intellectually valid. Nevertheless, there remains the lamentable fact that mass murders of one kind of another have been perpetrated since the dawn of time. Once one faces this reality, all of history appears as a long string of atrocities. If I recall correctly, it is a character in Joyce’s Ulysses who exclaims “History is a nightmare from which I hope to awake.” I suppose that we are all children of the Enlightenment and its optimistic view of human nature as essentially benign and of history as the march of progress. These assumptions may lie dormant in our consciousness, well short of the expression of a coherent worldview. But absent such assumptions we could still be horrified by the murderous actions, but we would not be surprised by them. The Biblical tradition evokes a much darker view of man and of history. Christianity has asserted that human beings are under the sway of original sin. Gilbert Keith Chesterton observed that this is the only Christian doctrine which does not require faith—it is empirically verifiable. Judaism may be less pessimistic in that it has no such doctrine, but arguably it is more pessimistic for a different reason: as Abraham Heschel has pointed out, Judaism takes the unredeemed character of the world more seriously. In that perspective, Christians are overly optimistic by asserting that redemption is already underway since the coming of Christ. Be this as it may, I am not about to enter into this theological thicket. Let me propose a darker view in purely secular terms. The rejection of the so-called “Enlightenment project” by some postmodernists and others is inappropriate. We owe much to that particular turn in history—for its devotion to reason and to the universality of human rights. All the same, its optimism cannot be empirically sustained. History undergoes certain progresses (in the plural), such as advances in the protection of human rights. But each progress is reversible. And Rousseau and others like him were wrong in thinking that man is by nature benevolent, and only turns to evil if led there by oppressive institutions. Actually, pretty much the opposite is the case: man is by nature homicidal, unless restrained from acting out of his natural impulses by institutions that foster benevolence. It is this perspective, I think, that is empirically sustainable. If one wants to put this into an evolutionary frame, one might say that homo sapiens is a pathological mutation of the anthropoid ape—so to speak a chimpanzee gone wrong. I don’t really want to go down that road. How is it possible that human beings could commit such horrible atrocities? Let me suggest that this question should be reversed: How is it possible that human beings can live together peacefully for long periods of time without committing horrible atrocities? The general answer to that question is quite simple: it is possible if institutions are in place to socialize individuals to behave peacefully and to punish those who act otherwise. It seems to me that the identification and construction of such institutions is the true “Enlightenment project”.
But how do we go about having those kinds of institutions that socialize individuals? For Catholics, there are two such institutions: the Church and the family. Isn’t it interesting that these two institutions are the ones that have been threatened more so than any others in the past number of years? I’m not saying all the threats are external; some are very internal to the Church and family life. But these assaults upon the roles of the Church and the family have diminished the capacities of these institutions to humanize the human person.