When bad stuff happens, look to your inner Adolf
Things are crook in Tallarook, says my friend and economics mentor, Henry Thornton.
We might have to add, however, some further items to Henry’s list, though tread warily we must in these acutely sensitive days.
There are now vast areas of human life upon which no-one might pass judgement, especially on anything that might touch, even remotely, upon our sex lives. And, yet, gird our loins we must. Sexual behaviour is socially defining, the more so when we’re obsessed with it. We are troubled by so many disorders and yet a common thread runs through them all.
The central problem is this: whether we are driving or 'sexing', we think that we're “in charge” and that being “in charge” we can do what we want.
We are so many little Hitlers presiding over our Lilliputian Third Reichs. They’re my feelings, I’ll express them how I like. It’s my happiness, I’ll do what it takes. It’s my need, I’ll feed it. It’s my body, I’ll do with it what I want - tattoos, sex-change, whatever.
Just like Mr H. we need lebensraum: space in which to live. Though, more audacious even than Mr H., we want space without limits. Born boy, wannabe girl.
The problem for a us pygmy Adolfs is that we are not “in charge”. Our claim to absolute sovereignty over ourselves is a delusion and our attempt to realise it usurpation.
True, we are each of us sovereign in our own house. I am myself and not some other. No-one can be me but myself. No-one can rob me of myself. I am in possession of me. I, then, rule this domain and no other. Sound reasoning, up to a point. But the sovereignty that goes with self-possession - like all sovereignty - is limited and conditional.
The reason is that we did not make ourselves. Before we became aware of ourselves, we existed. Our humanity - and the way of being human - did not issue from our own hands. It is something we received.
No matter how we twist and wriggle, that’s the way of things. Our existence and its nature are “givens”. We are shaped by them, not them by us.
We can either imitate the art within or ruin it.
Our personal autonomy, therefore, operates within limits described by our being and nature. The secret to human happiness is to embrace our being and to rejoice in our nature.
The alternative is to rebel against them to our woe and, ultimately, to our annihilation.
All us midget Hitlers have told ourselves that we are the masters of the universe.
I’m angry today, I’ll run you off the road. I want to be a richer surgeon yet, I’ll prescribe an unnecessary operation. I want to be a corporate star, I’ll clip the client for services undelivered. I’m horny for my brilliant secretary, hang the wife and the kids - and the unwanted pregnancy as well.
To top it off, wretched Tallarook has not one Third Reich but many. They’re all careering about under orders from their unhinged führers crashing into one another, like so many tiny intersecting Operations Barbarossa. That’s what social breakdown looks like.
“But, hey, it’s all good. It’s our right. We’re in charge. You can’t judge”
Well, no. It isn’t. It’s not. You’re not. And we can.
Just as we did not make ourselves, so we cannot re-construct ourselves in ways that defy the “givens” of our nature. The attempt to do so is not “progress” but violence and self-injury - in some cases, self-murder. We are not gods. We can either imitate the art within or ruin it. To “do” the original art, however, or to replace it with another, that we cannot.
As a great poet and seer once put it – the translations are various:
“At his peril does man, poor shard of earthly clay, bandy words with his own Fashioner; shall the clay dare ask the potter who moulds it, What ails thee? Or tell him he is no craftsman?”
Ah, you say, but we were not “fashioned” by any craftsman. We are the result material forces. We just happened: we clicked into place at the end of a long chain of chemical reactions. So, there is nothing special about this human “nature” you speak of. We could just have easily turned out in some other way. We are happenstance: which means we can choose to be and to do as arbitrarily as we first came into existence.
Interesting thought that – and, given its hidden premise, logical. Let’s examine it. Does matter generate its own design, even if only by accident? Here are some thoughts. I’ve written about them before.
Consider the atom of carbon: can it turn itself into coal?
That would require both heat and pressure to be applied to the carbon from outside of itself and by forces beyond the control of the carbon itself. True, if carbon wasn’t what it was, then the heat and pressure couldn’t turn the carbon into coal. But what carbon is – its nature – is not something that carbon gave to itself. Peer as intently as we like at a carbon atom, we won’t find a self-generating principle or a power of self-design. And thus it is for every other bit of matter we can think of.
So ‘creative’ accidents - like the one that allegedly gave rise to you and me - just can’t happen. It’s impossible, in principle. Even if the most propitious set of conditions were, improbably, to exert themselves on the most favourable combination of materials, no universe- or life-creating event could occur since matter, by its nature, lacks a principle of design within itself.
That design, therefore, has to come from without. The same goes for us. We are not our own creation. We can’t even attribute our making to our parents because giving birth is not the same as making. Even the power of bringing us to birth did not originate in our parents. They themselves received it and their parents before them. And so this reception regresses back through the generations: no ancestor can be found that gave themselves the power to bring new life into the world, not even the first. By its nature it is a power received.
This is the problem that our generation of confident “in charge” people face and it’s the ultimate source of the havoc they wreak upon themselves and upon others.
Their appeal, moreover, to materialism to justify “I’m OK, you’re OK” doesn’t explain anything, not even matter.
Rather than explaining the way things are, materialism is really a philosophy of non-existence. For if materialism were true, then there would be no matter to explain nor any ‘mind’ to explain its absence.
To be precise, materialism is a position adopted in order to avoid having to confront being and nature for fear of encountering what lies behind them. Sometimes our great men of learning can be quite open and honest about this.
As evolutionary biologist Richard C. Lewontin wrote:
“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”1.
That’s it. At all costs “we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” Henry’s list is what happens when we live like that.
1. Billions and Billions of Demons, a review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, Random House 1997 in “The New York Review of Books”, 9 January 1997.