Inconvenient Conscience, 4 – Conscience vs. Tyranny

“For now we see [ourselves] in a mirror, dimly, but then [we will see] face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

from The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians Chapter 13, verse 12, in The New Testament

As we once more pick up the question of conscience in the West, we ask, “Why are we so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth?”  – the truth about why the West has run from the “celestial spark” (see Part 3) of conscience. 

The process of running from ourselves began long ago.  It has gathered tremendous momentum since the ferment of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution.  Since then, there has been a continual impetus to shed the Judaeo-Christian elements of the West’s character and foundation.  It would be unthinkable now for any leading statesman to speak as Winston Churchill did in 1940 when inspiring the people of the British Empire during World War 2 as he declared that it was a war to save “Christian civilization”.

Today we live a culture where people are often shamed for holding strong morals and principles based on the conviction that God holds us accountable.  However, if you hold such notions because of a philosophy or ideology other than the Judaeo-Christian, there is a shade more tolerance.  The public face of the West is now that all principles are mutable in the face of new notions of truth about what constitutes progressive tolerance and an open social order.

Churchill never claimed to be a model of devout Christianity.  However, he recognized that the foundation of the West stood on its Judaeo-Christian heritage as much as upon the Greco-Roman tradition of reason and rational thought.  He was not denying or excusing excesses committed in the name of Christ, or of any religious leader or institution.  But neither was he under any illusion that human nature is basically good and our powers of reason and scientific discovery of truth and wisdom will take us into paradise on earth.  He was no fan of utopian schemes and well knew that the real meaning of “utopia” is “nowhere”.  The results of utopian thinking were rampant before his eyes in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and the Fascist countries of Europe.

Churchill preferred democracy.  He famously quipped, “Democracy is the worst possible system of government – except for all the others.”  He was not deluded that the popular masses would somehow find and decide what is best because, after all, people are all basically good when you scratch beneath the shallow exterior.  It was because he believed the opposite that he fought tooth and nail to save democracy throughout his whole political life and in his prolific literary output.

His iron faith in democracy was based on the understanding that the ruthless and brutal will naturally rise to the top if not checked.  After several thousand years of trying various schemes of oligarchic, monarchic, and tyrannical rule, the verdict was in that the great and powerful individual or oligarchy will inevitably degenerate into selfish, abusive, corrupt, dissolute, brutal, and oppressive government, regardless of the best of early intentions.  As Lord Action (an eminent British historian of the 19th Century) put it, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Churchill was himself a scion of the privileged English aristocracy.  Paradoxically, he firmly believed that for the inevitable abuses of power by the powerful to be held in check, ordinary people have to be empowered through constitutional arrangements and a relatively impartial system of justice.  None of this was “natural” to any civilization that had yet existed until it gradually emerged where Christianity had taken root, buttressed by certain ideals of the Greeks and Romans at their best.

 For Churchill, this sort of government found its best and most effective expression in Great Britain and was extended to its Empire thereafter.  This happy marriage emerged only in the culture and civilization of “the West” – in Europe and its appendices in North America and a few other places.  (Please note, I am not advocating the innate superiority of the West.  We are discussing an historical phenomenon.)

The essential difference between Western leaders like Churchill and those since is their fundamental view of human nature.  Churchill’s view, shared by most educated people and leaders of his generation, was that humans are not basically good, but flawed, marred, and ever ready to take advantage of others, circumstances, and nature for personal gain and benefit.  People are not born as blank slates imbued with benign complaisance and readiness to treat others with equity and justice, all things being equal. 

Where did Churchill’s pessimism about human nature spring from?  Three main sources: (1) a deep reading of the Bible and understanding of its core message[1] of fallen human nature in need of Divine salvation, (2) a profound interest in and study of history which continually illustrated #1, and (3) personal experience and astute observation of human behaviour, his own and everyone else’s he ever met.

The second and third of Churchill’s sources are still wide-open to anyone who cares to consult them and draw appropriate conclusions.  For the most part, the first has now become a closed book.  Oh, it is still available to be read, but it has been discarded as a religious relic or an irrelevant mythological curiosity by our educational authorities and intelligentsia.  What reputable person aspiring to be taken seriously and become influential today would now publicly refer to it as a source of wisdom?

Why did Churchill (and so many other leaders and thinkers back then) use quotes from and allusions to “The Good Book” regularly in his speeches and writings and still keep his credibility?  Is it just a question of different times and less enlightened generations of the past?  Did Churchill and other leaders and serious academics of his time actually think they could use the ideas based on such a source to inspire people to reach beyond their own limitations and to effect meaningful, progressive change in society?

This is not an article about Churchill, as interesting a person as he is.  It is about our feeble grasp on truth and our society’s vaporous idea of conscience.  Part of the cause of our social and ethical disintegration is that we have pushed the old “sources of truth” which people formerly considered crucial to the side.  Even completely secular thinkers and admirers of the Enlightenment tradition such as John Ralston Saul (Voltaire’s Bastards) have deplored this phenomenon.

The truth about us as a collective, and probably for many of us as individuals, is that we are adrift, “at sea” with no landfall or reference points in sight.  Oh yeah!  There is an old map still around somewhere, but everybody says it’s like those medieval charts with pictures of sea serpents and is completely fanciful.

The pursuit of fame, fortune, the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect partner, all turns to sand after a while.  When we wake up to that, we begin to search for an identity beyond our technological prowess and our mania for “self-actualizing” ourselves as anything we care to imagine.  For most of us, the refrain of “you can be and do anything you like or can imagine, even totally reinvent yourself and your gender” turns out to be the pursuit of a phantom which keeps disappearing around the next corner or curve in the road.  Or maybe the Phantom sneaks up from behind and laughs snidely that it’s a chimera.  The Phantom smirks that we should have known all along what we are really supposed to become, but now we’ve burned so many bridges it’s too late, or seems to be, to go back.

The West now suffers from a two-fold collective guilt-complex.  The first element of it stems from the residual effect of the old paradigm of the missionary impulse to “civilize the world” – i.e., to Christianize it, which also meant to Europeanize it.  This bred imperialism and exploitation while covering it in a veneer of a holy mission.  Not that every missionary or even every imperial administrator was a conscious agent of oppression and exploitation – although some of the administrators were crassly so.  We rightly rejoice that this arrogant hubris has now been shed (or so we think) as wickedness.  And we feel rightful guilt for it.  In this, our conscience has been true.

The second part of our collective guilty conscience is that in having thrown out the very sources of the West’s well-developed sense of social justice, we have lost the very values that have always kept us on track towards that goal.  It used to be called the promise of the coming Kingdom of God taking root in this age, however imperfectly it was done.  Now, without a compass, and having undermined our very foundations, we have only the very thinnest notion of what real justice and mercy look like.  In making ourselves free to pursue whatever vision of ourselves we choose, we have made ourselves slaves to the baser parts of our nature.

[1] Churchill was raised with the Bible by his Nanny.  He had sections of it memorized and continued to read it from time to time as an adult.


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