By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
A question came up recently in class: “Sir, if you had the knowledge that you do today about world events, and were some how able to be transported back in time to Braunau am Inn, Austro-Hungary, on the 20th of April, 1889, would you kill the newly born, Adolf Hitler, in order to save the world from future suffering?” The question although interesting is based on a false assumption – that the infant Hitler would have needed to be killed in order to prevent the cycle of events that later followed. Every man’s life contains experiences that both stand alone, and act in conjunction with other experiences – sometimes in a disastrous manner. In the case of Hitler, his bitterness at the end of World War I with the German loss; his perception that the Jews and foreigners were behind the downfall of the German people; his experience of the collapse of the German economy – all contributed to what he was to become. Had the infant Hitler in this hypothetical situation, been taken from Austro-Hungary at the day of his birth, and placed with a rural family in New Zealand or the United States, had he then gone on to be happily married, or had a fulfilling career as an artist – undoubtedly a different man would have appeared to the world. Yet the composite of his nature and nurture, in the context of the time and place in which he lived – used in conjunction with the application of his personal freedom, brought to bear a megalomaniac; who in the end proved to hate the German people nearly as much as he did the vast non-Aryan world; ordering Albert Speer to set German cities and towns alight, in a final pyrrhic defeat, before he exited history’s stage left, by blowing his brains out.
Socrates is quoted in Plotinus’ Enneads as having once said that: “No man knowingly does evil”. When one first hears this maxim – it sounds as if the Ancient Greek philosopher, known for his great wisdom, may have slipped up, at least on this occasion. But let us give Socrates, for a moment the benefit of the doubt – let us consider this potentially absurd teaching, as having a deeper meaning. Taking the case of Hitler, can we apply Socrates’ adage? Here we have a man who was at least willing to fight for his nation in war, and was decorated for bravery. He was a nationalist – who wanted his nation to attain some mythic realization of German greatness. He saw his nation collapse, and sought to raise it from the veritable ashes, with the promise of ‘strong-arm government’. He decided to fight a war to re-claim German territories, and ‘cleanse’ the nation of all those he considered ‘sub-human’. From Hitler’s point of view, it is quite plausible to assume that none of this planning ever struck him in any way as ‘evil’. He was in fact sculpting himself as the paragon of virtue – the saviour of the Germans. That the German people followed him, (in the majority of cases), in his planning, indicates that these people must have thought that they were striving for the ‘common German good’. So perhaps Socrates is correct – but only from the view-point of subjectivism – that being the philosophical position that one man’s ideals, have the capacity to override any other moral value. A subjectivist believes that his opinion has as much truth contained in it, as any other truth that exists. This is where the problem lies. When there are no over-arching objective truths – values for instance derived from the acceptance of Natural or Divine Law, then society bids almost auction-like for whichever truth they are willing to accept. In the case of Germany under Hitler – fascism, with all its trappings, of shiny uniforms, jack-boots, loud military music, and use of symbolism, stirred the spirit, but dulled the thought and moral processes. In hindsight, it is almost absurd to believe that one of Europe’s greatest cultures, could have been duped, by a philosophy that in the end, could never have meant anything but international disharmony and human fratricide. That the German people, the nation that gave the world so many intellectual and cultural giants, fell for this – sounds a clear warning bell, of what occurs when subjectivism seeks to annihilate, Natural and Divine Law; the latter which exist in order to check human freedom from descending into complete nihilism, which is the daughter of unbridled subjectivism. For if there are no objective truths – life and human existence is essentially meaningless – because we are all then merely fending for ourselves in an enormous sea and swirl of humanity and life.
So whereas Socrates is probably quite correct in his thought that every man makes moral choices based on what he perceives to be good – and that this perception of goodness varies from one individual to the next, so that one man’s good is another’s evil; Dante’s adage in his Divine Comedy, based on objective truth – holds firm for the Christian: “The road to hell is often paved with good intentions”. A Christian, or any believer in an Absolute law-giver, cannot be a subjectivist – for all moral choices must be weighed against a higher paradigm. Thus irrespective of how Adolf Hitler or Anders Breivik perceived or perceive themselves – their actions must be judged by a notion that transcends: time, place and culture – a universal moral law, based on universal principles. Natural law and Divine law thus come into their own – so that moral actions may be evaluated, commended or condemned.
With regard the great gift of human freedom, one of the most famous passages in literature, is that chapter of Dostoyevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, known as “The Grand Inquisitor”. In this chapter, Ivan has had a dream that he wishes to describe to his brother, Alyosha. Ivan tells how in his dream, Christ returned to Spain during the time of the Inquisition, and now in Seville was performing many miracles. The Grand Inquisitor arrests Christ and brings him in for questioning. The Inquisitor, a ‘devout Christian’ tells Christ that the world and the Church can now do without Him. Christ is interrogated by the Inquisitor along the following lines. First, Christ won for humanity freedom when in the desert he rejected the devil’s temptations – but humans don’t want or know how to be free – they need to be told and led; they like this. Freedom challenges them too much. It perplexes them. Had Christ turned the stones into bread – the people would have had their stomachs filled; and people don’t really care who gives them the bread – even if at the behest of a devil. Second, people are impressed with power, so Christ, according to the Inquisitor, should have accepted the devil as king, and then led the promised nations by the nose; for then everyone would be marching according to the same drum-beat, irrespective of who was essentially the drum-major. Finally, Christ should have thrown himself off the ledge, and let the angels bear him up – for then everyone would have seen the fullness of his Divinity, and the multitude would have been fearful of Him, and would have blindly followed Him, as they do others who show strength and power. But no, Christ according to the Inquisitor is a disappointment. His reply to the devil in the desert, gave humanity a way-out from answering temptations according to the regulation of selfish norms. All Christ’s answers were in deference to a greater good – the glory and honour of God. Christ’s display of the highest form of moral choosing, according to the Inquisitor, is beyond the norm and capacity of humanity. The Inquisitor criticizes Christ for giving man the power to choose good or evil – for all man needs to do is to use his freedom to conform to the norm. Dostoyevsky gives us this line to ponder in this exchange, uttered by the Inquisitor; Appease a man’s conscience and you rob him of his freedom.
The moral choices you make in life, create who you become in life. Each choice like the sculptor at work on a block of marble, cuts away from the whole in order to achieve a person’s full realization. A good choice – cuts out the evil; a bad choice, cuts out the good. Underpinning these choices, is human freedom – for we have been given a Divine gift of making our lives what we will. We can choose either to strive higher, or feign ignorance by walking among the crowd. But what ever choice we make – it is our choice; and we must own it – and be prepared to answer for it.
So returning now to Socrates – a person may believe their choices to be morally good; but the world is far larger than any one man – however egotistically he may visualize the world in which he lives. No man’s moral decisions are made in a vacuum. The ramifications of personal freedom echo throughout time – so as to be eventually weighed up by a Being that is Timeless; that Being who gave us our freedom – and by so doing inviting us to partake in His Divinity – a Divinity that does not allow for moral neutrality nor neither moral ambivalence.
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