Friday, June 22, 2012

Angels and devils –- part 2

Ah, yes, I ended on a self-congratulatory note yesterday, my better angels in ascendancy. Then no sooner did I pat myself on the back than I read something in the New York Review of Books that gave me pause.

Not pause enough to evoke a retraction of what I had just written, but pause enough to trouble my smug composure.

I was reading a review by Max Hastings of two books on Hitler's "most terrible creatures," Heinrich Himmler and his chief deputy Reinhard Heydrich.

Both men came from respectable middle-class Catholic backgrounds. Both men were by any objective standard mediocrities. The books under review raise the question: How could such banal personalities rise to such positions of awful power, organizing a system of mass murder spanning all of Europe?

How indeed? And how too to explain the many thousands of otherwise ordinary people who Himmler and Heydrich made willing accomplices in their unspeakable crimes? Seventy years after the fact, that question hangs in the air, troubling the conscience of humanity.

It was a statement Hastings made toward the end of his long review that gave me pause:
There was nothing uniquely German about such people. It is not difficult to persuade a substantial minority of mankind, and even of its educated elements, to commit mass murder, as long as such a course is legitimized and successfully put into practice by the authority of somebody at the top.
Could I, the son of a middle-class Catholic family, have gone down that same path? Could you?

Of course, the question need not be posed in terms of mass murder or sadistic excess. We might be talking about something as common as white-collar crime, or as quietly private as child molestation. What is it that keeps in check the devil on the left shoulder, the inclination toward evil that to one degree or another seems part of human nature? Civilization? Germany was famously "civilized." Religion? Apparently not.

What then? Conscience? That whisper from within, the angel at the right ear that also seems to be, to one degree or another, part of human nature. How then to civilly organize our better angels to give them cultural prominence? Democracy is surely part of it --insuring that too much power does not reside "at the top." But I am also inclined to agree with Steven Pinker that secular philosophy and science have enhanced our ability to appreciate "the interchangeability of perspectives, the nonspecialness of our parochial vantage point."

Empathy is a gift of non-sectarian reason to be collectively cherished and culturally nourished.