At first glance, the Jacobins, Marxists, Nazis, rapacious industrial and financial oligarchs, and modern jihadists have little in common. Weren’t the Jacobin revolutionaries democracy’s standard bearers? Weren’t they guided by reason and Enlightenment principles? Aren’t Marxists, past and present, social scientists opposed to oppression by the aristocracy and capitalist robber barons, striving to end class conflict? Weren’t the Nazis an inevitable product of oppressive WWI unconditional surrender terms? Aren’t industrial and financial oligarchs entrepreneurs and community builders? Aren’t modern jihadists seeking retributive justice for historically oppressed Muslims?
“An attractive end justifies messy means.”
This end? A brave new world, requiring destruction for re-construction, requiring the elimination of an ethos of self-donation, self-sacrifice, and self-identification with the Jesus of the Gospels, all so that man can progress.
J.R.R. Tolkien depicts angels who are fair-seeming, compelling in speech, and reasonable, so much so that many men are lured into their orbit, and eventually enslaved. Sauron and Saruman weren’t created to be the tyrants they later become. Nonetheless, angels they were and angels they remain, though fallen.
“The Lord of The Rings” is just a story isn’t it: adventure, fantasy, fiction, mythology? Actually, The Lord of The Rings, along with C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters describes how man is tempted, and sometimes corrupted, by fallen angels…devils.
Consider human history. Think about attractive ideals that are twisted and rendered ugly. Think about glorious movements that end in the subjugation, de-humanization of millions, and even mass murder. Think about people within the Church herself who have succumbed to temptation and depravity.
The pitch isn’t all that complicated, and the pitch is infinitely adaptable: “An attractive end justifies messy means.”
The means? This brave new world trumps individual rights and human dignity; societies can be molded by all necessary means. How many of us have succumbed to the lure of this diabolical lie at work, in our schools, even in our homes? There is no right behavior, only “attractive ends” to be pursued. Contrast this with Tolkien’s faithful angel, Gandalf, for whom the means are the essential thing: mercy toward Gollum when it would be useful to eliminate the creature, sacrificing himself when conventional wisdom suggests his companions are more expendable, seeking the Ring’s destruction instead of using it to combat Sauron. Or the human target, “The Patient”, in The Screwtape Letters who, as the chronicle progresses, and with the help of Divine agents, begins to see past the superficiality and banality that come from pursuing “attractive ends” at the expense of virtue. It can be said that Pope Benedict XVI employed prayer and utter reliance on the Holy Spirit as the holy means to relinquish the papacy, an absurdity to some, but preparing the way for Pope Francis and his plea to the modern world.
As I was working on this article, I read a Wall Street Journal article by Joseph Epstein, reminding me that not everyone who succumbs to the “messy means-attractive ends” ideology has nefarious intentions. For many, as Epstein says, it is what Saul Bellow and others have referred to as the attraction of The Good Intentions Paving Co., derived from the proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Many of us, in big or small matters, are attracted by one Good Intentions Paving Co. project or another.
As for the dirty little secret many of these brave new world proponents would prefer we not know: those obsessed with power for power’s sake use these messy means to grab power and privilege: Robespierre, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, the North Korean Kims, Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, millionaires and billionaires who choose to forge their commercial empires at the expense of human dignity.…the list is long.
How can these brave new worlders be defeated? In a worldly sense, they can’t. Even the destruction of an arch-villain like Hitler did not usher in an era of grace. One can even argue that the Nazi’s splattered the rest of the world with the residue of their evil, helping to produce the excesses and moral pathologies of the 1950s and 60s. Soviet communism fell and, after a brief period of jubilation, the pitch was re-constituted and the lure was renewed. If Chinese communism falls, or the Kim regime, Screwtape’s disciples will rush to fill those voids too.
Forget about conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, and socialism. Voices on TV, the Internet, radio, and in print deluge us every day with the reasons why one of these political persuasions is superior to the rest, and why all the others are infantile, or vile.
The Gospel is the only remedy. Martyrs, bloody and bloodless, are what’s necessary. Jesus reigned from the Cross. We either reign with Jesus from our crosses, as witnesses to generosity, compassion, and faith, or we fail. This is the paradoxical sword that batters the “messy means-attractive ends” shield: “Unless a grain of wheat fails to the ground and dies, it shall not bear fruit.” Our fallen human nature resists, objects, and pleads for comfort, but we must not give in.
Edith Stein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many like them, did more to liberate humanity than General Eisenhower and all the Western armies; the same holds true today. Screwtape, Wormwood, Sauron, Saruman, and their disciples are busy in the world, promising us rings of power, accolades, wealth, influence, sexual gratification. We have a choice, and this choice makes all the difference.