by Theodore Dalrymple (Sept. 2007)
By nature and inclination I am an aesthete: I can hardly think of Venice or Siena, for example, without an access of emotion. And yet I have spent a great deal of my life among the utmost ugliness, both physical and moral. Moreover, I must confess that the problem of evil has preoccupied me.
One of the reasons for this, perhaps, has been literary ambition. It is far easier to make evil interesting than good. Depictions of good people are inclined very soon to decline into mawkishness, and make their objects as dull as they are unbelievable. Too much good repels us; we long for the feet of clay to be revealed. As Oscar Wilde said, only a man with a heart of stone could read of the death of Little Nell without laughing.
A fascination with evil is pretty widespread. When, at social gatherings, I tell people what I once did for a living, namely that I was a doctor in a large prison, it isn’t usually very long before someone asks me, slightly shamefacedly, who the worst, most evil man I ever met was. They also want to know what he did in as much detail as possible, of course. No story is so horrifying that it ever bores people; and even the most demure cannot for long entirely resist the thrill of the barbarous.
More recently, perhaps on account of my advancing age, the problem of good has begun to preoccupy me. How is extraordinary goodness possible? Where does it come from? Is it innate? And if it is innate, is it real goodness? For there cannot be real goodness where the possibility and temptation to its reverse is not present.
Suffice it to say that I have met in my life a few people who are the very opposite of those men whom I met in the course of my work who gave off a powerful aura, that seemed to me almost physical, of evil. I don’t believe in Satanic possession, because I don’t believe in Satan, but these men gave me an insight into how someone not completely stupid might come to believe in such a thing.
One of the formative experiences in my life was working for a British surgeon in Africa who for me all that a doctor should be. In those days, and in that place, there were very few aids to diagnosis; observation, logic, experience and instinct were all. The surgeon was such a brilliant diagnostician that his opinion was like a final court of appeal for all other doctors in the hospital ( to say nothing of the patients). I never knew him to be wrong. He was a meticulous technician and seemed capable of operating with equal skill and facility on all parts of the human body. The knowledge and intellect necessary for this is insufficiently appreciated by those who have never seen it up close. In these days of ever greater specialisation, such surgeons are rare.
But his technical accomplishment was, if anything, less impressive than his moral character. He was a man of perfect temper: I never knew him to be other than calm, even when in the middle of an operative crisis, or be less than polite to anyone; called up from his bed in the middle of the night, he was as equable and self-contained as by day, and this despite the fact that he must have had at least two nights’ disturbed sleep a week for many years. His patients – mostly poor Africans – trusted him utterly, and were right to do so.
I do not know what religious belief he had, if any; he was too much of the old school to obtrude such matters where they might have caused offence. Although highly respected in his hospital, he gained no wider renown through his work; the satisfaction for him was in doing good. I never knew a better man.
And yet I found his example intimidating to me: not, of course, because of anything he said or did, but because I knew, indubitably and at once, that I should never be as good a man as he. My problem was ego: I wanted to make a mild stir in the world, and doing good for others was not enough for me, not that I was bad enough to wish them any harm (and in the event, I did my fair share of getting up in the middle of the night on their behalf). But the good of others could never be my sole motive, or entirely satisfying to me. I could never be wholly benevolent, as he was. And now I feel guilty that I, not as good a man as he, am somewhat better known than he. The judgement of the world is not infallible.
Oddly enough, I have something in common in the above respect with a man whom I do not in general find congenial, that is to say Michel Foucault. Foucault’s father was a surgeon of local renown, who gave the young Michel an example of practical compassion for others (namely, getting up in the middle of the night to save their lives) which he, Michel, knew that he would never be able to live up to because he did not care enough about their lives to do so. There was one recourse left to him, if as an egotist he was to equal or surpass his father, namely to adopt the Nietzschean position that such compassion as his father showed is really disguised weakness, contempt or drive for power, but not real compassion. Thus, everything is the opposite of what it seems, and progress, so called, is really regress, or at best sideways movement.
It was in Africa also that I met my other examples of extraordinary goodness. For a time I gave my services one afternoon a week to a Catholic mission station about fifty miles from where I myself was working. The hospital was run by an elderly Swiss nun, neither a doctor nor a nurse, who managed a large hospital on her own with a staff of nurses. The hospital was spotless, astonishingly so, and the number of patients seen there prodigious. The hospital was much preferred to any government-run facility, with their accretions of squashed mosquitoes and smeared blood on every wall.
The nun had an almost physical air of invulnerable serenity about her, and she had an aura that struck me, of course in the opposite sense, in the way that the aura of evil later struck me. She was not a plaster saint, however, and had a good sense of humour; nor was she any kind of fanatic, for she gave me the contraceptive injection to give to the women with heart disease already exhausted by repeated childbirth, which I administered under a portrait of the Pope. I never tackled her on the subject of the apparent contradiction, because it has often seemed to me that no purpose is served by ideological confrontation in the service of complete intellectual consistency, where concrete good might be endangered by it.
I met other nuns in remote parts of Africa who seemed completely happy in humbly serving the local people: a community of Spanish nuns whose cheerful and selfless dedication caused to the ill, the handicapped and the young caused them, rightly, to be loved and revered. In Nigeria, I met an Irish nun, in her mid-seventies, who was responsible for the feeding of hundreds of prisoners who would almost certainly have starved had she not brought food to them every day. In the prison, a lunatic had been chained for years to a post; many of the prisoners had been detained without trial for a decade, the files of their cases having been lost, and they would never leave the prison, even when a judge ordered their release, unless they paid a bribe to the gaolers which they could not afford. They believed they would spend the rest of their lives in detention, seventy to a floor-space no larger than that of my sitting room.
The nun moderated the behaviour of the prison guards by the sheer force of her goodness, It was not a demonstrative or self-satisfied virtue; one simply would have felt ashamed to behave badly or selfishly in her presence. She is almost certainly dead now, forgotten by the world (not that she craved remembrance or memorialisation). I sometimes find it difficult, when immersed in the day to day flux of my existence, to credit that I have witnessed such selflessness.
I recognise that there must be ways of being good that do not involve such total self-abnegation. After all, even in the poorest and worst-off countries, there are only a certain number of disabled, despised and dispossessed who need to be looked after; we cannot, therefore, all be good in the way of the Irish nun. Indeed, the world needs other types of people at least as much as it needs people like her; and I am sure that there are cynics who will assert that immersing oneself in the kind of work she did is simply a way of overcoming one’s personal psychological problems, and is therefore ultimately selfish. But this is a metaphysical, not empirical, statement about all human behaviour, because any behaviour whatever could be explained in precisely the same way. It is simply a way of saying that altruism is logically impossible, and that all human actions must be selfish.
I once made the mistake of writing an article in as left-wing publication saying that, in my experience, the best people were usually religious and on the whole religious people behaved better in their day to day lives than non-religious once: and I wrote this, as I made clear, as a man without any religious belief.
As a frequent contributor to the public prints, I am accustomed to a certain amount of hate-mail, and can even recognise the envelopes that contain it with a fair, though not total, degree of accuracy. Of course, e-mail has made it far easier for those consumed with bile to communicate it, and on the whole it exceeds in vileness what most bilious people are prepared to commit to paper. I don’t think I have ever hated anyone as much as some of my correspondents have hated me.
Suffice it to say that I have never received such hate mail as when I suggested that religious people were better than non-religious in their conduct. It seemed that many of the people who responded to me were not content merely not to believe, but had to hate. Although I had not denied that religious motivation could motivate very bad behaviour, something which indeed can hardly be denied, I was treated to a summary of the historical crimes of religion such as many adolescents could provide who had recently discovered to their fury that they had been made to attend boring religious services when the arguments for the existence of God had never been irrefutable.
Not long ago, while I was in France, the centenary of the final separation of church and state was celebrated. It was presented as the triumph of reason over reaction, of humanity over inhumanity, and I am not entirely out of sympathy for that viewpoint: I certainly don’t want to live myself in a state in which a single religion has a predominant or even strong say in the running of it. And yet the story was far more nuanced that that triumphantly presented.
For example, a fascinating book was published on the occasion of the centenary reproducing the iconography of the anticlerical propaganda that preceded the separation by thirty years; and on looking in to it I saw at once that it was exactly the same in tone as anti-semitic propaganda. There was the wickedly sybaritic hook-nosed cardinal in diabolical scarlet, the thin hairy spider, representing the economic interests of the church, whose sinister legs straddled the whole globe, and the priest who welcomed innocent little children into the fold of his black cloak. One has to remember that almost the first consequence of secularism in France, as in Russia, was unprecedented slaughter.
Perhaps one of the reasons that contemporary secularists do not simply reject religion but hate it is that they know that, while they can easily rise to the levels of hatred that religion has sometimes encouraged, they will always find it difficult to rise to the levels of love that it has sometimes encouraged.
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