Wednesday, October 03, 2007

In an Alabama accent, "The Wahr"

In the opening minutes of the last installment of Ken Burns' documentary (docu-person-tary?), The War, the Marine Pilot says, "There is evil in the world". I took his comments to be Burns' opinion; perhaps they are not. But if he meant evil derives from "specific historical sources", Niebuhr disagrees.

"The inclination of modern man to find the source of evil in his life in some particular event in history or some specific historical corruption is a natural consequence of his view of himself in a simple one-dimensional history. But this modern error merely accentuates a perennial tendency of the human heart to attribute wrong-doing to temptation and thus to escape responsibility for it. Every man has at some time or other repeated the excuse of the first man: 'The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.' ...In the eighteenth century human evil was variously attributed to the corrupting influence of religion or to tyrannical governents and ignorant legislators who had disturbed the harmony of nature. In the nineteenth century Marx traced the self-alienation of man from his true essence to the rise of the class organization in society. Each of these explanations has the virtue of throwing light upon the character of particular social evils and may point the way to their mitigation of elimination. But none of them explain how an evil which does not exist in nature could have arisen in human history."

In the historical timeline, 1945, the ending of WWII 62 years ago is a mere slip of tissue paper. We believe we can see the past far behind us; its evils safely trussed in footage and bound up in books. The past, as the classical Greeks would remind us, is not behind but always before us. The future is hidden.

Niebuhr, "The fact that modern man has been able to preserve such a good opinion of himself, despite all the obvious refutations of his optimism, particularly in his own history, leads to the conclusion that there is a very stubborn source of resistance in man to the acceptance of the most obvious and irrefutable evidence about his moral qualities. This source of resistance is not primarily modern but generally human. The final sim of man, said Luther truly, is his unwillingness to concede that he is a sinner. (Smoothing Plane, "I feel you wincing at the screen again.") The significant contribution of modern culture to this perennial human inclination lies in the number of plausible reasons which it was able to adduce in suport of man's good opinion of himself. The fact that many of these reasons stand in contradiction to each other did not shatter modern man's confidence in them; for he could always persuade himself of the truth of at least one of them and it never occurred to him that they might all be false. "

"Yet they were all false. Whether they found the path from chaos to order to lead from nature to reason of from reason to nature, whether they regarded the nrmony of nature of the coherence of mind as the final realm of redemption, they failed to understand the human spirit in its full dimension of freedom. Both the majesty and the tragedy of human life exceed the dimension within which modern culture seeks to comprehend human existence. The human spirit cannot be held within the bounds of either natural necessity or rational pridence. In its yearning toward the infinite lies the source of both human creativity and human sin."

Remember that phrase, "The end of history"? History has not ended. We are not outside history, looking either in or back. We are astride history. And we are trapped and freed in our inclinations to freedom and desire. There is no vantge point from which we can transcend and escape the corruptions of self-interest.

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