Still strange bedfellows: Human evil and human progress

Why is there such an ironic disconnect between our species' evident capacity to move forward in rocketry, music, and medicine, and our inability to curtail terror, genocide and murder?

ISIS militants (photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)
ISIS militants
(photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)
Each day's news reveals a curious and stunningly grotesque juxtaposition. On the very same day that scientists and entrepreneurs choose to unveil yet another batch of remarkable innovations, the Islamic State (IS) or some similar group of  global bandits, proudly announces its latest beheading. At first glance, of course, there would appear to be absolutely no meaningful linkages between these very different kinds of event, but: (1) there are connections; and (2) these connections are deeply significant, and utterly primal.
This is because they have to do with exactly who we are, and what we are, as human beings.
There arises an unavoidable question. What precisely is wrong with us? Why should such a conspicuously smart species remain so barbarous? Why has the lethal chasm between intelligence and compassion been permitted to become so glaring? Mightn't we have already been better able to harness the former, in order to enlarge the latter?
Readily, we humans, wherever we are, and more-or-less palpably, reveal the abysmally thin veneers of "civilization." Recalling William Golding's shipwrecked boys in Lord of the Flies, we may still discover, behind these delicate veneers, a perpetually lascivious inclination to harm and to brutalize each other. Cleverly, it seems, we try not to acknowledge that certain distinctly sizable parts of our planet are actually worse off today than they were several millennia ago. Indeed, instead of asking "why," we stubbornly confront the next predictable rounds of war, terror, and genocide with the usual and expressly impotent stream of pompous banalities and empty promises.
Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd."
How, we should promptly inquire, has an entire species, so hideously miscarried from the start, managed to scandalize its own creation? Is it because we are simply the potential murderers of those who live beside us? Is this ultimately inalienable murderousness universal, even inscribed directly, onto our human DNA?
Here, on earth, where many societies are built upon entire mountains of corpses, humankind looks complacently over its still-measureless defilements, and shamelessly declares life "good."
In "high tragedy," at least as it was originally performed in fifth-century Athens, we humans are presented as unwelcome and flawed guests in the divinely-created world. Today, this enduring presentation, now modified with certain contemporary religious nuances, remains difficult to dispute. After all, following even a "small" nuclear war (an increasingly plausible expectation), cemeteries the size of whole cities may be needed.
Credo quia absurdum.
In all too many parts of the world, both within and between individual nation-states, necropolis could soon become the new normal. This is not a rational or tolerable expectation. Before anything fully human could ever be born into such a wounded world, a fevered gravedigger would have to wield the forceps.
Art is a lie that lets us see the truth. Theatrical tragedy should remind us that earthly spheres of order, justice and reason remain severely compromised, and that no amount of technology or science can ever compensate for our multiple transgressions and recurrent estrangements. Even if, as in High Tragedy, we humans should sometimes be punished in selective excess of our particular wrongdoings -  "Whom God wishes to destroy," warned the Greek tragedian, Euripides, "He first makes mad." - this "unfair" fate does not automatically make us innocent.
More than anything else, it is the dreary silence and self-inflicted fears of ordinary people that cheerlessly sustain the world’s madness.
Inevitably, there will be both garrulous and impassioned reactions to the latest famines, executions, and exterminations. Such reactions, after all, are traditionally de rigeur among all "civilized" persons. Nonetheless, even in the caring United States, the most grievous sighs will never be so bothersome or audible as to interfere with golf.
Former US President Bill Clinton is best remembered for his assorted dalliances with Monica Lewinsky, but he was never really reproached for allowing 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis to become victims of a machete-based African genocide. Today, huge swaths of Africa and the Middle East remain crouched in the bruising darkness, an incrementally-deteriorating microcosm of regional and global chaos. To be sure, it is understandably difficult for our most well-intentioned leaders to think beyond another round of narrowly military solutions, but it is also obvious that these proposed remedies are destined to fail.
We have seen this movie before. Once again, the audience can be expected to experience a bewilderingly contrapuntal fusion of joy and grief. What precise "war" are we now fighting, and when will we know if it has even been "won?"
 Exeunt omnes?
 There is no good reason to fawn upon our past mistakes. Now, with a view to authentic progress, we must look back thoughtfully. "How much treasure," we must finally inquire, "how much science, how much labor and planning, how many vast oceans of sacred poetry, have we already ransacked, to make our civilizations even more miserable, and even more desperate?" Mustn't we inquire, also: "Aren't there enough natural obstacles to human survival and human happiness? Shall we humans always go out of the way to make our already-existential perils much worse?"
Credo quia absurdum.
I don't know the answers. I do know, however, that our shallow and corrupted institutions, including periodic elections, can never save us, and that our revered universities, allegedly perched far above the distressingly mundane clamor of work and family, are fully unmindful of the most important questions. Indelicately, higher education now proceeds hand in hand with a ubiquitously crude and predatory commerce, smugly seeking funds wherever they can be rooted out, and shamelessly crushing any residual reflexes of student originality.
 The American university, now a dutifully obsequious adjunct of the wider  corporate universe, lies distant from what is necessary to human survival. French philosophers of the eighteenth-century Age of  Reason had liked to speak of a siecle des lumieres, a century of light, but today, the ivy-covered walls are fouled by a steadily congealing darkness of excruciating conformance, rote learning, vulgar self-interest, and an oddly-fashionable loathing of anything intellectual.
In today's university, both American and worldwide, the "life of the mind" has already become an embarrassingly thin text.
Credo quia absurdum.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus inquires: "Does the absurd dictate death?" What the philosopher raises by this apparently "irrational" question is an unavoidable prior query, in essence: Why should we seek to continue in a universe that ultimately has little or nothing to do with human Reason? For certain, resisting evil has nothing to do with human intelligence or applied logic. Quite the contrary. More often than we may care to admit, such intelligence and logic have even been used to justify or enlarge our most grievous collective sufferings.
Here, the Holocaust is the most obvious case in point.
Still, Reason is better than Unreason, and all human beings, at least in principle, have a primary responsibility to champion the former. In the end, of course, the primal battle for Good over Evil will have to be fought inside each and every One of us; within each One, who yearns not for Reason, which is cold and sterile, but for wizardry, mystery, and (above all) immortality. Even before Camus, the great Basque philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, in The Tragic Sense of Life, wrote wisely of the "hunger for immortality," a collectively lethal appetite that must inevitably render universalized empathy and compassion impossible.
Do we now wonder why human evil continues to coexist so easily with human technical and scientific progress; that is, why there continues to exist such an ironic disconnect between our species' evident capacity to move forward in rocketry, music, and medicine, and our inability to curtail terror, genocide, and murder? It is because, for literally billions of plainly desperate human beings, Reason remains effectively unable to compete with Anti-Reason as a true source of hope and satisfaction. For these huge majorities, tethered firmly to seemingly irresistible promises of future ecstasy, including certain faith-based promises of power over death, Reason can offer only ambiguity, emptiness, and despair.
Unsurprisingly, in most parts of the world, Reason, always abstract and devoid of passion, remains unable to compete with Anti-Reason, or "faith." Somehow, before human decency can finally catch up with scientific progress, this pre-Enlightenment priority will have to change.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and publishes widely on international relations, international law, and political philosophy. He is the author of ten major books, and several hundred journal articles, in these intersecting fields. His latest writings appear in The Jerusalem Post; The Atlantic; US News & World Report; The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; and Oxford University Press. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.