A Post-Modern Pact With the Devil

A Post-Modern Pact With the Devil

By David Warren - July 28, 2011

Here is the father of Anders Breivik speaking, to a television interviewer, who asked if he thought his son was insane:

"He must be, he must be, there is no other way to explain it!"

Alas, there is another way to explain it, that contemporary man does not like to think about, just as we do not like to think about death, and squelch people who raise the topic, and look for "closure" after death appears, and dread tomorrow - even while keeping the "happyface" turned toward the world.

Yet the alternative explanation is itself no simple thing. It contains enigma; it must be struggled with, intellectually and spiritually, all one's life.

"By their fruits ye shall know them." Acts which are unquestionably evil, proceed from minds possessed by evil.

The line we draw between medical "insanity," and malice aforethought, cannot always be drawn clearly. It is a line with which law must grapple, nevertheless, if it is to judge personal culpability.

Human law takes the evil of the deed for granted, and proceeds to the assignment of blame, through a process of forensic discovery and proof. It then weighs judgment, according to criteria established by stipulation and precedent. It seeks, within its limited power, to right the wrong; to restore a balance that has been disturbed; to repair an order that has been disrupted.

This, anyway, was the old understanding of the law, and its function. It assumed a natural moral order, in which murder is categorically wrong.

Many today reject that view, and assert that all such categories are man-made (and therefore can be man-altered). Utopians reject the whole concept of evil. They think the law should have nothing to do with retribution; only with "re-education." Acts like those of Breivik tend to take them by surprise, to be dismissed as "senseless."

Yet evil persists, whether or not it is recognized; and it continues to lie at the bottom of any possible explanation. Breivik's acts were demonic, in an irreducible way. And the ability to know that, immediately on sight, is written into every human heart - because there is a natural moral order. There was no possible "excuse" for Breivik's behaviour, and the excuses he provided himself, through 1,500 pages of rambling but coherent manifesto, were themselves manifestations of evil. That much is comprehensible.

Only a perverted moral sense can justify a truck bomb, or gunning down kids at a summer camp, or flying airliners into office buildings.

Let me fix upon this word "perverted," for both Anders Breivik and Osama bin Laden have shared in an advanced conception of "justice." Each went to extraordinary lengths to justify what he was doing.

Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the rest, were never so naked as to appear in public without a justification. It is not given to human beings to be free of moral conscience - for once again, there is a natural moral order. A person can stop justifying his own behaviour for no longer than he can hold his breath, and the coldest-blooded killer ever born is entirely human in that respect.

This distinction is crucially important. The moral sense - the sense of right and wrong - is not something a person has or doesn't have. He always has it. The question is whether it has been twisted. It becomes twisted, perverted, when we begin to think the end will justify the means; that we ourselves have the gift to discern "the greatest good for the greatest number."

The mind of Breivik revealed in his manifesto - through all the passages I have read - presents a hideously arrogant vanity; a self-confidence and self-esteem beyond hubris.

To my mind, Breivik and bin Laden, regardless of claimed religious affiliations, did things immortally evil in a similar way. They felt themselves competent to decide what is lawful, by the power of their own reasoning. This is the distinctively post-modern pact with the devil.

That is not the way we think, today - in terms of "a pact with the devil." For we are ourselves postmodern people, who think we have been emancipated from such "antiquated" beliefs. As Baudelaire put it: "No one believes in the devil any more. Yet his smell is everywhere."

The old, "mythological" account, of Genesis, Faustus, Paradise Lost, explains just what we are at a loss to explain today. In the Gospels, Christ himself must decline the pact, of worldly power. Nietzsche articulated it again, for our times: this promise of absolute human power, to be grasped in the moment we abandon "conventional morality," and become guilt-free.

Breivik, too, associates guilt with weakness. He set out to make himself strong. He would do things that were "gruesome, but necessary," because he was a "Justiciar Knight." Or in Nietzschean terms, a Superman, lifted above conventional morality.

© Copyright The Ottawa Citizen

David Warren

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