Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Transitional Worldview

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)

Herescope has been asked to write further about the process of Transition that leads to Transformation, a topic which we have been covering in the past month. How does one enter the Transition process, we were asked, and how does one end up in Transformation? Before we launch into the technical descriptions of this process, we thought today’s post would be exceptionally illuminating.

One of the best descriptions of the process by which a human being is transformed is found in Chapter 4 of Volume 1 of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s monumental work The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the Soviet concentration camp system. This chapter, entitled simply “The Bluecaps,” describes the hated secret police. Solzhenitsyn chose not to hate them, however. Rather, he wrote a soul-searching chapter in which he pondered the fateful question: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?”

To answer this “dreadful question” honestly, Solzhenitsyn reflected back on his life. He proposed that it was first “inner intuition” that “prompted our refusal to enter the NKVD [Soviet secret police, 1934-1946, ed.] schools, which “dangled before us special rations and double or triple pay.” He said that “inside your breast there is a sense of revulsion, repudiation. I don’t want to. It makes me feel sick. . . I want no part of it.”

But as he thought back on his stint as a military officer he realized that “my power soon convinced me that I was a superior human being.” He wrote: “Pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig.” Leadership went to his head, even after the initial humiliating experiences of becoming a prisoner. After a brutal self-examination he reached the conclusion that “I had been thoroughly prepared to be an executioner.” Solzhenitsyn philosophized,

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

“During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. . . .

“Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t. . . .”

Solzhenitsyn pondered the downhill slide into evil of several acquaintances. There were memorable situations in which evil people did acts of good. And there were unforgettable episodes where good people turned evil. After reciting one particularly black episode in the Russian camps, he raised the questions: “Just how are we to understand that? As the act of an evildoer? What sort of behavior is it? Do such people really exist?”

“We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any. It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep the picture simple. But when the great world literature of the past – Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens – inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: ‘I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate.

“But no; that’s not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.

“Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

“Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

“Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.”

Solzhenitsyn then disclosed a horrible episode in which camp prisoners were fed to zoo animals. He asked, “Wasn’t it expedient?” and then concluded that this was “the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear.”

Borrowing from his background in physics, Solzhenitsyn explained scientific phenomena which can occur only at “threshold magnitudes, which do not exist at all until a certain “threshold encoded by and known to nature has been crossed.” Likewise, he observed,

“Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme degree or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.”

[Alexandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II, translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney (Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 160-175]

The Truth:

“All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the LORD weigheth the spirits.
By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.” (Proverbs 16:2, 6)