Satan’s words are from Paradise Lost; my character-building slow-reading assignment for October (!), represent as neat a summation of what evil is and why is must be constantly and vigorously fought and, I think, helps to demonstrate why conservatism is the best response to such a mind-set.
The scenario is that Satan’s rebellious angels have just been thrown down into Hell by God’s victorious loyal angels. Even before we get to the part where Satan speaks his famous political aphorism above (a mere 263 lines into the poem), Satan makes it plain that he’s still up for a fight:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; th’ unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield.
To be weak is miserable,
Doing or suffering.
And out of good still to find means of evil.
That’s a mere twenty lines after Satan and his refugee army hit the very bottom of the cosmos, and he’s already bouncing back and marshalling the troops for a rematch against Heaven. His army is in utter disarray: beaten disarmed, demoralized and exiled to the worst place imaginable… and still he’s ready to have another go.
So why is this stuff relevant to conservatism?
I first read this poem back in the early 1980s as part of the official reading list for my degree (my actual studies being: girls; cider; and shouting at Lefties: some things are just so much fun that you never find anything better). At that time the Soviets and their British adherents, paid and volunteer; knowing and unwitting, were running a full-time propaganda campaign to disguise the Soviet arms build-up and to slander and libel the West’s reactive rearmament against that. I sat in an English tutorial concerned with the poem and looked about me; there were half a dozen other undergraduates, the tutor, and me. Three undergraduates sported the CND badges and the tutor was well known on campus and in the town as supporting the campaign. Education is supposed to teach you things; things about human nature and the way of the world, right? But when I made the blindingly-obvious and unoriginal comment that Satan was voicing the thoughts and ambitions of the power-hungry the world over and at all times throughout history, I got blank states of puzzlement. Seeking power for its own sake: for the fun of conflict and conquest; for the sadistic joy of others’ obedience; for compliance with and service to The Truth; for the self-esteem of being top dog, regardless of the consequences to self and others, are constants of human nature - seemingly ineradicable. And therefore, I went on, eternal vigilance against such ambitions and the readiness to resist and overcome their aims was a constant necessity of life on Earth. I mean, it’d be crazy to let great big gangs of human beings with this kind of attitude walk around loose and unconstrained in the playground with the realpolitik equivalents of carpet knives and firelighters, yeah?
Then came the little smiles of smug recognition and adamantine rejection.
Well of course this is only a poem... It’s not about real life... And people, unlike angels, are open to reason and gentle persuasion... It doesn’t tell us anything about the real world.
Even then, twenty-five years ago, the culture wars were so advanced in their victory over us that so-called ‘students’ were prepared to state in front of their question-setting and Final exam-marking tutor that the meaning of words in literature don’t have anything to teach us about mankind or the world we live in.
So, assuming that evil can in large measure be (very, very roughly defined) as the willingness to exert power over others against their will or welfare, and regardless of suffering to self or object, how do the various kinds of political though deal with this issue?
Where are we now?
I wouldn’t start from here. The situation-based belief systems argue that such issues would pose little or no threat to the good life if only the external situation were changed. For socialists of the non-Marxist sort, power itself need not be corrupting or harmful if only the society is arranged in certain ways that allow people to meet their material wants and to satisfy their psychological needs. A fairer and more equal distribution of goods and opportunities by the State and law would either dissolve such bullying ambitions or weaken their power to do harm to others.
I don’t see how a more equal division of the spoils of production (even disregarding the lower and poorer quality of goods and services that is likely to occur under redistribution) would necessarily protect a child from his obsessive and possessive mother’s urge to exert absolute control over him, for example. Even if everyone had a nice little house and fifteen K a year and went to a bog-standard comprehensive, wouldn’t such authorities that were willing and empowered to enforce such material equality be willing and able to drill down into family lie and interfere before breakfast, lunch, and dinner and likely do as much bureaucratic harm as such whining harridans? They do it now; why not after the election of True Labour? Now, in international relations, even if equality of some sort were arranged nationally, what is to stop outside, unequal regimes from attacking and re-dividing the equal society? George Orwell posited an army of a socialist Britain still wearing the Lion and the Unicorn of its uniform buttons but that good man had never seen sixty years of the social worker mentality being in charge of almost everything – and so he never observed how an obsession with kindness and fairness takes the sense of danger and fear of ‘the other’ out of a culture. Wishful thinking is inherently bred into people in such a polity – and martial caution is bred out. Witness the almost total absence of fear amongst the equalitariat that an apocalyptic loon who’s joyously anticipating the End Times is well on his way to having The Bomb. Satan’s attitude doesn’t give a stuff about day care centres, The Paper Bag Princess, or the ready availability of affordable contraception – one way or another he wants to rule your hippy arse, Crystalglow Moonchild, and no messing.
And what of the equality officials themselves? I know of one public official in an impeccably equalitarian and redistributionist bureaucracy whose personal feuds have led to numerous unjust disciplinary proceedings against clearly blameless minions; to suspensions on full pay; and to the non-delivery of services to the organisation’s pitiful ‘customers’ against the will of Parliament and of great waste and cost to the taxpayer. But the very bureaucracy that was set up to provide these services is being used to do great personal harm to the professionals concerned and to squander scarce resources. The bully is unconstrained, having a major ‘in’ with the governing authorities of the organisation concerned – she’s untouchable.
Equality is not enough.
Libertarians tend to look at our present situation of massive government regulation of economic and personal life, of high taxation and State-created poverty, and look for a world in which governmental power is severely reduced or abolished, and in which, therefore, most people will be freer and also richer and therefore more able to fulfill their personal wishes. Well, I’d like to be freer and richer and good luck with that, my friends; we’re three elections from any chance of a government even aiming at what libertarians want, I think, and with the mandate to do something about it. But even if a minimal state came about, it is difficult to imagine that it again would survive outside interference from the usual sort. I’ve read Devil’s Kitchen describing a libertarian foreign policy for
And what of the bullying and power within institutions of freedom? Much lessened though they may be compared to the horrors of the Gulag and Madrassa and the concentration camp, still some consequences of freedom hurt.
What to do about a fashion industry that persists (freely and unconstrained apart from ‘voluntary codes’) in portraying ultra-thin and often under-age models as beautiful, and thus encouraging anorexia and bulimia? The decisions of models and young girls and women alike to starve themselves are free and voluntary. The fashion houses that use and celebrate ultra-thin models as beautiful and worthy of emulation use their imagination and justly acquired property freely and without coercion, and of course their critics are free to argue that it’s all a dangerous fantasy and a confidence trick played on women. But it’s still power, and still people are freely taken in and hurt by that power. Unintended consequences can be malign and deadly, and good intentions on the road to Hell end in the same place. Idealised freedom of the pure libertarian kind is the will to not-power.
Freedom isn’t enough.
It’s an HR problem. For Marxists, the urge to power is no problem. It can achieve great success and great improvements in the world, only if it’s used properly. ‘Properly’ has a specific meaning here: it needs to be enacted by the right people and at the right point in history will assure this, and all will be well.
Likewise the supporters of aristocratic rule.
Likewise absolute monarchists.
Plenty of room for, and evidence of, Satan’s opinion throughout history to prove my point there.
Choosing the right people isn’t enough.
People just aren’t like that (any more.) Liberals of all sorts tend to take the position that power-hunger, greed for office, and the determination to dominate are personal matters that can be softened or eradicated altogether by circumstantial changes or appeals to folks’ better natures. It is only the constraining institutions of social life – bullying family structures, economic inequality (again), or economic freedom (again), or beliefs in religion, or nation, or theories of human nature or the market or sexual supremacy or whatever, that lead people to dominate and do harm to others. Take away the structures and re-educate the beliefs out of people in a rational and kindly way and you’ll eradicate Satan’s will to power.
Have these people never been in playgrounds?
Our species derives from a meat-eating savannah and scrubland primate that has hunted and gathered in small family groups for millions of years; variously fleeing from and in turn menacing predators and competitors for game and forage, and the instincts that allowed us to do that are unlikely to go away after a mere 12,000 years or so of settled living. The instincts to reproduce and to have one’s children especially favoured; to survive by impressing one’s own will on others around oneself; to be first in the scrum to eat the prey are old. Fifteen minutes a day of Rousseau and sixty of Sesame Street just aren’t going to dig that deep into our complex natures.
Teaching people right from wrong isn’t enough.
So where am I going with this meandering collection of truisms, platitudes, massive generalizations, incomplete arguments, probable non-sequiturs and likely enough straw men?
‘The problem of politics’ is often expressed by formulae like; goodwill is limited, or altruism is constrained… and therefore how do we deal with our species’ imperfection in communal life?
The one single answer is that there isn’t just one single answer.
Belief systems that go off on one track alone or principally on one track – hunting after equality, or freedom, or king making or remaking ordinary human beings into better creatures not only often misunderstand what we are (which itself is damnably complicated), but of course ignore all the other things that can possibly go wrong other than their own favoured Source Of All Evil.
They all pretty much fall at the first fence in that specific constitutional arrangements or prescriptions for personal improvements might - just - address the obvious manifestations of Satan’s ambition, but they also let it in the back door (through ignoring unpolitical kinds of bullying) or through the front door in the form of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.
And there’s always another Satan along in minute or a decade.
In the days when our rulers treated their countries and the people in them as property to be snatched and hoarded and passed on to their own descendants there was always some overseas marriage to consummate at lance-point or some local land deal to seal in blood, if the Turk or the moors didn’t haul you off from Cornwall or Sussex into slavery first. When the Christian religion became the battlefield the people of these islands had to figure out the right form of communion using little ships, brass cannon and pikes. And then came the blasted republicans; rebelling in American and threatening our trade on the Continent and shooting us in the back in Ireland – some of it turned out just fine, but some turned into a 200-year bloody grudge down to today and some warped into a crazed proto-dictator or late-era Caesar or cut-price Bourbon – take your pick. And then when he was dealt with there came diplomacy and colonial wars (and you might paint us as the villains sometimes then as we weren’t always gentle) and then Prussian militarism segueing into nationalism and later into something that made Prussian militarism seem like cricket by comparison, and fascism and communism staring us down throughout the weary Twentieth Century with a side order of Feinian horror, and them when the Soviets went away the Religion of Peace raised on victory in Afghanistan and oil money decided to have a bash in the airlines and oilfields and mill towns of the world, and none of that could have been appeased or halted or slowed much by good housing, a thorough grounding in the classics, a hearty round of the National Anthem or lower marginal rates of tax. No matter how often we think we've sorted it all out and can get the spare room fixed up and the poor fed, some evil swine always comes along with a better idea of what to do with our time and the contents of our arteries and the rest of our children's lives. There just plain is no single cure for the reasons that Satan through humanity attaches to his hunger for power and taste for blood.
And that’s just Pride – merely one of the Deadly Sins against which our culture once taught us to fear. What of the others? What of Sloth: how to deal with benefits couch potatoes and trust fund drones and their opposites and counterparts; Stakhanovite corporate workhorses ignoring their families because of Career or suicidal Japanese students going for impossibly high grades at exam-time? Or Anger: how to manage it in the body politic to avoid vendetta, lynch-mobs and genocide without degenerating into appeasement of the Great Dictators or the passive acceptance of mediaeval dhimmis averting their eyes as the Sultan’s men ride past their crumbling and legally unrepairable churches or synagogues?
We don’t all live today like homo ergaster on the one hand or Neil Armstrong on the other. Nor are we all like Chairman Mao or Mother Teresa: not all of us all of the time, and some of us none of the time. Over the millennia since agriculture was discovered and the settled dwelling in fixed communities that it made possible, billions of people have discovered millions of ways of living together without reverting to cannibalism at one extreme and suffering under absolute tyranny at the other. There are a lot of problems and a lot of cures for those problems.
This is why philosophies like conservatism that take the well-mixed compost heap stance to political and social life score over the single-thrust type.
Mix and match and accept that circumstances alter cases and admit to yourself that change is the only constant, and that panaceas are mythological and you still might go wrong, but do otherwise and you will always go wrong, eventually.
Yes: we need freedom to discover new ways of living, but no; we should be unafraid to adjust for those who will be trampled or left behind. Yes: the individual is a moral creature and a unit of intelligence and a proper recipient for consideration and expensive help sometimes, but no; without family and society he’s pretty much a rogue hunter much of the time. Yes: nationhood is a collective defence and gives a focus as to how large problems can be solved, but no; it should not be treated as the sole or overwhelming political goal. Yes: the free ownership and disposal of property can conjure up all kinds of wealth and opportunity, but no: when it concentrates naturally it can become as much of a pestilence as rank poverty. Yes: the family is a mainstay of and orderly social life and a conserver of property, but remember also feudalism and honour killings.
There is nothing so lovely and charming that human beings can’t make a weapon or other curse out of it, but also there is little that is so vile that inspiration and hope can’t be founded on its horrors – from the slow torturing to death of an innocent man to the lengthy starvation and slaughter of half a people. There is no single thing that can keep Satan and his terrible companions at bay forever. No country; no religion; nor sum of money nor language nor marriage nor single book of truth that serves us at all times and in all ways to live together without warring amongst ourselves forever.
When it comes down to it, if we want to solve stuff, we’re left pretty much with human beings – human beings who can imagine and anticipate Satan…and his converse.
But what the hell do I know? I’m only human.