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“Wendell Berry, Walker Percy, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Christian
responses to Dystopia”
William Jason Wallace, Ph.D.
Samford University
An Ancient Problem
Dystopias distort order. They are associated with the cataclysmic
decline of civil society, the absence of justice, the loss of stable community
and the dehumanizing abuse of power. In ancient Greece and Rome rightly
ordered politics, that is politics informed by the pursuit of wisdom and
justice, was the principle means of avoiding dystopia. A city-state educated
for virtue, and, at least for free people, human fulfillment and the good life.
Human nature and political community shared an important teleological
relationship. Politics brought into being the kind of social order most
conducive to the realization of ultimate human purpose. In this sense, Plato,
Aristotle, and Cicero, amongst others, upheld fundamentally the same
conception of rightly ordered political activity as the answer to dystopia.
In addition to its status as a foundational work of political philosophy
Plato’s Republic is also the oldest and most canonical work exploring the
boundaries between utopia and dystopia. In the Republic Socrates unpacks
the requisites for a perfectly just city, an ideal suggesting political order is
1
best understood as analogous to the tripartite division of the soul into reason,
appetite, and will. After detailed investigation and analysis of the evolution
of the perfect state Socrates surprises his interlocutors by demonstrating that
the establishment of such an ideal would require, in practice, an enforced
communism. While Socrates happily elaborates the many benefits of such a
republic, he suggests achieving it would require injustices and coercive
deceptions. The state’s best hope is the education of an able few into an
understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful. These “philosopher
kings” would be fit to govern the appetitive, unruly, corrupt, and for the
most part ignorant masses; and, because they are trained to know the good,
they will do so justly.1
Like Plato Aristotle was no fan of democracy, but neither did he
embrace Plato’s notion of the Philosopher King. He believed that humans,
both individually and collectively, were by nature capable of using reason to
pursue virtue and happiness. All human activity, he argued, aims at some
good, which is to say all human activity strives toward some type of
excellence. Happiness, or better fulfillment, results from contemplating how
one ought to live one’s life, and then moving from contemplation to
exemplary action. Aristotle gave expression to the possibility of virtue as
1
Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin Books, 1987).
2
human activity. Moderation of the passions is good human activity that
directs human nature to its proper end or purpose. For Aristotle, all of life is
relational and the highest good cannot be separated from the responsibility
of living in community. Not only individuals, but communities seek to
fulfill their purpose, or end, by striving for the good. A community’s
purpose varies depending upon its scale and the ends for which it exists.
Aristotle argues the most important community is the city, the chief end of
which is the best life possible for its citizens. Just as human nature relies on
reason to check the passions through the cultivation of virtue, so too
communities, or communal nature, rely on rational people to check the
influence of the passions on public life. Hence, Aristotle maintains the right
relationship between human happiness, habit, reason, virtue, and the city is
critical for the avoidance of dystopia and the maintenance of just political
order.2
Cicero wrote De Officiis (On Duties) in the fall of 44 B.C., some six
months after the assassination of Julius Caesar, and just a year before the
emergence of the Second Triumvirate. Though he addresses the work to his
son, Marcus, he intended it to be read by a larger audience. On Duties is
concerned with how those who assume public office are to understand their
2
Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1985).
3
responsibilities, the duties they owe, and to whom. It is filled with timeless
moral wisdom, but it is also a declaration of how to preserve the essence
republicanism in the face of autocratic ambition. Cicero argues that those
who aspire to govern must approach their responsibilities in the spirit of
sacrifice and service instead of privilege and right. The best form of
leadership begins with fidelity to the community, and competence for public
office is proven by service in humble posts rather than elaborate campaigns
for election to high office. Cicero also views partisanship as the natural
enemy of public service. Those who use public office to advance the
interests of their party rather than society as a whole are undermining the
public good. Drawing from the philosophical resources of Stoicism, Cicero
understands the successful officeholder, and in turn the successful political
order, to be one who moderates passion and emotion with cultivated reason,
sound judgment, and the precepts of natural law.3
Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism connected Hellenistic
politics to larger questions of reason, virtue, duty and sacrifice. All three
articulated a rational means by which the just and well-ordered society could
best be achieved and dystopia could be avoided. The great philosophical
schools of antiquity shared the opinion that human ambition’s greatest good
3
Cicero, On Duties, trans. E. M. Atkins and M. T. Griffin (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1991).
4
was politics and, in turn, politics ordered all other “goods” toward their
proper end. With the slow transformation and eventual collapse of the
Roman imperium, however, classical political ideals gave way to an
uncertain future. The West, in the eyes of many, faced a real rather than
imagined dystopia.
The atrophy of the Roman Empire demanded an interpreter and found
one in Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s City of God is a Christian attempt
to answer a crisis of history and values. As such it both challenges and
elaborates the Hellenistic understanding of the relationship between virtue,
politics, and human flourishing. After Augustine, Christianity wrestled with
its “worldly other-worldliness” in new ways. Politics for the Christian could
only be a proximate good and never an ultimate or final good. The Christian
shares secular space and secular goods as an alien and a sojourner rather
than an agent of virtuous citizenship as conceived in classical formulations
of politics. After Augustine Christian history acquired an eschatological
horizon that affirmed even when the present may seem a dystopian
nightmare, the future belongs to the City of God and, in turn, history has a
purpose beyond politics.
Augustine’s great insight in The City of God is that politics and
societal order can never be the highest human achievement in light of God’s
5
control over time and eternity. Roman hubris assumed that both the empire
and those who served it possessed an unshakeable purpose in providing law
and order for the world. When faced with lawlessness, moral decay, and
servitude to foreign masters, however, the Roman understanding of power
and politics collapsed along with its venerable institutions. In a society
where received wisdom held that justice was the greatest good and that
politics, in turn, was the means through which justice came to be realized,
the end of politics meant the end of history. By the close of the third decade
of the fifth century Rome no longer had viable political security and,
accordingly, the empire lost its rationale for the pursuit of justice. In many
ways Rome lost its greatest achievement and its raison d’etre.4
Augustine did not reject wholesale the philosophical reasoning that
gave primacy of place to justice and politics in the ancient world. Instead,
he reoriented the promise of justice and politics in light of Holy Scripture
and the incarnation of Christ. In doing so Augustine demonstrated that the
limits of politics are inextricably linked to the limits of human nature. He
urged that the purpose and meaning of politics and justice only make sense
in light of the divine economy of creation, fall, and redemption. Humanity’s
4
See Robert Markus, History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1989). Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity (London:
Routledge, 2003). Peter Iver Kaufman, Incorrectly Political: Augustine and Thomas
More (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).
6
fallen nature distorts not only our self-understanding, but our communal
relationships as well. Christ reconstitutes and redirects human nature toward
its proper end. That end, however, is not in this world or this world’s
politics. It belongs to the city of God. For Augustine the answer to dystopia
involves gleaning what is best from the wisdom of philosophy while at the
same time recognizing the limits of human nature and the impossibility of
human perfectibility apart from God. Likewise, answering dystopia is
acknowledging that though the pursuit of justice and order is good and
should be desired, politics in a fallen world can only dimly reflect and
imitate a more perfect heavenly ideal of divine justice and order.5
The Modern Turn
Modernity has largely rejected the limits Augustine placed on human
nature and politics. The process of this rejection is complicated, occurring
in fits and starts from the Renaissance and the rise of nominalism to the
present, but the essential components of the shift from the pre-modern to the
modern world are the sweeping changes brought about by science,
industrialization, and political liberalism in the 17th and 18th centuries. Each
contributed to the notion that humans have more control over nature and
5
Robert Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2005).
7
history than previously assumed. Each also helped to enlarge the Cartesian
assumption that the rational autonomous individual is the starting point for
making sense of reality.
The development of social contract theory, especially in France in the
18th century, produced an unbounded optimism in human potential to change
existing political conditions. An abstract calculus of rights and duties
replaced the contingent and historical ties of the past. The radicals of the
French Revolution exchanged the arbitrary arrangements of history for faith
in the universal efficaciousness of reason to govern human relationships. In
doing so they weakened older contingent communal associations and created
a void in people's affections. Customary loyalties, religious bonds, and the
unquestioned ties of local relationships diverted into the idea of the “nation.”
The danger was clearly perceived by Edmund Burke, who critiqued the
French Revolution on the grounds that human affections are bound by
accidents that people do not choose. Proximity, not reason, is the basis of
ordinary charitable feelings. The cunning idealism of the Jacobins
portended a series of revolutionary upheavals in the West, including
Communism and Fascism in the 20th century, that promised a new kind of
utopian politics. At the same time the Reign of Terror exposed the
8
dystopian nightmare such politics unleashed in the name of progress.6
Like modern politics, modern usages of science and industry also
signaled a new kind of faith in progress. Isaac Newton’s revolution in
physics in many ways freed humans from the arbitrary uncertainty of natural
phenomenon. Newton synthesized the work of his predecessors and
developed an elegant model that explained mathematically how motion and
force make sense within the heliocentric system. His 1687 Philosophiæ
Naturalis Principia Mathematica dominated the scientific view of the
physical universe for the next three centuries. With the advent of the new
science of physics, and the subsequent implications for biology and
chemistry, the natural world became less mysterious and, at least in theory,
more subject to manipulation, control, and mastery.
Early pioneers of the new science recognized a potential conflict
between science and Christian theology, but few wrestled with the intense
spiritual angst found in later thinkers who believed the physical and
metaphysical coherency of the pre-modern world was becoming untenable.
In time, the critical spirit fostered by the new science weakened traditional
Christian authority primarily by rejecting the possibility nature has a
6
Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual
Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Gertrude
Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments
(New York: Vintage, 2004). Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1963).
9
knowable supranatural purpose, or teleology. This rejection laid the
groundwork for philosophical positivism, or the belief that truth can only be
discovered in the properties and behaviors of natural phenomena as verified
by the empirical evidence. In short, scientific positivism promised to
liberate humanity from the limits of nature, and yet it did so at the price of
distorting if not forgoing the most basic religious conceptions of what it
means to be human.7
Advances in science and technology enabled new ways of processing
raw materials that in turn established the factory system as the principal
means of manufacturing goods from the late 18th century to the
present. This shift in production and consumption raised standards of living,
generated unprecedented wealth, and created new possibilities for leisure. It
also brought about competing social relationships, disparate class interests,
and alienation from traditional communities that had little precedent in the
pre-industrial West.
Partly as a response to the harsher realities of the new industrial
order, and partly as a utopian answer to his fears of market–driven dystopia,
Karl Marx introduced the possibility that all of history could be understood
7
James Gleick, Isaac Newton (New York: Vintage, 2003). David C. Lindberg and
Ronald Numbers, eds., God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between
Christianity and Science (Oakland: University of California Press, 1986).
10
through the lens of class struggle. The unavoidable result of this historical
struggle would be a workers revolution against owners that would usher in a
new kind of social order. The Marxist program was the most radical social
philosophy to compete with liberalism in the 19th century. Beyond
economic theory it challenged the very substance of values that shaped
Western sensibilities—the solidarity of the family, religious convictions,
personal rights, and freedom of choice. Yet, it also borrowed from and
reshaped many Western liberal ideas that prevailed during the
Enlightenment, including notions of private property, the labor theory of
value, the social contract, and the progress of history.8
Marxism stands as a paramount modern ideology in that it was not
satisfied with simply privatizing religion, as was much of Enlightenment
thought, rather it called for abolishment of religion altogether. Religion,
said Marx creates “false consciousness,” and false consciousness prevents
people from seeing their existence as it really is. In this sense, Marxism
demanded a thoroughgoing secularized social order beyond the more modest
Enlightenment proposal of separation of church and state. Marxism, along
with Fascism, or radical authoritarian nationalism, gave rise to the
8
Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engles Reader (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).
Roy C. Macridis, Contemporary Political Ideologies: Movements and Regimes (New
York: Harper Collins, 1992). Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1953).
11
totalitarian regimes of the 20th century that shaped most modern conceptions
of dystopia. Both ideologies promised a final political solution to human
suffering and both disregarded the human price required to achieve such
solutions.9
The most disturbing features of dystopias, real and imagined, tend to
derive from distorted political and scientific activity. Social regimentation,
bureaucratic “experts,” scientific “experts,” propaganda, loss of
individualism, technological and pharmacological manipulation, state
sponsored terror, and aggressive experimentation with nature are all
common features of dystopia. The fact that dystopias frequently emerge
from the failed pursuit of politically and technologically engineered utopias
is not lost in the best fiction on the subject. Both Aldous Huxley’s Brave
New World and George Orwell’s 1984 describe dystopias where humans are
manipulated toward designed social ends by state sponsored conditioning.
Both works also brilliantly portray the horrific use of mind control and
technology to achieve the “good” society.
Wrongly ordered usage of politics, science, and industry are important
to both Huxley and Orwell’s dystopic nightmares. Yet, as Neil Postman
observed in the forward to his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death
9
Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1938). Hannah
Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1968).
12
Orwell and Huxley did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warned that
dystopia will come through an external imposed oppression. Huxley, by
contrast, suggested that the love of technology and convenience would make
external oppression unnecessary—people will acquiesce freedom in the
name of pleasure. As Postman put it:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was
that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who
wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to
passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared
we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial
culture . . . In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared
that what we love will ruin us.10
Postman’s description of Orwell and Huxley’s respective visions of
dystopia is strikingly similar to Augustine’s warning that the object of
people’s loves or hatreds determines the kind of people they become.
Similarly, the object of a society’s loves and hatreds determines the kind of
political order they are willing to tolerate. If the state, or science, or
industrial production and consumption are the final goods for individuals or
for a society then both the means and the ends for how they are used will
remain confined to their own closed logic. No external standard exists by
which to discern whether they are being used correctly—i.e. for the
“good”—or not. At best politics, science and industry strive for a
10
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin, 1985), vii.
13
generalized but ill-defined notion of progress and improvement. At worst
the pursuit of progress and improvement become final ends in themselves
without regard to the means employed for their achievement.
Contemporary Responses
Wendell Berry, Walker Percy, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are three
20th century and 21st century writers whose work offers thoughtful Christian
responses to the moral confusion of modernity’s faith in politics, science,
and industrial production and consumption. These authors also successfully
integrate classical pre-Christian notions of virtue and moral responsibility
into their understandings of Christian hope. Today, much like 5th century
Rome, many sense an encroaching dystopian despair over the meaning and
purpose of human nature, politics and history. Berry, Percy and
Solzhenitsyn offer important theological alternatives to dystopian
apprehensions of our age in their respective emphases human limitations and
divine order. In particular all three propose a theistic interpretation of
human nature and history that in good Augustinian fashion warn against
triumphalism and disordered desire in our quest to understand and achieve
the good life.
14
Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry (b. 1934), a Baptist, urges that democratic participation
includes much more than assent to an abstract social contract. Democracy
depends on enlightened citizenship and enlightened citizenship depends on
culture. For Berry culture is primarily local, historically settled, and
conversant with the past. Good political choices, choices that best navigate
the destabilization of values, begin with recognizing the human condition
within a divinely created order.
As a farmer and a writer of both non-fiction and fiction Berry’s work
ranges across a variety of topics: agriculture, the environment, poetry,
literature, public policy, sex, and conservation are but a few of his main
topics. A central theme in his writings, however, and maybe the most
important one, is his concern about relationships and the role community
plays in shaping relationships. For Berry relationships are not made up of
isolated parts: individual people, distinct tracts of land, and natural
resources. Rather relationships are composed of connected elements, and
the connections between the elements are as important as the elements
themselves.
Modern people neglect or devalue many of these connections in a
variety of ways. Modernity organizes the world in fragmented terms,
15
valuing parts in isolation and ignoring or underestimating the dependency
and interconnectedness of relationships. This fragmentation extends beyond
the realm of pure material interests to the intellectual and the moral realms
as well. Here, moderns are prone to independent isolated individualism that
discounts the necessity of dependency, tradition, and the cultivation of
worthwhile habits of disciple over time.
Berry argues that humans flourish only when they recognize and
subsequently live their lives in the knowledge that their interests and wellbeing are shaped by and dependent upon their local communities and
creaturely reliance on a creator God. When individuals, or whole societies,
lose sight of this dependence they mistake progress, material consumption,
and convenience for order. In fact, says Berry, true order cannot be
understood apart from relationships between people and local communities
and between creatures and God. The modern world by and large is
disordered (if not dystopic) because it premises relationships on domination
and consumption rather than community and creatureliness. Food, sex,
families, neighbors, and the natural world are meant to be cultivated in
responsible reciprocal relationships. But the greater the scale of the
economy, the larger the oversight of the state, the longer the distance
between food production and consumption, and the more abstracted
16
sexuality from fidelity and domesticity, the more confused a society’s moral
obligations. In Berry’s words:
We must support what supports local life, which means community, family,
household life—the moral capital our larger institutions have to come to rest
upon. If the larger institutions undermine the local life, they destroy that moral
capital just exactly as the industrial economy has destroyed the natural capital of
localities—soil fertility and so on. Essential wisdom accumulates in the
community much as fertility builds in the soil.11
For Berry the problem is abstraction. The more abstract a relationship
the more difficult it is to meet the obligation the relationship requires.
Concepts like “citizen” or worse “global citizen” carry no import without the
immediacy of real places and real people. The very idea of national or
global community is “meaningless apart from the realization of local
communities” identified by proximity and mutuality of interests. The
strength and viability of a nation or state is dependent upon such loyalties
prior to claiming any loyalty for itself. What is important to note is that
Berry distinguishes community from public life. Community is not defined
by legal obligations and contracts. Public life is. Community requires
instead loyalty and affection of its members as well as cooperation and
responsibility. Public life depends upon such affection and good will being
instilled in human relationships prior to any status of citizenship. Berry
Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community,” Sex, Economy, Freedom, &
Community (New York: Pantheon, 1992). See also Wendell Berry, What Are People
For? (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).
11
17
elaborates:
Private life and public life, without the disciplines of community interest,
necessarily gravitate toward competition and exploitation. As private life casts
off all community restraints in the interest of economic exploitation or ambition
or self-realization or whatever, the communal supports of public life also by the
same stroke are undercut, and public life becomes simply the arena of private
ambition and greed.12
In the modern world local communities and local economies have
disintegrated through both “external predation” and “internal disaffection.”
That is local life ceases to retain value in proportion to the degree industrial
corporate propaganda seduces people into believing what is immediate and
real is not as worthwhile what is expedient and self-interested. As a result
the bonds of affection that bind people prior to reason, calculation, material
interest, and the law have faltered, and justice is no longer viewed as human
virtue common to human nature. Instead, as Berry notes, “we have changed
from a society whose ideal of justice was trust and fairness among people
who knew each other into a society whose ideal of justice is public litigation,
breeding distrust even among people who know each other.”13 In other
words, justice is no longer a common human virtue learned in relationships,
rather it is self-interest regulated and manipulated through legal constructs.
According to Berry the recovery of local commitments—be they economic,
educational, familial, or cultural—is the answer to the dystopic tendencies in
12
13
Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community.
Ibid.
18
a political-economy of disproportionate scale relative to human need and
human limitations.
In addition to the recovery of local community Berry’s work also
encourages a reconsideration of the relationship humans share with creation
and the Creator. An awareness of creaturely dependence on the Creator is
essential for the right ordering of the self and the type of activities
“selfhood” should value. For Berry the Creator is the God of Christianity.
The modern mind, and significantly the modern Christian mind, is largely
gnostic. That is it accepts, even if tacitly, a radical cleavage or discontinuity
between the natural order and the divine mind. Matter is matter subject to its
own laws that can be understood and communicated objectively. Spirit is
spirit limited primarily to personal opinion and subjective feelings or
emotions. Even worse, spirit although largely considered a private affair for
moderns, is superior to matter because it is immutable whereas matter is
corruptible. The problem confronted Augustine as well, and though he
never came to a consensus position he did reaffirm the goodness of creation
as an analogue of God’s goodness. Likewise Berry insists that a right
understanding of human nature, God’s nature, and the natural order must
include an unequivocal rejection of dualism:
The breath of God is only one of the divine gifts that make us living souls; the
other is the dust. Most of our modern troubles come from our misunderstanding
19
and misvaluation of this dust. Forgetting that the dust too is a creature of the
Creator, made by the sending forth of his spirit, we have presumed to decide that
the dust is "low." We have presumed to say that we are made of two parts: a body
and a soul, the body being "low" because made of dust, and the soul "high." By
thus valuing these two supposed-to-be "parts," we inevitably throw them into
competition with each other, like two corporations.14
To despise the body or mistreat the created order because it is not as “pure”
as the spiritual is for Berry a type of dangerous self-hatred. Perhaps worse it
is a blasphemy. Gnostic dualism, whether of the ancient or modern variety,
is a denial that everything in the natural created order is connected to a
greater good, God, in which we live and move and have our being:
If we think of ourselves as living souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of
a Creation that is mostly mysterious—that, even when visible, is never fully
imaginable—we see that everything we make or do cannot help but have an
everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world.15
Berry argues that humans best understand themselves and their moral
obligations in immediate relational dependent communities that reflect a
balanced economy of scale. He also holds that a proper understanding of
human nature and the natural order can only be found in relationship with a
creator God who made creation good. When self-understanding and selfawareness are tied to particular places and particular relationships the
totalizing demands of disordered political economies—be they nationalist or
communist—lose potency. Likewise, when people understand creation
Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy,
Freedom, & Community (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 107.
15 Ibid., 109.
14
20
shares a relationship with the soul, with God, and with eternity exploitation
of nature in the name of either private acquisitiveness or public utility
dissipates if ever so slightly in light of a greater good.
Walker Percy
Walker Percy (1916-1990), one of the most significant Catholic
writers of the 20th century, argues that despite the many merits of modern
technology, when science attempts to replace the comprehensive claims of
the Christian faith the result is a chaotic system bordering on apocalypse.
His work challenges the idea that science, positivism, and Cartesian
rationalism can make sense of individual self-awareness. For Percy, only
the direct influence of God’s grace, coupled with the desire to worship Him,
can reconcile fractured human nature and fractured human community.
Percy came to his convictions gradually. Orphaned as a young boy—
his father committed suicide and his mother died under mysterious
circumstances—Percy along with his two brothers, grew up with his
eccentric and literary uncle, William Alexander Percy. After college he
attended medical school where he contracted tuberculosis and spent the
better part of three years bedridden. During that time he read extensively
from the writings of existentialists such as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre,
and most significantly Søren Kierkegaard. He also thoroughly familiarized
21
himself with work of Thomas Aquinas. Shortly after his convalescence, in
his mid-thirties, he married, left the medical profession to become a full-time
writer, and converted to Catholicism. The primary themes of his writing are
evident from his first novel, The Moviegoer, published in 1961.16
Percy’s work is a diagnosis of the “modern malaise”—the emptiness
of spirit and darkness of heart so prevalent in the 20th century. He argues in
both his fiction and non-fiction that that humanity is alienated from its true
condition and this alienation all too often leaves individuals and societies
seeking meaning and purpose in materialism, pleasure, and baleful politics.
Percy’s great insight is that scientific positivism, consumerism, behaviorism,
and secular humanism distort more than they clarify. They promise to fulfill
the deepest human desires even while they cannot answer the basic questions
of the human heart.
Walker Percy’s work as a whole urges the recovery of a Christian
humanism that has been displaced by vapid secular substitutes. For Percy,
true happiness and true purpose cannot be understood until people are
disabused of their spurious faith in progress and perfectibility. Political
truisms about human dignity and improving the quality of life are banal and
superficial because the spiritual resources that orient individuals to truth,
16
See Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1992).
22
namely redemption and the sacred, are largely dismissed by modernity. His
satirical fiction aims to jolt readers into an awareness of spiritual despair that
falsely convinces all is well when in fact people may actually be lost and
damned. Rootless, despondent, sinful people in search of something more,
something “other,” populate Percy’s stories. His novels often portray how
disordered human love actually anticipates and longs for the supernatural
love of God that rightly orders disordered desire. This theme is most
powerfully presented his 1971 dystopic satire: Love in the Ruins.
Love in the Ruins is the story of hopeless people lost in a world that
lacks meaning. Percy paints a picture of life without spirit, completely
missing the human religious instinct. The story is set in Louisiana in an
imagined future of the 1980s, “at a time near the end of the world.” The
United States is divided into factions—liberal and reactionary, leftists and
knotheads, black and white, young and old, north and south. Even the
Catholic Church has “split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic
Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who
believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny
scattered flock with no place to go.”17
In the midst of the fragmentation and discontent, Dr. Thomas More,
17
Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 5-6.
23
the protagonist, is convinced that the world is about to end. He is holed up
in a deserted hotel with three beautiful women and his “lapsometer,” a
scientific device for measuring the emotions and beliefs and metaphysical
condition of every individual, a “caliper of the soul” so to speak. As the
political situation deteriorates, More encounters the mysterious character of
Art Immelmann who appears benign enough at first, but becomes
increasingly malevolent as the novel unfolds. Immelmann is eventually
revealed to be the Devil incarnate and is determined to possess Tom More’s
soul.
Percy portrays More as morally flawed and subject to common human
temptations: “longing, longings for women, for the Nobel Prize, for the hot
bosky bite of bourbon whiskey, and other great heart-wrenching longings
that have no name.” Although a doctor who invented a mechanism to
diagnose spiritual malaise, he cannot use it to cure the illnesses he discovers.
The device can only indicate there is a problem; it cannot solve the problem.
Worse, More himself suffers from mental illness and is also a patient in the
hospital in which he works. Though satirical, Percy’s message is serious:
society is ill and needs to rediscover purpose and meaning. This rediscovery
occurs through the gradual Augustinian realization that what people love
determines the kind people they become. Rightly ordered love amid the
24
ruins of modern America, specifically the love of God is transformative.
Tom More resists the temptations of the satanic Immelmann and finds
communion with God. He commits himself to his research, and to his wife
and family. He becomes human.
While Percy’s vision of America quintessentially dystopian, his
analysis is essentially hopeful—the redemption and restoration of the soul to
its proper end. Percy says of writing Love in the Ruins:
What interested me is what can happen in a free society in which Orwell and
Huxley have carried the day. Everybody agrees with Orwell and Huxley, yet
something has gone wrong. For this novel deals not with the takeover of a society
by tyrants or computers or whatever, but rather with the increasing malaise and
finally the falling apart of a society which remains, on the surface at least,
democratic and pluralistic.18
In other words Percy’s dystopic vision is a world where everyone
realizes something is terribly wrong, but remain for the most part
ambivalent. All the artificial trappings of civilization remain to a degree.
Yet the collapse of civilization looks more like self-hatred and selfdestructiveness rather than tyrannical oppression—too much freedom
without a purpose rather than the abrogation of freedom. The question Percy
is most concerned with is what is “the best hope of the survivors” in such a
scenario?
Modern politics can only offer ideological answers to the problem but,
18
Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land (London: Bellow Publishing Company,
1991), 248.
25
for Percy, political ideology is incapable of answering what it really means
to pursue happiness in a way that fulfills human purpose. Equally insipid is
indignation that lacks a repository of intellectual and moral resources
capable of answering the modernity’s malaise. As Percy notes it is not a
small thing to “turn your back on two thousand years of rational thinking
and hard work and science and art and the Judeo-Christian tradition.”19 Yet
he believes this is precisely what advocates of post-modernism do when they
try to criticize the modern malaise. Percy offers instead that dystopia,
disorder of the soul and of society, can only be sufficiently answered by the
sacramental redemptive purpose of the Church as it bears witness to Christ
in a broken sinful world that still retains the impress of its Creator.
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), a Russian Orthodox Christian,
understood the social consequences of the moral failings of the 20th century.
His work laments the place modernity has given human freedom without
taking into consideration human decadence, our love of human rights
without human obligations. At the root of the modernity’s malaise is the
philosophy of rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy divorced from
19
Ibid., 249.
26
the transcendent.
Solzhenitsyn was born one year after the Bolshevik Revolution. He
fought in the Soviet Army during World War II and was decorated for his
service. In 1945 he wrote a private letter to a fellow soldier criticizing then
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The letter was intercepted, and Solzhenitsyn
was arrested and taken to Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka Prison for
questioning. For the crime of criticizing the government, Solzhenitsyn was
sentenced to eight years in a Gulag labor camp. Here, he converted to
Christianity and began a life-long effort to explain how the loss of
transcendence, specifically Christian transcendence, helped to create the
distorted and tyrannical politics of totalitarianism. Following his release
from prison in 1953, he remained under internal exile in what is now
Kazakhstan.20
Solzhenitsyn was released from exile and officially exonerated in
1957. He found work as a high school teacher and began to write during his
free time in the evenings. Two of his most well known novels, One Day in
the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and The Gulag Archipelago (1973),
contain searing accounts of life in the Soviet Gulag system. Solzhenitsyn’s
writings brought the horrors of the Soviet Union under Stalin to the attention
20
Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984).
27
of the world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. The
Soviet government, however, did not view Solzhenitsyn’s activities
favorably, and in 1974 he was arrested, stripped of his citizenship, and
deported to West Germany. After a brief sojourn in Switzerland,
Solzhenitsyn settled in the United States.21
In 1978 Harvard University awarded Solzhenitsyn an honorary
doctorate and invited him to give their commencement address. Given
Solzhenitsyn’s background, his audience expected that his speech, “A World
Split Apart,” would criticize Soviet oppression and praise American
democracy and capitalism. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Solzhenitsyn
(speaking through a translator) instead offered a bracing critique of the
West, albeit “as a friend, not as an adversary.”
According to Solzhenitsyn, the capitalist and democratic societies of
the West have become cowardly and soulless places that value little else
besides the unlimited acquisition of material goods. Popular culture is ugly
and vulgar while criminality reigns unchecked. Perhaps most ironically of
all, the Western media, although under no government control, nonetheless
censors unpopular and alternative views as effectively as the Soviet statecontrolled media. Solzhenitsyn argues that the West’s degraded state is due
21
Ibid.
28
to an idea at the very roots of modern liberal democracy, the “autonomy of
man from any higher force above him.” He calls on the West to reassess its
values and return to a way of life focused on the spiritual.
Solzhenitsyn understood that political liberalism harbors the potential
for dystopia albeit in a more subtle form than either communism or fascism.
Liberalism assumes that “rights” are the premise of human relationships and
that the dismissal and abuse of rights is what created the tyrannical regimes
in Europe in the 20th century. Solzhenitsyn’s insight is that the West’s
understanding of rights has been reduced to formal legal relationships
devoid of transcendent accountability that anchor rights in responsibility.
Law, he argues, is not sufficient for human flourishing. In fact, law
separated from more fundamental moral considerations of human nature and
ultimate human need will have the adverse affect of reducing society to
calculation and self-interest resulting in stagnation of spirit and hope:
. . . a society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to
take full advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is
too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue
of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual
mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply
impossible to bear up to the trials of this threatening century with nothing but the
supports of a legalistic structure.22
Solzhenitsyn’s broader point is that law is simply not enough to
22
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart: Commencement Address Delivered at
Harvard University June 8, 1978 (New York: Harper Collins, 1978).
29
regulate freedom. Proper use of freedom, responsible freedom, demands
commitments that both transcend the law and can evaluate the justice or
injustice of particular laws. Without such commitments society will always
frame questions of right and wrong in terms of legal relationships rather than
moral relationships. This is dangerous, says Solzhenitsyn, because the result
is a tolerance of destructive behavior as long as it meets the requisite of
rights as defined by law. A society thus defined: “has turned out to have
scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence . . . Life organized
legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the
corrosion of evil.”23
Solzhenitsyn urges the origins of this distorted notion of freedom was
born in the Renaissance found political expression in the Enlightenment. He
calls the problem rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy— “the
pro-claimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above
him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center
of all.”24 Humanism without reference to God denies any intrinsic evil in
man, and it asserts there is no higher good than the attainment of happiness
on earth. According to Solzhenitsyn this rejection of transcendence “started
modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of worshiping man and
23
24
Ibid.
Ibid.
30
his material needs.”25
The West achieved human rights, but at the same time it abrogated the
religious truths that ensured rights had meaning beyond the political. The
result is a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. Moderns have tried
to correct this impasse by placing even more hope in politics and social
reforms. The end of human purpose and the end of history is simply
happiness however one defines it. Solzhenitsyn, in an echo of Augustinian
theology, counters this understanding of human nature and history is a
deception:
If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be
born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be
more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best
ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be
the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become
above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than
one started it.26
Solzhenitsyn reminds the West that the triumphs of liberalism are
vulnerable to the very dystopic dissentegration westerners disdained in the
East for most of the 20th century. Political salvation is impossible whether in
the name of freedom or in the name of order. Human consciousness must be
redirected to the Creator in order to properly understand the burden of
25
Ibid.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Men Have Forgotten God,” The Templeton Address in The
Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 (Wilmington, DE:
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
26
31
human sinfulness, the need for redemption, and the limits of politics. Before
we do politics correctly, “We must first recognize the horror perpetrated not
by some outside force, not by class or national enemies, but within each of
us individually, and within every society.” “Our life,” says Solzhenitsyn,
“consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest for worthy
spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transitional stage in the
movement toward something higher.”27
Conclusion
Dystopias distort order and justice. The problem of dystopia is an
ancient one that earned the attention of the best minds in the Western
intellectual tradition. The Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic schools
understood the importance of politics as the principle agent of justice and
order in a world of competing values and interests. In order to have justice a
community must have the wisdom to rightly direct human nature toward its
greatest good and greatest stability. For much of antiquity philosophy
provided the wisdom necessary for such direction. Christian theology,
particularly in the work of Augustine, agreed that justice and right political
order were absolutely necessary for human welfare. Augustine, however,
27
Ibid.
32
using Scripture and the inherited authority Church argued that politics could
never be an end in itself. Only the goodness and providence of God could
be the final end that properly orders all worthwhile human pursuits,
including the pursuit of justice. A politics that has no measure of human
nature or purpose outside of itself, that is a politics that only understands its
activity as the greatest good, is the most susceptible to distortion and abuse.
Modernity largely abandoned the Augustinian project by investing a
great deal of hope in the possibility that politics, science, and material
progress could bring about human fulfillment without reference to the
transcendent. The error in this fatal confidence ushered in both real
dystopias in the form of communism, fascism, and western materialism, as
well as prophetic imagined dystopias in great works of 20th century fiction.
Wendell Berry, Walker Percy, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn offer important
correctives to the false hope and misleading promises of political utopias.
The strength of their reasoning lies in their awareness that just under the
surface of all utopian promises is a misguided understanding of human
nature and purpose that all too easily declines into disorder and dystopia.
Although each writer professes a different Christian tradition, they have in
common the conviction that apart from an abiding awareness of human
limitations as narrated in the Christian story of creation, fall, and
33
redemption, both individuals and societies as a whole will continue to
mistake the secondary goods of politics and justice for the primary good of
God.
34
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