Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Democracy of Devils

I want to bring up the topic of dignity because it is at the center of my next subject, which is the principle of Liberty. How we approach the idea of dignity will affect very much how we view liberty.

When I think of dignity, I remember a dog my family once owned that apparently felt shame after being groomed and cleaned. That was the distinct impression I got when I watched this animal sulk and pout and hide.

It seems that dignity is not exclusive to human beings, but of all creatures, it appears most developed in people. Dignity is a pillar of civilized society, the consciousness of character. It is an awareness of shortcomings coupled with the capacity to remedy or, failing this, to conceal.

This sense of dignity constitutes, I think, a part of what C.S. Lewis once called the "tao of humanity." Dignity is not an objective sense, but arises from the measuring of one's self against ideals. It is in part an acknowledgment that there is little self-interest in seclusion; that the selfishness of the lonely consists of longing for the company of others. Dignity is felt because people are fundamentally more social than selfish.

Dignity is the covering of nakedness.

Dignity is the retreat of sexuality from the public square into the private closet.

Dignity is the practice of temperance.

Dignity is the respect of innocence.

Adam Smith taught that the dignified attune the expression of their passions to the sympathies of those around them.

There is also an Aristotelian aspect to dignity: a want of dignity results in licentiousness and savagery while the excess of dignity results in hypocrisy and falseness. True dignity requires frankness and candor in private, but tact and control in public.

After I read Victor Frankl, it occurred to me that the Nazis didn't need the concentration camps for an agenda of mere extermination. Frankl said that the best men didn't survive those camps, but survival went to those who lost their dignity.

The Nazis needed Auschwitz and Dachau and other camps to remind them that their enemies were simply brutes and that they deserved all of the misery that they got. Look how the Jew is miserable and depraved; look how low he sinks. He is not human. He is not even an animal. The Nazis needed to manufacture a devil worse than themselves, and that's what the concentration camps did for them. The most brutal men at the camps, said Frankl, were not the Nazis.

What is more troubling than the loss of dignity through coercion? Just this: that since the days of Auschwitz, men have begun to shed human dignity of their own free choice. Eric Hoffer had an inkling of it. He said that in our age, dominated by self-styled intellectuals, the human being would take back-seat to nature. Humanity, it now seems, should not be allowed to encroach upon the natural world. Humanity itself is unwelcome and depraved, and we should do well to be rid of it.

Thus, today it is fashionable to "come out of the closet." We now celebrate the "natural" attributes that once were considered deficiencies; we rejoice in excess and condemn innocence as ignorance. All is natural and all is equal, and life with its concrete lusts is greater than the abstract principles and vague superstition of dignity.

That's why we feel more humane keeping our worst criminals penned up in kennels, like dogs, than we do sending them to the gallows. We keep them, a weight around the neck of society, because we can't conceive of anything more important to being human than the biological life that animates our flesh.

With all of our progressive doctrine in these modern times, we've only now managed to re-discover the sixteenth century philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, or as W. G. Pogson Smith put it, that truth is not found, it is made. Not only is our pity untruthful, but it is undignified as well.

Is there more to being human than the human being? Is it really better to live an animal than to die a person?

Herman Melville said that "there is no dignity in wickedness, whether in purple or rags; and hell is a democracy of devils, where all are equals." This is the flavor of egalitarianism that shapes the landscape of liberty in America going into the 21st century.

1 comment:

Christy said...

Very interesting point about the concentration camps. I have read Frankl's book, and I never really thought about it in that way....the Nazis didn't really need the concentration camps for genocide...they were used to dehumanize. Very interesting. Even more interesting is that the word verification word was submen.