Beauty in the Ashes
The 20th century could easily cause despair.
My own confrontation with the darkness of the 20th century came to a head in 1987. I was on my first visit to Europe and our tour of Western Europe brought us through Germany (only the West, as Germany was still divided at that time). Our tour bus made an impromptu decision to visit the Dachau memorial, formerly the site of the Dachau concentration camp.
My experience was different than the other young students that I was traveling with. I had been immersing myself in the literature of the great crimes of the 20th century since I was 11 or 12. At first I had focused on the mass murder of the Jews by the National Socialists. After years of this, I began to realize the horrible truth that this crime was not unique in the 20th century. I learned that the Soviet State had killed millions before Hitler was even in power in the "black earth regions," in particular in the Ukraine. I read all of the massive Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
By the time of this unscheduled visit to Dachau, I had already been mentally immersed in the world of concentration camps for one third of my short life. So seeing the camp, even what little of it was still there to see had a terrible effect on me. Everything I had learned about these terrible crimes came home in a new way. I suppose having learned about events an ocean away from my home and only in books there was a thin wall of denial left in my mind. But walking around the camp brought the stark reality of it crashing on me like a black wave. I'll spare you the attempts to clinically label what I experienced and only say that for about a year after that (my freshman year in college) I found it distasteful to be around other humans, I barely could stand being around myself.
As the sheer emotional impact of all this began to dissipate, dark questions haunted me. Is mass murder and total war a dysfunction of society or something essential to it? Does human sin lead directly to mass murder? Is there any possibility that society could function (rather than dysfunction) so that flourishing is promoted instead of death and destruction?
Because if there's no pattern of order in society, then there's no point in even trying to prevent war and mass murder. It's simply our brutal animal nature like the Darwinists have been saying and we should just enjoy ourselves until the animal spirits rise to, once again, murder and destroy.
Given all this, finding Austrian economics and libertarian theory (about four years after my visit to Dachau) had great meaning for me. I began to see the order in the seeming chaos of society. I began to see the beautiful ways in which society could yield harmony, peacefully navigate through conflict and even improve the conditions of human life.
Perhaps human sin and the imp of the perverse will defeat attempts to prevent war and mass murder. But there is hope. The attempt isn't pointless or absurd. And there is an immediate benefit to understanding the healthy functioning of society. I see now the beauty that continually sprouts up among the bitter ashes of mass murder and destruction. I can see now the intricate patterns of order that are all around me, work with them, benefit from them, do my own small bit to contribute to them.
If not always so easy to do, I believe the course of action to avoid wars and mass murder is simple to state. Do not steal, do not murder and hold your political leaders to these standards as well. Avoiding these things is not unduly restrictive. There were a multitude of trees in the Garden and only one to avoid. As George MacDonald wrote, "There are a great many more good things than bad things to do."
People tell me that society requires(!) an institution that breaks these simple rules for society to survive. They say that we must have one group in our society with the authority to lie, steal and murder or we would be defenseless and turn on each other. That we require this to avoid chaos, to preserve order in society.
But this is too paradoxical. To preserve our property there must be stealing? To protect our lives there must be murder? To keep the peace we must wage war?
No! Let us be plain: To oppose mass theft, mass murder and total war we must not commit these crimes or support these crimes or the institutions that commit them. We must resist evil, not give in to it. Certainly not celebrate it, sing songs about it and make up self-contradictory explanations about how this evil is required for virtue to prosper!
So. Is it possible for there to be order in society without stealing and murder and war? Yes. Let us be blunt. Is order possible without taxes and state coercion and military invasions? Yes! Yes! Not only is this possible, these are the very conditions for the flourishing of human life, for physical, intellectual and spiritual blessings.
These words of the Bible are so simple and radical we avoid them: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."
Don't despair. There is hope. There is beauty in the ashes. Find it. Defend it. Enjoy it.
June 24, 2003Stephen W. Carson [send him mail] is a working software engineer and a graduate student in the Department of Political Economy at Washington University in St. Louis.
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