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The Lesson Of The Century
We Must Learn to Save Ourselves From Saviors
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
All these are interrelated, and they serve one master: man’s belief that he is the measure of all things; that by his engineering, war can be abolished, history ended, human happiness decreed. But if man believes that he is the master of his fate, he loses the subtlety and skill that allows him to accommodate, ameliorate, dodge, and adjust, and he concentrates instead on a vain struggle to direct what he cannot direct, shape what he cannot shape, and decree what he cannot decree.
A passion to decree animates not just vicious tyrants but the self-declared helpmates of humanity. Anyone who believes that a moral divide separates fascism and communism is simply dishonest about the body counts. Both tendencies are reflections of the same black light. Both see government not as an instrument for deftly channeling powerful forces that otherwise might be overwhelming but as the originator of forces that will remake the world.
Anyone who believes that a moral divide separates fascism and communism is simply dishonest.
Though this desire to transform the world—and it blooms in an infinite variety of wishes—has not been confined to our century, in our century more than in any other it has found its most costly expression. Science and reason have empowered it to do what it will, and in the everyday life of the West they have swept aside traditional religion, which, though sometimes stimulating the lust for transformation, mostly holds it in check by stipulating to man that he is not God and that therefore he cannot plan like God, judge like God, or act like God.
When religion seeks to transform the world—pressing for converts, conquering territory, ruling states, directing thought—it violates its essential principles and falls victim to the temptations it condemns. But now religion is marginalized. Modernism is the great religion of the world, having risen long ago and steadily conquered, and it dovetails seamlessly with the idea that man not only proposes but disposes, for it recognizes no limit to human power, admitting of nothing greater.
When the arrogance of a one-dimensional plan collides with the unfathomable complexity of a whole society or a single individual, that which is complicated and delicate is destroyed. We have barely recovered from the wounds dealt us by our many saviors, who believe one and all in the monstrous doctrine that it is their responsibility to repair the world. They have always done so by hammering it until it meets their liking, and sometimes they hammer it quite hard.
Better to live by the dictum “First, do no harm” and, when events require intervention, to temper all action with humility. The lesson of the century, then, is that, in the main, such humility has been absent. The lesson is that though man may think he is God and may try to act like God, he is not and he cannot. The lesson is that, until this is understood, the unprecedented misery, destruction, and war of the last one hundred years will continue past this eye of the hurricane in which we now live at the end of the century, and will be amplified no doubt by man’s ever-growing powers and clever capacity to bring down upon himself the wreckage of his own pride.