“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Way back in the 4 June issue of The Nation, William Deresiewicz published a review essay about Kurt Vonnegut.  As I read Mr Deresiewicz’ piece, it dawned on me that I had never read Slaughterhouse-Five.  I’d read several of Vonnegut’s novels and miscellaneous writings, but had missed the most famous one.  Embarrassingly enough, I had talked about Slaughterhouse-Five with a number of people over the years, conversations in the course of which I sincerely, if somewhat vaguely, believed that I had read the book at some point.   Once, while still in high school, I even suggested to a friend that we co-author a tribute to Slaughterhouse-Five in comic book form.  If he’d taken me up on that, I suppose it would have become clear to both of us quickly enough that I hadn’t read it, but we settled on a tribute to Froissart’s Chronicles  instead.

So, not long after I read that issue, I reported to the library and checked out a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.  It was well worth reading.  Mr Deresiewicz says that the novel’s real subject is not the firebombing of Dresden, but the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that the firebombing bequeathed to Vonnegut and other survivors.  Mr Deresiewicz quotes a remark from the beginning of the novel, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”  The novel is great, he argues, because Vonnegut doesn’t try to offer answers or find meanings.  He looks directly at an unintelligible world, a world in which human beings by the thousand can be incinerated in their homes, and does not flinch by looking away to something else, something reassuring in its logic.  Instead, the novel’s Billy Pilgrim, like Vonnegut in his own authorial voice, says simply, “I was there.”  Mr Deresiewicz writes:

“I was there,” he says. And he adds, “So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare.” The moment prefigures the novel’s moral climax a few pages before the end. Billy’s in a hospital in 1968, after the plane crash. His roommate is a former Air Force general who is working on a history of the Army Air Corps in World War II. He is wealthy, healthy, masterful, accomplished (his name is Rumfoord, by the way), and he dismisses Billy, in his quasi-comatose state, as so much human refuse. He is telling someone that the raid on Dresden had been kept a secret for so long

“For fear that a lot of bleeding hearts…might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do.”
It was now that Billy Pilgrim spoke up intelligently. “I was there,” he said.

“I was there.” Meaning not, I suffered, but simply: It happened. It doesn’t fit the story that we tell ourselves about the war, but it happened. And I alone escaped to tell the tale. But not completely alone: my old war buddy was there as well, which means you can’t dismiss me as a lunatic. I was there. Or as the novel’s famous invocation, thrice repeated, puts it: Listen.

“I was there”—not, “The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and willfully executed.” The sentence comes from a short, unpublished manuscript, included in the Library of America edition, that Vonnegut had worked on in the years immediately following the war. Before he could write the novel, I believe, he needed to surrender that sense of judgment. “It had to be done,” Rumfoord finally says to Billy. “I know,” Billy replies, “everybody has to do exactly what he does.”

Elsewhere in the novel, Vonnegut explicitly disavows judgment of the pilots who carried out the raid.  He never did blame them, he says; he has known bombers and admired them.  He describes the bombs as if they acted on their own, unassisted by human agency.  In the novel, that description figures not as a psychological evasion,  but as the facing of a supreme horror.  A world dominated by malevolence and permeated by guilt would have a structure, and so would be intelligible.  As such, even a realm of villainy would be easier to bear than the realm of sheer absurdity into which the massacre introduced its survivors.

In a bit of the novel that Mr Deresiewicz does not quote, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow prisoners are herded into Dresden.  The crowd gives Billy dirty looks; one man confronts him and demands to know if he “thought we would laugh”?  Billy is confused, then realizes that the miscellaneous items of clothing he has scavenged to cover his nakedness in his weeks as a prisoner adds up to a clown’s costume.  Here, Billy parallels his creator.  Cobbling together a way to tell his story, Vonnegut has gathered up bits of wartime memoir, of science fiction, of midlife-crisis narrative, of soft-core porn, of half a dozen other genres,  and pasted them together.  The result is a very odd book, at first glance an aggregation as clownish as Billy’s costume.   It is precisely because Vonnegut is entirely willing to play the fool, to make himself as much a stranger to smart rhetoric as the war has made Billy a stranger to smart attire, that Slaughterhouse-Five is a possession for the ages.

As the Periodicals Notes section of this website attests, I read a lot of magazines.  After the attacks of 11 September 2001, I dropped several titles from my list of regular reads.  These included The New Statesman, The National Review, The London Review of Books, and The American Spectator.  Each of these magazines carried a number of piece about that series of massacres.  There were many things to find objectionable about those pieces; certainly the right-wing publications did not cover themselves in glory by arguing that the appropriate response was to adopt policies that would punish all Muslims everywhere, and the others did their reputations no favors when they published remarks such as “the United States had it coming.”  What I found most rebarbative about all of them was something I couldn’t put into words at the time, but Vonnegut crystallizes it perfectly.  Each of those commentators, left and right, treated the massacres and their aftermath as a continuation of their lifelong quest to display their own brainpower to the utmost possible advantage.  Because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, the result of this contest to be the smartest one was an exhibition of moral idiocy on a spectacular scale.

If we don’t endeavor to make intelligent remarks about a massacre, how do we honor the dead it leaves behind?  This is typically a religious question, so let’s see what we can say about Vonnegut and religion.

As Mr Deresiewicz documents, Vonnegut was raised to be skeptical of conventional religion*:

Vonnegut saw our spiritual anxiety, in the postwar chaos, and as a former public relations man, he knew our mass gullibility. He had also studied anthropology, an experience, he later said, that “confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” Now machines were taking control, so we needed to pretend that something else was in control. Or as he puts it in The Sirens of Titan, “Gimcrack religions were big business.” The Age of Aquarius surely came as no surprise to him—the age of crystals and gurus and mystical hucksters. Charles Manson and Jim Jones surely came as no surprise, and neither did L. Ron Hubbard, a man who started writing science fiction but decided he was writing Scripture.

If we reject the belief systems and hierarchies of traditional religions and the rites that go with them, how do we go about honoring the dead?  I think I detect a kindred spirit in the Vonnegut/ Deresiewicz emphasis on “I was there, and so was Bernard V. O’Hare.”  We honor the dead by remembering them.  To do this we must turn our attention from ourselves and focus it on them, on them as they were individually and as they interacted with each other in groups.  To sustain this focus we must resist the temptation to retreat into distractions, whether those distractions take the form of ideologies that make our losses bearable or of activities in which we ourselves become again the center of attention.  We must give the dead our undivided attention, if only for a moment, if we are to honor them.

Religions can certainly be fruitful source of excuses for keeping the focus off the dead.  Many funerary rites focus attention on clergy or other performers; many include invitations to dwell on recondite theological doctrines about the relationship between life and death.  So I sympathize with opponents of religion like T. H. Huxley who say that respect for the dead requires us to renounce the conventional forms of religion.  On the other hand, for many mourners these things quiet their minds and take them outside of themselves, enabling them to maintain a clear, unwavering focus on the dead.  And there’s nothing to say that persons who find the ritual elements a distraction can’t learn to respond to them in the desired way.  After all, the others learned it; no religious practice comes instinctively to anyone, even if there is an instinct for something called religion in general.  So even proceeding from my idea that mourning should be a matter of focusing our attention on the dead, we don’t find an argument against funerary rites.

Of course, funerary rites do something else as well.  They reassure the mourners that the remembrance of the dead is not a burden they will carry alone, but a bond they share with their community.  Funerary rites aren’t the only social practices that give that assurance; one of the reasons we want medical professionals to make heroic efforts to save our loved ones is that we want to know that those professionals will remember them, at least as an interesting case.  When someone is to blame for the death of a loved one, we want the same attention from the criminal justice system, in part for the same reason.  That’s probably why murder mysteries are so popular.  Some time ago, I saw an episode of Columbo on some cable TV channel that specializes in nostalgia.  Lieutenant Columbo had caught the murderer hiding the victim’s body.  In his bizarrely friendly way,  Lieutenant Columbo was trying to keep the murderer from feeling too bad about himself, telling him, “Dead bodies have a way of turning up.”  In reality, of course, they don’t.  The only thing dead bodies actually have a way of doing is decomposing.   Given enough time, it will be as if the dead had never lived.  That may well be the world’s most unbearable fact.  Many years ago, my wife lost her closest friend to an act of violence that was never investigated; with each passing year, fewer people remember her, and her family’s burden grows more obvious.

Medicine and the criminal justice system, whatever their virtues, are never entirely satisfactory substitutes for funerary rites.  A course of medical treatment is an exercise in technology and finance that revolves around the person of a patient, but is never simply a tribute to that patient; a criminal proceeding is an exercise in institutionalized conflict in the course of which a person who is unavailable to participate actively is likely to vanish from view altogether.

Many people recommend political action as a way to honor the dead.  I’m all for democracy, and I understand the power of martyrs to arouse a citizenry to action.  So I’m not opposed to the idea of waging a campaign for reform in the name of some dead person.  But consider.  Every political dispute is complex; every political issue shades into other, related issues, and every person who takes part in a political disagreement is pursuing several objectives at once.  To turn a person into a political symbol, therefore, is likely to make it virtually impossible to focus our undivided attention on that person.  Again, not everyone sees that focus as the essence of honoring the dead; some may define honoring the dead in a way that begins and ends with the political utility of martyrdom, or in other ways that put a low priority on memory of them as they were.  But for me, and perhaps for Vonnegut, the key thing is to meet the dead on their own terms, not to impose our preconceived notions on them or to lose sight of them in the midst of some other activity.

If we say that our ways of honoring the dead are part of our religion, whether we belong to any recognized religious tradition or not, then Vonnegut and I may share a religion.  Moreover, at least in my version of that unnamed religion, politics is not part of the funerary rites by which we honor the dead.  The rites of the various religious traditions that do have names and belief systems and hierarchies aren’t really part of it either, though they can serve the same purpose.  What is a part of it?  How do we go about focusing our attention simply on a person, not on desires and ideas of our own that we may associate with that person?

In a post a few years ago, I quoted a man who had said that his way of praying for a person was to hold an image in his mind of that person against a plain white background.  This meditative exercise does not involve any words; that way he isn’t tempted to wish things on the person, or to try to recruit God as an ally in an effort to make the person do what he thinks is right.  Instead, it enables him to see the person clearly, to listen to what the person is actually saying, to accept the person as s/he is, and to respect his or her journey in life.  I’ve tried this exercise myself on many occasions, and can recommend it highly.

So that exercise is part of my religion, if you call it that.  Science is part of it, too.  Richard Feynman said in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech that in science, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool.”  My favorite living philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, argues that healthy religious traditions represent lines of inquiry that guide their followers away from particular forms of self-deception.  I don’t really understand how that is supposed to work; MacIntyre’s own religious tradition, as embodied in the Roman Catholic Church, seems to me to be an ever-flowing fountain from which self-deception springs in forms unimagined anywhere else.  Be that as it may, science offers its practitioners tools unmatched in any other avenue of human pursuit for disabusing oneself of one’s pet ideas.  Thomas à Kempis said that the highest reward of the contemplative life was that it had enabled him to free himself of a multitude of opinions; to the extent that Thomas’s words apply to religious practice in general, scientific inquiry is the most efficient of all forms of worship.

*To be precise about it, the Vonneguts were members of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana when the novelist was growing up.  At that time, the congregation met in a building designed by architect Kurt Vonnegut, Senior.  In his maturity, Kurt Vonnegut, Junior did not identify even with the creedless religion of the Unitarians, or the Unitarian-Universalists as they became in 1961.

Requiescat in pace?

Peter Hitchens is one of my favorite right-wing political bloggers.  His brother Christopher has also been mentioned here from time to time.  Today, Peter Hitchens had the sad duty to write a post about his brother’s death.  It’s an eloquent statement of a personal grief made public by the fame that each brother had attained in his life.  I recommend it highly.

Peter Hitchens is a defender of a very conservative brand of Anglicanism; his brother was a celebrated atheist spokesman.  I myself am not a believer, but I am deeply interested in the ways in which widely accepted religious doctrines can shape the thinking even of people who consciously reject them.

So, I often think about how we respond to death.  It is convenient to be able to say to a bereaved person, “My prayers are with you”; if you share a common belief in an afterlife, it may be comforting to invoke that belief also.  Yet it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to treat Christian language about death as if it were an attempt to comfort the grieving, since a great deal of the discomfort that a resident of a Christian land faces upon the death of a loved one stems from Christian doctrines and practices.  If we affirm a doctrine of immortality, then we can never quite let go of the idea that we should be on contact with those whom we love, for we can never quite accept the idea that they have ceased to exist.  If our loved ones are out there someplace, in some form, then it is an ever-renewed pain that we cannot see them or hear them or touch them.

Alexander Schmemann was a Russian Orthodox priest who emigrated to the USA during the Soviet era.  Father Schmemann became one of the founders of the Orthodox Church in America.  In his book For the Life of the World, Schmemann considered the fact that Christianity does not make it easier for the bereaved to accept the death of a loved one, but harder.  This, he argued, was not a failing of Christianity, but one of its virtues.  Here is a quote from that argument:

“Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and its own ethics. And it ‘works’ and it ‘helps.’ Quite frankly, if ‘help’ were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as ‘adjustment to life,’ ‘counseling,’ ‘enrichment,’ it has to be publicized in subways and buses as a valuable addition to ‘your friendly bank’ and all other ‘friendly dealers’: try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to ‘give up’ the very category of ‘transcendence,’ or in much simpler words, the very idea of ‘God.’ This is the price we must pay if we want to be ‘understood’ and ‘accepted’ by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because they ‘satisfy’ the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a ‘status,’ a rationale, make it ‘normal.’ Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, ‘he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.’ In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere ‘help,’ not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an ‘other word’ which looks like a cemetery (‘eternal rest’) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to ‘dispose’ every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a ‘just society’ and to be happy!—this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his ‘positive ideal’—religious or secular—and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes ‘awful,’ the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any ‘other world’), it is this life (and not some ‘other life’) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by ‘transforming’ them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the ‘end’ and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”

— Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy  (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)pages 94ff

“Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing”

T. H. Huxley in 1860

The title of this post is a quote from Thomas Henry Huxley.  I came across it a few months ago, when I was reading an old paperback I found in a used book store.  The book was Voices from the Sky, by Arthur C. Clarke (Mayflower Press, 1969.)  The cheap, high-acid paper hadn’t aged well in the decades since the book was printed; the pages crumbled in my hands as I read.  All I kept from it is the top half of page 155, a bit from an essay titled “Science and Spirituality.”  On the previous page, Clarke had mentioned the widespread impression that science and religion are irreconcilable.  To which he says:

It is a great tragedy that such an impression has ever arisen, for nothing could be further from the truth.  ‘Truth’ is the key word; for what does science mean except truth?  And of all human activities, the quest for truth is the most noble, the most disinterested, the most spiritual.

It is also the one most likely to inculcate humility.  Said T. H. Huxley a century ago: ‘Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.’

Science has now led, in our generation, to the ultimate abyss- that of space.  Questions to which philosophers and mystics have given conflicting answers for millennia will soon be answered, as our rocket-borne instruments range ever further from Earth.

Several things about these paragraphs arrested my attention.  Clarke usually called himself an atheist, and it was to describe his own opinions that Huxley coined the word “agnostic.”  So it is rather odd to see one of them invoke the other in defense of religious values.  Moreover, it seems a bit naive to assert that space is “the ultimate abyss.”  Ultimate in size space may be, unless of course there are parallel universes, in which case the space in which we live may be only fraction of an infinitely larger abyss.  But for all we know, the mysteries of space may yet pale in significance and complexity next to those of the subatomic world, or of some other field of study.  The final sentence is, if anything, even more naive.  Surely the most interesting thing about science is not its ability to answer familiar questions, but its ability to raise unfamiliar questions.  Philosophers and mystics have not given conflicting answers for millennia to, for example, the question of whether Venus ever had plate tectonics.  Without scientific inquiry, not only would we not have the concept of plate tectonics, we wouldn’t even know that Venus had a surface.  Once scientific inquiry has reached a certain point, our habits of mind and our whole view of nature change in ways too subtle to notice and too numerous to count.  In truth, the essay showed many signs of hasty composition; it was far from Clarke’s best, and I was surprised to see it published in a collection.

I tracked the Huxley quote down.  It comes from a letter Huxley wrote to the Reverend Charles Kingsley on 23 September 1860.  The letter appears on pages 217-221 of Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, edited by Leonard Huxley (London: MacMillan and Company, 1900); the sentence Clarke quotes appears on page 219 of that book.  Kingsley had sent Professor and Mrs Huxley a letter of condolence on the death of their young son, in which he alluded to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Huxley’s response is worth reading in full, though I will quote only a few selections.  Kingsley had mentioned various arguments that are supposed to bolster the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Huxley’s response makes it clear what these arguments were:

I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together—because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

Thus Huxley sets the gracious tone of the letter, and makes it clear that he disagrees with Kingsley.  Next:

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Certainly a classic statement from the first self-described agnostic!

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.” All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

So does Huxley present himself as a scientist, and as a stout defender of the methods of science.  I am surprised at his statement that “the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and feel, ‘I believe such and such to be true.’  All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act.”  When Huxley wrote that sentence, he was 35 years old.  I’m older than that now, and the longer I live the more obvious it is to me that to say and to feel “I believe such and such to be true” is usually a waste of time, and quite often the mark of a jackass. Maybe that’s just because I spend a lot of time on the web, or maybe not.

Huxley then sets out to show how a thoroughly scientific mind approaches Kingsley’s views:

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know—may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton’s essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton’s argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth’s picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by their persistence and my cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind— that my own highest aspirations even — lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my pre-conceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

This rather resolves the paradox of the atheist Clarke invoking the agnostic Huxley in defense of religion.  Huxley is responding graciously to his friend’s sincere attempt to comfort him in a moment of extreme affliction.  In that endeavor, he assures Kingsley that he seeks to cultivate the same virtues Kingsley hopes his religion will engender, and simultaneously makes it clear that he does not accept Kingsley’s religion.  Clarke was known for a similar combination of friendliness and forthrightness in his dealings with believers, and I surmise that in this letter he may have found a kindred spirit.

Huxley mentions arguments in favor of the immortality of the soul that Kingsley had not made, notably the idea “that such a system is indispensable to practical morality.”  Huxley’s objection to this argument is emotionally powerful and scientifically astute:

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

The words that shocked Huxley came from I Corinthians chapter 15, verse 32.  Here is the passage Huxley probably heard, taken from the funeral service in the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  It comprises verses 20 through 58 of that chapter:

Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule, and all authority, and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead? and why stand we in jeopardy every hour? I protest by your rejoicing, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not: for some have not the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame. But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die. And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body, as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. All flesh is not the same flesh; but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead: It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit, that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, (for the trumpet shall sound,) and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality; then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 0 death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

Is Paul suggesting in this passage that those who disbelieve in the immortality of the soul will skip the funerals of their loved ones in order to visit the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet, and thus committing “a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature”?  I think not.  He does not mention funerals, or the first shock of mourning; he does not deny that it is natural for us, as animals, to grieve out our grief when death has put someone we love forever out of our reach.  He talks about baptism, and martyrdom, and day after day spent under the shadow of persecution.  The reward for all of this trouble is to be found in an immense drama that began with Adam and Eve and that will continue until the end of time, a drama in which everyone, alive and dead has a role to play.  If this drama is not really in production, if our efforts do not really connect us the living with the dead who went before s and their efforts will not connect the living to us after we die, why bother with the whole thing?  Better to embrace laziness and live the easiest possible life than to sustain so demanding an enterprise.  Such laziness might not preclude a period of howling grief fit to impress any ape, though it would set a limit to the ways in which a person is likely to change his or her habits in the aftermath of that period.

Of course, when Huxley heard the passage above he was standing at the open grave into which his young son’s coffin had just been lowered.  It would be unreasonable to think ill of a person subject to such extreme stress for taking a few words out of their context and putting an unwarranted construction on them, especially when the priest speaking them represented a group that was alien to Huxley’s beliefs and hostile to him personally.  I do wonder, though, why it was just that construction that came to Huxley’s mind.  Obviously, I don’t know.  But I think I do know what Irving Babbitt would have thought about it.   Babbitt (1865-1933) was a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard whose works have had a great influence on me.  The poet and critic T. S. Eliot took some classes from Babbitt, and after Babbitt’s death wrote that “To have been once a pupil of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position”; even for someone like myself, born decades after Babbitt’s death and familiar with him only through his books, Babbitt’s influence is permanent.

Irving Babbitt might have read Paul much as he read the Buddha.  In the course of the denunciation of the elective system then being introduced to American higher education that runs through his book Literature and the American College (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin,1908,)  Babbitt wrote:

A popular philosopher has said that every man is as lazy as he dares to be. If he had said that nine men in ten are as lazy as they dare to be, he would have come near hitting a great truth. Theelective system has often been regarded as a protest against the doctrine of original depravity. This doctrine at best rests on rather metaphysical 1 foundations, and is hard to verify practically. The Buddhists are perhaps nearer the facts as we know them in putting at the very basis of their belief the doctrine, not of the original depravity, but of the original laziness, of human nature. (page 53)

with this clarification:

The greatest of vices according to Buddha is the lazy yielding to the impulses of temperament (pamada); the greatest virtue (appamada) is the opposite of this, the awakening from the sloth and lethargy of the senses, the constant exercise of the active will. The last words of the dying Buddha to his disciples were an exhortation to practice this virtue unremittingly (page 53 note 1)

In the introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada,*  Babbitt enlarges on this discussion, drawing a contrast between appamada and karma.  Both words mean “work,” but Babbitt claims that in the Dhammapada and the other early Buddhist scriptures written in the Pâli language karma carries the sense of an effort sustained over a long period, several lifetimes in fact, that culminates in a kind of knowledge that can be acquired in no other way.  Babbitt made a habit of attributing his favorite ethical ideas simultaneously to all the great sages of the ancient world, east and west; nothing would have appealed to him more than declaring a familiar passage in Paul to be identical in content to the doctrines of the Buddha.

Babbitt used the Buddha and the other sages as an arsenal of sticks with which to beat his intellectual arch-nemesis, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  For Babbitt, Rousseau was the patriarch of the Romantic movement, and the essence of the Romantic movement was an embrace of mere whim.  Indeed, the sentences I quoted from Literature and the American College introduce one of  his innumerable denunciations of Rousseau, in that case denouncing him for confusing “work,” which the Buddha understood as a virtue that quiets the spirit, with mere activity and busy-ness, which the Buddha regarded as a vice in which we escape from our true obligations.  For the Rousseau of Babbitt’s imagination, violent displays of emotion were events of great significance, while projects requiring long years of steady labor and harsh self-discipline were trivialities.

I suspect that Babbitt would have seen a child of the Romantic movement in Huxley’s reaction.  Rousseauism primed Huxley to conceive of his bereavement, not in terms of a scheme like Paul’s that subordinates the whole of life to an immense drama in which the living and the dead all have roles to play, but in terms of the intense emotional experiences in the early stages of mourning.  Presented with Paul’s statement that without a belief in the Resurrection, this drama would not make sense, Huxley then heard that without such a belief his intense emotional experiences would not make sense.  Observing the indications of the same experiences in the apes, Huxley concluded that either Paul was mistaken, or the apes were believers in the Resurrection.  Babbitt could be quite harsh in his judgments of spokesman for Romanticism; in Huxley’s remarks, he might well have seen a man unable to distinguish between, on the one hand, “the lazy yielding to temperament” that the howling ape represents and the commitment to a life on the grand scale that Paul’s letter and the Buddha’s sayings describe.

Babbitt was no more religious than Huxley or Clarke, as a matter of fact.  But some of his associates and followers were.  If Huxley were writing to one of them, perhaps he would have criticized Paul from another angle, and with another ethological example drawn from elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  There are nonhuman animals who subordinate their immediate needs and pleasures to long-term goals and the  good of a group, whether penguins going months without food to incubate their young, social insects devote their whole lives to the acquittal of a single set of tasks within the hive or swarm of which they are part, etc etc.  Granted, humans have brain functions that do not exist in those other animals, and so we respond to incentives differently than they do.  So a latter-day defender of the idea that a belief in personal immortality is indispensable to practical morality among humans might argue that only an explicit narrative connecting generation to generation can enable us to do what comes naturally to our distant cousins elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  And of course a latter-day Huxley could ask for evidence supporting this psychological claim.

Huxley was no Buddhist or Christian.  One sentence quoted above suggests that his ethical views were a form of Neo-Stoicism.  That sentence is “My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.”  This is a rather neat summary of the Stoic aspiration to peace of mind through an acceptance of the world as it is.  I find further evidence of Stoicism in other passages.  A long paragraph between the two portions that I quoted above argues that in fact, the virtuous are likelier than the wicked to prosper in this world, a view often associated with Stoicism.  In that paragraph, Huxley also argues that we should put the physical laws of nature on a par with moral laws, and not regard those who suffer in consequence of “physical sins” as instances of wronged innocents.  That certainly fits into most Stoic models of “the natural law.”  And following the description of his son’s funeral, we find this remarkable passage.  I will let it stand as the last word:

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time—before I had earned absolute destruction—and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. Sartor Resartus led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my late to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him.

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is—a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

*originally published by Oxford in 1936, reissued by New Directions in 1965; this bit is on pages 91-93