Sunday, August 26, 2012

Meddlers, Muddlers, and Martyrs

In the same vein as Fran's post on the limits of charity – with which, by the way, I completely agree – I have recently finished a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which leaves me pondering a related, or perhaps more general question:

What are the limits of moral intervention?


To summarize the story, Bonhoeffer is a somewhat-famous German Lutheran minister involved in several assassination plots against Adolf Hitler. He was from a family of patriotic Germans who disliked Hitler and the Nazis almost from the moment they came onto the scene. This, of course, shows a level of prescience that was sorely lacking in all too many others of the time -- both among Germans and the whole world over.

The various members of the family dealt with the odious regime in different ways. As they were something of an aristocratic family, they were unfortunately drawn into rather close proximity with much that went on at high levels.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer initially dealt with events by remaining a forthright annunciator of the contemporary Protestant position wherever the Nazi movement intersected with the church. He denounced cooperation with Nazi activities aimed at bringing the church into the Nazi program and perverting its doctrine. He brought about a split in the German church which fractured along this line. He also made certain that foreign powers had an accurate idea of events within Germany by serving as a contact with influential members of foreign churches. In all of these actions, he brought unwanted light to bear on Nazi activities and caused them a great deal of embarrassment. He was a tremendous and highly respected thorn in their side.

Then comes a turning point -- he is drafted into the Nazi army. He decides to flee service, not wishing to cooperate, and secures passage to the US. But this decision does not sit well with him as he sees himself fleeing his problems and his troubled nation and church in its time of need.

So...he goes back...and joins the Military Intelligence!

From here, he leads a double-life of intrigue, joining a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, blah, blah, blah...fails several times, gets jailed and eventually executed.


It may seem rather profoundly morally idiotic to question the decision to assassinate Adolf Hitler in this day and age, especially given the benefit of hindsight – something not available to Bonhoeffer – not to mention that he died in the attempt. In my defense, I am not trying to say that the guy is not a hero, and certainly that I believe he was a brave and upstanding man. My question is more philosophical, and I ask the reader to compare Bonhoeffer's actions and attitudes with another famous theologian who wrestled with similar problems – C. S. Lewis.

I hope I might be forgiven for continually bringing up Lewis, however, he is the only such thinker for which I feel I am familiar enough that I can really speak intelligently about him. I can't speak on his behalf, but from my reading of him he seems to have had a very profound and acute sense for exactly where his 'business' began and ended, including his moral obligations, and that he observed them rather absolutely. This makes him come off as a rather 'standoffish-libertarianish' soul in a way that I think many people who claim to find his writings endearing simply do not understand because they haven't read him well enough.  I'm not so sure that they would like him quite as much if they did know.

Consider, for example, his service in WWI. One night he observed that the German defensive positions were not very well secured, and that a night-time raid might be particularly effective against them. He reported this to his officer, who replied something along the lines of “Well, yes, we could do that. But if we did, the Germans might get the idea that they should maybe try something similar, and then where would we be? Fighting eachother all day long, and now all night long, too. Why don't we just leave well-enough alone, and each be a little bit less miserable?”

Lewis seems to have found this an excellent suggestion, and honorably served out the rest of the war without experiencing any more 'pangs of heroism.' Now, this may not seem quite the same as Bonhoeffer's position, and surely it isn't. After all, Lewis was asked to serve on the 'good side,' and could do as he was told in good conscience. But Lewis also knew full well that such 'lack of initiative' could very well prolong the war, and perhaps even more, since as yet the outcome of the war hadn't been decided. How could being such a 'moral slacker' in itself be moral?

Simply because, I think, Lewis had a very different understanding of his own moral obligations. He did not operate at the same 'moral specific heat' as one like Bonhoeffer. In fact, I think he would have recoiled at the idea that such a weight was upon his shoulders at all, as Bonhoeffer appears to have felt. That would not have set well with his understanding of God, His creation, and his expectations of man, I think.  One can find evidence of this 'stand-offishness' very consistently throughout his writings, almost regardless of topic.

His contemporary and friend J.R.R. Tolkien expressed similar sentiments:

What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!

Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need.

I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.

Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

'Very well,' he answered aloud, lowering his sword. 'But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.

Again, not an exact parallel. Hitler was hardly a Gollum (to most people's understanding, anyway...) and the situations are different. But the argument does turn on what exactly it is one's business to be up to – and both 'self-elected final arbiter of justice' and the argument from 'eventual ends' are specifically excluded.


Speaking of which, would Bonhoeffer's 'ends' have realistically been achieved by such actions? I cannot help but think that this is a naïve perspective -- that had the conspirators succeeded in their assassination attempt, all would have been well, more or less. Somehow, I doubt that their optimistic expectations would have been realized. There seems to be a sort of romantic notion of 'heroes of history' somehow deflecting history from its course, averting mass horrific events and with acts of dash and daring or self-sacrifice. As if the Nazis hadn't been popularly elected, did not have widespread support, no intrinsic sympathy for their propaganda and programs for society existed, and Hitler did all the bad stuff himself. Do they really think that if they had deposed the leader, the 'sheep' would have dispersed?

Or perhaps the attitude is not quite that straightforward. Perhaps it is more a rather severe and dramatic sense of personal responsibility – in keeping with the sense of urgent moral interventionism.

I can't help but think that perhaps this attitude of urgent moral interventionism is/was actually a part of the problem. Hitler, after all, was a man of and for the volk. If any government was ever activist and interventionist, his was. Despite its horrific outcomes, the whole totalitarian movement was originally motivated by intense instincts of compassionate intervention – for the 'common man' – into every corner of life. It attained power by appealing to this apparently very widespread instinct in the populace.

Why is it that so many modern leaders seem to have this feeling that they need to do so much for everyone else – even when they are elected explicitly on promises that they won't! Was it always this way? Is it really mostly because they are craven manipulators and conspirators? Maybe sometimes, yes. Maybe most of the time.

But politicians are almost of necessity incurable 'people persons' – especially the type that tends to get elected nowadays. One almost has to be to go through the rigmarole and to get the votes. How many of them actually have gone off to govern with the right intentions, only to be swept away by their sympathies when it came down to actually making the choice?

But it is not as if these people are space aliens – 'they' are 'us.' In other words, its not just them, its almost everybody else, too. I think it is embedded in the modern way of thinking. Most 'good' people can't help but be 'motherly' about everyone and everything – liberal and conservative alike. They see this as doing what is right. Probably the most telling observation of how deeply this idea is embedded can be seen in popular Christian notions of God – everything 'according to His plan,' even the death and suffering of the innocent. Yes, God planned for innocent little children to starve to death.  It's actually all for the best, if we could only understand; it has to be.

No, that position is not theologically elementary and obvious. But it is very common.

If you saw evil, and had the power to act, would you decline? Could you stay your hand, 'on principle,' especially when surrounded by others who will condemn you for it? If you could, what percentage of your fellows do you think could?

There is, at least, some dignity in being violently oppressed by a thuggish, manly dictator. But to be coddled to death by people intent on being overbearing nursemaids and finger-waggers? The Cubans at least get to smoke.

Bonhoeffer was adamantly opposed to the Nazis, fought them bravely, and is a hero for it. But I can't help but thinking that the very attitudes which animated him, which he shared with so many of his fellows, which are almost universal today, and which caused me to be rather repulsed by this book, are not precisely the kinds of attitudes which set the stage for groups like the Nazis to attain power in the first place.

Hence, I think perhaps, the modern popularity of Mr. Bonhoeffer.


A lot of people probably wonder why I tend to post odd things that seem to have little to do with – or sometimes seem at odds with – the theme of Liberty's Torch. The reason is thoughts like these. With all the bad things one sees going on, what is a guy really to do?

Not vain fantasies of somehow showing the bad guys what for, king-for-a-day castle-building, &c. What if pretty much everybody is a bad guy, the whole world is evil? How do you solve that?

How can I posit answers to these things – call others to arms, even – if I don't even know what is going on? I may not like the direction the ship is sailing, but do I know where to take it? Not just which general direction it should go, but an actual, real course and destination? What should I be willing to do to get it there?  That is the job of a captain. Further, is it my place to wrest the helm away from others, or realistic to think that I could? Or is it only given to me to mind my own affairs, and to take care of the things which have legitimately fallen to me as best I can?

Isn't the whole problem that so many people aren't doing just that? Or have even I fallen into this same thinking, and inadvertently created a false analogy – there is no 'big ship,' only a fleet of little ones, and by default, whether I like it or not, I stand at the helm of my own little dinghy? If so, perhaps there is really nothing else to do than remain indifferent to what the cruisers and tankers are up to. Perhaps Captain Bonhoeffer was deluded, and was never the mutineer aboard the USS Nazi Germany that he thought he was, but only imagined himself to be and was plowed under and drowned before his time because he refused to mind her wake and steer his little john-boat clear of her. Perhaps he shared the very delusions of the crew whose efforts he set out to torpedo.

I don't think that ideology is enough. I'm beginning to think it is positively bad – part of the problem. Ideology is pretend certainty, and if I know anything it's that I'm not certain. I've spent a lot of time with free-market economics – well, more than most people, anyway. I've read the views of many experts, and I can find holes. There is no concrete 'answer' there, only abstraction and insight and suggestion. These are wonderful things – perhaps more important than the answers themselves – but brass-tacks in the physical here-and-now they are not. The brass-tacks are concrete things – actual laws, customs, traditions, attitudes.

Of these, I find that I cannot say so easily what should be and what should not. I can see them in the light of the abstraction, but they are of two different worlds, and can never bear directly on one another – only indirectly, through our own eyes and thoughts and minds. It seems that maybe many such systems could fit under the umbrella of 'free' more or less well, but that they can't all necessarily fit there together, nor necessarily persist there for long. 'And yet, it moves.' Reality bears upon reality, tomorrow is never today which is never yesterday. Neither history nor society are state-functions, to be held in idyllic motionlessness, except in the dreams of the central planners and hardened ideologues.

What is my place? It seems a question more central to the world of medieval hierarchy than to modern politics, especially of the libertarian variety. In fact, it seems almost irrelevant today, and maybe that's a shame. As for me, I'm not entirely sure how to answer it, but in lieu of positive certainty, I've settled on a more modest goal – developing ideas, as opposed to fighting battles. As to the concrete, I shall try to hew to the path of the muddlers like Lewis.

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