19 NOVEMBER 1954, Page 8

The Human Situation


An anonymous reviewer in the Listener observed recently that: ' It is, obviously, becoming less and less possible to accept the human situation, which is so full of misery and tragedy.' From his phrasing it is obvious that the author believes that his feeling is widely shared. The Spectator has asked a number of writers to comlnent on this alarming text. In the article which follows Lord Hailsham writes from the Christian point of view. Next week Mr. Stephen Toulmin will give his opinions as a scientist. The third article in the series will be by Mr. Tom Harrisson, the anthropologist. THE shocking thing about post-Christian pessimism is not the pessimism, for, on its assumptions, this is reason- able enough, but the illiteracy of the claim to be some- thing new. The key words of the sentence are therefore ' becoming less and less.'

Now these words can only be justified if either (a) the human situation is actually getting worse and worse or (b) we, being brighter than our predecessors, can perceive even more clearly our misery and tragedy.

The second assumption is so patently absurd, that it is difficult to be polite about it. It is as if Homer had never written that Zeus dispenses good and evil things to men, but mostly evil. The Greek tragedians, the Hellenistic epigram- matists, the Alexandrian writers of hexameters, the books of Ecclesiastes and Job, Lucretius, Shakespeare, the Russian novelists, all are full to brimming with the sadness of human things. Sunt lacritnte rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. To 'suggest that it is only the twentieth century that has at last become fully aware of `the human situation' and finds it ' less and less ' bearable is not even arguable; it is plain illiterate, and that is all that there is to be said about it.

But, has the situation become worse ? Is this what has given the post-Christian pessimist the jitters ? The natural life of man in the twentieth century, though not solitary, is perhaps poor, nasty, brutish and short. But this is scarcely hot news. Man began as a precarious collector of seeds quite a number of years ago, and during this time, I suppose, the vast majority of human beings have died before their time in ignorance and poverty, of plague, pestilence and famine, battle, murder and sudden death. The plain truth is that the nine- teenth and twentieth centuries for the first time give men in the mass a chance to acquire a bit of comfort and live some- thing like the span allotted by the Psalmist. No doubt there have been things in our time horrible enough to contemplate. The ' century of the Common Man' has hardly lived up to expectation. On the whole, in some respects, it compares rather ill with some of the preceding centuries of privilege, but by and large, the birth rate goes down, anti the expectation of life goes up. No doubt, ' the human situation is still ' full of misery and tragedy.' But why is it less and less acceptable ? I dare venture that the age of Shakespeare was a deal worse.

Sooner or later I suppose we will have to deal with the hydrogen bomb. I confess that arguments based on this invention make me mildly irritable. No doubt, the hydrogen bomb offers prospects of hideous disasters yet to come. But was it worse than the absence of antiseptics at the battle of Hastings ? The philosophy which is more shocked at Hiroshima than Troy is ultimately devoid of all values other than quantity, and therefore without value of any kind, Either the spectacle of a single murdered child is intolerable to any one who contemplates' its implications, or else the hydrogen bomb with its pulverised millions has nothing particularly terrible about it. Misery and tragedy are not to be measured by counting corpses.

Misery and tragedy. A true analysis of these words con- tains both the answer to the pessimist, and the explanation of why he becomes a pessimist. A materialist has no business to talk about misery or tragedy, For him, a living dov, is certainly not to be accounted better than a dead lion; and. if he dOes not agree, it is clear that he is not applying the material test, but one, a value judgement, to which, as a materialist, he is not entitled.

Herein lies the fundamental inconsistency of the post- Christian. He is glad enough to assume materialism in order to banish Christian hope. But he must at least be consistent. The only logical attitude for the -consistent materialist is not pessimism, but gaiety, at least as long as his digestion is sound, and his body vigorous. He may not sympathise, for this, ultimately, is to recognise the absolute value of human beings as such.

But, if we do sympathise, and if we must, it is because we recognise that the material world is hopelessly out of joint with human aspirations, and this ought; at least, to provoke the enquiry, what sort of material beings can feel out of joint w ith a material world ?

For the truth is that the human tragedy is only tragedy in a world where evil is a problem. And evil is only a prob- lem, indeed only can exist, in a world which is not only' material, and where there is not only evil but also good. traggdy ' which it becomes' less and less possible to accept.' The Problem of evil begins when man becomes aware of the immortal destiny of the human spirit, and the fallen nature of his own being. The Christian does not, I think, seek to explain the, problem of evil. It is in truth the realisation of the existence of this problem which made him a Christian. 'Man was aware of the need of a Redeemer before he ever found him. He was for ever imagining such a person, Osiris, Mithras, Quexalcoatl. We need such a person, and we know we need him, more than anything else in the world. The Christian believes that he has found him, no fairy prince, no imaginary redeemer, bitt real plan and real God. A real stone rolled away from a real tomb, in a real garden, at a real moment of time, and we were free. Without this belief it is indeed true that the human tragedy is impossible to accept. But a world in which this can happen is no longer one in which the contrast between man's fallen nature and his aspirations is intolerable.