The Poles Of Human Life

     Now and then I feel the hand of destiny. Or fate. Or God. On rare occasions a man can feel it poking him. Penning the first words of my next novel – working title Ex Nihilo — seems to be the occasion.

     Contrary to what the predestinationists believe, we have free will and are commanded to make good use of it. Human freedom would be meaningless without it. But that doesn’t mean that we never get a nudge from the Creator.

     A momentous and portentous thing happened one hundred five years ago today. Perhaps you’ve read about it. (You certainly didn’t witness it.) Representatives of the Empire and the Anglo-American-French alliance converged in a railway car in Rethondes, in France’s Compiegne forest to conclude an armistice. At 5:00 AM they signed the document formalizing that armistice, which would end the continent-spanning fighting. At 11:00 AM the fighting stopped. World War I was “over.”

     Except that it wasn’t.

     Germany would pay heavily for the war. The negotiations at Versailles Palace imposed conditions upon the defeated Germans that barely stopped short of evisceration. The German representatives at Versailles made plain that they were signing under duress. The duress was utterly unconcealed; the blockade of German ports was still in force until July of 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed and its initial requirements for the demilitarization of Germany were in process.

     Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of the Anglo-American-French forces, commented angrily that what Versailles had achieved was merely “an armistice for twenty years.” He was off by a few weeks: it was September 1, 1939 when the Second Round, better known to most as World War II, began with Germany’s invasion of Poland.

     Though no one realized it at the time, the Great War had given birth to a Culture of Death.


     I’ve written before about the inception of warmaking against civilians by Germany. It horrified the Belgians, against whom it was essayed, and the British and French, who were treaty-sworn to protect Belgium. They thought the agreements from the Treaties of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna had put an end to such atrocities. It hardened anti-German sentiment throughout those nations, such that there arose a supra-national will to punish Germany so harshly that it could never repeat such a crime.

     No, that didn’t work either. Though there are no living veterans of World War I, we still have a few from World War II, and they’ll tell you straight out. Man’s inhumanity to Man remains alive and well. Indeed, some days it seems to be the only thing that’s truly thriving.

     We are a fallen species. We must not deceive ourselves about that. The Culture of Death rampaging among us should be evidence enough for anyone. But even were war somehow to be made impossible – and how, in this world of States all of which are voracious for ever more power, could we manage that? – the Culture of Death would find adherents. Some would be motivated by a false religion; others by insanity; still others by personal greed.

     But the supreme, counter-intuitive irony is that the most insidious tentacle of the Culture of Death is about the desire to abolish death itself…by abolishing life.


     Some Gentle Readers think I cite C. S. Lewis to excess. Well, maybe. But in no other writer have I encountered both the purity of vision and the literary skill to make true horrors – the sort that are really possible – real to the reader. His pinnacle achievement lies in two works, one fiction and one non-fiction.

     The non-fiction piece is his extended essay The Abolition of Man. At the time Lewis wrote it, it received only modest recognition. Yet it is a triumph of foresight. We can see Lewis’s fearful predictions coming true all around us.

     The fiction work is the third volume of Lewis’s “Space Trilogy:” That Hideous Strength. It horrified Lewis’s great friend John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who called it “that hideous book.” Yet it is unsurpassed as a fictional depiction of horrors of the sort that:

  1. Could really happen;
  2. Are emerging around us as we speak.

     Here is where Lewis introduces us to a “scientific” Culture of Death:

     “Why have you done that, Professor?” said a Mr. Winter who sat opposite. “I shouldn’t have thought they did much harm at that distance from the house. I’m rather fond of trees myself.”
     “Oh, yes, yes,” replied Filostrato. “The pretty trees, the garden trees. But not the savages. I put the rose in my garden, but not the brier. The forest tree is a weed. But I tell you I have seen the civilized tree in Persia. It was a French attaché who had it because he was in a place where trees do not grow. It was made of metal. A poor, crude thing. But how if it were perfected? Light, made of aluminum. So natural, it would even deceive.”
     “It would hardly be the same as a real tree,” said Winter.
     “But consider the advantages! You get tired of him in one place: two workmen carry him somewhere else: wherever you please. It never dies. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess.”
     “I suppose one or two, as curiosities, might be rather amusing.”
     “Why one or two? At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.”
     “Do you mean,” put in a man called Gould, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?”
     “Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.”
     “I wonder what the birds will make of it?”
     “I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.”
     “It sounds,” said Mark, “like abolishing pretty well all organic life.”
     “And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, ‘Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,’ and then drop it?”

     Filostrato’s vision of the elimination of the organic extends to Man himself:

     “What are you driving at, Professor?” said Gould. “After all we are organisms ourselves.”
     “I grant it. That is the point. In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it. We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life, like what you call the blue mold—all sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must get rid of it. By little and little, of course. Slowly we learn how. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body: learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation.”

     The severance of the human mind from the organic, ever-growing-and-decaying world is the core of the vision. Decide for yourself whether you’d like it.


     Today The Catholic Thing brings us a monitory essay from Julian Kwasniewski, in which he contrasts “the way of hygiene” to “the way of the hearth:”

     [T]he hearth represents, more than anything else, the united family and the warmth that radiates from it. Hygiene (to my mind) represents the modern manipulation of life, which does not truly allow it to flourish. It is at war with “loved life” yet mimics it, never truly creating it. For modernity, life is an enemy: everything from bacteria to men and women are sterilized.
     The way of hygiene – what St. John Paul II called the “culture of death” – seeks the release of man from nature. For Lewis’ Filostrato, its goal is to “bring out of that cocoon of organic life which sheltered the babyhood of mind the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man, free from Nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away.”
     Which becomes clearer when we look through the farmhouse door and realize that this comforting view will never exist if we take the sterilized road of “hygiene.”

     Kwasniewski appears to share with Tolkien and Lewis an idealized vision of “the simple life,” which in reality was never so simple. Yet he has a point. Our advances in the understanding of the body, and how it can be kept in a condition of health and vitality, have been great. They’ve improved billions of lives and will continue to do so. But the continuation of life at any cost must not become a racial obsession, for that way lies death of a more horrifying sort: the willingness to sacrifice anything and everything, including one another, even including our humanity, to the indefinite perpetuation of our temporal consciousnesses.

     Perhaps that’s a literal impossibility. Yet people are striving toward it even today.


     There must exist a middle ground between the acceptance of squalid, unceasingly painful and impoverished life and an aversion to death so all-consuming that it eclipses all other values. It must be found. Neither pole is endurable. Just as we are made to fight for life and to seek health and comfort therein, we are also made to desire rest, an end to striving and a final release from all care. We must find a middle way.

     But where is it?

     [For a complement to this piece, see my essay Demographics and the Medicalization of Human Existence.]

1 comment

    • DrBob on November 13, 2023 at 9:27 AM

    The obsession with ‘life at any cost’ came home to me in a recent conversation with my personal physician. She was promoting a whole-body scan which was touted as ‘being able to detect cancers early, when they are more treatable’. I know this technology well, having been involved from the science side, in its development. First, it is not a panacea, nor will it necessarily detect ‘any cancer’. It is expensive and voluntary, costing $2500 out of the patient’s pocket since it is not an insurance covered diagnostic test. But to the real point of my discussion with my physician:

    “So if something is detected, I can have chemotherapy or radiation therapy for more years, weakening me and ruining the quality of my active life? Yes, she replied, but you’ll be alive!”

    Here is the point: Is the purpose of life, just to stay alive?

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