Augustine, Pelagius, and 1960s sci-fi novels


Separation of church and state notwithstanding, you can't separate your theology (or lack thereof) from your politics. What you believe about the existence and nature of God and the nature of mankind will shape your ideas about government and society. If we build public policy on a solid foundation of ideas that reflect the world as it really is, we will build a peaceful, happy and prosperous society. If we build policy on a complete misunderstanding of human nature, we will produce chaos and despair. That's why I like to ask candidates -- particularly judicial candidates who won't be drawn out on specific issues -- "Are people basically good, or basically evil?" If they get this question wrong, they'll make all sorts of bad decisions, and I'll end up in my house behind seven different kinds of locks, hoping the marauding hordes will leave me alone.

This is what got me thinking about this: In today's "Bleat", James Lileks tells us about a couple of Anthony Burgess's dystopian sci-fi novels (The Wanting Seed, A Clockwork Orange), and how they reflect Burgess's fascination with "the dynamic between the teachings of St. Augustine and the Pelagian heresy." Augustine said that it was not possible for man not to sin -- because of the fall, humans cannot acheive perfection, apart from God's grace. Pelagius said, yes, it was possible for man to be perfect, and Augustinians shouldn't be so lazy about attaining personal holiness. Of course, theology has implications for public policy: " this argument, Burgess saw the two poles of political philosophy at work in the West, and beyond. Augustinian philosophy, which saw man as flawed and sinful and basically hosed when it came to perfectibility in this mortal plain, was the conservative view. Pelagius was liberalism: our nature is not only perfectible, we can perfect ourselves here and now."

Which view you hold comes down to a matter of religious conviction but it leads you to very different conclusions about the role of government, how to educate, how to deal with crime. Some theological propositions aren't testable, but with regard to human nature, we have thousands of years of recorded history to draw from. We can see how real humans have responded to various methods of governing and quickly determine which set of presuppositions, which model, is closest to reality.

I am reminded of a Monty Python bit: The Amazing Mystico and Janet, an illusionist (and his assistant) who builds high-rise apartments by hypnosis -- they stay up as long as the tenants believe in them. In real life of course, apartment buildings stay up only if they are constructed in accordance with the immutable laws of physics, exploiting those laws to produce the desired result. In the same way, a society built in accordance with the immutable laws of human nature will stand firm, while no amount of sincere believing will sustain a society built upon an illusion.

Read the whole article. Lileks' Bleat is always worth reading, and the rest of his site is hilarious, thought-provoking, and amazing, too.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 16, 2003 12:01 AM.

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