“Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand. The thing we cannot see is culture, in its intrapsychic or internal manifestation. The thing we do not understand is the chaos that gave rise to culture. If the structure of culture is disrupted, unwittingly, chaos returns. We will do anything-anything-to defend ourselves against that return.”
These are the opening words of the Preface (subtitled “Descensus ad inferos” – the descent into hell) of Jordan Peterson’s 1999 book Maps of Meaning. In the Preface Peterson describes how as young university student he became fixed on the question of evil, especially as it manifested itself in the totalitarian societies of the twentieth century. He kept asking himself, “How did evil – particularly group-fostered evil – come to play its role in the world?” Such evil is the chaos waiting to overwhelm society once “the structure of culture is disrupted”.
His categories of culture and chaos help us to understand more profoundly the issues at stake in the current efforts of the Irish government to remove the constitutional protection of the life of unborn children. While politicians are already covering their efforts with trite slogans and specious arguments, at root what is happening is a profound disruption of the structure of Irish culture. And by culture is meant that which is a bulwark against evil; humanity we might call it. This bulwark is being dismantled and the chaos of evil – inhumanity – is returning.
This “chaos” is, as Peterson says, “something we do not understand”. It is the “mysterium iniquitatis”, a crime which, in the words of Viktor Frankl, “in the final analysis remains inexplicable inasmuch as it cannot be fully traced back to biological, psychological and/or sociological factors”. It is what John Waters in his article in this month’s issue baldly terms “wickedness”. While the term “evil” might not be one to be used in the referendum campaign which is now beginning, it is at the heart of the matter. Indeed it is the true tragedy of the matter. Evil is always at work when one human being seeks the death of another; this is the epitome of inhumanity. And when such evil receives State sanction, the bulwark against chaos has all but been dismantled.
When an unborn child, especially one with Down’s Syndrome or with a so-called Fatal Foetal Abnormality (i.e. a very sick child) comes into contact with a humane or cultured society for the very first time, the encounter will be with the smile of a mother, the tender care of a doctor or nurse, the surge of humanity of a medical staff which seeks to save that life and alleviate its sufferings. The first, indeed the only, contact of such a child with a society in chaos, a society which has lost its humanity, will be with an instrument designed to administer death: a scalpel, a suction pump or a saline solution device.
Could we even surmise that such children might experience this brutal and fatal encounter with “civilisation” with relief – as sparing them the horror of being born into the kind of dystopia which does such things to human beings? After a moment of horror they find themselves in the loving arms of a “humane” God. Theirs is a physical evil: the radical truncation of their lives on earth. The moral evil – wickedness – is the preserve of the men and women whose society the unborn were spared of sharing. The greater, and only true evil is of course to be the perpetrator of evil, and not its victim.
Peterson says later in the Preface: “I have been trying ever since then to make sense of the human capacity, my capacity, for evil.” This is an important element of the “mysterium iniquitatis” to bear in mind. The capacity for evil, the lurking chaos, is not the preserve of one or other group in society. As Solzhenitsyn famously put it: “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”
Even our growing inured to the reality of what is happening around us is in some sense a warning sign to us: that perhaps my humanity is being diminished. Our pity for the innocent unborn must also be matched by a sorrow for those whose hearts could do this: for mothers duped by medical practitioners and others – often in a time of extreme anguish – to violate the most fundamental maternal instinct to preserve the life of their child; doctors who could violate the most fundamental principle of their profession: to save life; and politicians who lead their nations down the dark path of chaos.