All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating amino acids. Why? — H.L. Mencken
I presume the government I live under is swift to evil and even swifter to call such evil necessary. But, why?
Why, indeed, do we political creatures strive for “distinction and power” when at best such public achievements are fleeting, misunderstood, and reliant on the bad faith of our fallible and fallen fellows?
Well, to begin, because there is no escaping the question of “why?”
This ever-present why: it is not the beginning of a child or fool’s infinite regress, but the beginning of life’s most important questions.
Why is there anything at all? Why are we here? Why do I do what I do? Why do anything at all?
The why of our lives sneaks into all our actions and assaults us with the fact that we have no choice but to choose. Without choice, morality would simply be a matter of getting in a very long line, an endless parade of automatic obedience. Such a ho-hum morality would be no morality at all — at least, not any sort of human morality.
On the contrary, once we recognize the “primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals” as an unshirkable reality of our being, our parade becomes not one of submission born of necessity but a victory march of creation and discovery in the face of powers seemingly beyond our control and comprehension.
Faced with this naked matter of fact, our fundamental moral choice as human beings comes into the heroic fore. If I may frame this hero’s choice into Shakespearean cliché:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them…”
This deep-seated irony of human existence — that we have no choice but to choose life or death — stings the mind and leads to a whole series of questions. Is the good of our action grounded in reason, instinct, or the transcendent? Is the good governed by princely authorities on earth or by the Authority of Heaven? Are we inherently good, bad, or fallen creatures?
As far as I can tell, we are not innately good or bad, but free: free to rise high or fall low, free to pursue the good of our lives and even free to sow evil amongst ourselves and our fellows. Morality, at least here on earth, seems to be fundamentally a matter of choice to affirm the good, true, and beautiful in one’s life — or not.
Truth, justice, and beauty, however, are not defined by mere authority or arbitrary whim. Instead, what is true, just, and beautiful defines who or what has authority here on earth. This is why we (including men such as the prophet Isaiah as well as St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, and St. Thomas More) can say with confidence that an unjust authority is no authority at all.
You and I always have a choice, a radical God-given freedom, to stand against the greatest of evils, even those evils deemed necessary by some of our more beastly and practical fellows.
Thus, I am troubled to hear so many Americans presume that the government they live under is not the servant of morality but the authority in matters of deciding morality. This is putting the government beyond good and evil. This makes morality a pet of power, muzzled with a set of marching orders in lock-step with the Leviathan’s siren song of obedience and protection.
In our modern age of necessity, we often hear practical men talk as if government was a “necessary evil,” a phrase made famous in the American cannon by that great patriot of 1776, Tom Paine, in his pamphlet, Common Sense:
“Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise.”
If government were really necessary then it would be a good, not a lesser of evils. To place government beyond good and evil (which is what the phrase “necessary evil” really accomplishes) is a perilous mistake. Respectfully, Mr. Paine is wrong to offer up government as a choice between evils.
Now, it is perfectly good and proper for a man to defend his life and property, and if he wishes to enter into a collective pact with others to accomplish this end, it is also good and proper. In fact, I would claim any man who does not enter into the safety of a chosen community is either playing a dangerous game or is utterly insane.
But this does not give society the right to force a man into a covenant (or social contract) he himself has not chosen. And to call any such forced agreement a “defense” of his rights would be a horrid lie and crime. Voluntary governance is not evil, but involuntary servitude masquerading as liberty most certainly is.
In the case of America today, subtle and vast impositions are most often accomplished by conflating society with the government. Society is claimed to be a necessity beyond good and evil as the “will of the people'' becomes the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong.
In other contexts past and future, the same effect may be achieved by christening the government (even if it is still officially considered a democracy or republic) as the divine arm of God or by cloaking the government in the supposedly objective and neutral garb of “scientific expertise” or, in the case of war, by coming right out and saying “might makes right.”
This last claim that “might makes right” is the most chillingly honest of the bunch; war is the true soul of Leviathan, the epitome of that timeless vainglorious pride which so often defines man’s struggle for power. War is the ultimate tragedy that the ‘necessary’ evil of government gives us.
What’s worse — the more the struggle for power comes to dominate and define all of man’s relations in this our practical modern age, the more men seem to be transformed into beasts all while being swift to call the fruits of their evil deeds children of necessity.
This brings us to the more caustic aspect of Mr. Mencken’s cynical question — why do truly sentient men seek distinction and power?
Well, the answer is to attack the premise. To confuse power, status, notoriety, glory, riches, etc., with the pursuit of this good life is a gross error. Truly sentient men do not merely seek distinction and power out of necessity. Truly sentient men seek the good life by their own free choice.
Dare I say, I suspect some of the best people the human race has ever produced probably escaped our history books, our odes, and our monuments. Those great anonymous souls did not merely disintegrate like ridiculous bags of amino acids searching for the ill-natured admiration of their fellow materialist bags. Power and distinction, glory and riches, were never their ultimate aim.
These unknown enlightened spirits, instead, hunted for a moral life of their own inevitable choosing — and even if they only seized their prize for the briefest of moments, paradise was theirs in that time for all time.