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David Brooks defends Depravity

March 22nd, 2012 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Not its practical implementation, mind you, but only its place in an intellectual scheme:

This worldview held that people are a problem to themselves. The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside. The worst thing you can do is, in a fit of pride, to imagine your insecurity comes from outside and to try to resolve it yourself. If you try to “fix” the other people who you think are responsible for your inner turmoil, you’ll end up trying to kill them, or maybe whole races of them.

This earlier worldview was both darker and brighter than the one prevailing today. It held, as C. S. Lewis put it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism.

According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity. His job is to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones. If he didn’t do that, and if he was swept up in a whirlwind, then even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts that shock the soul and sear the brain.

That there is a gap between the concept of depravity and how we currently go about things will be of no surprise to readers of this blog.  We have made it something of our niche to try to articulate, in our own idiosyncratic way, the way of looking at things that the three thinkers Brooks mentions share.

I'm a little uncertain of his depiction of Lewis, though.  Lewis's point was not that we had never seen an "ordinary person."  We have, I think, seen plenty of them and may even be one.  For Lewis, however, the ordinary person was not a "mere mortal."  His point depends not upon the particular capabilities of a person at any given moment or even in this lifetime.  Rather, it was that the minor, seemingly trivial decisions that we make are forming us into creatures whose real quality will not be revealed until the last day.  The language of heroism and horror isn't quite that of sin and sanctification, even if the context Brooks locates his reflections in lend themselves more to the former.

How much of this older, forgotten worldview hinges upon the question of immortality Brooks does not address, and understandably so.  I think it does and that we need not be Christians to affirm it.  However, for Lewis, Chesterton, and Calvin, the answer is an obvious one:  for all the glories and praise that heroism and virtue make available to us, the only way to it is to "desire life like water and drink death like wine," in Chesterton's apt phrase, precisely because the death that we risk is not the end.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.