Fifty-eight people dead in the Las Vegas massacre and 489 wounded. The location feels grimly fitting, for the city itself, a vast carnival of pleasure, is a testament to our pagan decadence. As with the San Bernardino and Orlando tragedies, and the school shootings that have become regular occurrences, the nation is in anguish; “How could this happen?” our difficult question.
To understand America’s darkening, we must recognize that civilization does not exclude the state of nature, for the state of nature is man himself, his historical inheritance, the unchosen animal endowment he must strive to tame, to constrain, to control. Examine your experience. Think deeply on what you are. Notice how on this day, as on every other, you have been subject to all sorts of shifting desires, thoughts, and impulses. Where did they come from, you uncanny creature?
Nobody knows, nor can. We simply inhere in the natural world, and our freedom consists in resisting the forces to which we are subject and, to the extent that we can, guiding them through wise conduct. The most trenchant description of animal experience—call it our inner savage—is by Arthur Schopenhauer. “Yunghahn relates,” the philosopher wrote in The World as Will and Representation, “that
he saw in Java a plain far as the eye could reach entirely covered with skeletons, and took it for a battlefield; they were, however, merely the skeletons of large turtles, five feet long and three feet broad, and the same height, which come this way out of the sea in order to lay their eggs, and are then attacked by wild dogs (Canis rutilans), who with their united strength lay them on their backs, strip off their lower armour, that is, the small shell of the stomach, and so devour them alive. But often then a tiger pounces upon the dogs. Now all this misery repeats itself thousands and thousands of times, year out, year in. For this, then, these turtles are born.
It is the grave responsibility of government and religion to give order to this natural struggle, this astonishing spectacle of suffering and pain. Restraint, temperance, delayed gratification, self-sacrifice, cooperation, compromise—these social virtues do not come easily. They are the product of discipline over time, of habits that, at best, make for a mature and rational disposition. And yet, even when that exceptional character is achieved, there remains a part of us—so seductive because it’s ours—that believes with Milton’s Satan, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Indeed, even the good person, in his imagination, tends to admire at least a kernel of this egoistic power. Consider the pleasure we take in Shakespeare’s hero villains, in Dostoyevsky’s intractably rebellious underground man, in Mob films and television shows, and so on and so forth. Again, so many of history’s ablest and most admired men, the most celebrated of great names, have been brutal tyrants. In William Hazlitt’s words, “If mankind had wished for what is right, they might have had it long ago.”
Social life is a theater. Behind the curtains, beasts reign. Fear is the primary check on the underlying self-assertion. Just as justice, at bottom, is usually no more than a desire to inflict pain, so the law and the state itself are possible only at gunpoint. The main reason people pay taxes, resist from harming one another (when they do), and obey the law is not that they are good moral agents, but that they are deterred by the prospect of painful consequences. Hence the foolishness of Bret Stephens’ wish to repeal the Second Amendment. Of course, it’s only reasonable to lament the many maniacs with guns. But getting rid of guns would not get rid of the need for self-defense; after all, the state itself is so much self-defense. There is, besides, a huge underground market for illegal guns, and as with the desire to use illegal drugs, legislation can hardly avail against that: The low does not create human nature; it merely reflects it.
What’s needed is not gun control but people control. What’s needed is God, and I say so as an unbeliever. God is indispensable with respect to law and order, because for the earnest believer the idea of God—a being you cannot evade, unlike the human law—provides an inherent check against noxious desires and inclinations. The wrathful God of what Christians call the Old Testament is a devil whose goodness frightens us away from our own monstrosity. Modern man no longer fears God. Now he is a very willing devil, and mass murder a norm. The common cultural response is a dangerously naive faith in the power of the law: The ever-expanding state is to be the new God, saving us children from our own agency. Many people act as though the law were as efficacious, reliable, and straightforward as updating their smartphone. No, the law is another idol, a pagan flight from our cultural descent.
Violence and terrorism are distinctly male phenomena. As I argued in my last column, there is an inherent need to be valued by other people, and there are men who, if that need is not met, lash out like tigers. There are other causes of the bloodshed that has become casual. Men like Stephen Paddock and Dylann Roof are abundant today because there is a general deprivation of human value. Man’s most vital sources of meaning—the family, heterosexual love, religion, culture, community, dignified, meaningful work—are all dying out in the West. One of the many horrible effects is men who seek to assert their will, to show that they will be noticed, the only way they can: by making others suffer. For such men, other people are all regarded in the abstract: persons who did not esteem them; therefore, persons who must be punished. The news reflects America’s pagan arena, one madman after another striving to matter at any cost.
Another problem, as we learn from the great American thinker Christopher Lasch, is that the modern world is hostile to authority by definition. Before industrialization, children’s primary notion of authority was the father, the patriarch that is civilization and its rightful head and guardian. Once the father left the home for the workplace, authority, in its psychological conception, was transferred to the state. Now fatherly authority may well inspire resentment and therefore a desire for revenge in the young, but nevertheless, so long as the father is a good man, those feelings will probably be tempered by love and affection. The state, however, is a cold, faceless, fearsome thing. Human psychology finds no reason—apart from fear—not to transgress it. From the very beginning, then, we feel authority is our enemy. Meanwhile, our rotten universities, in their conceited ignorance, are committed to producing treasonous riffraff like Antifa and Black Lives Matter. We should expect such terrorists, and the actual white supremacists, to become more deadly in our pagan era. Terrorism and violent tragedy in general are likely to become only more common. Especially as so many boys now grow up without a father—that is, a necessary shaping male influence—since our “strong and independent women,” in their delusive hypergamy, refuse to settle for anything less than the illusory perfection they think they deserve. Men who did not have a father—the vast majority in black America, which is singularly violent—and men who don’t know women’s tender love as adults are still more trouble for the state: Many become wicked, and many of the wicked become criminals and murderers.