More than once I have quoted what the great historian Edward Gibbon wrote in his Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: history, he wrote, is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”
The latest crimes are as bad as ever. The wars in Syria and Yemen are unrelenting horror stories with millions of human beings displaced and hundreds of thousands killed and no end in sight. The unbelievably brutal removal of the Rohingya Muslims from their homeland in Myanmar is the latest atrocity – and one, moreover, presided over by the previously sainted – but now, surely utterly despised Aung San Sui Kyi. How could men inflict on their fellow human beings such agonizing fates – especially when a large number of these are children and even babes-in-arms? How is this explainable unless it is that an inherent evil dwells in all of us waiting to be let out?
This was the view of the 17th century poet and divine, John Donne, who saw man as essentially sinful even from the first moment of his birth: “There, in the womb,” he wrote grimly, “we are fitted for works of darkness, all the while deprived of light. And there in the womb we are taught cruelty by being fed with blood…”
The ancient question must be asked again: can this be God’s work? Throughout history nobody has answered satisfactorily the eternal conundrum: either God could prevent evil but doesn’t hence He is not good, or God wants to prevent evil but can’t, in which case He is not all-powerful. Faced by such a dilemma, the words of the playwright Edward Bond shake the mind. “If you look at life closely it is unbearable. What people suffer, what they do to each other, how they hate themselves in hating others. But you must turn back again and again and look into the fire. Listen to the howl of the flames.”
Faced with atrocity and so much man-made suffering, we are compelled to feel that our common humanity is Vernichten, a German word nearly meaning ‘turned into absolutely nothing.’ And Arthur Koestler’s terrifying vision of a gigantic pair of scales, transfiguring the universe, slowly but surely weighing down on the side of suffering and evil comes vividly to mind.
There is a poem by the great Polish writer Aleksander Wat which is sadly full of truth:
From Persian Parables
By great, swift waters
on a stony bank
a human skull lay shouting
Allah la ilah
And in that shout such horror
and such supplication
so great was its despair
that I asked the helmsman:
What is there left to cry for? Why is it still afraid?
What divine judgment could strike it again?
Suddenly a rising wave
took hold of the skull
and tossing it about
smashed it against the bank.
Nothing is ever over
– the helmsman’s voice was hollow –
and there is no bottom to evil.