Original Sin and Utopia

Original Sin and Utopia

 it is to be regretted that the doctrine of Original Sin has become hopelessly associated with quite nasty — because self-seeking and sadistic — views denigrating women, homosexuality, all sensual pleasure and ultimately the entire physical world. The doctrine has been highjacked by egotists who use it to convince themselves that they are superior to certain social groups to which, by accidents of birth or orientation, they themselves do not belong. Regrettable above all because the dogma of Orginal Sin is not at all an abstruse intellectual doctrine invented by dry as dust theologians : quite the contrary, it is based on a deep-rooted conviction which very many thinking and feeling individuals have had throughout varied periods of history, though admittedly especially during the decline of great civilizations.

            Doubtless, a lot of people, even the majority, were not ‘happy’ during the Victorian era, or the early Roman Empire, or the Athens of Pericles, but the disadvantaged seem generally to have believed in the particular ideal held out to them at the time, i.e. seem to have believed that the ‘lucky few’ really must have been happy and that such a definition of happiness was the only one possible. This is essentially Aristotle’s position, and Aristotle, apart from being one of the world’s great thinkers, was a sensible and, in a certain sense, a very ‘ordinary’ man. In a period of social decline, such as our era, despite or because of the frantic hype, there is the undeniable feeling that the ‘happy few’ = multi-millionnaires + celebrities’ are not in fact even happy —  they are simply able to put up a better pretence than the rest of us.

            The doctrine of Original Sin is based on the feeling, or rather ineradicable  conviction, that there is ‘something wrong with this world’, and this ‘wrongness’ goes far deeper than such matters as economic inequality, corruption in high places and so forth. Someone who has, deep within him or herself, this feeling is at best sceptical about the possibility of radical change for the better in the world : the Golden Age, Paradise, the City of God, the era of ‘true Communism’, will, so he or she feels, never, strictly never, come about in this world. Why not? In contemporary language, because selfishness is too deeply implanted in our biological make-up. The inhabitants of the second and third centuries in the West would have put it otherwise : they, whether Christian or pagan, would have said that this world was an inferior place and that the true reality lay beyond the physical and human. Who is there who has not thought this from time to time?  In certain periods, such as the declining Roman Empire and our own era, such sentiments become dominant, or, at any rate, inescapable. There is the instinctive feeling that no human efforts will suffice to eradicate this wrong, and that the time has come to look elsewhere. The attraction of drugs is that drugs, especially Ecstasy, offer immediate (but unfortunately very temporary) access to a world that practically everyone would love to inhabit, a world of universal love and friendship, a world where (in Marx’s terms) “each individual would be recompensed according to his or her  needs and deserts”.   

            Theology, Judaeo-Christian theology at any rate, equates this descent into real time and space with a definite occurrence, the Fall as it is (very appropriately) called in Genesis. The trouble is that, once something has happened, it cannot be, as it were, ‘un-happened’. There are only two (non-tragic) options left : either we conclude that this ‘fall’ will give rise to a greater good, and this is the viewpoint of mainstream Christian theology, the ‘greater good’ being the felix culpa  of God’s incarnation as Christ and Christ’s eventual return (‘parousia’) when worldly  history will be wrapped up for good and the Millennium will commence. But extremely few people countenance this view today, whereas the  Early Christians were entirely convinced that this happy event was imminent — so imminent that there was no point in bothering about social and economic improvements in the society of the time.

            Contemporary ‘thinkers’ try to convince us, as they try to convince themselves, that “all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well” — I have even read a leading article in the  New Scientist of all places arguing that the present world can easily absorb the unprecedented world population expansion without getting into serious trouble — indeed this has become the politically correct line, not because there is much, or even any, evidence to support it, but simply because the alternatives are just too awful to contemplate.

            It seems to me far more sensible, even rational, to take the opposite line, namely that there is something inherently not only flawed but actually wrong about life as it is in the universe as it is — which is precisely the Gnostic position. We are told (by scientists) that it is impossible that  the universe can be radically changed for the better, since it is governed by ‘natural laws’ which have been set for all time and which cannot, so we are assured, be disobeyed,  nor can we, who are simply special cases of natural  laws, change ourselves  for the better. According to the most celebrated opponent of theological thinking, Richard Dawkins, ‘natural law’ means selfishness, and not only that, ought to mean selfishness. Since selfishness is certainly not a good thing (pace Ayn Rand) , there is no hope for us, worse still, there should be no hope for us — for this would be unscientific. I was myself told this at an exposé I gave on Rimbaud and his central concern with ‘changing the world’ : a member of the audience remarked that “People who want to change the world for the better always end up by making  things worse” — an extremely convenient doctrine for people who have decided to do nothing, certainly nothing that puts them at a material or psychological disadvantage .          

          All this may seem very far away from the subject of this article/post, Original Sin, but it is not. Ultimately, either one accepts the world as it is, or one does not. Most societies in the past have, in their practice (laws, economy, social hierarchy) accepted the world as it is, but nonetheless with a certain reluctance — because the advocates of the status accompli were sensible enough to realize that what they were advocating was manifestly unsatisfactory, profoundly so. Traditional thinkers resolved their moral scruples by holding out the distant possibility of a quite different, and far superior, order of things which they were obliged to situate either in another plane of reality altogether, or in a distant, and, for the immediate, completely unrealisable future. The Neo-Platonists, Early Christians, Gnostics and other thinkers of the declining Roman Empire opted for the first possibility, while the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century had no choice but to opt for the second  — and we would have to include within their ranks the early Marx, even in a sense the later one.

            During the nineteenth century, an epoch of extravagant hopes and delusions bolstered by undeniable scientific and technological triumphs, there were many people who thought that, just as knowledge of the material world via Newton’s Laws and discoveries such as electricity had undoubtedly changed the physical landscape, discovery of some ‘secret formula’ about human beings would pave the way for a future Golden Age. Arthur Rimbaud, in one of the poems of Illuminations, speaks of wandering frantically about the countryside, in the company of another searcher whom we usually identify as Verlaine, searching for  “le lieu et la formule” — the place and the formula [for changing the world]. And, although I did not know this until this very day when I read it in the Introduction to Anthony Briggs’ translation of War and Peace, the body of one of the most earthbound and ‘realistic’ of nineteenth century novelists, Tolstoy, 


“[is] interred at the top of  small ravine at Yasnaya, where as a small boy he [Leo Tolstoy]  had searched for a little green stick on which was supposedly inscribed a secret formula guaranteeing permanent happiness and brotherly love.”

                                 (Introduction  War and Peace  Penguin p. xvii)



            What is this secret formula and do we need it any more?


1 Comment

  1. ron hansford said,

    June 15, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    An erudite, and wide-ranging exploration of these two opposed concepts. Very good writing, stimulating and fresh. Are we too keen to conclude that mankind is damned? Even Richard Dawkins argues that powerful biological drives incline animals towards altruistic behavior, especially social animals like humans.

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