Raskolnikov looked curiously at the speaker. She was a pock-marked
wench of thirty, covered with bruises, with her upper lip swollen. She
made her criticism quietly and earnestly. “Where is it,” thought
Raskolnikov. “Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death
says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on
some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand,
and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting
tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of
space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live
so than to die at once! Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever
it may be! . . . How true it is! Good God, how true!
And good God, we might add, what has become of us? How have we come to this pass that this truth, so graphically put before us by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, should seem to be no longer accepted easily by us? More and more frequently we seem to read in our newspapers accounts of individuals, coldly and rationally, choosing to end their own lives, subverting the law of nature which decrees that it withholds from each individual person the right to decide when and how we both begin and end life on this earth.
How did the sight of that law, written in our very hearts and which in truth gives us the intimation of eternity, get lost to so many. There is perhaps no other phenomenon in modern culture which so devastatingly illustrates the chasm with which a godless ethic rents our society.
The debate on assisted suicide and euthanasia is important. It is a debate, the outcome of which will determine the protection or otherwise of the lives of innocent people in every jurisdiction under the sun in which it will determine legislation on the matter. Tim Maugham, Professor of Cancer Studies at the University of Wales’ College of Medicine, has pointed out that where voluntary euthanasia has been legalized and accepted, it has led to involuntary euthanasia. This has been demonstrated in the Netherlands where as early as 1990, over 1000 patients were killed without their consent in a single year. A report commissioned by the Dutch government showed that for 2001, in around 900 of the estimated 3,500 cases of euthanasia the doctor had ended the person’s life without there being any evidence that the person had made an explicit request. The British Medical Journal and The Lancet both report on these details.
It is indeed chilling that Lady Mary Warnock can be so forthright in her assertions about the rights of society to dispose of its elderly, infirm and dependent members so readily. It is so chilling that Melanie Philips in the Daily Mail, last September – following a shocking interview with the good Peer in a Scottish church magazine, no less – posed the question:
“Has there ever been anyone who has displayed more inhumanity towards her fellow human beings, and yet had more influence over British society, than the noble Baroness Warnock? Lady Warnock has declared that elderly people with dementia are ‘wasting’ the lives of those who care for them, and have a duty to die in order to stop being a burden to others.
“On pitiless Planet Warnock, people are valued in proportion to their ability to lead an independent life. If they can’t do so, they are to be written off as valueless — and even more nauseating, they are being told they actually have a duty to end their lives.”
Given the undoubted influence of Lady Warnock perhaps we should be fearful. But in some ways the debate about euthanasia and assisted suicide is a side-show to the real question before us. How did we get here? More importantly: how can we get out of here? Warnock’s views are at the deeply sinister end – and because they are so evidently sinister are less threatening – of a wider mindset which takes a view of human life in which the horrors of what Philips calls “planet Warnock” are thinkable: human life is ours to do what we like with it. The truth is, it is not.
Why has the unthinkable become thinkable? The reason is that the society we live in has become divided in two and one part of that society has returned to the customs of the old pagan world which Christianity vanquished nearly 2000 years ago. It is not now a pagan world – strictly speaking – because even in that pagan world there was a vision of something beyond man, warped as it was, to which man must defer. Now there is nothing. Man is at the centre of the universe.
In Quo Vadis, the great Polish novel about the early Christians in Rome by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the noble Petronius, reluctant confidant of the emperor Nero knows he has reached the end of the road and faces execution if he does not act first and take his own life. Flight would be “dishonourable”. He prepares to do so much to the distress of his secret and unrequited lover and slave. She declares her love as he is dying and opening her veins dies at his side.
This was the Roman way, the way of a society and a civilization in deep decay. Contrasted with this in the novel is the Christian way, portrayed through the characters of the hero and heroine, Marcus and Lygia – along with Peter, Paul and the multitude of Christians in the catacombs. This was the way which eventually triumphed in Rome and whose values have substantially held sway in the Western world for the past 2000 years. Until now? The deep cleavage we mentioned earlier now threatens the destruction of this way and on the outcome of the so called “culture wars” of our age the future of this way depends. Will that outcome be defeat, truce or victory? God only knows but we do have promises.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn once summed up our predicament in a famous address at Harvard University. A tireless critic of both East and West he told us what we had lost, why we had lost it and implied how we might be redeemed from the catastrophe before us – one dimension of which we have just been considering.
“How has this …come about?” he asked. How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.
This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him… with man seen as the center of everything that exists.
“We turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense”.
We must believe that defeat is unthinkable. The best we can hope for is victory with truce, perhaps, a half-way house. We must hope for a reconversion in the minds and hearts of all – even Lady Warnock. It is possible. But in the meantime we must fight to hold the ground we still have and tirelessly proclaim what Solzhenitsyn hoped we would proclaim – that man is not the centre of all things, that there is an eternity, a life after death and that that death – when and how it comes to us – is the gift of our Creator, not ours.