The ancient Greeks had a word to define excessive pride: hubris. Hubris was more than just arrogance; it denoted the unbridled confidence in one’s own abilities to the point of disdainfully ignoring other points of view. Greek myths and literature abounded with cautionary tales about this most grievous fault. Throughout the ancient world, arrogance was deemed a sin that would elicit swift retribution from the gods. Christianity promptly listed it among the seven deadly sins.
Judaism and Christianity developed our creation story; in it, man was molded by God, in his image, from the clay of the earth and given the breath of life . Placed in paradise, this idyllic time did not last long. The serpent appealed to man’s sense of pride and in defiance of God’s orders, ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree and was swiftly evicted from the Garden of Eden as punishment for his arrogant desire to equate himself with God.
Man was viewed as born with a flawed nature, with an “original sin” that required redemption, in constant struggle with his darker impulses; ultimately, though, he had the power to choose between the divergent paths. The view of man as a fallen angel was prevalent from biblical times to the beginning of the 18th century, when a vastly different view arose.
Man began to be viewed as a creature inherently good at birth but corrupted by society, born free but reduced to slavery, made to submit to artificial authorities, both secular and ecclesiastic, through the imposition of unnatural and oppressive customs and beliefs. God, acknowledged at first, was relegated to the role of a supreme deity, the Creator who, after finishing the work of creation, retreated to the position of uninterested observer. The notion of “the noble savage”, living far from the corrupting influence of civilization, was hailed as representing the true nature of man. Unfortunately, the proponents of this philosophy never laid eyes on any “savages”, noble or otherwise, so they enlisted the help of the next best thing: shepherds. Thus, a whole genre of “pastoral” poetry flourished, especially in the French court, where kings had, for some generations, gathered the nobility, always prone to rebellion, in an effort to keep an eye on them. These pastoral frolics amused both royalty and idle nobility and even Marie Antoinette indulged in them, along with the ladies of the court. This can dismissed as so much 18th century nonsense, but an inescapable reality is that ideas have consequences, and one of them was the French Revolution, which resulted in the destruction of the kingdom and the deaths of tens of thousands of people in a blood bath that only ended when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power.
The 19th century became, after some sputtering starts, an age of optimism; science, humanity was told, would free man from his endless toil; Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species” and turned the world upside down. For the first time, there was a coherent, scientific explanation that accounted for the bewildering variety of life on the planet; the biblical creation narrative became an improbable, amusing and totally irrelevant fairy tale not to be taken seriously. However, as attractive as Darwin’s hypothesis was, it had one glaring flaw: it described the evolution from one species to another, but failed utterly to explain its mechanism. That distinction went to an obscure Austrian monk, Georg Mendel who, working with peas, finally formulated the laws of heredity. He published his findings in an obscure local scientific journal where they laid, forgotten, until rediscovered decades later. New terms were introduced: genetic mutation, recessive and dominant genes and genetic inheritance. These new concepts, together with the Malthusian ideas of global population increases outstripping global resources, mixed with the statist tenets of the Progressive movement, converged in the creation of a brand new pseudo science: eugenics. Eugenicists maintained that people should not be allowed to reproduce at random; instead, they were to be tested and declared to be free of genetic defects. Those deemed to be “defective” –the “feeble minded”, those with a history of family diseases, poverty or simply those belonging to ethnic groups the eugenicists frowned upon- would be dealt with; remedies ranged from forced sterilization to euthanasia, as recommended by the American Breeders Association. Eugenics concepts were embraced by some of the most illustrious members of the American and European intelligentsia (For an excellent history of eugenics, refer to Edwin Black’s “The War against the Weak”)
The old concept that every human being was imbued with a spark of the divine was replaced by twisted notions of genetic manipulation all in the quest to create a new super race; humanity would then soar to heights unlimited once we cast off the dead weight of “defective” people. The 1927 case of Buck v Bell, brought by Carrie Buck, a victim of forced sterilization, reached the Supreme Court. The court upheld the constitutionality of the 1924 Virginia Sterilization Act. Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes closed with the following” “three generations of imbeciles is enough” The Nazi eugenics program was taken, almost word for word from the American model. After the discovery of the Nazi death camps and much American embarrassment at the Nuremberg tribunal, eugenics went into hibernation.
Social engineers continued their work in the 20th century but the terminology changed and the newly revived eugenics ideas were disguised under new monikers; Progressivism itself changed names and became “liberalism”; some of the most distinguished names in American intellectual circles joined its ranks to lend to it the glamour and prestige that had worn off the old “progressive” label.
Two things fundamentally changed the social landscape: the introduction of the “pill” and the Roe v Wade Supreme Court case that legalized abortion on demand. The first divorced sexual behavior from its consequences. True, condoms had been in existence for the longest time, but now it was not only easier, but it became “cool” to have multiple partners. The second not only complemented the first; for the first time, abortion lost its back alley stigma to become main stream. However, in order to achieve that, some concepts had to change. Babies in the womb were now “fetuses”, a term previously used almost exclusively by the medical profession. That was not impersonal enough, so “cluster of cells” was coined to denote those pregnancies up to and including 20 weeks, which was the then agreed upon limit to legally abort a baby. Other concepts, such as referring to the new born as “parasites”, come to pollute and rob the planet of its natural resources, as one prominent actress declared recently, came into fashion. The abortion supporters call themselves “pro choice”. Choice, however, implies a decision to be made between alternatives; this runs into trouble when the pro choice proponents are asked what it is they choose. Ultimately, no matter how sophisticated and ingenious the answers, it becomes clear that the choice is simple: life or death. People who question the morality of abortion, or the fact that abortion providers are frequently located in or near poor neighborhoods, are dismissed as participants in “the war on women”, a term that precludes any form of rational discussion and has become enshrined in the progressive lexicon.
One recent and highly disturbing trend came from England, where a panel of intellectuals brought forth the concept of “post birth abortion”, arguing that the parents of a new born should retain the right to “terminate” the life of the baby up to close to a year from birth. Of course, this is very distant from becoming a reality and most likely will not become so, at least not in our lifetime; on the other hand, things that were unthinkable in 1900 not only became thinkable in the 20th century, but have taken place. In the stillness of a quiet evening we might just hear the cries of the victims of the Armenian genocide or get the faint whiff of burned flesh coming from the ovens at Auschwitz or experience the chill emanating from the Soviet gulags. Perhaps Kermit Gosnell was ahead of his time. Truly our age could be called The Age of Arrogance.