A prescient interview in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal with prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, in which the good doctor discusses Norwegian bomber Anders Breivik, among other subjects. He outlines an unpopular but sympathetic point, reminiscent of David Brooks’ recent work: that the French Enlightenment may have done more harm than good when it comes to our understanding of human nature. Or, as he puts is, “it says something about us that we feel compelled to explain evil in a way that we don’t feel about people’s good actions.” In other words, Dalrymple provides a timely reminder that, regardless of what we may be imbibing culturally, the existential burden of proof doesn’t lie with the guilty but with the innocent (a good counterpoint to David Eagleman’s theories, for example). Theologically speaking, we’re talking about the shift from the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” to “How could good things happen to bad people?!” It’s a crucial difference in perspective, and one which has the potential to transform entitlement into gratitude, resentment into joy – just one of the many reasons we harp on such an ostensibly “downbeat” or pessimistic anthropology. But don’t take my word for it, ht VH: 

The human impulse to explain the inexplicably horrific is revealing, according to Dr. Dalrymple, in two respects—one personal, one political. First, it says something about us that we feel compelled to e xplain evil in a way that we don’t feel about people’s good actions. The discrepancy arises, he says, “because [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau has triumphed,” by which he means that “we believe ourselves to be good, and that evil, or bad, is the deviation from what is natural.”

For most of human history, the prevailing view was different. Our intrinsic nature was something to be overcome, restrained and civilized. But Rousseau’s view, famously, was that society corrupted man’s pristine nature. This is not only wrong, Dr. Dalrymple argues, but it has had profound and baleful effects on society and our attitude toward crime and punishment. For one thing, it has alienated us from responsibility for our own actions. For another, it has reduced our willingness to hold others responsible for theirs.

“Most people,” Dr. Dalrymple says, “now have a belief in the inner core of themselves as being good. So that whatever they’ve done, they’ll say, ‘That’s not the real me.’”

Another modern impulse in trying to understand men like Breivik is what Dr. Dalrymple calls “a kind of neuroscientific investigation combined with Darwinism, which tries to persuade us that we understand something that perhaps Shakespeare didn’t understand” about human nature. “And of course,” he allows, “there are things we understand that we didn’t understand in Shakespeare’s time. But the idea that we have finally plucked out the heart of the mystery of existence is drivel.”

He notes that so far at least, the explanatory power of sociobiology combined with neuroscience is entirely “retrospective.” Experts can draw correlations between this and that, “but they can’t even tell you what’s going to happen on the New York Stock Exchange tomorrow. So, there’s a feeling that we have finally achieved some kind of understanding that our poor benighted ancestors didn’t have. But this is nonsense.” Human action remains mysterious, and what’s more, “it’s dangerous to think we do have that kind of understanding,” because in the worst case, it could lead to a kind of scientific dictatorship.