Prophetic voices for our time

If a prophet like those of Old Testament times were to visit human society today, what would he criticize us for? How would he urge us to change? Or perhaps we have been sent similar prophets but have not paid attention to them.

I have in mind three prophets of the last century: Sophie Scholl and generally the society of The White Rose in Munich, Germany; C.S. Lewis, in his book "The Abolition of Man," but also "That Hideous Strength," (the last book in his Perelandra Trilogy); and finally, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, throughout his works but especially in his critique of Western culture in his Harvard University commencement address of 1978 (

Curiously, The White Rose and "The Abolition of Man" are linked in time. The White Rose was a group of students at the University of Munich, led by a philosophy professor, Kurt Huber, who wrote and distributed leaflets criticizing the Nazi regime and urging fellow citizens to engage in sabotage and "passive resistance," and to spread the message of the leaflets. Their leaders were captured on Feb. 18, 1943, and executed on Feb. 22. "The Abolition of Man" consists of lectures by Lewis at the University of Newcastle. He began giving them just three days after the White Rose students were executed.

Of course, they did not know of each other: the actions and fate of The White Rose were not reported in the West until April of that year. And they were concerned with different evils: The White Rose, with the present evil of Naziism, government by criminals, useless war, and genocide; C.S. Lewis with an anticipated or projected evil, of humankind's loss of its own humanity, by the growth of a scientistic mentality which regarded human nature as something to be manipulated from the outside, rather than appropriated by good education "from within."

And yet, both saw the answer to be the same. For Lewis, education was failing to address the heart; literature was no longer being taught properly, such that, through it, we might learn how to be properly affected. Instead, our systems of education were calculated to produce "men without chests," who used their intelligence only to satisfy animal promptings ("the goal of social democracy is scientific feeding," as Richard Weaver put it starkly). "Without the aid of trained emotions, the intellect is powerless against the animal organism," Lewis warned. He approvingly quotes the Anglo-Saxon poem, "Maldon": "Courage has got to be harder, heart the stouter, spirit the sterner, as our strength weakens."

For The White Rose, Germans needed to show courage. After all, the German Sixth Army had just been encircled and destroyed in Stalingrad -- 350,000 lost. The American Army was massing. It's not, then, that somehow death would be avoided: it was rather their fellows chose to lose their lives by compulsion, in the service of evil, rather than give them up freely for the truth.

The leaflets of The White Rose, strikingly, take for granted that everyone knows the truth. The missing factor is a corresponding will to act. Citing the Holocaust as something evident and known, they ask, "Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? Hardly anyone thinks about that. It is accepted as fact and put out of mind."

"Our present 'state is the dictatorship of evil.' 'Oh, we've known that for a long time,' I hear you object, 'and it isn't necessary to bring that to our attention again.' But, I ask you, if you know that, why do you not bestir yourselves." "We would deserve to be dispersed through the earth like dust before the wind if we do not muster our powers at this late hour and finally find the courage which up to now we have lacked."

We perhaps take the fault or crime of the German people to be some kind of ideology: they embraced Nazism, fascism, the Fuhrer Principle, Aryan superiority, Social Darwinism, or some other false system. And, no doubt, some Nazis believed these things. But many, too, from lack of courage, failed to deny that they believed them. That fault or crime was lodged in character, not thought.

Solzhenitsyn was our third prophet. There is no connection in time: in 1943, he was serving in the Soviet army and witnessing their war crimes. If he did more, he repented of it, and if he repented, then what he said in his Harvard address was in part an incrimination of his earlier self as well as a judgment on the West: "A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days." "To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being."

Solzhenitsyn, in the address, also decries a misconception of freedom, which lets evil flourish under the heading of "freedom." Our lack of courage, and our confusions about freedom, he claims, have a common source: the public rejection of any higher purpose in life than material satisfaction. "That provided access for evil," he warns, "of which in our days there is a free and constant flow."

So we have had our share of prophets, and saints and popes have been prophets, too. They have warned us. Are we listening?

- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book, on the Gospel of Mark, is "The Memoirs of St Peter." His next book,"Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John," is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway.