Modern Scoundrels

In 1907, St. Pius X asserted in the encyclical Pascendi: “It is pride which fills Modernists with that self-assurance by which they consider themselves and pose as the rule for all. It is pride which puffs them up with that vainglory which allows them to regard themselves as the sole possessors of knowledge, and makes them say, elated and inflated with presumption, We are not as the rest of men, and which, lest they should seem as other men, leads them to embrace and to devise novelties even of the most absurd kind. . . . It is owing to their pride that they seek to be the reformers of others while they forget to reform themselves.”

This is the kind of remark that, of course, embarrasses a certain kind of Catholic, especially since Vatican II. In 2007, on the centenary of Pascendi, many of them not only deplored such sentiments, they labored to make it appear that the encyclical’s very premises were absurd. But are they?

Modernists come in a variety of kinds, to be sure, and Catholics know that we are all sinners. Still, the evidence is in that departing from ancient philosophical and theological wisdom has, as Pius X knew, serious consequences.

A case in point: the Hungarian leftist and intellectual Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) has been much in the news lately thanks to the publication of Michael Scammell’s monumental 700-page biography, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth Century Skeptic.

Koestler, who wrote thirty books in his lifetime, is best remembered for repudiating his Communist Party membership in The God That Failed, a collection of essays that he helped edit, and for describing the horrors of Stalin’s purges in his 1940 novel Darkness at Noon. So far so good. But he shed his Communist faith, and adopted a different modernist one. Later in life, in such works as Beyond Reductionism and The Ghost in the Machine, he disputed the claims of scientific materialists that man was nothing more than a bundle of atoms—by appealing to parapsychology.

This shift was not wholly for the better. Koestler also had a dark side that dabbling in the paranormal did not restrain. He was a nasty, miserable, cruel man who mistreated his mother, refused even to meet his illegitimate daughter, and was accused of rape by a friend’s wife. Koestler admitted that growing up he was “admired for my brains and detested for my character,” and wrote to the woman who was to be his second wife, “without an element of initial rape there is no delight.” A narcissist to the end, he did not object to his young and healthy third wife’s committing suicide together with him.

No one should be surprised by these revelations. Many high-minded modernists, who publicly lectured the human race on how to manage its affairs, have privately been lowlifes who believed they were exempt from the usual rules of civility. Here are a few more examples of secular titans whose personal lives consisted of lies, hatred, selfishness, and sexual perversion:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) virtually invented the radical modern critique of existing societies, blaming everything on social influences and exonerating individuals, especially himself. He therefore sought to alter human behavior by creating a social contract giving the state a claim to represent the General Will. Rousseau’s totalitarian state would, in the name of humanitarianism, coerce citizens to submit to a new order that promised to regenerate mankind and eliminate perceived injustices, miseries, and disorders.

Rousseau believed he was a compassionate servant of the people directing mankind toward a higher state of being. “I feel too superior to hate,” he declared. “I love myself too much to hate anybody.” But in fact, he was a self-centered scoundrel who treated people like dirt. He condemned his five illegitimate children at birth to the dreaded Paris orphanage system in which the life expectancy for two-thirds of the inmates was less than a year. I. W. Allen has described Rousseau as a “masochist, exhibitionist, neurasthenic, hypochondriac, onanist. . . .incipient paranoiac, narcissistic introvert. . . .a kleptomaniac, infantilist, irritable, and miserly.”

Karl Marx (1818-1883), was a heavy drinking, bad tempered, disorderly slob who browbeat family, colleagues, and followers (he also had an affair with the housemaid). A rabid anti-Semite, he declared that if the world was to be saved, it must emancipate “itself from hucksterism and money, and thus from the real and practical Judaism.” “Marx,” Mikhail Bakunin observed, “does not believe in God, but he believes much in himself and makes everyone serve himself. His heart is not full of love, but of bitterness, and he has very little sympathy for the human race.” To judge by results, leaders of Marxist regimes seem to have followed the master’s life as much as his ideology.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), a philosopher and intellectual aristocrat, who made himself publicly notorious as an anti-nuclear crusader, was in private a dedicated lecher who despised and pitied average people and felt above the rules of society, except when he found them useful.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the super egoist, who, when not overindulging in alcohol and barbiturates, had long-term companion Simone de Beauvoir serve as his sexual procuress. Sartre and Beauvoir loudly pursued Nazi collaborators after World War II, but during the Nazi occupation they themselves got along fine with the authorities and lived very well indeed. Their books continued to be published and their plays produced.

These modernists may have loved mankind in the abstract, but in reality despised actual persons. Was Pius X wrong in observing that “they seek to be the reformers of others while they forget to reform themselves”? Koestler and his heartless confreres were guilty of the same sin that brought down Satan, and Adam and Eve—pride.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.