The Most Interesting Man Alive?

Dr. Anthony Daniels, better known as the pseudonymous Theodore Dalrymple, is – according to a website dedicated to his work – “the most interesting man alive.” I’m not quite sure I’d go that far; after all, he has a lot of competition. Fans of the popular Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” beer commercial would certainly beg to differ. But I would not necessarily argue with how one of his editors described him: “simply the best journalist in the English speaking world.” 

His achievements are even more remarkable when you consider that his parents never spoke to one another in the eighteen years he lived with them. (I read that several times to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood). Perhaps this helps explain his prolific output today. A retired British psychiatrist (he worked in an inner-city prison hospital, which opened his eyes), he has written with wit and depth on an extraordinary range of topics – his profession and travels, literary and cultural criticism, architecture, philosophy, social policy, etc. But what perhaps most animates his work is a searing sense of loss – even exile, occasioned by the astounding decay in British cultural life.

Benedict XVI maintains that the West today is suffering from a crisis of faith as well as of reason; perhaps the most fitting compliment, then, would be to describe Dalrymple – not a man of religious faith – as a great man of reason. He is deeply committed to the intellectual foundations of the West, even as he is adroit in dismantling destructive modern ideologies. To read him is not always to agree with him, but it is to see a fine mind reveal itself thoughtfully. In this sense, then, he personifies part of what Benedict XVI says Europe urgently needs to recover today: its faith in reason itself.

Benedict XVI has engaged notable atheists, such as fellow German Jürgen Habermas, with the shared conviction that each could profit in some ways by an honest exchange of ideas. And despite their obvious differences, Habermas has reached an arresting conclusion: “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

That sounds as if it could have come from the English historian Christopher Dawson, who felt that religion is what, at root, defines a culture. But it is not what one would expect from a professed Marxist. And in that sense, Dalrymple even has a leg up on Habermas, for he is no Marxist.

In fact, he has proven an important and original critic of Marxism ever since he noticed that his own Marxist father’s professed love for humanity as a whole was not quite so heartfelt for concrete individuals closer to home.  As recent developments in our own country attest, the need to remain on guard against socialism cannot be dismissed. Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger noted in his 1996 Communio essay “Truth and Freedom” that Marxism – despite Eastern Europe’s political and economic collapse – has still “not met with any real intellectual defeat.” So Dalrymple’s work represents a much-needed contribution towards that end.

Dalrymple’s thought parallels that of Benedict XVI in several other important ways. In his recently released book The New Vichy Syndrome, he identifies moral relativism as a key culprit in the demise of the West. Since moral standards often represent a stumbling block to faith for non-believers, this alone is a refreshing observation. But Dalrymple keeps digging: since relativists by definition must rely upon themselves alone for the validity of their beliefs (there being no other authority), he perceives that profound egotism is what has, at root, displaced engagement with reason. 

He has also recently published a series of commentaries which echo a key theme of Benedict XVI: “without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” A great deal of Britain’s (indeed most “progressive”) social policy is driven by sentimentality – which Dalrymple has described as the “refusal to discipline the gratifying glow of self-regard by deeper reflection.”

This approach to “serving” others has bombed spectacularly because the net effect of sentimentality, much like that of relativism, is that we end up serving ourselves first – in the form of self-flattery and job security. In a classic turn of phrase, he notes that the “number of people dependent upon the dependent for their livelihood has increased enormously, but to the detriment of the economy and the social fabric as well.”  In the UK’s National Health Service alone, there are now 400,000 more employees than there were in 1997 (about a fifth of all new jobs), with nowhere near commensurate gains in productivity.

We have been warned.

Though the Church of course can never remain indifferent to human suffering and is constantly bound to perform acts of authentic charity, Catholic entities (Charities, Health Associations, etc) may well have important things to learn from this man of secular reason; though their actions have at times suggested otherwise, the last thing they should be is “one of those many organisations that live and breathe and take their being in the large no man’s land between government and charity.”

I wonder if Dalrymple – who has written critically about “new atheists” and sympathetically about those (such as Christopher Hitchens’s brother) who find meaning and solace in faith – has come across the Spanish author Juan Manuel de Prada, a former atheist who has found in the Catholic Church “a liberty that is ‘the antidote to all the tyrannies of the world.’ ” De Prada found in Rome, along with religious salvation, cultural shelter from the forces that have thrashed Dalrymple’s beloved UK and driven him to put so much pen to paper. Great British men of letters have, after all, experienced conversions before. And he is a great and decent man.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.