As I’ve written before, I hate fiction.
Lord of the Flies is a book by William Golding. I read it in high school, and found it both intriguing and terrifying. But now I’ve read Pinker, and I’ve read Deutsch, and that has changed everything.
I just finished Lord of the Flies again. It isn’t hard to sum up the message of the book. “What evil lies in the heart of men (er, um, boys)?” The first time I read the book the message resonated with me. I was deeply interested in the question of evil. Are we basically good, but trapped in a society that drives us to evil acts? Or are we basically evil, with the veneer of society (barely) keeping us from one another’s throats?
It was clear to me then. I was of the former persuasion; this book was of the latter. It was a challenge to me, and I remember convincing myself (rather unconvincingly) that the boys who turned to savagery had been trained by the society in which they were raised. After all, I said to myself, they are only on this island because they themselves were escaping war. War was pounded into their good little hearts from the beginning. How could they have become anything other than what they were? Society made them evil.
Golding, I believe, had just the opposite opinion, and would respond by saying that we had created that society, we had created that war. Even after all the years of bloodshed, we still hadn’t learned our lesson. Here we were, bombing and killing even now as we try to teach our children better.
What a pair of simple souls. Now I know better. The choice is a false one. All evil results from a lack of knowledge. And there was plenty of missing knowledge on that island.
This is not a condemnation of the boys. They were faced with the task of creating a new society. That the society they finally formed was an immoral, irrational, awful mess is no surprise. Almost every society in the history of humankind has been an immoral, irrational, awful mess.
These boys, however, came from the West. They tried to emulate what they’d learned of the grownup world. Ralph found the conch, the symbol of civilization, lawful rule, and reasoned discussion. The boys tried to create knowledge. They used Piggy’s glasses to create fire. They made smoke to send a signal to the outside world. They tried to encourage creative thought and rational criticism. And they almost succeeded.
In the end, they failed. The beast became their god. The conch was destroyed, along with Piggy, the voice of reason on the island. Anti-rational memes are powerful things, and humans are imperfect, prone to error, bound to make mistakes. The biggest mistake of all, the one that proved literally fatal, was the suppression of criticism, the use of violence rather than discussion, the slavish devotion to ritual and superstition instead of creative thought and critical analysis.
But why the beast? Why the failure? What is it about humans that makes us so bad at government? This is what Golding was trying to get at, and where in the end I think he failed, falling back on the evil in men’s hearts business. I don’t know any better than Golding did, but I do know this. It’s easy to be wrong, and hard to be right. All our knowledge is fallible. The West, the Enlightenment, civilization, are far from perfect. But they’re our only hope.
My hope comes from a human trait that Golding little explored, but that I believe is deep and ingrained. When you have a sore in your mouth, you have to touch it with your tongue, even though you know it will hurt. When you hear a bump in the night, you have to go see what it is, even though you may be frightened. When God told Eve not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, what did she do? Crunch!
The beast was only a dead parachutist. Golding made one enormous error in having only Simon ever try to find this out. We all wanted to know. That’s why Golding told us. The boys would have wanted to know, too. They would have gone. They would have investigated, despite their fear. They would have poked the beast with a stick, ran, slunk back, poked again. Finally, they would have learned the truth.
That same trait, of course, led to the “atom bomb” war that Golding was so convinced was our destiny. The keys to heaven and hell are identical. But we cannot ignore them.
If the beast is in us, as Simon tells learns via the terrifying pig’s head, then our only chance is to go face the beast, journey to the mountain, stare the creature down with the only tools we have, our rational selves.