As 2022 ends, I find myself haunted by news of an ancient massacre.
Some nine or ten thousand years ago, long before writing was invented, there was a war in what is now Kenya, near Lake Turkana (shown above). It was hardly even a skirmish, by today’s standards, but several members of the losing tribe were murdered by the victors. Tied up and slaughtered, mind you, not slain in battle, including two women—one of them pregnant. You can read about it in the dispassionate language of the venerable scientific journal Nature (behind a paywall), or in this more vivid report in the Washington Post. This news from the world of paleontology broke almost seven years ago, at a time when Donald Trump’s campaign for president was still widely regarded as a joke. He won the presidency and the passionate support of tens of millions of Americans by promising, in effect, to enact massacres like the one in ancient Africa on an unthinkable scale.
That there is something evil bound up in the essence of humanity was apparent to the anonymous authors of the Hebrew Bible, the collection of ancient stories, ethics, and theology that Christians organize differently and call the Old Testament. In the book of Genesis, after the Flood, God is depicted saying to himself that He will not destroy the world again due to humanity’s sins, “for the heart of Man is evil from his youth.” Not long ago, my father of blessed memory told me he was always troubled if not outraged by this passage. See here, Almighty, You create Man, and then You condemn Your own creation as evil?
And even earlier than this in the book of Genesis, we of course have the story of the world’s first murder, in which Cain son of Adam and Eve slays his brother Abel out of stupid envy and spite. Because, as modern scholars have shown, the Hebrew Bible is a hodgepodge collection of sources sewn together by later editors, there are obvious logical holes in the version that has come down to us, such as the fact that after the murder, Cain appears to be the only man left to propagate the human race. It follows that we are all descendants of the first murderer. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Or better yet, consider this famous poem by the Israeli Holocaust survivor Dan Pagis:
Written In Pencil In The Sealed Railway-Car
here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i
Is this the final word on the human race? This deliberate cruelty unlike anything else in the living world, which has been with us for the entire hundred-thousand-year existence of Homo sapiens, from the plains of ancient Africa to the plains of Ukraine at this very moment? Should we not rather be called Homo homicida?
What is Man? Shakespeare, in one of his most famous speeches, has Hamlet saying, “What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
The question remains open, because Man is also that nameless woman in ancient Africa who was overjoyed to feel the new life swelling within her, and the ancient scribe who had God demand that Cain explain what he had done to his brother, and the men of Ukraine who fight not because they love killing, but to defend their kith and kin, and the countless Americans who have stood up in the past seven years to reject and condemn Trumpism.
As the epigraph of my 2012 novel 36, in which I brooded about but could not answer the question of whether there are enough righteous people left for the world to survive, I quoted the words of the medieval Jewish sage Maimonides, a physician and an Aristotelian rationalist. A mystical and prophetic mood must have overtaken him when he wrote: He whose virtues are equivalent to his faults—hangs in the balance… So it is with nations: If the virtues of all of a nation’s inhabitants outweigh their faults, it is righteous; if their faults outweigh their virtues, it is wicked. So it is with the whole world.
This world hangs in the balance of the reality of Man, as the latter-day Jewish sage Bob Dylan once observed; but so it always has. That is why every human being from the most powerful to the most seemingly insignificant is charged to be kind, and loving, and brave, and to fight every day of his life against his own worst impulses.
Happy New Year. May 2023 bring blessings to you and yours and this whole troubled world.