Beheading and Progress

“Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath . . . and cut off his head with it.”—1 Samuel 17:51

800px-Caravaggio_-_David_con_la_testa_di_GoliaIf you ever wake up and find yourself starring in a horror movie, be sure to remember the wisdom of young King David: ALWAYS SEVER THE HEAD. Seriously, the Bible and the horror movie genre are in agreement on this matter. When you’ve got the big scary monster on the ground, knocked out and seemingly dead, don’t be an idiot! Don’t turn your back on him! Don’t start glorying in your newfound safety! Because everybody knows that the big bad monster always comes back to life, for one last terrifying encore—wherein he kills off some minor character of sentimental significance before getting properly (and more permanently) killed by the protagonist.

But seriously, the monsters are the only ones beheading people lately. Even so, the sheer barbarism of ISIS brings into sharp contrast the three greatest moral achievements of the Enlightenment: the abolition of public execution by torture, the abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of women. As the philosopher Susan Neiman rightly observes, in Evil in Modern Thought (2002) and Moral Clarity (2009), these three developments are a standing rebuke to cynics who maintain, with the world-weary author of Ecclesiastes 1:9, that “there is no new thing under the sun.” These three precious, and to some extent incomplete, achievements are proof that moral progress has happened before, and that it can happen again. Does this mean that moral progress is inevitable, that history is in some sense progressive? Of course not! But it does mean that progress is possible. And possible is all we need for hope.

Just as the stars shine brightest on the darkest of nights, the good in this world is often most visible in the presence of great evil.

The Dark Ages didn’t go anywhere. They’ve been lurking in the shadows all along, like some big and hungry beast. Now they’re back, back with a vengeance, and growing bolder by the day.

We ignore them at our peril.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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