Mma Ramotswe, Walker Percy, and the Danger of Tenderness
Jordan Hylden
| Fall 2006

It is almost impossible to say anything bad about Mma Precious Ramotswe, the warm and tenderhearted lady detective from Botswana at the center of Alexander McCall Smith’s popular series, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.” No one really has, and who could? If you have read the books, you know that Mma Ramotswe is a good and kind woman imbued with a generous spirit and a never-ending supply of moral wisdom. What with her penchant for bush tea and friendly conversation, her genteel romance with Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni, and her knack for solving mysteries, she has endeared herself to millions of readers worldwide, including my mother, and probably yours too.

And so, there is probably no polite way to say this, but say it I must. I think that Mma Precious Ramotswe is a dangerous woman who is filling our mothers’ heads with nonsense, and must be stopped. In fact, it is not just her that is the trouble—really, it is warm and tenderhearted people everywhere. Now, by saying this, I know full well that my supply of cookies from home will undoubtedly be cut off, and all future interactions with the female sex deeply imperiled. But that, you see, is the magnitude of the problem—if I do not say it, then perhaps no one will. And it simply must be said. Tenderness, I say, is a blight upon our souls, and has placed us all in grave danger. Something needs to be done. Warmth and tenderness are sweeping through the civilized world like the plague, with Mma Ramotswe at the fore, waving their teapot-and-cookie standard and marching us all to a certain doom.

You think I am joking. Of course I am, a bit. But mostly I am dead serious, and I think you should be too. There is, I believe, an important argument to be made against tenderness, niceness, and sentimentality when it comes to ethics. Unfortunately it is a very difficult argument to make, since it means saying not nice things about folks like Mma Ramotswe, and championing ethical curmudgeons instead, like Fr. Smith from Walker Percy’s novel The Thanatos Syndrome. Nevertheless it is necessary, given that we in the late modern West do not suffer from a surfeit of niceness, but rather of clarity and moral courage. So, although he would no doubt make for a terrible teatime partner, it is well worth considering Fr. Smith’s somewhat startling challenge to the Mma Ramotswe’s of the world: “Do you know where tenderness leads? To the gas chamber. Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer.”

That may sound extreme, and I realize it needs a bit of explaining. So, since we must start somewhere, consider this fact: They are killing babies right now in the Netherlands. I do not mean abortion; that by now is old news. I mean just what I said—they are killing babies, e.g. committing infanticide, legally and in medical clinics with doctors. The Times ran a story about it this past spring, and although there has been some controversy, apparently the Dutch are getting on with it quite well. This of course is in addition to killing old people, which is called euthanasia, and has been extended now to include nearly anyone who wants to die; and also the prenatal weeding out of handicapped and retarded people, who otherwise would suffer and be a burden on society. The thing is that none of it is done out of any sort of malice, eugenic impulse, bloodlust, or anything of the sort—no, instead it is done out of compassion, by good and civilized people. It is all done out of tenderness. Which, I think, should make us suspicious of tenderness—if these practices are wrong, they are not wrong because they lack compassion. Rather, they are wrong for different reasons altogether, which are obscured precisely by the compassion and tenderness with which they are done.

Now, far be it from me to lay all this at Mma Ramotswe’s feet. She and her friends are generally content to spend their days sipping bush tea and solving mysteries. But McCall Smith is after much more than that in his books—in the best tradition of writers like Agatha Christie and P.D. James, his novels are really at bottom an exploration of human nature, and of the vagaries of right and wrong. More than anything else, McCall Smith is an old-fashioned moralist, interested in questions of ethics, who has in Mma Ramotswe quite purposefully embodied a feminine moral ideal of nonfoundationalist tolerance, compassion, and empathy. The parallels are not exact, but she has a great deal in common with contemporary philosophers like Judith Shklar, Elaine Scarry, Peter Singer, and Richard Rorty, all of whom are good and tenderhearted people who think that there are no metaphysical grounds for morality but nevertheless argue that pain is bad and should be eliminated as much as possible, including by means of (in Peter Singer’s case at least) abortion, voluntary suicide, prenatal screening, and infanticide.

Here then is the problem. Just as there is no doubt that Mma Ramotswe is a good and tenderhearted person, there is neither any doubt that philosophers like Peter Singer and Richard Rorty are good people, with real compassion behind their arguments and views. It is the same with nearly all contemporary advocates of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, prenatal screening, infanticide, and the like. But that has never been in question, although it has often been treated as such. If we are going to have serious conversations about the morality of such practices, we will have to move beyond talk about doing the “compassionate” or the “caring” thing. Of course we all ought to be compassionate. But compassion and tenderness are amorphous and dangerous things, precisely because they tend to cover over serious questions of ethics in a vague cloud of niceness. And because tenderness can lead anywhere—even, like Fr. Smith warned, to the gas chamber.

I.

It’s too bad that Mma Ramotswe is marching us all to a certain doom, because she really is a nice lady. And her books are heartwarming—if you are familiar with the series, you will know that she got her start as a lady detective thanks to an inheritance left by her father, who had scrimped and saved all his life to provide for his beloved daughter and dreamed that she would one day start a business of her own. Private detection is of course a rather unusual line of work, and in fact Mma Ramotswe is a bit awed, but proud, to say that she is the “only lady detective in the whole of Botswana.” As she explains it, the people of Botswana are “My people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them solve the mysteries in their lives. That is what I am called to do.”

And that is what she does. Throughout the seven books of the series, Mma Ramotswe helps her customers solve the little problems of life. The plot is never really the point of the books—like Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mysteries and Jan Karon’s Mitford series, the characters populating Mma Ramotswe’s world potter on through life in the assurance that nothing really bad could ever possibly happen. There are small matters, of course, which require attention—two-timing husbands, wayward teenagers, and the like. But these things are always solved to satisfaction in time for tea, and they are not what drive the books: The everyday business of life, friendship, and family is far more important. The reader cannot possibly help caring about how Mma Ramotswe will finally convince Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni to marry her, or how her poor but resourceful secretary, Mma Makutsi, will do at starting up her own business.

But, as important as Mma Ramotswe’s romance with Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni is, she is at her most interesting when trying to resolve the ethical predicaments she gets herself into, and when dispensing nuggets of wisdom about moral philosophy. At times, McCall Smith is quite explicit about what he’s doing—one chapter is even titled “A Problem in Moral Philosophy,” and a recurring apple-and-snake motif lets us know that the books take their cues from the Garden of Eden, where the ongoing human morality play of temptation, deceit, and sin is placed front and center. The philosophizing can be obtrusive at times—such as the unlikely passage in which Mma Ramotswe reflects on the merits of French existentialism—but for the most part, McCall Smith manages to impart his moral lessons without stepping out of character.

To start with, McCall Smith deftly argues for the nonfoundationalist and messy nature of ethics—basically, the position that there is no universal ethical system that can be derived from reason, revelation, or the natural law; and that consequently, it simply isn’t possible to find “right” answers to ethical quandaries in any absolute and final sense. At one juncture, he writes: “Mma Ramotswe was given to philosophical speculation, but only up to a point. Such questions were undoubtedly challenging, but they tended to lead to further questions which simply could not be answered.” As a champion of traditional Botswana values, Mma Ramotswe is quite sure that the old ways of doing things are right, but can’t figure out how to justify why that is so. “Ultimately,” she reasons, some things are just wrong “because the old Botswana morality said that it was wrong, and the old Botswana morality, as everybody knew, was so plainly right. It just felt right.” And, although the old Botswana ways are generally good, even they aren’t able to provide guidance for situations in which there simply are “sound points to be made on both sides.” In those situations, Mma Ramotswe decides firmly, one just has to choose the most compassionate course and act on it—doubts have to “be put away and the goal pursued wholeheartedly,” so long as the bad things you do (lying, for example) are outweighed by the good (like saving someone’s life).

Of course, anyone who has ever been faced with a tricky ethical situation can sympathize with Mma Ramotswe on these points—life is, after all, oftentimes messy. If we intend to move beyond a vague sort of life-is-messy-ism moral philosophy, we might have cause to wonder if her starting point for ethics is sound. But nevertheless, she is not alone in her starting point—in fact, she is joined by influential philosophers like Richard Rorty and Elaine Scarry, both of whom are self-described nonfoundationalists when it comes to ethics. And, of course, they are very far from ascribing to anything like a vague life-is-messy sort of moral philosophy. Like Mma Ramotswe, they would argue that it would be very nice to have a natural law or some such infallible moral code, but that no such thing exists. And, furthermore, they (like Mma Ramotswe) have a plan for figuring out how to do the right thing, even if there isn’t really any “right” thing to pull down from the sky.

Mma Ramotswe, for her own part, is convinced that the ability to “understand the hopes and aspirations of others… is the beginning of all morality. If you knew how a person was feeling,” she reasons, “if you could imagine yourself in her position, then surely it would be impossible to inflict further pain. Inflicting pain in such circumstances would be like hurting oneself.” As a good and tenderhearted woman, of course, Mma Ramotswe is especially adept at feeling the pain of others. In fact, that is why she became a detective—to do something, however small, to help people who are suffering. Empathy, for Mma Ramotswe, is where morality begins, which in turn leads us to acts of compassion in order to relieve others from pain.

Again and again throughout the books, the good and tenderhearted Mma Ramotswe and her friends follow a regular pattern—seeing the world through the eyes of another person; empathizing with that person’s suffering; and doing something concrete to help. Imagination is important in this process—when Rose, her maid, first knocked on her door to ask for a job, Mma Ramotswe noticed the child she brought with her, and imagined how happy he would be when his mother told him that she had finally found work. Imagination led directly to empathy, and empathy led to compassion—Rose was hired on the spot. Personal stories are important as well, as a way of seeing the world through another person’s eyes—Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni had no intention of adopting two children from the local orphan farm, but after he had heard their stories, he couldn’t resist. And Mma Ramotswe, who was understandably a bit surprised to hear that her fiancé had adopted two children without telling her, melted too after she heard the older girl tell their courageous and sad story. Morality, in this way, is shown by Mma Ramotswe to be nothing more or less than the ability to feel empathy for people in pain, and to respond with tenderhearted acts of compassion.

Evil, by contrast, is caused by the inability to feel empathy. “The only explanation” for cruel acts, Mma Ramotswe decides, “was that people who did that sort of thing had no understanding of what others felt; they simply did not understand. If you knew what it was like to be another person, then how could you possibly do something which would cause pain?”

Here again, Mma Ramotswe shows herself to be an uncannily accurate interpreter of philosophers like Elaine Scarry and Richard Rorty, who think that since “pain is bad” and “cruelty is the worst thing we do,” the way out is to tell people “sad and sentimental” stories about the suffering of others, which will prompt us to do something to help. This process, which Rorty calls “sentimental education,” is achieved entirely without the help of metaphysicians and theologians, whose claims he says ought to be dismissed as “morally irrelevant considerations.” The whole thing, he tells us, is part of a “general turn against theory and towards narrative,” incidentally making people like McCall Smith the most important moralists of all. The new moralist’s task, Rorty tells us, will not be accomplished by theorists (like, say, Kantians or Thomists), but instead by genres “such as ethnography, the journalist’s report… and, especially, the novel.” Here, we learn something interesting. Mma Ramotswe, whether she likes it or not, can probably best be seen as a new moralist along the lines of Richard Rorty and Elaine Scarry, as the protagonist of a Rortyan line of ladies’ detective novels. And her message is pretty much the same as theirs: Although morality is messy and not set in stone, we can figure out the right thing to do by feeling empathy for others who are in pain, and acting out of compassion to help.

It is, like we said at the beginning, a very warm and tenderhearted way of looking at things. Certainly, there is a great deal to praise about it—one can hardly help but admire someone like Mma Ramotswe, who spends her life in service toward others, looks after orphans, loves her family, and cares for those around her. But McCall Smith does offer an unwitting hint, at least, of how it might all go wrong outside the world of his novels. Towards the end of one of her escapades, Mma Ramotswe gives counsel to a man who had forced his girlfriend to have an abortion, which, she makes clear, was a bad thing of him to do. The man agrees:

“It was wrong of me to say that she should end that baby. I know that.” Mma Ramotswe looked at him. “It is not that simple, Rra. There are times when you cannot expect a woman to have a baby. Many women would tell you that.”

This is, of course, a defense of abortion. Mma Ramotswe recognizes rightly that it was uncompassionate for him to force his girlfriend into an abortion. And she also echoes the oft-heard advice that men, out of compassion, should not stand in the way if women want to choose abortion. No doubt, it is true that many men and women feel this way, out of compassion, for good and tenderhearted reasons. But that says nothing about whether or not it is right. And, in abortion, along with many other similar ethical quandaries, there is no telling where compassion and tenderheartedness will take us.

For that, we need to take a hard look at Fr. Smith’s difficult advice, from Walker Percy’s novel The Thanatos Syndrome—that tenderness, for all its virtues, can lead us anywhere.

II.

The Thanatos Syndrome is the last published novel of Walker Percy, one of the 20th century’s most significant American writers. Although it was not a major achievement from a literary standpoint (unlike his first book The Moviegoer), it is the most philosophically profound of his novels and as such serves as a fitting last testament. In the book, Percy is concerned mainly with how the human search for meaning and purpose, when misdirected, can devolve into dangerous ideologies—and, with the way in which tenderness and compassion can obscure the murderous acts that ideologies often lead to, particularly with reference to eugenics and so-called “mercy” killing.

Fr. Smith, its most significant character, is a seemingly nutty old priest who lives by himself in a forest-service watchtower and tends to speak in either gnomic aphorisms or long prophetic jeremiads. And he says, as we have already seen, some very shocking things: for example, that “Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer.” Unfortunately, Fr. Smith is so odd that his message is not just misunderstood by the other characters in the book, but also often by Percy’s interpreters. Nevertheless, he is in fact the novel’s moral voice, although it takes a bit of context to understand what he is getting at.

The novel begins with Dr. Thomas More, who has started to notice some very troubling things about his patients. For years he had been an old-fashioned Freudian psychologist, persisting in the old method of talking through his patients’ problems rather than giving them medication. His practice is small, as few people in his town seem to have the patience for talk therapy anymore, but nevertheless he maintained a certain number of loyal patients who came to him to talk about their troubles. Quite suddenly however, his patients had changed—rather than acting like their old, worried, slightly neurotic selves, they had become flat, contented, unable to form coherent sentences, and somewhat empty. In an odd way they were happy, but nevertheless Dr. More wondered if something important was missing:

What’s going on?... Are they better or worse? Well, better in the sense that they do not have the old symptoms, as we shrinks called them, the ancient anxiety, guilt, obsessions, rage repressed, sex suppressed. Happy is better than unhappy, right? But—but what? They’re somehow—diminished. Diminished how? Well, in language, for one thing. They sound like Gardner’s chimps in Oklahoma: Mickey like—Donna want—Touch me—Ask them anything out of context as you would ask chimp Washoe or chimp Lana…Then there’s the loss of something. What? A certain sort of self-awareness? The old ache of self?... There’s a sameness here, a flatness of affect.

It was all very strange. Soon, however, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place, when Dr. More pays a visit to an old acquaintance, Dr. Bob Comeaux, who runs the federal Qualitarian Center outside of town. Eventually, Dr. Comeaux explains that he is behind the odd symptoms Dr. More has been noticing—rather than a curious new disease, they are in fact the intended result of a secret pilot project he started. Dr. Comeaux had discovered that heavy sodium, when administered in small amounts, had the effect of inhibiting dopamine and increasing endorphin production: Essentially, it made people feel happy by altering the chemical composition of the brain. More than that, it had the remarkable effect of dulling activity in specific areas of the brain that control the capacity for speech. The end result was the “syndrome” that Dr. More had noticed in his patients—an unfocused, animal sort of good spirits, coupled with a loss in speech ability and a consequent loss in higher mental functions, resulting in people who were happy but had lost the characteristically human sense of “self.” As Dr. More had noted in his patients, the removal of the language capability had also taken away his patients’ existential yearnings and fears, since they no longer had the words to describe them. This, it seemed to Dr. More, was at least possibly a bad thing, since it in effect had regressed his patients into contented animals instead of anxious, neurotic humans. But Dr. Comeaux, as one might expect, strenuously defended his actions on the grounds that they reduced pain and suffering:

“…What would you say, Tom—” Bob, who has been lilting along with Strauss, leans forward and, turning down the music, fixes me with a smiling, keen-eyed look. “What would you say if I gave you a magic wand you could wave over there”—he nods over his shoulder toward Baton Rouge and New Orleans—“and overnight you could reduce crime by eighty-five percent?

Dr. Comeaux proceeds to rattle off an impressive string of statistics: child abuse reduced by 87%, teenage suicide by 95%, wife battering by 73%, teenage pregnancy by 85%, depression and anxiety by 79%, AIDS by 76%, and incarceration by 72%. Indisputably, as Dr. More concedes, Dr. Comeaux’s program reduced the amount of human suffering in those whom it has affected, not to mention those who had been indirectly affected by urban crime. All of it, of course, Dr. Comeaux justifies on the reasonable, tenderhearted grounds of “improving the quality of life [for] the greatest good, the highest quality of life for the greatest number.” Which, as Percy means us to conclude, he has done: Dr. Comeaux has, in fact, eliminated his subjects’ suffering, but only because he has also eliminated their humanity.

Even this Dr. Comeaux is willing to defend, and gladly: “What we have here,” he explains to Dr. More, “is a philosophical question”:

“The hypothesis, Tom,” says Bob, speaking slowly, “is that at least a segment of the human neocortex and of consciousness itself is not only an aberration of evolution but is also the scourge and curse of life on this earth, the source of wars, insanities, perversions—in short, those very pathologies which are peculiar to Homo sapiens. As Vonnegut put it”—his arm is on the back of my seat; I feel his pointy, jokey finger sticking into my shoulder—“the only trouble with Homo sapiens is that parts of our brains are too damn big. What do you say to that?”

Dr. Comeaux is quite happy to admit to Dr. More that he has eliminated precisely that which makes humans “peculiar”—it is exactly this, he argues, that has been responsible for all of the uniquely human biological “aberrations,” known to no other species, that have made us both so miserable and so dangerous, both to ourselves and the entire planet which we inhabit. His elimination of humanity, he tells us, is nothing more than a reasonable application of his good, tenderhearted desire to end human suffering.

In a word, Dr. Comeaux believes in “quality of life”—like Peter Singer, Richard Rorty, and their followers, he believes that pain is bad, and that we ought to do as much as possible to alleviate human suffering. Part of his duties as head of the federal Qualitarian center, we learn, is the elimination of people who are judged to have an unacceptable quality of life, which includes the unwanted unborn (abortion); unwanted, retarded, mongoloid, severely deformed, AIDS-infected, epileptic, and/or otherwise “suffering” infants (infanticide, which Dr. Comeaux calls “pedeuthanasia”); and unwanted and/or suffering elderly people (Comeaux calls this “gereuthanasia”).

His argument for this to Dr. More is familiar-sounding, and on its surface quite plausible: “Can you honestly tell me,” he asks Dr. More, “that you would condemn a child to a life of rejection, suffering, poverty, pain?” His philosophy, he tells Dr. More, is quite “simpleminded… I think good is better than bad, serenity better than suffering.” His job, as he describes it, consists simply in “ministering to the suffering, improving the quality of life for the individual regardless of race, creed, or national origin… [for] the greatest good, the highest quality of life for the greatest number.” Although we may be startled by provisions allowing for infanticide and the death of “unwanted” old people, his actions, as he reminds Dr. More, are entirely within the bounds of the law. They were made legal, he explains, by a Supreme Court decision determining that personhood is not attained until the age of eighteen months, thus making “pedeuthanasia” just as permissible as abortion, and by recent “Right to Death” clauses that give both “neonates” and “euthanates” (infants and elderly people) the “right… not to suffer a life of suffering… to a death with dignity.” “Argue with the proposition,” he challenges Dr. More, “that in the end there is no reason to allow a single child to suffer needlessly, a single old person to linger in pain, a single retard to soil himself for fifty years, suffer humiliation, and wreck his family.”

This section of the novel, of course, is provocative, just as Percy intended it to be—the mix of positions held by many Americans (e.g., abortion) with others that may sound abhorrent to our ears (e.g., infanticide) is meant to offend, and also meant to provoke us to think carefully about why we believe what we do. It is arguable that none of Dr. Comeaux’s positions are outside the realm of possibility, and indeed accord well with the premise that human suffering should be alleviated. Peter Singer, for instance, has quite famously argued in favor of infanticide, which he justifies on utilitarian grounds in precisely the same manner as Dr. Comeaux. According to Singer, infants with severe birth defects, Down’s syndrome, hemophilia, genetic defects, and so on can be justifiably killed, both in the interest of freeing the child from a life of suffering, and (since infants can be regarded as replaceable) in the interest of reducing the amount of total human suffering in the world. His position is not without its supporters—in the Netherlands, as we have already mentioned, infanticide has very recently been made legal by the government, with the support of the medical establishment. And euthanasia (which Singer also supports) is also a legal practice in many countries. And it is all done, of course, out of tenderheartedness.

Which is where Fr. Smith’s criticisms come in. Unlike Dr. More, who is at first not sure how to respond to Dr. Comeaux’s apparently reasonable and compassionate argument, Fr. Smith sees through it. Aware that Dr. More is unconvinced that it is wrong, he sets out to convince him of its true nature.

“They have their reasons,” he agrees with Dr. More: “Not bad reasons, are they? …They make some sense… Well, don’t they?” Throwing off Dr. More, he begins on a completely different tack. “Let me tell you something, Tom. People have the wrong idea about the Holocaust. The Holocaust, as people see it, is a myth.” At this, Dr. More’s “heart sinks… On top of everything else, is he one of those?” he thinks. But Fr. Smith is not done: He does not mean, he explains, that the Holocaust itself is a myth, but rather that its origins are not understood. “You are a member of the first generation of doctors,” he tells Dr. More, “…to turn their backs on the oath of Hippocrates and kill millions of old useless people, unborn children, born malformed children, for the good of mankind… Do you know what is going to happen to you?... You’re going to end up killing Jews.” And indeed, beyond that, he asks Dr. More: “Do you know where tenderness always leads? …To the gas chamber. Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer.” After this, he gives Dr. More what he says is his “final word”:

“If you are a lover of Mankind in the abstract like Walt Whitman, who wished the best for Mankind, you will probably do no harm and might even write good poetry and give pleasure, right?”
     “Right.”
     “If you are a theorist of Mankind like Rousseau or Skinner, who believes he understands man’s brain and in the solitariness of his study or laboratory writes books on the subject, you are also probably harmless and might even contribute to human knowledge, right?”
     “Right.”
     “But if you put the two together, a lover of Mankind and a theorist of Mankind, what you’ve got now is Robespierre or Stalin or Hitler and the Terror, and millions dead for the good of Mankind. Right?”

Dr. More is, to say the least, indifferent to Fr. Smith’s ramblings. But before he can leave, Fr. Smith makes sure he knows one last thing: “Did I ever tell you that I had spent a year in Germany before the war in the household of an eminent psychiatrist whose son was a colonel in the Schutzstaffel?” “Yes, you did,” Dr. More replies, and with that he leaves.

From this significant passage, combined with others in the book, we have all we need to tie Fr. Smith’s statements into Percy’s larger position. First, as we have seen, Fr. Smith ties Dr. Comeaux’s practice of euthanasia explicitly to the horrors of totalitarian Germany during WWII. Second, it is also clear that Fr. Smith is, in the strongest possible terms, condemning ideology—in short, all political movements that attempt both to “understand” mankind in the abstract, and to “love” mankind in the abstract enough to do something about it in the political arena, like “Robespierre, Stalin, and Hitler… for the good of Mankind.” Third, Fr. Smith is claiming that mere “tenderness” cannot save us from the horrors of ideology—Rorty’s “sentimental education,” we may infer, will not be enough. In fact, Percy is saying that the two are connected—that abstracted tenderness is the most dangerous of all.

The first step in Fr. Smith’s chain of reasoning is abstraction. The problem with Dr. Comeaux’s argument, he explains, is that it begins with a single premise—“Pain is bad”—and works its way to a logical conclusion, without stopping to consider the reality and value of individual human beings along the way. For Percy, any structure of meaning that does not involve genuine encounters with persons as individuals, and with a real openness to Being, will necessarily be based upon a false understanding of reality. This, as Fr. Smith puts it, is the abstract “theory” against which he warns—since it has become unmoored from reality, it can lead anywhere at all.

This abstraction in turn leads to an existential crisis of meaning—without a true understanding of who we are and what we are doing, Percy believes, we will fall into despair and inauthenticity. This crisis of meaning, consequently, can lead us to adopt ideological systems by which to make sense of our lives, like Dr. Comeaux’s Qualitarianism. Fr. Smith applied this principle to his seemingly manic warnings: Once you begin to operate under the abstraction of an ideology, there is no reason to stop, even after one begins killing unwanted babies and old people. Throughout the book, Percy drops hints that Dr. Comeaux differs only in degree and not in kind from the Weimar and Nazi doctors of Germany, and Fr. Smith (not one to mince words) calls him a “Weimar psychologist.”

Fr. Smith, in a later conversation with Dr. More, explained more fully the ideological attraction that even he had felt to Nazism upon his visit to Germany before the war: “It is important to understand,” he told Dr. More, “that in the 1930s most Americans didn’t have two thoughts about the Third Reich and Hitler,” and that furthermore, National Socialism’s attraction for him had nothing to do with Jews, and everything to do with the way in which the Germans believed, wholeheartedly, in themselves and in their cause. During his time there, he had stayed with relatives and gotten to know their young son, a member of the Hitler Youth in training to join the SS. “He was ready to die,” Fr. Smith remembered: “I had never met anyone ready to die for a belief… [he was like] a young English crusader signing up with Richard to rescue the holy places from the infidel.” He had been deeply impressed by the young man’s complete dedication, his willingness to die, and the mystical aura of purpose with which the SS surrounded itself—the “shining blades” inscribed with “Blut und Ehre”; the songs that made one’s “blood run cold,” and the “solemn oath of the Teutonic knights at Marienberg.” The lure of meaning and purpose was so strong, Fr. Smith recalled, that if he had been German, “I would have joined him.” We are thus meant by Percy to understand, in no uncertain terms, the way in which the seductions of ideology can lead to anything, even to the horrors of the SS.

Even “tenderness,” Fr. Smith argued, cannot save us from ideologies like Dr. Comeaux’s, which are covered over with the language of science and are based on good and tenderhearted premises like the elimination of suffering. The danger of ideology, Percy warns, is not that it might be based upon bad premises—usually, that is not in fact the case. In fact, tenderhearted ideologies are even more dangerous, since they are on the surface so attractive. In The Thanatos Syndrome, Dr. More struggles for much of the book with Comeaux’s claims, viewing them as “reasonable” in that they do, in fact, serve to diminish suffering. Fr. Smith, however, has no such illusions, since he had already seen the consequences of this line of thinking during his time in Germany. He knew, as did Percy, that “the Nazis didn’t come out of nowhere.”

In fact, the ground for their actions had been prepared long before by the Weimar eugenicists, who had carried Comeaux’s arguments even farther, allowing for the destruction of “useless” people along with those who were suffering, which led to the extermination of thousands upon thousands of people determined by the psychiatric establishment, not the Nazis, to be either lacking sufficient “quality of life” or otherwise “useless” and thus an unnecessary expense. Fr. Smith knew, furthermore, that these actions, based as they were on good and tenderhearted notions like the “greatest good for the greatest number” and the “elimination of needless suffering,” had gained the approval of nearly the entire German medical establishment and a great number of the German people, one of the most “tenderhearted, civilized, and romantic” in the world.

One of the pivotal images of the novel is Fr. Smith’s recollection of his experiences in Germany as a U.S. soldier. He was haunted, he told Dr. More, in particular by a hospital which he had helped liberate in Munich—a nurse, he explained, had taken him to a “special department” within “the children’s division, a rather cheerful place,” in which a well-kept room, bright and sunny with a geranium in the window, had been used regularly to kill children (of many types, even merely “unsocial”) who had been determined unfit to live. The nurse, he remembered, had not seemed to find it particularly horrifying, and neither had he at the time—“Only later was I horrified. We’ve got it wrong about horror. It doesn’t come naturally but takes some effort.” The implications for Rorty’s thesis are clear: “sentimental education,” Percy argues, will do us little good. As Percy commented later about his own time in Germany during the 1930’s:

The Germans seemed to me extremely likeable people, extremely sentimental people; they had tremendous tenderness in their conversations. After all, the romantic Gefuehl, openness to feeling, comes from the Germans… The apposition of German feeling, German tenderness, and the gas chambers struck me as a great mystery at the time. Yet is it a paradox? If Gefuehl or tenderness is all you have, it can lead anywhere. The opposite of tenderness is not cruelty.

III.

Percy leaves us with an ending that is both dark and hopeful. Thanks to Fr. Smith’s warnings, as well as increasing evidence of the darker side of Comeaux and his colleagues, Dr. More finally manages to put an end to Comeaux’s project. But he is not, of course, able to do anything to solve the human quest for meaning in the face of suffering that led to Dr. Comeaux’s murderous ideology in the first place.

Percy shows us why Rorty’s “sentimental education,” just like Mma Ramotswe’s empathy for people in pain, is sorely inadequate. “Tenderness,” Percy tells us, “is not the opposite of cruelty,” and in fact, as it did in Weimar Germany, can “lead to the gas chamber.” Dr. Comeaux, just like Mma Ramotswe, Peter Singer, Judith Shklar, Elaine Scarry, and Richard Rorty, is a good and compassionate human being, with a genuine desire to help people who are suffering. But we must consider: Mma Ramotswe supports abortion out of compassion; Peter Singer supports infanticide, euthanasia, and prenatal screening out of compassion; and Dr. Comeaux supports what virtually amounts to the end of humanity, also out of compassion. That, in the end, is the danger of tenderness—as admirable as it is, compassion is ultimately a vague and sandy ground on which to base our moral judgments. If compassion and tenderness can be used to justify even the horrifying eugenics of Weimar Germany, then it can lead us anywhere. If abortion is right, or if infanticide is wrong, it is not because of compassion.

And that, really, is the challenge Fr. Smith sets before us. If Ramotswe, Rorty, Singer, and Comeaux are wrong, then where have they made their error? If there is something that separates us from the animals and gives value to our humanity even in the face of suffering, then what is it? And if even tenderness and compassion can lead to the gas chambers, then what can we use to guide us along life’s way?

That is a topic for another time, but Percy had something to say about this as well. In his books and essays, he recommended that we give up the ironic language of our jaded, secular world, and take up instead the language of telos, with which he thought we might find meaning and purpose in relation to the world in which we live. Our sense of morality, he thought, just like our need for meaning, points beyond itself to a transcendent source. Percy, in this sense, offers us an old-fashioned humanism—one that of course views suffering as bad, but at the same time finds a greater meaning in the dignity and inherent worth of the individual, and knows that the end of suffering is not worth the end of our humanity. Indeed, it allows one to recognize that the end of suffering—in the old, philosophical sense of “end,” as “purpose”—can even at times be seen in terms of the struggle, often painful and difficult, to learn how we each may live true and authentic lives, as good and wise men and women journeying along life’s way.

Perhaps, like Percy, and like wayfarers lost in a strange land, it would do us well to set out on a search, watching for what signs there may be.


Jordan Hylden '06 is a Government graduate from Currier House. He is the former Editor-in-Chief and founder of the Ichthus.