“…[T]here is no shortage of doctors who excel at the literary arts. And none writes more elegantly and eloquently than the British essayist Theodore Dalrymple, the nom de plume of Anthony Daniels, a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist. The pseudonym was chosen, he tells us, to convey the sense of a curmudgeon’s stubborn refusal to go along with the defining orthodoxies and pieties of his age.
He believes that man is a fallen creature and so is dismissive of the idea of perfection or utopian thinking of any kind. He is unmoved by Marxism, or indeed any other ideological system that posits causation by abstract social forces. For Dalrymple, the locus of moral concern falls on personal behaviour rather than on social structure, and he is caustic about any notion that negates the idea of personal responsibility, or that suggests that we are simply passive victims of our environment. And unlike so many of the intelligentsia, he is ever mindful that, in this world at least, we do not get something for nothing: Improvement usually comes at a cost. Ideas that arise from the very best of intentions often result in disastrous social consequences.
…Not with a Bang is Dalrymple’s third collection of essays on the decline of British society. …[T]hroughout these essays, two themes predominate.
The first is the state’s aggressive and grinding intrusion into the daily lives of its citizens, “… a juggernaut that cannot be stopped and is no longer under anyone’s control.” The state’s attempts to regulate its citizens, whether by passing explicit laws or by promulgating the official orthodoxies via speech codes, human rights tribunals and other such bureaucratic constructs, has resulted in a neurotic and dependent citizenry. For Dalrymple, such state-sponsored schemes — whether emanating from the political left or right — can be attributed to the naive view that “dissatisfaction and frustration arise from error and malice, rather than from the inescapable and permanent separation between man’s desires and what the world can offer him.” He is scathing in his condemnation of those politicians, bureaucrats and professors who, in the name of building the New Jerusalem, tread recklessly over civilization’s hard-won freedoms, and who are ready to sacrifice truth on the altar of political expediency: “… we have come to an almost totalitarian uniformity of the sayable, imposed informally by right-thinking people in the name of humanity but in utter disregard for the truth and reality of their fellow citizens’ lives.”
The second theme is that despite the fabulous wealth and prosperity of the Western nations, there is a deepening social malaise. In the midst of plenty, after all an individual’s material wants have been satisfied, we have nonetheless spawned new and quite horrific kinds of cultural impoverishment. Despite the fact that even the least-favoured citizens among us can now enjoy diversions and luxuries undreamt of by the monarchs of an earlier age, we have nevertheless invented new ways of imperilling the mind and soul: “Mankind has laboured long and hard to produce a cornucopia for itself, only to discover that the cornucopia does not bring the happiness expected, but only a different kind of anxiety.”
…Dalrymple’s essays provide a kind of eulogy for those public virtues that the world once associated with Britain: reasonableness, honour, stoicism, fair-mindedness, civility and courteousness. His analysis of the British fall from grace also provides fair warning to those nations…which, having travelled some way along the path pioneered by Britain, might yet avoid such a fate.”