There’s More to Fear Than Atomic Bombs

Atomic Bomb

“I do not fear the atomic bomb. If there is a threat to our civilization, it is more likely to come from boredom that will result from a totalitarian welfare state and from the exclusion of individual enterprise and the spirit of adventure.”

Those words were said by Bernard Berenson, a famous art historian of the early 20th century on the occasion of his 90th birthday in 1955.

I first came across this quote while reading Wilhelm Röpke’s “A Humane Economy.” It’s nestled in a cogent critique of moral deficiencies of the welfare state, far enough into the book that one wouldn’t come across it by accident.

This art historian, Berenson, had a long and deep friendship with author Ray Bradbury (who himself lived to be 91 years old, and would have celebrated his 93rd birthday last month). To Bradbury, Berenson was a father figure. One biographer wrote of their friendship:

In Bernard Berenson, Ray had found a man who shared his enthusiasm for the love of the creative process. In Ray Bradbury, Berenson had found a young man who shared his passion for the arts, and for creating. What Berenson found most remarkable about Ray was his ability to articulate this love concisely. “All my life I have been trying to say what the artist does to us and I have never succeeded in doing it better of half so well as you,” he wrote to Ray.

Their friendship was a decisive experience in Bradbury’s life. Twenty years after Berenson’s passing in 1959, Bradbury discussed the significance of the relationship in his essay, “The Renaissance Prince and the Baptist Martian.” (For those unsure, Berenson is the Renaissance Prince and Bradbury, the Baptist Martian.) Their friendship was also undoubtedly based on a shared worldview that boredom—disregard for what Russel Kirk might call “the permanent things”—is the real threat to civilization. In Röpke’s words:

Man simply does not live by radio, automobiles, and refrigerators alone, but by the whole unpurchasable world beyond the market and turnover figures, the world of dignity, beauty, poetry, grace, chivalry, love, and friendship, the world of community, variety of life, freedom, and fullness of personality. Circumstances which debar man from such a life or make it difficult for him stand irrevocably convicted, for they destroy the essence of his nature.

When Berenson made this statement in 1955, he undoubtedly was familiar with Bradbury’s famous “Fahrenheit 451.” When I recommended this book to fans of “The Hunger Games,” I wrote that Bradbury “put his genius to work on creating the future world facing unmoving humanity, his uniquely accurate understanding of human nature nailed the absolute selfishness with which humanity clings to its own apathy.

     What causes an entire civilization to pass on permanent things and accept tyranny out of apathy and boredom?

We remember “Fahrenheit 451” as the story of a government burning books, but often we forget that in the end, the city is destroyed by an atomic bomb and the protagonist is living in the woods with other bibliophiles memorizing scripture. There is perhaps no better a synopsis of the book than Berenson’s warning that it is boredom brought on by a tyrannical welfare state is the real threat, as in Bradbury’s story it had virtually destroyed civilization before the bombs ever came.

The question of our time is what would make a person, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “without a chest?” What causes an entire civilization to pass on permanent things and accept tyranny out of apathy and boredom? What these men believe will make civilization “bored” is an all-encompassing, cradle-to-grave welfare state.

I propose that part of what ails our modern society is our confidence and pride that we have all of the answers to sickness, poverty and social discord, and that we do not question or doubt what we think we know about our faith. In the next few posts I will be considering two new books which challenge our society on these issues. First, Peter Greer‘s new book, “The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good,” and second, Matthew Anderson‘s new book, “The End of Our Exploring.”

We also will continue to delve into Wilhelm Röpke’s insights, as we are working through his book for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics‘ book club. Find out how you can participate here.

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