Any Rationalization in the Storm

December 28 is traditionally observed as the commemoration of the “Massacre of the Innocents” under Herod the Great. The dark episode is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel, and its absence from any other primary historical source – despite Herod’s generally bad reputation among contemporary Jewish and pagan historians – leads many scholars to view the story as a narrative device.

Whether historical fact or instructive fable, it sheds much needed light on the human habit of justifying brute force and lethal violence in service of some abstract greater good. The myth of redemptive violence in the United States, for example, doesn’t mark a partisan or ideological divide. Wars, invasions, and massacres have been championed by left and right. American notions of progress have underwritten the Indian Removal Act, Prohibition, and eugenic sterilization. “The greater good” has been invoked to justify chattel slavery and the bombing of entire cities. Doing bad things with the best intentions is not a quirk of history but an all too human constant.

We often come to admit and regret the large-scale disasters, if only in retrospect. It’s far easier to rationalize away the smaller instances in our everyday lives. Among the challenges of the Christmas season is the temptation to put ourselves into the story as a shepherd, a wise man or woman – perhaps even an angel – and not to recognize Herod’s shadow in our hearts and minds.

That shadow falls somewhere between the ideals we voice and the personal lapses we so readily excuse: the needlessly cruel remark, the unfeeling joke, the neighbor spurned, the unfair advantage taken when no one’s looking. Our actions may be neither brutal nor lethal, but they nonetheless rightly prick the conscience.

None of us is likely to order a massacre. For some, that may only be so because they lack the power. But most of us are capable of rationalizing on a small scale, justifying little aggressions we otherwise wouldn’t do. When someone blurts out hateful comment, unaware that the microphone is live, the standard excuse is “I’m really not like that at all,” or “That’s not the real me.” The miniature Herod goes unacknowledged. His shadow remains.

Seeing that shadow is neither an invitation to self-flagellating guilt nor is it the first step in an individualistic self-improvement project. It’s an acknowledgement of reality, an admission of our universal brokenness. I don’t imagine for a moment that we can eradicate such habits on our own, but there’s no hope at all for remedy without first naming the malady.

In W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being, a book length poem billed as “A Christmas Oratorio,” Herod the Great delivers an extended prose soliloquy in response to troubling intelligence he’s received regarding a rival king’s birth. Auden’s Herod has spent the past two decades dragging Roman occupied Judea into the first century’s version of the civilized world only to find all his progress threatened by the unwelcome reappearance of backward thinking and messianic nonsense. After reviewing his accomplishments and the high-minded tasks yet unfinished, he says:

“One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.

“Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions—feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces…

“Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it is Pythagorus or a homicidal lunatic they are instructed to terminate. O dear. Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid…

“I refuse to be taken in. He could not play such a horrid practical joke. Why should he dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. As anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare he allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every single night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.”

We can be grateful not to have Herod’s power.

Excerpt from For the Time Being, in Collected Poems by W. H. Auden, Random House, 1978.

Image: The Old King, Georges Rouault, 1936.

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