Volume > Issue > Are We Living in Georges Bernanos's Utilitarian Nightmare?

Are We Living in Georges Bernanos’s Utilitarian Nightmare?


By John Lyon | November 2016
John Lyon has held teaching and administrative positions at several universities, including Notre Dame, Ball State, Kentucky State, and St. Mary's (Minnesota). More recently, he taught literature and history at a classical academy in Wisconsin. He has also farmed, raising berries, flowers, vegetables, and apples, and operated a stall at the local farmer's market in Bayfield County, Wisconsin.

“The modern world is essentially a world without liberty. There is no place for liberty in the gigantic mechanical factory which must be regulated like a clock…. Liberty is a luxury which cannot be permitted in a society which has decided to engage all its resources toward the end of maximum efficiency…. With each war to preserve freedom, they take from us twenty-five percent of the freedoms which still exist.”

These are not the words of some libertarian or populist conservative of our time, but were written almost seventy years ago by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948). Best known for his penetrating novels The Diary of a Country Priest and Under the Sun of Satan, Bernanos delivered a series of lectures to audiences in France, Belgium, Algeria, and Switzerland in 1946 and 1947. After his death, the lectures were published in his native France, then translated into English and published in this country in 1955 under the title The Last Essays of Georges Bernanos. The quotation above is taken from an essay titled “Why Freedom?”

Why should we take the time to consider something written so long ago, particularly since things change so rapidly these days? What could a contentious Catholic novelist and curmudgeonly prophet see then that is still relevant now? Bernanos himself suggests an answer directly relevant to our post-9/11 world when he writes, “The day some new miracle of technology permits some physicist to manufacture in his laboratory some kind of matter which disintegrates easily, thus placing the destruction of an entire city at the mercy of the firstcomer, I think police troops will comprise nine-tenths of the population and a citizen will no longer be able to cross the street from one side to the other without twice taking off his pants in the presence of a policeman anxious to be assured that he isn’t hiding a single milligram of the precious stuff.” Liberty, he presciently argued, will be sacrificed to mankind’s fear of itself.

In a similar vein, Bernanos spoke out about the consequences of the transition from hand-made to machine-made goods and services. All civilizations have had their characteristic injustices, he notes, but what had been done by hand could be undone by hand. Modern civilization, however, is machine-made, and its injustices can only be undone by machines. As the purpose of machines is to mass produce, the consequences of injustice are similarly multiplied in a mechanical world, and civilization’s response tends toward total war on the perceived causes of the evil. “Certainly, for instance, there is a modern technique of granting assistance to the weak, to the disinherited, to the wretched of all kinds,” he writes. “But from the standpoint of techniques in general, the pure and simple suppression of such people would cost less. Therefore, technology will sooner or later suppress them.” Triage might not be a commonly iterated concept today, but its practice in the processes of birth control, age control, and the allocation of scarce medical resources to the chronically and critically ill, whether on state demand, as in China, or on social suggestion and suited to personal convenience and preference, as in the West (and soon by state demand here too), is very much with us.

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