A Titanic Failure: Never Learning from Our Past

Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this, – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.

~ Georg Wilhelm F. Hegel, from his lectures, On the Philosophy of History (1837)

Just recently my son has become keenly interested in the story of the Titanic, the steam ship which hit an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic on April 14, 1912. These past few days we have watched a number of very interesting documentaries, some of which recount eyewitnesses to the disaster who were passengers on board the night it sank. On board the ship that fateful night were some of the world’s most famous and prominent people – among them were the American millionaire John Jacob Astor IV and his wife Madeleine Force Astor, industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, Macy’s department store owner Isidor Strauss and his wife Ida among many others. Throughout the documentaries there were historians and letters cited from people who lived at the opening decades of the 20th century. Historian Carroll Quigley in his book Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time writes that, “The 19th century was characterized by (1) belief in the innate goodness of man, (2) secularism, (3) belief in progress, (4) liberalism, (5) capitalism, (6) faith in science, (7) democracy, (8) nationalism.”[1]

Although most people today think of the Titanic as the award-winning movie of 1997, in 1912 it was the symbol of the hopes and dreams of thousands of people around the world. For the wealthy it represented the pinnacle of technology and the triumph of science, to the poor, it represented a chance for a new life in America – itself a symbol of hope for millions of immigrants. On the evening of April 15, 1912 the huge ship struck an iceberg ripping open a huge section of the hull. In 2 hours, 40 minutes it was on the bottom of the Atlantic. 1,514 lives were lost. The world was in shock.

Sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, April 15, 1912

Sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, April 15, 1912

The sinking of the Titanic was the first of several shocks the world of the early 20th Century would receive. Just two short years later, (July, 1914) for the first time in history, the entire world would be engulfed in the First World War. In 1918 when the war ended, over 10 million Allied & Central command soldiers were dead, not including civilians. The results of WWI set in motion the gears which led to the Second World War when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.[2]

WW I also had a profound effect on some of the greatest artists (Picasso, M. Duchamp, etc…) and literary minds of the 20th century. Among them was J.R.R. Tolkein whose Lord of the Rings series came right out of his gruesome experiences of fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. One of his biographers makes a telling comment. He writes:

This biographical study arose from a single observation: how strange it is that J.R.R. Tolkein should have embarked upon his monumental mythology in the midst of the First World War, the crisis that disenchanted and shaped the modern era.[3]

“The crisis that disenchanted and shaped the modern era…”

What can we learn from this and the other tragedies of the last century?

QUESTIONS TO PONDER

In conclusion, I would like to ask if there are any lessons we can learn from these opening decades of the 20th Century? Are we, in the 21st Century, still clinging to 19th century ideals which lead to the disillusionment of so many? I assert that we certainly are. We are holding on to at least three of them and we are once again setting ourselves up for even greater disillusionment or even worse:

(1). Belief in the innate goodness of man. (Is human nature basically good?)

“The belief in the innate goodness of man had its roots in the eighteenth century when it appeared to many that man was born good and free but was everywhere distorted, corrupted, and enslaved by bad institutions and conventions. As Rousseau said, Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.

Obviously, if man is innately good and needs but to be freed from social restrictions, he is capable of tremendous achievements in this world of time, and does not need to postpone his hopes of personal salvation into eternity.”[4]

If the Twentieth-Century and our own experience has taught us anything, it is that man is not innately good – but has a fallen nature. People automatically don’t do the right thing and despite all of their valiant efforts[5], atheists & materialists fail to ground absolute goodness in reality. Similarly, if there is no God – no absolute standard, then there is no ultimate grounding for right and wrong (morality). If there is no God (in reality) then (in reality), there is no difference between Mother Theresa and Hitler.

(2). Secularism (Is ‘religion’ just a hangover from our past?)

Secularists have a strictly materialistic & mechanistic view of human nature and because of this they utterly fail to account for man’s religious nature which they will never eradicate nor will they understand with the methods of the sciences. For most of human history people have had the desire to worship. This is certainly not to say that all religions are the same or that they are all equally true, but merely to point out that the desire to worship and the desire for transcendence is part of what it means to be truly human.[6] Secularism just doesn’t get it! The ultimate question is which religion is true? Which religion corresponds to reality? If the laws of logic apply to all of reality then they apply to religious claims as well. Only one can be true.

(3). Faith in science (Will “science” solve our problems?)

“Science” is touted by many today as the only true view of reality and an inoculation against the claims of religious masses who still live in ignorance & stupidity. These are the ones who still believe that “science” will answer all of our burning questions and solve all of humanity’s problems. But lest we forget, we have the 20th Century as a guide. It is intimately familiar to us. We have lived through much of it. It is analogous to all of human history because of the simple fact that human nature remains the same and many are still trusting that “science” and the scientific worldview is the way forward.

Why are things not improving now in the first decade of the 21st Century – the most well-informed, well-educated and scientifically minded centuries to date?

Surely the sciences and technology have brought us much good (curing diseases, saving lives, etc…), but they are ill-equipped to solve our greatest problems which are spiritual & moral in nature.

Many critics will surely point to religious extremism and the turmoil happening in the Middle East as the prime example that “religion” is at the core of the world’s problems. They fail, however, to make vital distinctions between contradictory religious truth claims (especially in the Theistic religions of Judaism, Islam & Christianity). Yet it is only in the religion of Christianity – whose message is the reconciliation of fallen humanity (made in God’s image) to the Creator by the God-Man, Jesus Christ who died on a cross for the sins of the world – that there is hope for the future.

There simply is no unity, order or peace apart from Him.


[1] Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1966), pp. 24-5.

[2] And of course, WW2 ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

[3] John Garth, Tolkein and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), xiii.

[4] Summary of Quigley, p. 24.

[5] One of the latest is Sam Harris’s, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: The Free Press, 2010).

[6] For an excellent study on the relationship between science and human nature I strongly recommend Brendan Purcell’s excellent work, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Hyde Park, New York: New York City Press, 2012).

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6 replies
  1. Luke says:

    This article seems to assume that the 20th century was somehow a worse one than times past. (e.g. “If the Twentieth-Century and our own experience has taught us anything, it is that man is not innately good”).

    While terrible things happened in the 20th century, I am not sure this is the right conclusion. Didn’t some wonderful things happen as well? Why should those be ignored? Were the terrible things the worst the world has seen? The Mongol conquests wiped out a far greater proportion of the world’s population, for example.

    I’m open to the argument, but I’m not convinced.

    I’d like to ask the author, if you could be placed in any year, just before birth, but know nothing of the land, country, family, etc. you’d be born into (a sort of veil of ignorance) what year or era would you choose?

    Can you say a few words about why?

    Thanks,

    Luke

    Reply
    • Ted Wright says:

      Luke – I think you may have missed the main point of my article. I certainly don’t think that the 20th was the worst century ever & I certainly agree with you that many good things happened in the 20th century too.

      What I am talking about here is the false expectations of the materialistic worldview (which started becoming more main stream in the 20th Cent). This naturalistic & materialistic worldview which started during the European Enlightenment, reached a benchmark in the late 19th & 20th century (i.e Darwin & Nietzsche). In the 20th we see partially how this worldview worked out & failed in the real world.

      For example: after WW2 many intellectuals in Europe and America were baffled & confounded at what happened in Germany (the country of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, I. Kant & others). Before the war, Germany was one of the most educated countries in the world with the highest literacy rate (98%). How could they have committed such atrocious crimes? It certainly wasn’t for lack of education or technology or learning.

      As it turned out the root problems were philosophical, moral & financial – it wasn’t Hitler (per se) – Hitler’s rise was the result of other factors – i.e. Germany’s economy was crippled as a result of Treaty of Versailles (1918); Germans feared the rising tide of Bolshevism stirring in Russia and had imbibed a false philosophy (which started in the 14th Cent.) – called nominalism and consequently set themselves up to be taken over by a dictator (see Richard Weaver’s book, “Ideas Have Consequences” (1948) pg 1-17.

      Lastly – My being born in any particular, era, family, land or country is irrelevant to the question at hand which is the complete bankruptcy of the atheistic-materialistic worldview to bring about any semblance of order in the soul or society.

      Reply
  2. Stephen B says:

    “Secularists have a strictly materialistic & mechanistic view of human nature and because of this they utterly fail to account for man’s religious nature”

    For a start, I’d question how you’re defining secularists here. In common parlance secularism refers to church/state separation issues. Being a secularist is not incompatible with a belief in God.

    If we assume you’re referring simply to materialist atheists, why assume that man’s religious nature is not explicable in non-supernatural terms! There are lots of books and studies that address this issue.

    You seem to admit at the end that religion can cause wars and bloodshed, but assert that Christianity is an exception to this. I don’t think you actually make a case for this. The 20th Century saw decades of death and destruction in Britain thanks to the IRA. Their fight was ostensibly political, but Catholic/Protestant division played a major part in the conflict too.

    Your ‘no morality without God’ argument has been addressed so many times, we can just count the objections already as stated.

    No-one claims that because science is a good method for addressing problems, therefore all problems should by now have been eradicated.

    Reply
    • Ted Wright says:

      Stephen B

      I define secularists as Atheistic-Materialists – so yes, you are correct.

      “Why assume that man’s religious nature is explicable in non-supernatural terms?”

      Because it begs the question. Why rule out supernatural explanations before even considering them? The same could be said for your position.

      Why would you even bring up the terrorists acts of the IRA in Britain? As you stated, it was essentially political. What Irish Catholics & Protestants did to each other in the name of Christianity was explicitly condemned in the New Testament. It might have been done in the name of “religion” – but it was a violent corruption of what Christ taught not an essential teaching of Christianity.

      Lastly you are slightly incorrect about the expectations of science. What I am calling into question here is “The European Enlightenment” and its modern counterpart “Secular Humanism” & the core values they espouse: Here is a brief summary via the ‘Humanist Manifesto I & II’: (1) atheistic (2) naturalistic (materialism) (3) optimistic about the future (4) Technology a vital key to human progress and development

      In more recent times I could also point to any number of “TED” talks on this as well as the Copenhagen Consensus which looks at alleviating the world’s major problems with technology, medicines, and financial means.

      Please don’t get me wrong. I think that we certainly SHOULD try to use these things to help people, but they don’t and they can’t solve the essential problem with societies which is fallen human nature (the sinful nature of man).

      Here’s a quote from C.S. Lewis on this:

      “One of the most dangerous errors is [thinking] that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of the planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination and civilization in history books, only because sea and savagery are to us less interesting.”

      Reply
  3. RA says:

    Ted, I am sad and dismayed that you Godwin yourself in to a corner.

    Have you ever heard of the Rwandan Genocide? Probably something Christians like to forget. Christians fighting Christians and nearly wiping an entire ethnic group off the planet. Estimated half to one million people slaughtered, with nary a condemnation from your precious Christian authority figures.

    If genocide is the Holy Spirit injecting itself in to a situation, I think you need to take a long hard look at what it is you think is moral and just and re-evaluate your position.

    Reply
    • Ted Wright says:

      RA,

      I’m not sure that I have “Godwined” myself into a corner as you claim.

      You can cite all sorts of atrocities done in the name of religion all day long – you can cite Rawanda or the Irish Catholics & Protestants & I could add a few others as well, but none of these have anything to do with what Christianity or what the New Testament teaches. In Rawanda tribalism was the driving factor not theology, and in Ireland the sore spot was British Colonialism not Catholic verses Protestant theology.

      But even IF those atrocities were about theology – they don’t disprove the essential Christian message about the Resurrection. At best it just commits the genetic fallacy.

      Sadly – within Christianity there is a gap between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy (what is actually believed verses how it is actually lived out). I also sadly admit that there are hypocrites within Christianity who sometimes use it as a ruse to do horrendous acts.

      Reply

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