The phrase ‘on the side of the angels’ is usually understood to mean ‘on the side of the forces of good’ – and indeed this is more or less what it has now actually come to mean.
However, the original meaning of the phrase was somewhat different. Its originator was flamboyant raconteur, novelist and sometime leader of the Tory Party and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who coined it in 1864 during a speech to an audience of clergymen. He intended it ostensibly as an intervention in the lively controversy over the relationship between science and religion that then raged in the aftermath of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. His exact words were:
What is the question now placed before society with the glib assurance the most astounding? That question is this—Is man an ape or an angel? My lord, I am on the side of the angels.
On the face of it, this may appear – and to some extent perhaps was originally intended – as a simple rejection of the Darwinian idea that humans ultimately evolved from lower primates. The implication is that Dizzy was arguing in favour of holding to a pre-Darwinian view of the literal truth of the book of Genesis: in other words, what we would now call creationism.
Now, contrary to the casual belief of many atheists, few modern Christians are creationists. The vast majority of us accept the basic scientific truth of the theory of evolution. Insofar as this is the sole point at issue in Dizzy’s original statement, the ‘on the sides of the Angels’ quotation becomes simply a trivial piece of misplaced, albeit piquant, phrase-making.
However, it is clear that this is only part of what Dizzy was getting at. The real meaning of his statement was a basic assertion of the special moral status and dignity of human beings relative to animals and other sublunary beings. The actual practical process by which human beings came to exist as they are now, whether via evolution or Genesis-style creation, is not the main point at issue (although there is no doubt that modern Christian acceptance of the truth of evolution creates some prickly theological questions). The more important point was the idea that human beings have a unique moral and existential status that puts them on a considerably higher plane than beasts or inanimate matter.
Dizzy did not, as a Christian, literally mean to argue that humans are ‘angels’. Christian views on human proximity to the cherubim and seraphim vary, from gloomy Calvinistic conceptions of our total depravity, due to original sin, to the sunny-but-heretical views of human goodness advocated by Pelagius back in the 4th-5th centuries. However, the general Christian view is that, despite the Fall and the taint of original sin, human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore, if highly imperfect, liable to sin and therefore in need of grace, they are nonetheless only ‘a little lower than the Angels’: in possession of God-given qualities that are both unique and hugely significant.
Let us examine in a little more detail what it is that marks out human beings in the Christian view. What, in Dizzy’s terms, is it that makes us (a little lower than) angels? Most fundamentally, we are made by God in His image, and have been given a soul, which is the precondition for immortal life and elevates us to a position of unique dignity within creation. Being uniquely endowed with conscience, free-will and reason, we are the only creatures able to discern and obey the objective moral law (even though, as fallen beings, we find it a struggle, and need Revelation and the grace of God to help us). Not only can we discern morality, we can also communicate it using our unique powers of language. We were put into the world to worship and glorify God and to fulfil our divinely ordained ‘telos’ – by the means of our pursuit of labour and family life, the realisation of our powers of mutual service and love within society, our pursuit of invention and artistic creation, and the fulfilment of our moral duties. We are given stewardship over the world, its animals and natural environment, to husband and conserve it for future generations. As such, it is naturally assumed within this Christian perspective that divine revelation and the redemptive and sacramental power of Christ and His Church were given to human beings exclusively.
This basic framework of thought, based upon the fundamental ideas of human dignity, natural law, and moral duty, was, with considerable variations and complications, the bedrock of Western culture and civilization until the 19th century. Our capacity for screwing everything up being almost as great as our moral dignity, history rarely entirely lived up to the promises of this framework, but human frailty did not prevent this view of our purposes and meaning in life being acknowledged as the basic normative blueprint. Human dignity might have been regularly impugned, the moral law ignored, and the laws of nature disregarded – wars were fought, massacres committed, rapine and rape perpetrated – but there was a basic consensus that such sinful disobedience of God controverted the ideals civilization claimed to be based upon. Hypocrisy was widespread, but hypocrites at least implicitly acknowledge that their actions are wrong. They do not attempt to argue that vice is virtue.
For a long time, many of these Christian assumptions drifted on within the ideas and culture of Western societies despite the fact that belief in the underlying dogmatic and spiritual foundations of Christianity – and therefore this basic view of the world – declined. They still do in many cases. Certainly, your bog-standard Western human rights-based liberal outlook is an (overall pretty incoherent and ultimately rootless) attempt to secularise the basic Christian outlook.
Indeed, politics in the West has been, until remarkably recently, a series of battles between politicians, thinkers and activists– socialist, liberal and conservative – who, whatever their differences, operated within a fundamentally Christian framework of assumptions regarding the nature of human beings, the world and society – or at least a lightly secularised version of that framework. From centre-right Christian Democrats through centrist rights-based liberals to mainstream social democrats, many of whom owed far more to Jesus Christ than Karl Marx in their basic outlook (whatever their notionally revolutionary heritage might have been in the case of many European socialist parties), their basic frame of reference was a shared one, rooted in a common Christian inheritance.
It seems to me that there are a lot of deeply worrying signs that this is no longer the case. If pre-19th century we inhabited a Christian moral universe, and for the past 150 years we have inhabited a kind of secularised imitation of that Christian framework, the risk is that we are plunging into an era that explicitly rejects all its trappings, from human dignity to the moral law. Whatever the many flaws of the various 19th and 20th-century secular tribute acts to Christianity, this outright rejection of it is far worse.
Take, for example, the widespread tendency among many left-leaning avantgarde academics and intellectuals to argue for something approaching an equal moral and even political status for animals, usually based upon giving primacy to the fact that humans and animals share the ability to sense pain – that is, reducing humans to the lowest animalistic common denominator and thereby robbing them of their special status by ignoring their many unique qualities. Consider the implicit anti-humanism of many on the techno-utopian ‘accelerationist’ left, who talk about human beings as if they are not even animals, but merely hedonistic robots that can be engineered and manipulated according to convenience, to an extent that frankly borders on the old evil of eugenics. The incredibly casual, dismissive and shallow attitude that most of the so-called liberal left has towards such issues as abortion, euthanasia, prostitution and similar – an attitude which implies that, in their view, such issues don’t even touch on any serious underlying moral qualms or problems – suggests a similar indifference to the idea that each individual human being might have a dignity and status that elevates him or her above that of a mere chunk of flesh.
Many on the godless libertarian right are hardly any better – they similarly see human beings as selfish, pleasure-seeking, amoral beasts with no interest in anything above basic bodily functions and the pursuit of wealth as a means to mere fleeting sensual pleasure. A measure of their moral seriousness and grasp of the nature of human dignity is the fact that, according to them, the major outrages of modernity are state restrictions on our rights to freely purchase heroin or engage in acts of sexual congress with animals. They merely differ from modern secular leftists on the issue of the means of promoting, and the correct distribution of, degraded utilitarian grubbiness.
The fundamental problem is that this is the inevitable outcome of rejecting the underlying theological premises of the Christian worldview. For a long time Western civilization rumbled along on the basis of a kind of zombie cultural Christianity, but that was never sustainable, even if it was better than the moral nihilism likely to replace it. It was rather like expecting a tent to remain a viable shelter after you’ve taken all of the pegs out: the structure might endure for a little while, but eventually its lack of any form of anchor will tell and it will blow away. If you deny that human beings have souls and are made by God; if you deny the existence of an immutable, objective moral law encoded into the very essence of the universe by the Divine Power; if you reject the idea that human beings are uniquely endowed with conscience and reason to (try to) obey those laws; if you lose respect for the inherent, God-given sanctity and dignity of all human lives – then ultimately, anything is permitted, and harking on about human rights or humanitarian outrages really makes very little sense. Every major attempt to outline some variation on the kind of moral system that does uphold these essential principles – including Kantianism – falls down without the basic spiritual underpinnings of Christianity (or at least some kind of theism). Accept an atheist viewpoint and human will and arbitrary power-plays become the last – indeed the only coherent – arbiter of our common and political life.
This should create particular problems for the Left. Socialists should, one would think, be particularly loathed to abandon a framework that places so much emphasis on the moral importance of every human being, however apparently lowly, poor or maligned. Any framework that ultimately upholds the awesome sanctity and dignity of all human life and the supreme importance of mutual loving service is hardly compatible with free market fundamentalism, which, if it means anything, means placing no weight on the basic value of human life or dignity unless there’s a profit to be made. That is not to say that socialism is the only ideology consistent with Christianity, but it is to say that no other coherent and viable metaphysical, spiritual and moral system is available to underpin the basic values of socialism. Yet the vast majority of socialists – with the exception of the dwindling band of Christian socialists – reject it as much, if not more, than anyone else. At best, they replace it with a makeshift materialistic utilitarianism that, as we may find out to our cost, is compatible with all kinds of outrages against human life and dignity.
The rejection of a Christian view of human dignity and moral status – from all sides – is starting to tell. Of course, a framework that was deeply engrained in the culture and intellectual life of the West for 1500 years has taken a long time to decay – but it definitely is decaying, and the vacuum left by its decline is being filled by any number of evil and vile intellectual concoctions. Such a decay implies the rise of a nihilistic Nietzschean world of clashing, atomistic human wills, of arrogant human pride and sin, of ‘might is right’, in which infanticide can be no more condemned than a questionable taste in interior décor: in which, to put it in the simplest terms possible, nothing is sacred and anything is permitted.
The reality is, of course, if you want anything at all to be sacred, and you want some things not to be permitted – as surely any decent human beings does – you have to accept the existence of both a transcendent sanctifier and a transcendent forbidder. Or, as we used to (and some of us still do) call Him, God. However much we wish that it wasn’t such a straight choice, a straight choice it is: belief in God, morality and human dignity; or in Atheism, wilful amorality and human degradation. Angels or beasts.
Like Dizzy, I’m on the side of the angels.