Reviews > Culture

Golding's anniversary

Culture | Fifty years later, The Lord of the Flies remains a powerful critique of the human condition

Issue: "Bush: Holding the line," June 5, 2004

A CLASSIC, ACCORDING TO THE CRITIC'S RULE OF thumb, is a work that is still read and still relevant after 50 years. By that standard, William Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies, published in 1954, is now officially a classic.

Most books and other works of art come into vogue because they tap some cultural current or satisfy some passing fashionable taste. Most old books, like most new books, are unreadable after their expiration date. But a work that retains its power after half a century or more has tapped into something universal in the human condition.

The Lord of the Flies is about some schoolboys who find themselves marooned on a desert island. Their plane has crashed and all the adults have been killed. Before long, the children lose the civilized ways taught to them by their parents, teachers, and other authorities. They form their own tribal culture. They revert to a new paganism, worshipping a beast. They run wild. They turn against each other. They brutalize and destroy and kill.

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Golding wrote the novel at a time when the Romantics still hailed "the state of nature" as a utopia, spoiled by the repressions of "society." The Romantics idealized and idolized childhood, lamenting how "civilization" corrupts a child's innate goodness and how "society" stamps out a child's creativity. Such Romanticism still survives, as it did in Golding's day, in popular child-raising techniques and educational theories.

Golding's vision, though, rang truer. Parents recognized that children, left to themselves, can be shockingly selfish, destructive, and cruel. They do have to be civilized. And civilization-with its disciplines, laws, and limits on the untrammeled passions-is a good thing. Human nature is not innately virtuous. Rather, human nature, at its root, is something monstrous. If left to itself, like those schoolboys on the island, human nature is capable of committing unspeakable horrors.

Golding said that he believed in original sin. His novels are full of theological speculation and biblical symbolism. For example, the novel's title refers to a biblical name for the devil, Beelzebub, the lord of the flies, whom the children in all of their apparent freedom are actually serving. And yet, Golding, who died in 1993, apparently never fully embraced Christianity. He could diagnose the problems, but he never found the solution, the grace of God that forgives and redeems that human nature through the work of Christ. Still, although The Lord of the Flies is fiction, its truths keep manifesting themselves in the real world.

Give a man like Saddam Hussein unlimited power and let him operate without any restraints of law or morality, and what will he do? He will make extensive use of rape rooms, plastic shredders, and mass graves.

Take away the Iraqis' legal system, as oppressive as it was, and what was the result? Not freedom but-among many-looting, anarchy, and terrorism. Freedom evidently requires not just getting rid of social controls, but the cultivation of self-control, bolstered by the rule of law.

Put some poorly trained U.S. soldiers in charge of prisoners perceived as deserving punishment, in the absence of supervision and military discipline, and what happens? The lust for power over others, the pleasures of cruelty, sexual perversity, and other dark impulses that reside deep in human nature come out to play.

Or take children and maroon them in a school where adults have given up on discipline and have adopted the Romantic fallacies about not wanting to stifle children's natural impulses. Notice how cruel these allegedly innocent children can be to each other, with their bullying and gossip and humiliations. Notice how the children quickly form cliques and wolf-pack-style hierarchies that are no different from the primitive tribalism in The Lord of the Flies.

So what awaits our civilization as we abandon what theologians call "the first use of the Law," the necessity of objective morality to restrain at least the outward manifestations of sin, so as to make society possible? What will be the effect of reconstructing marriage so that instead of channeling sexual desire into the formation of families, it legitimatizes our perversions? What will be the effect of erasing moral considerations from the public square and turning them into nothing more than private "choices"? How will we like living on an island governed only by power? Read The Lord of the Flies for a preview of coming attractions. But read it now, since such a critique of human nature might not be allowed in another 50 years.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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