Lossky: On Social Darwinism

So we’re reading the wartime diary of Vladimir Lossky, a 20th century Russian theologian exiled in 1922 and living in France during the Second World War. We talked about this book previously, but as a reminder, Seven Days on the Roads of France covers the week that Lossky spent fleeing the German invasion of Paris in 1940. In the previous article, we looked at one specific passage from the third day of his travels, where Lossky visited a cathedral as he passed through Orléans – he saw an elderly man shouting at the statues of the saints, begging them for help, which – you know – they don’t.

This week we’re still sitting in the third day – it’s a surprisingly dense text. It’s not that it’s very long – it’s only about sixty pages – but he packs in a really broad spread of ideas with a relatively light brush. We’ll start with this passage from the beginning of day three:

“Sitting by a haystack well away from the road, I listened to the conversation of two well-equipped Belgians in whose company I had been walking. One of them noted that there were far fewer people on the road today. The other replied in a sad, solemn tone of voice, ‘What do you expect? It’s the survival of the fittest.’ ‘But,’ continued the first, ‘remember that poor old woman yesterday? The one who collapsed on the road… I can’t get her out of my mind.’ ‘Shut up!’ replied his companion. ‘There’s no point…'”

That concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ serves as connective tissue throughout this day. Lossky only really invokes it ironically, or in a critical way – he doesn’t believe that such a functionalist theory captures the full scope of our humanity. That is – we’ve talked about this before, actually, back in the dark days of 2016, where we were reading Hannah Arendt on Darwin and the fascists. The short version is that there’s a difference between Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which relates to biology and evolution, and survival of the fittest, which tips more over into social Darwinism. Social Darwinism takes evolutionary theory and applies it to politics and sociology, arguing that those who succeed do so because of their inherent biological superiority – they come out on top because they are, so to speak, the fittest. According to social Darwinism, the British Empire came about because the British were simply the best, strongest people. If they were able to colonize cultures and obliterate indigenous peoples, that’s just survival of the fittest – those other cultures were too weak to survive. The same logic can be applied as an explanation of economic inequality – poor people are poor because they’re weak, because they’re not fit enough to compete at a higher level in the market. Social Darwinism, of course, is most strongly associated with fascism, in particular the Nazis. It is the operative logic behind the mass murder of disabled or mentally ill people under the Nazi regime. If society is evolving, the thinking goes, we can help it along by purifying the gene pool, by exterminating the weak and accelerating the development of the ubermensch, the Aryan.

It’s hard to know exactly how much of this Lossky understood, but we can be confident that he understood some of it. He makes reference to Hitler’s Mein Kampf (“so much childish prattle”), and comments on the implications of social Darwinism. On his way into Orleans, he sees “a male corpse lying facedown in a ravine,” and bitterly observes “One more victim of the law of the survival of the fittest.” The point here is subtle: Lossky suggests that the man died not because the ‘law’ is true, but because the Nazis, thinking that it was true, killed people. The man is a victim not of an immutable scientific fact but of a crackpot fascist ideology. In other places – and this is all in the third day, mind – Lossky records events that cut directly against the worldview of social Darwinism. At the start of the day, he gets on board a truck, and helps an elderly woman on as well. The woman is carrying a baby, whose mother had remained in Paris.

“She [the old woman] wanted to adopt it and intended to carry on working so as to be able to raise the child. ‘What do you expect?’ she exclaimed. ‘We’ve got to behave like human beings. We’re not animals!'”

Lossky frames this encounter again as a rebuke to social Darwinism. Where survival of the fittest says that we’re animals, and legitimises violence and conflict in the name of evolution, this woman says we’re better than that. She insists on our humanity, insists that it elevates us above the social Darwinist view of humans as biological machines simply acting out their genetic code. She looks after the baby – not her own baby, but somebody else’s – because it’s the right thing to do.

On the fifth day, Lossky gives us his more direct view on social Darwinism, or something close to it. He criticises the “fashionable opinion” that “divides humanity up into ‘old nations’, who are destined for degeneration and historical death, and ‘young nations’, called to supplant the ‘old’ and take their place.” In his view, this opinion stems from “the clumsy application of the laws of biology to the domain of sociology.” He expands:

“The ‘soul’ of a people is not some being superior to individuals that determines their actions, transforming them into mere vital functions of an organism in the manner of an entelechy that organizes the functioning of cells in a body. Our role is immeasurably greater, our responsibility without limits. For the true soul of a people is made up of our acts of heroism and our moments of cowardice, our righteous actions and our sins, our deeds in favour of life and those favouring death.”

We are not machines, Lossky argues. Any deterministic approach to human nature – that we’re ruled by our instincts, by our genetics, by the ‘law’ of survival of the fittest – he rejects all of these in favour of free will and our ability to choose. In a sense, this is one of the roles that spirituality plays in Lossky’s thought – it is how we transcend a mechanical, deterministic worldview, how we insist on our humanity in the face of the powers that want to reduce us to economics or biology or some other system. It’s similar to the point made by Guardini, although I think probably better articulated here. We’re not machines. We’re something more.

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