This article was first published in the Saturday Standard on 04 July, 2020.
If I was to be the person to recommend only one book that everyone should read, it would be William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). Over the past six decades, I have been privileged to read hundreds of books – thousands, even. And I have collected many more thousands. I hope someone will someday find the time to read them, perhaps my grandchildren, or great grandchildren, I don’t know.
Of all these volumes, Lord of the Flies has captured my imagination more than any other book. It only comes second to the Bible, perhaps because of the central theme in both literatures. Both focus on the strife between good and evil, and the tendency of evil to dominate good. Religion attempts to give us comfort that often carries us away from the world we live in. It promises us eternal happiness in a different universe. In a sense, religion is itself in a state of surrender to earthly evil. It seems to urge us not to worry about the ills and wickedness that dominate our lives. For, in the next universe good will permanently dominate evil.
You are encouraged to be good and to do good, in spite of everyone else seeming to do ill. Just close your eyes and pray for them. Pray for yourself, too, that you may not be tempted to pay back. Leave vengeance to divinity. Your happiness will come after you are dead. So, others can have their happiness now, but don’t worry – yours will come. Your death will be your doorway to eternal happiness. Still, don’t kill yourself, for that will deny you that happiness.
The purchase of religion is challenged when philosophers of wickedness encourage the practice of religion for wicked ends. Niccolò Machiavelli is at his wicked best in the essay titled, “The Importance of Religion.” He writes in part, “The rulers of a republic or a kingdom, therefore, should uphold the basic principles of the religion which they practise in, and, if this be done, it will be easy for them to keep their commonwealth religions, and, in consequence, good and united. They should also foster and encourage everything likely to be of help to this end, even though they be convinced that it is quite fallacious.”
The great irony is that while it is meant to lead humans away from wickedness, the practice of religion can itself be for promotion of wickedness. Hence, almost everywhere, wickedness and evil seem to overwhelm virtue and goodness, almost all the time. Why is virtue so weak in the face of wickedness? Why don’t things work? Why is social order so frail, it collapses at the first tremors of wickedness? These are the questions that trouble young Simon in Lord of the Flies.
They must trouble us, too, in this civilized age, when wickedness seems to be the energy that drives society. From glorification of falsehood to daily killings, on to wicked political leverage, the world has gone mad with willful mischief. Laws count for nothing. Might is right.
But why Lord of the Flies? Golding experiments with a bunch of kids aged twelve and below, marooned on a lonely island. They steadily degenerate into savages, amidst selfish power struggles. Children should represent purity and innocence. Yet this bunch kills through insertion of sharp sticks, through one end of the alimentation canal to the other, just as they have done with wild pigs on the island. Their savage champion overthrows social order and installs himself as tribal god. The champion of good is isolated and hunted across the island, like a bandit. The children set the entire island on fire, in the quest to outlaw him.
Reflecting on why things don’t work, Simon, a lonely saintly figure in the story holds an imaginary conversation with Beelzebub, the father of evil. Beelzebub tells Simon, “I am the reason things don’t work.” The children are scared of a beast that they believe to live up in the forest on the mountain top of the island. But the beast, it turns out, lives in them. It is at the soft centre of their soul. That is why things don’t work. We have given ourselves laws to contain the beast. Yet to those in power the law is nothing, in front of the beast within. The law can go to hell. Let social order rot.
In the end, the beast eats up the laws and the social order that they represent. As might makes right, those who begged for our votes while the social order worked become our masters. They talk to us angrily and threateningly. Scared individuals run to kneel before them, as do Golding’s boys in Lord of the Flies. The captain is symbolized by a rotting decapitated pig’s head on a stick, with thousands of flies buzzing around him. This is social rot.
The flies buzz around Beelzebub in the style of worship. It is worship of evil. The good has surrendered to evil. Evil eats up virtue. Hence, Beelzebub tells the saintly boy, “Now you are inside my mouth.” The words echo on and on, “Now you are inside my mouth.” Simon passes out. When he recovers, he rushes to the beach at twilight, to tell his friends about his discovery that the beast lives in them. He finds them at the height of their wild reggae. And nobody can stop reggae. They kill him with their sharp sticks and reggae of, “Kill the pig, bash him in.”
Ours seems to be an indeterminately faulty universe where the jungle dance goes on and on. An imaginary paradise of the dead is our only hope. What could possibly save humans from the darkness of their soul, to give some meaning to life on this side?