Roger Kimball on Will Smith and Utopianism

Roger Kimball has intriguing reflections on the utopian impulse and the underlying thought, stemming from Rousseau, that one can reshape human nature—all from thinking about Will Smith’s remark,

“Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, ‘let me do the most evil thing I can do today’,” said Will. “I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was ‘good’.”

Astoundingly, people have taken Smith’s remark to express sympathy with Hitler. But it seems clear that he meant to make something like Aristotle’s point in the first sentence of the Nicomachean Ethics:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good….

Even Augustine, who famously disagrees with Aristotle by confessing his own adolescent theft of a pear, would agree that most actions aim at some perceived good. Sins for the sake of sin alone are rare, Augustine thinks, even for the most egregious sinners. Those who express outrage at Smith’s remarks reveal their own illiteracy.

2 thoughts on “Roger Kimball on Will Smith and Utopianism

  1. Do you believe that Augustine has analyzed his motives accurately, when describing why he stole the pear? It seems, does it not, he stole the pear for the pleasure of rebellion? If so, he is not quite as wicked as he makes himself out to be; his sinning is instrumental–a wicked pleasure–rather than out of loving pure evil. I’ve always wondered about this.
    I’ve compared Aug.’s analysis to King henry II (?) who said, in a rage, after losing a battle to Richard the Lion hearted, something like, “I know God loves me. I shall, therefore, sin grievously, since I know it will pain God [to pollute myself].” Was Augustine’s sin worse, in your view, or were both sins of rebellion?

  2. Great question. An Aristotelian would find some perceived good being aimed at even here– the pleasure of rebellion, the thrill of doing something illicit, or the notoriety of having done something risky, perhaps– and it’s hard to say whether it’s possible that no such factors were present in Augustine’s case. Most of my students, who are adolescents (or recent escapees from it) themselves, incline to your interpretation.

    I haven’t thought about the King’s rage, but it’s an intriguing case. It reminds me of the unpardonable sin, cursing the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32, Mark 3:28-30, Luke 12:10), and I confess I don’t understand that one either.

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