Life At the Bottom

Sometimes you find a book that makes you stop in your tracks and do a double take; a book that not only challenges your mind, but also breaks your heart. Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple was one of those books for me.

It “… is a collection of essays written by British writer, doctor, and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple … [that] are about personal responsibility, the mentality of society as a whole, and the troubles of the underclass. The main themes expressed in the collection include how an individual’s worldview (Weltanschauung) affects their actions and the attitudes of those around them, the philosophy of social determinism, and why a lack of personal responsibility for one’s actions results from an individual’s beliefs in determinism.” (Wikipedia)

While Theodore Dalrymple is not a Christian, and is in actually a self-proclaimed atheist, nearly everything he says lines up with a Biblical worldview and supports Judeo-Christian ethics. For whether you are aware of the actual source of truth or not, truth is still truth. And even in his denial of God, Dalrymple has still seen much of the truth of God’s view of this world and of humanity as a whole. And in a world that is violently rebelling against these truths and embracing lies left and right, this book and the viewpoint which it represents is unusual to say the least, and intensely radical to say the most.

I fully intended to write a long piece explaining many of these things indepth along with explaining why and how they made me think so deeply, but I find that I cannot possibly convey the fullness of these concepts to you in a way that they deserve, and that in still pondering them I find myself quite unable to competently expound upon them for you. So in lieu of that, I have decided to share a few excerpts from the book with you, along with a short video interview with the author himself.

In the introduction to the book he says,

“In what follows I have tried first to describe underclass reality in an unvarnished fashion, and then to lay bare the origin of that reality, which is the propagation of bad, trivial, and often insincere ideas. Needless to say, a true appreciation of the cause of underclass misery is desirable in order to combat it, and even more to avoid solutions that will only make it worse. And if I paint a picture of a way of life that is wholly without charm or merit, and describe many people who are deeply unattractive, it is important to remember that, if blame is to be apportioned, it is the intellectuals who deserve the most of it. They should have known better but always preferred to avert their gaze. They considered the purity of their ideas to be more important than the actual consequences of their ideas. I know of no egotism more profound.”


The Fallacy of Tolerance

“Experience has taught me that it is wrong and cruel to suspend judgment, that nonjudgmentalism is at best indifference to the suffering of others, at worst a disguised form of sadism. How can one respect people as members of the human race unless one holds them to a standard of conduct and truthfulness? How can people learn from experience unless they are told that they can and should change? One doesn’t demand of laboratory mice that they do better: but man is not a mouse, and I can think of no more contemptuous way of treating people than to ascribe to them no more responsibility than such mice. In any case, nonjudgmentalism is not really nonjudgmental. It is the judgment that, in the words of a bitter Argentinean tango, “todo es igual, nada es major”: everything is the same, nothing is better. This is as barbaric and untruthful of a doctrine as has yet emerged from the fertile mind of man.”


Poverty is Not about Money

“Yet nothing I saw [in third world countries] – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I… have come to…. [a] terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty but poverty of the soul.”


Liberalism vs. Law Enforcement

“For fear of criticism by liberals, the actions of the police now often are the mirror image of what they should be – and of what they have been in New York and other American cities, with dramatic reductions in the crime rate as a result. Yet however imbued with, or affected by, liberal values the police become, liberals will never accept them as full members of the human race or cease their carping, because it is, at base, the mere existence of the police that offends the liberal conscience, not any of their particular acts. For the permanent necessity of a police force suggests that the default setting of humanity is not to virtue and social harmony, that externally applied pressure to conform to decent behavior is a necessary component of any civilized society. And the admission that this is so (surely obvious to anyone not still in thrall to adolescent utopian dreams) undermines the very suppositions upon which the modern liberal desire to remove all external restraints upon behavior rests. We hate nothing so much as the living refutation of our cherished ideas.”


Worldviews and Personal Responsibility

“Human behavior cannot be explained without reference to the meaning and intentions people give to their acts and omissions; and everyone has a Weltanschauung, a worldview, weather he knows it or not. It is the ideas my patients have hat fascinate – and to be honest – appall – me: for they are the source of their misery.

Their ideas make themselves manifest even in the language they use. The frequency of locutions of passivity is a striking example. An alcoholic, explaining his misconduct while drunk, will say, “The beer went mad.” A heroin addict, explaining his resort to the needle, will say, “Heroin’s everywhere.” It is as if the beer drank the alcoholic and the heroin injected the addict.

Other locutions plainly serve an exculpatory function and represents a denial of agency and therefore of personal responsibility. The murder claims the knife went in or the gun went off. The man who attacks his sexual consort claims that he “went into one” or “lost it,” as if he were the victim of a kind of epilepsy of which it is the doctor’s duty to cure him. Until the cure, of course, he can continue to abuse his consort – for such abuse has certain advantages for him – safe in the knowledge that he, not his consort, is its true victim.

I have come to see the uncovering of this dishonesty and self-deception as an essential part of my work. When a man tells me, in explanation of his anti-social behavior, that he is easily led, I ask him whether he was ever easily led to study mathematics or the subjunctives of French verbs. Invariably the man begins to laugh: the absurdity of what he has said is immediately apparent to him. Indeed, he will acknowledge that he knew how absurd it was all along, but that certain advantages, both psychological and social accrued by keeping the pretense up.

The idea that one is not an agent but the helpless victim of circumstances, or of large occult sociological or economic forces, does not come naturally, as an inevitable concomitant of experience. On the contrary, only in extreme circumstances is helplessness directly experienced in the way the blueness of the sky is experienced. Agency, by contrast, is the common experience of us all. We know our will’s free, and there’s an end on’t.”

Please note that if you do choose to read the book, that there are disturbing situations portrayed as well as the presence of strong profanity because Dalrymple includes direct quotations from many of his patients.

Leave a Comment