The word totalitarianism usually generates impressions of dictatorial systems which crush civic freedoms and negate the humanity of their subjects in an effort to achieve complete control. Images of barbed wire, jack-boots and thought-control are conjured up in our minds. 20th century literature has given us some powerful works of fiction which suggest a variety of possible totalitarian futures: one thinks immediately of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Common to these dystopias (utopias which have collapsed into tyranny) is the absolutizing of the power of the State, or systems controlled by the State.
Totalitarianism invariably strives to do away with genuine absolutes and to establish false absolutes in their place. Genuine absolutes are fundamental, ultimate, unqualified truths, independent of the ebb and flow of cultures, fashions, myths and prejudices.
The words of the 17th century religious poet Thomas Traherne have stayed with me ever since I first read them twenty five years ago. I have never forgotten them because they express in a few potent phrases a fundamental element of our Faith: we are a people who stand as a sign of hope, and a sign of contradiction, in the midst of this confused world.
I know little about the climate of England, where the poet wrote these lines, but I assume the British oak must be famous for standing sturdy against the North Atlantic rain; must shake its arms in defiance against the occasional fall of swift-melting snow. The poet’s metaphor is a powerful one, and I have always loved it, though it lacks a certain accuracy for those of us who live in sub-Arctic regions.