Reflections on the Curious Case of Sydney Carton


This article comes with a hefty health warning!  It has NOTHING to do with cycling or my journey AT ALL, except that these were some of the things I was thinking about during my ride.  Only to that extent is it related to what I’ve been doing in the last month.  If you aren’t interested in listening to my philosophical ruminations about a nineteenth century novel and other related thoughts, turn back now! (And who could blame you?!) But please do read one of the Notes from the Road articles which are about what has happened so far on the trip.


I add a further qualifier to this piece, which is more of a reminder really, that we are always listening to someone’s message.  Whether it be in the form of journalism, film, song, literature, art or any other form of communication, people have stories to tell and with each story comes a message and a view of the world.  The message and the worldview reflect the mind of the storyteller, and this article is no different. 


If you have taken the time to read the article “To and Through Yangshuo” you will recall how absorbed I became listening to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens as I was cycling along on the road in Guangdong and Guangxi.  


I have to admit that, despite working my way through some pretty weighty tomes in my time, I have never sat down and read a book by Dickens.  That is a pretty glaring omission given how I have been over-educated almost to the point of imbecility.  Well, I suppose there is still time to rectify that. 


But it got me thinking.  And riding along day in day out, I have considerable time to chew things over. I have chewed over the ending of this novel at least as long as my old headmaster was in the habit of chewing on an old piece of gristle – but unlike him, who would always have to admit defeat and spit it out, unappetising as it was, on the plate in front of his disgusted pupils, my chewing has become more delicious with time, and finally I have been able to swallow what I believe proves to be a nourishing little gem of truth that is good for the mind and soul. 


If my reflections are going to make any sense, I need to put them in context, especially for those who have not read the novel. 


Briefly then: the novel is set at the end of the 18th century during the French Revolution and reaches its climax during the Terror, a time in which the new Republic of France gorged itself on a glut of executions under the Guillotine.  Aristocrats, politicians, intellectuals, clerics, lawyers, soldiers, tradesmen and women, washerwomen, milkmaids, shopkeepers, cobbler’s boys and anyone at all who was considered (or denounced as) an enemy of the Republic and the Nation fell under its blade. 


The main characters are a Frenchman called Charles Darnay, who renounced his aristocratic title and his estate and emigrated to England years before the Revolution where he married another French émigré called Lucie Manette.  Before they were married, Darnay was arrested and charged for treason as a French spy in England.  However, another man, an Englishman, called Sydney Carton, a barrister, rescues Darnay from this charge of treason simply because he is his double – a look-a-like – which causes the case against Darnay to be thrown out of court and he is released.  Lucie is a witness during this case.  Carton falls in love with Lucie as well, but he is a drunkard and generally is running his life to ruin and doesn’t seem to care, so he does not act on his love.  Instead Lucie marries Darnay. 


Years later during the Terror, Darnay is naively lured to France and he is seized, arrested, tried and sentenced to execution by the guillotine as an aristocrat.  Carton travels to Paris and through clever manoeuvres behind the scenes, he manages to obtain access to Darnay in the Conciergerie – a prison - on the eve of his execution.  Carton succeeds in drugging the unwitting Darnay and effects a switch in his clothing and appearance.  And he, Carton, takes the place of Darnay, being executed instead of him, so that Darnay might live and that Lucie, whom both men love, might be happy with her husband and family.  Before the switch has occurred, but after he has decided to go through with it, Carton walks through the streets of Paris, and the refrain of the words of Jesus, that he remembers from his father’s funeral, keep turning over and over in his mind: “I am resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet he shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”  The words deeply affect Carton, and through his reflections on the hope in these words, he goes to his death, according to the story, steadfast and serene, looking “prophetic” as he mounts the scaffold.  The final words of the novel are his thoughts. “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done;  it is a far, far better rest I go to, than I have ever known.”   THE END.


OK – apologies for the length of the explanation but it is necessary I think. 


So Carton sacrifices his own life so that the woman he secretly loves, and the man who has become his friend may live.  “A life for a life.”


Now the thoughts I had about all this were these. 


Evidently Dickens is a Christian believer, and so to end a novel in this way may be quite natural for him.  And the hope that Carton claims for himself that helps him to make the sacrifice willingly is no doubt shared by Dickens.  But it is not necessarily shared by everyone reading the book.  I am sure that quite a lot of the readers of this novel would not say that they believe Jesus when he says the words “I am the resurrection and the life.” 


But at the same time as not believing those words or the particular hope that Carton (and Dickens) hold to, I would also imagine that most, possibly all, of the readers of the book would be moved by admiration for Carton’s deed.  “A life for a life” – and the climactic end to the novel and the courage with which he faces his death are very easy to admire.  That is the natural response.


Here is the rub though.  If the hope is false, if the worldview that underpins the hope is untrue, then the sacrifice is not admirable at all.  It is absurd foolishness on the part of Carton. 


Supposing Dickens wasn’t writing the story, but an atheist author like Philip Pullman was writing it.  He could not end the story on this note if he was faithful to his belief that there is no God.  If the world and nature is all there is.  If everything came about as a product of evolution, including all human behaviour and thought, then what Carton does makes no sense whatsoever.  It is rank stupidity and contrary to the very principle of existence.  And so to admire his act makes no sense either.


If Carton was acting according to the laws of evolution (and the evolutionary impulse), what he should have done is let Darnay go for the chop, and then be around as the manful shoulder for young Lucie to cry on, and when the dust had settled, marry her himself and father a whole brood of little Cartons. 


This would be the selfish gene in action wouldn’t it?  Wouldn’t this have an evolutionary proponent like Richard Dawkins (a well-known English scientist) hopping for his party-popper, and thumping the table with approval?  No?   It should do if he’s right that all believers are deluded. 


Supposing Mr. Pullman was writing the story.  He might have Carton wander the streets of Paris deliberating on the possibility of making this sacrifice – should I, shouldn’t I?  And he recalled those words of Christ – “I am the resurrection and the life”.  Pullman would have Carton pulling up his collar in disgust at those ancient swindlers, the Church, who’d put those words in the mouth of the innocent carpenter of Nazareth to turn him into that “scoundrel” Christ, and send millions to their deaths believing in a lie.  No, Carton would turn from that and set his jaw into the night.  “I am sorry for my friend.  But I’ll take her home and be the best husband I can be to her……when the time comes.” 


Would we be weeping into our popcorn at this ending?  Would we remember Carton as one of the great characters of fiction?  I suspect not.


Two choices lie before him.  Two choices lie before us in terms of which we will admire more.  The Guillotine.  Or England and marriage.  There is some force on our conscience that favours his choice of the Guillotine over England.  But the influence of natural selection has to favour England over the Guillotine.  Even if the evolutionist could dress up the choice of the Guillotine as serving some evolutionary purpose - perhaps this represents choosing the greater good of the group, or an argument can be made that Carton is expressing some evolutionary instinct that because Darnay looks like him many of their shared genes will be passed on anyway – even if this argument is made, the evolutionist would have to admit this is not as good as the choice of direct replication.  Not as good as the propagation of many little Cartons. 


So, there is something else at work, over and above the driving force of natural selection.  Both in his choice, and our admiration of that choice.  This indicates, not that the theory of natural selection is entirely wrong – it may yet be exerting a considerable effect – but it does show that the theory of natural selection does not have total explanatory power, if proposed as an explanation for all life and all human behaviour.  (By the way, this is a major deficiency in the theory as it is usually proposed.)


But perhaps the argument might be raised that the “better” choice and our admiration of it simply reflects our current moral zeitgeist – the moral spirit of the age and in another age humans might have admired the choice to return to England more.  But the moral history of civilization would not support this view.  One could not find a society that has left any traces of itself in history which would not, according to its own moral code, admire the choice of the Guillotine over England.  So this instinctive admiration seems to be a universal moral response.


On the other hand, perhaps I assume too much by presuming that everyone favours Carton’s choice of the Guillotine over England as the more admirable of the two.  You might say, OK, I can see how most people would think this as an emotional response, but if we apply our minds rationally, I favour his going back to England as the best and most rational thing to do.  But then you must ask yourself – even if you can reach that conclusion in theory, is it not the natural reaction to favour the choice of the Guillotine?  Admiration for his sacrifice must be suppressed in order to reach the rational position of approving a return to England.  Yet you find that if you favour the Guillotine, this is the most natural response in the world.  Therefore, your own conscience bears witness against you, if you say rationally you favour Carton’s return to England. 


So, if the choice represents a universal moral value that arises in human hearts – we might call it a moral absolute – then we come to the heart of the matter.  The existence of moral absolutes can only be if God exists.  That may seem like a leap so let me explain.  For a moral absolute to exist, it must exist outside of us.  It cannot be simply a matter of personal or collective opinion or a matter of taste.  Nor can it be, for that matter, an evolutionary development, like the colour of your eyes or the shape of your nose.  If the choice of going to the Guillotine truly is better than taking Darnay’s wife back to England, then it is because it is better according to a standard that is outside of an individual or even the collective opinion of a group of people. 


The argument then goes that the external moral standard by which one choice is judged better than another therefore does not arise from people, but it must arise from some source of moral consciousness outside of people.  This consciousness is something like a mind, and therefore it must be personal, not impersonal.  (A rock or a gas does not make moral judgements, and therefore moral judgements cannot arise out of something that is impersonal.)  However, you can imagine that any kind of person (whatever their appearance) can make a moral judgement.  This external moral standard influences our choice: we reflect on the Guillotine and on England, and we favour the Guillotine, which I hope we agree is more selfless, compassionate, loving, courageous etc. than going home with the girl.  So the mind or person from which the moral standard flows appears to be good


This progression has been, down the ages, one of the classic arguments for the existence of God:

-          Moral absolutes only exist if God exists (otherwise any moral judgement is simply opinion or a result of divergent evolutionary development).

-          Moral absolutes do exist. e.g. (choosing the Guillotine is always better than England).

-          Therefore, God exists. 

By God, at this stage, I only mean a perfect moral being that exists outside of humans. 


You can resist this conclusion, of course, but I think you will have a hard time refuting it, unless you succeed in burying the idea that Carton’s choice to go to the Guillotine instead of his friend is a “far, far better thing” than taking Lucie home and looking after her himself.  Only you can tell whether you are being honest with yourself in doing that. 


So what of the second statement Carton thinks on the scaffold?  “It is a far, far better rest I go to, than I have ever known.”  This is based on hope which is based on the claim of Jesus.  But, by and large, our secular society (I am talking about the UK and possibly other countries in Western Europe) does not believe his claim much anymore, if we have even heard it at all. 


Instead, in the UK at least, we listen to modern day prophets like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.  I wonder how many of the UK or US population who consider themselves well-read and reasonably engaged in modern thought who have read a book like The End of Faith by Sam Harris, or The God Delusion by Dawkins, or God is not Great by Hitchens, regularly or ever pick up the Bible.  Or whether they have ever read it seriously as an adult.  Possibly very few. 


A man like Sam Harris says that he cannot believe or accept as true the claims of Christianity because of a lack of empirical evidence.  (The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell said essentially the same thing.)  Ignoring the fact that this overlooks a staggering amount of evidence in favour of its truth, this is still an intellectually dishonest position.  Suppose Harris said I won’t accept what you say as true unless there is empirical evidence in support of it.  If that was really what he thought, he would never get out of bed in the morning.  How could he?  On a daily basis, he continues to operate in the world, accepting a multitude of things as true, without the slightest knowledge of any empirical evidence of their truth being presented to him.   And we all do the same.  In any event, the statement “Only facts that are empirically verifiable can be accepted as true” as a philosophical position or test for truth cannot support itself.  The statement itself is not empirically verifiable and therefore cannot be accepted as true and must be rejected.  This is what is called self-defeating – and is therefore, as any student of logic will tell you, necessarily false.


What about Dawkins?  The great voice against Christianity who devised a message splashed across the advertising boards of London’s buses: “There is probably no god.  So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  There is so much wrong with this statement even on its own terms, it is amazing that he decided to publicize it.  He won’t go so far as to say “There IS NO GOD.”  Only probably none.  But this leaves room for the possibility of the existence of God.  So if someone really was worried about the existence of God, this statement should bring them no comfort whatsoever.  Especially so when you consider, in the words of the Monty Python song, “Just remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth.”  There is probably no Theo.  There is probably no Dawkins.  There is probably no you.  And yet, happily, all three of us do exist. 


Then the second statement – “So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  Is it a source of relief that there is no God out there?  Possibly, but that means no ultimate justice – that not only good in this world but also evil is given free rein, with no ultimate reckoning.  Supposing I was considering committing a particularly shocking crime, and I was wrestling with my conscience whether to do it or not, and I read this statement.  It would actually act as a source of encouragement for me to commit this crime, since it tells me that I won’t be held to account by an all-knowing God or anyone else, if I can just get away with it.  I may even enjoy committing it.  Perhaps the world would be a better place if people reflected a little more on whether God exists or not.  You ask an actual believer whether it is a source of worry to her, that she believes that God exists, and she will probably tell you the opposite.  As for enjoying life – personally I am having the time of my life since believing, but don’t take my word for it.  It is a great irony that the accompanying photograph to posters for this slogan was of two bright, energetic and joyful-looking children, bouncing in the air.  This photograph was selected because they looked particularly happy and carefree over all the others.   It turned out, not that these children were free from the oppressive strictures of their parents’ false beliefs, but that these, the happiest looking of the bunch, were Christian children who themselves professed belief and regularly went to church quite willingly. 


So everything about this statement:  “There is probably no God.  So stop worrying and enjoy life” is flawed.  And yet, the Guardian (a major UK newspaper) and Dawkins and many others spent a great deal of money to get their message out there.  But the message that they want to put into the public consciousness and drive home into people individually is, in reality, a denial of hope. 


Certainly Dawkins and several other well-known atheists give a great deal of weight to the philosophy of Bertrand Russell.  His conclusion is this, that we must build our lives “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair”.  He is essentially saying that we should face the reality of the hopelessness of our existence – that death swallows us all and is the final end of everything, including ultimately all of human existence – but we should face it with courage and resolution. 


This is admirable.  I am all for facing up to realities courageously, if the philosophical basis on which Russell’s and others’ claims rest stacks up.  But it doesn’t. 


Dawkins wrote a bestselling book in the ‘70s called The Selfish Gene, all about how we, humans (and all other forms of life), are essentially nothing more than “self-replicating D-N-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA!” (again back to Monty Python!)  But then he ends the book with an exhortation to rebel against the selfish driving force of our genes.  This is absolutely contrary to his worldview and what he was trying to demonstrate.  What he is doing here is borrowing (illegitimately) from the supernaturalist’s worldview - that there is a higher law or impulse which we must apply against the drivers of natural selection through our genes.  The bare fact that he does this itself undermines his own philosophical position - by doing it, he is affirming the very worldview he seeks to deny.  It is as if he is cutting off the philosophical branch on which he is sitting. 


He and Hitchens do exactly the same when they attack the evils of religion – both its historical and moral evils.  Both of them appeal to a moral framework that is outside of what religious believers think and what non-religious people think.  Dawkins himself says that he hopes that if you pick up his book The God Delusion as a believer, by the time you put it down you no longer will be.  If this happens, the reason being because he has consistently appealed to a moral standard outside of both of us to show that non-belief is better.  This is philosophically illegitimate.  His only recourse should be to the moral zeitgeist – the current one being broadly that, as sophisticated people, we know that in our day and age we have given up belief as childish and morally wrong in many ways. 


But supposing in 300 years’ time, European society has swung back towards belief in God and religious practice, and looks back on the 20th and 21st centuries as godless times and morally suspect for that reason.   (Looking at the wars and ideological conflicts of the 20th century, that would not be an unreasonable conclusion.)  Dawkins should have nothing to say about this.  If that is the way society has developed, then the law of evolution always goes up and this must be progress.  To believe has become the moral zeitgeist.  In other words, we currently say “pot-ay-to”, in 300 years we may say “pot-aa-to”.  (This doesn’t really work in writing but you get the idea) 


Of course Dawkins would have something to say.  He would still appeal to the moral framework outside of both systems of thought and say his one is morally better than the other.  In doing this, once again, he would completely undermine the truth of his worldview, since the external moral standard to which he appeals cannot exist if everything is a product of evolutionary development.


So we listen to the messages: that we must build our lives “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair”; or “There is probably no god.  So stop worrying and enjoy your life.


Now lay this alongside a different message. 


The claim of Jesus:   “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me though he dies, yet he shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” 


There is no wiggle room in this statement.  There is no probably, and there are no false assumptions.   It is a statement so emphatic, so absolute that, when you really consider what is said, it should be much harder to accept.  And yet, unlike Russell’s message, this is absolutely an expression of hope.  It offers everyone hope.  Yet hope is only as good as the thing on which it rests.   Somehow President Obama managed to offer hope to a nation desperate for it, and yet what was it anchored to?  To him?  Two years later it doesn’t look like a great deal has changed.  What has that hope come to?  The word "hope" by itself is vacuous. 


The claim “I am the resurrection and the life” is only to be believed if its anchor is true and to be trusted.  The entire Christian faith is founded on a historical fact: that Jesus of Nazareth died and then rose again.  If he didn’t, then the statement “I am the resurrection and the life” is a damned lie.  If he did, then there is no surer hope in life.  What is historically undeniable is that the claim of the first Christians to witnessing this miracle turned human history upside down.  And continues to do so even now.  All other opposing historical explanations for this phenomenon wash away like castles in the sand, despite the success of modern propaganda that says otherwise. 


So why do we listen to men and women, whose theories don’t stack up to scrutiny on the one hand, and who are trying to rob us of meaningful hope on the other?


I really don’t know.


Except that there is another voice.  Perhaps a quieter one, more hidden that says:

Be content, close your eyes, enjoy what you have.  Drink this and sleep: drink in your worldly success, drink in entertainment and fun, drink in family, drink in sex, drink in a watered down spirituality, drink in the flawed history and actions of the Church, drink in power and status and what comfort you can muster.  These are good things.  There is some truth in them.  But do not touch those words.  Do not open that book.  Do not hear His voice.  Lest you taste for the first time His living water and you start to wake up, and in tasting you discover all I give are sleeping draughts – or worse, you see that drunk too deeply they are poison.  Do not wake – stay sleeping – until the final sleep overcomes you, and you are mine forever.”


Such have been my reflections about the ending of this great novel, A Tale of Two Cities, as I have pushed along on my bicycle through the mountains and valleys of this vast country. 


Carton thinks this as he climbs the scaffold: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done;  it is a far, far better rest I go to, than I have ever known.


These statements cannot be separated.  The deed cannot be separated from the hope.  So, in my humble opinion, the witness of our own conscience – of our own hearts – if we will accept it, testifies to the truth of that hope. 


You may think all this an excessive amount of thought to be doing on the road through central China, but I felt I wanted to draw all the threads of my thinking together in one place to make sense of it. 


As a post-script:  Carton is of course a work of fiction.  But an incident very similar to this did happen in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in 1941.  A catholic priest called Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to replace a Jewish man who had been picked as one of ten men for the punishment of death by starvation by the Nazi deputy commandant.  This punishment was an act of retribution after the escape of three prisoners, in order to deter future escape attempts.  Kolbe stepped forward when the man cried out for his wife and children. 

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