The Imbalance of Creation and Destruction

It is a truism to say that it is easier to destroy than to create. It is simpler to burn down a house than to build it, and a reputation, built over a lifetime, can be destroyed in minutes. Writing books is hard, burning books less so. Donald Trump can destroy but not create.

Of course, destruction is also a kind of creation, although often destruction might just be a return to the ex-ante. When we destroy the international system it may be argued that we are merely recreating the world of the 19th century. But that is not the complete truth, because when multilateralism goes, we recreate 19th century conditions but with nuclear arms. When we kill the rose, the weed that follows may be new.

Creation is exhilarating, as we know, yet destruction carries it own attraction too, unfortunately. In a sense this is strange given our inbred desire to improve. The reason is less Freud’s Todestrieb, and more the envy humans hold alongside the desire for progress. Most fundamentally, though, destruction is the purest exercise of power, and we truly love that. Moreover, killing something gives kinship forever. The hunter creates an unbreakable bond when putting the magnificent tiger to death! In a different context Ibsen said: Eternally owned is but what’s lost. That could be the destroyer’s motto!

Given the competitive advantage of destruction over creation, one can ask how it has been possible for human society to progress to the extent it has. Why did the fatal attraction of destruction not always win out?

One reason is surely that humankind did not take Nietzsche’s advice to heart to abandon what he called self-denying slave morality. Imagine thousands and thousands of Napoleons living their destructive ‘master’ grandeur uninhibitedly. Surely, human progress would have been impossible, and Napoleon himself, of course, saw this as well. His only truly lasting legacy is the Code Civil, which is a wonderful example of codifying slave morality. The progress of civilisation is entirely contingent upon restraint and self-restraint on our destructive impulses.

Even eclipsing this in importance is the fact that good ideas are hard to kill. A cannonball may destroy the house, but still it will not be forgotten how to build a house well. Europe was destroyed by two world wars, yet within 15 years of the last it was blooming again. It had not been forgotten how to build prosperity.

What sets humans apart from other animals is not only our capacity for good ideas, but also our capacity for passing them on. Instead of the endless procession of statues to slavers and warriors surely we should have monuments celebrating the resilience of good ideas. They are the ultimate proof of mind over matter!