Let’s start with an idea of a search for truth. Can we conclude that we have such a need? A pattern of concurrent events across time and place suggests that we can. It has been said that the BC, or BCE, was a period in which some of the greatest thought was ever thunk. Confucius and Buddha are contemporaries; Darius the Great repatriates the Jews, who rebuild the temple in Jerusalem; the city-states of the Greek peninsula band together to defeat the enlightened Persians, victory that also spotlights the triumph of democratic government.
And what have we all been doing since then? The same thing – trying to achieve moral perfection within the contexts of our societies, and trying to impose that morality on others. And frequently, the means for such achievement has been immoral, and the source of that corruption has typically been filthy lucre.
Conrad connects the Roman Empire to the European colonization of Africa, tying the two together with the notion that “your strength is merely an accident resulting from the weakness of others.” Marlow, like Kurtz, is of the new gang, the gang of virtue. But how substantive is that virtue when it collaborates with commerce? Did the Conquistadors purify and pacify the Aztecs and Incas in their thirst to get gold and deliver God to the New World? Did the missionaries in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart walk hand in hand with the European colonists? How many conflicts can we name where an economic interest is justified by a moral or spiritual quest?
To reach a state of spiritual peace, we’re told we have to forsake earthly goods – to end pain is to end desire; a rich man is as likely to get to heaven as a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But we also have to leave behind the ego as well. Is that the same as saying that we have to leave behind human nature?
We love words; they are the best revealers of truth. And we endow their speakers – Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed – with titles like “master” or “teacher.” Those who seek or find such truth desire to be known as disciples, apostles, acolytes to denote the intensity of their mission. And those who want to get close, literally, to the source of truth are pilgrims – they journey to Canterbury, Mecca, Jerusalem; they try to establish a City on a Hill, a model of commingled prosperity and spirituality that we’d do well to follow.
For Marlow, that master is a voice, an “the idea of someone, a charisma that defies critical examination, …a vision (that) can be seductive no matter how intangible,” according to a paraphrase of Chinua Achebe’s essay about Heart of Darkness. Do words teach us a truth we don’t know, or do they tap into something already within us?
Clearly, I have a lot of questions; I’m not just pretending to ask them so that I can provide you with the wisdom of an answer. To me, those who have lost hope in the perfectability of man are called cynics. They might call themselves realists. They see man’s inherent corruption as an immovable obstacle. Those who maintain such hope are rarely called realists; perhaps they get tagged with the pejorative of “idealist,” as if the quest for an ideal couldn’t possibly conform with what we know to be reality.
Whether Conrad’s book is an insight to human nature and other truths about life or not is a subject for debate. But as you read, consider his arguments, weigh his exposition where it touches matters relevant to your point of view, and see if you can’t find your own questions.