The 20th century was full of horrors, but atrocities are not just part of the past.
As we approach the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a familiar phrase comes to mind: “Man’s inhumanity to man.” I had never explored the provenance of this line. A quick internet search provided not only the author but also the entirety of Robert Burns’ 1784 poem “Man Was Made to Mourn: A Dirge,” from which the quote resonates. The complete stanza reads:
Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves,
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn,
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
Burns crafted these lines more than 130 years before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution overthrew what all reasonable scholars would confess was a corrupt aristocracy. Rather than establish a safe harbor of republican democracy, however, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and their cohorts completely unmoored the Eastern European countries that became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with their brand of totalitarian tyranny. In so doing, they unleashed terror on untold millions, numbering far more than Burns’ “countless thousands.”
Among the many ignominies inflicted on the unfortunate citizens under the Soviet boot was the Holodomor, the name give to the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. The exact number of those who perished from starvation may never be tallied, but it’s certain multiple millions of innocent people suffered excruciating and needless deaths.
Lest readers assume all the inequities and humiliations inflicted on God’s children are only historical in nature, the current protests against Romanian corruption prove otherwise. The Romanian Orthodox Church is among the most vocal opponents of government measures that would decriminalize official misconduct.
Returning to “Man Was Made To Mourn,” Burns captures perfectly the “inalienable rights” granted us by God and defined through natural law:
If I’m design’d yon lordling’s slave,
By Nature’s law design’d,
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
If not, why am I subject to
His cruelty, or scorn?
Or why has man the will and pow’r
To make his fellow mourn?
Today, those who would trample on our freedoms and “make his fellow mourn” still exist. At the Acton Institute, we keep the memory alive of those who have heroically championed our freedoms—some making the ultimate sacrifice.