March 21, 2022   6 mins

The ancient Greek word “chaos” means a chasm or void, and its opposite is “cosmos”, meaning the exquisite design of the world. Modern astrophysicists are struck by what they call the “fine-tuning” of the universe, a place which looks as though it saw us coming and framed its laws accordingly. Mathematics is the language of God. But there may be other universes, perhaps an infinity of them, which are a lot more chaotic than our own. In at least one of them there is a card-carrying Maoist known as Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Chaos is a void because nothingness has no shape. There isn’t a triangular kind of negativity as opposed to an oval one. So-called “chaos theory” deals with systems whose behaviour is random and unpredictable, one of which is known as Vladimir Putin. One of the curious features of the Russian president’s attack on Ukraine is its recklessness. Former KGB agents may be callous or thick-headed or sadistic, but one would not expect them to be impetuous.

Still, Putin was a KGB man a long time ago, and has had plenty of time to go mad since then. Not mad in the sense of not knowing what he’s up to, but mad in the way that pop stars who are surrounded by sycophants and don’t know what a can opener is. Shakespeare’s Lear is in something like this state when the play opens, and has to be hauled through hell in order to be cured of it. (He didn’t know what a can opener was either, but that was understandable.)

Putin’s motive in flattening Ukraine is partly ethnic. He thinks that the country is ethnically speaking a fiction, a cardboard cut-out of a nation, and should be wound up as soon as possible. Ukraine is a void, a non-entity, and Russia will impose some order on this chaos by incorporating it into itself. Then the Ukrainians will cease to be unreal and become what they essentially are, namely Russians.

In this sense, the war reminds us of the dangers of ethnicity. Contrary to postmodern thinking, it isn’t always to be applauded. You don’t have to be a racist to be aware of the murderous conflicts ethnic difference has inflicted on humankind. If everyone came from Cornwall or the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world would be a lot more dreary but a lot less bloodstained as well.

Behind Putin’s assault on his neighbours lies one of the worst ideas humanity has had for a long time: the Romantic-nationalist demand that there should be a precise fit between politics and ethnicity, so that an ethnic ‘people’, whatever that means, is entitled to its own sovereign state, and should extend this sovereignty to those of its own kind currently living under different regimes.

The result of this doctrine has been political havoc. The English have a right to self-determination, but not because they are English. Scottish independence is a question of democracy, not a genetic or patriotic affair. Colonised nations from India to Mozambique have thrown off their colonisers, but this is a political matter, not an ethnic one.

Colonialism is objectionable even if those who have plundered your resources are of the same ethnic origin as yourself. There are Republicans in Northern Ireland who oppose the partition of the country because they would prefer to live with their fellow Gaels over the border rather than with a bunch of benighted Ulster Scots who believe the world was created only 6,000 years ago. There are, however, better reasons for opposing partition than that. Ethnicity in the West is mostly a matter of ensuring equal rights, and is thus to be affirmed; yet ethnicity on a more general scale has piled the bodies high, and continues to do so as I write.

Too sharp a contrast between order and chaos is misleading. War creates chaos, but it is a deliberately manufactured disorder, not an arbitrary mess. You spread ruin and despair, but in as planned, well-disciplined way as possible. Besides, what you regard as chaos depends largely on your idea of order. In this sense, the two concepts are mutually parasitic.

Anyone who has just returned to Britain from a so-called developing nation will be struck by how surreally neat and tidy everything seems, but people in poorer countries don’t consider their lives to be anarchic. Virginia Woolf saw life as fragmentary and formless, but it’s unlikely that the housemaids who scrubbed her floors felt the same.

My university tutor regarded almost everything around him as chaotic, from the gurgling of a baby to the purring of a car engine, but this was because his notion of order was pathological. He would refuse to shake hands with you in the vacation because of some medieval university statute which nobody else had ever heard of. I once asked him at the end of a tutorial whether I might consult him in his role as a university officer, whereupon he asked me to leave the room, knock on the door and wait till he invited me to come in again. People like this should be chained to the wall in padded cells, approached only by those wearing protective suits. One could only wonder what wild orgiastic urges he was repressing.

Like many deep-dyed conservatives, my tutor was a devout adherent of what one might call the floodgates argument. Allow one person to play the trombone in a tube station, and (key phrase) before you know where you are the whole of the London underground system will be packed wall-to-wall with people playing trombones and chaos will ensue. In Freudian idiom, this man had fallen morbidly in love with the law. Like the Pharisees of the New Testament, he had turned the law into a fetish in order to keep chaos at bay.

Naive libertarians react to this pathology by ditching the law altogether, but this fails to acknowledge the distinction between obeying the law because of what it commends and obeying it for its own sake. “The law is the law” is one of the most lethal tautologies in any language. On this view, you don’t do what the law demands for a reason, because that would mean that legality was dependent on rationality and was thus no longer absolute.

For Immanuel Kant, probably the greatest of modern philosophers, you should be moral because it is moral to be so. This is deeply questionable, but it contains a kernel of truth, which is that being moral doesn’t get you anywhere. It isn’t necessarily a path to a more fulfilling life. In fact, for the New Testament it is a path which leads to a squalid death at the hands of the state. The 18th century novelist Henry Fielding writes that there is a noble doctrine to the effect that the virtuous will reap their reward in this world — a doctrine, he adds, which has only one defect, namely that it is not true.

There are other ways in which order and chaos are old friends. In Freud’s view, what enforces law and order is the superego, a faculty which draws its formidable strength from the forces of the chaotic unconscious. No political order could endure if it didn’t engage us at this kind of depth. You can’t govern people off the top of their heads, not even if they are French. Any political power which can tap into the collective unconscious will prove remarkably difficult to dislodge. If it also provides its citizens with just enough satisfaction, however meagre, to keep them going, it is very likely to survive. There has to be something in it for you. If there isn’t, however, either affectively or materially, power is highly vulnerable.

Social order is shrewd enough to encourage us to disrupt it from time to time. The traditional name for this in medieval Europe was carnival. The common people tumble into the streets wearing monstrous papier-mâché phalluses and vaginas and hump merrily away in defiance of the state. A wave of travesty and inversion — nose/phallus, face/buttocks, mouth/anus, high/low — sweeps through social life. Absolutely nothing escapes this great spasm of satire. Nothing is too solemn or sacred to be blasphemed. People dress up as Cardinals and piss in the streets. All this calls the established social order into question, but it is also a way of protecting it, a collective blow-off after which the sun will rise on myriad empty wine flagons and gnawed chicken legs and the populace will return obediently to work.

You need order if you want to be free. Unless you can predict how the world is likely to behave, you can’t fulfil your powers and capabilities, which is the positive meaning of freedom. You can’t play croquet if the hoops consist of flamingos which keep wandering around, as they do in Alice in Wonderland.

All the same, social life wouldn’t work if every bit of it was bound by precise rules. You wouldn’t be able to say “Stand roughly there”, which makes perfect sense, or shake someone’s hand, since there are no rules which determine how long a handshake should last. Maybe this is why my tutor was so wary of them.

We live and work on what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls the rough ground of social existence, even if there are those who try to walk on the pure ice of some flawless vision of order. But the two are not simply opposites. What we have witnessed in Ukraine is how easily such flawless visions can create the rough ground of a city brought to ruin.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.