Theodore Dalrymple – Anything Goes: The Death of Honesty (Monday Books, 2011)


‘All that is necessary for untruth to become orthodoxy is for men to be afraid to utter what they think is the truth.’ So, says Theodore Dalrymple as he begins another book challenging liberal dogmas and admonishing idealist humanism.

Dalrymple writes as one who has authority. His credentials come from many years working as a doctor in prisons and hospitals in the UK and around the world: Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Guatemala, Kiribati… He is well-travelled and well-read with an excessive affection for Samuel Johnson, who is quoted on every second page of Anything Goes.

The book brings together thirty-nine essays of which the central theme is evil, although the specific topics vary greatly. Central to all he says is a belief in original sin (Dalrymple chooses this term despite being an atheist). The failure to recognise the character of man, he contends, has created a culture which is naïvely permissive of evil and blind to its increasingly dire consequences.

Western culture, he argues, has committed itself to a misguided belief in inevitable technological, social and moral progress. In accordance with this, it has stripped itself of the social boundaries which once went some way towards containing the evil inherent in mankind. Thus, he applauds past notions of decorum and conservative values and campaigns for their restoration.

His outlook is bleak. He holds little hope that the self-understanding necessary to reverse the culture’s present trajectory will come. If it is to come then it will be through intellectuals (who he sees as the real shapers of culture) so it is to them that his words are primarily addressed.

Dalrymple certainly errs strongly on the side of alarmism, but he has a lot say that is worth hearing. However it is probably better said in some of his earlier books, particularly Our Culture, What’s Left of It (2005). Anything Goes is published by Monday Books, a small, independent company. My suspicion is that the editors there have given Dalrymple complete freedom rather than forcing him to refine his work and cut the weaker essays.

In any case, the final product is still to be admired. Not least Dalrymple’s ‘euphonious and unhectoring prose’ (a phrase he uses in describing the writer Rhys Davies). He has remarkable diction and I ended up sticking a post-it note in the front cover so I could jot down unfamiliar words to look up later. It may be some time before I see words like ‘encomium’, ‘coterminous’ or ‘taciturnity’ again.