Even now, after the angsty vitriol of middle school atheism has worn off, I still find myself returning to the essays and videos of Christopher Hitchens. Some of this may have to do with his machismo – he is unquestionably the James Bond of letters, a status which for whatever subconscious reason seems to me worth pursuing – but also, Hitchens’s erudition, wit, and courage (and perhaps, to a degree, meanness) guarantee a certain journalistic legacy and romanticize the writer’s life and moral purpose. I chose to review “The New Commandments” because (although it may lack some of the nuance and originality of his literary criticism or his geopolitical essays) I think it is the quintessential, most hypocrisy-demolishing, Hitchiest essay of the Hitch.
An important lesson to be gleaned from the essay is that it is possible to make concessions without giving any ground to one’s opponent. I have highlighted in the piece numerous instances where Hitchens says, “Okay, maybe that’s not so bad,” but goes on to prove what about a commandment is so bad, tangential to the previous concession, without losing any momentum. The dry sarcasm reflects a defiance toward any authority, be it (as in this case) God Himself, or the gods of the Left, like the Clinton family and (say) Mother Theresa, or those of the Right, like Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger. Yet, with attention to details like the capitalization in the King James Bible of “God” or the implications of the four verses of the fourth commandment (that this prescription applies only to “people who are assumed to have staff”), Hitchens shows that irony can be powerful artillery with which to wield one’s sincere opinions.
As important as style is to the writer, it is also necessary to be a good scholar. Hitchens clearly knows the Ten Commandments as well as any Christian, Muslim, or Jew, and with this force of knowledge and memory, the easy construction of arguments becomes inevitable. He starts with the general knowledge of the “written in stone” cliché, advances with information about the three or four “wildly different” iterations of the Big Ten, cites specific passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy, and alludes to Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism, all before tackling the Ten Commandments themselves (which – need I even add – are gently padded with abundant commentary and facts, from iconoclastic Islam to the Haymarket affair, Congressional swearing practices to midrash).
After a keen display of erudition, the Hitch is not afraid to make his argument more explicit (i.e., less ironic in nature). He concludes that the Ten Commandments were derived from “situational ethics” – they were sufficient for a previous era, but we can do better. His rhetorical prowess thus far has forced us to trust his analysis, and we are ready to believe his “pruning” and “amendments.” That is, because he has done the hard work already, now he has earned the right to amusingly, breezily excise the first three commandments outright, and decelerate only slightly from there. Following a scholarly (but not humorless) teardown of the Sinai edifice, his humorous editor’s remarks are welcome. Finally, now that such suspense has been built, he gives us satisfactorily what we have long been expecting: the New Commandments.