The New Prometheans

THE ENTERPRISING READERS of my past two journal entries will perhaps have perceived, if not a contradiction between the crux of their apparent messages, then certainly a tension. For if it is true, as some among us are beginning to fear, that a catastrophe of some kind is lurking dark and huge on our horizon, then political moderation would appear to be terribly irresponsible, insofar as it obstructs the necessary awareness of urgency and the requisite will to tempestive action which ought to be our stance in such times. If catastrophe is coming, we stand at a moment of crisis: that is, a moment in which society is faced by the pressing need to act, and the simultaneous lack of awareness of this need and will to this deed. Then would it not behoove us to press the matter with our full strength—aye, with extremism, if need be—to awaken our slumbering compatriots and to make our lame public figures dance—before it is too late?
      There is without doubt aught to be said for this position, but it suffers from a very serious flaw in its tendency: namely, it overestimates the virtue of “action” to resolve, or to obviate, difficulties of such an order as those confronting us. It has an undue faith in the capacity, not just of human beings, but of human institutions, to recognize complex dangers in difficult times, to correctly diagnose their causes and chart their courses, to formulate a coherent and feasible plan to manage them, and to execute all appropriate action—all the while neither exacerbating the problem at hand, nor bringing about new and perhaps worse difficulties, nor inciting, through its own overexcitement, the final collapse of a troubled system.
      Bureaucratic institutions gain in efficiency only as they gain in simplicity, while they gain in power only as they gain in complexity: for this self-contradiction, they are fit precisely for times of stability, not times of extremity. There inevitably comes a point in the history of any bureaucratic institution in which it becomes so over-sophisticated and ineffectual, that its very clients and citizens can see no solution but to dismantle it, by force if need be. It is best to avoid such an end as much as possible, and more than ever in times marked already by great challenges. But all critical “solutions” brought about via institutional alterations, of necessity add to the weight and burden of these institutions, so that even if such maneuvers are successful in addressing the problem at hand, they lead to other and perhaps more paralyzing difficulties. Moreover, any institutional crisis—and we of today are hard on the heels of just such a one—cannot be resolved through institutions, for it is to these precisely that it owes its very existence.
      It is for this reason that in all times of crisis, those who believe that immediate action is obligatory tend, either instinctively or with the open eyes of a Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, toward the nominating of a figurehead, a leader, a “strong man”—one who, by embodying a clear and unambiguous (and therefore unphilosophical and unartistic) will, suffers none of the troubles which afflict the deliberations of large groups of human beings. Indeed, it has been recognized almost everywhere and always that the great and singular human being, given extraordinary powers, is the only reasonable antidote to the extremities of dangerous times. Thus the Romans would cede the state to a dictator in epochs of civil war; thus the French after the Revolution handed power first to Robespierre, and then to Napoleon; thus the Russian communists genuflected before Lenin, and the Germans of the first postbellum period before Hitler. Crisis, if we would rise to meet it with open action, calls for a powerful and untrammeled hand. We sacrifice a quantity of our freedom for a quantity of his control, binding ourselves to the dictum that the end justifies the means.
      The dangers in such a bargain are manifold, as I hope I need not remind my contemporaries. The powers concentrated in the dictator are virtuous only insofar as the man himself is virtuous: everything depends on the head beneath the crown. He may be Caesar; but he may also be Mao. Worse yet, he may be but the figure who opens the way to an unknown and terrible tyrant, as Lenin paved the way for Stalin. Charlatans and populist demagogues are rife in such times, and it is a sad fact that the only true method of testing the mettle of such individuals, is to invest them with power; but that method is precisely as perilous as it is valid. And it must be remembered that even in those cases in which a man of real greatness succeeds in establishing himself, as Caesar, he consolidates power around his figure, and those who follow him will almost certainly assume that power, though they very well may not share his virtue. The Roman Empire after Caesar gave us the moral sternness of an Augustus and the sagacity of a Marcus Aurelius; but it also made possible the monstrosities, the villainies, and the depravities of Nero, Caligula, and Caracalla.
      These are grand and extreme exemplars, but for their purity they are instructive. The expansion of powers so necessary to affront crisis but seldom, or imperfectly, contracts when the catastrophe has abated. Habeas corpus came back to Americans after the close of the Civil War, but the balance of powers between state and federal government has never weighed the same. The leeway granted to Roosevelt to confront the Depression have remained embedded in the executive office since. Power is an expedient absolutely indispensable to face any coming catastrophe, but it must be meted out soberly and with respect to the hazard at hand.
      Now I ask: what crisis faces us today with so much clarity that it would warrant such a reorganization of contemporary power? Those of the left will say, perhaps, that the greatest threat is global warming, or the inequalities of wealth pervasive in the world; those of the right will say it is the bureaucratic largesse of an over-glutted system ready to implode, or else the slow cultural death of the West. Others will point to the threat posed by Islam, or that more distantly represented by China. And the danger which we choose, or which our politics choose for us, will dispense to us the form of power we would abuse—whether it be military or domestic or cultural. Any and all of these “crises” have their representatives who will seek to convince us that theirs is the pressing issue of the day, which must, but must be addressed if we are to survive so much as half a century the more. Perhaps none of them, or perhaps all of them, are right, but all of them will demand expansions of extant powers to accomplish the tasks that they claim are so urgently in need of accomplishment. Whether they would avoid a third world war, the end of the Occident, a total economic implosion followed by a potentially devastating depression, or the devastation of climate meltdown, such proponents share a single trait: they are ready to act—and more than that, are ready to throw their support behind actors who will do what is “necessary” despite even the law or the rules that a prudent statesmanship would dictate.
      I submit that our true crisis, the only crisis over which we have any control any longer, is precisely this, which I will call the crisis of great expectations. There comes a moment in all hard times when some malicious spirit leans down to us, whispering into our ear the fateful formula, “Anything would be better than this.” And we, forgetting the manifest absurdity of this sentiment, the way in which it is obviously untrue, heed his words.
      We are come upon extreme times. By this, I mean not only to say that we are likely to confront a catastrophe of world proportions in not too long a time—the sense of this is only now beginning to flare in us strongly enough to make itself felt on a public scale—but rather that a segment of our thinking population has begun most ominously to permit itself the espousing of radical and undemocratic ideas. There is no term to describe this attitude. It is a modern version of Greek hubris, but it differs in two principle ways. First, it has science at its disposal. Science lends it a false sense of prescience, together with an altogether inflated conception of possibility in the face of nature. Second, it embodies a distinctly modern conception of the role of the great individual in determining the fate of nations. Truly, the only figure of antiquity to approach the dizzying heights of our arrogance, is Aeschylus’ Prometheus. We may call ours the Promethean attitude. And, if we may still learn from the ancients, it would be well for us to recall Prometheus’ fate, as revealed by the poet.
      Now I say, friends—for friends I call you, whether we agree or not, simply because you are as preoccupied with the future of our race as I am, and have not yet thrown up your hands and surrendered the idea of tomorrow—I say that I feel, as strongly as you, the peril before us, the call to meet it rather than letting it fall upon us. I know what compels you to take up the warrior’s mantel. And if I believed that “any change is for the better,” then I would with glad heart take up your banner. Only I recall that once men like you and I were tortured under a tyrant’s watch, or sent to the gulag, or exiled. If I believed that progress were guaranteed to us, and could not be reversed, then I myself would take up arms in the revolution. Yet I do not forget that there have been Dark Ages in our history, in which the past all but returned to dust, and that we owe its preservation and its recovery to perhaps only a handful of individuals who carried the flame across the darkness of the ages. If I believed that we of our water-logged democracies could rise up and choose the “right man for the job” who would by his own lights alone refashion our troubled system and provide us with one newer and better, then I would throw my small weight behind him, to do my part in hefting him up. But I do not forget that there has been but a single Revolution in all of history that did not culminate in tyranny or the rule of bad men, and that democracies as such are prone to resolve into despotism.
      What, then? Despair? Hardly. Only I say, see to your affairs, and let the times see to theirs. Let us be quiet when there is need; and when we speak, let us speak to the point. There is no crisis but which can be met through our own and most personal preparations. If we make ourselves such men as can ride the storm, then the storm will be that much less furious for all. See to your virtue, Friend, and apply your heat with care and judgement. Do not neglect the potency of example: it seems to be little, but it is only by the small daily choices of millions, tempered by the forge of greater thoughts, that culture assumes its form. Do not bow to these customs that are leading us astray: but make yourself the custom you would have prevail.
      “But!” I can already hear the protests rising, “but this will do nothing—nothing to abate the fires that even now are growing around us. It is far too little and much too late. We are past the day when small gestures could make the necessary difference: we have come to the tipping point and—flung ourselves over. Only a great response can suffice to this great menace.”
      Must I say again that I sympathize, that I agree, that I am proposing nothing like “small gestures”? Yet I tell you, if what I propose here is not sufficient, then neither will be your less moderate radicalism. You may say that I am not flagrant enough in my proposals: I beg to disagree. For this alone must we remember, we who would be the very firebearers of the day: that times of catastrophe, if such must come, are as sieves and winnows, and discover as a matter of course the man fit to them. Or better yet, and more to our point: they are as fire to test the gold. Your strong man, your figurehead, your leader—he and his guiding thought will be best chosen by the exigency of the burning day itself, to act out as that philosophy dictates. And I tell you, who are hell bent on altering the course of history: the flames are much cannier diviners of the true mettle of great men, than you or I could ever be.

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Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, sadly the single remnant work of the trilogy.


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