or, A Meditation on Hubris
I came across this C.S. Lewis quote in a comment on The Archdruid Report, I ended a link roundup post on Zero Waste Millennial with it, and it’s giving me some things to think about regarding the the growing pains that modern polytheism is surely experiencing these days.
Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied.
I ran into this as a green anarchist when I interacted with syndicalists and other reds who all but knelt at the altar of industry, who sung the hymn of the engine, the assembly line, the toil in service of consumption and material wealth. I created a hypothetical scenario in which a group of primitivists had use of a lake that red anarchists wanted to use for industry, power, agriculture or what have you – the reason was for them to decide – the resulting discussion was enlightening. The reds had all assumed, right off the bat, that their need for the lake had been one of great importance, and that the prims’ disinterest in relinquishing the pristine landscape to development of any kind was selfish and irrational. The reds saw themselves as an injured party in this situation, where they desired to expand into an area that was made off-limits to them by an incompatible model of land use and stewardship. And these were all anarchists, mind – not a skirmish between indigenous land rights and capitalism!
And so, it seems, to go in much of the progressive/liberal ways of talking about what our relationship with the Gods should be. We are angered by injuries conceived by us more often than not, I believe. Like the ways in which modern progressives have slowly chipped away at the list of acceptable ways for a human to die – And to what end? Until death itself is unacceptable, and we find ourselves injured at even the most peaceful passing in one’s sleep because it’s 20XX, and a life expectancy of forever is a basic human right? – we have chipped away at the list of acceptable ways to interact with the Other. Or in the case of the techno-optimist and urbanite, whether left or right or red or green, acceptable ways to interact with that which is wild.
I sense a vast, unspoken desire to domesticate our Gods. To break Them like horses so that They may be ridden into a deathless, happy, injury-free future where God and wilderness alike cow to our wants and desires.
Hubris has no place in the progressive narrative, because what we want is perfectly logical, perfectly morally correct, and perfectly defensible by any rubric progress has invented to justify itself. Hubris was a narrative device used in ages past to encourage fear of scientific and social innovation, progress says. Hubris has no place in a world where “we know better”.
A big lesson in hubris is in store for all of us. Like every civilization has experienced before, we have been living in an age of unfettered demands from our spirits, stories, and material world. Not even God could keep pace with our insatiable hunger, and was summarily declared dead. We’d consumed him like piranhas at a piece of meat.
Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences is basically a book about hubris by several other names. He calls his primary subject the “revenge effect”; there are also “recomplicating effects”, “repeating effects” (essentially the Jevons Paradox), “recongesting effects”, and “rearranging effects”: all ways for our best efforts at making life better to come back and bite us in the ass. He recounts, with a dizzying amount of evidence, the ways in which medicine, to use just one field of human ingenuity as an example, has wound up encouraging the growth of a population beset by chronic illness, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, disability, depression, and anxiety. We have traded the acute – the terrible yet brief – with the chronic – the prolonged, vague, and often hopeless. And so we have done with our social relations too, as the risen bile of the US’s presidential administration can attest to.
Are we seeking to apply the same sort of technology to our religious practices? To make our time with the Gods as happy and free of acute pain as possible, even though it will surely have a revenge effect of its own? Do They owe us that kind of life, especially if They know better?
Let me ask you this:
If you bought a piece of land with the intention of building a house, and the land told you not to, is that injury or misfortune? Is that a claim being denied? Would you trade the acute pain of not being able to develop your plot as intended for the chronic pain of dealing with unhappy wights?
What do our Gods owe us? Do They owe us a pleasant future and long life unmarred by suffering? Do They owe us the president we want? Is it Their responsibility to help us keep rights from being taken away, even though it’s part and parcel of the final act of a civilization undergoing collapse, which all civilizations inevitably do? Is it Their job to make an exception just this once? Because we love Them so much and our morals work out so well on paper?
If we see a resurgence of human sacrifice in our lifetimes, is it Their job to renounce it? Even if They still like it and just never had the heart to tell us?
Again: what do They owe us?
I won’t ever claim to know the answer to that, but I suspect it’s less than what a progressive might want; someone who is bent on seeing the future march straight on in the direction that history supposedly promised. But I do have ideas.
Truthfully, there is little I want from Them: mostly, I’m happy with Their company and a place in the sun on this earth, even as it renegotiates its definition of hospitality towards its ungrateful human guests. But these things will end, as all things do. My life, my culture, my country… this planet and this solar system will end too. And if we survive the next few hundred years, humanity will also end.
There has been discussion about religious purity before – I think we need to bring hubris and its “revenge effects” into the mass dialogue now, and what, exactly, these things mean in the context of being in right relationship with Gods. What they mean as we might consider truly embracing a cyclical concept of time, as our ancestors did, instead of the progressivist linear one that shuns mythic time and uproots us from our immediate surroundings in a most fundamental way. What they mean for spiritual technologies, and technological spirits. What they mean for us and the things we want from our Gods – and what courtesies, exactly, we are due as generally impulsive, ungrateful, short-sighted mortals.