Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Power and the New Epoch

I would like to present some initial thoughts of a more theoretical nature that are relevant to yesterday's existential reflection on my own experience as a member of the "global village". These reflections pertain to what I believe is becoming the defining characteristic of our age, an almost unnoticed but pervasive influence on the way we as human beings relate to the world in which we live.

We live in the most violent time in the history of the human race.  This is not surprising, because we have entered into a new epoch in history, a epoch that is defined by power.  Not only nations, but partisans and groups of all kinds have access to a level of power unmatched by any other historical period–including the power to introduce chaos into communities and even civil societies.  Most striking (but perhaps least recognized) is the awesome power that has been placed in the hands of individual human beings like you and me.  Here we must recognize not so much our access to physical weapons (which, as recent history has shown, need not be technologically sophisticated to produce widespread destruction).  The human person today (even if he is one of “the poor”) has access to technological devices that extend his sensory perception, his awareness of the world around him, his capacity to communicate and to acquire information, his ability to shape his environment and even to “control” physical and emotional features of the human body.  All of this is power.

In and of itself, the massive extension of human power that characterizes the new epoch is neither good nor evil.  However, it is dangerous: it extends the range of our possibilities for action, which means that its use requires awareness and decision.  This intensifies the drama of human existence: human beings must subordinate power to the service of human dignity and the intrinsic purposes of human existence (a subordination that requires self-mastery, asceticism, a profound sense of justice, and above all an awareness molded by compassion and mercy at the service of truth, unity, and solidarity).  The alternative is human beings using power to extend the scope of ungoverned appetites, dysfunctional emotional drives and impulses, and–most dangerous of all–for the indulgence of that pride by which human persons and communities become monstrosities of control and violence, degrading their fellow human beings, enforcing their own particular (and limited) ideas and dreams, and creating vast realms of physical and psychological slavery.  In other words, the power that humanity possesses today carries with it both the possibility of accomplishing great good, and the possibility of perpetrating violence with an intensity, variety, and scope that even now we can scarcely imagine.

What we must recognize clearly is that the danger of human power is much more subtle and evasive than any particular effort to control any particular kind of power.  It is much deeper than the “problems” that enter our minds when we think of the abuse of power today; i.e. “nuclear weapons” or “terrorism” or “dictatorship” or “genocide.”  What is of more profound significance, however, is the “ethos of power” that is becoming the defining characteristic of the times in which we live.

An ethos of power is a "moral atmosphere" in which our sheer capacity to manipulate reality is the dominant reference point for human action. There are, of course, other factors, such as the desire to accomplish something that "seems" good, the desire to expand the quality of human life or to provide greater access to products and conveniences that appear to make life less burdensome, the desire to know one another, the desire to travel and experience new places, etc., etc. These are all sincere and often legitimate motives, and to fail to acknowledge them would be to create a caricature of the ethos of power. The same thing, of course, must be said for the many unseemly motives that underlie the use of power, whether they be to blow things up in order to instill fear in people, or to persecute with ruthless efficiency individuals and populations, or to drive away in one's car rather than to face the responsibilities of home and family life. What defines the "ethos of power" is its ultimate focus; i.e. the crucial and decisive "factor" that enters into play when human intentions and motivations encounter obstacles. Here we must acknowledge that the question of distinguishing "what we can do" from "what we ought to do" has become opaque at best, and increasingly distorted if not entirely forgotten. It is certainly true that many noble sentiments and even (relative) convictions continue to govern human activity; it is also increasingly true, however, that when these "convictions" interfere with our will to impose our ideas upon reality, we turn--almost unthinkingly--to imposition by means of power. Power relativises all other values. This is the "ethos of power." It is frightening to think of where it may lead.

To be continued.

(c) 2011 by John Janaro. All rights reserved.