Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures

O blind new world

Behind modernity’s moralistic exhortations lies a cold-blooded mania for total control

Artillery Row

I don’t know what went through the mind of the man who took a hammer to Eric Gill’s sculpture of statue of Prospero and Ariel whilst screaming “paedophile” — indeed he may well have been a victim of abuse himself, striking out blindly at blameless stone. But the impulse embodied in his petty act of vandalism is one that now governs our age: if only we can tear down a symbol and uproot the past, the burden of sin will be lifted and a pristine new society built amidst the rubble of the old

Amongst an increasingly godless generation, they don’t expect to live on in spirit either

Those who wish to dismantle the past claim to instead value the future, but what they really embrace is an eternal “now”. One example of this is how more and more childless young men are opting to get vasectomies and claiming they are “doing it for the planet”. Not mind you, for future generations, nor for the common good, but for “the planet” whatever that is. Though such people are presented to us as thinking about others and the future, they are quite literally ensuring they have no future biologically. No child shall carry on their name and remember them when they are gone. Amongst an increasingly godless generation, they don’t expect to live on in spirit either

Instead of taking on responsibility for their immediate locality, budding ecologists want exactly the opposite: they wish to cut off their connection to the natural world, and engage with an abstraction called “the planet” which they can appease by achieving a state of carbon neutrality. Behind the moralistic exhortations and pious phrases lies a cold-blooded mania for total power and control.

In picking that particular Gill statue, the vandal chose better than he knew. Shakespeare’s Prospero is the paradigmatic image of modern man: he governs his environment with a rationalistic system of magical power that is analogous to scientific and technological civilisation. He is a lone ruler, exiled from political life and the society of his fellow man, governing over the spirits of the island (led by Ariel) as a tyrant. The arrival of other people, and with them the old obligations and feuds, is experienced as a violation of Prospero’s absolute sovereignty.

Only when Prospero forgives his enemies and renounces his magic can true love win out, the spirits of the island be freed and Prospero and his daughter return to the political community. Isolation and individualism are static, dead. Freedom consists not in sovereignty but in society.

Modernity is obsessed with solutions and quick fixes

Magical thinking is not, as we like to think, a matter of believing in unseen forces, but rather involves an attempt to short-cut or circumvent order, whether it is political, moral or epistemic in nature. Modern people want to live lives centered around limitless choice and consumption, but also don’t want to have to face what this costs the natural and human environment. Since such impulses are inherently contradictory, they can only be “fulfilled” through “magical” processes centred on illusion and spectacle.

For all Prospero’s apparent mastery of his environment, he is only able to deceive or destroy, and remains trapped on his isolated rock. The motive force for the happy resolution of the play comes not from his esoteric power, but rather from the agency of providence. It is the providential circumstances of the wreck, and the love that grows between Prospero’s daughter Miranda and his enemy’s son Ferdinand, which ultimately rescue him from his imprisonment, and prompt him to break his staff and forsake future magical solutions.

Modernity is obsessed with solutions, with quick fixes to the problems generated by modern life that prevent us from having to interrogate our own lives and beliefs. The virtue ethics approach to challenges, to see them as occasions to improve our character, is discarded in favour of a utilitarian closure. Morality is no longer taught but rather engineered. The dangers of this approach ought to have been manifestly revealed to us by the horrors of the 20th century — and taught us the monstrous folly of “final solutions” — but we find ourselves yet again trying to emancipate ourselves from our past with hubristic acts of “creative” destruction.

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