Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Delusion of Self-Power



Might makes right is the ancient bane of humanity. There is an expression of might makes right that is much more insidious and much more general than commonly perceived. This is the delusion of self-power.

Allow me to backtrack and indicate how this revelation came to me.

My wife, Joan, and I recently attended a concert conducted by Leon Botstein at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge. There was for us an extra pleasure. There was for us a sense of allegiance to Bard College, where our son Jonathan was a student.

Leon Botstein is not only the president of the college. Among other commitments in the world of music, he is also the music director and principal conductor of the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra. The evening program included Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

I have never been particularly fond of Shostakovich, but that evening I was transfixed. I announced this conversion to Joan, and she impressed upon me the need to read the program notes.

While doing so, many times my eyes welled up. I was mentally listening to the performance with more intense appreciation.

And there it happened. After going through the history of the relationship between Shostakovich and the Communist Party, the notes, written by Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard, pointed this information out about the haunting horn solo of the last movement: “Musicologist Richard Taruskinhas has shown that this section quotes from a song for voice and piano on a Puskin poem (‘Vozrozhdenie’ or ‘Rebirth,’ Op. 46, No. 1) Shostakovich had written just before the Fifth Symphony.”

The program notes went on to give the English translation of the poem’s first line: “Delusions vanish from my wearied soul...”

The word “delusions” grabbed me and threw me into the horrors of the history of Communism. Surely the roots of Communism lie in the conception that might makes right. But while the imagination of atheists can reach all the way to the infinity of God, the imagination of a Communist is firmly rooted in the soil of the earth.

And it does not stop there. The imagination of a Communist pierces the crust of a “materialistic” earth and finds the self as its final reality. In this discovery of the self as the ultimate reality, the imagination of the Communist is akin to the imagination of the Freudian. Or the imagination of the Darwinian, for that matter.

This is the imagination of the super-rationalists who have controlled the world of the intellect since the late Renaissance and have managed to isolate the “individual” from the community and from the universe.

Important differences as to the virulence of the affliction of self-power become evident as one examines the above or other more detailed lists.

But subtle differences can be reserved for later investigations. With the heartbreaking end suffered by the Carmelite nuns at Compi├Ęgne in 1794, the horrors into which the delusion of self-power can plunge us should have become clear to all, once and for all. The nuns were happy to stay secluded in their convent to pray. But no. That was not grandiose enough for the members of the French Revolution. The nuns were asked to accept the same “freedom” the revolutionaries enjoyed. Since the nuns refused, their heads fell under the guillotine.

Drawn to its very essence, it is the delusion of self-power that does not allow the Fascist and the Communist to tolerate opposition from other human beings. The opponent does not need to be convinced of the superiority of one’s ideas. (Especially because the validity of might makes right does not stand up to any intellectual or moral scrutiny.) No. The opponent must be eliminated; must be sent to the Gulag.

This psychological mechanism is complex and rather well known, but perhaps one specification needs to be added. It is not power that corrupts. Power is a necessary ingredient of life. What corrupts is the delusion that individuals have power on their own. This is the exercise of rights without any correspondent responsibility. What corrupts is the exercise of power by individuals—individuals who are separate from the community of other human beings, separate from concerns about The Other.

The authors of the American Constitution recognized this essential reality and built government as a system of checks and balances.


***

A coda. Did not the Greeks enlighten contortions of reason in their time? Did they not make the fate of the believer in the power of self clear? We call it hubris—an understanding in Greek tragedy signifying an excess of ambition and pride, an absence of forbearance that ultimately causes the transgressor's ruin.


***

There is a thought experiment for the moments this writer feels so self-important as to have any power on his own. He mentally transports himself high beyond the sky. From there he looks at himself down on earth.



Carmine Gorga, PhD, a former Fulbright scholar, is president of The Somist Institute. He is the author of numerous publications in economic theory and policy. Mr. Gorga can be reached at cgorga@jhu.edu. He wishes to gratefully acknowledge the immeasurable assistance he has received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise in the preparation of this presentation.


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