Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Power over Nature Corrupts: C. S. Lewis and the Natural Law

ANY POWER WRESTED BY MAN FROM NATURE MUST END UP under someone's control. After all, power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If that power is over human nature, then where that power ends up, and what its effect will be on the holder of that power, is of particular significance. The recipients of that power are called by Lewis the "Conditioners." If they are unconstrained by the Tao, the natural law, then the question natural arises: by what, then, will they be governed? The "Conditioners," if ungoverned by the Tao, will hold the keys to right and to wrong (not in a metaphysical, true sense, but in a practical, sitz in leben, for-all-practical-purposes sense).

The Tao has some staying power. Accumulated social capital, like a hard-earned savings account one inherits, takes some time to spend. Like social capital, if the inheritance is not added to, inflation or natural erosion can have its effect, especially if there are constant withdrawals. But over time--it is a certainty--the failure to save, earn dividends, and the propensity to invade principal will lead to the exhaustion of capital, both social and financial. Bankruptcy is the result. In the long run, we will all be paupers.

So likewise with the "Conditioners" if they are inculturated in the Tao. But it will not take long for the very holding of the reins of power to corrupt them, to draw them out of the way of the Tao. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and power of one's nature, the most absolute power of all, corrupts like possession of the Platonic Ring of Gyges or the Tolkienesque One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron corrupts all who bear it:

The One Ring of Sauron
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
From being under nature, to being over nature is simply too heady a temptation for man, whose moral brain collapses in cerebral edema caused by the ethical thin air, the death zone of morality, where autonomy is joined with power over others. There is no such thing as duty, or good for that matter, if one is the master of it all:

Duty itself is up for trial: it cannot also be the judge. And 'good' fares no better. They [the "Conditioners"] know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question [for them] is which, if any, they should produce. No conception of good can help them decide.

Abolition, 62-63. Indeed, to suggest that the "Conditioners" are subject to the Tao is to suggest that they still have not conquered human nature. But the very desire of modern Promethean man is to steal the power to define man's nature from nature, which is the same thing as saying to steal it from God. How--when the end is autonomy--can the means be anything but autonomy?
If they accept [the Tao], then they are no longer the makers of conscience but still its subjects, and their final conquest over Nature has not really happened. . . . . Every motive they try to act on becomes at once a petition. . . . Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. They are not men at all: they are artefacts.
Abolition, 64. "Force," says Simone Weil in her marvelous essay, The Iliad or the Poem of Force, "is that which makes a thing of whoever submits to it. Exercised to the extreme, it makes the human being a thing . . . ."* But it also makes the one who exercise the power over the other a thing. When man becomes a thing, an artifact, then man is no longer man. We have come to the "abolition of Man." To conquer our nature means to make us a thing, which means to abolish ourselves, for if man is a thing he he is no longer man, for, as Sartre said--in a sort of unwitting Caiphatic prophecy**--man is no thing, l'homme n'est pas une chose.

*Simone Weil, The Iliad or The Poem of Force (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006) (Holoka, James P., trans. & ed.) 45.
**Cf. John 11:45 ff.

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