Sooner or later, I have to put my personal signature on what I think life is all about, ESPECIALLY when it comes to the human condition.
Here it is: man is broken, man can improve, and man is capable of extraordinary accomplishment.
MAN IS BROKEN
Much of human behavior is petty, selfish, and cruel, and is left to fate. Of all the qualities I had to struggle with before I could accept it, this was the one. I naively saw man as basically good.
However, Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex, Shakespearean tragedies, and modern plays such as Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller challenged me to think more deeply. Man is tripped up by the blind spots he possesses, only to awaken to his foolishness when it is too late.
Really, you can’t internalize the holocaust without seriously questioning our potential for cruelty and the implanted potential in us to do evil.
I can’t count the times people in positions of power decide to fire a person, and then look for reasons to justify the firing. It’s a model that is used whether you are firing someone or plotting to eliminate someone.
The great public intellectual Gore Vidal spent a lifetime pointing out that organizations by their very nature cease to meet the needs of those for whom the organization was meant to help, and instead concentrate resources to keep the organization alive for those who run them. The process is inherently corrupting, thus making those who run them forever corrupted.
MAN CAN IMPROVE
Human behavior can improve. There’s great literature which shows man’s desire to do good. Documents like The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and The Emancipation Proclamation show us how we struggle to work toward a better world.
The Magna Carta was signed June 15, 1215. Here, it was agreed that King John of England would relinquish some of his power and ensure that freemen were subject to the law and not to the whims of the king. This set the stage for the march toward democracy and the revolutionary idea that all men are created equal.
The most remarkable feat of these documents is not that they were written, but that they have endured in practice. It is evidence of man’s remarkable effort to transition from making might right, to making right, right. (I think that’s an idea I heard from the movie Camelot.)
At a more profoundly personal level psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, himself a victim of Nazi prison camps, maybe wrote the most compelling literature of all. Within each man resides the power to decide whether he will be evil or good. It is the decision each man has the power to make. Among the worst circumstances there are saints as well as sinners, and in the best of times, there ends up being the gentle as well as the cruel.
The above is what I have grown up thinking most of my life. It’s the decisions not the conditions which determine the cut of each person’s jib.
MAN CAN DO THE EXTRAORDINARY
Humans are not only expected to improve but to become extraordinary in this lifetime. Frederick Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” (Superman in English) was what started me on this. It is the full stretch of extraordinary creativity and discovery inherent within exceptional men and women.
The full meaning of life is found by the maximum effort of towering feats of imagination. It is a negation of the idea of a better world to come in the afterlife.
Nietzsche gave examples of those he thought warranted such a valued position. To Nietzsche, Napoleon, composer Richard Wagner (petty as Nietzsche thought he was privately) and Goethe created great moments because they transcended established values and created new values that have influenced mankind forever.
If Nietzsche is right, then I feel that literature must be bold in order to stimulate and arouse this kind of übermensch mentality in humans. This is what motivated me to reinterpret Bible literature with bold ideas of god inviting us to be like him in this life. Let the life to come take care of itself, for it is this life that ultimately matters most.
Jesus’ life is a great story. Jesus performs miracles, heals the sick, brings the dead back to life, overcomes death himself. Most of these things we do presently, and the remainder will come with time, like bringing ourselves back from the dead. In this view Jesus doesn’t save us, but challenges us be like him. Fearless in overturning old ideas. Brave enough to not falter when he is unjustly tried and convicted, and powerful enough to take himself off the cross and out of the tomb in this life. He bids us to do the same. We are no longer slaves in this life, but are as the gods.
Most of what Jesus did dealt with human suffering. He healed the sick, he provided enough for those who were physically hungry and thirsty, he gave solace to those who suffer distressing anxiety. He brought back the dead. He even brought himself back from the dead.
These acts deal with the healing arts. Already, we are on our way to doing much of what he did through breakthroughs in medicine and psychology. The only thing left is to bring ourselves back from the dead. Alas, we are working on this: cloning, DNA reengineering, stem cell research.
I have also taken the liberty of reinterpreting the Garden of Eden story to fit the characteristics of Übermensch.
In the Garden, God, Adam, Eve, and the serpent are different facets of the same person. God says, “I created heaven and earth in seven days, now the two of you leave the garden and do the same.” The serpent responds, “You shall be as the gods.” God comes back and says, “It’ll be hard, very hard, but you’ll be able to discover and learn, and use the resources I have given you. And with those you’ll do everything I have done and more. As for what the serpent said, he is right, but being like the gods is not the same as being gods. That will take the full power of your own creativity and imagination to do the extraordinary.”
These feats deal with the physical creation and dominance of the heavens and earth. We have started that journey. In my lifetime, someone has walked and driven on the moon. Recently another space probe pulled up to a shooting star and started putting a vehicle with cameras on it to see it flying into the sun. We are preparing to return to Mars to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, so that man can someday live permanently there.
In this world, during all of our lifetimes, we are doing in some measure what the gods have shown us.
Yes, I believe man is very broken. Yes, I believe man makes astonishing improvements. And yes, I believe man is accomplishing extraordinary feats, which not long ago we thought only the gods could perform.