A thought, friends.
We live in a stunning age, one that is part of a larger cycle which seems to wind its way around once every hundred years or so (just after the mistakes of the prior apogee wane from memory).
The problem I am talking about takes many names. In the last cycle, they went by the moniker of public servants seeking out the greater good for humanity. The Zeitgeist incantation of the early twentieth century, if you will. Before that they were the unquestioned rulers of kingdoms, keepers of secret orders, men of the cloth, etcetera. They have taken many forms.
The expert problem has always had its underpinnings in Aristocracy (and I refer to the original ideas of Aristotle in this reference, not particularly the blood worship Hereditary Aristocracy most of us probably associate with 18th century France before the guillotine felled it).
The Hobbesian monarchies throughout our history and several other movements that grew powerful also swirl around, stirred by the thought, but I don’t want to develop those tangential interludes. I’m sure we could spend days talking about the elite thinkers who set out to raise up the world on their on shoulders, only to have it smash them back down.
The real thing to remember about the expert styling is that it always ends in flames. And I say this as someone particularly enamored with the thought of the “superhuman”, endeavoring in my own – probably hopeless – way to become one. The movement always fails. The great men who take all upon themselves “for the sake of others” usually harm those they want to help.
The latest incarnation of the “superhuman leader” is starting to appear. And if we have any appreciation for the deep suffering of our grandfathers and great grandfathers, we will mow it down with the scythe while it remains in its infancy.
I see the new zeitgeist promise staring at me from the usual places these ideas fester; the self empowering “experts of everything” who crowd out debates that should belong to the public; the naïve call by young adults for “empiricism” and “science” to dominate all facets of life, never questioning the limits these approaches might have; the childish gatherings of shameless non-victims on public colleges, ever afflicted by non-crimes, who are trying to empower a supra-legal authority; the condescension towards those of “average” intelligence or even “sub-par” intelligence as being somehow incapable of great things…an incapable class of people who need patriarchy for protection in all ways.
I would be hard pressed to find a better example that more perfectly embodies the shambled spirit of this rebirth than our dear Vox.com. When Vox emerged and I saw who they were and what they were doing, the dread shiver danced on my spine.
I’m not going to dwell on them any longer. More generally, what they represent is the larger movement of taking the personal, the individual, the elemental, away from the local and giving it to the “higher”, the “better” the “greater” for safekeeping. They are the best example because they trip over themselves so often that any third party should be able to see the total irony of expertise plainly.
These ideas rest their laurels on beliefs like “the ordinality of everything”, “anything can be measured”, “there’s always a right answer”, and of course that timeless and terrible mixture of elevating half of what is on a pedestal and assuming you can force everything else to be better. They are very human thoughts, and very wrong.
As a simple thought experiment, just imagine how many problems you encounter in the course of your own day. Small innocuous problems which you fix without even noticing. Consider one or two of your own problems, to yourself now. What are you thinking of? A crack in the drywall, perhaps. A complication with your child’s school. Your lawn or garden. Finances are probably near the top of the list as well.
The problems are tiny, dismissible and almost irrelevant, you have so adjusted to patching them up when you come across them. Perhaps even tedious in a way. How many problems did you think of? Five problems? Ten problems?
Now look at all of humanity and compound that by seven billion. That is the scale of problems and work which humanity gets up, once a day, to face. Seven billion heads of mankind have seventy billion tasks every day which they courageously face off against (with perhaps some mild complaining) – seven billion enduring lives solving more than twenty five trillion questions or puzzles or hurdles every single year, after year after year.
That is the power of humanity.
Take that away from humanity and hand it to the human…even, yes, the superhuman, the elite, genius, greatest among us…who can number by definition no more than a scant few million of us, and you do not get a better result.
You get overwhelmed genius! You get hopelessly lost, hopelessly outmatched, hopelessly…hopeless.
Genius has problems admitting when it doesn’t help to be genius. Elite does not like to think of itself as small. Greatness as averageness is insulting to our ideas about greatness. So every hundred years or so this zeitgeist appears, attempts to wrest all the levers of humanity for itself under the alluring promise of progress and freedom for the weak. And in doing so their strength is put into perspective. The timeless cycle plays out again; arrogance of the few shifts to stubbornness and later outright rejection of truth; humility must be reinstated. But before any of that happens, there is much pain and much sorrow and much hardship. Because total failure is apparently the only argument strong enough to cut through the pipedream. Normal everyday failure just will not do.
Along with it, the elitist candle is snuffed out for a time, waiting to be rekindled by ignorance.
As we continue to watch the fashions of our time unfold, with ever expending and ever growing fields of “experts of everything” – the great men, our salvation – interjecting themselves into every facet of our day to day lives, I bequeath you to remember:
William Golding’s classic was not a book about lords in so much as it was a book about flies.
As you go about your days you will invariably come to the Earthly questions. “Who am I?” “What do others think of me?” “How will I be remembered?” “How can I help others?” These questions are notable in that they are invariably tainted from the start.
None of them matters to the wise man, who understands foremost and intricately that he cannot even help himself. The path of humility is the path that errs on the side of caution, preferring not to harm others, even when it appears at first glance cold and heartless. The wise man knows he will never be remembered anyway, even if his name should somehow be carried on by the rapacious opportunists. His spirit and intent will still be lost along the way.