Last time, I noted that Erich Fromm's "antidote" to movements like Wokism (as well as Nietzche's earlier concept of the Übermensch) depended on the assumption—or at least hope—that man could transcend his own humanity.
This feels like a critical error—possibly a foundational one. Maybe it's an important part of how we got into this mess. Where does the belief we can transcend our own humanity come from?
Well, let's start here: I don't think it comes from Judaism or Christianity.
Among other things, the Hebrew Bible is a stark catalogue of human fallibility. Adam and Eve disobey God, lie to him, and get kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Their son Cain kills his own brother. A few centuries later, God grows so disgusted with the population of the earth, he drowns everyone except Noah and his family and starts over.
God later scatters and confounds the language of Noah's descendants after they arrogantly seek fame trying to build a tower to reach heaven. Matriarch Sarah laughs at God. Lot offers his daughters to a sex-crazed mob. Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, to receive Esau's birthright. The sons of Jacob (now renamed Israel) sell their kid brother Joseph into slavery and lie to their father about it. After God miraculously delivers the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, they wind up worshipping a golden calf instead. Later, King David impregnates the married Bathsheba, then has her husband killed so as to cover his adultery. And on it goes.
The point is, it is simply not possible to read the Old Testament/Tanakh and come away thinking humans can transcend their own humanity. Every story preaches the limits of mortality.
The New Testament is the same. Peter denies Christ three times. Judas betrays Christ. A dying Christ himself doesn't seem to understand why God has forsaken him. Thomas doubts the resurrection. Paul and Peter argue. Paul proclaims "there is none righteous", and adds that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God".
Everything in the New Testament, as in the Old, indicates an insuperable human fallibility. Indeed, that otherwise insuperable infallibility is why Christians believe Christ had to come to earth: only through his atoning sacrifice and resurrection may men one day—after death—be reconciled to the God who created them.
Another place I don't think it comes from is ancient Greek thought.
Take the myths. They relentlessly emphasize an insuperable human fallibility and constraint. Three quick examples:
When the craftsman Daedalus winds up trapped on the island of Minos, he fashions a pair of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus. They can now fly away and escape. His only instruction to Icarus? Follow his flightpath. Don't fly too close to the ocean or too close to the sun.
But Icarus can't resist defying the instruction. Flushed with excitement and pride, he flies too close to the sun. The heat melts the wings' wax base. Icarus crashes into the ocean and drowns. His humanity got the better of him.
Or this one: The god Dionysus offers King Midas one wish. Midas wishes for everything he touches to turn to gold. Sure enough, it does—and Midas winds up miserable. And hungry. And thirsty. He begs Dionysus to cancel his wish. Midas had no idea what would really make him happy. Left to his own wisdom, he would have consigned himself to long, slow, painful death.
Or this one: After the goddess Thetis conceives her son Achilles, she tries everything possible to purge him of the humanity he has inherited from his mortal father. She even dips him in the River Styx. Nothing works. For all the extraordinary power he has inherited from his sea nymph mother, he cannot transcend his own humanity.
Nor can he escape his fate. In Greek thought, humans can't do that sort of thing: human stories, at some level, are out of human hands. In Achilles's case, his mother knows from the beginning he will die an early death. The blind seer Calchas prophesies it will happen on the plains of Troy. Even Achilles's horse Xanthus senses his master's fate. And when the moment for his death comes, the god Apollo guides the poison arrow loosed by the Trojan prince Paris. The great warrior half-god falls. There was no way to escape it.
It is not only Greek myth which affirms the limits of mortality. The Greek conception of history does, too.
In his magisterial History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian general Thucydides shows full acceptance of an insuperable human fallibility. There's no hint of "the possibility of human progress!" in his unsparing, gritty, often firsthand account.
Over and over, Thucydides illustrates this view by depicting the smartest men in Athens deliberating with utmost care. And over and over, he shows their plans leading to unintended consequences—many of them disastrous. He even shows Pericles, the city's leading statesman (and a man Thucydides clearly admires), making a number of terrible miscalculations. After declining early Spartan peace offers, Pericles sequesters everyone in the area within a newly-walled Athens, hoping the Spartan army soon to be camped outside will just go home.
But as a result of the cramped conditions, a horrible plague erupts. A disease resembling the Ebola virus ravages the city and kills thousands (including a quarter of the Athenian army). It even kills Pericles himself. Things have gone profoundly wrong, even though Pericles—a smart man with good intentions—has tried his best to do everything right.
After the death of their leader, the Athenians eventually decide to conquer Sicily as part of a revised war strategy. Wary of more disaster, they carefully select a dream team of three generals to oversee the expedition.
Alas, the dream team turns out to be "dreamy" only in the sense of nightmarish. Everything goes wrong. The Athenians end up losing a huge portion of their naval fleet (eventually, over two hundred triremes), plus thousands of soldiers. They try to fight on afterward, but never recover from this loss. In the end, Sparta defeats Athens—and with it, the Golden Age of Athens comes to an end.
Greek drama took the same view. I'll pick that up next time as we continue trying to track down the source of our present difficulties.
Tal will be back here next week to continue the conversation. If you can't wait that long, he'll be performing alongside Randy Bachman tonight over at Bachman and Bachman, starting at 9pm ET.
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