Beyond Power and Will
Then everything includes itself in power, Power into will, will into appetite; And appetite, a universal wolf, So doubly seconded with will and power, Must make perforce a universal prey, And last eat up himself. Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 3Living in the era of the Tudors, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about power, will and appetite. It can be a deadly combination which leaves a string of corpses in its wake. And like some alien creature in a horror B-movie it ends up eating itself. It’s almost uncanny that in a few lines the Bard could foresee one of the dominant motifs of modernity’s path to self-destruction: the lust for power of a Napoleon, the insatiable appetite of a Marquis de Sade, the deranged will of a Hitler. And yet, somehow, we haven’t gone over the abyss. What is it that has kept us in check? We have to be thankful that something else has been in play. That something else has its representative figures: Shakespeare himself with his capacity to diagnose the malady of unbridled power; Dostoevsky who opposes willfulness with humble love; Solzhenitsyn who stands up for truth no matter the cost; Etty Hillesum who proclaims the beauty of creation in the midst of the horror of a concentration camp. Martin Buber who reminds us of the sanctity of every Thou.
And yet, the abyss hasn’t gone away. Power, will and appetite are still a deadly force. Perhaps what’s required is that all of us become representative figures. Of what exactly? In a speech given in Philadelphia on July 4th 1994, Vaclav Havel1 outlined what he sees as the essential need of our times if we are to avoid catastrophic conflict. The two great achievements of modernity are the discovery of the scientific method and respect for the rights of the individual. And yet, according to Havel, our postmodern condition has shown up the limits of what we have achieved. With our rationality and our sense of justice we have given to ourselves the position of supreme beings in the universe. That means an eclipse of any form of transcendent reality which could ground our ultimate meaning and purpose. We are not subservient to anything but what we tell ourselves. But that sounds suspiciously like whistling in the graveyard to convince myself I’m not afraid. Western democracies pride themselves on their espousal of human rights, but with what legitimacy? If our scientific worldview reduces all living beings to ‘selfish genes’ struggling for survival, why should I respect your right to exist if it impinges on my freedom to live as I please?
Havel advances what he acknowledges to be a ‘provocative’ argument. Namely, that we de-throne ourselves as masters of the universe, and find a new transcendent ground for our search for the true and the good. This means recovering, ‘the awareness of our being anchored in the earth and the universe, the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone, but that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme.
’Beyond Power and Will Robbie Young reflects on a speech made by Václav Havel in 1994 and its relevance for the 21st century. 16 new city ○ february 2017 REFLECTION Then everything includes itself in power, Power into will, will into appetite; And appetite, a universal wolf, So doubly seconded with will and power, Must make perforce a universal prey, And last eat up himself. Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 3 Only in this way can we hope to save ourselves: ‘Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbours, and thus honour their rights as well.’
This makes sense when we see what is the need of our times. We have to move from the clash of ideologies to the meeting of cultures. For only in cultures do we find an openness to universal roots that transcend us all:
‘It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies – it must be rooted in self-transcendence:
▪ Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe.
▪ Transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.
▪ Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.’

Robbie Young

New City 

¹ Václav Havel was a Czech writer, philosopher, political dissident, and statesman. From 1989 to 1992, he served as the last president of Czechoslovakia. He then served as the first president of the Czech Republic after the Czech– Slovak split.
Spread the love