Promethean Green

Between reports of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and the like, one continues to hear the boast that modern man is in control of things. Unlike his benighted forbears with all their superstitions, modern man has unlocked the secrets of nature and put them to his own use. He is in charge. Imagined as a declaration issuing from a tornado shelter, this savors of irony.

Perhaps this large claim for the modern mind is the reason for the current tendency to blame natural disasters on human beings, presidents, for example. Giving hurricane’s such charming names as Katrina fails to domesticate them, it seems, but for all that the White House was supposedly responsible for the hurricane that devastated Louisiana and Mississippi, not that the latter state tried to make a federal case of it. If President Bush wasn’t exactly responsible for concocting the hurricane, he could be blamed for not negating its effects quam primum, immediately. Imagine nature acting out of our control in the third millennium!

There is of course a slice of nature over which we gain control or on which we impose our own designs – the realms of technology and art. We know a lot more about how little we know of the universe than did previous generations. Great scientists tend to be diffident about the reach of reason. This is not obscurantism, but simply a healthy recognition of our limited human powers. Science tells a story about the universe, based on data, of course, but floating far beyond those data and inviting verification. Popularizers forget the significance of the term ‘hypothesis.’ Science remains a magnificent guessing game. And what is guessed about is already there; it has gone on for unimaginable eons before the human race existed.

Fluctuations in temperature can be recorded and a certain rhythm discerned. Such charts are put forward as the simple record of what happened. But no longer. Natural explanations of the fluctuations are now taken to be insufficient. There is a frenzied myth which would make all this the result of human behavior, and that behavior must be changed! Only by human effort can our supposed control over the cosmic environment be reestablished, thus assuring our survival. Apocalyptic scenarios once were either fatalistic or providential; now they are great dramas in which human agents collectively bring about their own demise. Doubtless this is a carry-over from the days of that great clock ticking toward midnight and the horrified reminder that, by pushing a button, one man could reduce everything to the nothing from which it came.

Recent news stories have reported with surprise that the solid citizens of Iowa were not blaming their flooded cities on the government. They must still be reading the Book of Job out there among the fields of corn. Where were you when I created the universe?

Intelligent design has become the prerogative of man.

A colleague of mine begins his course in medical ethics by asking his students if a cure for death will eventually be found. Most of them think so. Good Catholic students, all of them, envisaging a roll back of Original Sin. There will no longer be mortal illnesses; mortality itself is an illness and it is curable. Meanwhile, in logic classes, these same students will rattle off the familiar syllogism: All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal. Perhaps this is thought to be an historical observation about ancient Athens.

Recognition of the human condition need not lead to Stoic resignation, to a quietist gloom that sees us merely as toys of fate: cultivate ataraxia, hope for nothing and you can’t be disappointed. Cultivate your garden. Man is not only responsible for his own deeds, he is the custodian of creation. Men plan and work for ends but, alas, the best laid plans gang oft aglay. Tragedy did not go out with the Greeks. Sad endings are everywhere, and largely because our control is limited. Incertae sunt providentiae nostrae, the Wisdom author wrote: our ability to foresee is uncertain.

The first temptation consisted in the promise that we would be like God, having knowledge of good and evil. Of course it was a lie. The myth of Prometheus echoes the temptation of the Garden of Eden; Prometheus too defies the gods. For Karl Marx, Prometheus was the very type of the philosopher, philosophy being atheistic by definition. Our task is not to study the world, but to change it.
Prometheus can be thought of as the patron saint of the Greens.

In Ireland of course there are forty shades of green, but the Green movement is something else, a deeper sort of Celtic twilight. It is a substitute for religion, the hubristic assumption that men shall be as gods. Don’t hold your breath.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.