Friday, October 12, 2007
In a recent speech in the UK at the Hay Festival, Al Gore “promised to devote himself to the task of warning people about the impending ‘planetary emergency’”. He also said that global warming represented “a danger which could bring the end of civilization”. This is surely heady stuff. The subtext, barely disguised, is that our profligate and greedy ways will bring ruin to us. By living it up and consuming, we will be consumed. We will bring down the wrath of the sun. This will cause enormous catastrophes, especially the melting of polar ice caps that will create floods, even large enough to submerge Ground Zero. Hurricanes will unleash their furies and make once grand cities an undersea world. We have the power to forestall this, as long as we forsake our corrupt and luxurious ways. In Al’s story, it is especially the mighty US that must admit its sins and repent.
Is this really new? Well, most are familiar with Noah and the Ark. In that story, at least Noah had the advantage of talking to God. But there are other stories from those who conceive of the masses as only looking at flickers in the cave.
In the Cratylus, Plato suggests that the gods punished the inhabitants of Atlantis for their sins of overreaching and arrogance. They were depicted as being in a state of moral decay. They were decadent. They brought ruin upon their city through their wasteful ways. Yet Plato didn’t really believe this or didn’t exactly believe this. In many respects, this was a Noble (or ignoble) Lie, depending upon one’s perspective.
Plato actually believed that natural disasters happen from time to time and are more powerful than we are. He wanted to shake people up from the childish belief that the world is always as safe place. In essence he believed that nature was the workings of impersonal forces, but he tries to use the beliefs people had in the power of the gods as a means of warning about the dangers of corruption. But he walked into a contradiction that he did not solve. In other words, if the citizens of Atlantis brought ruin upon themselves, why do terrible disasters happen to innocent people (which must happen in the world of Plato’s impersonal forces)? Plato began a speech by Zeus to address this question, but he never finished it. Tantalizing.
The myth of Tantalus (the source of the word tantalize) is an interesting and complex myth. Or rather it is a body of myths, as there are many versions of this myth. Tantalus is punished by being tantalized, i.e., being in a state of desire but having those desires remain unfulfilled. A wealthy and powerful king, Tantalus could have most anything a mortal could want. But he wants a life like the gods, to be immortal and have god-powers. Zeus sentences him to an eternity of a kind of quiet and repetitive agony.
Plato had used Lydian myths as a source for this and other stories. An Athenian businessman and philosopher, named Solon, served as a sort of wikipedia on Lydian myths for Plato. The Lydians had told of an ancient city that had been destroyed and became a legendary sunken kingdom, Tantalis, the city of Tantalus. Solon translated or changed Tantalus into Atlas for aesthetic and historical purposes. Atlas and Tantalus are similar myths in many ways and both derive from the Greek, tlao (suffer, endure). The etymological links in the Tantalus chain are interesting (see below).
Over time the Atlantis myth is told and retold, transformed and altered, as myths are. In the retellings, Atlantis kept moving westward. It became the place that no one could see but of which many stories were told. It moved to the Atlantic Ocean, so far west that no Greeks or Europeans could hope to see it. Of course, we all know what is on the other side of the Atlantic.
The US is seen as the king consumer, and we are invested with the power to save the world, if we are less greedy and immoral. The global warming sages are telling us to just say no to oil. Yet, Plato didn’t really believe that such natural disasters were caused by human greed, although he appears to have had no shame in saying so. Plato didn’t believe in the gods, but he was willing to play god in this case.
Moreover, it is certainly worth pondering that burning of fossil fuels has contributed immeasurably to the scientific, technological, political, and social developments that have transformed modernity from life that is nasty, brutal and short into one of quiet and repetitive agony of many appetites that are stimulated but not truly sated. What happens when the fuel to that engine is off limits?
The drama of humanity always seems to include some unpleasantness, some pain, some misery. Humans are tempted to all sorts of heights. The principles of liberty enable people to achieve and acquire wonderful things when power resides with the individual as much as possible. The new philosopher-kings appear to be on the verge of saying that individuals cannot be trusted; they are too tempted. They are suggesting that solutions should be top-down in nature, that is central planning by those few, knowledgeable and beneficent ones who can decide for us. Have we heard that story before? Well, it is interesting that the latest prophet brings people back into the cave of the movie theatre to show the masses an inconvenient truth via flickers of light on the wall.
Given the events of yesterday, with Big Al winning the Peace Prize and all. I thought it was time to bring this back for a repeat.