The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

Against Mastery

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)


t is now exactly a century since the brilliant young journalist Walter Lippmann published a book titled Drift and Mastery, a signal work of the Progressive era. The same year, 1914, saw the founding, by Lippmann and others, of a magazine called The New Republic, to be a flagship of liberal and progressive thought. The book and the magazine expressed a self-confident Progressive ideal: the longstanding infirmities of the human condition were now within the power of human agency to alter, and the march of scientific knowledge, including knowledge about the reordering of human society, was granting us an ever-expanding ability to control our circumstances. The alternative to this optimistic vision of mastery guided by science and social intelligence was not liberty, or spontaneous order, but…drift. And who could be in favor of something as amorphous and passive as drift?

Lippmann was writing at the apex of a long century of European stability and optimism. But 1914 also marked the beginning of a precipitous descent. With the onset of the First World War, Europe plunged into a self-destructive cataclysm from which it never fully recovered. The events that followed the guns of August became a decisive rebuke to all doctrines of inevitable progress, and perhaps to the very idea of progress itself. There was reason to wonder whether the advance toward ever greater mastery had been merely the ascent upon a narrow and rickety ladder—the higher the altitude, the greater the vulnerability to catastrophic fall.

One might consider whether such a tragic reversal might yet occur in another field of progressive human endeavor, this one being medical science. Whatever chastenings the modern world has received by way of wars and violence, we continue to embrace the use of modern science and medicine to prolong and enhance human life. Yet it takes no prophetic genius to see that medicine has no cure for the unintended consequences its spectacular progress will generate.

These consequences will surely come, no matter how we resolve today’s pitched battles over health-care reform. Even if a technological or political fix is found for each and every moral dilemma, and even if something approaching perfect distributive justice is attained, the progress of modern medicine cannot continue without an ultimate reckoning. The bigger story, the one no one talks about, is how the very meaning of suffering and death, and their place in the economy of human life, is in the process of being transformed.

This is not to argue that we should choose to embrace suffering, or rush back to a world without anesthesia. Nor is it to invoke religious interdictions, such as the biblical story of Babel, to warn us against crossing some invisible line. It is merely to acknowledge an inescapable irony at work in the progress of modern medicine, and to acknowledge that the high cost of medical care may be the least of the prices we will pay for it.

How, for one, will we make sense of death if it comes to be viewed as something with no intrinsic meaning, but chiefly as a piece of bad luck, a matter of bad timing—the misfortune, for example, of contracting the disease before the march of inevitable medical progress had caught up with it? Or worse, how can we ever be reconciled to death when it becomes understood as something almost entirely accidental, and largely preventable?

Do we imagine that complete control over our biological fates will necessarily make us happier? Perhaps it will. But one can as easily imagine that there might be little room for uninhibited joy or exuberance in such a world. More likely it will be a tightly wound world, saturated with bitterness and anxiety and mutual suspicion, in which life and health will be guarded with all the ferocity of Ebenezer Scrooge guarding his money. Growing mastery means growing responsibility, and the need to assign blame, since nothing happens by chance. Some of the blame will be directed at the parents, politicians, doctors, and celebrities who make plausible villains, or conspiracy theories that explain why someone else is always at fault. But much of the blame will devolve upon ourselves, since in being set free to choose so much about our lives, we will have no one else to blame when we make a complete mess of things.

No, there is good reason to fear that the more our lives are prolonged and powers extended, and the more death becomes seen as an avoidable evil whose precise moment should be “chosen,” rather than an inherent feature of human life, the more common it will be to encounter people who live imprisoned by their fear of all risk, since the possible consequences of any risk will seem too vast, too horrible, and too fully avoidable, to be contemplated.

That such a world would drain human life of dignity and spiritedness is not hard to imagine. The laws of economics alone suggest that the infinite extension of life may render life infinitely small. “Death is the mother of beauty,” intoned the poet Wallace Stevens; “hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires.” Such words may already sound strange to some ears. And yet everyone who has ever read the Iliad knows that the gods of Homer’s epic are less admirable than the human warriors, precisely because those gods cannot die or suffer, and therefore cannot live lives of consequence. All they can do is meddle in the lives of mortals, who play the game of life for keeps.

We will need such old books more and more, to remind us that the splendor of human character is something quite different from mastery. It is more like the beauty of weathered wood, a beauty grained and deepened by incorporating the elements within which it lives. Our dignity derives not only from our relentless drive for mastery but also from our graceful acceptance of limits—from how we come to terms with our defeats, failures, decay, and yielded territory. The conquest of the world will not change that, except to make it harder to understand, and harder to achieve.

—Wilfred M. McClay

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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