Lelystad, 30 April 2022
“And you all know security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.”
Macbeth, Act III, Scene V, ln. 32
The witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth knew a thing or two about human motivation. For the sake of security all kinds of crimes are committed, all kinds of battles are fought, all kinds of mischief take place among us mortals. One could say that history is the story of the conflicts and destruction perpetrated in the name of security. This is a total contradiction, awareness of which does not seem to have penetrated very deeply into human consciousness. That is the truth hidden in Hecate’s justly famous couplet, that in the pursuit of security human beings betray their own aims and thus become enemies both unto others and unto themselves.
Macbeth, the loyal and valiant vassal of the king, is hailed by the weird sisters with noble titles he does not yet possess. Victorious in some recent battles in the defence of the realm, he is still unaware of the rewards his liege has decreed for him. The witches, mistresses of the whispers of the air, and for whom fair is foul and foul is fair, know the future he still ignores. When soon after the royal harbingers confirm one of their predictions, Macbeth’s ambition is quick to seize on their further prophesy that he shall be king. This fires his imagination, and he shares the prospect with his wife, who seems more eager than he is to force the issue to secure the promised title. Together they plot to kill the king and, in spite of Macbeth’s moral scruples, they carry out the bloody deed. Macbeth avoids suspicion by blaming and executing the royal guards for the crime and is instantly rewarded with the crown.
The disguise of innocence can only go so far to hide the knowledge of guilt. The fear of losing what was so foully gained causes the new monarch to eliminate or injure those he suspects might rise against him and rob him of the throne. The ghost of the dead king appears and sits at the head of the table. It is all too real and evident to the conscience that projects it from its fresh and shocking memory. Every such crime is a split in the personality, not only outwardly in the pretences of society but inwardly in the darkling chambers of the self. The will to be, here translated as the lust for power, in its compelling urge to secure its object becomes the ground of a profound alienation. Lady Macbeth, whose ruthless determination pushed her wavering husband to commit the regicide, walks about in her sleep trying to wash the invisible blood stains from her hands, revealing, unbeknownst to her, their culpable actions. Her distraught state leads her to kill herself. Macbeth, urged on by the additional predictions of the infernal spirits the weird sisters conjure up for him, decides to battle it out to the end. Besieged on all sides and without the support of his dauntless wife, he is still infused with confidence because the threats named by the spirits sound improbable and absurd. Only too late does he realise that his hopes have deceived him into reading the equivocating oracles as seals of invulnerability, whereas they hid the instruments of his doom. The omens he had received bolstered security while undercutting it.
One has to wonder whether this pattern of Machiavellian ambition, triumph and despair might not be at work in the archetypal pursuit of power. What we see unfolding in Ukraine is something of a déjà vu. This has happened countless times before and is bound to happen again if we don’t go to the root of it. In this instance, it is perhaps all the more evident because this war is a naked display of wanton destruction. The reasons given are no reasons but the hallucinatory projections of sick minds whose control over the state propaganda apparatus is so complete that the vast majority are brainwashed and end up acquiescing in such barbaric acts. We might deplore such wanton massacres in the XXI century, but the historic evidence indicates that one century is as good as another when it comes to the ministers and minions of power carrying out their calculated atrocities in the pursuit of their delusions of grandeur.
It seems clear that the world of power politics is a deadly game played by heartless men. If conventional war were not proof enough of their madness, the threat to use nuclear weapons leaves no room for doubt. All nuclear arsenals must be destroyed and there must be an end to all war, not just the current ones in Ukraine and Yemen. This is not a matter of democracy vs. dictatorship but of the end of oppression and violence as practiced by anyone, under whatever banner. War is organised and legalised mass murder and all those who promote it are serial killers. But it is not only a question of pointing the finger at the obvious culprits, right, left and centre, communist or capitalist, religious or secular. They are all ruthlessly brutal in the pursuit of their own self-interests at the expense of the lives of others. They sit on the Security Council and thumb their noses at the UN. The guarantors of the international order use their veto power to place themselves above the law. This utter cynicism discredits them all. They forget that hubris brings down the wrath of the gods, sealing the tragic irony of our lives.
But we must beware of condemning in others, however deservedly, what we are guilty of ourselves. It is always salutary to remember that we are the world and therefore we must also look to the way we live, whether we are contributing or not to this same stream of selfishness, violence and sorrow. Human existence is the ebb and flow between the inner and the outer, with the psychological shaping the material structure of society. The atom bomb is the result of the most sophisticated science at the service of the most primitive tribal mentality. It is the extension of the good old club or bow and arrow. If we are identified with these tribes as the safeguards of our security, then we are responsible for war and its instruments. If we are the world, then peace begins with each one of us in our close relationships and in the very makeup of our characters, with their outlooks and values. Our egocentric materialism is destroying us. Our cult of success through acquisition and status is the way of competition and conflict. Peace will remain a hollow-sounding ideal if there is no compassion in us. Without it, these self-deluded fools in power will be the end of us and of all life as we know it.
Humility seems hard to find. The whole movement of achievement is to become something or someone through identification with the greater. That which we become is itself a projection or construct of thought, whether it takes the shape of nationalism, ideology or creed. And it is in this delusional structure of thought that mankind has sought fulfilment. After doing so for ages and paying a dreadful price, we are none the wiser. For those who pursue power are the incarnation of this endemic state of self-deception. All identity is its own violence. The good are free from such a structure of alienation. The wise wield no power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Such a foundation of society is inherently self-destructive, so there is no security in it. We need a new culture free from such endemic evils and their double-speak. If we want peace, we must be peaceful, free from the egotistic factors of division and conflict. The desire to secure the prize of his ambition landed Macbeth in the hopeless pit of despair, where time is a meaninglessness grind leading to dusty death and life a tale
“Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene V, lines 19-28)
I suspect that if we saw the utter idiocy and senselessness of all this sound and fury, i.e., the truth of our own nothingness, we would stop all wars and create a completely new world.