The needs of people haven’t changed much over the centuries; most of us crave the opportunity to live a simple life in which we can engage in satisfying work, interact with our families, form friendships with people, contribute in some way to the larger society, and not feel we must be battling each other and drawing lines in the sand all the time.
The irony of this desire is that if we acted reasonably most of the time, this would be achievable. It’s not inconceivable to imagine the majority of people being lifted out of abject poverty, limiting the ravages of the diseases we face, and substantially curtailing the violence we inflict upon each other. The question of what stops us from doing so is one that has preoccupied philosophers, theologians, psychologists and others since history began.
In my last post I pointed out how Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King shared in common a form of leadership characterized by courage, ethics, and inclusion. In order to be able to live and lead this way, these great leaders had to face down determined, violent, and organized efforts to thwart them. They were able to recognize and - and act on - the understanding that people in power will do anything to keep that power. As Machiavelli put it in The Prince:
" This has to be understood: that a prince ... cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under a necessity to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion....he needs to have a spirit disposed to change as the winds of fortune and variations of things command him...not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity."
This is the hardest thing for well-intentioned people seeking to change the world to grasp: those in charge of that world are willing to act in evil ways if it means remaining in power. The nature of that evil includes all forms of corruption and violence: even against one’s own people. Confronting the forcefulness of evil without succumbing to it was the great achievement of both Gandhi and King.
Psychologically, this achievement of Gandhi and King served another powerful purpose: it showed us how important it is to cut through idealized naivete in our own psyches. Idealized naivete is a form of utopianism. It is a belief that the world can be free of conflict and violence and shaped in a way that will keep it forever harmonious. Cultivating idealized naivete is the most powerful tool of ideologies. Religious and political ideologies do it through unrealistic promises made by their authorities seeking only to tighten their grip on power. They’ve discovered that the most effective way to tighten one’s grip on power is to convince the people that a “better world is coming”. This is why promises of enlightenment and salvation are used to such extraordinary effect in religious circles. Promises of universal prosperity, equality and unlimited abundance offered by political ideologies serve the same purpose.
Gandhi and King also talked of the coming of a better world: but they put their lives on the line, and into the streets, to fight for that world. The spiritual and psychological toughness required to do that is stronger than that required to simply hold onto power: that’s why history reveres the achievements of these men, and why the world is aching for more of us to repeat those achievements in our own lives.