When the power of technology is put at the service of the power of pride, there can only be one result.
“High tide!” King Alfred wept.
“The high tide and the turn!”
— GK Chesterton (The Ballad of the White Horse)
Time and tide wait for no one. Only a fool believes he can turn back time, and only an idiot believes he can command the tides. Regarding the latter, King Canute is said to have set his throne on the beach and ordered the tide to stop before it reached him. He got his feet wet and was forced to beat a hasty retreat, throne and all, from the relentless power of the sea.
It is ironic that King Canute should have a reputation for arrogance and ignorance when it is likely that he performed the experiment (according to a 12th century account of the legend) to expose the folly and flattery of insolent courtiers. As the tide beat against his feet, contrary to the royal command, he offered some priceless words of wisdom to those who put their faith in worldly rulers. “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” said he, “for there is none worthy of the name but him to whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.” He is then said to have hung his crown on a crucifix and never to have worn it again “to the glory of God the King Almighty.”
King Canute can be seen as a kindred spirit to the chastened and converted King Lear, who refers to flattering courtiers as “gilded butterflies” and “poor scoundrels”. [who] talk of legal news.” Shakespeare shows how Lear does not attain the true wisdom which is inseparable from humility until he is forced through suffering to see the folly of worldly “wisdom”. It is only when he is stripped of all worldly power, that he achieves a liberating detachment from worldly concerns.
In the eyes of the world, Lear’s Franciscan wisdom and aloofness are only foolishness. True wisdom for the worldly is inseparable from pride and the quest for power and control. It is not about detachment from things in the world, but attachment to them. It is about self-empowerment and the ability to take control of one’s destiny.
And this brings us to the issue of technology. For the worldly, technology is the means by which empowerment and control is achieved. Technology provides the tools with which we can take control of the future. The more we place our trust in technology, the greater ability we will have to solve the problems the future may present. Belief in God has been replaced by belief in scientific “science” and the technological power it can provide to control the future.
It is true that technology has power. There is no doubt about it. It even seems to have the power to make time wait for man, despite the ancient idiom. It allows us to live longer and delays the heralding of death. For the time being, one will admit that death can only be postponed and not denied, and that time can be waited a short time, but not long. Yet it is only a matter of time before technology can overthrow the power of time itself. True believers in technonomic omnipotence have faith that death itself will one day be defeated and that man will finally achieve immortality. Technology will usher in a time when time itself will be set to wait endlessly for man.
None of this is new. The medieval alchemists, in their search for the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone, were obsessed with discovering ways to achieve self-empowerment by defeating the power of death and turning dross into gold. The modern technologically driven pharmaceutical industry has turned base metals into mountains of gold in its quest for the elixir of life. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And that’s the point.
Some things never change because they transcend time itself. They are timeless. These timeless things are the truths that defeat time in a different sense than that envisioned by the technology worshippers. They defeat time by defeating the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist. Those who put their trust in timeless truth and not temporal technology are not subject to the intellectual fads and fashions of the age. They know that pride does not usher in self-empowerment, but on the contrary ushers in the self-deception that leads to self-destruction; or, to put the matter more idiomatically, pride precedes a fall.
When the power of technology is put at the service of the power of pride, there can only be one result. For those with eyes to see, the writing is already on the wall. Technology has been used to a great extent in the development of weapons of mass destruction. Those who seek power over others through the use of technology have unleashed blitzkriegs against innocent civilians in the bombing of cities, dropping megatons of explosives from flying machines. From dropping bombs we are “progressing” to dropping the Bomb. We have put doomsday in our own hands. And then technology has been used to develop poison gas. It was used against soldiers in the First World War and then against civilians in the Second World War, the gas masks of the first war giving way to the gas chambers of the second. And then there are the biological weapons invented in laboratories that are far more deadly than the recent covid pestilence. We have the power, locked in test tubes, to kill millions.
None of this will shake the blind faith of the technophile “progressives” because there are none so blind as those who will not see.
As for those with eyes, we will learn the lessons that time teaches through history, tradition, legend, and idiom. We will learn from King Canute that no worldly power can defeat the power of the cosmos or the will of the one who rules the cosmos. We will learn from King Lear that we must be detached from dependence for self-empowerment, knowing that our earthly life and any earthly power we may have is on loan to us. We don’t own our life. We owe them to the giver of life. They are not ours to keep and we will have to relinquish them when our lease on life is over. Death will not be cheated, and neither will the Lord of life, who has power over death itself.
And we will also learn from King Midas that those who value self-empowerment above life and love are destined to turn living bread into lifeless gold, replacing the culture of life with the culture of death. We will also learn from King Midas that the culture of death is not only deadly but suicidal. It has no sustainable future.
And this brings us to King Alfred, a wise and noble king who defended and saved Christendom from pagan hordes who worshiped self-empowerment. Outnumbered and armed with little more than hope, King Alfred prevailed. He knew that time and tide wait for no one, but he also knew that the tide must turn. “High tide!” King Alfred wept. “The high tide and the turn!”
This essay first appeared in Imaginative Conservative and is republished with permission.