Potentia Innocentiae: The Power of Innocence

Co-winner of the 2nd Annual Alexander Phillips Arete Award Surging against the impacted and ossified rules of the Old Order of “might makes right,” a massive wave of insightful thought is on the rise — worldwide.

Potentia Innocentiae: The Power of Innocence
Image: William Blake — Sconfitta — Frontispiece to The Song of Los. The demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. (Public Domain)

co-winner of the 2nd annual Alexander Phillips Arete Award

This piece was announced on September 19th, 2019 as one of two essays selected for the second annual Alexander Phillips Arete Award. This award, created by Dr. Christopher Phillips (founder of the global Socrates Cafe movement) aims to inspire dialogue and communication and ultimately advance the cause of a more open and understanding global society. You can read both winning essays, as originally published on the Socrates Cafe website, by clicking here.

It is the duty of every generation, as it ages, to bemoan the present day as “worse off than (insert idealized era here).”

As creatures evolved for survival, our brains are wired to look for the potential dangers surrounding us. Sometimes, this leads us to a state of panic. We look around and see disaster everywhere. For many who recognize this psychological tendency, the first reaction is to declare as loudly as possible “it’s not as bad as all that, don’t make a mountain out of an anthill!”

And yet, we are facing a mountain. The changes faced in the modern age are only loosely, at best, analogous to those of past millennia. The threat of war experienced by our predecessors is not the threat faced today, one of looming worldwide annihilation. Concern about the role of today’s technology is not the same as Plato’s concern over the prevalence of the written word (1) (nor is even that as straightforward as some might assume). Perhaps most profoundly, those localized changes in climate faced by our ancestors are as nothing compared to the human-created (2) climate change faced by our civilization today.

Old models of human activity are failing in the face of our own inventiveness and growth. While free market idealism may have done much to elevate the underclasses of society during the early ages of expansion and then industrialization, it also promoted the mindset of exponential expansion and unlimited extraction; of aggressive competition as a positive value; of the rule of the vicious and crude over the intelligent and gentle. Now, we have an emplaced power structure which rewards the conniving and ruthless at the expense of literally everyone and everything else.

Now, surging against the impacted and ossified rules of the Old Order of “might makes right,” a massive wave of insightful thought is on the rise — worldwide. Popular focus rests, too often, on the pockets of villainy and disaster which are being uncovered and laid bare by this gathering current — but, if we stand back and concentrate, we can see the true triumph for what it is. That there is a shift occurring in the fundamental pattern of rationalization — of the way people construct logical systems of belief about their lives and the world. This change, because it is a fundamental one, is incredibly powerful despite its simplicity. It is no more than simply this: When confronted by the phrase “that’s just the way things are,” (or any of its surrogates), this new model of thinking steps in and interposes that greatest of all human inventions: the question “Why?”

In one of his novels, the great satirical writer Terry Pratchett wrote:

“Commander Vimes didn’t like the phrase ‘The innocent have nothing to fear’, believing the innocent had everything to fear, mostly from the guilty but in the longer term even more from those who say things like ‘The innocent have nothing to fear’.”

Our systems of government, our structures of economics; all our patterns that we take as “normal” are, at their heart, rationalized fictions, not universal absolutes. It is our belief in them that grants them strength, and it is this unthinking belief which grants power to the autocratic, the selfish, and those terribly afraid individuals or groups who grasp for power and control. The people who use phrases like “The innocent have nothing to fear” are, by and large, those with so much power that they, themselves, have nothing to fear (save for the fear of an uncontrolled populace). The innocent, especially when alone, are generally not strong enough to defend themselves against the unscrupulous actions of the powerful.

And yet, there is a great strength within the realm of innocence as well, a strength which tends to be overlooked and dismissed. This strength is the ability inherent in an innocent mind to overlook the invisible barriers of the world. Every parent knows the phase of their child’s life where the child begins to ask the question “why?” in relation to literally every imaginable thing. Why is the sky blue? Why do you have to go to work? Why do we wear clothes? This is a type of power that cannot easily be controlled during its infancy. Sadly, we are eventually trained out of asking this question — either by exhausted parents who proffer unsatisfying answers such as “because,” or “don’t bother me with that,” or else by the larger whole of society — a society built upon a framework of given assumptions and unspoken (or overt) penalties for those who appear naive as to the nature and operation of these assumptions. Make the wrong move, break an unspoken assumption, and face ridicule, social exile, or even socially-acceptable punitive measures.

The rising “wave” of which I spoke earlier has such vast potential for change because it upsets the assumptions supporting those corrupt or ineffectual power structures which attempt to lead us toward catastrophe. This upset, this change in the way people think, has not yet occured in totality — as of 2019 it is only just gathering potential momentum — but it does exist. And, what is more, it is not hampered by partisan ideologies in the same way purely political positions are — this “wave” rises from much deeper psychological waters than that. It is not “blue” — this shift in perspective has no “political ideology” save for that, perhaps, it is driven by a fundamental belief in the worth and rights of all creatures. Its ideology is a holistic one: It is the ideology of a species awakening to its role in a complex ecosystem — not as governor and overlord, but as a vital part. It is an ideology of hope — hope in the best aspects of our ancestors and hope in the incredible potential of our inheritors yet waiting to be born.

It is now, more than perhaps ever before, vital that we heed the words of President Abraham Lincoln who, in 1862, delivered the State of the Union address of which this is an excerpt:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. We cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.”

As we dive headlong toward the first-quarter of this uncertain century, we too must rise. The occasion of our time is fraught with danger; though the trials ahead are visible and known, it remains uncertain if we have the Will to meet them with the care they demand. To save our Earth, we cannot indulge the tired dogmas of the past. For the hope of all the generations to come, we must have the courage and insight to stand and ask the question of innocents, the question with the power to lay bare the dusty halls of power. We must stand before the assumptions surrounding us and challenge them. We must rise and ask, with one voice, “Why is this the way things are?”

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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