On the Nature of Things

“Never do your enemy a small hurt. Never let your enemy know he’s your enemy until it’s too late.”

A few weeks ago, I loaned my copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince to Shelly.

Her reaction? “I don’t see what the fuss is all about. I don’t understand why so many people find Machiavelli offensive. He’s just writing the truth. It seems pretty obvious to me.”

Which, of course, is precisely why people find him offensive. He writes, in plain and accessible language, without flinching, the truth about some part of what makes us what we are.

But I didn’t come here to talk about Machiavelli. I came here to talk about illusion.

We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are

Or perhaps, as we want it to be.

Machiavelli’s The Prince has been banned in a multitude of places. So have books like Lord of the Flies and Kafka’s The Trial. These books don’t impugn religion or offend sexual mores, yet people find them threatening nonetheless.

It’s all about the sex

There’s a conversation going on elsewhere on LiveJournal right now about the value of honesty–or more specifically, about the value of telling one’s lover if one cheats on that person.

Many people will weigh in in favor of deceit, of course. That’s not surprising; a self-serving rationalization to justify avoiding the consequences of one’s behavior is about as common as a snowflake in Maine.

What’s surprising, though, is the number of people who say that if a lover were to cheat on them, they would not want to know. Indeed, many people don’t even want to know something as basic as their lover’s past!

Take off your shoes, and we will keep you safe

When I flew to San Francisco for MacWorld last month, boarding was delayed because the airline security people asked the passengers to put their shoes on the X-ray conveyer belt.

People do not act in accordance with the truth; they act in accordance with what they believe to be true

All of these things–prefering a lover’s lie to the truth, putting your shoes on the conveyer belt, banning a book–are really the same. Ultimately, each of these things serves to protect an illusion.

As human beings, we continually re-invent the world around us. To some extent, this is necessary; our perception of the world is limited by our senses and by our past experience. Filtering is a necessary way to make sense of the world.

But the person who bans The Prince, the person who prefers a lover’s lie, and the person who puts his shoes on the converer belt are all engaged in something more. They are actively seeking to protect and preserve an illusion–a deliberately constructed, carefully maintained falsehood.

The Prince is threatening because it exposes an illuson about human nature. It shatters the fiction that people are basically good and just, that we are far too enlightened to be manipulated in these ways. Machiavelli rubs our noses in our own human weaknesses, in the fact that not only can we be manipulated and led, but that, ultimately, we like to be manipulated and led. It’s easier than doing the work ourselves.

People like to preserve illusions about their lovers, and about themselves–they like to fabricate a fantasy in which true love conquers all, their lovers are faithful and act with integrity, that their lover’s lives and their lover’s past did not exist before that wonderous day when they fell in love.

People don’t always seek romantic relationships because they want to know the truth about themselves and their partner, and want the intimacy that knowledge brings; often, they seek romantic relationships because they are trapped between fear of loneliness on one side and their own insecurities on the other. Such a relationship benefits from fiction; the fiction is easier than the truth, because the fiction protects insecurity and the truth does not.

And the shoes on the X-ray belt? They create the illusion of security, without actually creating real security. Real security is expensive. Real security is inconvenient.

A commercial passenger flight would be far safer if the baggage on the flight were matched to a passenger on that flight in every instance,a nd if the airlines took steps to make sure a person could not put a package onto an airplane without actually boarding that airplane himself.

But this checking (which is standard on some non-US airlines) creates logistical complication and expense; and at the end of the day, the airlines know that the risk of terrorist attack is incredibly slim anyway. It is not, in the final analysis, worth the effort and expense to create real security; the illusion of secuirty is good enough to keep people flying.

Reality is a scary place

In the real world, people are lazy and want to be led. In the real world, people can and do betray their vows, and sometimes, those actions have consequences. In the real world, people make mistakes, and those mistakes affect others. In the real world, the universe is not especially interested in coddling insecurities. And in the real world, dedicated people with patience and evil can and sometimes do find a way to knock an airplane out of the sky, and flying without risk has never been and will never be possible.

And in spite of all that, the real world is still a better place to live. When we rise above our illusions, we become more enlightened.