As the Left has no principles, only power, we need to put aside our principles, too, and start seeking power for power’s sake. So we should start thinking about what power is.
Imperial Romans derided Christianity as a religion for women and slaves. Christians would claim that their religion’s rapid spread under extreme persecution is proof of its truth. But a naturalistic explanation faces the same problem: How did “a religion for women and slaves” turn into “a religion for manly legionaries” in the space of (at most) 150 years? That’s pretty impressive now; in a low-tech, low-fi world like the later Roman Empire, it really does seem miraculous.
The answer, I’d argue, has to do with the Romans’ understanding of power.
Roman legions didn’t triumph because Italians were impressive physical specimens. Ancient accounts go on and on about how huge and strong the barbarians are, and while we can dismiss some of that as propaganda, archaeology seems to confirm that, mano-a-mano, Germans were tougher hombres than their opponents in the legions. But legionaries were disciplined — a legion whose commander wasn’t a complete fool could triumph over forces much larger than itself, provided the line held. Iron self-mastery, not brawn, won the day for the Romans, and that’s how they understood power — a true Roman reveals himself by holding the line, no matter what.
In other words: Who has more power than a man utterly willing to die?
The pagan Romans had their “martyrs,” I suppose — men and women who endured awful conditions with unflinching fortitude — but always in the remote past; “Catonian” was more of an epithet than a compliment to people who had known the living Cato. But the Christians had dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people willing to die right now — who seemed fanatically eager for death, in fact. They actually worshiped their founder’s shameful death — the most shameful of all deaths, and an excruciatingly painful one, too. No torture could make those people recant. They died with a prayer on their lips. What is that, if not ultimate power?
That understanding of power died with Friedrich Nietzsche. Here’s G.K. Chesterton, ironically arguing against Nietzsche, on courage:
Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers….He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.*
Courage is self-mastery to the point of death. Only someone who has faced death — real, immediate, personal death — can truly know if he’s courageous, or a coward. No matter how much power he has over everyone and everything else, he still doesn’t know if he has power over himself, because he can’t know.
Lacking opportunities to test ourselves — I should say “thankfully lacking opportunities,” as a world war now is the end of the human race — we’ve lost sight of what courage really means. Instead, we’ve elevated cruelty to its place. Just as Marxism turns envy from the worst vice (it’s what caused the angels to fall) into the best virtue, so Leninism turns ruthlessness and brutality into sham courage. It was the Black Cat Milita, not the Bolsheviks, who said “my honor is my loyalty,” but that’s what Lenin meant when he wrote of a “vanguard party” willing to do whatever it takes to further the Revolution. Leftists think they’re brave when they inflict barbarities on us.
The one ray of hope is: They’re not willing to die for it. Totalitarian regimes always collapse eventually, because the increase of power after power is, as Nietzsche recognized, ultimately futile. Only mastery over the self is real power; it’s the only thing that gives life meaning, even to atheistic power-worshipers like Nietzsche. Mistaking cruelty for courage, our Leftists will eventually rip themselves apart… or someone with nothing left to lose will do it for them.
*I think Chesterton badly misunderstood Nietzsche, but there was a lot of that going around in the early 20th century. Nietzsche’s works were “edited” beyond recognition by his Nazi shrew of a sister, and poorly translated to boot.