Everyone versed in culture and politics understands the truth in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792 – 1822) argument that creators of culture are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Our view of the world is derived from our religious beliefs, the stories we read as children, the movies we watched, the cultural customs we become accustomed to, and so forth. It is not that culture constructs the physical edifices of civilisation per say, but that culture forms the values and philosophies upon which civilisation is founded.
In the west, the prevailing cultural narrative champions wholesome virtues: kindness, compassion, love, fair-play, and so forth, as being the only way to achieve prosperity and success. The individual must avoid combat with others, and be polite, civil, pleasant, and diplomatic to all. To be seen using aggression or wanting power leads to social isolation. This has certainly been the message in culture. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the title character is a corrupt, twisted, and Machiavellian prince who schemes his way into power. By contrast, the future Henry VII is seen to be fair and humane. By the end of the play, Richard dies hated even by members of his own family, whereas Henry is celebrated as a noble hero.
This worldview bears little resemblance to reality:
“The manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself with the other is more likely to destroy than to save himself; since anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential for a prince who wishes to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not to use his goodness as necessity requires.” (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532, Chapter 15, page 114)
Bubbling just below the surface are the real, amoral virtues which foster prosperity and success. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) puts forth the following proposition:
“Suppose nothing is given as ‘real’ except our world of desires and passions, and we could not get down, or up, to any other ‘reality’ besides the reality of our drives.” (Beyond Good and Evil, page 59).
Maybe we aren’t as driven by morality and Godliness as we like to think we are. Maybe we are driven by lust for power, material wealth, and sex. (This, of course, brings forth the possibility that the purpose of wholesomeness is to temper our real desires).
Even though we loathe having to admit it, all of us want power. Power gives us greater control and makes us feel more secure. But since it is socially unacceptable to be seen wanting power we are forced to rely on subtlety. We are forced to become honest on the one hand, and duplicitous on the other, congenial yet cunning, democratic yet devious.
In chapter twenty-one of the Prince, Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) wrote: “Nothing makes a prince so well thought of as to undertake great enterprises and give striking proofs of his capacity.” Our civilisation was built through ambitious and power-hungry individuals. Not by the wholesome virtues presented to us.