The Myth of Protean Man

Among the most destructive forces of our time is the doctrine that man must be free of anything that oppresses him. This is one of the fundamental political doctrines of the Left in America.

It has only two problems: (1) man is not free — human nature, in its male and female aspects, its ultimate mortality and overpowering programming for survival, is far too stern a taskmaster for that; and (2) replacing “man should be free” with “man must be free” empowers totalitarianism — which in its miniature form we call political correctness.

We trace the myth of Protean Man as least as far back as Pico della Mirandola in another time of Renaissance and its excesses in 1486:

Who then will not look with awe upon this our chameleon, or who, at least, will look with greater admiration on any other being? This creature, man, whom Asclepius the Athenian, by reason of this very mutability, this nature capable of transforming itself, quite rightly said was symbolized in the mysteries by the figure of Proteus. This is the source of those metamorphoses, or transformations, so celebrated among the Hebrews and among the Pythagoreans; for even the esoteric theology of the Hebrews at times transforms the holy Enoch into that angel of divinity which is sometimes called malakh-ha-shekhinah and at other times transforms other personages into divinities of other names; while the Pythagoreans transform men guilty of crimes into brutes or even, if we are to believe Empedocles, into plants; and Mohammed, imitating them, was known frequently to say that the man who deserts the divine law becomes a brute. And he was right; for it is not the bark that makes the tree, but its insensitive and unresponsive nature; nor the hide which makes the beast of burden, but its brute and sensual soul; nor the orbicular form which makes the heavens, but their harmonious order.

Finally, it is not freedom from a body, but its spiritual intelligence, which makes the angel. If you see a man dedicated to his stomach, crawling on the ground, you see a plant and not a man; or if you see a man bedazzled by the empty forms of the imagination, as by the wiles of Calypso, and through their alluring solicitations made a slave to his own senses, you see a brute and not a man. If, however, you see a philosopher, judging and distinguishing all things according to the rule of reason, him shall you hold in veneration, for he is a creature of heaven and not of earth; if, finally, a pure contemplator, unmindful of the body, wholly withdrawn into the inner chambers of the mind, here indeed is neither a creature of earth nor a heavenly creature, but some higher divinity, clothed in human flesh.

In modern America, the term Protean Man has been applied variously to Thomas Jefferson and J. Robert Oppenheimer. In our discussion here, we mean it in the least flattering sense, that of the chameleon, the ever adaptable and malleable man. This is always a myth that eventually disintegrates.

Pico and the Renaissance Man came and went. Ryle’s Ghost in the Machine came and went. The New Soviet Man came and went. Well, they all went, but where they went were our universities — where they got tenure and are still hanging around.

Someday a definitive psychological work will be written explaining the strangeness of the Leftism of our humanities and politics faculties at our elite universities. Never in the history of humanity have so many bright, affluent people with lifetime employment at our most pampered and revered institutions, living among the greatest wealth, convenience, freedom and license ever produced in human history, felt themselves to be so oppressed as this crowd. (We think we know one of the reasons: many of these people feel thay have never earned their lives.)

We have a lot to say on Protean Man and the perverse consequences of pursuing that goal too far. Right now, however, we’re looking forward to reading Thomas Sowell’s forthcoming Black Rednecks And White Liberals: And Other Cultural And Ethnic Issues, and Harvey Mansfield’s A Modest Defense of Manliness. There’s an interesting piece by Mansfield’s here if you’d like; Sowell on judges is here and here.

Sowell argues, among other things, that over and under representation of populations in various careers, fields of interest, and areas of excellence is the norm, not the exception, in human history, and that this is not something that automatically calls for state intervention. Mansfield argues for manliness.

As for us, we’re on the side of human nature. In the long run, that always wins.

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