In his Nov. 20 speech to the American Principles Project, Sen. Josh Hawley brought up the familiar name of Prometheus in an unfamiliar way, and in the process made a valuable contribution to a conservative understanding of the common good.
Prometheus, of course, was the figure from Greek mythology who brought the gift of fire to humanity. And as such, he has long been a romantic archetype — the lone genius who dares to do things that nobody else can do. Notably, American libertarians have embraced their particular myth of Prometheus the entrepreneur, and propagated it widely. (RELATED: Sen. Josh Hawley Is Taking A More Literal Approach To Draining The Swamp: Moving The Bureaucrats To The Heartland)
For instance, when the lead character in Ayn Rand’s 1938 novel, “Anthem,” takes on his heroic destiny, he assumes the name “Prometheus.” And in her 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” the uber-hero John Galt is admiringly compared to Prometheus. This is Prometheus the capitalist god.
This vision has, indeed, had economic and political consequences. The Republican Party has taken to celebrating such Prometheanism, lionizing both entrepreneurs and investors. The celebration reached its “reductio ad absurdum” on Labor Day, 2012, when former Rep. Eric Cantor tweeted, “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” That was it: no mention of wages, dignity, solidarity — none of the usual Labor Day stuff.
It’s worth noting that back then, Cantor was no small fish in the GOP: He was the House majority leader. In other words, in the mind of one of the nation’s top Republican, Labor Day was Entrepreneur Day. Seven years later, Cantor is out of political office; he’s now an investment banker. (RELATED: There’s A Middle Way Between Insane Prescription Drug Prices And Medicare For All)
Today’s GOP is better informed by Hawley, a freshman Republican from Missouri; he offers a much different take on the individual striver in society. As he explained in his Nov. 20 address, it’s a self-serving myth to think that anyone strives alone, outside of social grounding. So it was with regret that he added, “As it took hold in twentieth-century America, the Promethean ideal taught that the individual self exists apart from all social ties and relations.”
This Promethean vision, Hawley continued, held that family, religion, neighborhood — that is to say, the context of one’s life — means little, because the Promethean “exists separate from all of them.”
Without a doubt, this is exactly how some see the world: They are separate from — and better than — society. As Ayn Randians like to say, “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Yet while ambition, drive, and even obsession can be virtues, these things should always be judged within the framework of morality and law. Furthermore, we must realize that most people don’t wish to live their lives as damn-the-torpedos Prometheans — and, after all, it’s their society, too.
Yet Hawley goes even further: The Promethean vision, like the original figure himself, is a myth:
Here’s the reality. The Promethean self, splendid in his isolation, needing nothing from others but the space to create, doesn’t exist. The Promethean ambition leaves us lost and unmoored. And the market worship and cultural deconstruction the Promethean vision has inspired have failed this country.
Hawley’s argument owes much to the conservative tradition; indeed, it is the conservative tradition of Aristotle, Edmund Burke, and Russell Kirk, emphasizing proper order and received wisdom as the glue of civilization. So at a time such as this — when rampant Prometheanism has led to so much political polarization, income bifurcation, and social desolation — Hawley’s message is indeed a salve.
To be sure, Hawley’s healing vision may seem unfamiliar to many on the contemporary right. For some time we have been told that “conservatism” is actually a fusion of right-wing liberalism (libertarianism), interventionist liberalism (neoconservatism), and, somewhere in the back of the bus, traditional conservatism, including the secular virtues of duty, loyalty and patriotism.
This three-way political fusion has been paradoxical, since libertarians and neocons, for all the vastness of their ideology, are actually few in number. Indeed, these wannabe Prometheans have always been outnumbered, inside the GOP, by more prosaic family guys and gals, who never understood how open borders and foreign wars were good for America, but went along with, say, Bush 43 out of party loyalty. (RELATED: Sen. Josh Hawley Is Taking A More Liberal Approach To Draining The Swamp: Moving The Bureaucrats To The Heartland)
For that reason alone, Hawley’s attempt at an intra-party recalibration of influence is welcome, even as, of course, the commanding heights of the party will oppose him.
Yet all Republicans should recognize that Hawley’s vision also offers the prospect of gaining Democratic family guys and gals — those plain folks on the other side of the divide who also believe in community, continuity, and safety. In such a come-together reckoning, fidelity to ideological exotica is less important than a simple commitment to protecting basic human needs and verities. Protecting people, that is, against the outsourcing of their jobs and the insourcing of trans bathrooms.
The Hawley message is a modest appeal to the middle: normalcy. With it, down the road we could see a socially and racially ecumenical movement of workers, soldiers, first responders, school teachers — and every other working stiff, including the retired, duly honored and safeguarded. It would be a movement of few donors and article-writers — but many voters.
In such a realignment, where would the Prometheans fit in? It’s worth recalling that the “real” Prometheus was a giver, not a taker. That is, he used his super-powers to help mankind — and he suffered greatly for it. For eternity, in fact. (RELATED: ‘Stand With The People Of Hong Kong’: Sen Hawley Touts Bipartisan Passage of Rubio’s Hong Kong Bill)
Hawley isn’t seeking to impose any such pain on today’s Prometheans; they will still be free to strive and get rich. Yet wiser and juster policies will couch Prometheanism in a better context, so that social order is not constantly bombarded and threatened.
And who knows, just as the ancient Prometheus is forever revered as a benefactor, future Prometheans might conclude that service to the commonweal gives them a sense of satisfaction, as well as a place of honor, that they can’t get from adding another zero to their account balance.
James P. Pinkerton served as a domestic policy aide in the White Houses of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He also worked in the 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, and 2008 presidential campaigns. From 1996 to 2016, he was a contributor to Fox News Channel.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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