In an effort to convince his friend that rural life is better than urban life, the Roman poet Horace wrote: “even city folk plant trees among their marbled pillars... chase nature out with a pitchfork, she’ll still come right back in secret.” Recently, I was reminded by my friend Michael Millerman, political philosopher extraordinaire, that this tag from Horace was a favorite of none other than the great Leo Strauss. I would go so far as to call it a central intuition of the conservative mind: the intuition that trying to cancel nature’s rules is a fool’s errand. Whatever promises of immortality may tempt us, whatever technology might seem to break the surly bonds of our humanity, we will always trip up and fail. The basic, eternal, and unchanging facts of how things work and how we work never really go away. Nature comes back in the end.
Does she though? That is the question our rich and powerful classes are currently asking. Or rather, they are not even asking it: they have their answer. They are convinced that this time their technology is good enough, their ethics pure enough, to chase nature out with a pitchfork for good. This time we will conquer death—by altering the enzymes which synthesize our DNA, or resurrecting loved ones with A.I., or else simply locking everyone indoors until disease is gone forever. We will perfect surgical alteration, hormonal treatment, and virtual reality so that no one is tied down to biological facts like gender: trans men will impregnate trans women using synthesized gametes to produce gender-neutral babies, and none shall make them afraid.
I suppose I could adduce any number of myths and anecdotes from history to suggest that this project will end in tears. I am particularly fond of a story told by Dionysius of Halicarnassus about Aristodemus, the tyrant who took over the Greek colony of Cumae in the late 6th century BC. Aristodemus tried to brainwash the masculinity out of boys in Cumae so they’d never be strong or brave enough to depose him. And then of course when another, manlier group of men invaded, Aristodemus was powerless to resist them. One is tempted to draw from this story a prediction about the future of American foreign policy.
But there are other stories, too. There is for example the legend of Dr. Faust, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for untrammeled mastery of physical science. Or the story of the Monkey’s Paw, in which bereaved parents wish for their dead son to return from the grave. In every case the promise of victory over nature is so tempting, the desire to transcend human limits so strong, that it almost looks for one blessed moment as if the gambit will work and death will be swallowed up forever. But the ancient wisdom expressed in all the stories is this: the power to unmake nature is not ours. The dream always becomes a nightmare; the giddy exhilaration of technological triumph is always replaced with the bitter anguish of failure and regret. “As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,” wrote the poet Rudyard Kipling, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.” Basic truths, ignored long enough, make themselves hideously felt.
If our skyrocketing rates of depression, suicide, and infertility are any indication, there is a sense in which nature already has come back to haunt us. The Gods of the Copybook Headings are already here with their terrible vengeance, even as we dream of some coming utopia in the digital clouds. But that’s only if you have eyes to see. For our ruling classes, and those whom they have duped, these old parables and warnings are unlikely to be very persuasive. The accumulated wisdom of centuries sounds to them like little more than old wives’ tales. They are too drunk with their fantasies to listen.
But for the rest of us, there is more than mere superstition to be gained from legends and fables. Buy land, get married, make love and have babies. Go to the gym, arm yourself, and pray. When the glittering towers of our deluded technocrats evaporate into air, these solid things that you have built and labored over will remain.