Make the Angels Weep


Watching and listening to so many politicians, clergy, evangelists, television blowhards, and ordinary citizens in my country today reminds me of one of my favorite passages in all of world literature. It is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and it occurs when the character Isabella begs for the life of her brother, Claudio, who has been condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée before they were married.

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.

When I hear those vying for the most important political position in the country court the support of those who advocate death for people with certain sexual orientations, and want to kill thousands of innocent civilians—to say nothing of rejecting and traumatizing refugees, mass incarceration and solitary confinement, denial of health-care and more
—it reveals the fact that puritanical legal codes, barbaric punishments, and ape-brain ignorance and treachery are still with us. It reminds me of how those who know so little—of biology, psychology, history, culture, political philosophy and more—propound on those topics nevertheless.

The ignorant are so self-assured. They know nothing of the people they despise, of the countries they bomb, and of the people they punish, but they ignore their own infallibility. They know nothing of economics or philosophy, of science or technology, of culture or history, but they correct the experts. And why not? They don’t believe in experts.

They are angry apes—as Shakespeare said centuries before Darwin confirmed the fact. They have neither knowledge nor self-knowledge. We are not angels; we are modified monkeys. Of course, there are no angels, but if there were they would surely weep at the spectacle. Given a little fame, fortune, and authority … apes become so self-assured.

So much better to be a skeptic, a fallibilist, or issue humble disclaimers.


(Note. This post was originally published on this blog on November 21, 2015.)


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1 thought on “Make the Angels Weep

  1. This passage is especially appropriate for these political times. It’s one of my favorites, too. Thanks for the reminder.

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