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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2 thoughts 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.

  2. Thank you for making me aware of this marvelous quote from Shakespeare. This suggests that Shakespeare was quite a genius, and was almost something like an intuitive Darwinian.

    As this article says, gods and angels don’t literally weep, since there are no literally existing gods or angels.

    But the weeping does go on.

    And I think that a lot of that weeping is done by people whose minds harbor the conceit that they are gods or angels or the moral and intellectual equivalent thereof.

    I weep for the social injustices of the past, the present, and the likely future.

    But why do I so weep?

    Because I am superior (in knowledge of science and philosophy) to the likes of Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump?

    Yes, that’s what I think.

    I think am a philosopher citizen, and a would-be philosopher king in the mode of Plato’s conception.

    In the hierarchy of morals, wisdom, and goodness in my mind, I am way high up at the top, and Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump are way down at the bottom! Take that, you bums! (Cf. Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine.”)

    But, in reality, I am every bit as ignorant and lowly as Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump.

    How so?

    Because of the very fact that I conceive of myself as taxonomically belonging to the order of the angels and gods and not to the order of the apes. This is my delusion, my illusion, my “noble lie” (to use Plato’s term). I cling to this myth about myself and people like me–but this does not make me superior to Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump. This only makes me foolish and feckless. Freud saw this. Nietzsche saw this. The idealistic, philosophical, and poetic university student from Denmark, Hamlet, finding himself amidst a maelstrom of crime, deceit, danger, and corruption, expressed the Darwinian truth of human beings in a famous passage, in which he summarizes the often held angelic view of man, but then swiftly confirms his rejection of that view:

    “…the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.”

    I think the whole play “Hamlet” could be viewed as Hamlet struggling to accept the Darwinian, ape-nature of humankind, and once and for all leaving behind the idealisms and conceits of the “noble” philosophy that he had for so long cherished. In this regard, King Claudius, Prince Hamlet’s uncle, was Hamlet’s teacher. King Claudius did not set out educate or correct young Hamlet, but he did, in effect. Hamlet came to see that the same criminal nature that was in Claudius was in himself as well. This can be seen when Hamlet says as a warning to Ophelia:

    “I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us.”

    I read and study Charles Darwin and the whole science that has been built upon his “Origin” and “Descent,” but a major part of my psyche blocks off the application of that science (knowledge) to myself, since, after all, I belong the class of the Enlightened Holy Angels and Gods. I float on the clouds with eternal the Socrates, the eternal Gandhi, the eternal Thoreau, the eternal Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the eternal Sonmi-451.

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