Absolute freedom means becoming anything one wishes: athlete or artist, millionaire or scientist, St. Francis or Don Juan. This may sound like a preposterous notion — but it was a dominant doctrine of the twentieth century, and its day is not yet done.
Many Americans talk as if ours were a Protean species, infinite in possibilities. On this view, human nature is all potential, human life a garden of self-actualization, if only we overthrow the enemies of Protean Man — those who profit from preventing our endless progress to perfection.
Proteanism always divided into two camps. One group believed in individual struggle. Existence preceded essence, so the buzzwords went: first we were born, then we invented ourselves. The purpose of human existence was to become “engaged” and unrepressed. The enemies were conventionalists, traditionalists, conservatives of every stripe, who imposed arbitrary restrictions on our Protean nature.
Once liberated, Protean Man would become a kind of artist-tyrant, creating truth and beauty from the depths of his soul while sampling the variegated experiences of the flesh. Existentialists and Freudians belonged to this sect.
A second group maintained that powerful social forces needed to be manipulated like a colossal lever to bring about the birth of the Protean age. This could only be achieved communally — usually, by a group that embodied the liberated future. The enemies were defenders of privilege and property, who lorded it over the human race and profited from its backwardness. The end would come with an explosion from below.
The Garden of Eden, this vision predicted, appeared at the end of history rather than the start. Its genesis would be violent and bloody, but once established all limitation — mental, political, and moral — would disappear. Not surprisingly, this story appealed to revolutionaries of every ideology: Rousseau-worshippers during the French Revolution, Hegelian idealists in 1848, and Marxists over the last century.
Americans are particularly susceptible to the lure of Proteanism. After all, the drafters of the constitution set out to “form a more perfect union” — faith in perfectabiliy has been part of our DNA ever since. In its frontier version, this was an admirable ideal. It meant hitching your wagon to a star (Emerson), and to boldly go where no man has gone before (Star Trek I). Amid the bounty and technology of the twenty-first century, it smacks of self-absorption and worse.
Those smitten with the Protean idea want to be young, strong, beautiful, brilliant, influential, loved by all, admired for their unselfishness, deliriously happy, sexually acrobatic. We all have our fantasies — but these people believe they can do something about them.
Look at the books on the Amazon bestsellers list. Top of the list is Staying Young. This is followed by Deceptively Delicious, Eat, Pray, Love, You on a Diet, and further down The Secret (i.e., control reality with your mind), Real Solutions to the World’s Biggest Problems, Results That Last, The Wisdom of Menopause, Become a Better You, and so on, getting ourselves back to the Garden one self-help book at a time.
As the titles reveal, American Proteanism tends to the individualistic variety. The postmodern permutation takes the highest virtue to be self-expression, while children’s TV programs, repeating academic cant, chirp on about how “unique” each child is, how unlike any other human being. At its most extreme, American Proteanism goes “transhuman,” and dreams of living forever.
Yet facts are stubborn things. Biologically we are bounded in our behavior, possibly more than we realize. Protean Man is a vapor in the mind of a hardwired species. We are free, yes: but not everyone, not everywhere, and not always. Most of the time we are driven by desire: “things are in the saddle,” wrote Emerson, “and ride mankind.” By their very nature, our desires for things collide — among themselves, between short term and long term — but also, and most importantly, with the desires of others.
In a very real, evolutionary sense, we are each in competition with the other. To avoid chaos, every community has put in place a set of rules: morality. Habits taught from childhood implement the rules: traditions. Political arrangements have been worked out, whereby private satisfaction is kept in precarious balance with the survival and prosperity of the community: liberal democracy, open markets.
To those who hallucinate Protean Man, all these gifts of our history appear like impediments to perfection. Self-control becomes repression. The habits of courtesy and decency that make society tolerable become hypocrisy or mindless conventionalism. The rights and protections that, in our country, make possible a considerable degree of personal freedom, are rejected because they stand in the way of infinite possibilities. Protean Man, if he really existed, must of necessity be an immoralist, egocentric, and anti-democratic. He could never be a citizen of any country.
In fact, Protean Man negates himself. A person devoid of boundaries will be formless. To be unique is to be monstrous. To be everything is to be nothing. Such attributes have never attached to a living person, for good biological and social reasons. We are contemplating a severe and potentially hazardous type of infantilism.
The danger comes when someone acts on the Protean fantasy. On 7 November, an 18-year-old in Finland entered his school shouting “Revolution, smash everything,” then shot dead seven teenage students and the school principal, before putting a bullet in his own brain. Days before, the killer had drafted a “manifesto” in which he proclaimed his love of “existentialism, self-awareness, freedom,” and his loathing for democracy, which he considered “a dictatorship of the moral majority.” He went on:
And I’m the dictator and god of my own life. And me, I have chosen my way. I am prepared to fight and die for my cause. I, as a natural selector, will eliminate all who I see unfit, disgraces of human race and failures of natural selection.
Even at the individual level, Protean Man negates himself. The huge number of diet books, for example, testify to human frailty and failure, rather than to glorious transfiguration. Protean Man treads a Boulevard of Broken Dreams — sometimes humorous to behold, sometimes sad, now and then revolting, monstrous indeed.