Shakespeare’s King Lear shows the subversion of the most fundamental of all relationships, that of parent and child, by the corrupt and unbounded lust for power. It is a painful and horrifying play to read. We follow first how the old king preferred his older daughters’ insincere flattery to his youngest daughter’s selfless honesty. Valuing obedience over truth, he failed a parent’s most important duty: modeling for one’s children the moral courage necessary to have a decent life and a decent world.
As the play proceeds, Lear’s moral failing, common enough and seemingly limited in effect, turns out to have opened the gates of hell. The flattering daughters conspire against their aged father and their honest sister, turning Lear from his throne and executing the true daughter.
As darkness triumphs, Lear verges into insanity as all hope is quashed. The Earl of Gloucester, angered at the King’s daughters’ horrific betrayal of their father, seeks justice, but he is in turn betrayed by his own illegitimate son and is punished by having his eyes put out.
Yielding in despair to the darkness that is now physical, the blind Gloucester seeks to kill himself. He asks a peasant to direct him to the edge of a high cliff, where he intends to end his life.
But here at this darkest of moments, when death is about to cement its triumph over light, Shakespeare allows a redemptive ray to shine into the gloom. The peasant is really Gloucester’s true heir and loyal son, Edgar. Edgar tricks his father into thinking that he had indeed jumped off the cliff, but that his life had been miraculously spared. Edgar persuades the confused Gloucester, telling him, “Thy life’s a miracle!”
This is a redemptive moment in a play filled with unremitting pain. Everywhere else in the play, destruction has been let loose and its demons howl triumphantly. Yet here is the still, small voice, invoking a miracle in the face of it all. We cling to it, for all else is lost.
Life is a miracle. Its sacredness is the first of the self-evident, unalienable rights that a newborn America declared to the world. It is the basis on which all other rights depend, for without life, any and all political rights are meaningless.
Many in this benighted age want to affirm all kinds of rights of children against their parents — just survey the rights given by school boards, legislatures, and courts to children to free them from parental supervision even before they come of age. Yet they will not affirm the most basic of rights. They do not hold life itself miraculous and sacred, but subject it entirely to the power of someone else.
It is consistent with other aspects of the modern anti-human agenda. Behind the concerted attack of critical race theory, for instance, is the idea that all of life is merely a power struggle and that our ideals are merely clever propaganda to deceive the non-white races from grabbing power themselves.
This in turn is consonant with the Marxist-Leninist approach, which derides conscience and transcendent truth, and reads all reality as being nothing more than the struggle of one class to take power away from the other.
It is consonant with Nazism because Nazism not only reads everything as a power struggle and rejects transcendent moral truth, but it also sees all things in racial terms.
In all these systems, there must be no other loyalty than to the struggle for power. Life itself is meaningless without power. Therefore, children must be removed from their parents’ control and placed in indoctrinating schools and youth organizations. Ultimately, they are used to police their parents, sometimes happily turning them in to be executed. And children who do not serve the ends of those in power are expendable and worth no less than their parents. The only meaning left is the pursuit of power, and life is a war of all against all and nothing more.
And in the triumphs of these terrible systems, there remained only the little rays of light of those who still see the miracle – Natan Sharansky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Gulags, Anne Frank and Viktor Frank in the hell of Nazi Europe, and the others like them whom we may never know. And though Russian communism and German Nazism may have been defeated in the end, their toxic beliefs morph slightly and find new faithful again and again. Always, they subordinate life and meaning to the pursuit of power.
The issue before the Supreme Court now is not the large moral question. The Constitution specifies that those questions are settled politically by the people following the ways and methods that they have agreed upon by ratifying that basic law. The Court will be deciding only whether the Constitution in fact establishes the right of a woman to abort a fetus and grants the fetus no rights at all, not even that of life.
But one cannot dismiss the rights of either mother or fetus without joining ranks with Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and the older daughters of King Lear in embracing the will for power over even the most fundamental and primordial bonds, without rejecting the miracle of life.
The moral issue was stated with stunning clarity by someone most unlikely — the author and psychedelic pioneer, Ken Kesey. In a 1971 interview with the late left-wing political satirist Paul Krassner, Kesey put the issue this way:
You are you from conception, and that never changes no matter what physical changes your body takes. And the virile sport in the Mustang driving to work with his muscular forearm tanned and ready for a day’s labor has not one microgram more right to his inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than has the three months fetus riding in a sack of water…How can abortion be anything but fascism again, back as a fad in a new intellectual garb with a new, and more helpless, victim?
For Kesey to say this was not really so unlikely if we look beyond the stereotypes. His core insight was the ability to heal the mind from the abuses of power, a theme that stretches from his great One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest through his fostering of deeper consciousness through psychedelics and performance art. For Kesey, life was a miracle, and he believed his life’s work was to raise the consciousness of life’s miraculous reality hidden so often behind the power games that people take for an end in themselves.
Subordinating the helpless to the powerful can lead to monstrous consequences. The granting of a right to dispose of life, especially life at the stage in which it is utterly powerless, has consequences. It is time to act in the light of that truth.