Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

By Abel Merawi

PrayerJanuary 2, 2020 ( -- The knowledge of gravity can give us power over our natural environment, but never with our ethical principles. Thanks to the scientific studies and the laborious dedication of intellectuals, human beings have made a quantum leap in the slow process of evolution. In the process, we have managed to not only be shaped by the environment but also shape the environment itself. The scientific progress of the past centuries has led to material advancement but also resulted in spiritual bankruptcy. The historian author Yuval Noah Harari, claims that modernity is a deal we make to sacrifice meaning and gain power. In other words, we have agreed to abandon our meaning and value of life in order to gain more power over the natural environment which translates into economic and political power. I question if this is a good bargain. For example, is it good for human beings to gain power over nature through science only to lose the meaning of life we used to have through religion and culture? Can the human species find satisfaction without figuring out the purpose of life? Will humans become a danger to themselves and to the ecosystem when they are equipped with so much power, including deadly weapons, but don’t have an inkling about the meaning of life?

Scientific developments such as Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and more recently the Big Bang theory, have contributed much to our objective understanding of the universe. The current inventions through biotech and others have made our economic life better and productive. The contributions of existential philosophers including Schopenhauer, F. Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and many others have freed the individual but led us to the conclusion that life is meaningless and it is the individual that ascribes meaning to it. I think the famously misquoted and misunderstood words of Friedrich Nietzsche can explain our modern world. In his book, translated as The Gay Science or The Joyful Wisdom, on page 181, we find the following words:  

Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? …… Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

The above words are commonly understood as if it is Nietzsche himself who claimed the death of God. However, he is simply explaining the historical progress of human beings in replacing the role of God by our scientific and philosophical progress. He said that we have killed him because it is society as a whole that replaced the previous roles of God using their own inventions. For instance, we used to pray to God whenever we face famine and plague. However, in the modern world, we rush to experts and doctors to find solutions. He also states that if we remove God, we ourselves have to become Gods. In other words, our scientists have to now explain everything that happens in the world and philosophers have to find ethical principles in the absence of religion. Perhaps we have managed to fill the gap in the material world, yet the spiritual and moral gaps still remain.

The dominant ideology of our time is depicted in the concept of post-modernism. It is difficult to clearly define post-modernism because it is an idea that opposes definition and truth. We can at least describe it as an ideology that argues that reality is subjective and the individual is the only authority of truth and justice. It claims that there is no objective truth and that there is no criterion to define right and wrong. For instance, a person can call paint on canvas a work of art and others have no right to oppose her/him. When dealing with literature, we cannot say that Hamlet is better than The Simpsons, or Beethoven’s symphony is better than electronic music because there is no standard. In social life too, post-modernists argue that there is no standard to suggest that the producer is better than the hippie. It is this modern culture, that promotes diversity more than unity, which threatens to dissolve meaning and disintegrate society.  

The replacement of meaning with autonomous power is manifested in many areas of our political, economic and social life as well. Liberal democracy claims that the voter is always right. The principle of free-market economy argues that the customer is always right. When dealing with quality, it is common to hear people say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. A century or two ago, people held a totally opposite view of life. Our forefathers used to believe that political and economic life is to be decided by either the monarch or the religious institutions of the land. Ethical values too have a firm stand based on holy books. Despite the fact that our history is accompanied by authoritarians, it does not make our current attitude any better. I wonder what a technologically powerful society devoid of morality will do with all the power we will attain in a meaningless world.

Currently, people have not completely abandoned their ethical and religious footing. This explains why we still celebrate religious and other holidays such as Christmas, Eid-al-Fitr, and New Year. These are useful because they bring us closer and they tighten our social bond. However, the scientific and philosophical world is constantly attempting to make us see objective truth by suggesting the absurdity of believing in divine power and the moral standards that originate from it. More than ever, people are beginning to abandon their values and accept the modern deal. Yet, it is worth remembering that we have not come any closer to discovering the meaning of life. Rather, it seems, we are just losing the meaning of life we used to have in the past. By destroying our cultural and religious values, it seems, we have created a void that science cannot fill. In exchange, modernity presents us with unprecedented technological progress that enables us to gain more power over nature and others, including fellow human beings. The question is, without morality, will we avoid the temptation to bring suffering to the world using our sophisticated gadgets? It is time to seriously consider our path and find value and meaning for our individual and collective existence.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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