Friday, January 29, 2016

On Prophets

From time immemorial the function of the prophet has consisted of one thing and one thing only: to cry down the wrath of the heavens upon the wicked and proclaim the kingdom of the righteous. The prophet's domain is truth, as he or she is inspired to preach it; that many prophets preach things that are by any measure utterly demented does not perceptibly alter the job description.

Prophets are famously unpopular in their own time because, in the end, the truth isn't something we particularly want to hear, unless it happens to suit us (which it tends not to do). Nevertheless, prophets are essential, because without them we quickly lapse into our comfortable habits.

Politics, on the other hand, has little to do with virtue and even less to do with truth. Politicians often employ the language of prophecy — indeed, we generally expect them to — but no politician would last long who told us the whole truth. All kings have their flatterers, and this is no less true when sovereignty is vested in the people. Except in rare moments of crisis, when the need for sacrifice is underlined, we must always be told that we can have things both ways, that there is no difference between what is true and good on one hand and what benefits us in the fairly short run on the other.

The kingdom of the righteous never arrives, but that doesn't mean that prophets are without influence. Sometimes the truth of what they say becomes so self-evident that it is grudgingly accepted and acted upon, after a fashion at least; at other times their zeal ignites a great conflagration, empires fall, old ways are swept away, and wickedness must seek new horizons (they are rarely far).

In the end, though, corruption lurks everywhere, not least within the heart of the prophet, who, perhaps, begins to tire a bit of berating the indifferent and decides to grasp for power. Every prophet who is true to the name must, in the end, remain a voice crying out of the wilderness. The rest of us must muddle along as best we can.

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