In 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote a clever poem: “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or, the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay: a Logical Story.” You can read about the poem’s background here, if you’re so inclined. It’s a humorous and enjoyable poem. I recommend reading it now, because I’m about to spoil the ending for you.
While the poem was purportedly a criticism of the illogic of Calvinism, it is perhaps more effective in its satire of the human tendency to try to construct a system that once and for all will solve the problem of the human condition. I find the poem to be universally applicable to any human-powered endeavor to fix humanity through the systemic application of theology, religion, politics, philosophy, or reason.
Here’s the gist of the poem: A man (the deacon) living in the mid-1700s becomes exceedingly dissatisfied with the horse-drawn carriages of the day. They were always breaking down, with one part or another invariably wearing out first; which, of course, made the upkeep of the vehicle a near-constant endeavor.
Determined to overcome this problem, he sets himself the lofty goal of building the perfect carriage (a shay) in which all the components are just as strong as the others. Naturally, this would prevent one part from wearing out before another and make maintenance a thing of the past!
He engineers a flawless machine, gathers the finest materials, and through exquisite craftsmanship, constructs the ultimate driving machine. Had Rolls Royce built horse-drawn carriages, their vehicles would have had nothing on the deacon’s masterpiece.
The deacon finishes his carriage, which operates superbly. It outlasts the deacon. And his children. And his grandchildren! In fact, it ran “a hundred years to a day.” The carriage was eventually bequeathed to a parson who took it out for a drive. It should not escape the reader’s notice that the rig was “drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay” horse. Just as the deacon intended, not one individual part of the carriage broke before another. But on its one-hundredth year (to a day!), as the poor parson was driving along, the entire contraption crumbled into dust, leaving the parson sitting bewildered in the road.
The ultimate moral of the story, to my mind, is that human logic, however valuable it may be, has its limits. We silly humans become enamored of our own intellect and presume that our reason holds the answers to the human condition. In our hubris, we do what the deacon did and construct a system designed to run flawlessly. And usually, the system works. Sort of. For a while. The problem is solved—at least temporarily. The system is held up as a masterpiece of human ingenuity. Except problems begin to surface.
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
The continually changing world manages to generate a never-ending series of new problems that the system cannot fix. In fact, the system generates problems of its own. But people get used to it after a while, and it becomes the comfortable “devil you know.” So rather than retire the system when it has outlived its usefulness, those who benefit from the system double down on their investment. They become twice as ardent in their praise for the system. And if the machine is to keep grinding on, it requires the full and unconditional support of everyone. Can’t have dissenters in the ranks. That would undermine the system. Of course, constructing a universally accepted system is a human impossibility, so the overlords in their enlightened eminence find that they must become increasingly ruthless in their crusade to quash dissent.
Recent history has provided several examples of systems which were intended to guide human society into the future. All of these systems were ostensibly built upon lofty ideals.
A prime, and almost too-easy example is the Third Reich, conceived by a rabble-rousing tyrant who leveraged the National Socialist German Workers’ Party to restore Germany’s glory, recapture some disputed land unfairly appropriated by those dastardly French, and through genocide, attempted to racially purify his country. The Reich was intended to rule the world for a thousand years. It was sort of a raw deal for the Jews and the Gypsies and the infirm, but hey, if it’ll make the world a better place, who are you to criticize? The Nazi war machine was a raging fire that burned so hot and spread so quickly, that it ran out of combustible material upon which to feed and ushered in an era of destruction unparalleled in human history.
After the mad fuhrer’s demise, another dictator tried to build the perfect system, but unlike those awful Nazis, he was determined to do it right. Or so he said. Joseph Stalin purged the Soviet Union of all dissenters, alleged dissenters, the families of alleged dissenters, people who were too competent to be good proletarians… you get the picture. The Soviet Union eventually imploded under the weight of its own corruption and self-generated devastation.
Kim Il Sung tried the same thing in North Korea, establishing a religious cult with the Kim family rulers the deity, and the officials of the Workers’ Party the priests. They’ve managed to generate enough terror, guilt, and social pressure over the last few generations to establish a culture that accepts this religion as the only reality. Of course, the ruthless suppression of dissent helps the cause.
A few decades after Stalin, Mao did the same thing in China. Mao’s most recent successor Xi Jinping has employed surveillance technology on a supra-industrial scale to enforce compliance with the system. The communist overlords have used shame, terror, and repression against Chinese citizens to keep the system grinding on. Enabled by modern technology, the Chinese Communist Party may have created the most superficially perfect system in history, with 1.4 billion Chinese citizens appearing (thanks to the magic of government information control) to march, Borg-style, in lockstep toward Xi Jinping’s glorious future, while his patrician face placidly dispels the notion that fear, coercion, and brutal oppression could possibly have anything to do with the absolute contentment that the Chinese people feel toward their perfectly ordered society.
Now in the interest of equity and inclusion, I must ensure that I upset any readers who have made it thus far and are cheering on my rant against socialist totalitarianism. Another human-powered system that is destined to ultimately fail is The Federal Republic of the United States of America. Our constitutional republic was built on the most noble principles of Greek democracy, Roman republicanism, and English common law. It recognized the importance of freedom, and the tendency of power to corrupt humanity. It was built upon the appreciation of individual liberty and many Judeo-Christian principles (however narrowly applied). It might be the most perfect governmental system in human history. But for all its worthy aspects, it will never solve the problem of the human condition.
The apostle John glimpsed a vision of the day when, during earth’s darkest hour, an announcement would be made that “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his [anointed one], and he will reign forever.” (NET)
Maintenance-free wagons make for great theory, but they don’t last forever, and their destruction is usually catastrophic. Our calling is to abandon the humanistic quest to build an artificial system as our solution to the human condition. Instead, we should strive to live an organic, divine life as citizens of the kingdom of God and give our highest loyalty to its King. As ambassadors of this kingdom, let us live as an assembly, and together, live as a light in a dark world.
– Featured image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.