“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.” — from The Tempest
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is characteristic of Prospero that he has learned to view political life in light of the transitoriness of human achievement in general. Though his initial error was to neglect political life entirely, he does not fall into the opposite error of becoming wholly absorbed in political life. Unlike the power-hungry usurpers who struggle against him, Prospero does not believe that political life is the “be-all and the end-all” of human existence.
His original disposition to philosophy guarantees that he will remain aware of aspects of life beyond the political, and this larger perspective helps to moderate whatever personal ambition he develops. As is the case with Plato’s philosopher-kings, Prospero’s fitness for rule is shown precisely by his disinclination to rule.
In the end we learn that he is not looking forward to his return to power with the eagerness of a conventionally ambitious man. On the contrary, his declaration: “Every third thought shall be my grave” (V.i.312) is an indication that at most only two-thirds of his mind will be devoted to politics and he is already looking beyond his responsibilities to the state. Examining the political aspects of The Tempest thus eventually takes us right up to the limits of politics, and perhaps gives us a glimpse of the world beyond.
Career politicians may cleverly claim that they embrace this or that religion, underscore that they acknowledge something beyond the mundane world of partisan politics, but since they’re so focused on personal advancement and the popularity of a given moment, it’s unlikely that they will devote a third of their thoughts to another realm once they secure reins of power.
We need non-politicians in office. Souls who know they have everlasting souls. For wisdom to be the word of the day, to have a wise citizen in office, not a self-serving one.
The story of Prospero shows us that the wise man is able to view the ordinary concerns of political men and women in a larger context, to achieve a broader perspective on the goals politicians (and people in general) usually set for themselves and pursue with full conviction. The point of view of the wise man in The Tempest ultimately turns out to be the perspective of Eternity. Nothing is guaranteed in the context of the irrational forces in man, such as desire and spirited fears, and there is — obviously — so much that can interfere with a wise person’s regime. That said, a third of one’s heartbeats centered on Eternity gives one a shot at a dreamy denouement.
One does not have to embrace any particular religion to acknowledge that while one must address our collective crises seriously and urgently, we are obliged — if we are wise — to see that we cannot take the ordinary concerns of human life too seriously… simultaneously. That involves a balancing act that too few in office even think about, let alone ever implement.
It is up to wise citizens to secure offices for wise men and women who are worthy of our collective efforts. People who see beyond their personal challenges. Servants of the Collective Good, capable of being part of a Grand Dream.
Rachel Oxman is a member of the Oxman Collective. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.