yth and legend have always hinged on peril. Life itself was peril, lorded over by ghouls and angels, brokered by a god or gods who if gracious let peril pass — at least temporarily. Morality arose from peril. Goodness gave meaning to mortality by seeming to accept its inevitability and thus transcend it. And transcendence was necessary, since death was the way of the marred world for millennia and remained so even under the rule of religion, which formalized peril and imposed spiritual ways to relieve it, including the idea of an afterlife — the ultimate way out, or in, and the most fantastic relief, albeit not in physical form.
In the ongoing third millennium debate over postmodern egoism and the Western world’s penchant for moral relativism — with human beings mindful mostly of their immediate needs and wants — peril as a motivating force and a moralizing call to order gets lost in the shuffle.
Put another way, despite the creation and sprucing up of a multiplicity of fears: nuclear holocaust, natural disaster, potential new plagues, and religious extremism from non-Christian faiths, the Western planet more than ever entertains generations of statistically-inclined people unmoved by the one-time wages of peril. Anxieties persist, but without a corresponding and humbling mythology.
That which wasn’t known in peril’s “then” was terrifying, vast and unappeasable, with monsters and demons aplenty. That which isn’t known now is less vast and mostly awful by voyeuristic extension. Reason prevails, or seems to, with peril’s place taken by an array of disturbances no single one producing fear and trembling, let alone resignation. This emboldening resembles “Titanic”-era hubris revised to suit individual ambitions, and it comes with symptoms.
It is for example increasingly difficult to confer the virtues of respect, loyalty, honor and honesty with intrinsic if not absolute worth when no larger vision of peril exists to make those in violation of such values accountable for their transgressions, or even aware of their variation from an accepted norm. Peril, mythological but made repeatedly real through poignant parables, punished those who would seek immodest shortcuts and quick fixes — Daedalus and Icarus, father and son, two smart seekers of instant gratification, sought to fly, and did, until one of the son insisted on arrogance and perished.
The fabled existence of such punishment, which acknowledged peril and gave it legendary latitude, has receded from known sensibility. Credit science. Neither secularists nor the religious any longer fear either the divine caprices of the cosmos or the redemptive intervention of poetic justice. They don’t worry, as some did as recently as 75 years ago, about the actual possibility of the end of the world. They are concerned instead, and deeply, about any number of specific vulnerabilities tied to self and the pursuit of happiness, an approach that does few favors to notions of collective sacrifice and humility.
Many generations are accused of what a subsequent one labels me-ism, a self-ahead-of-society view of life. Every elder class denounces its offspring as self-indulgent. Sentimental talk of so-called if mostly nonexistent “good old days” is as old as humanity.
There were, however, days in which worry about larger-than-life forces made human beings aware if not concerned about the silhouette of personal honor, and the consequences of its violation. Peril shaped that honor, and filtered through Enlightenment thinking laid the groundwork for personal restraint, civics, and behavior suitable to a rationally governed, ogre-free world. Until the Holocaust and nuclear bombs forced “educated” humanity to rethink how ogres were manifest. Existentialism and its melancholy came of age as a result. With peril’s spirit revived, postwar thinkers briefly reinvigorated humility and redrew the map of personal and political restraint by reminding humans of their frailty.
But once again that humbling spirit is on the lam. The latest cancellation of peril, and the first in the post-world war age, dispenses with humility and modesty to better transact billions of instant daily skirmishes unwisely considered harmless. Humans now live peril-free, and the result is a species that while admittedly freer and more affluent than ever gives old ogres new and confrontational agency in a banshee self suspended from honor.