Some of you may be wondering why this blog is named “Blundering Oracle” and what’s up with the subtitle “Challenging Blind Obedience.”
Both phrases are derived from a single sentence in Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”:
“So much for blind obedience to a blundering oracle, throwing the stones over their heads behind them and not knowing where they fell.”
I had remembered the phrase “blind obedience to a blundering oracle” from prior readings and thought it had potential. So what does it mean? Merriam-Webster’s two main definitions of an oracle are “a person (such as a priestess of ancient Greece) through whom a deity is believed to speak” and “a person giving wise or authoritative decisions or opinions.”
Minor definitions include “a shrine in which a deity reveals hidden knowledge or the divine purpose through such a person,” “an answer or decision given by an oracle,” and “an authoritative or wise expression or answer.”
Up until now I hadn’t thought too much about the oracle Thoreau was talking about, but knowing about it helps make sense of his comment. Google and Wikipedia helped a lot here. Thoreau referenced a Greek myth about the deluge. In it, Deucalion consulted an oracle about how to repopulate the world after the flood. The oracle told him “cover your head and throw the bones of your mother behind your shoulder.” Substitute rocks for bones and Gaia (Mother Earth) for mother, and you have it: Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha repopulated the world by being blindly obedient to an oracle, throwing stones — bones of Mother Earth — and not knowing where they landed. The stones turned into people. It seems that Thoreau didn’t have a very high opinion of the oracle.
Was there really a time when we read this stuff in American public high schools?
At any rate, “Blundering Oracle” felt like a perfect bit for someone offering opinions on an obscure blog. It is pretentious and self-deprecating at the same time. The world is full of people claiming to have some kind of authority and demonstrating little humility while being utterly (or at least arguably) wrong.
As to “Challenging Blind Obedience” part, I have a problem with authority. No, it’s not that I cannot acknowledge or respect credentials and qualifications. I have a problem with people who think or assert they can tell me what to do while lacking credentials and qualifications. You could say that I have a problem with self-appointed or sketchy “authorities”.
Really, I have a problem with authoritarianism.
I used to think that liberty was an American core value. We claim it is. We have a Statue of Liberty, the motto “Liberty” on our coins, and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in our Declaration of Independence.
What I’ve learned (and what the last presidential election demonstrates to me), is that some portion of Americans can be persuaded to vote for a candidate who promises — threatens, really — to impose his will on others. Essentially, we threw liberty under the bus for a populist authoritarian. Authoritarianism is one of the defining characteristics of the current American administration, in my opinion, and they’re not shy about it. It obviously resonates with somebody.
We also claim to have a high regard for facts and fairness. What was Superman fighting for? “Truth, justice, and the American way.” Yet our discourse is often untrue and unjust. Truth is labeled as “fake news” by people who hold opposing opinions, beliefs or interests. Fake is anything they don’t like. Justice is getting their way.
Blind obedience deserves to be challenged, not for the sake of being contrary, but for the sake of doing the right thing — speaking truth to power. Authority needs to be challenged and limited or there is no making America great for anybody other than the powers that be.