Pride and Power (tools)


I have been dwelling on a philosophical conundrum this evening.  Being both Catholic and an admirer of C.S. Lewis’s apologetic works, I see merit in the belief that pride is the greatest sin, being the only sin that leads directly to others, putting self foremost.

What, then, does this mean for the pursuit of power in the form of tools with more capacity than one needs?  Tools that accomplish what you need to do fall outside the scope of this argument; I am thinking about tools that are likely more powerful (and stylish) than you need.  A homeowner probably won’t use a 1000 lb-foot gas-fired torque “wrench”, and a commuter probably won’t ever redline a V8 automobile, but both tools impel a visceral reaction.

(As my friends will attest, sooner or later, most any conversation with me eventually turns to cars.)

Is hot rodding your car motivated by pride or the desire for glory?  Often, I would guess, though there are certainly those who do it to learn, or out of a commitment to engineering excellence.  One could argue that people do not need 3000 horsepower drag cars, and yet the competition they represent has been hard fought for thousands of years by horseflesh, chariots, packet ships, Regency-era coaches, bicycles, wood-track cars, locomotives, and numerous other conveyances.  The nitromethane fueled cars of the dragstrip carry no cargo beyond their drivers and a parachute.  They cannot be viewed as dispassionate research into more efficient passenger and cargo movement.  Corn dogs and similar foods of enthusiasm seem to be inextricably involved in drag racing, for example, in a way that they are not in airline menus.  It is also worth considering the impossibility of routinely driving a vehicle capapble of 5.7G.  And yet, the struggle for more horsepower, more perfectly applied, leads to extraordinarily careful efforts in developing fuel delivery, chassis design, and aerodynamics.  Is there a way to dispense with pride and lust for glory in the automotive world, while retaining both engineering progress and enthusiasm?  Is this the right question?

I will say that the note of an old V8 simply sounds pleasant when driving over old country roads.  Is it because I sense the history behind the engine’s development and the concominant history of the buildings, billboards, restaurants, fields, I pass by?  If so, why would a young child smile at loud (probably fuel-inefficient) cars?  They undoubtedly don’t know about the Interstate Highway System, the flathead Ford, and the rest of it.  And yet, many kids really like powerful cars.  Perhaps it is simply that the hot car is an exception to the quiet norm, and a fun one at that.  Fun seems to be tied into the technical and historic appreciation of the car.

Enthusiasm matters.  “80 percent of success is showing up”, as Woody Allen put it, and you are more likely to show up if you care about the work at hand.  That crawling feeling in your stomach just before you punch the throttle, fire up the welder, or even as you make a final decision on the blueprints, says that you care about the result.  The child who smiles at the fast car might learn to work on his (/her) car a decade later, and the result of that work might well be a grin similar to that of 10 years previously.

I read somewhere that the fact that something is dangerous just means that it is powerful, and so it may be with the lure of that power.  It can be used to try to sate an unquenchable desire for glory, and it can be used to develop skills and knowledge, and have a little fun.  I can go to a gas station and buy a truly vast amount of energy in a 5 gallon can.  I could use it in my car to intimidate other drivers, to risk others’ safety out of some sense of power.  But it is worth noting that the desire for a more potent conveyance led to a situation, as P.J. O’Rourke writes, where “Forty years ago the pimply kid down the block, using $3,500 in saved-up soda-jerking money, procured might and main beyond the wildest dreams of Genghis Khan, whose hordes went forth to pillage mounted upon less oomph than is in a modern leaf blower.”  (WSJ,”The End of our Love Affair With Cars”, 5/30/2009)  Power to the people, indeed.

I suppose that the counter to pride in power would have to be humility, humility before the capabilities that we have.  I am glad to live in a world where I might commute further than many people, historically, ever traveled away from home.  I am also happy that work is ongoing to make that travel safer, less resource-intensive, cheaper, and faster.  All of these things make life better.  I shall have to remember that the power I have is a gift, and to shepherd it well, while also remembering that enthusiasm for the improved is very much a good, and only to be suspected when it turns toward enthusiasm for me.

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