Continuing "Are We the People?"...
What is this great beast? What is the monster that Steinbeck describes? An institution, a social structure created by human beings. With no actual reality, except in the minds of the people who believe in it. Yet, as more and more people gather, believing in and submitting themselves to its order and purposes, it gains power in men's minds, great power, seeming to become something much greater than ourselves. Those who believe and serve it become dependent on it, dependent for their very lives. And it grows in complexity and influence until it eventually reaches the point where no human leadership seems to be in control of it; it seems to have taken on a life of its own.
“Men made it but they can't control it …it can make men do what it wants.”
Isn't this what an idol is? The work of men's hands, yet with the apparent power of a god, that people depend on, and fear, and serve. With no reality in itself, yet very real in the minds of those who believe in it. Wielding great power through those people.
And wasn't that always the nature of idols? They represented local gods, wielding power over the inhabitants of a city or region. Where they were believed in they truly seemed to have power, and their power was precisely the power of their united, organized believers. When the people were defeated by another people, their god either disappeared or took its place with the defeated people, submitting to the victorious people's god. The power of the idol was and always is the power of the people.
But that power can seem very great. We, the People—the monster, the Great Beast—even appears to have the power to define good and evil. Weil borrowed the image of a great beast from this passage of Plato's Republic (where Plato critiques those who are “wise” through their study of collective society):
I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong beast who is fed by him—he would learn how to approach and handle him, also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse, and what is the meaning of his several cries, and by what sounds, when another utters them, he is soothed or infuriated; and you may suppose further, that when, by continually attending upon him, he has become perfect in all this, he calls his knowledge wisdom, and makes of it a system or art, which he proceeds to teach, although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking, but calls this honorable and that dishonorable, or good or evil, or just or unjust, all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute. Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes…To Plato's observation, Weil adds this insight: “The power of the social element. Agreement between several men brings with it a feeling of reality. It brings with it also a sense of duty. Divergence, where this agreement is concerned, appears as a sin. Hence all returns to the fold are possible. The state of conformity is an imitation of grace.”
We, the People is a demanding god, but also a forgiving god. If you conform you are accepted, and a use is found for you.
We desire so much to be forgiven and accepted. To become a part of something greater than ourselves, to be united as one with our fellow human beings. And with good reason; we were created for this. But there is only one real, living, corporate Body, and it is not created by us. All other corporate "bodies" are lies, false substitutions for the living One. They are idols.
Now it may seem that the belief and participation in collective "bodies," our creation and service of human institutions, is too widespread to be considered idolatry. It pervades our whole society, both now and throughout history. But we should recall that Jesus' term for those who do not serve God was "the world."