The Shield of Achilles: Security, Vulnerability, and Paranoia

I imagine readers are familiar with the myth of Achilles, the central character of Homer’s Iliad. There is something about Achilles that strikes me as particular meaningful to our times.

Achilles (you may recall) was a demi-god, a hybrid of the immortal and mortal, son of the nymph Thetis and the mortal Peleus, King of the Myrmidons. Upon his birth, his mother immersed him in fire (or the water of the river Styx, depending on the story) to endow him with the gift of invincibility. Only where Thetis had held the boy by the ankle while doing so, this part remained mortal, human, and a point of vulnerability. Hence, we have the phrase “Achilles’ heel”.

It’s uncertain from the stories whether Achilles was aware of this particular point of vulnerability, since he was a well-armoured warrior. It can be surmised that Achilles, despite being invulnerable, depended upon his armour because he was aware of a vulnerability, but not of where his mortal and fateful vulnerability lay.

Achilles is akin to the contemporary Nation State, which is also a kind of hybrid of immortal and mortal form. It’s “immortality” (always relative as history demonstrates) is evinced by the fact that it is polychrone in nature (but not timeless, not eternal). The state, the nation, endures despite the passing of many generations. And although it wants to be, and pretends to be, timeless and eternal form, it is also mortal form, subject to change and impermanence. This contradiction lies at its heart.

“The end of something often resembles the beginning. More often than not our nose-to-the-glass view makes us believe that the end we are living is in fact a new beginning. This confusion is typical of an old civilization’s self-confidence — limited by circumstances and by an absence of memory — and in many ways resembling the sort often produced by senility. Our rational need to control understanding and therefore memory has simply accentuated the confusion….Nothing seems more permanent than a long-established government about to lose power, nothing more invincible than a grand army on the morning of its annihilation.” — John Ralston Saul

Because it is mortal form, it has vulnerability. Against such vulnerability, it armours itself. But because, like Achilles, it can never be certain of where its vulnerability actually lies, anything and everything (or anyone and everyone) can become an “existential threat”, including its own populace. And thus the State armours itself, too, against its own people. It becomes, tautologically, a paranoid state in a state of paranoia. No amount of armour is enough. No amount of spying is enough. No degree of security will ever be satisfied. One knows one is “vulnerable”, but now where the vulnerability may actually lie.

The situation of contradiction reminds me of a passage from Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality,

“Death is everywhere. It may be the headlights of a car on a hilltop in the distance behind. They may remain visible for a while, and disappear into the darkness as if they had been scooped away; only to appear on another hilltop, and then disappear again. Those are the lights on the head of death. Death puts them on like a hat and then shoots off on a gallop, gaining on us, getting closer and closer. Sometimes it turns off its lights. But death never stops.

Death is a twirl; death is a shiny cloud over the horizon; death is me talking to you; death is you and your writing pad; death is nothing. Nothing! It is here, yet it isn’t here at all.”

Any actual “change” may be an exposure to a vulnerability, and so despite a great deal of lip-service being paid to political and social “change”, change is the one thing that is to be avoided at any cost. This reflects that implicit condition of self-contradiction that the State attempts to conceal from itself and others, but which tension compels it nonetheless to change despite itself, even as it tries to prevent it. And it is this, its own self-contradiction, that is ultimately its “Achilles heel”. Or, as John Ralston Saul put it, its own myopic “nose-against-the-glass view”.

Self-contradiction is nihilistic. Two contrary values meet like matter and anti-matter, become mutually annihilate, and leave a void of meaninglessness. This process corresponds to Nietzsche’s description of nihilism: “All higher values devalue themselves”.

In the case of the State, those two values are power and truth, which is why they presently exist in an antagonistic relationship, for power wants to be immortal and invincible, and that means infinite, while the truth is — there are no immortal processes; no eternal forms.

The State is a “pagan” institution in the real sense because of this self-contradiction. It wants to be eternal, deathless, timeless, changeless, which it cannot be. Against this “pagan” view, Christianity taught rather that all forms are polychrone — they survive only by death and resurrection. And, in the case of Thomas Jefferson, this was the principle that informed his view of the proper order of life and liberty, when he commented on the draft of the new Constitution,

“God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independant 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in god this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.” – Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Paris, 13 Nov. 1787

Death and resurrection is the implicit principle Jefferson is defending here against any proposal for a “steady-state” or timeless immortality of State forms. The roots of these two contradicting attitudes towards all forms are ancient, going back to the controversy between Parmenides’ “Being” and Heraclitus’ “Becoming” or flux. Only a faithless State strives to become invincible, and that means immortal, and that means infinite.

And the Infinite State is what is concealed in names like “Boundless Informant” and “Total Information Awareness”, and it assumes this ancient form of the ouroboros,



One response to “The Shield of Achilles: Security, Vulnerability, and Paranoia”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    It seems to me that the Achilles Heel of Nation States that act in line with the public Will and those that act against the public Will is those individuals that slip through the cracks in a bad or a good way, respectively.

    As Jefferson said “The people can not be all, and always, well informed.” That also means that not everyone can be brainwashed at all times. There always be someone in the power structure who will escape the scrutiny to shake the foundations of the malevolent power elite. But this won’t always happen with the drama and publicity of Snowden’s case. For every Snowden, there will always be thousands upon thousands who will fight unjust systems without ever receiving the exposure and coverage that Snowden did. Human consciousness is so unpredictable.

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