The Owl of Minerva – Can the West recover from gorging on greed?

By Peter Corney

The Owl of Minerva
Photo by takomabibelot

On Saturday March 21st this year The Age carried an unusual graphic with the lead story in the business section. The story was about the international financial crisis and excessive executive payouts. It showed an engraving of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and an angel standing guard at the entrance, except that the entrance was to a bank! The bi line was, “Where to after the fall?”

Like most of us I had been ruefully reflecting on the state of things since the global financial meltdown, including my super fund! But the Age graphic started me thinking more deeply. I was further stimulated and disturbed by the reflections of five eminent economists and social commentators in the May issue of The Monthly on Kevin Rudd’s February article on the global financial crisis. Maybe there is no quick way back to the West’s financial affluence and security, no way back to Eden. Maybe this is the beginning of the big shift in the geo – political tectonic plates, the epochal change in the balance of power. Perhaps this is the sunset of the West.

My mind turned to a favorite film – Blade Runner. In Ridley Scott’s iconic film we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the future (2019). The setting is bleak; ‘ecological disaster, urban overcrowding, a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, decadence and squalid homelessness.’ *  But juxtaposed with this social decay is brilliant technological achievement. High above the teeming filthy streets live the wealthy few in luxurious gated skyscrapers.

In one of the early scenes we find ourselves in the head office of a high tech corporation who are the creators of Cyborgs – advanced robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. But some of the Cyborgs have gone feral and hunting them down is the core of the films plot. A ‘Blade Runner’ is a bounty hunter of rogue Cyborgs.

As we view the interior of the luxurious penthouse office we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the Owl takes flight, passing in front of the vast plate glass windows behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting.

The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the Goddess Minerva, Goddess of wisdom. But it was the German Philosopher Hegel who famously wrote …the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk…, by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away.

This image right at the beginning of Blade Runner is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of our epoch will look like – the twilight of Modernity and Post or Hyper Modernity.*

The question for us is: As the Owl spreads its wings and the sun sets on Western Culture is our wisdom about the cause of its decay clear and sharp enough to enable us to transform it from it from decay to renewal? Or, to change the image, has the West fallen so far from the values and world view that produced it and delivered us something close to Eden that we can’t get back?   (* For a fascinating interpretation of the film along these lines see Jay Clayton ‘Concealed Circuts’ in Raritan Quaterly Review No 15 Vol 4)

  • Kevin Sarlow

    To me, Westernism typifies the following:
    greed, gluttony, affluence and apathy. And I am caught up in it.
    Yet, I hear the gracious call of the Gospel to:
    compassionate caring, selfless servanthood, generous giving and beautifying brokenness.

    If Minerva’s owl has flown at the ‘dusk of Westerism’, then the challenge for us Christians is:
    How do we offer the western world a better way?

    Change can only come through the Church when it offers itself in costly grace to a broken world.

  • Peter Corney

    I agree with your sentiments Kevin. we must become a more distinct counter culture. Peter C

  • Kevin Sarlow

    Thanks Peter,

    My concern is also that our Western culture (even as it permeates the Church) may still try to continue on, oblivious of its own demise. So, the prophetic and gracious call of Christ comes and awakens us out of our own blindness and apathy, reminding us of the futility of affluence. We, who will listen, will hear him calling us out of the Western mindset of greed and gluttony. To follow Jesus like this is true discipleship. It is a discipleship that is driven by thankfulness for his mercy and grace, and displayed in our living by love for God and one another.

  • David Hyde

    Thanks for this insightful comment on the owl in BLADE RUNNER (based on Philip K. Dick’s novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?). Your sunset idea and the owl as fleeting symbol is a new one to me.