Lately I was watching an old favourite British television series, “The Prisoner”, starring Patrick McGoohan. The series ran for a mere 17 episodes, ending in 1968. In its time it was ground-breaking, combining psychological drama with biting social commentary and allegorical symbolism—perhaps a little too ground-breaking, which is why it ended after a mere 17 episodes. McGoohan had previously starred in the spy series “Danger Man” (shown in America under the title “Secret Agent”), and viewers were looking for more of the same. They wanted another Danger Man with spy gadgets and fist fights, not a Kafkaesque critique of society.
The series featured McGoohan as someone who had suddenly resigned from his government spy job. He was abducted and woke up in a place called “the Village”, a self-contained community purporting to provide its happy contented citizens with all they needed, but in fact was a political prison where people like McGoohan were kept—a kind of up-scale luxurious gulag. No one had any names there, but simply numbers. McGoohan was Number Six. The head administrator, replaced at regular intervals, was Number Two. No one ever saw Number One, though he ran everything. The series revolved around Number Six’s attempts to resist indoctrination and to escape. Under the image of the Village the series offered a critique of our own society, which depersonalizes and offers pleasure and security in exchange for true freedom. I only noticed much later that there was no church in the Village. The dead there were carried out to burial to the accompaniment of a brass band, which only ever played marching songs.
Its second episode was entitled, “Free for All” and featured Number Six running for office in the Village—in particular, for the job of being Number Two. The current Number Two argued that lack of political opposition was not good for their community: “These people don’t seem to appreciate the value of free elections. They think it’s a game.” Number Six, though sceptical that anything could really change if he won, was persuaded to run in hopes of changing the system and freeing other citizens. The episode ends with him winning, but discovering that in fact the election was indeed a sham and simply another attempt to demoralize and break him. Another Number Two succeeded the old Number Two, but the totalitarian grip of the Village on its citizens remained intact. The election turned out to be a game after all. Someone made an ironic pun at the expense of Number Six with words of the old saying, “Six of one, half a dozen of the other”: it didn’t really matter who one voted for—the real power remained in the fact of the Village itself.
McGoohan’s point was that all societies program their citizens, and feed them only the information they want them to have, thus pre-determining their choices within certain parameters. True freedom in this age is largely illusory, unless it is rooted within the human person who is able to see through the lies which pervade society. It was hard for me not to think of current events as I watched the old series, for some of its lessons are timeless. For a Christian, the lessons learned from Number Six’s struggles within the Village are threefold.
Firstly, all human societies form part of the World, which lies under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19), whatever political system that society utilizes and whichever leader it follows. That does not mean, of course, that it is a mere toss up between a liberal democracy which allows dissent and a totalitarian regime where dissenters disappear overnight into a gulag. The former is definitely preferable, and I am happy to inhabit one. It also does not mean that it does not matter which leader we choose, for some leaders if chosen will do more harm than others. But it does mean that we must not mistake our liberal democracy for the Kingdom of God, or think that it is somehow exempt from the power of the Evil One. If Satan is the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4) then in some sense he is a god in America as well as in Russia, Syria, or any other part of this world. We should vote, and may debate (politely, please), and maybe even campaign for the political candidates of our choice. But we must do so knowing that no leader will bring in the Kingdom of God, and that our ultimate allegiance lies with Jesus Christ, not with any earthly leader or system. At the end of the day, the World is still the World.
Secondly, we can expect then that the World will lie to us and offer us a steady diet of falsehood from the father of lies. We cannot always know which bits we find in our media are the lies, but we can be sure we are being lied to somehow. All the more sensible to sit rather lightly on all that we think we know. We must constantly remind ourselves that in this age, “we see through a glass darkly” and “know in part”— knowing perhaps even less than we imagine we do. At best the World offers us half-truths, and the problem with half-truths is that one usually fastens on the wrong half. It is only in Christ and the Holy Tradition of His Church that fullness of truth can be found, unmixed with any error. I used to think it was a tad irresponsible of C.S. Lewis not to read newspapers on the basis that they contained so many distortions and lies. Now I am not so sure that he wasn’t on to something. I still read papers and listen to the news, but I believe less and less of what I am told.
Thirdly, our hearts must be set on the day of our escape from this World at the Second Coming and on our entry into true freedom, for such an attitude is the only path to true interior freedom and authentic personhood here and now. One problem with becoming immersed in politics is that we run the risk of forgetting what the true and lasting issues of life and death really are. We are meant to keep at least one eye on the horizon, with the prayer “Maranatha!” in our heart, for our true citizenship is not here but in heaven (Philippians 3:20). A very early prayer said, “Let grace come and let the world pass away!” I often think of that prayer whenever I vote, and am sometimes tempted to write it on the ballot. But whether I utter the prayer or not, the world certainly will one day pass away, and grace certainly will one day come. “Six of one, half a dozen of the other”? Certainly that seems true in this age. But there remains a third option, what St. Paul called “the Blessed Hope”. May that hope be realized soon.