One way to answer this provocative question is to see this within the crisis of faith that permeates Modernism. Institutions such as church and state were deeply compromised in this era and the strong claims for truth and justice they espoused seen as empty. Certainly for Yeats, the Irish Catholic...
One way to answer this provocative question is to see this within the crisis of faith that permeates Modernism. Institutions such as church and state were deeply compromised in this era and the strong claims for truth and justice they espoused seen as empty. Certainly for Yeats, the Irish Catholic Church—but also Anglicanism—held less force, despite Yeats being a spiritual thinker. Eliot, too, changed religions, becoming Catholic in part because of its tradition of rationalism and deep traditions. Nationalism and colonialism were creating obvious problems of credibility. War in Europe and elsewhere exposed the failure of states and the propaganda that partially maintained their legitimacy.
For Yeats, then, the best people can to see these flaws of intellect and of ethics and of courage and to deeply suspect strong arguments for any particular view. Like Prufrock, the best of this Modern period seemed to lack a sense of authority untainted by the errors that had created the crises surrounding them. As Prufrock claims, "I am not Prince Hamlet." He seeks to abandon his agency, preferring instead to be an "attendant lord." Similarly, the gunman is perfectly balanced in the air, in and his values. He joined the air force because he wanted to fight but does not particularly care for the cause he defends or hate the cause he is meant to destroy. He achieves great self-awareness in Yeats's poem, but this awareness leads him only to an understanding that his death has no meaning and that his life has not been directed toward anything but a "waste of breath"—certainly not a conviction of value.
On the other extreme are the worst people, full of the erroneous convictions, unwilling to think deeply about the implications of the views they advocate. This passionate intensity, the violence that overwhelms thought, leads the airman to battle, causes the center to not hold, and devastates those who seek an alternative way through a crisis of thought and faith. In both "Prufrock" and "The Airman," we see the challenge to be heroic overwhelmed by the self-consciousness of the act, springing largely from a keen sense that one is not filled with the certainty needed to address the larger issues of the moment.