Month: November 2016

Reflections on early civilizations and social stratification

I’ve spent six years now traveling throughout Western Europe, also reading histories of western civilization…from earliest prehistory to modernity.  I’ve but scratched the surface, I know…an adequate appreciation would require a lifetime.  But even with my limited exposure, there is one theme I see virtually taken for granted rather than deeply explored:  social stratification, class and the distribution of power and wealth.  The effects have been hugely studied: feudalism, the French Revolution, colonialism and imperialism, capitalism and Marxism and communism, slave revolts, American civil rights,  even in budding movements like Occupy Wall Street within the U.S. today.  And the recent election in the U.S. is no less a reflection of its continuing dominance.  But I want to know the when, the how and the why:  When, how and why did differentiation and stratification by income and social status begin?  What are its drivers?  Why has it been so ubiquitous throughout history, and why have the less empowered classes accepted it so readily?  And what’s more, why throughout history have those in power so insistently treated their “lessers” like dirt…and why do the underprivileged so readily put up with it? This seems indeed a ubiquitous theme throughout all recorded history, and not just in the West…Ancient Egypt, the Middle East, the Orient, India all did the same.  A cursory consideration would suggest it arose in the Neolithic with the onset...

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Hubris…

Concluding a week in Rome, I stood yesterday at the top of the monument to Emmanuel Vittoria II, liberator and first king of the unified Italy that emerged in the 1860’s. Wikipedia records the monument (including the statues atop it) as 443 ft wide and 266 ft high, with an area of 20,332 square yards. The 360 degree Rome skyline includes the ruins of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, remnants of colossal temples, dozens of standing domes and obelisks, and the astonishing wealth of the Vatican…itself an ironical tribute to a child born in a barn. The singular, recurring word in my head was “hubris.” All these pretensions to eternal power and esteem, sad reflection on how a small, insignificant and transient creature graced with a remarkable brain and opposable thumbs has chosen to express his gratitude for such gifts.   I came home and looked up Percy Bysshe Shelly’s poem to the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Ramesses was an Egyptian king who, 3,500 years ago, had similar aspirations. Here is the final stanza: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.” –Percy Bysshe Shelley...

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Man, the great paradox…

…capable of incredible beauty and massive destruction, unselfish kindness and unspeakable cruelty.  With a brain the size of a melon and couple of opposable thumbs, we conceive of and build the World Trade Center and the transistor, produce art from the  Sistine Chapel to street graffiti,  create the music of Mozart and the Sex Pistols.  We’ve produced Einstein and da Vinci, but also Hitler and Idi Amin.  We create artificial kidneys and hearts to save lives, but also napalm and nuclear weapons to destroy them.  We develop complex civilizations like Egypt and Greece and Rome, or those of the Aztecs and Mayans and Incas…then destroy them to build others and ultimately destroy those, too.   Who are we?  What are we?  Why are we?  Where are we going?  I know, of course, the academic answers…and maybe some of proposed by the existentialists.  But that’s not what I’m asking.  These are just thoughts that occur to me after walking through Florence and Rome over the last couple of weeks…and yes, admittedly, reflecting on Tuesday’s election....

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War in Human Civilization, by Azar Gat

This is the last of a trilogy of posts on death and destruction.  Then we can move on to something serious… So, I spent the time since my last post reading War in Human Civilization, by Azar Gat. Gat is Ezer Weitzman Professor of National Security in the Department of Political Sciences, Tel Aviv University. I wanted closure on this theme before moving on, so I pulled this title (purchased long ago) from my digital bookshelf and dove into it. What I found was not only closure, but also validation.  Gat offers a rare multi-disciplary perspective on this topic, combining a history of intrahuman fighting at every scale with insights from anthropology, archeology, psychology, ethology, economics, history and political science, and a dash of genetics…an undertaking of some 10 years. He spans prehistoric aboriginal fighting to 21st century nuclear proliferation and terrorism. And in the end, his conclusions are forthright. Simplest is to quote directly from his concluding chapter: “…there is nothing special about deadly human violence and war. Fundamentally, the solution to the ‘enigma of war’ is that no such enigma exists. Violent competion, alias conflict–including intraspecific conflict–is the rule throughout nature, as organisms vie among themselves to survive and reproduce under ever-present conditions of acute scarcity, conditions accentuated by their own process of propagation.” Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization, Oxford University Press 2006. In essence, his...

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