Category: Human Nature

On T.F. Powys and “The Soliloquy of a Hermit”

Man is a collection of atoms through which pass the moods of God…” T.F.Powys, “Soliloquy of a Hermit,” (Hardpress Publishing, Miami. Originally by G. Arnold Shaw, N.Y., 1916) On first read, this work comes off as obtuse commentary on the nature of man, the appeal of simplicity, and the misguided desire for immortality…with some incomprehensible Jesus language tossed in. I was unsurprised that both it and Powys are little known to modern readers. Finding its core, if core there were, would take patience. Who has time for that these days? But I’d come to the book via John Gray, a British political philosopher. Gray spends several pages in “The Soul of the Marionette” discussing Powys. So I explored what Gray and others had to say about him, then gave the book a second read. At some point (and with much help from Gray, on whom I draw for this review) I began to understand it.  Once I did, I found it so insightful I had to read it yet again.  It’s so full of pithy and even humorous commentary, I want to break it into chapter and verse and quote it like the Bible: Powys 6:23, or the like. The book’s original publisher calls it “religious psychology.” Gray and others speak of Powys’ as being “deeply but unconventionally religious.”  I presume, they mean religious from the monotheistic perspective. In...

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Empathy, acceptance and tolerance

This is a followup to my last post, because it seems mildly incomplete. I should have perhaps mentioned empathy.  Empathy seems to me the only means of truly communicating with anyone, of understanding them. It’s what we all want, for someone to see the world as we see it. And yet, a fully empathetic experience, actually getting into the head of another, being in their mind and experiencing emotions from their perspective, is not possible. Nor, I suspect, are we capable of understanding just how far apart from one another we really are. All of this begs for tolerance and acceptance of differences as critical to building relationships.  And it goes a long way towards explaining why the human race is in such trouble…and maybe why humanity today can be such a lonely...

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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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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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