Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Axial Age – Man Becomes a Philosopher

The Axial Age or Axial Period, as its sometimes called, was the period of antiquity circa 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. characterized by human thought directed toward understanding man’s place in the world. That inquiry sought a moral structure which would explain how man should live his life to achieve happiness and be in balance with the wishes of the gods. The Axial Age was not confined only to the West, but spanned the globe from the Middle East, though India, and included China. It featured individuals such as Plato, Confucius, Buddha, and Jeremiah, whose ideas had a profound influence on the future of religion and philosophy. The fact that these thinkers lived across the globe and emerged at nearly the same period in history suggests that human moral evolution had reached the same point simultaneously, perhaps under the  influence of common factors.

Take a look at the graphic below which shows the timeline of the advent of philosophy/religion across the great cultures.

We’ve discussed the stages of Greek history many times. Greek philosophy began when its founders sought to explain the universe. Once the universe was placed in a philosophical framework, man began to think about his place in it. He wondered about the purpose of life, how the universe came into being, and how he could live in harmony with the wishes of the gods. Greek philosophy was built upon the foundation of Plato and Aristotle who represented the idealistic and practical approaches to an understanding of the world.

Nearly simultaneous with Greek philosophical development was the advent of philosophical systems under Buddha, Confucius, and the Hindu priests who had adapted the ancient Vedic religion to their time. In the middle east, the Jewish religion developed out of the monotheism of Zoroastrianism. Religion was fused with philosophy. The gods were assumed to exist and what remained was for man to decipher their wishes.

The label Axial Age was first described by the philosopher Karl Jaspers who wrote about the evolution of human thought during the first millennium B.C. Jaspers introduced the concept in a book called The Origin and Goal of History, published in 1968. He considered the Axial Age as unique and one which ushered in the age of human thought. The term Axial is a translation of the German word for pivot, referring to a change human in direction.

Like any new idea the Axial Age has its proponents and detractors. Let’s delve into that a little further.

In the previous post, I discussed the book Why the West Rules, by Ian Morris. Morris is supporter of the Axial Period as a change in the direction of human history, although with reservations. I quote from his book: “Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher struggling to make sense of the moral crisis of his day, called the centuries around 500 B.C. the Axial Age…Jaspers portentously declared, ‘Man as we know him today, came into being’”

Morris has some interesting thoughts on the Greeks and Romans.

He states:

“Greece’s real contribution to Axial thought came not from Democrats, but from the critics of Democracy, led by Socrates. Greece, he argued, didn’t need democracies, which merely pooled the ignorance of men who judged everything by appearances; what it needed was men like himself, who knew when it came to the one thing that mattered – the nature of the good – they knew nothing. Only such men could hope to understand the good… through reason, honed in philosophical debate.”

Of course the beliefs of Socrates were carried forward by his pupil Plato in The Republic and Laws, and Plato’s successor Aristotle in Ethics and Politics.

Morris doubts whether the philosophical geniuses of the first millennium B.C. guided societies through some type of intellectual barrier. He gives three reasons for this opinion: 1) the Axial Period covered many centuries and is not a sudden event, 2) the most important Axial thinkers came from small communities and were not well known, and 3) since Axial thinking was a reaction against kings and their bureaucrats, its real contribution was in the area of social development, not societal behavior.

Morris believes that the real engine for the advancement of man was the character of man himself: lazy, greedy, and frightened. Morris believes these are the true characteristics that propel the human race forward. He uses the Romans to prove his point.

“It was a spectacular example of the advantages of backwardness, combining organizational methods pioneered in an older core with military methods honed on a violent frontier. It slaughtered, enslaved, and dispossessed millions; and drove social development at an accelerated pace.”

Another more adamant critic of the Axial Period was Antony Black, writing in the Review of Politics, 2008.

Black disputes any notion of an Axial “Period” because the change was not rapid enough and did not involve a greater number of cultures. He agrees that this period saw an advancement in complex human but wonders if it were merely due to the state of societies of that time - that turmoil was causing a rejection of the status quo and the desire to “invent” a new path forward. A rational view would dictate that power be based on merit instead of birth and that the rich should care for the poor and this intellectualizing of human behavior eventually led to a deepening relationship among members of a society who shared a common belief.


I find Jaspers theory quite interesting. The fact that the tendency to complex human thought sprang up at approximately the same time in human history indicated a common human desire to create philosophical systems which would light the way for man to achieve wisdom. Whether it was a driving force or an incidental attribute of forces already at work, is a matter for future debate. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Socio-Economic Class in Human Society II

In the last post we discussed the first stage in the development of human society, where men distinguished themselves through physical strength or ability in war to become leaders. Heredity provided a leader’s family with some prestige security, but it was not until the elite began to accumulate wealth through ownership of land that they were able to separate themselves permanently from the lower class.

So, what remained, then, was for the non-wealthy class to differentiate itself. This process eventually produced a class of nobility and a middle class which was able to separate itself from the poor. In many societies slaves were added along the way to form a permanent underclass, sitting beneath the lowest class of freemen. In the end, a fully differentiated socio-economic model resulted, which was the parent of the human society we have today.

There were two main drivers for the differentiation of the lower classes: demand for goods and services by the wealthy and demand for community-wide specialized skills resulting from growth of the population. The wealthy were interested in the goods required to support the prestige of their position – fancy clothing, exotic foods, jewelry, perfume, transportation, and tutors for their children. They also had idle time which needed to be filled by social events, travel, or sport.

The lower class become differentiated above the level of the common laborer when its most able members realized that they could use their unique skills to earn money. Those who were good with their hands could become carpenters, while those with a good ear could become musicians. Analytical types might become accountants or money lenders. All of this was possible because a densely packed population could feed itself from the output of the local farmer. Man now had the time develop his skills, because he didn’t have to look for food.

As crafts developed, some were more prized than others, so the individuals with those skills could expect to earn more money. Some crafts, by their nature, were looked down upon. For example, undertakers and butchers were considered inferior, while those engaged in intellectual pursuits were admired. To the wealthy, all skills not engaged in by them were seen as lowly, especially those where a man had to get his hands dirty.

The Nobility was a sub-class consisting of those individuals who were able to climb above the rest of the middle class. One might call this group “new money” describing a recent status change as opposed to the “old money” of the permanently wealthy. The nobility included those who were either intelligent or resourceful enough to rise to a position of authority or wealth. During the period of the Roman Republic, the Knights (Equites) were the nobility class. Originally cavalry men who were wealthy enough to buy horses and equipment, the knights later took the role of businessmen, working at professions deemed inferior by the patricians, but necessary to them. Cicero was a classic example. Raised as a pleb, he so impressed the elites by his legal skill and oratory, he was elevated to the nobility.

Lastly, we have the development of a slave class, always the lowest class in any society. Slavery can have several definitions, but we will use Aristotle’s as a typical example.

“A slave is a living possession, who is by nature not his own but another’s and yet a man”

Slavery was a bi-product of the maturing human society and did not exist before man developed agriculture. The reason is a practical one in that nomadic tribes had no way to manage slaves while they were on the move. Without close management, slaves would attempt to escape whenever the opportunity arose.

In the history of human society slavery has two types - intra-tribal and extra-tribal. Intra-tribal slavery occurs when members of a community lose their status and fall into a subservient position. An example would be someone who cannot repay his debts or commits a serious crime. Extra-tribal slavery occurs when one group is defeated in war by another and is absorbed into the victor’s population.

Often, the existence of a slave class has an adverse effect on the society. As unpaid laborers, the slaves contribute to high productivity, but they also displace the lower classes from the job market. During the Roman Republic, the accumulation of wealth among a few patricians and their use of slave labor to work their estates led to the death of the small farm and the unemployment of the small farmer. Eventually, there was an exodus of displaced persons to Rome where they became restless urban poor.

Socio-Economic Class in Human Society

We need to let the Spartans rest for a while and move on to other things, namely a discussion of socio-economic class in the history of human society. A pioneer in studying the subject was Gunnar Landtman, the first modern sociological anthropologist. Landtman was Finnish (1878-1940) and he is best known for his study of the cultural behavior of the Papuan tribes of the Pacific. This, and other research he performed, became the basis for one of his best known works, The Origin of the Inequality of the Social Classes.

So, we will dedicate a couple of posts to discussing Landtman’s work. Why? Because the ancient societies developed via the dynamics Landtman describes. Understanding these dynamics not only gives us a view into the early political systems, but also describes what we see in society today. The forward motion of any culture and its political system is constrained by the inherent nature of human beings. If you take geography, climate, and natural resources as catalysts, mix in a large group of people, you get a culture that reflects the character of the environment experienced through those people. One need only reflect on the deserts surrounding Egypt, the mountains of Greece, or the inland position of Rome to understand this.

Landtman starts with the notion of equality as a measure of human society. What is equality? We know that people are not physically or mentally equal, so how can they be equal in society? We can create laws that apply to everyone, but still some will be find an advantage or disadvantage in those laws. In America, we like to think we have equal opportunity, which is a practical form of equality, but even here we must admit that opportunities are only equal for those with equal capabilities and an equal starting point.

As Landtman tells us:

“It is true that, in a certain measure, individual and social differences go together. In every society a man’s social status is more or less influenced by his personal qualifications. People hold an individual of superior ability in higher esteem than others, and value his opinion, whereas the worthless are looked down upon. From the sociological point of view such an individual inequality appears in every respect natural, and consequently unavoidable. We may safely venture the assertion that no human society has ever existed or will ever exist where the social standing and influence of the different individuals does not vary according to their personal merits or demerits.”

Aristotle said, “For that some should rule and other be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

This reality will work against reformers who attempt to abolish the social classes and make us all equal. As Landtman points out, the irony of class leveling is that the most primitive societies have class equality inherent in their structure, but the more developed a society becomes, the more difficult it is to break down class distinctions.

What is it that begins class development progress? Let’s go back to a primitive society, most likely nomadic, where there are no class distinctions. In the beginning, we see the rising of those who are able to use their exceptional qualities to gain influence over other men. The most obvious examples are physical strength and leadership, which are critical in time of war. Every tribe has to protect itself and fight other tribes for dominance. It may lose if weak or win if strong. The leaders on the winning side earn admiration and move into a “class by themselves”. When they have become separated of from others based on perceived status, we have the beginning of a class system. The leader’s trophies of war serve as physical reminders for others who is superior.

Like leadership and courage in war elevate an individual in society and separate him from peers, weakness and cowardice have the opposite effect. Those who may have some superior talents find themselves lowered in status or outcast by their negative traits.

Heredity also plays a part in validating superior status. Those individuals born into “old” families have prestige over those born into “new” families because older families have generations of proof to demonstrate their pedigree. This allows them to avoid the scrutiny placed on the offspring of new families. Although heredity may give some sanction to a family and its leaders, its tradition is still tied to the accomplishments of each generation. One or more failures and the chain is broken.

Acquiring wealth is the most permanent way to insure superior status in a society. In ancient times wealth came from property and property separated a man’s status from his physical attributes. Even though the first landholders were leaders, their wealth was passed on to later generations who may not have possessed the same physical skills. Of course, the ownership of land could not become a factor in creating social class until man had given up his nomadic ways and settled in a particular location. Like today, land and the wealth derived from it accumulates quickly so the wealthy become separated from the masses in a few generations. Those lacking wealth were an undifferentiated population – separate from the elite but equal among themselves.

After a time, we ended up with what Aristotle describes below.
“Those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends and the like, are neither able or willing to submit to authority… On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme are degraded. So that one class cannot obey and can only rule despotically; the other knows not to command and must be ruled like slaves. Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying.”

We see that the first socio-economic class developed in human society consisted of a wealthy class built through the accumulation of land which was passed on through generations. The masses would not be able to differentiate themselves until population density created demand for a differentiated worker class and the wealthy desired goods an undifferentiated lower class could not provide. Without power over the wealthy, the lower classes could not demand the rights that come with a democratic government. It would take centuries for that power to become a force for change.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Leveling Society and its Effects

Toynbee, in his chapter titled Social Effects of the Lycurgan Reforms, wrote the following:

“A tug-o’-war between public and private interests at Sparta gradually produced the peculiar Spartan spirit in which the way of life was reflected. The pressures that, at Sparta, were stamping human nature with this peculiar imprint became more and more severe as Sparta’s situation, within her own dominions and abroad, became more and more difficult. But even the utmost turn of the screw could not change human nature. All that it could do was to repress nature; and, if and when the pressure was removed or was even just relaxed, the rebound of human nature was correspondingly violent.”

This quote, as it relates to the Spartans, will be discussed in the next post, but I will use it here to reference the political situation in the United States today. As my readers know, one of the themes of this blog is “relating ancient history to today”. This is one of those comparison points -- the situation where the American Progressive movement is hard at its attempt to implement neo-socialism in America. Neo-socialism, in my use, refers to government control of industry rather than the more classic definition of government ownership. We see government now controlling health care, wanting to control our relationship to the environment, these initiatives to be funded by a re-distribution of wealth through taxation. My first inclination is to suggest that these programs are too idealistic for human nature and will, in the end, be ineffective, but we’ll have to analyze this further.

I wrote about Marx in a post called Karl Marx Redux on September 3, 2009. In that article I discussed Marx’s lack of knowledge of antiquity, and stated that if he would have known the history, he would have realized his own theory was suspect. By theory I mean his notion that people can somehow be made socio-economically equal in a society -- that we can create a system where all people have an equal standing and the rich and poor are eliminated as constituencies. According to Marx, a revolution is supposed to occur by the force of human will when the lower classes become galvanized to overcome repression at the hands of the wealthy and their evil corporations. We all know how the story ends. Communism turned out to be the antithesis of equally when it was implemented via an autocratic bureaucracy.

Today, we have a different force at work; theoretical ideas of the left wing elitist academic class, who believes that leveling society is “the right thing to do”. This fairness doctrine is defined as the rich do not deserve their wealth so as much of it as possible should be taken for the benefit of lower classes.

Communism failed because it was idealistic and did not take into account human behavior. European socialism worked for a time, but now it has run out of money and is experiencing the economic impact of inefficiency. So why are we trying to duplicate something that no longer works in Europe?

The fundamental problem with neo-socialism are that it represents an unrealistic view of man in society AND its attempts to create human leveling are doomed to failure because they can only be inefficiently implemented, and, in the end, will not accomplish their purpose.

I call neo-socialism unrealistic because it imagines that if society were leveled, people would be better off. Somehow the have-nots by becoming haves would be happy. Of course, the main assumption behind this is that they desire to live in this new “leveled” society and be the haves. How well the new haves will be able to manage themselves, after they have been pulled out of a lifestyle that was familiar and placed into one that is foreign is open to question.

In the real world, human nature is quite divergent. People’s accomplishments depend on their intelligence and personality type. These two factors largely determine where a person ends up (as long as he hasn’t been born rich) and there is little that society can do to change this equation. Obviously, there are exceptions; a child who escapes the ghetto to enroll in Harvard Medical School being an obvious example. Still, the majority combine their birth situation, family experience, environment, intelligence, and personality traits to achieve what they achieve, and government proscribing their ultimate placement in society is not only unrealistic but a violation of basic human rights. An artificial “leveler” is as silly as Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Let’s set up our leveling system and see how it works. We said we would have the tax rates adjusted to take money from the rich and re-distribute it to the poor. What amount is to be taken? Is a fair amount $ 1,000 per rich person or $ 10,000? How do we decide who to give the money to? Do we start with the poorest, maybe the homeless, and give them money first? How do we know when they have enough money? When they can pay for an apartment? Or when their apartment is full of furniture and they have purchased a car?

The bottom 22% of the American population (yearly income) has about 16,700,000 families. These are people who make less than $ 30,000 per year. The median income of all Americans is $ 65,000, so should we raise the lowest 22% up to the median? If we assume the median income of the lowest 22% is $ 15,000 per year, then it will take $ 50,000 x 16.7 million families or $ 835,000,000,000 to raise the lowest 22%. We still have 28% more families to take care of who are below the median.

Now we have to come up with a mechanism to manage the leveling, so we will create a government bureaucracy to handle the task. This bureaucracy will need tens of thousands of employees to keep track of everything. If person A becomes a “have” he has to be taken off the have-nots list, but remain in monitor status to make sure he doesn’t split back. If he does, the flow of money to him has to begin again. At all times, we will have new haves being monitored, have-nots being funded, and old rich haves giving up their money. Oh yea, we’ll have to monitor the old haves too because they may slip into have-not status.

This all sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

In the real world the rich would have their taxes raised to generate the required $ 835 billion. Then Congress would have to decide how to distribute that money through programs it would create. There would be programs for education, programs for housing, programs for food distribution, and programs for jobs. Wouldn’t those programs have to have a lot of complicated rules? How would they be managed to insure successful outcomes? Wouldn’t they be inefficient like every other bureaucracy?

The other question we have to ask is “How comfortable are we with the permanence of this solution?” In other words is this a teleological (end justifies the means) or deontological (means justifies the ends)? Those on the side of the former are on shaky ground because we cannot predict the long term outcome of a radical re-structuring of a society. Those on the side of the latter can prove their point if there are benefits to society as we move along toward the future. But reality is reality and what will happen will happen.

Today’s western society is in its youth compared to the ancient societies. The Greek Polis lasted 500 years – Rome between Republic and Empire 1000 years. Modern western society had its beginning with the American revolution, a mere two hundred and forty-four years ago. If you read the ancient histories, you know that political systems evolve, as Polybius suggested. Each one has a beginning, middle, and end according to the forces at work on the culture. Radical changes can be effective for a time, but as Toynbee suggests, circumstances spring people back to an equilibrium state at some point.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The character of the Ancient Greeks. Will mankind ever achieve anything like this again?

The Greek attitude during the Golden Age was marked by a driving spirit to learn and develop an understanding of the world. The Greeks were able to reach a profound clarity of thought driven by a motivation that sought balance and oneness in the world – the whole instead of the parts.

We see in their accomplishments fact and beauty working together: in the tragedies, ideas and emotion; in the sculpture, reality and ideality; in the temples, logic and simplicity. Moreover, the Greeks were able to live with what is seen and unseen – geometry and the gods in balance.

What happened to this balanced human point of view?

Since the time of the Greeks, man has been unable to produce the same balance between mind and spirit. With the fall of antiquity and the rise of the Christian point of view, man retreated into a spiritual world, full of fear, without logic and science as his companions. Antiquity was denounced as pagan and unclean, so the accomplishments of the Greeks were discarded.

With the advent of the Renaissance, the pendulum swung radically in the other direction. Man discovered himself, began to think again, and sought control over his life. Reality replaced the ideal and living overcame morality. The Reformation attempted to reassert morality on mankind, but denied beauty in the process.

The next stage began in the late nineteenth century with the triumph of science and the discarding of art, the power of the spirit, and religion. Man looked to science as the truth would carry mankind forward and create the perfect world. But science can be corrupting and expensive; its morals defined only by the intentions of the worst of man.

Now we reach the final stage, which involves the disintegration of national unity – a loss of oneness to accompany the loss of balance. There are those with the aim of expanding the mind and those who possess the spirit, but few possess both. The mind is used for profit and the spirit to resist it – the anti-capitalist obsession.

Few in America speak for the whole these days, as we evolve toward the ultimate relativism, the special interest group. There is no whole, but only the parts that do not add together. Each has its own agenda and no one looks for what’s common in all.

The end of relativism can only be produced by a unity by common cause, a reset of the individual in favor of the whole. Its seems that only a catastrophe will get us there, because we no longer possess the spirit and will to see its value on our own.

When Invasions Purify

The Geography of the Greek Peninsula offers protection from invaders, because the Balkan Mountain Range sits between Europe and Hellas. Nonetheless, there were at least two occasions in antiquity when the mountains were not high enough to protect the Greeks.

Invaders from the North spilled into Greece at the beginning (1900 B.C) and end (1100B.C) of the Second Millenium. Take a look at the following map. Blue is invasion one; Magenta invasion two.
The first of these invasions is marked by evidence of fire in many Greek settlements including Asea, Korakou, and Eutresis. Corinth was deserted afterward and Asine (Argolis) badly damaged.

The second invasion, more relevant to this post, was much more widespread. All of the Eastern Mediterranean was in decline and vulnerable, so the stage was set for traumatic changes to the early civilized world. Egypt, furthest from the source of the invaders, beat off attacks in 1230 and 1190 B.C. The coasts of Cyprus, Palestine, and Syria were attacked. The Assyrians were humbled and rendered impotent as a power and the Hittite Kingdom disappeared all together.

In Greece, Mycenae fell. Recovered tablets from Pylos record an effort to bolster coastal defenses against the invaders, to no avail. From Thessaly to Messenia, Delphi, and Attica, all were destroyed.

The Greeks, more shallow rooted than the cultures of the Fertile Crescent, fell hard and writing disappeared. The winners were the Dorians – barbarians who invaded a civilized land. The invasion was a catastrophe because it broke down a developed civilization, but the end of the Mycenaean Age at the hands of the Dorians was significant because the old ways were also destroyed. The Mycenaean view had been too tied to the outside – its predecessor Minoan culture. Now those external links were broken, freeing up the minds of the Greeks toward a new path. For three centuries the Greeks were separated from the east and moved forward in isolation. This new spirit was not Dorian. It was Greek forged by the invasion of the Dorians.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Civilization Without Cities

We talk a lot about cities in this blog because of their significance in the development of human culture. The first urban areas came into existence in antiquity, creating dense human populations, and setting the stage for the foundation for modern society. The Polis, in particular, has received many words here as the pre-eminent ancient urban model and the bulwark of the Greek civilization. More recently, we have discussed the early urban centers of Mesopotamia – the world’s first.

But there was one ancient civilization without a major city until the end of the second millennium B.C, a span of three thousand years. Do you know which one?

Its Egypt! Land of the Pharaohs – Jewel of the Nile. No cities? How can that be? Aren’t cities the natural result of the development of human society?

In Egypt, like other cultures, geography influenced man. Egypt is located between deserts, on the west, east, and south, making it immune from outside attack. On the north sits the great delta, with no natural harbors available to support an invasion. In its midst sits that great river with its alluvial plain, bringing precious water to any cultivated field near it.

Egypt was influenced by Mesopotamia (e.g. the pottery wheel) but did not derive from it, because there were unique aspects to this African land that made it different from any other.

The harshness of the surrounding land kept Egypt stable. The boundary line between arable land and desert was absolute, so it was never possible to settle on the fringe. Dissatisfaction was stillborn because no was nowhere for the dissatisfied to go.

Early on, there developed a sphere of political influence over hundreds of small communities, so the urban revolution never got started. The ruler was a king and god, which short-circuiting a separation of powers model seen in other cultures. Additionally, Egypt is a homogeneous geography which works against the kind of vertical economy seen in Mesopotamia. Near Sumer, plain, steppe, and mountain produced a micro-economic climate that allowed human task differentiation which was fostered in a urban setting.

It has been suggested by Anthropologists that cities arise from a human need for defense. Then, once they are established, urban areas develop in different ways. As we have said, Egypt needed no defense, so the primary driver for urbanism was lacking.

This great ancient Egyptian society featured a bureaucracy, which was the greatest in the history of man. It directed an economy of craft specialization and mass labor projects focused on division of labor by personnel rather than region – a stable process further increasing cultural stability.