A Tale of Two Warriors: Part I– The Problem of Power

It is just over thirty years since my book, The Parable of the Tribes, was first published by the University of California Press. My editor there and I searched for months for the right cover art for the book, and ultimately it was he (Jack Miles, who would later make a very big splash with his own book, God: A Biography) who came up with the winning idea: a most ancient rock painting from the Sahara in Algeria.

Here’s the cover of the book:

the parable of the tribes

The subtitle of the book, as you can see, is “The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.” And the core idea of the book is that the inevitable lack of regulation of the interactions among human societies, after the breakthrough to civilization, led inevitably to the spread of “the ways of power” (i.e. whatever cultural forms give a society an advantage in the intersocietal struggle for power) throughout the human system.

Here, in that ancient rock painting, we see clearly illustrated that problem of the struggle for power, with the landscape divided between the bold and more numerous pursuers and the harried and fewer pursued. It serves as a good illustration of the point I make a pivotal juncture in the presentation of this “problem of power”: “Imagine a group of tribes,” I wrote, “living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace?”

The book designer then made the excellent decision to take one of the attacking group of warriors, rotate him slightly, and put him on the spine of the book as the book’s emblematic figure.

This warrior, even by himself, stood as a fitting emblem of the problem I was writing about, the problem of power facing humankind over the millennia of the troubled evolution of civilization.

P of T warrior

A few years after the publication of The Parable of the Tribes, when it came time to print up stationery and business cards for myself, I adopted that figure as my own emblem. True, that figure was the emblem of the problem of power I had felt called to combat, but it was also emblematic of the highest achievement of my first forty years, and moreso of my calling– to help solve the problem that this warrior figure represents.

So this warrior became enmeshed with my own identity.

And now, here comes the “Press the Battle” campaign, and this new figure of a warrior.

icon for press the battle

More about that in Part II.

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  1. I tried asking the question “Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace?” to a university social science professor.

    The answer I got was “not much”. According to her, the only thing the other tribes had to do was ignore the aggressive tribe. The worst that would happen is that very occasionally the aggressive tribe might steal one girl to be its princess. As long as the other tribes did not retaliate in any way a general peace would be maintained. Losing one girl a few times per century is a small price to pay for general peace.

    I tried the natural followup “but what if [put much more frequent and severe aggression here]” question but of course her answer was that it would never happen: war results only from excessive revenge. Ignore the original small provocation and there is no problem.

    I gave up.

    She mentioned that her outlook was based on a reading of Herodotus, whom I have not read. I doubt that he really wrote that though. And I guess it is possible that she was “channeling Herodotus” and not giving me her own take on general human history and the etiology of war or more generally what Andy calls “the problem of power”. I did not ask her that followup question.

    Often, glaringly obvious followup questions occur to me about two days to one week after the conversation ends.

    I suppose that sometimes academicians converse like that, arguing for its own sake via “channeling” a significant historical thinker, I suppose because over time it becomes a habitual reflex: so often done in the classroom that it “spills over” and becomes part of numerous impromptu out-of-the-classroom conversations.

    In any case, what we see today is a far cry from one nation-state kidnapping one woman every few decades from one other, whether or not that’s how it started. So the “what do we do now?” question is stark either way.

    • Your social science professor’s argument suffers from one fatal flaw. By her logic, war is not going to be a problem in the human world. But of course, the evidence of history is that it has been a huge problem. Perhaps she got overly concrete about her image of “tribes.” By tribes, I mean sovereign entities, that there is no power that rules them both. If the problem does not really become a problem until the sovereign entities had evolved along a bit for other criteria than the selection for power, then at some point it surely does. I suspect that we do not have to go far at all along the process for this thing to gather momentum.

      All the places where civilization arose in a pristine form –Mesopotamia, the Nile, the Yellow River in China, the Indus River in India, the civilization of Meso-America and of the empire in Peru — were circumscribed places where the little societies spring up along the river valley were compelled to deal with each other, and then all of them evolved in essentially the same way, from chiefdoms to kingdoms to empires, with war and conquest playing an essential role throughout.

      So your social scientist is missing that chronic war combined with substantial cultural value leads to a powerful selective process, in which but some (and far from the best) of the potential ways that human socio-cultural life might be organized can survive and spread, while a great many –however beautiful — get eliminated, as they are destroyed or absorbed by the inevitable conqueror en route to becoming the empires we see at the dawn of what most people thing of as human history.

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