For me, to the question “Why does this view of the human story matter?”, the answer has always been of two parts: 1) better understanding and 2) beneficial impact.
Understanding the Human Story
Getting a good explanation of why things are the way they are is a big deal—to a lot of people, certainly including me. So gaining an important piece of the truth about why civilization has developed the way it has would be a big deal for that reason alone.
When I first saw how this destructive dynamic would inevitably arise with civilization, the idea blew me away. (And it still sometimes gives me gooseflesh.)
Moreover, even after I’ve looked at the many complications and qualifications that are required for a full picture of what’s happened to our species, the case still looks to me pretty airtight.
The idea has proved resilient, meaning that even after a whole lot of “buts” and “ands” are added to that picture, the idea’s basic validity remains pretty intact. Intact enough that it seems surely to be an important part of the explanation of what’s happened to our species and, I would wager, the main part of the answer to the question, “Why has the history of our civilization been as tormented and destructive as it has been?”
But the contribution to “understanding” isn’t enough to account for my continuing efforts now, at this late stage of my life. If that were all there were to it, I’d just accept the mixture of successes and failures I’ve had.
What drives me is that second piece of the answer to “Why does it matter?” – i.e. the idea that people’s seeing our story, and ourselves, and our challenges through this perspective could potentially have a beneficial impact on the human world.
And believing as I do that the survival of our species and our civilization is in doubt, it seems important not to squander any “beneficial impact.”
So, what kind of potential beneficial impact am I imagining?
A Healthier Relationship With Ourselves
Imagine that the thinking of the world included a lot more of the belief that we are much better creatures than the Face of Humanity shown by history.
Imagine that people understood that ugliness in history as the inevitable consequence of the forces that stepping onto the path of civilization would inevitably unleash.
Imagine that the burdensome weight of guilt and blame was drained away, while the balm of compassion (for our enemies as well as ourselves) grew.
Imagine that people were better able to forgive one another for the ways this destructive force has shaped a world that has inflicted a great many wounds.
Would you agree that people moving in those directions would have a beneficial impact?
Those are all clear implications of the picture presented in the previous pieces. It’s logic compels one (at least it compels me) to see that the ugly face of humanity we see written on the pages of the history of human civilization is a function not of defects in the inborn nature of the creature, but are, rather, an inevitable consequences of our species’ having stepped – innocently — onto the path of civilization.
The Spirit of the Gangster would rule much of any creature’s evolving civilization. Selection for whatever can prevail in a war of all against all will surely find among some of those creatures whatever qualities – including some very ugly qualities – would prove useful for power-maximization, as these representatives of a new kind of life form contended against each other to see which cultural forms and human qualities would survive and spread over centuries and millennia.
(Thucydides put into the mouths of the Athenians this terse description of how a civilized world works where power is uncontrolled: “The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.” One can imagine that — wherever any creature on any other planet makes the breakthrough onto the path of civilization — one among those creatures, looking around him at the resulting civilization — might articulate such a grim observation.)
So the logic of “the parable of the tribes” leads to an importantly different assessment of what kind of creatures we are.
- This ugliness visible in our history is not, at its root, our ugliness. The inevitable selection for the ways of power demonstrates that all that ugliness is not a sign of sin but of selection.
- Not human nature, but an inevitable distortion of it. Whatever our inherent defects, the Spirit of the Warlord is not representative of what we are, and how we would like to deal with each other, and what kind of world we would work to build.
- Not blame (“original sin”) or self-revulsion (“human depravity”), but compassion for creatures that plunged unwittingly into an impossible situation, subject to an ill social-evolutionary wind they did not choose but could not avoid.
- Not evil human choices so fundamentally as an inevitable systemic dynamic that humankind unwittingly unleashed into the world not as a consequences of our defects – whatever they may be – of our strengths. For it took only our having the creative intelligence to become the first creature on earth to make the breakthrough into a new, unprecedentedly disordered situation.
That shift in understanding matters because, knowing that we are better creatures than we have thought ourselves, we will be more likely to envision the better possibilities that must be envisioned – and must be realized in the world – if human civilization is to succeed on this planet.
Expectations are powerful forces, and they can be limiting or strengthening.
We might not trouble ourselves over such “beneficial impacts” if we regarded the success of human civilization as something close to a sure thing. But my sense is that it is more like a toss-up whether, over the next few centuries, human civilization will get its act together (enough to survive for the long haul) or will destroy itself.
Ideas don’t often have a great impact on the balance of power in the world, even a small contribution could matter when the question of Live-or-Die is a toss-up.
The implications of “the parable of the tribes” should – reasonably – move us in all the right directions: Love rather than Hate, Peace rather than War, Justice rather than injustice, generosity rather than greed, honesty rather than deception, beauty rather than ugliness, health rather than disease.
Any movement of human consciousness in those directions could tip a system at the tipping point toward human civilization surviving for the long haul.
Clarifying the Challenges We Face
And that toss-up – which is at the heart of the human drama— points to another “beneficial effect” I believe is offered by this understanding of the human story.
After moving us (however far) toward a more positive relationship with ourselves, and likely with humanity in general, this picture also offers – I believe – the beneficial effect of clarifying the challenges we face.
From the perspective of the human story just presented – from “the parable of the tribes” – it is possible to “derive,” as the mathematicians say, what is The Central Challenge Facing Any Civilization-Creating Creature. (Which is the title of the next installment.)