SUNDAY, MARCH 14, 2010
The Grand Story of Humanity
This document continues to evolve, based on continuing research. The latest version is always maintained at this URL:
Our primate origins
Our species ancestors were similar to all other social primates. We were a social species, organized into territorial bands, which were led by an alpha male. Like all territorial species, we engaged in skirmishes with neighboring groups, in order to maintain our territories, or on rare occasions to steal better territories from weaker bands.
These kinds of skirmishes involved fatalities, but they were quite different than warfare. Warfare is a sustained endeavor, where the adversaries seek to either destroy or conquer the other group. That kind of intra-species warfare does not exist in the animal kingdom; there is nothing to be gained by it.
By about 200,000 years ago we had become fully human, genetically the same as today, our brains fully developed. We continued to live in small territorial bands, and continued with the same kind of economy as other primates, which in the case of humans we call hunter-gathering. We continued to engage in skirmishes over territory, but warfare and conquest made no sense with our hunter-gatherer economy, just as it made no sense for our ancestors.
There were three fundamental differences between early humans and their primate ancestors. The first was our markedly superior intelligence, the second was our complex languages, and the third was our abandonment of the alpha-male leadership principle.
Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian, and that decisions are made by some kind of consensus process. Perhaps we were unusual among primates, and were already egalitarian then. In that case, language would have developed in order to support our egalitarian process. Or perhaps we were unusually communicative as primates, developed language, and then we found that collective decision making proved to be a more effective strategy than relying on the judgment of a single leader.
Origins of intelligence
One of the great mysteries of our evolution is our intelligence. Why are our frontal lobes — and our cognitive intelligence — so much more developed than in any other species? Theories have been put forward that try to explain our intelligence in terms of survival characteristics, but those theories aren’t very persuasive.
Some, for example, have suggested that warfare — with its need to develop a smarter strategy than the enemy in order to survive — explains our intelligence. This makes no sense at all, because we were already fully human long before warfare came on the scene.
Others have suggested the challenges of being a predator as a cause. This makes little sense either, as we were already successful predators as primates, and no other predator has needed to develop such a big brain.
Still others say we needed high intelligence to escape predators. The fact is that once we learned to pick up big sticks, predators avoided us. And the picking up of big sticks — the invention of the club — must have come very early; it is only one step up from the sticks chimpanzees use as tools.
A group of proto-humans with clubs, and later spears, was not something any predator would have tangled with. Predators don’t seek battles with prey that might injure them, they seek prey that turns and runs. Predators knew to respect us from early on. Even today, a young Masai girl can protect a herd of cattle on the African plains simply by standing there with a spear.
Seeking a survival explanation for our intelligence is like seeking a survival explanation for the beauty of a butterfly or flower. We can relate such things to sexual preference, and hence to the evolutionary process, but we are talking about an elaboration of form that goes far beyond the demands of mere survival. Our use of language is a similar elaboration, and intelligence is very closely linked with language.
If you observe the development of a chimp infant, compared to a human infant, you don’t see much difference in cognitive skills at first. The big differences start to emerge when the child begins to use language.
Consider the cognitive complexity involved with language. Not just the parsing, but the process of extracting meaning, and associating that with experiences and existing understandings. And the creating of sentences that will have the intended effect in the mind of a listener. The use of language is the tip-of-the-iceberg of a whole universe of cognitive processes that go along with it. That universe lies in our enlarged frontal lobes.
Intelligence and language co-evolved. Language is the elaboration of experience into the realm of the abstract and the imaginary. The use of language expands the size and complexity of the universe that our minds must deal with. Not only is there what is, but what might be, what could never be, what isplanned for later, what might have been, and so on. This complex imaginary world takes up lots of neurons.
In a very real sense, the evolution of our cognitive intelligence has been the evolution of our communication with one another. Our intelligence is not related to survival, but rather to socialization. Intelligence does not represent an adaptation to the world, but rather an adaptation to a language-using society.
Once we had our intelligence, however, we also gained survival advantages. We could find ways to survive in a wider range of environments than our primate ancestors. With our enriched imaginations, we could invent tools and weapons, find uses for herbs and plants, etc. Our intelligence made survival in the world much easier, but it was not a need for easier survival that led to our intelligence.
The story world
Because of language, we are involved in two different complex worlds, the world outside our heads, and the world inside our heads. The outside world is the real world, and I call the inside world the story world. I call it that because it seems to be organized in terms of stories.
Every sentence is a story, where some subject does some action to some object, and every paragraph is a slightly longer story. With Chinese ideograms, each symbol tells a little story. When we have conversations we tell stories to one another. Our dreams come as stories. We learn through stories. When we want to know the truth of current events, we tune in to our favorite channel to get the real story. Even a mathematical proof follows the story form, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, marked by QED, just like amen, the end, or that’s all folks.
Indeed, our very concept of understanding something is being able to tell its story coherently. And our concept of what is true is closely related to the concept of coherent story. A mathemematical proof is valid if it tells a coherent story. A suspect appears guilty if he cannot give a coherent story as an alibi. Witnesses are trusted if their story is coherent. Even our concept of being sane is closely linked to being able to speak coherently, which is the same as being able to tell coherent stories.
Because story-processing skills are so central to our understanding, and to our functioning in society, it is not surprising that we get pleasure out of practicing those skills by listening to stories. In general, pleasure is an adaptive mechanism that draws us to what we need. Baby lions love to wrestle, thus learning the moves they will need as adult hunters.
Language and stories are not just about words. The same congitive machinery supports other modalities. Music is a language, and a tune is a story. Art is a language and a painting is a story. Physics is a language and a theory is a story. Food preparation is a language, and a meal is a story. Each language must be learned before its stories can be told or appreciated.
I suppose all of this can be summed up by saying that we think, understand, create, and communicate in terms of stories, in one mode of language or another. As I write, my concern always is to be telling a coherent story in a coherent sequence. Coherence in a story is like digestibility in a meal.
Because we have specialized in the story way-of-knowing, we don’t feel we understand anything until we know its story. From a very early age we begin asking questions, wanting to hear stories that explain our experience to us. As our experience of the world expands, our need for stories expands. Eventually, we all get to the big questions: What is the meaning of life? andWhere did we come from?
Our modern societies do not give us satisfying answers to these big questions, and we’ll talk more about that later. Early human societies, however, did have stories for all the big questions. Anthropologists find that every tribe has a creation story, a story about the sun and moon, and stories that ‘make sense’ of nearly every aspect of the tribe’s experience.
We call such stories myths and superstitions. But to the societies involved, the stories are the unquestioned truth about the world, passed down from the beginning of time. In the same way, a person today knows that matter is made of atoms, even though we have no direct experience of atoms, because of stories we have been told in the sacred language of science.
A Golden Age of innocence
That, then, is the prolog to our story. The curtain to our main story opens about 200,000 years ago. At that time, as individuals, we were exactly like we are today, with the same genetics, the same intelligence, the same level of imagination and creativity, and using languages with the same grammatical complexity and expressive richness as those we use today.
As Homo sapiens sapiens we then entered our First Golden Age as a species. Our basic needs (food, shelter, and security) were easily attended to, relative to other species. We enjoyed a harmonious and egalitarian life style, and we spent many hours each day sitting around sharing stories with one another. Our ability to tell and remember stories and songs enabled us to pass on ideas, observations, and knowledge from one generation to the next, and this dramatically transformed the nature of our relationship to time and to the universe.
Our cognitive memory could now extend indefinitely into the past, as it became possible for us to experience in our fertile imaginations events that had happened generations before, as we listened to the stories of elders. It became possible for us to perceive patterns that spanned more than one lifetime, extending even to the precession of the equinoxes, and the ebb and flow of glaciers.
Australian Aboriginal tales, for example, accurately describe landscapes that still exist today, but have been submerged under the sea ever since the last ice age receded thousands of years ago. Every tribe developed and evolved a Grand Story — its own history.
Thus the nature of our cultures, our understanding of our place in the universe, and our understanding of the meaning of our lives, came to be embodied in the Grand Story of our tribe. For humans there has always been an isomorphism and an interplay between cultural evolution and story evolution. Our cultural evolution sets our stories spinning, and our stories act a cultural gyroscope, a kind of inertial guidance system that can maintain social stability and coherence across millennia, even as circumstances might change dramatically.
Every once in a while, then as now, unique individuals would emerge, individuals who through unusual cognitive insight, or metaphysical perceptiveness, achieved a level of wisdom that qualitatively exceeded that of the human norm. Such individuals were able to inject elements of their achieved wisdom into their tribe’s Grand Story, and thus did our cultures themselves evolve toward ever-increasing collective wisdom. Our First Golden Age was characterized by wisdom and harmony — harmony with nature and harmony and egalitarianism among one another in our bands.
But there was an innocence to our wisdom and harmony. Our harmony with nature, for example, was not a matter of choice but of necessity. Our survival, and our level of prosperity, depended on how well our cultures harmonized with our environment. We did not have the power to control nature, so we had no choice but to harmonize with it.
As a matter of fact, when opportunities arose where we could move out of harmony with nature, and still prosper, we typically exploited that situation. For example, when humans first migrated to Australia, there was so much game available that we hunted much of it to extinction. As the available game animals diminished, we were forced to re-harmonize our cultures with our surroundings.
Similarly, it was relatively easy for us to maintain harmony with one another, because we didn’t have the power to exploit one another. Everyone had to hunt and gather just like everyone else. The economics of the hunter-gatherer life style did not produce excesses that would enable a ruling group to sit around and give orders instead of contributing. Without power, we had little temptation or opportunity to stray from our harmonious ways.
And again, when special circumstances arose, we sometimes lost our ability to maintain harmony. For example, when there were very rich fishing areas, with easily available food surpluses, hierarchy and conquest sometimes emerged, but fortunately remained localized.
Thus our first Golden Age was protected by a shield — the shield of lacking power. Our wisdom and harmony were innocent, because we didn’t have the power to be otherwise.
And that’s how things were for nearly all of us until about 10,000 years ago.
When agriculture and herding were discovered, a little over 10,000 years ago, we found ourselves with powers that we had previously lacked. We no longer needed to depend only on what our surroundings naturally provided. We could plant crops and make our surroundings more productive. And we could keep animals in herds or pens, increase their numbers, and we didn’t need to bother hunting for them when we were hungry. We now had power over nature, the ability to modify our surroundings to better suit ourselves.
With these new powers, we soon were able to create surpluses. It became economically feasible for some of us to produce the food for the tribe, and others of us could spend our time in other ways. Specialization became possible. Formerly we all followed the same trade — that particular kind of hunter-gathering that our particular culture employed.
With specialization it became possible for the same tribe to have several trades, food production being only one of them. Someone might, for example, specialize in making tools for farmers, which could then be exchanged for food. Specialization increased the efficiency of our economies once again, in addition to the increase provided by agriculture and herding.
These new powers, in and of themselves, did not destroy our Golden Age. In fact, at the beginning, they made our Golden Age even more golden. We were able to maintain harmony with nature as long as our agriculture and animal husbandry practices remained sustainable. And we were able to maintain harmony in our cultures due to our cultural gyroscope — our Grand Stories — that had always told us that harmony was part of our nature as humans. During this period we continued with our harmony and our wisdom, while also enjoying the benefits of an increasingly efficient economy, and an increasingly complex culture.
This final, swan-song episode of our first Golden Age is what Riane Eisler refers to as partnership cultures, in her ground-breaking anthropological masterpiece, The Chalice and the Blade. While this glorious era lasted, we were able to combine harmonization and wisdom with civilization. We built cities, developed specialization and writing, enhanced our cultures and our wisdom, and were at the same time able to avoid warfare and dominance-based cultural patterns.
This is the era whose memory is weakly echoed in notions like Shangri-La and Eden. We can still view original artistic representations of this era at the palace of Knossos, an architectural structure known to the Greeks as the Labyrinth.
Unlike surviving art from other past civilizations, that of Knossos includes no representations of warriors or conquest. Instead we see scenes of people enjoying themselves, dolphins cavorting under the sea, and other very pleasant and beautiful scenes. When viewing this art, tears come to one’s eyes over our great loss as a species, as one realizes the enormity of our subsequent cultural decline.
As long as our newly empowered economies remained sustainable, and as long as our Grand Stories told us that harmony with our fellows was part of our nature as humans, then our new powers did us no harm, and benefitted us in many ways. Unfortunately, certain of our newly evolving cultures — the ones focusing on herding — began to move away from harmonization, as did their Grand Stories. The reasons for this involved economics.
The return of the alpha male
Consider the economics of a hunter-gatherer society. The society operates within its own exclusive territory, where it has access to a variety of food sources, depending on the season. Methods of food preservation, such as drying and salting, were discovered early, increasing the amount of useable food from the territory. The groups regulated their population by various means, sometimes including the practice of infanticide. In these various ways, hunter-gatherer societies were sustainable, and had the capacity to survive in bad years within their territories.
Early agricultural societies operated on more or less the same principles, still within exclusive territories, except they had more food available from the same size territory. They continued to hunt and gather, and they had their crops as well, so larger populations became sustainable. Fixed settlements emerged in agricultural societies, whereas hunter-gatherers tended to use portable or temporary shelters, as they roamed about their territories in search of food.
The territories of both kinds of societies tended to be stable over long periods of time. In good years and bad, they would manage to survive within their territories, based on their variety of food sources. Only under unusual circumstances, such as changing climate, would groups migrate, or seek to displace other groups.
The economics of early herding societies differed in fundamental ways from the two other kinds of societies. Herders had only one primary source of food, their animals. If conditions were bad for their herds, and good pastures were hard to find, they didn’t have alternative food sources to fall back on. Thus, competition for territories occurred much more frequently among herding societies, than among hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists.
Competition for territories is quite a different thing than border skirmishes, which are mainly aimed at maintaining stable borders by displaying strength. When two tribes are fighting for the same pasture, in a year when pastures are scarce, then combat prowess becomes a primary survival requirement. As we know from history, disciplined hierarchical combat units have a marked advantage over less coherent adversaries.
As success in combat became more important in this way, the cultures and Grand Stories of these herding tribes began to honor strong warrior chiefs, and began to honor the hierarchical patterns of dominance that enabled such chiefs to effectively command their warriors in battle. Thus did the alpha-male pattern re-enter our evolutionary path, for the first time since we became fully human. These cultures became hierarchical rather than egalitarian.
When you have hierarchical bands, each led by a strong warrior chief, and which engage in fierce combat with one another, then there is a natural dynamic toward enlargement of the bands. For one thing, if two bands are of unequal size, then the larger one would be more likely to win a battle between the two. So there is a survival value in bigger bands, which would tend over time toward larger bands on average. But an even more potent force would tend toward enlargement: the obvious advantages provided by alliances.
An astute warrior chief would naturally think about alliances: making deals with other chiefs so that they could triumph together, when battles became necessary with other bands. Chiefs who were in alliance with one another would then share their jointly-won green pastures among one another’s bands in some negotiated way.
Clearly, out of such alliance-building processes, one chief is going to emerge eventually as a big chief — the one who is most clever about forging alliances to his own advantage. In this way a warrior chief comes to have several bands under his hierarchical control, with the subsidiary chiefs as his generals. These are the very dynamics that led (in much more recent times) to the emergence of Genghis Khan, who eventually became master of the largest empire history has ever known.
Origins of class
Humanity was at this point split into three evolutionary threads. First, there were all those who were still pursuing hunter-gathering, and there are still some of those today. Second, there were those who started down the path of agriculture, and were developing the first permanent settlements and the first cities, still within the harmonious Golden Age paradigm, and who did not engage in warfare with one another.
Third, there were the herders, out there on the steppes, operating under the dynamics of hierarchy and dominance, with big chiefs emerging, with fierce and well-organized warriors at their command. And they had horses, making them formidable from a military point of view.
Our Golden Age had not ended yet however. The herders were living under hierarchy, but a warrior chief was not an exploiter of his band. He was its respected leader, whose strength was essential to the survival of the group. His role was comparable to that of an alpha-male in a primate band, who is the protector of his band, not its exploiter.
These bands did however introduce the principle of male dominance into human cultures for the first time. And in the pantheons of the Grand Stories of these tribes there was always a supreme male god who rules the rest of the pantheon, while in the pantheons of earlier Grand Stories, there were always male and female characters of comparable power, and they represented the forces of nature and the universe.
This overall scenario, with the three threads of humanity, was not stable. If you’ve seen the film, Seven Samurai, recall the scene early on where the warrior band stops their horses on the hill, and surveys an agricultural village below them. They discuss whether to raid it now, or to come back after all the crops are in. The villagers have no defense, and can only hope the band doesn’t return.
That scene, writ large, was the overall scenario facing humanity at this point in our story. It was only a matter of time before the herders would raid, and eventually conquer, the agriculturalists. And that was when our first Golden Age was truly over; that was our Fall from Grace.
For when the herders conquered a village or a city of agriculturalists, they did not integrate the agriculturalists into their herding culture, nor did they integrate themselves into the agriculturalist culture. Instead, the herders enslaved the agriculturalists, creating an entirely new kind of culture and society, one that had never existed before, and one that had no evolutionary precedents.
For the first time ever we had a class-based society. At the top is the ruling clique: the chief and his generals. Then we have the members of the conquering tribe, who have now become a privileged class. Under that are the enslaved agriculturalists, the peasant class, the ones who till the fields and do all the other hard work. Thus was established the perverse, exploitive paradigm that has characterized civilization ever since. Apart from the early era, where civilization blossomed in our first Golden Age, civilization has always been about exploitation of the many by the few.
I cannot think of any non-human species whose dynamics are based on intra-species exploitation. There are cases, for example with certain kinds of ants, where one species enslaves and exploits another. But within a species, exploitation would be very bad for species survival. In all social species, mutual aid and concern has been a central survival characteristic. The advent of this new hybrid society, based on the exploitation of the many by the few within a species, was a perversion not only of human culture, but of the evolutionary life principle itself.
Let us now bring into this discussion our earlier thread, about Grand Stories, and cultural gyroscopes. With the advent of this new hybrid society, the gyroscopes of both incoming cultures were knocked awry. Neither of their Grand Stories reflected the dynamics of the new combined society. If the new hybrid culture was to have the support of a stabilizing gyroscope, then a new Grand Story would need to be invented — a Grand Story customized for an exploitive civilization.
In the Western branch of civilization, the new Grand Story begins with Genesis. The story is set in Mesopotamia, where agriculture was first developed in the West, around 8,000 BC, and where hierarchy was eventually imposed, by about 4,000 BC. The first three chapters of Genesis are allegory, describing the creation of the universe and the Fall from Grace. These chapters came from Babylon, and were adopted by the Hebrews during their period of capitivity there.
The Golden Age itself is represented by the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve represent all the hunter-gatherer cultures, and the Garden represents the harmonious relationship between those cultures and the natural world. Thus our Golden Age of innocence, and 200,000 years of our heritage, are dismissed in a single verse, Genesis 2:25: “They were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” In the very next verse, the serpent is introduced! This enormous erasure is what Daniel Quinn calls The Great Forgetting.
In the Grand Stories of Early Civilization, prior to the onset of hierarchy, the serpent represented the sacred god of fertility. Thus in Genesis, the serpent represents the temptation to pursue agriculture, to systematically tame nature for the first time. It is dangerous to mess with Mother Nature, and Eve is rightfully warned against crossing that line.
The four thousand years or so of Early Civilization, while we were still in the Garden, is then dismissed in the 24 verses of Chapter 3. Only a few moments pass between the time they taste the fruit, and their banishment. This erasure deserves to be called The Second Great Forgetting.
Cain the farmer and Able the herder represent the two cultural threads that emerged from hunter-gathering, and hence they are portrayed as the sons of Adam and Eve, the hunter-gatherers.
Each hunter-gatherer culture had its own elaborate Grand Story, and all we are left with is a 56-verse summary, the first two chapters of Genesis. By the time we get to chater 3, we are already learning how we were expelled from the Garden. Although our earlier Grand Stories find no place in Genesis, they have not been erased from human memory. Our rich heritage is still accessible in the many mythologies that have been preserved from various cultures.
The old pantheons of gods represented the various forces of nature, some characterized as male and some as female. The Grand Stories told about the gods, and these tales explained how a balance is achieved among the forces of nature. The stories explained our place in the scheme of things, in balance with the rest of nature. The serpent was a central figure in most of these pantheons. In Greek mythology he is known as Hermes.
In the Garden of Eden story, the serpent symbolizes the pantheons of our Early Civlization cultures. He is demonized in the story, thus demonizing all previous gods, and opening the way for a new, all-powerful, male god. Yaweh curses the serpent and condemns him to crawl in the dust, and thus Yaweh is established as the one and only true god, master of the universe.
This new monotheistic Grand Story changes our relationship to nature, our relationship to divinity, and it changes our understanding of nature itself. Instead of a dynamic balance of interacting forces, nature becomes hierarchical, under the command of a single divine mind. Instead of merely respecting and honoring the various gods, as we did earlier, we now find ourselves subservient to the new all-powerful god. And instead of being in balance with the rest of nature, we are now told, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it”.
In only 80 verses, the first three chapters of Genesis, our entire world was turned upside down. A pattern of dominance is established, with us subservient to Yahweh, and nature subservient to us. Thus the pattern is set for dominance in society, under the control of an alpha male. These 80 verses establish an all-time record for history’s most effective and damaging piece of propaganda.
This new Grand Story makes it quite clear that we were better off in the Garden, in our harmonious innocence, in our state of grace. There is no pretense that what followed has been a cultural improvement. The onset of hierarchical civilization is correctly identified as being our Fall from Grace.
The story also tells us that we cannot return to the Garden, and that it is our own fault we cannot return, because we failed to follow Yaweh’s commands. Thus it is our own fault that we find ourselves in bondage under the new hierarchical regimes that have been imposed on us.
The Garden of Eden story is a transition story, an explanation to the conquered of why their own Grand Story must be abandoned, and why — through their own fault — their nature is to be in subjugation. The story tells them they are sinful — that there is something wrong with them — because they ate the forbidden fruit. Therefore they have no standing to challenge the hierarchy that dominates them. They need the hierarchy to take care of them and keep them from going further astray. And it is a transition story that masquerades as a creation story, in order to conceal from us our true nature and our true destiny.
Consider for a moment the Santa Claus myth. This is a myth that is to be taken as truth by children, and which adults know is only a myth. The Garden of Eden story is like that. It is to be taken as truth by the peasants, while the ruling elite know it is only a myth. In the story we read, “Therefore Yahweh God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken”. Elites know they have never had to stoop to till the ground.
Orthodoxy and empire
The co-evolution of cultures and of their Grand Stories did not stop when we left the Garden. Nor did the psychological power of Grand Stories ever diminish, even though our minds had escaped from the parochialism of our primordial hunter-gatherer bands. To this day we understand who we are, and what our nature is, by what our Grand Stories tell us is true. There are however some very important differences between the Grand Stories since the Fall, and those that co-evolved with our cultures prior to the Fall.
The Grand Stories prior to the Fall evolved as an organic folk process. For the most part they were passed on unchanged from generation to generation, as exemplified by the accurate thousands-year-old knowledge the Aborigines have of long-submerged landscapes. Additions might be made to the stories, if for example a band migrated to a new territory, thus adding another chapter to their story. Or respected elders might change the story just a bit, reflecting newly acquired knowledge or gems of wisdom.
But no one ever sat down and composed a Grand Story, not before the Fall. A Grand Story carried the accumulated memory and wisdom of a band, and it was passed on with reverence, as a treasured heritage, from one generation to the next.
In the Garden of Eden story, with its propagandistic elements, we see for the first time an episode of a Grand Story being consciously composed in order to better serve the interests of elite subjugation. It was written in very early post-Fall days, was known to the Babylonians, and this composed opening episode of Western civilization’s Grand Story still holds power power over us today.
Nearly everyone I talk to — whether they be Christians or atheists, progressives or conservatives, new-agers or scientists — rejects the possibility of direct democracy, because they believe we are flawed, or that we need to become enlightened, and that we are incapable of governing ourselves. These kinds of myths are conditioned into us in many ways as we grow up, but the root of the conditioning is still embodied in the Garden of Eden story, which is told to most of us as children.
The Bible has been the dominant Grand Story of Western civilization until relatively recent times. It consists of two books. The Old Testament is simply the post-Fall Grand Story of the Hebrew tribe, who were a spin-off from the Sumerians, one of the earliest of the post-Fall hybrid societies. The book was consciously revised c. 1300 BC so as to better suit the hierarchy of the time. The Old Testament praises the virtues of a male-dominated hierarchical society, honors warfare and war-like virtues, and of course features the mythical God character, a warrior-chief writ large, as the all-powerful King of the Universe.
This character serves two important functions. First, he makes us feel powerless and insignificant, and second, he makes us believe that when we go forth to slaughter and conquer, he will be on our side. This book is superbly well-suited for keeping us in subjugation and to facilitating wars of conquest. Any contradiction to this story is known as blasphemy, and for many centuries blasphemy was a capital crime throughout the Christianized world. Elites have always understood that control of the Grand Story is their primary means of controlling us.
The New Testament has a very interesting history, and provides an excellent example of carefully crafted propaganda, as an element of a Grand Story. The history of this book begins of course with Jesus, an actual historical figure, whose main mission seems to have been to undermine hierarchy, wake people up to their subjugated status, and spread a new Grand Story based on love, compassion, personal empowerment, and the direct experience of divine reality. A very dangerous fellow indeed, and he was soon disposed of by the local hierarchy.
But alas for them, the new Grand Story was so appealing and so powerful that it led to a social movement (early Christianity) that was a continual headache to Roman authorities. Within a century or so after the death of Jesus, this social movement had departed drastically from the original message of Jesus, and had become an intolerant messianic cult, growing rapidly, using the words of Jesus as a come-on to recruiting new members, and controlled by an orthodox hierarchy who had suppressed the experience-of-divinity aspects of Jesus’ teachings.
To the Roman hierarchy, Christianity was more and more being seen as a subversive political movement, challenging and undermining the authority of Rome. The orthodox hierarchy was by this time mainly concerned with its power over those who had been Christianized, the theology being mainly important as an instrument of maintaining that power — again, the Santa Claus phenomenon.
Given the trouble that these two power hierarchies were causing for one another, it is not surprising that they got together in 325 AD, at the First Nicene Council, to join forces for their mutual benefit. There were two main outcomes from the Council.
The first that was that Christianity was to become the officially enforced religion of the Roman Empire, bringing it under the political (but not religious) control of the Emperor, and ending the conflict between the two hierarchies. Second, the Council was used as an opportunity to deal with competing theological interpretations that had arisen, and to agree on a single, orthodox story of Jesus and his teaching, which was to become the New Testament.
Christianity as we know it, as a powerful world-class religion, backed by an orthodox Grand Story (the Bible), can be dated from this Council. From the beginning, then, Christianity has been closely associated with empire and with state hierarchy. Indeed, for many centuries, after the fall of the Roman Empire and up until 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia) when nationalism began to arise, the Catholic Church itself was the overarching political power in Europe. And in the various European wars throughout the centuries, the soldiers of both sides have been told that God is on their side.
Science wobbles the gyroscope
As regards matters which relate to what we would now call science and engineering, the church hierarchy turned to Aristotle, and his writings became essentially a third book in the orthodox Grand Story of humanity, along with the two books of the Bible. As the scientific movement began to emerge, c. 1600, the theories of Aristotle came increasingly under challenge as new scientific discoveries were made. The scientific community was in fact beginning to develop its own Grand Story, based on the scientific method. The hegemony of orthodox doctrine, as the exclusive Grand Story of Christendom, was beginning to unravel.
As the scope of scientific discovery broadened, particularly after the discoveries of Darwin and Mendel, the Grand Story offered by science became a full-fledged competitor to that offered by religion. Indeed, there has been an ongoing rivalry to capture the public mind, with scientists generally considering religion to be superstition. The ever-evolving Grand Story offered by science, however, fails to provide answers to the most important questions that Grand Stories need to deal with, if they are to be psychologically satisfying, such as the meaning of life and the universe.
Orthodox theology continues to be the Grand Story for millions of people, partly because of the unsatisfying nature of the story offered by science, and partly because religious parents typically subject their children to intensive religious indoctrination from an early age. This is a difficult cycle to break, as the Soviets found out when they tried unsuccessfully to eliminate religions after the Russian Revolution. Once a Grand Story is firmly implanted in an impressionable mind, it typically cannot be dislodged, particularly if no satisfying alternative is on offer.
Our modern society, for better or worse, has no unifying Grand Story. We are divided as to what we believe. In fact, divisiveness regarding beliefs has become one of the primary control mechanisms employed by elites these days. That and television. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy put it this way:
Television, the drug of the Nation Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation
Drug is a very apt characterization of television. It doesn’t try to indoctrinate us into one particular story, that is now out of date. Instead, television offers a continuous drip feed of what Guy Debord refers to as The Spectacle. We sit there hypnotized, watching entertainment, news, documentaries, or whatever, the content doesn’t really matter. The real point is that we are watching television instead of living.
Is there really any difference between sitting in front of a television, or spending your time smoking in an opium den? In both cases, we’re basically trying to escape from the emptiness of our lives, lives made empty partly because we have no Grand Story that gives meaning to our lives, and partly because all of our friends are at home watching their own televisions.
The Grand Story of humanity
Joseph Campbell was one of the leading scholars on the subject of mythology. He talked about how modern society lacks a relevant mythology, a mythology that answers the big questions, about the meaning of life and the universe, and answers them in a way that makes sense to modern humanity. He felt we needed a new mythlogy, something that would give us a healthy psychological framework, so as to deal with the modern world.
However, the attempt to create a new mythology would be like trying to put grapes back on the vine. We know about science now, and we can’t go back to a literal belief in metaphorical representations of reality. Those kinds of things served us well millennia ago, but we can’t go back there, not without closing our eyes and pretending.
In our first Golden Age, our Grand Stories were our best attempt at understanding who we are, where we came from, and what is the meaning of our lives. We included in these stories the knowledge and wisdom we had accumulated, and the important episodes from our history. These stories were not fabrications invented to achieve social harmony or pyschological health. They were the truth as best we understood it.
The religious Grand Story and the scientific Grand Story have one thing very much in common. They both cut us off from 97% of our Grand Story as humans, and from an understanding of our Golden Age. Religion does that intentionally, whether or not current theologians are aware of that, in order to more easily subjugate us to hierarchy. Science does the same thing out of arrogance, out of its groundless assumption that that everything can be explained in materialist terms, and that everything not published in a refereed journal is superstition.
As far as scientists are concerned, nothing much interesting happened prior to c. 1600. Science is an elitist cult with blinders on, defining reality as that which can be accurately measured with its limited instruments that are restricted to the material realm. They are looking for the keys by the lamp post where the light is good; they aren’t looking where the keys were lost. The keys were lost some six millennia ago, and they won’t be found with a telescope or a test tube. They can only be found within ourselves, but scientists won’t venture inside — that wouldn’t be objective.
The only Grand Story that can function effectively for us is our story, as a species, as we best understand it. That is what I have been endeavoring to convey, as best I understand it. Of all the things I’ve talked about, the most important is the fact that for the past 6,000 years we have been in bondage, and for about 200,000 years before that we enjoyed a Golden Age, where we were not in bondage, and we lived in harmony with one another and with nature.
As I see it, there is not really much worth talking about other than, how can we escape from bondage? Rearranging prison chairs is no more productive than rearranging deck chairs.
The saga of our species is an adventure, an adventure that we are meant to participate in, to co-create, not to watch on television. It’s an action story, where the villain has tied us up in the basement, and our business is to get free and escape — otherwise our children and their children will be in bondage as well. It’s an adventure that unfolds on a canvas measured in millennia, but it’s not history — it’s right now. And it’s not far away — it’s right here where I am, and it’s right there where you are.
In our primordial innocence, back in the Garden, we talked to one another, we listened to one another, and we were quite capable of getting along and dealing with the problems of life together. In fact, it wasn’t very difficult at all, and we spent a good part of our time just hanging out, chatting, singing, or dancing around the fire. We have lost none of these capacities; we have simply forgotten that we have them, and have therefore not attempted to exercise them.
The tree of life is far more bountiful now than ever before. We have powers, with our technology and our science, that our ancestors could never have dreamed of. We were never banished from the Garden; we were abducted from the Garden by those who ate the forbidden fruit of exploitation, and turned our powers against us. We are guilty of no sin, there is nothing flawed about us, and we can return to the Garden whenever we wake up and choose to do so. We are no longer restrained by chains, but only by our own timidity, and our lack of confidence in our own good sense and that of our fellows.
We cannot change the part of our Grand Story that lies in the past, but we need to know that story so that we can know who we are, where we came from, and what our life is about. We now know why the the forbidden apple is poisonous to us, even if we were not the ones who did the tasting. We are no longer innocent, but we can return again to harmony and wisdom, wiser from our experience in bondage, and knowing that the first thing we need to do is to build a strong fence around the forbidden tree.
Look not to the officials of Babylon for assistance in our return to the Garden, for they are neither our protectors nor our representatives — they are the servants of our exploiters. Yank your television from the wall, just as Neo yanked the cable from his skull, and see for the first time the real world, which has been all around you all the time, while you’ve been entranced by The Spectacle. The time has come to click your heels together three times and return to your real home.
The drama that matters is the drama that is around us every day. We, along with our friends and neighbors, are the actors in that drama, and there is no script and no director; real life is improv. It is up to each of us and all of us to create the next episode of our Grand Story.
The first step is to begin listening to the stories of those around us, and to share our own stories. That is how we learn who we are and where we came from. Then we can begin sharing our dreams with one another, and that is how we can learn about the meaning of our lives. Finally, we can begin working together, to take control of our own destinies, to pursue our dreams, and to cast off the yoke that we have been carrying for 6,000 years.
Our second Golden Age awaits us.