This morning we feature part seventeen of our series on the global brain from an important book by Howard Bloom. See: 1) Biology, Evolution and the Global Brain, 2) Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age, 3) Networking in Paleontology’s “Dark Ages”, 4) The Embryonic Meme, 5) Why Birds and Humans Flock Together, 6) Mammals and the Further Rise of Mind, 7) Tools of Perception and the Construction of Reality, 8) Reality is a Shared Hallucination, 9) The Conformity Police, 10) The Huddle and the Squabble, 11) Ice and Fire, 12) The Dance of Attractors and Repulsors, 13) The Birth of Boundary Breakers, 14) The Guesswork of Collective Mind, 15) The Pluralism Hypothersis—Athens, 16) Pythagoras Subcultures and Psycho-Bio-Circuitry. Reposted from Telepolis.
Swivelling Eyes and Pivoting Minds
Each epoch presents new puzzles. The culture or subculture built around the most relevant answer comes out on top. All groups wish for fame and fortune. It comes to those whose combination clicks the tumblers of a shifting lock.
|“ANY assumption can be made, but not all assumptions are created equal, and from their deductions you will know them.”|
|“It is not easy to explain to the lay mind the extremely intricate ramifications of the personnel of a Hollywood picture organization. …The chief executive throws out some statement of opinion, and looks about him expectantly. This is the cue for the senior Yes-Man to say yes. He is followed, in order of precedence, by the second Yes-Man – or Vice-Yesser, as he is sometimes called – and the junior Yes-Man. Only when all the Yes-Men have yessed, do the Nodders begin to function. They nod.”|
|P. G. Wodehouse|
Athens put her chips on pluralism. She was a breeder of cross-cultural diversity. Sparta bet on the one-size-fits-all hypothesis – a cradle-to-grave, cookie-cutter conformity. Subcultural gambles followed the same schemes. Socratics challenged old rock solids and romped through rebellious multiplicities. Pythagoreans, at least while Pythagoras was running the show in his Croton enclave, imposed obedience to just one master and hammered home uniformity. Which hypothesis, the courting of many voices or the push for only one, would prove the rightest of them all? The answer would emerge through trials of circumstance whose tides continually rise and fall.
Remember the five elements of the complex adaptive system: conformity enforcers, diversity generators, utility sorters, resource shifters, and intergroup tournaments?1 In the last few chapters we’ve examined utility sorters – bio responders which shut us down and slam us in a shell or open us up and let us romp like hell. Now to put intergroup tournaments and resource shifters under the lens of scrutiny.
From 500 B.C. to 300 B.C. three tiers of intergroup tournament ran simultaneously. The Persians battled the Greeks for dominance over the lands looped ’round the Aegean Sea. On the next level down, a gaggle of city states jockeyed for position in that skein of polities known as Greece.2 And below, within, and around these contests, subcultures vied to shape the way men feel and think. Yet at each level echoed the same motif, pluralism versus uniformity, centralism versus parallelism, democracy versus tyranny – all variations on the themes with which the Big Bang had begun its blast – attraction versus repulsion…conformity versus diversity.
The major intergroup tournament of the early fifth century pitted the squabbling Greeks against the might of the Persian Empire for more than 50 years. The Persian Emperor Xerxes3 mobilized between 300,000 and a million soldiers and sailors,4 then penetrated deep into a Greek homeland defended by just 75,000 Hellenes. Xerxes’ troops burned Athens to the ground, yet to everyone’s surprise, in 479 B.C.5 he met defeat. When Plataea – a land battle – sent the Persians packing, the Spartans went back home6 to savor the victory. But the Athenians continued to command the naval alliance which would keep the snarling Persians in their place and would open the entire Mediterranean to Greek trade. The 70 years that followed were Athens’ Century. Power in this period did not pour from Sparta’s specialty, marching soldiers across hill and dale,7 then returning home, closing the shutters against foreigners,8 and practicing for the next bout of war. Dominance was a product of sea-lane commerce9 and open boundaries. The politician of the day was Pericles. To wire the far-flung nodes of Greeks into a network which performed its processing via merchandise, group defense, and politics, Pericles and his predecessors bashed the heads of many a recalcitrant “allied” city state.10 In some they slaughtered, evicted,11 or enslaved the citizens, not an act of tolerant generosity. But in most Pericles encouraged the growth of democracy.12
At home, Pericles was pluralism personified. His friends were immigrants from all over the Greek world. He enjoyed gathering them together and taking them to the Theater of Dionysus to see the latest exercises in free-speech…like tragedies by Euripides which trashed the ancient gods and turned tradition on its head. At the leaders’ side were Phidias, the sculptor, Socrates the idea-mincer, Anaxagoras the proto-scientist from Clazomenae,13 and Pericles’ mate in sex, child-bearing and enterprise – not his wife, but his mistress, Aspasia, a brilliant Milesian who ran one of the world’s first intellectual salons.14
Pericles’ Golden Age produced the flowering which would lead to Athens’ place in history – the marble-columned buildings and literary works which cornerstone the civilization of the West. But despite the permanence of these monuments, the intergroup tournament wasn’t over – in fact, they never are. War broke out between the Greek states in 459 B.C. Athens managed to stomp it out. 15 In 446, Sparta16 struck with a military thrust which the Athenians parried handily. From 431 B.C. onward the Spartans pitted themselves against the Athenians (and/or vice-versa) again in the Peloponnesian War. Athens fought with one hand while with the other it carried on its naval empiring, its refinement of wealth, and its explosion of theater, sculpture and philosophy. Then, in 404 B.C., Athens lost to Sparta catastrophically. 17
Sparta now controlled the cables of the inter-Greco-web. Athens resurrected a ghost of her former prosperity, 18 but her once raucous pluralism grew slightly pinched and dry. 19 This would become apparent in the dominion of a new philosopher, one whose work distilled Pythagoras’ authoritarian enterprise.
From the defeat of the Persians to the end of Athenian hegemony, each tectonic shift in politics reset the balance between personality types, the subcultures they forged, and the resulting dominance of philosophies. But to see the reasons why, its time for another dive to the depths of biopsychology.
Follow the Leader
Attention Structures and the Monkey Business of Philosophy
|“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”|
|Max De Pree|
| “He was indeed the glass|
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves.”
The resource shifter shovels a society’s goods from losers to winners in a manner notable for lack of mercy. When Athens had maintained the choke hold on the Delian League, it had raked in tribute from its subject states and used the loot to build such glories as the Parthenon. Now that Sparta was in charge, it, too, sucked taxes from its tributaries ’till they screamed. But the most potent of the resource shifters prizes isn’t money; it’s influence, the joystick of collective mind.
The human hunger for attention and persuasive force is far more primal than most know. Even “smart molecules” compete to “have their say.”20 Among these are the receptors studded like rivets across the surface of a cell’s membrane. Witless as these twists of atomic beads might seem, receptors have decision making powers, a primitive IQ.21 If a passing particle fits snugly in the trap they wear on their exterior, their bells of recognition ring, clanging a Eureka to the multitudes – the fellow receptors spread out on the cellular skin.
Should the receptor’s find be a rarity in great need, other look-out molecules will stop what they’re doing and join the hue and cry, alerting the totality of the cell. The choired chime of a bacteria’s receptors stampedes the flagella which whip the creature into motion, propelling it toward food or flicking it from threat. But a receptor community’s tastes shift rapidly. A “discovery” which was hot stuff an hour ago may now seem ordinary as can be. Should a receptor strike a form of pay dirt whose provision has become routine, the yell it sends will lose what Cambridge University’s Dennis Bray calls its “infectability” – its ticket to fame and popularity. Other receptor molecules will ignore its “yikes, I found it” almost totally. 22 In the struggle for attention, timing is everything.
Hierarchy, as John Holland noticed when devising a general theory of intelligent machines, 23 is yet another key. The higher you are on the totem pole, the more food, 24 sex, and perks25 are tossed your way. But the real prize is your right to be the focus of all eyes26 – to captain mass perception, pilot the “common sense,” and decree the concepts chorused by the folks deemed sound and sane. Among apes, baboons, or chimpanzees, most males are hunched and nervous, radiating insecurity. There’s one spot to which their pupils keep on swiveling. In it is a lordly animal, 27 his fur a erected in a regal mane. 28 Females groom him, 29 youths court his favor, and infants loll at his feet. 30 Some go into a semblance of a groupy’s swoon. One young mountain gorilla studied by Diane Fossey stared for hours every day into her troop leader’s face. If he deigned to toss a glance her way, a shudder of pleasure rocked her body visibly. 31 Those outside the regal’s court look to their lord for cues 32 (Or they look to their lady – dominant female primates are also perceptual autocrats.). Cues which indicate whether there’s a hail of punishment or reward about to come their way. Cues to whether they should sit or stand – for when the master settles his haunches, all follow his noble lead. 33 His power is so great that the smallest change of expression can send his toadies scurrying to please. 34 What he does, they do. They ape his style and even his emotionality. 35 His political approach, be it despotic or indulgent, becomes that of the troop. 36 His strategies, even for basics such as how to snag food and when to eat it, become the rage. 37 He orchestrates a cluster of eyes, ears, hands, and brains, hooking his “inferiors” into what primatologist Michael Chance has labeled an “attention structure”38 – a collective gaze.
The human attention structure shows itself among infants, four-year-olds, 39 Mayan rulers,40 and the members of African-American gangs. 41 At a cocktail party in the United States where all are alleged equals, men of lesser power show emotion nervously and look for conversational cues to those who telegraph supremacy. Superiors wear their hash marks unobtrusively, radiating the animal signals of calm, control, and dignity, gifts of serotonin, 42 the biological ambrosia which flows even from a winning crayfish’s sense of mastery.
There are other tiny clues which sort out who’s on top from who is not. 43 High status individuals take the liberty of touching those below them, granting an instant of camaraderie. Those on a more humble plane seldom dare try this familiarity. 44 The chimp to whom all eyes are glued gazes into the middle distance, underscoring that he need not look to others for his cues. Dominant humans also follow this instinctual rule, focussing intensely on their listeners as they pontificate, but allowing their glance to wander when their lessers let an opinion fly. 45 Top dogs act as helmsmen for a conversation. We let them direct its length and tone. 46 When they speak, they do so with conviction. We fill our sentences with words like “uh,” “like,” and “I think,” betokening uncertainty. 47 But not to worry. Studies shown that they do most of the talking anyway. 48
Some attention structures are matters of the moment, cobbled together by strangers who’ve just met for the first time. But most involve an equivalent to what Adam Smith called “stored labor” – his phrase for the eons of innovation captured in such simple objects as a brick, a spade, or a high-tech turbine engine’s ceramic blade. A presidency, a Ph.D., a title of nobility, and even instant celebrity sit atop a pile of perceptual capital accumulated from the days of mammoth-tusk tent-making, city-building, kingdom-crafting and construction of the institutions of modernity. A professor’s title taps six million years of primate instincts and the authority heaped up by institutions of higher learning during the 45 generations since the University of Bologna struggled to build its reputation in the 11th century. He who achieves a Ph.D. benefits from a principle of attentional accretion which pulls the strings of mass perception at every level of biology. 49
Attention begets attention – it’s the first rule of publicity. When a slime mold amoeba senses that food is running low it signals potential famine through a plume of cyclic AMP. One warning in the wilderness is a sorry thing. Indifference is its likely destiny. Only when a mob of chemical cries pulses forth in synchrony do the remaining amoebas drop they’re doing and come to see what’s happening. 50 The piling on of cues focusses the lens of collective perception in a honeybee colony too. Each flower patch has campaigners shanghaiing others to the waggle-danced rallies for their find. In the end, the hive will sum up the numbers each candidate has won over, then direct its energies to the food source which has topped the popularity poll. 51
But ants come closest to the stored attention which makes for human irresistibility. A wandering worker who’s found a crumb of picnic cake will return home with her tail a-dragging. She’s marking the path with a scent-trail, a chemical road sign to the newfound eatery. One scent trail will get you nowhere. But things pick up a bit when a second ant trips across the discovery, then adds her chemical recommendation to the lone “I found it” lingering forlornly on the air and ground. Now that there are two, other ants may check out the route and should they be pleased, leave their signals on the return-trip to hq. As the overlay of scent trails swells, its come-hither finally turns irresistible. Ants rush madly to get their crack at a treasure which has gained celebrity. 52 Insect scent trails wear off after hours or days. But humans lay attraction markings in more indelible ways. We warehouse them in rituals, institutions, and “immortal” works which sing a great man’s praise. Homer’s paeans to Achilles and the virtues of Greek bravery were imitated, taught, and written about endlessly, building a trail that grew more potent over each succeeding century. 53
This multi-millennial hoard of perceptual sirening is compressed into a quality called prestige. 54 Prestige is stored in titles like doctor, president, prime minister, and king. Much as we deny the fact, 55 we cozy up to those who’ve got prestige and shy away from those who don’t. 56 We put our confidence in those who’ve commandeered it, and shun the same message – even if delivered in the very same words – from the mouths of lesser folk. 57 If someone from the lower ranks comes up with a notion that makes sense, we often deep-six it in our memory, then bubble it back to consciousness a few weeks later dressed as our own idea or that of an authority. 58 We rearrange our sensory input to erase the flaws of those above us and exaggerate, or just plain fabricate, those of the folks below. 59 We go so far as to dupe ourselves into believing that those of high position are a good deal taller than they really are – adding as much as two and a half inches to their height. 60
Like chimps, we copy the mannerisms of our masters, 61 down to their speech patterns, choice of clothes, automobiles, and style of homes. In meetings, when they rock slightly forward and back, we inadvertently rock in imitation of their ways. 62 This is not just post-industrial western lunacy. 63 In Uganda, when “the king laughed, everyone laughed; if he sneezed, everyone sneezed. If he had a cold, everyone else said he had one. If he had his hair cut, so did they.” 64 In pre-20th century China, courtiers chuckled when the emperor did, but if his face grew sad they showed immediate despondency. 65 The Kwakiutl chief Yaqatlenlis once made a boast which captured a basic truth of mass psychology: “I am known by all the tribes over all the world… all the rest…try to imitate me.” 66
We’re pulled into the wake of those “above” us by the social instincts Thomas Carlyle described when he compared the literary critics of the 1820s to sheep. 67 Put a stick in the path as a lead sheep goes by, wrote the sage, and the beast will jump to get over it. Remove the stick, and each remaining sheep in line will hop at precisely the same spot…even though there’s no obstacle left to hurdle! Things haven’t changed much since then. It’s widely recognized in the publishing industry that if the key critics at the New York Times fall in love with an author, critics all over the country will follow their lead. On the other hand, if these lead sheep say a book is worthless, a cascade of commentators from Portland to Peoria will arrive at the same conclusion. Imitative learning evolved among spiny lobsters (that is, crayfish) in 220 million B.C. This is its update in the world of human beings.
Reality is a hallucination which we generate collectively. (See chapter eight, “Reality Is A Shared Hallucination.”) In the “attention space” of our fantasy landscape, the high and mighty glom up more than their share of real estate. They possess the greatest acreage of our gossip and our media coverage. 68 As role models or the folks who make us angry, they roam the private attics of our musings and our dreams. They are the lead sheep in the herd of humankind – the eyes, the ears, and shapers of collective mind.
The shift of attention to those on top – whether they be neurons or empires – is central to the operation of collective brain. 69 States and movements compete for influence constantly. The tug of the winners70 is so strong that members of out-groups struggle to be members of the in. 71 The more a troop of langur monkeys loses its battles, the more its members desert and join the winning team. 72 We are no different. Some Jewish children in the 1930s goose-stepped and Heil-Hitlered with great glee. 73 Some concentration camp victims barked like their guards and sewed Nazi badges onto their shabby prison garb. 74 When the Moslem moguls conquered India, Islamic fashions became the rage. 75 The same has happened in a more recent day and age. 76
From 1981 to 1986, the securities traded by Japan went from fifteen billion to 2.6 trillion dollars worth, leading to a new saying in Japan: “It took Britain 100 years and the US fifty years to become the richest country in the world, but it only took Japan five.” 77 By the mid-’80s, Japan had more money controlling more resources in more countries than any other nation in the world. 78 Its foreign exchange reserve was the world’s largest. 79 It was the world’s leading exporter and source of loans. 80 The shares on Tokyo’s stock exchange topped in value those on the Big Board in New York. 81 Japan possessed 54% of all the cash in the world’s banks. 82 The top twelve global banks, in fact, were wholly Japanese. 83 The average Japanese per capita income had surpassed that of U.S. citizens, 84 who still spoke of themselves mistakenly as the richest in the world.
Japan owned 600 companies in Britain and 200 in France. 85 Analyst Ezra Vogel predicted a new Pax Nipponica. 86 In a sense, it had already come. Japan was the world’s biggest donor of foreign aid, 87 spreading money and the influence it bought in Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Mexico, Panama, 88 South America, 89 Viet Nam, 90 Burma, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa. 91 More important was something most of the experts missed. Japan’s general trading companies, its sogo shosha, had become global nerve centers “controlling the greatest centralized commercial network of production, distribution, and communication facilities existing in the world today.” 92 The sogo shosha possessed an unparalleled ability to work with cultures others found baffling. They raised money from virtually every land, shuttled it to a developing nation, offered that country out-of-the-box installation of industries being phased out of Japan itself, threw in technology, management expertise, and even the tools for building mega-project consortia, then provided marketing for the final goods. Little wonder that Le Monde’s Bruno Thomas called the Japan of the 1980s “the center of the world economy.” 93
All eyes swivelled to the nation at the top. English-language authors cranked out more than 10,000 books on the subject of Japan. 94 A slew of them taught how to organize, industrialize, and strategize in the Japanese way. During the 1980s, Sony founder Akio Morita gave Americans regular sermons on how to conduct their affairs, and Americans listened eagerly. 95 Veteran foreign correspondent Henry Scott Stokes reported that Tokyo’s young “regarded the world as a ‘tabula rasa’ upon which they will write a large design. That design is the Japanese flag.” 96 Thanks to the tricks of the attention structure, this was no idle dream. Brazil aped the Japanese model for development – locking out foreign investment and imports, and using government to guide business. 97 In Africa, the head of Senegal’s Center for Research On Internal Development, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, urged his continent to follow the Japanese role model, taking what it wanted from the west, and closing its doors to all the rest. 98 Sub-Saharan Africa’s grass roots consumers needed no such prodding, since Japanese goods were among their favorite novelties. 99 Keiretsu-like companies popped up in Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, 100 India, Brazil and Argentina. 101 In Britain, where Japanese-run auto plants outproduced local factories dramatically, local industrial managers reorganized operations along Yokohama lines. 102 In France, Peugeot spent 200 million dollars to train workers in what Daniel Burstein called “Japanese-style assembly techniques.” 103 Even ultra-nationalists in the former USSR talked of “following the Japanese model” – combining economic reform with one of Japan’s dirty little secrets, obsessive ethnic purity. 104
Nippon’s charisma recalibrated the minutiae of worldwide daily life. The number of sushi bars in New York went through a tenfold increase from 1980 to 1989. 105 In Burma, the biggest selling t-shirts had slogans in either English or Japanese. 106 In Asian cities like Hong Kong and Bangkok, Japanese tv stars, pop songs, and soap operas were rapidly replacing American pop cultural exports. 107 Time Magazine and Forbes opined that Tokyo’s fashion and architecture had become trend-setters for the world. 108 Japanese designers hogged the limelight at the 1987 Paris fashion show. 109 Japan’s retailers set the pace even in their product presentations and use of video directories. Some Japanese food stores became so wary of having their secrets stolen that they put signs in their windows asking customers not to take pictures or draw sketches of the displays. In the global web of retail commerce it was said that what Japan does today, the rest of the world will ape in two years time. 110
For Western scientists, Japan became a place of pilgrimage. 111 American politicians went hat in hand to Tokyo so often that Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander admitted he’d done the trans-Pacific trek more between 1983 and 1987 than the hop to Washington. 112 In fact by 1988, thirty six U.S. states had established permanent offices in the city of the six-dollar cup of coffee. When our country’s politicians and former presidential candidates left office, it was the Japanese to whom they sold their clout. 113 In 1990, Peru elected a second-generation Japanese president – Alberto Fujimori. The move payed off with a nod of acknowledgment from the troop leader. Fujimori was granted an audience with Japan’s emperor and promised foreign aid. 114 Too bad that in good chimp fashion, he was restrained from scratching the emperor’s back. Meanwhile, as the Philippines forced out American military bases, Manila turned to Japan to save its faltering economy. Japan became the country’s largest investor, while the U.S., traditionally the country’s “older brother,” fell to number four. Philippine Prime Minister Corazon Aquino, whose relatives had been killed by the Japanese during their occupation of the island, spoke cheerfully of the days when Japanese soldiers had handed out chocolates to Philippine children, and fondly remembered the songs she had learned when she was a child during the Japanese occupation. 115
The Singaporeans named the Japanese the people they most admired, citing their spirit, their strength, their work ethic, their willingness to sacrifice, and the fact that their cars and technology were number one. 116 A Korean studying for his MBA was asked what country he esteemed above all others. He answered bluntly, “Japan is the future.” 117 In 1989, Russia’s perestroika and China’s economic reforms brought down the Iron Curtain and Americans took the credit. But in the Asian block, that credit was given to Tokyo. 118 When Eastern Europe opened to foreign investment, Japanese auto and steelmakers led the way in shaping the region’s new economy. 119 Suzuki, for example, built a $200 million auto factory in Hungary, then used the country’s low-cost labor to manufacture cars for sale in the newly unified European community. 120 The Mexicans at the end of the ’80s wooed Japanese investment more eagerly than that of Americans. The lure of Japan to upper class Mexicans became so strong that the well-heeled, including the country’s president, sent their children to Liceo Japones121 – Japanese schools in Mexico City. 122 Even the Iranians saw trading with Japan as a convenient way to escape the twin devils of the U.S. and the former Soviet States. 123
By 1993, Japanese authors and other authorities had become increasingly outspoken in their opinion that the American model of capitalist development was obsolete, and that the new world template had been made in Japan. 124 Eisuke Sakakibara, deputy general of the all-powerful Ministry of Finance was typical. The title of his book on the subject was Beyond Capitalism: The Japanese Model of Market Economics. 125 The country most eagerly listening to this advice was the contender-to-watch in the 21st century – that empire of a billion educated, canny, and driven worker/soldier/consumer/innovators known as the Chinese. 126 Just as spiny lobsters learned to avoid the crush of an ice wall in winter by imitating their leaders, so human groups look to winners for superior strategies.
Molecular sensors, bacteria, crustaceans, ungulates, primates, and intellectuals – we are very much the same. We act as nodes in a neural net. Thanks to resource shifters, we follow the rules of the mass perception game.
Plato – a Spartan in Pythagorean Garb
Greek philosophers of the fifth and fourth century B.C. followed the resource shifter’s rules: shovel influence to the winner; get everyone to ape the guy (in those days it was always a guy) on top. While Athens was master of the Aegean dominance hierarchy the leading philosopher, Socrates, fit the mold of Athens’ leader, Pericles. 127 When Sparta became king of the heap the new philosopher-in-vogue turned ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology into a mirror of the Spartiate. Forty years later the Spartan approach would cease to fit the landscape of a difficult century. Then would come another political leader who’d seize the attention structure and once more swivel the pupils of philosophy.
Plato was born three years after Athens had been pulverized by plague and one year after the death of Pericles, guarantor of the Athens’ Golden Age. Good looking, athletic, 128 awarded for military bravery, an outstanding student in everything from music to mathematics, a woman-charmer, skilled at love poetry, a playwright who penned a series of four tragedies, Plato couldn’t make his mind up about whether to make his name in poetry or politics. Then, through Socrates (a family friend), 129 he found philosophy. As we’ve seen with Alcibiades and his efforts to take Syracuse, Socratic thought could be used politically. Plato was 23 when his home city fell. Athens’ glory was eclipsed and its civic pride was smashed, as was its economy. Reigns of terror replaced elections during the coup of the Thirty Tyrants – funded with a hundred talents from the Spartan enemy. One of bloodthirstiest of the Thirty was Critias, a relative of Plato who was also a good friend. A year later, when The Tyrants were kicked through the revolving doors of power, two of Plato’s favorite uncles, Critias and Charmides, lost their lives in an attempt to fend off the returning democrats. Then the restorers of the vote – a generally peaceful bunch – killed off Plato’s mentor, Socrates. Plato was fed up with Athens’ liberal education, its openness, and especially its democracy. He fled to Megara, Cyrene, and Egypt in disgust, visiting eminent Pythagoreans like Philolaus and Eurytus, then retraced the master’s footsteps through corridors of African and Asian priests. 130 Drawing him was a view whose founder – a Spartan admirer like himself – had imposed obedience and uniformity.
In periods of turmoil, authoritarian certainties offer to restore what’s lost131 – a bedrock beyond crumbling. Plato found a path in Pythagoras to the hardest of rock solids. 132 This earth was but an impure shadow of archetypes lodged in a space more permanent and potent than this shifting plane. Every college student who takes a course in philosophy knows this Platonic concept from the story of the cave. What most don’t know is that its roots were in Pythagoras. Aristotle, however, was not fooled. He treats the concept of archetypal forms as Pythagorean plagiary. 133 Diodorus puts it in more positive terms, calling Plato “the last of the Pythagorean philosophers.” 134
Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that when Plato finally set up his own school for the sons of the wealthy, the Academy whose suburban grounds were bought for him by highborn friends, whose expenses were underwritten by Spartan-supported tyrants like Syracuse’s Dionysius II, and whose students were known for their ultra-aristocratic manners and finery, the campus would have a telling motto over its portal medeis ageometretos eisito- “Let no one without geometry enter here.” The point couldn’t have been driven home more soundly if the arch-geometer Pythagoras himself had chiselled it there.
Like Pythagoras, Plato carved out vast new territories for the intellect. But his most disturbing heritage would be totalitarian. The utopia he portrayed in his Republic, his Statesman, and his Laws is stretched on an unbending Spartan rack. Eugenics chisels conformity at birth. 135 A nomenklatura of philosopher aristocrats, backed by a secretive night council, clamps down on those whose appetites might carry them from virtue and austerity. Poetry, music, and literature – the loves of Plato’s younger days – are filled with dangers to the young, and must be censored vigorously. Plato’s republic is a cold and moralistic place, much like Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s, the Ayatollah’s Iran in 1979, or the Republic of the Taliban in 1998. And it harks back to earlier orders established by bearers of the final word: to the Spartan state of Lycurgus in which the lawgivers’ antique dictates were decisive, and to the closed community in which Pythagoras’ “ipse dixit” was there for just one purpose, to be obeyed.
Though The Republic gets most of the attention, it’s in The Laws that Plato lets his aping of Sparta hang out totally. Here he gives as his ideal a nation which embodied the Spartan dream. The model which he chose was Crete, the land from which Sparta’s crafter Lycurgus had drawn much of his masterplan. Yes, Crete, the last bastion of the practices of another group of winners, the warrior tribes of Dorians who 900 years earlier had brought Greece to her knees. 136 Asks an Athenian interlocutor at the beginning of The Laws:
|Ath. And first, I want to know why the law has ordained that you shall have common meals and gymnastic exercises, and wear arms. [Spartan practices of the purest kind.]|
|Cle. I think, Stranger, that the aim of our institutions is easily intelligible to any one. …all these regulations have been made with a view to war, and the legislator appears to me to have looked to this in all his arrangements…. He seems to me to have thought the world foolish in not understanding that all are always at war with one another; and if in war there ought to be common meals and certain persons regularly appointed under others to protect an army, they should be continued in peace. For what men in general term peace would be said by him to be only a name; in reality every city is in a natural state of war with every other, not indeed proclaimed by heralds, but everlasting. 137|
The intergroup tournament is always among us. Like Sparta, each state should be disciplined with the severity of a military camp. Plato would rise and fall throughout the ensuing centuries. His approach would be emotionally in tune with 2,500 years of absolutist zealotries. And in many an important sense, he would be the father of what will menace us in years to come – the fundamentalisms of a brutal new modernity.
War, indeed, was perpetual in Plato’s day. But the lesson of the receptor molecules is that a system soon grows weary of what becomes non-stop and seeks its opposite. Plato rode high while Sparta ruled. But soon the restlessness of collective brain would lay the path for yet another reigning polis and the philosopher who simultaneously aped and shaped its ways.
Pluralism by the Sword – Aristotele and the Websplicer of Macedon
When an information-intake-centered RAM approach was needed, Athens had stayed on top. Then came the day when men hungered for a strategy of ROM (no data input, just outflow), and Sparta had become kingpin. The next shift paved the way for a kingdom perched on the boundary line between Greece and its Persian enemy. The court of this border land was one where open input and output flourished of necessity. Athenians, Spartans, and Persians mingled in the chambers of its kings. 138 Far from the reigning centers, this nation was considered by the Greeks “barbarian.” But Sparta had won power then lost it, and now Athens’ Second Empire was sputtering. Even the Persians weren’t making out half as well as they were wont to do. 139 Times of social disintegration open vacuums which new integrators fill. When the ruffian nation of fresh cross-cultural splicers rose, so did its chosen political leader and his tutor, the court philosopher. The teacher was Aristotle. 140 His pupil: Alexander. Both became switchworkers of a new attention skein.
Like Alexander, Aristotle grew up on a land bridge141 and built bridges with his philosophies. He joined the best of the Socratic, Pythagorean and Platonic, yoking diversity to conformity as partners in the springworks of a golden mean. 142 He questioned nature vigorously, a quasi-Socratic enterprise. He applied Pythagorean science and like the Pythagoreans and the Platonists, built where Socrates had specialized in pulling things apart. He rejected authoritarianism, but mentored a commander whose power would shake destiny. Platonists aped Sparta. But soon Mesopotamians, Indians, Afghans, Hebrews, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and even the nascent Romans would be drawn to imitate the Hellenists of Macedon.
The best of Aristotle’s heritage would thrive in science and pluralism. The worst of Plato’s would survive in intolerance and bigotry. Which leads back to a question raised many chapters ago – in the final tally which hypothesis would win, Athens’ pluralism or Sparta’s harsh rigidity? The answer would be both and neither, for the contest never ends. Their struggle will determine many a fate during the weeks, years, and decades coming around the bend.