Greek tragedy, democracy, social media and the Taiping Rebellion.
What do they have to do with inoculation?
I’m not talking about viral inoculation of course, though we’ll need plenty of that as well. I’m speaking to the rapid changes that civilization has brought about and the ability or lack thereof for humans to live with them.
How do good, traditional people deal with the extraordinarily rapid changes in way of living, philosophy, economy, science and technology? It’s been… hard.
We can’t blame ourselves, the human condition existed without such change since archaic times. Civilizations onset in the blink of an eye of less than a few hundred generations has changed so much. We can take solace that we’re not the first to have a rough go at it, the greeks in Athens had similar problems.
In just a few generations, from Pythagoras (570 — c. 495 BC) to Diotema (440 B.C) to Socrates (470–399) to Plato (428 347 BC) they had developed extraordinary philosophical, governmental and scientific advancements. There was also immense economic, military, and social tumult (the Peloponnesian war being a particularly harsh experience).
People cannot easily keep pace with dramatic change over the period of mere generations. A people that moves very quickly is faced with simultaneous problems of fear and mistrust about the new (often rightly so), and an intellectual headiness focusing on what has been gained.
However perhaps the most damaging part is that the unspoken, the unknown, the space, the pause between breaths, the contemplation is no longer considered due to an overwhelming focus on what was and now is. Materialism is not just about shopping sprees.
The greeks of Athens attempted to express, address and ameliorate and inoculate against this this malady through tragedy plays. Tragedy begets irony. Irony begets paradox, and paradox allows for the wisdom to see spaces in what is unsaid.
In the theatre of ancient Greece, the eirôn (Greek: εἴρων, root word of Irony) was one of three stock characters in comedy. The eirôn who could see through current circumstances usually succeeded in bringing down his braggart opponent (the alazôn) by a better understating his own abilities and reality.
The Bacchae is an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripedes that was first performed in 405 BC. The play speaks to the case of the old masquerading as the divine. King Pentheus sought to control others through false understanding of gods and of his own stature. Without regard for wisdom, the arrogant face sour consequences. Pentheus in this case, insulting the god Dionysius in his presence, was torn apart for his blasphemous actions and lack of insight.
Why would someone avoid seeing reality? Without an environmental inoculation of philosophy, there is a fear to it.
Plato expresses the fear of consciousness in his Allegory of the cave
In the allegory, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality but are not accurate representations of the real world. Three higher levels exist: the natural sciences; mathematics, geometry, and deductive logic; and the theory of forms.
Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all. A philosopher aims to understand and perceive the higher levels of reality. However, the other inmates of the cave do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life.
Socrates remarks that this allegory can be paired with previous writings, namely the analogy of the sun and the analogy of the divided line.
Plato continues, saying that the freed prisoner would think that the world outside the cave was superior to the world he experienced in the cave and attempt to share this with the prisoners remaining in the cave attempting to bring them onto the journey he had just endured; “he would bless himself for the change, and pity [the other prisoners]” and would want to bring his fellow cave dwellers out of the cave and into the sunlight (516c).
The returning prisoner, whose eyes have become accustomed to the sunlight, would be blind when he re-enters the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun (516e). The prisoners, according to Plato, would infer from the returning man’s blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not undertake a similar journey. Plato concludes that the prisoners, if they were able, would therefore reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the cave (517a)
Socrates, the philosopher, was accused by the government of the Thirty Tyrants of “corrupting the youth of Athens” and forced to commit suicide. What were they really afraid of? It cannot be said for certain, but we all know that staying on guide-rails is much appreciated by, whereas free thinking is dangerous to any tyranny.
Tyrants view politics as a means to have the people serve their will, whereas in an artistic Democracy a leader serves the people. The inoculation to tyranny is free thinking, developed capability and matured spirit.
This is why Democracy in a reduced view as merely a political format devoid of Purpose is so precarious, it be can be guided towards ills quite easily as we have seen. But, Democracy as an art form as envisioned by Franklin and Jefferson can give birth to a new type of human being. Not a physically new type, but a spiritually and intellectually open type, surrounded by an environment that fosters his diverse interests.
The famous true story — Benjamin Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when someone shouted out,
“Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”
To which Franklin supposedly responded, with a rejoinder at once witty and ominous: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
If we could keep it, focusing on developing the maturity of mankind, whilst safeguarding against the maladies of mankind. That was the challenge to which he alluded.
Madison inoculated our government, to the best of his and his and many of his contemporaries’ ability, against excesses.
[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. ( n.d., 337)
Today we fall short in that our country is deeply divided, and that divide is known to be spurred on by a rapid propagation of self-reinforcing information. Social media platforms, including youtube and facebook in particular, have utilized algorithms that have the net effect of firehose eroding any development of irony or seeing between the lines. This exacerbates pre-existing difficult social and economic situations in most of the country and can lead to terrible consequences.
We are desperately inadequate in terms of inoculating our populace against such self reinforcing, often very partial and inaccurate information.
Historically the consequences can be severe when a disillusioned people are widely provided specious perspectives without a firm development of irony.
The Taiping rebellion, spawned in part by a cursory understanding of a protestant missionary handbook in China, spread religious revolution like wildfire and in the end claimed 20–30 million lives, as many as World War 1.
The rebellion began under the leadership of Hong Xiuquan (1814–64), a disappointed civil service examination candidate who, influenced by Christian teachings spread by missionary Robert Morrison (and translated by Liang Fa), proclaimed a new dynasty, assumed the title “Heavenly King” and subsequently led a massive armed revolt. And all under very cursory opportunist investigation the parts of the bible he was provided.
Even if Hong and his leaders received the new ideas of Christianity, they compromised their traditional culture. Furthermore, they tried not only to combine Chinese culture with Christianity, but also to believe in Christianity as far as they could understand it. … The Taiping Movement resulted from a deliberate synthesis of Christian ideas and native Chinese practices… an idiosyncratic adaption of specific biblical themes, mostly from the Old Testament.
— Liang Fa’s Quanshi liangyan and its impact on the Taiping Movement
There had already been fears by the Chinese government about the spread of christianity, labeling it a menace.
An imperial edict of 1812 prohibited the publication of Christian texts in Chinese; it found that Christianity was a menace to Chinese culture as it “neither holds spirits in veneration nor ancestors in reverence”
The Chinese simply did not have an inoculation against this fervor of new cursory imports from a new religion weaponized amongst a people in pain.
Jesus and early christians did not advocate mass military overthrow of government. Yet partial understanding without wisdom insight lead to catastrophic death. Like the millennial fever of the crusades, the words of Jesus and other biblical text were utilized [manipulated] for the fulfillment of a desire for social position. The Taiping rebellion did not seek a peaceful dissemination of the wisdom, as its purpose was not wisdom. Jesus did not see the spread of his word as being easy or without causing conflict, but his way was not of physical force, that was overlooked by Hong Xiuquan.
Today we are beset with a rapid onset challenge. Any number of purported do-gooders seek overthrow of what they see to be a corrupt government. The rate of spread of information is astounding — millions of people can be reached in hours or even minutes. What tools do the people have to distinguish between shadows in the cave and reality?
People are not stupid, but they need an environment that fosters the growth of the development of capacity for irony. The capacity to see what is unsaid, the capacity for personal search, rather than group acquiescence.
How will we inoculate our civilization — arguably a new civilization given the rapid development of sciences and technology, against the excesses of power and divides it has created. How will we engender the requisite interest in learning required. To have a government of the people requires that they be able to govern themselves capably for the times. No longer can any government function be duly served without the development of capacities in art, history and science. Justices that are not familiar to some degree in advances in biology for instance cannot duly ascertain whether DNA testing would abridge constitutional rights within a matter of years or less, as an example.
This inoculation must happen on a variety of fronts. For one, we do not stand a chance if the best minds in science are actively working against us.
- A government that does not oppress — if citizenry has to fight for their right to live, that gives little energy to explore.
- An economy that does not oppress — if citizenry have to fight day and day out to eke out a working poor or less living — what time is there to explore.
- A diurnal practice free from excesses of addiction — if citizenry uses its free time not to learn but to be captivated or intoxicated, what energy is there to explore.
- A system of education that sparks interest — without it, we will not reliably engender the democratic artistic ideal sufficiently to avoid a reduced perception of democracy as merely a political form, without it we will not have a capable enough citizenry to maintain it.For example — machine learning and worse Artificial intelligence threaten civilization at the highest levels as they can so rapidly spread spurious information.
Human accountability must be brought back into play and industry governance to limit the extent of utilizing both personal information and algorithmic recommendations must be explored, agreed upon, implemented and effectively monitored.
An even playing field based on other sources of value rather than automated feeding-of-content to entice and ultimately often to addict a user to content is preferable for citizenry and industry in the long run. Similar safeguards (though less technically complex) have been implemented by the payment card industry, as an example.
On an educational front — the nightmare that is test taking and the artifices of universal bureaucratic teaching have to be largely replaced with a guiding rather than telling educational art. The findings of Maria Montessori and subsequent developments in that lineage of childhood learning focus on creating an environment that fosters innate desire to learn. How much more enthused would our populace be if everyone’s interests were fostered, in a productive manner.
Discipline is more often faked than internally developed and matured. What does a bureaucratic or military style education really do for people when they are on their own? The multiple crises of addiction in our country — pick your poison, there are many — are demonstrable proof that millions have not been wisely served.
There is a place for those who prefer their children receive a more rigid education and the emotional costs associated to learning to do what is ordered of you, but it should be in the minority. Even our military does not expect an officer to Always do what she or he is told. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Article 90 states that military personnel need to obey the “lawful orders of his/her superior”.
Any person subject to this chapter who willfully disobeys a lawful command of that person’s superior commissioned officer shall be punished
To be effective, such consideration requires thinking for oneself and evaluation of the space between the lines. That discretion requires a significant degree of moral and philosophical exploration.
The path to stepping out of the cave of fear of irony and paradox is unique to every person, and everyone who has made it out has a responsibility, if the Ideals of humanity are to succeed — a free government of of the people, by the people and for the people — we must take it upon ourselves to live by our own examples. Support others in economic hardship, support the development of modalities of learning that foster personal interest rather than curtailing it. Give fellow humans a fighting chance by voluntarily agreeing on limits to deleterious technological implementations such as aggressive algorithmic content delivery, and engage more human beings in consideration of the nuance of content moderation (reporters and editorial desks are one example of this). The same goes for the care required to support people in beating substance addictions and other forms of addiction. And we must develop a sense of irony and paradox for adults through exposure to reading and expression of it.
Much to be done. No one said this would be easy, but there is a path forward.