Social & Political Philosophy 1 – The Origins of Politics
Let us begin by defining our terms ‘social’, ‘political’ and ‘philosophy’. While many philosophy and political philosophy classes begin with the ancient Greeks, as if they are the single civilization that invented human thought and politics, it is wiser to look to the earliest origins of human social arrangements, starting with our ape ancestors, nomadic human tribes and the first great city states of ancient Iraq and Egypt. In the way we use the words, social is used to describe any interaction or situation of individuals, while political, a subset of the social, is used to describe traditional or institutional forms of authority.
Philosophy, a word possibly coined by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (570-495 BCE), means “love of wisdom”, but Pythagoras did not argue that his ancient Greek people invented either love or wisdom. Wisdom, like freedom, is difficult to define, but when people of different cultures are asked who is wise, they tend to say that they see beyond the here and now, taking the long view and the social view. Life is hard because we must balance our interests and perspectives with others. Wise individuals are not simply smart, but have the ability to change perspectives, to see the bigger picture, and to reason with others and themselves. While wisdom does not necessarily come with age, older folks who have been kicked by life but keep their minds and hearts open are often called wise as they have a wider perspective of human life.
Imagine humanity was completely exclusive, not a kind of reptile that eats its young with no thought of their interests (#notallreptiles), but a mammal that recognizes the interests of others and works completely against them to ensure its own interests. As individuals, we would still eat, but we would try to stop anyone else from eating, as food is limited. We would still mate, but we would try to stop anyone else from mating, as mates are limited. We wouldn’t necessarily say things or send signals to others about our interests, but if we did we would try to stop anyone else from saying anything, as power, time and the attention of others are limited. We would not be able to share as we have for thousands of years in countless cultures to discover, create and collaborate. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to grow and widen our perspectives through interaction and dialog.
Now imagine humanity was completely inclusive, not a kind of insect that gives no thought to individuality beyond the hive mind, but a mammal that recognizes the interests of others and works in the interests of others regardless of how it conflicts with one’s interests. We would feed random strangers the food we have even if our children were starving, as their interests are equal to ours and our children’s. We would dialog with others, and no matter how their views and interests conflict with our own or threaten our lives, we would not exclude them from the group or their views from what we imagine to be the truth.
Humanity, including each of us, is both exclusive and inclusive, as well as exclusive to be inclusive and inclusive to be exclusive, in ways that become more and more complicated along with culture and technology. In Daniel Everett’s groundbreaking book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (2008), he says that the isolated Piraha tribe of the Amazon Jungle have no technology other than bows, arrows and temporary huts, without fixed traditions of basket weaving or artistic designs. They have words for more and less, but don’t have words for one or two and thus do not have conceptions of numbers. This is similar to the Russian peasants who psychologists tried teaching arithmetic, who were utterly confused by the idea of numbers in themselves that are not particular collections of physical objects. The Piraha do not distinguish the past from the future, but speak of both as other-than-now, and thus do not have an oral history or even a creation myth.
For the Piraha, life has always been the way it is, without beginning or end, they are “straight-headed” and everyone else with different ways, including other Amazonian tribes, the Brazilian army and inquisitive anthropologists, are all “crooked”. Younger Piraha who leave to live in Brazilian cities grow into fully competent Moderns, as the French anthropologist LaTour calls our own tribe. Some do join other tribes, such as our Modern society, but most stay with the Piraha’s familiar “straight-headed” ways. Just as the Cheshire Cat tells Alice in the middle of Wonderland, because our ways and interests are opposed to others they are insane and backwards to us and we are insane and backwards to them. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nanh Hanh says we are all insane, and few of us work our way towards sanity.
The human mind understands by splitting things into opposites such as good and bad, true and false, order and chaos, control and freedom, and many other pairs to make sense of the infinite complexity that surrounds us. One of these basic pairs is belief and doubt, answering and questioning, saying yes and saying no to tribes and traditions. The German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) says us that our minds have two sides that work together and oppose each other called understanding and reason. Understanding holds beliefs and answers set and steady, while reason doubts and questions, rearranging and challenging our understandings when they do not work or do not apply. Knowledge is a set of understandings and answers that works well enough in a given situation, while wisdom is the ability to reason and question, to see beyond set understandings and perspectives. Cultures and systems of human thought use understanding and reason to produce knowledge and wisdom. Philosophy has been called thinking about thinking itself, the doubting, questioning and investigating of all traditions, answers and forms of authority.
Some have said that the ancient Greeks invented both science and philosophy, the self-conscious pursuit of fixed understanding and free reasoning. As mentioned with Pythagoras, the ancient Greeks did not say this of themselves, and most great Greek thinkers, such as Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle did not think highly of their fellow Greeks. Heraclitus, my favorite Greek thinker, said that all the adults of his city Ephesus should hang themselves and leave the city in the abler hands of children. Plato and Aristotle hated Athenian democracy, possibly because the most famous or infamous act of the Athenian assembly was condemning Socrates to death for questioning everyone about everything. In Paul Radin’s book Primitive Man as Philosopher, he argues that all societies, including American and African tribes, have a small number of individuals who are radical questioners and pioneers in innovation and individual thought. Perhaps the Piraha are so conservative in their ways that innovators seek culture elsewhere.
In Miguel Leon-Portilla’s book Aztec Thought and Culture, he argues that the Mayan and Aztec poets questioned their societies and systems of knowledge, asking open ended questions such as “Do we know the gods exist?”, “Is there an afterlife, like the ancestors said there is?”, and “Can anyone speak true words? If they can’t, these words aren’t true”. One imagines that their priests, much like the Athenian assembly, longed for these philosophical poets to quit their questioning. When we look at ancient and modern cultures, we find that people encourage and discourage questioning of the forms of authority and the powers that be, what Marcuse and the Frankfurt School called the Establishment in the 60s. No society would survive without pushing in both directions. In much the same way, walking requires planting your feet and moving them to take each step forward.
Hegel, who influenced the Frankfurt School and many others, argued that the history of human thought is a battle between dogmatism and skepticism. As a boy, Hegel watched the French Revolution from afar in Germany, and he saw the French revolutionaries split into two camps, with the conservatives sitting in the right wing and the progressives sitting in the left. This is where we get these political terms. In politics, conservatives lean towards believing and affirming traditional forms of authority and institutions, often looking to the stability of the past, while progressives lean towards doubting and questioning the institution, often looking to the openness of the future.
In philosophy and systems of thought, dogmatists lean towards fixed understandings (“There are certain facts, morals and truths.”) while skeptics lean towards continuous questioning (“Are there certain facts, morals and truths?”). When we are dogmatic, we would rather defend answers than ask challenging questions, and when we are skeptical, we would rather challenge than defend. This battle is also a symbiotic evolution requiring both sides. Without a base that is assumed, nothing new can be produced. However, without reaching for the new and questioning the old there is no growth to improve and fit new circumstances.
Great thinkers in all cultures incorporate the old while bringing us the new. Often they are called heretics in their time and only canonized after they are safely dead because they have to question the very system that they stand for. David Hume, a very skeptical philosopher from Scotland, wrote that everyone would be skeptical and philosophical if they could, but unfortunately we each need to eat, and thus must get a job, and thus cannot question everything. Thankfully, this creates the unique position for the philosopher, who can make a living showing everyone that they have been concerned with making a living and not asking questions about how to live a better life.
Questioning authority and hierarchy is something we have been doing since before we were human. A former student and friend of mine mentioned that he got into a passionate discussion about why walruses can’t be kept as pets, the reason being that unlike dogs, who submit to other dogs and humans for the sake of order, male walruses endlessly fight over who gets to be king. Humanity, like our ape ancestors, seems somewhere between the dog and the walrus, supporting leaders but also challenging them, in tension between individuality and the collective.
One of the central European philosophers who did not draw a sharp distinction between animals and humanity was Schopenhauer. In his central work, he mentions that sea lions form a circle around their young, and when the pups attempt to leave the circle and stray out into the open ocean, the sea lions bite them to teach them a lesson. The ocean and the world that contains it is a dangerous place, and children do need to be taught to trust authorities such as parents and teachers.
Hierarchy provides order and stability, but it is also unstable and should be questioned continuously. Confucius taught that the one thing that could most ruin a state is for the prince to never suffer contradiction, for when the prince is wrong, he should be told. One reason that authorities must be questioned is that power can be abused, used to manipulate others for personal gain rather than for the good of the whole. In one ancient Egyptian wisdom text, it reads “Honor those who achieve and the people will prosper, but keep your eyes open. Too much trust brings trouble…Exalt no one because of birth. Judge people by their actions.”
Each of us uses communication to establish our perspective with others, just as an author is the final authority over what they write. Apes are capable of lying, which has been documented in several instances. Researchers recorded one incident of a young male baboon fleeing from others after trying to force himself on a female who then turned around and gave the call for leopard, causing his pursuers to flee. Koko the gorilla, who was famously taught sign language and given a kitten to care for, once ripped a sink off the wall in frustration and then signed to her trainers that the kitten did it. Clearly, Koko was new to lying and not yet ready for a career in politics.
Radin argues that modern people have been taught to view most other cultures as if they are children, incapable of self-conscious rational thought, in spite of the fact that the human brain has not significantly evolved for over 100,000 years, long before recorded history and humanity spreading out from Africa. Anthropologists such as Radin, Malinowski and LaTour have repeatedly argued that tribespeople of the simplest of human cultures are fully logical and rational, evident in their arguments amongst each other over what or whom to believe. LaTour goes even farther, claiming that “the moderns”, our new tribe, is the most mythological yet, far more capable of believing in delusions and superstition because we have such powerful forms of communication and institutions. While I do not go as far as LaTour, it seems certainly true that we are capable of delusions of grandeur.
In tune with LaTour, postmodern philosophers such as Lyotard have argued that today our modern mythology and grand metanarrative, the large story on which many have stacked their own little life stories and thus the meaning of their lives, is that the West is the first rational society, teaching other cultures what it is to be fully human through philosophy, science and democracy. Those who question how rational the West is compared to others, such as many in Berkeley did in the 60s, are considered dangerous outsiders who threaten the safety of the tribe. As the old hippie joke goes, “We are objective depending on your military objectives”. Similarly, our democracy is freedom depending on where you stand in relation to it.
Roland Barthes, a French thinker and literary critic, argues that any speech can be mythologized and through any medium. At the barbershop one day, he was upset by the cover of Paris-Match (a magazine much like Newsweek & Time in America), which showed a young African boy in French military dress saluting. Barthes writes that the cover is meant to signify that France is a great empire in which all are equal, and that this boy is being made to serve his colonialist oppressors. The image is a sign that stands for a modern myth, namely that France stands for freedom. In doing this, it is a deformation and distortion of the realities of French colonial Africa. It is a gesture that is deliberately misleading, alienating the meaning from the situation. It is an alibi for French colonialism.
As human individuals, we have always had the freedom to question everything, and never needed institutions to give us this freedom. Rather, institutions evolved that took this freedom away, and more recent institutions have evolved that restrain themselves from taking away the freedoms we have had the whole time. Anthropologists tell us that tribespeople leave tribes all the time, sometimes to join other tribes and sometimes to create new ones. It is us moderns who have little idea as to how we could leave or what we could believe without the grand institutions and systems we have constructed. Just as ape hierarchies have always been unstable, rebellions were frequent in ancient civilizations. In one Babylonian text that is over four thousand years old, a master contemplates whether to start a rebellion, leave civilization for the wilderness, or try to work hard for the king and his people, and his servant gives him good reasons to do each of these conflicting options whenever the master seems to have made up his mind in either direction. While it is dangerous to leave the tribe or contradict the king, people have been openly complaining about politics for thousands of years. It is the fear of being excluded as an outsider that keeps most people silent.
In this class, we are centrally concerned with politics and political theories, and this means asking questions about freedom and authority, about the forms of control that we accept and engage. While many equate the word ‘democracy’ with freedom incarnate, it is important to remember that democracies have never included everyone, and that traditionally participation has been reserved for the small number of men who own property. This was true in the first records of human history we have, as Samuel Kramer shows in his book History Begins at Sumer. We can read in the first human writings that the Sumerian king Gilgamesh wanted to go to war, and so asked the elders of the senate to support him. When they refused, he asked the lower assembly of property-owning but less prominent men for their support, and they enthusiastically agreed, allowing Gilgamesh to bypass the senate. Such a bicameral congress should sound familiar. Sadly, Gilgamesh did not put the war to a popular vote among the common people, which shows us just how undemocratic a society ancient Sumer was. In ancient Greece and Rome, voting was reserved for those who could afford weapons and take part in the military.
This is how politics has operated for thousands of recorded years, whether or not a society called itself a democracy. Up until the 1800s, France, England and America called themselves democracies, but restricted voting to property-owning men, similar to the Sumerian senate. Universal suffrage, which meant giving the vote to all adult male citizens, regardless of whether they owned property or not, first happened in France in the wake of the French Revolution, and did not happen in Britain or America for another 70 years. The British Reform Act of 1867, which gave all adult males voting rights, was seen by many aristocrats as a dangerous leap into the dark, mocked here in a political cartoon.
Listening again to anthropologists, tribespeople from all over the world, including Africa, the Americas and Celtic Europeans, have come together in large groups to make group decisions about what to do in times of crisis. Just as we find in our personal lives shared with others, some have more say and pull in any given group, but if they throw their weight around too much they are mocked by others for being selfish and not deferring to the interests of the group. When Native Americans took and held Alcatraz in the 60s, and there were differences of opinions among the tribes and individuals, the stubborn were told to be democratic and “stop being like white people”.
Cultures value heroes and individual achievement, but they also seek a common consensus. Politics has and continues to be a balancing act between the individual and collective. We have more power to individuate ourselves as well as socialize with others than ever before. Our institutions are powerful, but they are human, not omnipotent. We each make individual choices as to what we believe and whom we should trust. It is easy to criticize the mistakes and abuses of other cultures and consider them to be children, but it is far more frightening to ask ourselves to question what we have been taught and to wonder how things can be changed.
Radin says that the American Winnebago tribe tell a story of a skeptical man who said that he did not believe in the power of Disease-Giver, the most powerful and feared of the Winnebago gods who was supposed to have power over life and death. Enraged at the man, the god appeared and pointed his finger, intending to kill him. When nothing happened, the god asked the man to please die, or else people would make fun of him. The powers that be, including all of the political groups and theorists we will be discussing, require your belief and support to have their power. This is something worth remembering as we make our way through the class material.