Preparing for a New Dark Age

Monk Scribe

Back what now itself seems a millennium ago, when I was a senior in high school and freshman in college, I used to go to yard sales. I wasn’t looking for knickknacks or used appliances, but for cheap music and mostly for books. If memory serves me you could usually get a paperback for 50 cents, four of them for a dollar, and a hard cover for a buck.

I have no idea what made me purchase the particular books I did, and especially works of fiction. At that point in my life I didn’t so much know what literature was as I had heard rumors that there was something out there called literature I’d likely be interested in. Unlike Stephen Greenblatt, who I wrote about last time, I certainly didn’t buy books for the sexually suggestive covers, and thankfully, for given the area I was living at the time, I would now be surrounded by shelves of harlequin romances- though, come to think of it, it might have made me more skillful in love.

I don’t buy so many books anymore, having become a Kindle man where I press a button and wallah a work I’m after appears magically on my little screen. I also live in an area with very good libraries- both public and university- which for a bibliophile like myself is about as good as Florida for a person who worships the sun.

Yet, I still have maybe a hundred books surrounding me that I own but have never read. Sometimes, I’ll rummage through my shelves to pick out a book I probably haven’t even opened since I bought it, and the untouched pages will be brittle and break under  my clumsy fingers. The other day, I came across Walter M. Miller, Jrs’ novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. I’ve been working on a story with Catholic and dystopian/utopian technological themes and thought it might be a good idea to read this science-fiction classic before I proceeded any further into the labyrinth of the tale I was crafting because I knew it dealt with similar ideas.

I did not anticipate the power for me of this wonderful little novel. It touched on themes I had been thinking about for sometime- the search for a long range view that looked to the past as well as the future, the tension between knowledge and power, and the understanding that this tension was an existential component of the human condition, the brake on all our utopian aspirations, and perhaps the “original sin” that would ultimately sink us.            

I will look at the deeper lessons of A Canticle for Leibowitz sometime in the future, for now I just want to talk about its suggestions for the long range human future and specifically one aspect of that long range future- how do we preserve human knowledge so as to avoid ever going through another long dark age?   

A Canticle for Leibowitz was published in 1960. Had Miller sketched out rather than merely stated the apocalyptic conditions that precede the world portrayed in the novel it would have certainly given our own generations versions of the apocalypse with shows like The Walking Dead a run for their money. The novel occurs after the world has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust known as The Flame Deluge. After the horrors unleashed by the war, including the creation hordes of radioactive mutants from “the demon Fall Out” , the masses seek revenge on the holders of knowledge they deem responsible- murdering them and destroying their works Khmer Rouge style in a world-wide intellectual genocide known as the Simplification.

A Jewish electrical engineer, Isaac Edward Leibowitz,,who had been working for the US military in the run up to the war joins the Catholic Church, perhaps the only long lived institution able to survive the Simplification, and founds a monastic order and monastery known as the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. The order is committed to preserving human knowledge from the Simplification by book smuggling (booklegging) and afterwards aims to store and preserve this knowledge in their Utah desert monastery, a collection of thoughts from the past which they call the Memorabilia.

Unlike our own apocalyptic anxieties which seem so artificial, as if we’ve become addicted to the adrenaline high of scarring ourselves nearly to death, the fears Miller was giving voice to were frighteningly real. Three years after his novel’s publication we really did almost destroy ourselves in a Flame Deluge with the Cuban Missile Crisis and only escaped our own destruction by a hair’s breath.

Yet, even with these real world anxieties, or perhaps because they were so real, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a rip-roaring funny book, Canterbury Tales funny or even Monty Python funny. Especially the first part, which deals with a hapless monk- Francis- who discovers original manuscripts of the soon to be sainted Lebowitz himself. The rest of the book is not as humorous, much more tragic, as we watch humanity make the same mistake over again with knowledge being used in the name of the lust for power, and that lust for power enabled by knowledge again nearly destroying us.    

Miller, of course, was playing with real history, the way the Christian monasteries had preserved knowledge in Western Europe after the fall of Rome. It was a theme explored, though from a much different angle, by Isaac Asimov some years earlier in his Foundation Series where the preservation of knowledge through the establishment of two different “foundations” at the ends of the galaxy is a deliberate effort to shorten a galactic dark age from tens of thousands to a “mere” thousand years.

Monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz risked themselves to gather and preserve their Memorabilia, knowledge which they did not understand, willing to wait thousands of years if necessary for the day when “an Interrogator would come, and things would be fitted together again.”  (62)

If I take the picture presented by Stephen Greenblatt in his The Swerve: How the World Became Modern as historically accurate, the reasons our  historical monks ended up preserving knowledge was much more accidental than their analogous novelization by Miller. According to Greenblatt, the monasteries ended up preserving knowledge due to a contingent rule of some orders that monks spend some of their time reading. To read, of course, requires something written and monasteries became one of the few places in the early middle ages to not only collect but preserve books through copying.

Still, according to Greenblatt, we shouldn’t be confused that they were doing so in anticipation of a rebirth of learning, and weren’t all that intellectually engaged with the books they preserved and copied. During reading or copying monks were forbidden to discuss the books they had in front of them, which is probably good for us. They became instead immense hive-mind photocopiers cloning and shelving a hodge podge of surviving works from the ancients, a task which had someone not done with detail and regularity would have quickly led to the disappearance of the vast intellectual heritage of the classical world.  The thoughts preserved on papyrus and animals skins would have in a short time been eaten away by literal book worms.

There is an argument out there, Francis Fukuyama’s is the one that comes to mind, that we are unlikely to experience the kinds of cyclical declines and dark ages seen in prior periods of human history because knowledge is now global. I think there are some other holes in that argument, but for now I won’t quibble, and want to focus on only one chasm- the possibility that the entire globe could experience some hammer blow that would shatter civilization everywhere all at one go.

These are catastrophic risks, things that we should be intensely focused on avoiding in the first place, as The Global Catastrophic Risks Institute, and Future of Humanity Institute among others, have been urging us to, but which we should also implement ways of absorbing the hit should it come. Basically catastrophic risks are disasters, natural or man-made that would have the effect of devastating human civilization on a global not just a local scale. They are not likely but have a chance that is less than zero.

Though we dogged the bullet that haunted Miller, we might still be faced with the threat of global thermonuclear war at some point in the future. Current saber rattling in the Pacific is not a good sign. We could be whacked by a massive object from outer space such as the one which wiped out the dinosaurs, or zapped by a gamma-ray burst, or crushed by the super-intelligences we are trying to build in an AI apocalypse, there could be a super-pandemic, perhaps created deliberately by some group of technologically proficient, nihilistic maniacs trying to kill us all, or a truly runaway greenhouse effect triggered by a methane release in the warming artic. In other words, there are a lot of things that might near push us back to the stone age even if no one of them are particularly likely.

To return to my question above: in the face of a catastrophic scenario how could we preserve human knowledge so as to avoid ever going through another long dark age? The first issue that strikes me when I start thinking about this is the quite practical one of what medium would be best to store information for the long haul?

Right now, of course, we are all about digital copying and storage. Google has so far scanned a little over 20 million books, a service I love, and that has kept my acidic fingers off of a gem like the first publication of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, though the company’s public service in doing this has not been without controversy.

You’ve also got to hand it to the scandinavians who seem to do everything with meditative forethought. (I credit the six months of darkness.) The Norwegians not only have the Svalbard global seed bank which preserves the world’s agricultural inheritance in a Norad like facility in the icy north near the north pole, but are now aiming to digitize and make available all the world’s books in Norwegian.  Should a global catastrophe occur having done so might have cause in the words of Alexis Madrigal:

…Norwegians become to 27th-century humans what the Greeks were to the Renaissance. Everyone names the children of the space colonies Per and Henrik, Amalie and Sigrid. The capital of our new home planet will be christened Oslo.

Even absent Google, Americans aren’t totally left in the dust as archivers by our polar- bear- pale brethren up north. We have the quite respectable Internet Archive and the world oldest (although the word “old” seems strange here) digital library, Project Guttenberg.  

Yet, there are a number of possible catastrophic scenarios, such as an AI Apocalypse, where this capacity to easily store and recover digitized information might be irrevocably lost. You also need functioning electricity grids and/or battery production manufacturing capacity both of which seem at danger should a truly big-one occur. Disturbing on this score is the fact that a number of libraries are eliminating their physical collections as they embrace digitization, something that the Internet Archive is now trying to rectify by collecting actual physical copies of books.

Venerable institutions such as The Library of Congress and The Smithsonian Institution already have extensive physical collections, not just of books, but of physical artifacts as well, and should they somehow survive a global catastrophe, I picture them being our equivalent of the Library of Alexandria where people will flock to access not just books but working versions of vital technologies that might otherwise have been lost, such as electrical lighting, which the monk, Brother Kornhoer, in A Canticle for Leibowitz has to jerry- rig back into existence almost from scratch.

The use of paper as a medium to store our books and blueprints at first seems like the tried and true option, after all it served us so well in the past, but as anyone knows who has a book more than 50 years old, modern paper decays very fast. And using paper as our medium of storage also assumes that whatever catastrophic event has happened has left us with enough trees. Even the antique version of paper, sometimes made from animal skins, succumbs after a few centuries to the literal “book worm”, and you also need either printing presses or whole human institutions of scriveners such as the monasteries and monks to make copies.

The late classical world already had monastic institutions that were widespread before the loss of knowledge- a loss which took a long time to unfold. Our own loss of knowledge, should it (however unlikely) occur, seems less likely to creep into being then come along with a bang, and in the age of Scarlett Johansson who wants to be a monk?

As always thinking about the deep future, the The Long Now Foundation has its Rosetta Project where it preserves the world’s languages on electroformed solid-nickel disk, a model which might serve as a template for long-term information storage. Here’s their description:

The Rosetta Disk fits in the palm of your hand, yet it contains over 13,000 pages of information on over 1,500 human languages. The pages are microscopically etched and then electroformed in solid nickel, a process that raises the text very slightly – about 100 nanometers – off of the surface of the disk. Each page is only 400 microns across – about the width of 5 human hairs – and can be read through a microscope at 650X as clearly as you would from print in a book. Individual pages are visible at a much lower magnification of 100X.

Something like the Rosetta Disk avoids the ravages of the book worm, and will certainly last a long time, but you do need a microscope to read it, and it’s pretty easy to imagine a future where microscopes are a rare or even non-existent tool. We could make larger versions of the Rosetta Disk so that the text is readable to the naked eye, but then we run into the limitations of cost: we can’t very well copy even more than a handful of the books in existence using this method.  And they would only be reproducible on a large scale basis it seems by using one of the other methods.

Then again, we could always look to nature. Life on earth has over 3 billion year leg up on human beings when it comes to storing and passing along information- it’s called DNA. You can put an amazingly large amount of information on an equally amazingly small segment of DNA as in about half a million DVDs of storage on half a gram!  In the beginning of 2013 researchers in the UK were able to encode Shakespeare’s sonnets, and MLK’s “I have a dream!” speech among other things on DNA. Much more than any medieval abbot, nature abhors copying errors, and therefore DNA makes not merely a great storage medium, as long as where it is stored is cool and dry it can last for thousands of years, but a means to make copies with near hundred percent fidelity.

DNA exceeds digital media for storage and copying and matches something like the Rosetta Disk for longevity, the problem is the technology to make, store, and read such DNA texts is relatively high tech, and therefore vulnerable or unworkable in many catastrophic scenarios. It’s also much less readily searchable than digital media or even indexed paper texts.

Perhaps what we need to make sure a good bulk of the world’s knowledge survives a global catastrophe is a tiered system of preservation with only the most essential technical and scientific information, including how to build and use other forms of information dissemination and storage, put on something like large Rosetta Disks, a second level of not as essential but important and culturally significant knowledge being stored on long-lasting paper, almost everything on digital media, and absolutely everything we could get our hands on stored on DNA.

All of these things would have to be done before the occurrence of any catastrophic event that lunged us backward into a new dark age. Once the lights went out we certainly shouldn’t expect, like Miller, that the Catholic Church would play the same role in preserving knowledge as it had in the past, for, as Mark Twain said, “history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes”.  Indeed, should we create the kinds of information preservation mechanisms I outlined above, we would need an organization already dedicated to those mechanisms to manage those efforts, and in today’s world such an organization seems likely to be secular.

I can imagine a type of global organization whose members were in their day-to-day reality scattered across differing organizations we have in place today for disseminating and storing knowledge: universities, major libraries, scientific institutions such as the Royal Society a small number of whom would in a pre-catastrophe world run the types of information preservation efforts I have sketched out who, in the unlikely case that a global catastrophic event occurred, would work slowly and over generations to re-establish the world’s learning.

I have already suggested ways we might pay for this.

The great bulk of what we would need to re-establish should a large chunk of the world’s knowledge be destroyed would be technological and scientific. Knowledge that would be essential would be things like, agricultural techniques and science, the Germ theory of disease and the techniques behind vaccinations, how to build and maintain infrastructure such as sewage and plumbing disposal, energy utilizing systems including electrical grids, civil engineering, and the technology behind knowledge behind storing and sharing information. Above all, the scientific method would need to be put firmly back in place.

One of the problems I foresee should an almost complete blackout occur are gaps in knowledge domains that are essentially unpredictable before hand. That is, it seems a safer bet to assume that not only will knowledge have been lost but the knowledge of how to understand whatever knowledge has remained might be lost as well.

It would certainly be an interesting interdisciplinary project to design the kinds of texts that would be necessary to re-establish some field of science should it almost completely disappear. To do so would probably require philosophers and historians of science, mathematicians, practitioners of the science itself, linguists, cultural anthropologists, and instructional designers who were adept at teaching complex ideas to those with minimum starting points in terms of literacy and numeracy.

Given that the source of a global catastrophe is perhaps most likely to come via our own scientifically induced prowess it’s quite sensible to ask if we should be making all this effort to salvage our scientific and technological capacity in the first place? This relationship between our knowledge and our possible destruction is a question dealt with on a profound level in A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I’ll turn to it next time. Yet, as we know man does not live on bread alone, so what of the preservation less material knowledge, the art and wisdom that is the legacy of our global civilization?

Hopefully we would be able to preserve at least some of our human cultural legacy. Thinking about what we might save from our culture under severe constraints in terms of number might be an interesting and perhaps even revealing parlor game ,so I’ll end this post by inviting you to play.

If you could save only 10 books, 10 songs, and 10 artworks from all of human history that should make it through a catastrophic event which would you choose?

To see forward, look back!

Thomas Cole the Course of Empire

“The farther backward you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”  

Winston Churchill


The above quote is taken from Ian Morris’ recent and fascinating Why the West Rules- For Now: The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  Indeed, the whole point of Morris’ book can be seen in Churchill’s quip. Morris, a trained archaeologist and historian, aims to find a pattern in the broad arc of human history beginning with the birth of civilization, take us into the present age, and project current trends outward into the next century and perhaps beyond.

This is, needless to say, a pretty ballsy thing to do, at least if one wants to remain safe in the cocoon of respectable academia where scholars can spend a decade glued like a car door on Magneto to a subsection of one obscure historical text, or stuck for seven years, as Morris himself was, to the excavation of one ancient room.  Writing a meta-narrative like Morris’ is somewhat less ballsy if one intends to enter that rare breed of academic/journalist that has managed to reach the publishing industry’s version of celebrity status. Perhaps the fastest way to reach the top of today’s non-fiction bestseller list is to write a book with the words “America” or the “West” with the verb “decline” attached or- perhaps the flip-side- the words “China” and “Rise”. And who could blame the public for lapping this stuff up, hell, with “Euro-crises”, and “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” all over the news when everything in the rest of the world, and China especially, seems a go-go-go?    

Morris, however, is not some poor soul lost forever to the seriousness of academia and possessed by the spirit of Oswald Spengler, nor is he some dry professor presenting yet another version of those angels- on- the- head- of- a- pin arguments that force closed the eyelids of popular readers. Rather, he has managed the seemingly impossible task of presenting serious scholarship in a way that succeeds in keeping readers not only engaged but entertained. His book is full of creative leaps in which he uses the instruments and insights from one field of human intellectual and artistic endeavor to help understand history in new ways. Above all, Morris takes seriously what are in fact very important questions- problems which modern historians burned by the hubris and prejudice of their 19th and early 20th century predecessors tend to ignore, questions which nonetheless, should be important to all of us as human beings- where did we come from? and where are we going?

The way that Morris frames these questions of origins and destiny is to see them through the prism of the “rise of the West”. Is this Euro-centric? Perhaps, but the facts remain that it was from an obscure corner of Eurasia that the first civilization arose that managed to tie the globe together into one unit, that it was from there that a brand new form of civilization emerged a scientific-industrial-technological civilization that would force all the world to adapt to it or face decline and domination. Why this happened, and where this process unleashed by the West might be leading is not a matter of increasing Westerner’s self-esteem in a period where the two cores of Western civilization- Europe and the United States- seem to be racing one another down the slope of decadence and decline, but are questions that should concern everyone regardless of the accidents of geography.

Morris is trained as an archaeologist specializing in the classical age in the West. One might, therefore, expect him to fall into the category of those 19th century historians who thought there was something very special about the West culturally, or some, with tragic effects argued racially, about the West that made its dominance over the rest of the world’s cultures inevitable. Usually these “long-term lock-in” theories start from something about the ancient Greeks and how they escaped the hold of superstition by the application of reason to both nature and society.

Morris grapples with these explanations from culture only to dismiss them. There are just far too many periods in history where civilizations other than the West hold first place in the realms of science and technology. Think, for example, of what are considered the penultimate technologies that launched the modern age: long range sailing ships, the compass, the printing press and gunpowder. All of these were invented in China.

Something historians attempting to compare civilizations or talking about their rise or decline is by what basis do you say one civilization is more “advanced” than another? How can you tell if a civilization is rising or declining?

It is in coming up with a new way to answer these questions that Morris makes the first of his many leaps found in Why the West Rules, For Now. Morris turns to a model from contemporary development studies- the UN Human Development Index (HDI) which is a combined statistic that compares development between countries on measures such as life-expectancy, education and income as a template for creating his own measure that will allow him to compare levels of development historically between countries and across an historical period that begins with the appearance of civilization in the “Hilly Flanks” of the modern Middle East with the Neolithic Revolution around 12,000 years ago.

Morris comes up with four key measures that allow him to compare development between civilizations and across time: energy capture (how much energy is taken for work), organizational capacity (measured by the size of urban centers), information technology (measured by literacy rates) and military capacity (measured by the size of armies).  Morris is well aware that he should not give a value judgment to scores on his scale, and he also fully admits that what he has invented is a rather rough instrument. His is a starting point for a larger discussion- not the final destination.

Applying his measure to history since the dawn of civilization here is what he finds:The West, meaning not just Europe, but the western half of Eurasia and North Africa beginning in Mesopotamia was indeed ahead in developmental terms from Eastern civilization, whose core he place in China, for much of its history. Only in the late middle ages from around 900 AD- 1700 AD was the East ahead of the West. Yet, in a version of the theory put forward by Jared Diamond in his landmark Germs Guns and Steel, Morris argues that the fact that the West was for so long more advanced than the East according to his measure is to be explained not in terms of culture but as a consequence of geography.

Intensive agriculture along with permanent human settlements emerged around 12,000 years ago in a region known as the “Hilly Flanks” an area on the edge of the area around the Tigris and Euphrates. Why here? It just so happens that this area has an overwhelming number of that very small group of naturally occurring plants and animals that are suitable for domestication. Agriculture in the Hilly Flanks spread to the nearby Tigris and Euphrates valley in which, under harsh conditions of a new Ice Age it gave rise to what we would recognize as both cities and states which had grown up as solutions to the problem of how to provide food under conditions of intense scarcity.

The West had a further geographic advantage over the East after the center of its civilization moved into the Mediterranean whose sea provided a transmission belt for food, products, people and ideas. Even after China built its Grand Canal it would have nothing to compete with the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire took the West to the very height of social development in terms of Morris’ scale-the number of trees felled for fuel, of cities at a massive scale, soldiers armed for war, or literate persons would not return to those found in the Roman Empire in its height- for Western countries that is- until the 1700s. Rome had hit what Morris calls a “hard-ceiling” and was eventually felled by his “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: climate change, famine, state failure, and disease”.

After 900, China with its Song Dynasty finally caught up to and surpassed the West reaching Roman levels of social development according to Morris’ measure. How exactly it was able to do this isn’t exactly clear, but certainly part of it had to do with the incorporation of rice producing regions in China’s south- perhaps facilitated by climate change. China’s relative isolation would have offered it some protection against epidemic diseases and it had come up with an effective “barbarian policy” that at the very least allowed China to avoid the fate of a city such as Baghdad that around 1200 was absolutely destroyed by a Mongolian horde.

In any case, with the discovery of the Americas in the 1400s the West would begin its crawl back to the levels of social development found in the Roman Empire this time by creating a new version of the Mediterranean world in the Atlantic Civilization and its Columbian Exchange. But by the 1700s when Thomas Malthus realized that all civilizations in the past had collapsed once their population overran their ability to produce food, it seemed like the hard-ceiling was about to be hit again, only this time, as Kenneth Pomeranz pointed out in his The Great Divergence the West would find in the industrial revolution a way not just to poke above the hard-ceiling, but to shatter it.

Here’s what it looks like as a graph:

Ian Morris Great Divergence Graph   


The last 200 or so odd years have essentially been the story of the West taking advantage of this new form of industrial civilization it created to dominate the rest of the globe until non-Western societies adopted and replicated it. Now that countries such as China and India have embraced modernization the fate of the rule of the West is written on the wall. Within a century, the great divergence will have run its course, and perhaps that’s the big story under today’s headlines. But Morris doesn’t think so.

Instead, what he sees is another hard-ceiling out ahead which unless we break through it may result in the end of civilization, what he, borrowing from Isaac Asimov calls Nightfall. If one takes one of Morris measures, say urbanization, and plays out the trend line, what one gets is cities on the order of 140 million people! He sees no way of measuring up to these trend lines unless the hopes of the singularians for radical technological change within the next half century prove correct. The four horsemen of
climate change, famine, state failure, and disease are already out of their stable and only a breakthrough of greater magnitude than the industrial revolution would prove capable of pushing them back in.

If we fail to achieve a breakthrough our particular civilization’s collapse- accompanied by nuclear weapons- will likely, according to Morris, be the last. For him, like the title of this blog the future is one of either utopia or dystopia.

Pandemonium, Kingdom of the Quants 1

You wouldn’t think an epic poem from the 17th century that dealt with a war in Heaven between the angels of God and Satan, the creation of Hell, and the fall of Adam and Eve, would have all that much to tell you about the 2008 financial crisis, or, on an even deeper level, would reveal the whole of modern economics to be based on a sort of magical illusion, but you would be wrong. John Milton’s great epic, Paradise Lost does both of those things, and perhaps much more besides.

For those of you who haven’t read Paradise Lost in high school or college I will briefly lay out the story below. I have to admit that I came very late to this book, and hadn’t read it in either high school or college. Once I had I was somewhat upset I hadn’t done so earlier- it is truly one of those books that grab you and change the way you look at the world. All I can say is read this book, and don’t think you can “wait for the movie”, it’s been canceled.

The story is one that probably anyone with even a modest Christian background in some sense already “knows” even if they’ve never heard of Milton. It is the tale of Lucifer and his angelic allies’ rebellion against God, the Son of God, and the angels that remain loyal to their Creator. Lucifer’s rebellion is sparked by his claim that angels are “self-begot”, and therefore owe no worship to God and his Son. The rebels are single-handedly casts out of Heaven by the Son of God, and into the depths of Hell, where they become monstrous, shift-shaping demons. Under the encouragement of the demon, Mammon, (literally “money”), they build Hell’s capital of glittering gold, Pandemonium. This city is supposed to replicate the glorious visages of Heaven, but, though more splendid than any earthly city, remains but Heaven’s pale shadow.

Satan plots his revenge against God, and finds his opportunity in the weak link of God’s new creation- Adam and Eve. After a courageous and epic journey through the depths of Hell, Satan makes his way to the earthly Garden of Eden, where in the form of a serpent, he convinces Eve that the Tree of  Knowledge of Good and Evil God had commanded her and Adam not to eat of on pain of death, is instead the means to upgrade to a god herself.

Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Open’d and clear’d, and ye shall be as gods. (286)

Eve takes the bait, and Adam the ever dutiful husband follows her lead. Rather than leading to godhood, eating from the Tree of Knowledge results in the couple’s expulsion from the Garden and the beginning of the sad fate of human beings until the arrival, promised to Adam by the archangel, Michael, of the Messiah.

You might be asking yourself by now what in the world such a religious epic from an era so unlike our own could possibly have to do with such a real world event as the financial crisis of 2008? Surely, the state of contemporary economics is not so bad that it needs to pull from the pages of religious mythology.

Allow me in what follows to engage in a flight of fancy. What I intend to do below is ride out what is a largely unsubstantiated set of assumptions, a claim, as it were, that has only the barest minimum of research behind it. CRITICISM of such a wild set of assumptions is not only to be expected, but HOPED FOR on my part. For the last thing I would want is to turn some random thought that entered my head into some sort of IDOL, that I refuse to allow to be criticized, or much worse, have DISPROVEN.

Here then is my idea: that one of the best ways to understand the financial crisis that broke upon us in 2008 is not through any of the competing economic models out there which have emerged largely ex post facto to explain the crash, but through the lens of an idea that emerged out of religion- the idea of idolatry.

This idea, in large part, was inspired by David Hawkes, the editor of the brilliant 2005 edition of Paradise Lost I have in front of me. It is Hawkes’ point that what Paradise Lost offers us is an extended meditation on idolatry, and that the concept of idolatry can provide us with a useful guidepost, even when severed from its original ground in the Jewish, Christian or Muslim faiths. That Milton’s great work might be read as a prophecy of our own age of secular idolatry.

Hawkes sees behind Milton’s Paradise Lost, though it is embedded in religious language, what was to become philosophy’s famous distinction between the “thing” and the “thing in itself”. The awareness that we can never know the world as it truly is, but only as it is mediated for us by our senses, and perhaps most especially by our ideas, one would today call them models of it.

The only being who can know the thing in itself, in Milton’s reading of it, is their Creator and thus the world of the created, including the angles, are in a state of alienation in reference to the world.  (XXX-XXXI)

Our inability to know the world as it truly is does not, however, stop us from trying. Far too often in our quest we believe we have reached that unreachable destination.

This seemingly innocent confusion of the map for the territory, the symbol for that which is symbolized, is not, in Hawkes’ terms “ethically neutral”. Instead the thing in itself, which only God can see, becomes confused with the image we hold in our hands or place upon an altar. The illusion that we are in possession of the “Truth”, like the voodoo dolls of witches. seems to lead straight to the illusion that we have God-like control over the actual thing we have symbolized. (XXXII)

In the words of Hawkes:

…. for Milton, sin consists in the refusal to recognize, and thus in the attempt to bridge, the world of experience and the world beyond experience. This is the sin of Satan, whose basic mistake is the failure to understand the difference between himself and God is qualitative rather than quantitative. (xxxvi)

The whole of Paradise Lost is a meditation on the dangers of confusing our idols for the thing in itself, our maps for the actual territory. This delusion is seen in Satan’s futile rebellion against an omnipotent God, in the building of Pandemonium, the capital of Hell, in which the demon Mammon thinks the glory of Heaven can be obtained in the gold of the earth. It is seen in the seduction of Eve by the serpent, when she confuses what she sees -the serpents human like power of speech- with the reality of what will be gotten from eating from the Tree of Life.

Hawkes wants us to connect Milton’s meditation on idolatry with the birth of capitalism that was happening right in front of the “eyes” of the blind prophet. Persons were being alienated from their labor as they were forced from their lands and forced to become wage earners, and more importantly for our purposes, money emerged as “an independent, self-generating force- an efficacious sign”. (XV)

Above all, Hawkes wants us to see Paradise Lost not as a mere epic poem that, despite its genius, is too embedded in a  religious language that offers little guidance to the problems of our secular age, but as what Milton intended it to be, a prophecy, that was meant to capture the outlines of the future. We are that future, and if Hawkes is right, Milton might have been able to peer into the way in which the world would unfold not out of any connection with the divine, but because his genius occurred at the very moment the modern world was coming into being, allowing him to grasps its fundamental assumptions.

Hawkes writes of us:

Our own “postmodern condition” is characterized by the virtually complete dominance of representation    over reality, but few twenty-first-century thinkers are capable of constructing an ethical critique of this situation. Paradise Lost offers such a critique, and that is why Milton’s poem is more pertinent today than ever before. (XXXIII)

What Hawkes interpretation of Paradise Lost provided me with was a model to understand the financial crisis. In particular, it gave me a way to understand the role of two forces which played a role in the outbreak of the crisis: the mathematical geniuses of Wall Street known as “quants” who created a whole new system of computer based finance during the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s  that imploded with the 2008 crisis, and the emergence of “fiat currency” in the early 1970s that engendered a credit boom the likes of which was never seen before, and that was ultimately based on the illusion that money could be created out of thin air- like magic.

Next time the Quants….

* John Milton, Paradise Lost, EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY David Hawkes, Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005 

Pagels’ Revelation 2, On Violence and Utopia

To return to the questions in the prior post:  Who was this John of Patmos, as he identifies himself, author of Revelation, and why did he write this strange book? As all reputable Biblical scholarship makes clear, he was not the disciple of Jesus named John, and/or the author one of the four key texts in the New Testament, the Gospel of John.

John of Patmos was Jewish believer in the message of Christ, that is, not quite yet a Christian (more on that in a bit).  Given the time in which he was living, and the beliefs he had adopted, his idea that the end of the world was at hand was no mere fantasy of the delusional, but reflected real, and current events. He seems to have written, first and foremost, for the reasons he said he had- to warn “all who could hear” about what he believed was the coming end of the world.

He was writing around 90 AD, and may very well have been a refugee from the incredibly violent Roman siege, starvation, and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus had predicted the destruction of the famed Jewish temple in that holiest of cities- “that not one stone would remain”, and in essence it had happened. (Pagels believes this prophecy reported in the Gospels to be legit, and not, as some think a later embellishment R10).

The war in the homeland of the Jews, then called Judea, had broken out four years earlier as a rebellion of intensely religious Jews, known as the Zealots, who sought to throw out the Romans and establish a kingdom of the godly on earth. It was perhaps the world’s first truly civilizational religious war:  in part sparked by what many Jews considered to be Roman sacrilege of Jewish religious norms, whose rebels aimed at creating a religiously based political community to be ruled by their hoped for coming messiah. It was a revolt that was ultimately crushed by the Romans who in doing so took direct aim at the Jewish religion: desecrating its holy sites and burning its most sacred temple to the ground.

John may have seen this destruction himself, and even if he did not, he certainly had met the scores of refugees from the Roman war on the holy land. He would have heard, first hand, the stories of the destruction and sacrilege, the rape of Jewish women, the tale of the Jews under siege at the fortress of Masada who chose mass suicide rather than the murder or enslavement by the Roman army that surrounded them.  But this religious war would have only been part of John’s understanding of Rome’s violence against “God’s people”, he would also be confronted by the specter of Rome’s own cult of power, and its corresponding religious persecution.

In modern times, at least in Western countries, we tend to try to preserve a line, sharp or blurred ,depending on our particular national culture, between politics and religion. Political figures or movements that cross this line are usually criticized for using religion for political ends. In the Roman world, on the other hand, it was not merely that religion was co-opted by political forces- it was that religion possessed no real independent existence apart from the state.

As Pagel’s points out, the Imperial Cult of Rome, in which conquered peoples accepted and worshiped both Roman gods and the emperor, were a means by which conquered peoples showed their loyalty to the conqueror. To not give worship to Rome rulers and its gods constituted an act of political defiance. Any wonder then that Jews, and later Christians, aroused the suspicion of Rome, which sometimes resulted in the empire’s extremely cruel persecutions of these dissident groups even outside the religious wars between Romans and Jews. Such persecutions could include everything from crucifiction to being tortured and eaten alive by wild animals for public entertainment.

If the political world offered John plenty of endtime material, the natural world delivered as well. The massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. had not only turned people quite literally to stone, it had opened a vast crater that seemingly opened into the burning mouth of hell, and caused molten lava to rein from the heavens.

But if it is clear that we should not look at Revelation as a book that aimed its’ prophecy at some far-off human future, but instead was a dystopian perspective on the Roman Empire in  the present of its author, how should we make sense of John’s seeming obsession with the Jews, which is another underlying theme in the book? That is, how are we to understand that Revelation is told from the perspective of the Jewish fight for liberation and justice against the Romans when it author, John, seemingly has such horrible things to say about the Jews as well.

It was once typical to read John’s ravings about the Jews as an early example of Christian anti- semitism. A pathology, which as we all know, was to play such a disastrous role in later Western history. That’s how I always read Revelation, but Pagel offers an alternative explanation, one that seemed to make apparently nonsensical ravings such as ones against “those that say they are Jews and are not” scattered throughout Revelation actually make sense.

Pagel sees John as on the losing side of an argument about what Christianity was to become. Was it to present itself the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, concentrate on the conversion of fellow Jews, and retain Jewish law for converts such as dietary laws and the practice of circumcision? Or was it to open itself fully to non-Jews- the Gentiles- concentrate on their conversion rather than the conversion of fellow Jews, and largely abandon Jewish law for religious practices that would be more attractive to non-Jews?

Pagel sees John of Patmos as taking the position that Christianity should remain as close as possible to the Judaism it claimed to fulfill, whereas the apostle Paul, whose side ultimately won this debate, wanted, in a sense, to walk away from traditional Judaism and spread a new faith among the Gentiles.

So John in his Revelation is aiming at two primary targets: the Roman Empire, and those in his new religious movement centered on the figure of Jesus Christ (the Paul faction) who wanted to redefine the faith to embrace the Gentiles and abandon almost all of traditional Judaism.John’s seemingly anti-semitic statements can now be seen not as attacking the Jews but those early Christians who were abandoning much of Judaism and setting their sights on converting the pagans.

With this in mind we can start to answer the question of what all his crazy symbolism might mean. The Beast in all likelihood is the Roman Empire, with the “Whore of Babylon” being the great city of Rome itself, both after all,  sit upon seven hills. The Beast’s “seven heads” are likely the last seven emperors of Rome up until the madman emperor,  Nero.

The infamous Nero, who had murdered his own mother and was rumored to have deliberately set afire the city of Rome, could easily play the part of the last head (emperor) of the seven headed Beast (Rome). Nero had died of a self-inflicted wound to the head- just like the wound suffered by John’s Beast, but was rumoured to be still alive and plotting his return. A rumor John may have known and believed.

The so-called “mark of the beast” which people need to be able to “buy or sell” is probably a cryptic reference to Roman coins which often had images of the Roman emperor, Roman gods, or both, and which many observant Jews of the time faced a moral dilemma in using. (Though Jesus with his “Render what is Caesar’s unto Caesar and what is God’s unto God”, apparently, did not.)

The “false prophet” figure of the antichrist, though John doesn’t call him that, is likely a reference to one of the figures on the Paul side of the where-do-we-go-from-here? debate among early Christians. He might also be the author of a lost alternative end-of-time narrative to John’s own. Pagels shows us just how common these narratives were at the time, an obvious reflection of the enormous pressures society was undergoing at that time.

The figure of Jezebel is also likely one of these figures of early Christianity, and Pagels here too brings prominent Christian preachers who were women lost to time, or erased from official history back into view. Talk of  Jezebel’s “fornication” by John Pagels sees not so much as a puritanical slur as a reference of this prophetesses’ tendency to aim her preaching at “unclean” pagans.

This still leaves us with plenty of questions in terms of John’s symbolism, but a more practical question is how John’s Revelation came to be in the Bible at all if it was indeed a rival to the ultimately winning (Paul) side of the debate among early Christians regarding the future of the faith?

In fact, Pagels points out that including Revelation in the officially sanctioned books that make up the New Testament was highly contested and controversial. At the end of the day, Revelation had a number of opposing strengths that would lead to its eventual inclusion in the Bible.

For one, it offered hope, and ultimate justice and in doing so became popular with Christians who were even more brutally persecuted by the Romans during the 2nd century than they had been when John penned Revelation. The Romans considered the Christians “atheist” in that they didn’t believe in the gods, and though neither would admit it, Christianity and atheism have been the flip-side of one another ever since.

What was worse for the Romans is that this atheism was rapidly spreading and in sections of the population: slaves, women, the poor where such beliefs might foment revolution. The fact that many Christians would not disavow their beliefs, would suffer horrible tortures and death rather than pay homage to the emperor and the Roman gods, or would refuse to curse the name of this agitator- Jesus- whom the Romans had proved to be a charlatan when they crucified him over a century before, made Christians appear like dangerous fanatics in the eyes of Roman magistrates, a cancer on the Empire that needed to be stopped before it became impossible to do so.

Under conditions like this, for Christians, John’s Revelation didn’t read like prophecy- it read like the news. But then everything changed.

In 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. By the end of his reign Christianity would be the official religion of the empire that had tried to destroy it. Christian churches, not pagan temples, would be paid for with the taxes of Rome. Pagans, rather than Christians would find themselves under state persecution.  A betting man would have wagered that The Book of Revelation which had preached against the Roman Empire had had its day. Yet here, another strength of Revelation makes its appearance- that is the ambiguity of its symbolism. John never says “I am talking about the Roman Empire”, “the Whore of Babylon is Rome” etc. You can project onto Revelation any enemy you wish, which also means you can deny that its characters represent some particular power or person as well.

The person almost singularly responsible for getting the Book of Revelation included in the Bible was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.  Athanasius was an impassioned proponent of a hierarchical and universal (catholic) church. His election to the position of Bishop in Alexandria in the early 300s was contested and the issue ultimately decided in his favor by Constantine with whom he had close connections. Many in the Egyptian church fought this decision and Athanasius fought a 40yr struggle to bring them to heel.

In this fight Athanasius found in Revelation a potent weapon. John’s warnings against “false prophets” would be used in Athanasius’ hands to mean any group of “heretics” that did not submit to the will of the Church which was now firmly aligned with the Roman Empire. This Athanasius was a major figure among the group of Church and Imperial officials that would create the Nicene Creed, the declaration of belief that Catholics recite at the beginning of religious services to this day. He was also a key player in the decision of what books were to make up the official Christian Bible, and he would argue for, and win the inclusion of Revelation.

This still leaves us with the last question, namely, what does The Book of Revelation mean for us? Here I will step away from Pagel and speak for myself. What it certainly is not is some sort of actual prophecy to be applied to our own time. Yet, given the ambiguity symbolism in the story, and its proven ability to be projected upon just about any political or religious environment, Revelation is likely to be used, or rather misused, in this way until human beings stop imagining the end of the world. A scenario that will probably only come about when there are no longer human beings around to worry about such things. That is, the end of Revelation, or some variant of it, will only come about once the world, at least for us human beings, really has ended.

As I have pointed out in the past, other myths that explained the world in terms of a battle of good against evil, that would end with the victory of the good and represent the end of history predate The Book of Revelation, but it is primarily this book that still holds us in its spell.

John’s strange images of violence, destruction, and evil incarnate take us into the world of our worst fears, but his story ends with the birth of a new world, and the end not merely of this particular experience of suffering in this specific time, but the end of all suffering, and, at least for the just, for all of time to come. In his vision not just human beings stop hurting and killing one another, but animals stop doing so to one another as well. The bloodshed of John’s end-times is a type of catharsis that purges, once and for all, the elemental relationship between violence and the living world. Revelation, as Pagels points out, is a vision of both our worst fears and most fervent hopes.

It is probably this idea of ending violence through violence that has proven to be the most deadly legacy of Revelation. You can see it in the revolutionary reigns of terror in both the French and Russian Revolutions where killing was justified on the basis that violence was being made a thing of the past- a new state to be reached, it was claimed, once the current violence was over. You find this same dangerous nonsense in “wars to end all wars” or “the war on terrorism”, which given that terrorism is a tactic amounts to “the war on war”.  The idea that violence waged against violence will be one that the side of “good violence” is destined to win is a dangerous illusion that has resulted in the most dangerous of gambles with the very survival of humanity.

Violence is good for only two things that I can think of: self-defense, and to stop other violence as it is occurring or right before it is about to occur. Violence can not end violence, and it effect is often exactly the opposite, it can only stop the violence of another group in its tracks. Violence is, thus, a purely negative force, and despite what you might have learned in your political science classes it is never the basis of anything. Even the cruelest of states use violence not as a basis of their power but as a means of making sure no one but those willing to collaborate with them is actually able to organize. As the Romans knew well there is no basis for empire without a sea of willing collaborators.

But if we can step back from this dangerous illusion in Revelation that violence can end violence we can see what I believe to be the true and lasting value of that bizarre book.  In a way that would have never occurred to the Romans who held violence to be an elemental, inescapable, and even praiseworthy feature of the world [these Romans who,  after all, built their famous Coliseum as a house-of-horrors to entertain vast crowds with animals killing animals, animals killing humans, and humans killing humans] that there was something wrong with this state of affairs, that a more perfect world would be one in which violence, even the natural violence of animals, never occurred.

But John, in his confrontation with the Roman Empire could see this, and was thus able to take a moral and imaginative leap into a world that was not, into a utopia, where violence was gone from the world. This is the same type of leap that was taken from a very different perspective by the Indian religion of Jainism that till this day practices nonviolence against all living things. Both Revelation and Jainism accuse the violent character of the natural and human worlds of being immoral on account of such violence, and imagine in its place something new.

A world purged of violence is without doubt utopian in the sense that it will never be realized, but the fact that so many of us have come to believe that violence is fundamentally wrong, that we have purged or tried to purge it from all the places where Roman civilization found it to be natural: from the family, from the economy, from criminal justice, from even our relationship with animals can give us hope that the arc of history moving away from violence, an arc that John of Patmos helped identify, is more than just the delusion of a madman but a destination we, with effort, can continuously move towards, if never reach.

Would Kierkegaard Tweet?

Recently I had one of those incidents of intellectual synchronicity that happen to me from time to time. I had grudgingly, after years of resistance, set up a Twitter account (I still won’t do Facebook). For whatever reason Twitter reminded me of a book I had read eons ago by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called The Present Age.  I decided to dig the book out from the catacombs of my dusty attic to find out what my memory was hinting at.  More on that synchronicity I mentioned later.

The Present Age is Kierkegaard’s 1846 attempt to think through the spiritual and existential consequences of the new condition of a cheap and ubiquitous press.  The industrial revolution wasn’t only about the accelerated production of goods, but also enabled the mass production of information.  The art of printing was ripe for a revolution having remained essentially unchanged since Guttenberg in the 1400s.

In 1814 the Times of London acquired a printing press with a speed of 1,100 impressions per minute. The widespread adoption of this technology gave rise to extremely cheap publications, the so-called, “penny press”, that were affordable for almost anyone who could read.  The revolution in printing lit a fire under the mass literacy that had started with Guttenberg extending the printed word downward to embrace even the poorest segments of society and was facilitated by the spread of public education throughout the West.

This revolution had given rise to “the public” the idea of a near universal audience of readers. While some authors, such as Charles Dickens, used this 19th century printing revolution to aim at universal appeal Søren Kierkegaard really wasn’t after a best seller status giving his works such catchy titles as Fear and Trembling.

What Kierkegaard is for can be neatly summed up in one quote from The Present Age:

If you are capable of being a man, then danger and the harsh judgment of reality will help you to become one. (37)

Kierkegaard wanted individuals to make choices. Such choices came with very real and often severe ethical consequences that the individual was responsible for, and that could not be dismissed. The ethical life meant a life of commitments which were by their very nature hard for the individual to fulfill.

One of the main problems Kierkegaard saw with the new public that had been generated by the cheap press was that it turned everyone into a mere spectator.

The public is a concept that could not have occurred in antiquity because the people en masse, in corpore, took part in any situation which arose, and were responsible for the actions of the individual, and moreover, the individual was personally present and had to submit at once to the applause or disapproval for his decision. Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction ‘the public’, consisting of unreal individuals who never are and can never be united in an actual situation or organization- and yet are held together as a whole”  (60).

The issue for Kierkegaard here is that, since the rise of the press, the world had become enveloped in this kind of sphere of knowledge which had become disconnected from our life as ethical and political beings. A reader had the illusion of being a participant in, say, some distant revolution, famine, or disaster, but it was just that, an illusion. Given how much this world commanded our ethical and political attention, when in reality we could do nothing about it, Kierkegaard thought people were likely to become ethically paralyzed in terms of those issues where we really could, and should, take individual responsibility.

And now back to that synchronicity I had mentioned. Right around the same time I had dug up my dusty copy of The Present Age I was walking through the local library and happened to pass a 2011 book by Evgeny Morozov called The Net Delusion. On a whim I brought the book home and when I cracked it open to my surprise saw that he had a chapter dedicated to the Danish philosopher- Why Kierkegaard Hates Slacktivism.  Morozov’s point was that the internet gives us this illusion of participation and action that requires very little on our part. We sign this or that petition or make this or that donation and walk away thinking that we have really done something. Real change, on the other hand, probably requires much more Kierkegaard-like levels of commitment. These are the types of commitments that demand things like the loss of our career, our personal life, and in the case of challenging dictatorships, perhaps the loss life itself.  The ease of “doing something” offered by the internet, Morozov thought might have a real corrosive effect on these kinds of necessary sacrifices.

It is here that synchronicity plot thickens, for both Kierkegaard and Morozov, despite their brilliance, miss almost identical political events that are right in front of them.  As  Walter Kaufmann in the introduction of my old copy of The Present Age points out Kierkegaard totally misses the coming Revolutions of 1848 that were to occur two years after his book came out.

The Revolutions of 1848 were a series of revolts that ricocheted across the world challenging almost every European aristocracy with the demand for greater democratic and social rights. Rather than having acted as a force suppressing the desire for change, the new press allowed revolution to go viral with one revolt sparking another and then another all responding to local conditions, but also a reflecting a common demand for freedom and social security. Individuals acting in such revolutions were certainly taking on very real existential risks as states cracked down violently on the revolts.

Similarly, Morozov’s Net Delusion, published just before the beginning of the 2011 Arab Spring, missed a global revolution that, whatever the impact of new technologies such as Twitter, were certainly facilitated rather than negatively impacted by such technologies.  The Arab revolutions which spread like wild-fire inspired similar protests in the West such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement that seemed to require more than just pressing the “like button” on Facebook for the committed individuals that were engaged in the various occupations.

When it came to the Revolutions of 1848, Kierkegaard was probably proven to be right in the end as the revolutions failed to be sustained in the face of conservative opposition paving the way for even more revolutionary upheaval in Europe in the next century.  Only time will tell if a similar fate awaits the revolutions of 2011 with conservative forces regrouping in autocratic societies to stem any real change, and Western youth becoming exhausted by the deep ethical commitments required to achieve anything more than superficial change.

  • Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age , Translated by Alexander Dru, Introduction Walter Kaufmann, Harper Torchbooks, 1962
  • Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion, Public Affairs, 2011

Arrested Development

When I was a kid, the original Star Wars trilogy seemed to correspond to my own moral development, at least up until The Return of the Jedi. Star Wars, the first of the three was a classic good vs. evil morality /adventure tale- perfect for my own understanding of the world at the time. The world was simple, clear cut. There were good guys and bad guys, and the best one could hope for was to end up one of the key players on the side of the good guys. The sheer nobodyness of the main characters- Luke was just some kid living on a desert planet, Han and Chewy like futuristic truck drivers, the lowly droids a couple of clowns, contrasted with the sheer scale of what they were up against was democratizing- you couldn’t just be one of the good guys- you could be ONE of the good guys.

The Empire Strikes Back, for my money by far the best of the 3, was released in 1980.  The movie itself introduced elements of mysticism and mythology in its plot line, and also an element of moral ambiguity. Vader, we find out, is Luke’s father- the lines between good guy and bad guy had been slightly smudged.

But if things in the movies were getting morally complicated, things in the real world took on a surreal good vs. evil dichotomy.  It is impossible for me to explain to someone who was not of a certain age during this period of time- and was a boy- how the flare up of the Cold War that took place during this time colored the imagination.  This was the period of Regan’s Evil Empire Speech, and his SDI, aptly panned the Star Wars initiative.

Hollywood and the culture were amplifying the political reality to infuse the world, at least for a particular breed of media-tuned young boys, with an air of looming showdown and apocalypse.  Adults, should have known better, but as a kid I was too busy preparing myself for a hero’s role in a real life version of Red Dawn , amassing troops on my Risk board, listening to jets fly overhead at night thinking “this is it!” and begging my parents to see the horror show of The Day After- which had they let me might have scared me straight.

By the time we get to the Return of the Jedi, the ambiguity is gone. The bad guy is converted, the good guys win, the Evil Empire is defeated. The progress towards adulthood, with the exception of sexy Leia, has stopped. Adults it seems never grow beyond the realm of fairy-tales. Even if, in the real world, such fairy-tales never make sense.

Whether Regan’s aggressive policy towards the Soviet Union precipitated the collapse of  the Eastern Bloc is an interesting historical question, and one in which I have an open mind. The fact of the matter remains that the outcome was not the matter of some “force” of good working for the survival of the human race and freedom, but a piece of extremely good luck. Barring any such force, he might just as likely have gotten us all blown up.

Perhaps the only time this good vs. evil rhetoric made sense was when the Allies battled against the Nazis. But even then, the Allies managed to cross over to the “dark side”, or at the very least, gave the conflict a shade of grey, when they began deliberately killing civilians from the air, and brought Stalin, Hitler’s doppelganger, into the lighter side of the force.

As an adult, the dangers of this arrested development and simplified moral imagination were brought home to me with the disaster of the Second Iraq war.  Adults holding to a vision of  the universe as a drama of good against evil not only made stupid policy mistakes, but also fell into the most grotesquely immoral behavior on a individual level.

Unfortunately, the 9-11 wars, from where I sit, have not proven to be a painful initiation to adulthood, but another version of the Return of the Jedi.  Both the right, and the left,  continue to paint one another as not just misguided, but demonic as the country drifts towards oblivion.

All this got me wondering where this whole good vs. evil fairy tale that is so dangerous, and politically crippling given our destructive capacities, and need for cooperation on enormously complex problems, actually originated.

Some might blame the heritage of a particular aspect of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  For my part, I go a little further back, and blame a bewildered searching prophet who lived on the steppes of Central Asia around 1200 B.C.E.  I blame Zarathustra….