The Grand Story of Humanity
Richard K. Moore – 8 April 2008
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Our species ancestors were like all other primates. We were a social species, organized into territorial bands that were dominated by an alpha male. Like all territorial species, we engaged in skirmishes with neighboring groups, in order to maintain our territories, or to steal better territories from weaker bands. These kinds of skirmishes involved fatalities among warriors, but they were quite different than warfare. Warfare is a sustained endeavor, where the adversaries seek to either destroy or conquer the other group. Warfare and conquest make no sense economically for predators or hunter-gatherers; it is a luxury they cannot afford.
One of the great mysteries of our evolution is our intelligence. Why are our frontal lobes – and our cognitive intelligence – so much more developed than in any other species? Theories have been put forward that try to explain our intelligence in terms of survival characteristics, but these theories don’t hold water. Some, for example, have suggested that warfare – with its need to develop a smarter strategy than the enemy in order to survive – explains our intelligence. That is of course nonsense, as we did not engage in warfare until long after we were fully human and had our big brains. Others have suggested the challenges of being a predator as a cause, but if this were true, lions, dogs, and foxes would be much smarter than they are. The challenges of predation are not the kind of challenges that require our level of intelligence.
In fact, the development of our intelligence had nothing to do with survival. Rather, it had to do with our love of conversation, stories, music, and songs. Our brains co-evolved along with the complexity of our languages. As the languages became more complex, more brain power was needed to deal with the syntax and vocabulary, which then led to even more complex language, and so on. There was evidently, early on, a sexual preference in our species for good story tellers and good listeners. We still see this operating today, in the successful chat-up line, or the rock-star or film sex idol. It was because of our love of stories that we evolved to our current level of genetic evolution – Homo sapiens sapiens, with our big brains, a few hundred thousand years ago. Ever since then our species evolution has been happening in the cultural domain, and our genetics and brain power have remained essentially unchanged.
Early on, along with our emerging facility with language, we abandoned the alpha-male model and learned to live together harmoniously within our bands. Egalitarianism was enabled by our increasing ability to dialog with one another. Roles were gender specific, but neither sex dominated the other. In many cultures there was a special male elder – a remnant of the alpha male – who was looked to for wisdom and guidance. But he could not command others, and it was often the female elders who selected the special male elder, or chief. And no one could remain chief if they lost the respect of the band. Being a chief was a position of responsibility, not a position of power, contrary to what is typically presented in Hollywood westerns.
That, then, is the prolog to our story. The curtain to our main story opens about 200,000 years ago. At that time, as individuals, we were exactly like we are today, with the same genetics, the same intelligence, the same level of imagination and creativity, and using languages with the same grammatical complexity and expressive richness as those we use today.
As Homo sapiens sapiens, we then entered our First Golden Age as a species. Our basic needs (food, shelter, and security) were easily attended to, relative to other species. We enjoyed a harmonious and egalitarian life style, and we spent many hours each day sitting around sharing stories with one another. Our ability to tell and remember stories and songs enabled us to pass on ideas, observations, and knowledge from one generation to the next, and this dramatically transformed the nature of our relationship to time and to the universe.
Our cognitive memory could now extend indefinitely into the past, as It became possible for us to experience in our fertile imaginations events that had happened generations before, as we listened to the stories of elders. It became possible for us to perceive patterns that spanned more than one lifetime, extending even to the precession of the equinoxes, and the ebb and flow of glaciers. Australian Aboriginal tales, for example, accurately describe landscapes that still exist today, but have been submerged under the sea ever since the last ice age receded thousands of years ago. Every tribe developed and evolved a grand story – its own history.
Story-tellers being what they are, stories were sometimes creatively embellished as they were passed along. Things were added that were not necessarily true – but which, as the great story-teller Mark Twain put it, “should be true” – at least in the mind of the story-teller. A story without a beginning or end is unsatisfying psychologically, and so every tribal history includes also an account of the origins and eventual fate of humanity. Indeed, these stories even account for the origins and fate of the universe itself. People love complete stories – with a beginning, middle, and end – and story-tellers love to satisfy their audiences.
Thus the nature of our cultures, our understanding of our place in the universe, and our understanding of the meaning of our lives, came to be embodied in the grand story of our tribe. For humans there has always been an isomorphism and an interplay between cultural evolution and story evolution. Our cultural evolution sets our stories spinning, and our stories act a cultural gyroscope, a kind of inertial guidance system that can maintain social stability and coherence across millennia, even as circumstances might change dramatically.
Every once in a while, then as now, unique individuals would emerge, individuals who through unusual cognitive insight, or metaphysical perceptiveness, achieved a level of wisdom that qualitatively exceeded that of the human norm. Such individuals were able to inject elements of their achieved wisdom into their tribe’s grand story, and thus did our cultures themselves evolve toward ever-increasing collective wisdom. Our First Golden Age was characterized by wisdom and harmony – harmony with nature and harmony and egalitarianism among one another in our bands.
But there was an innocence to our wisdom and harmony. Our harmony with nature, for example, was not a matter of choice but of necessity. Our survival, and our level of prosperity, depended on how well our cultures harmonized with our environment. We did not have the power to control nature, so we had no choice but to harmonize with it. As a matter of fact, when opportunities arose where we could move out of harmony with nature, and still prosper, we typically exploited that situation. For example, when humans first migrated to Australia, there was so much game available that we hunted much of it to extinction. As the available game animals diminished, we were forced to re-harmonize our cultures with our surroundings.
Similarly, it was relatively easy for us to maintain harmony with one another, because we didn’t have the power to exploit one another. The chief, for example, had to hunt and gather just like everyone else. The economics of the hunter-gatherer life style did not produce excesses that would enable a ruling group to sit around and give orders instead of contributing. Without power, we had little temptation or opportunity to stray from our harmonious ways.
Thus our first Golden Age was protected by a shield – the shield of lacking power. Our wisdom and harmony were innocent, because we didn’t have the power to be otherwise. And that’s how things were for all of us up until the point that our first Golden Age began unravelling, about 6,000 years ago. We were in our Golden Age for something like 200,000 years, 97% of our time as genetically modern humans. This last 3%, the era of exploitive, hierarchical civilization, can be seen as a perverse cultural aberration, hopefully a temporary one.
When agriculture and herding were discovered, a little over 10,000 years ago, we found ourselves with powers that we had previously lacked. We no longer needed to depend only on what our surroundings naturally provided. We could plant crops and make our surroundings more productive. And we could keep animals in herds or pens, increase their numbers, and we didn’t need to bother hunting for them when we were hungry. We now had power over nature, the ability to modify our surroundings to better suit ourselves.
With these new powers, we soon were able to create surpluses. It became economically feasible for some of us to produce the food for the tribe, and others of us could spend our time in other ways. Specialization became possible. Formerly we all followed the same trade – that particular kind of hunter-gathering that our particular culture employed. With specialization it became possible for the same tribe to have several trades, food production being only one of them. Someone might, for example, specialize in making plows for farmers, which could then be exchanged for food. Specialization increased the efficiency of our economies once again, in addition to the increase provided by agriculture and herding.
These new powers, in and of themselves, did not destroy our Golden Age. In fact, at the beginning, they made our Golden Age even more golden. We were able to maintain harmony with nature as long as our agriculture and animal husbandry practices remained sustainable. And we were able to maintain harmony in our cultures due to our cultural gyroscope – our grand stories – that had always told us that harmony was part of our nature as humans. During this period we continued with our harmony and our wisdom, while also enjoying the benefits of an increasingly efficient economy, and an increasingly complex culture.
This final, swan-song episode of our first Golden Age is what Riane Eisler refers to as partnership cultures, in her ground-breaking anthropological masterpiece, The Chalice and the Blade. While this glorious era lasted, we were able to combine harmonization and wisdom with civilization. We built cities, developed specialization and writing, enhanced our cultures and our wisdom, and were at the same time able to avoid warfare and dominance-based cultural patterns.
This is the era whose memory is weakly echoed in notions like Shangri-La and the Garden of Eden, and we can still view original artistic representations of this era at Knossos, an architectural structure known to the Greeks as the Labyrinth. Unlike surviving art from most other past civilizations, that of Knossos includes no representations of warriors or of warfare, but is devoted to scenes of people partying and playing together, dolphins cavorting under the sea, and other very pleasant and strikingly beautiful scenes. When viewing this art, tears come to one’s eyes over our great loss as a species, as one realizes the enormity of our subsequent decline.
As long as our newly empowered economies remained sustainable, and as long as our grand stories told us that harmony with our fellows was part of our nature as humans, then our new powers did us no harm, and benefitted us in many ways. Unfortunately, certain of our newly evolving cultures – the ones focusing on herding – began to move away from harmonization, as did their grand stories. The reasons for this involved economics.
Herders operate by taking their animals to good pastures, the animals graze and fatten, and that is what sustains the band. If adequate pastures are not available, the band cannot survive. What this means in bad years, or times of draught, is that herding bands must compete for the remaining grasslands and water supplies, and those bands that lose out are likely to perish. The herding life style was therefore out of harmony with nature. Bad years are part of nature, they occur from time to time, and in bad years this disharmony led to the death of whole bands. While every hunter-gatherer band had a sustainable economy, some herding bands, the ones that lost out, were to discover the hard way that their life style was in the final analysis not sustainable.
This disharmony with nature then led to other kinds of disharmony. Hunter-gatherer bands, as mentioned above, engaged in skirmishes, but not in warfare. In a skirmish, each band might lose a few warriors, but both bands would survive. However the skirmishes among herding bands, over pastures in bad years, began to take on the characteristics of warfare. The loser of one of these skirmishes did not always survive. Success in combat becomes an essential survival trait for herding cultures, in a way that was not true for hunter-gatherers. As a consequence, the cultures of these herding tribes began to evolve toward forms better suited to combat.
As we know from history, disciplined hierarchical combat units have a marked advantage over more egalitarian combat units, even if the egalitarian combatants are superior in their individual warrior skills. Coherent strategy and tactics tend to outweigh other factors in warfare. That is why generals like Hannibal and Alexander were able to defeat far larger armies, even though their troops were not particularly better fighters, or better armed, than the troops of their adversaries.
As success in combat became more important in this way, the cultures and grand stories of these herding tribes began to honor strong warrior chiefs, and began to honor the hierarchical patterns of dominance that enabled such chiefs to effectively command their warriors in battle. Thus did the alpha-male pattern re-enter our evolutionary path, for the first time since we became fully human. These cultures became hierarchical rather than egalitarian.
When you have hierarchical bands, each led by a strong warrior chief, and which engage in fierce combat with one another, then there is a natural dynamic toward enlargement of the bands. For one thing, if two bands are of unequal size, then the larger one would be more likely to win a battle between the two. So there is a survival value in bigger bands, which would tend over time toward larger bands on average. But an even more potent force would tend toward enlargement: the obviousness of the advantages provided by alliances.
An astute warrior chief would naturally think about alliances: making deals with other chiefs so that they could triumph together, when battles became necessary with other bands. Chiefs who were in alliance with one another would then share their jointly-won green pastures among one another’s bands in some negotiated way. Clearly, out of such alliance-building processes, one chief is going to emerge eventually as a big chief – the one who is most clever about forging alliances to his own advantage. In this way a warrior chief comes to have several bands under his hierarchical control, with the subsidiary chiefs as his generals. Those are the very dynamics that led (in much more recent times) to the emergence of Genghis Khan, who eventually became master of all the Mongol herding tribes.
Humanity was at this point split into three evolutionary threads. First, there were all those who were still pursuing hunter gathering, and there are still some of those today. Second, there were those who started down the path of agriculture, and were developing the first permanent settlements and the first cities, still within the harmonious Golden Age paradigm, and who did not engage in warfare with one another. Third, there were the herders, out there on the steppes, operating under the dynamics of hierarchy and dominance, with big chiefs emerging, with fierce and well-organized warriors at their command. And they had horses, making them formidable from a military point of view.
Our Golden Age had not ended yet however. The herders were living under hierarchy, but a warrior chief was not an exploiter of his band. He was its respected leader, whose strength was essential to the survival of the group. His role was comparable to that of an alpha-male in a primate band, who is the protector of his band, not its exploiter. These bands did however introduce the principle of male dominance into human cultures for the first time. And in the pantheons of the grand stories of these tribes there was always a supreme male god who rules the rest of the pantheon, while in the pantheons of earlier grand stories, there were always male and female characters of comparable power, and they represented the forces of nature and the universe.
This overall scenario, with the three threads of humanity, was not stable. If you’ve seen Seven Samurai, recall the scene early on where the warrior band stops their horses on the hill, and surveys an agricultural village below them. They discuss whether to raid it now, or to come back after all the crops are in. The villagers have no defense, and can only hope the band doesn’t return. That scene, writ large, was the overall scenario facing humanity at this point in our story. It was only a matter of time before the herders would raid, and eventually conquer, the agriculturalists. And that was when our first Golden Age was truly over, that was our fall from grace.
For when the herders conquered a village or a city of agriculturalists, they did not integrate the agriculturalists into their herding culture, nor did they integrate themselves into the agriculturalist culture. Instead, the herders enslaved the agriculturalists, creating an entirely new kind of culture and society, one that had never existed before, and one that had no evolutionary precedents.
For the first time ever we had a class based society. At the top is the ruling clique: the chief and his generals. Then we have the members of the conquering tribe, who have now become a privileged class. Under that are the enslaved agriculturalists, the peasant class, the ones who till the fields and do all the other hard work. Thus was established the perverse, exploitive paradigm that has characterized civilization ever since. Apart from the early era, where civilization blossomed in our first Golden Age, civilization has always been about exploitation of the many by the few.
I cannot think of any non-human species whose dynamics are based on intra-species exploitation. There are many cases, for example with certain kinds of ants, where one species enslaves and exploits another, but within a species internal exploitation would be very bad for species survival. In all social species, mutual aid and concern has been a central survival characteristic. The advent of this new hybrid society, based on the exploitation of the many by the few within a species, was a perversion not only of human culture, but of the evolutionary life principle itself.
Let us now bring into this discussion our earlier thread, about grand stories, and cultural gyroscopes. With the advent of this new hybrid society, the gyroscopes of both incoming cultures were knocked awry. Neither of their grand stories reflected the dynamics of the new combined society. If the structure of the new hybrid culture was to have the support of a stabilizing gyroscope, then a new grand story would need to be invented. If the peasant’s retained their old grand story, in which they are meant to be sovereign and free, then they could be kept in their place only by constant force and coercion, a rather high-overhead means of maintaining order in society. If a new grand story could be foisted on the peasants, a story in which they are meant to be in bondage to hierarchy, then they could be more easily controlled and exploited by the ruling classes.
Enter stage right the Garden of Eden story, as borrowed by the Hebrews from the Babylonians. In this story we can find, between the lines, an allegorical account of how the grand story was changed. As the curtain rises, Adam and Eve are living in the garden in a state of blissful innocence. This scene symbolizes our first Golden Age as hunter-gatherers, characterized by egalitarian prosperity and by innocent cultural wisdom. This first scene is a summary representation of all the grand stories of the various hunter-gatherer bands. Adam and Eve, cast as the first humans, represent our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our first cultures.
We soon learn that in the garden is a serpent, and he represents the temptation to exploitation, that humanity was faced with when it gained power over nature through the discovery of agriculture and herding. This is a temptation that we at first avoided due to our cultural gyroscopes. The fact that a serpent was cast for this tempter role, rather than some other animal or figure, was a matter of propaganda. The serpent (aka Hermes and thousands of other names) had been a revered divine figure in the grand stories of the earliest, egalitarian, agricultural societies. By casting him as the villain, that served to discredit those existing grand stories, paving the way for the foisting of a new grand story on the agriculturalists who had been enslaved.
We learn that there are two fruit trees in the garden, a tree of life, and a tree of knowledge. The tree of life represents the new powers that humanity gained when it discovered agriculture and herding. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit of that tree, that brings into the story the characters Cain and Able, representing respectively the agricultural and herding threads of humanity that ensued from gaining those new powers. These two new cultural threads were the two descendants of the hunter-gatherer cultures, and hence Cain and Able are shown as the children of Adam and Eve.
The tree of knowledge – the knowledge of good and evil – represents the choice that faced humanity when it gained its new powers – the choice of whether or not yield to the temptation to exploitation. The tree itself represents the knowledge that such a choice exists. When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit of that tree, that represents humanity yielding to temptation – the fall from grace, the beginning of civilization as we know it, the end of our first Golden Age. Civilization is the result of us eating the forbidden fruit – choosing evil over good,
So far, in what I’ve brought out here, the Garden of Eden story is presenting in abbreviated symbolic form a rather accurate grand story of humanity’s cultural evolution, up to and including the fall from grace. However, as we look a bit deeper into the story, we will find intentional misrepresentations that reveal the propagandistic nature of the story.
The casting of the serpent as villain, thus discrediting a revered figure, is a standard propaganda ploy. Perhaps the most recent case of this was that of Eliot Spitzer, a highly respected public figure who had the temerity to take on the New York banks for their crimes, and was therefore discredited by revealing stories of his sex life. Those same stories and much worse can of course be told of almost any high official, if they too stray from their assigned path. J Edger Hoover, for decades head of the FBI, was famous for the vast files he kept of such stories.
Next we have the blaming of Eve for the eating of the forbidden fruit. In fact it was a male principle not a female principle that led to the fall. It was the alpha-male pattern that arose in the herding cultures that eventually became the agent of our fall, and which introduced male dominance into human cultures. By blaming Eve for the fall in this way, the story tells women that they deserve their inferior status in the male-dominated culture they now found themselves in. As usual, the victors write the history.
And then there is the story of Cain (the agriculturalist) killing Able (the herder), soon after the fall. Here again we see a reversal of roles, a blaming of the victim. It was of course the herding cultures that ‘killed’ the agriculturalist cultures, not the other way around. By blaming Cain in this way, the story tells the peasants that they deserve their subjugated status in the new hybrid culture that they found themselves in.
This brings us to the final character in the story, the God figure. The most important function of this character is simply his presence, regardless of what he says and does. By his very presence, as a male and supreme figure, he establishes in the new grand story that the nature of the universe, and of human societies, is about being ruled by the hierarchical male principle, the alpha-male on steroids.
As to what God says in the story, he is basically just telling it like it is: he is pointing out to Adam and Eve (to humanity) what would be the consequences of their various choices. He points out that there is nothing wrong with eating from the tree of life, ie, making use of agriculture and herding. And he points out that yielding to the temptation of exploitation is something they must never do, if they wish to remain in the harmonious garden, if they don’t want to fall from grace, to lose their Golden Age.
In the story, God commands Adam and Eve to leave the garden after they yield to the temptation. In fact, no command was needed: once humanity began exploiting itself, it was by definition already out of the garden. Thus, the voice of God in the story is simply the voice of truth itself, a narration of what must inevitably transpire as a consequence of which choices are made.
When he tells them to go forth and take dominion over all things, for example, we are simply hearing a truth about male-dominated hierarchical societies, the new hybrid form. Taking dominion over, and exploiting – everything they can get their hands on – is simply how such societies always operate, as we have seen from history and as we see today. Indeed, what we call history – ie, the record of the most recent 3% of the human story, the part since the fall – is basically the story of how hierarchical societies naturally evolve into ever larger and ever more exploitive forms, with continual warfare being a central mechanism of that evolutionary process.
For us moderns, conditioned as we are to honoring dominance and honoring the seeking of power over others, we may wonder why Adam and Eve were despondent over leaving the garden. If someone told you or me that we could go forth and rule all that we survey, we’d say, “Thank you very much”, and happily get on with it. It would be just like winning the lottery, where all that money gives us the power to buy more or less whatever we want.
We can only understand their despondency by realizing that they did not share our modern perspective. Indeed, the adoption of our modern perspective is equivalent to the leaving of the garden, to the eating of the forbidden fruit. Those who were living in freedom and harmony didn’t want to leave for the same reason Thelma didn’t want to go back home at the end of Thelma and Louise. they valued their fraternal freedom more than the siren of comfort, power, and security under hierarchy.
The Garden of Eden story is a transition story, an explanation for the conquered of why their own grand story must be abandoned, and why – through their own fault – their nature is to be in subjugation. The story tells them they are faulty and sinful – that there is something wrong with them – because they ate the forbidden fruit. Therefore they have no standing to challenge the hierarchy that dominates them. They need the hierarchy to take care of them and keep them from going further astray.
A striking feature of this transition story is that it casts itself as a creation story. We are not even supposed to remember that there ever was a superior cultural paradigm. This is what Daniel Quinn refers to as the Great Forgetting. This forgetting is exemplified by Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan – with its absurd myths about a short and brutish life prior to civilization, a time that was actually a Golden Age. This forgetting is what leads otherwise decent people to accept imperialism, when it is given names like The White Man’s Burden, spreading democracy, and humanitarian intervention. Strange isn’t it, how the natives never want to be saved, and only accept our beneficent blessings at the point of a bayonet. This is a plot hole that we all might think about. Why must a village be bombed in order to be saved?
The co-evolution of cultures and of their grand stories did not stop when we left the garden. Nor did the psychological power of grand stories ever diminish, even though our minds had escaped from the parochialism of our primordial hunter-gatherer bands. To this day we understand who we are, and what our nature is, by what our grand stories tell us is true. There are however some very important differences between the grand stories since the fall, and those that co-evolved with our cultures prior to the fall.
The grand stories prior to the fall evolved as an organic folk process. For the most part they were passed on unchanged from generation to generation, as exemplified by the accurate thousands-year-old knowledge the Aborigines have of long-submerged landscapes. Additions might be made to the stories, if for example a band migrated to a new territory, thus adding another chapter to their story. Or respected elders might change the story just a bit, reflecting newly acquired knowledge or gems of wisdom. But no one ever sat down and composed a grand story, not before the fall. A grand story carried the accumulated memory and wisdom of a band, and it was passed on with reverence, as a treasured heritage, from one generation to the next.
In the Garden of Eden story, with its propagandistic elements, we see for the first time an episode of a grand story being consciously composed in order to better serve the interests of elite subjugation. It was written in very early post-fall days, was known to the Babylonians, and this composed opening episode of Western civilization’s grand story still holds power power over us today. Everyone I talk to – whether they be Christians or atheists, progressives or conservatives, new-agers or scientists – rejects the possibility of direct democracy, because they believe we are flawed, or that we need to become enlightened, and that we are incapable of governing ourselves. These kinds of myths are conditioned into us in many ways as we grow up, but the root of the conditioning is still embodied in the Garden of Eden story, which is told to most of us as children.
The Bible has been the exclusive basis of the grand story of Western civilization until relatively recent times. It consists of two books. The Old Testament is simply the post-fall grand story of the Hebrew tribe, who were a spin-off from the Sumerians, one of the earliest of the post-fall hybrid societies. The book was consciously revised c. 1300 BC so as to better suit the hierarchy of the time. The Old Testament praises the virtues of a male-dominated hierarchical society, honors warfare and war-like virtues, and of course features the mythical God character, a warrior-chief writ large, as the all powerful King of the Universe.
This character serves two important functions. First, he makes us feel powerless and insignificant, and second, he makes us believe that when we go forth to slaughter and conquer, he will be on our side. This book is superbly well-suited for keeping us in subjugation and to facilitating wars of conquest. Any contradiction to this story is known as blasphemy, and for many centuries blasphemy was a capital crime throughout the Christianized world. Elites have always understood that control of the grand story is their primary means of controlling us.
The New Testament has a very interesting history, and provides an excellent example of carefully crafted propaganda, as an element of a grand story. The history of this book begins of course with Jesus, an actual historical figure, whose main mission seems to have been to undermine hierarchy, wake people up to their subjugated status, and spread a new grand story based on love. compassion, personal empowerment, and the direct experience of divine reality. A very dangerous fellow indeed, and he was soon disposed of by the local Hebrew hierarchy.
But alas for them, the new grand story was so appealing and so powerful that it led to a social movement (early Christianity) that was a continual headache to Roman authorities. Within a century or so after the death of Jesus, this social movement had departed drastically from the original message of Jesus, and had become an intolerant messianic cult, growing rapidly, using the words of Jesus as a come-on to recruiting new members, and controlled by an orthodox hierarchy who had suppressed the experience-of-divinity aspects of Jesus’ teachings.
To the Roman hierarchy, Christianity was more and more being seen as a subversive political movement, challenging and undermining the authority of Rome. The orthodox hierarchy was by this time mainly concerned with its power over those who had been Christianized, the theology being mainly important as an instrument of maintaining that power.
Given the trouble that these two power hierarchies were causing for one another, it is not surprising that they got together in 325AD, at the First Nicene Council, to join forces for their mutual benefit. There were two main outcomes from the Council. The first that was that Christianity was to become the officially enforced religion of the Roman Empire, bringing it under the political (but not religious) control of the Emperor, and ending the conflict between the two hierarchies. Second, the Council was used as an opportunity to deal with competing theological interpretations that had arisen, and to agree on a single, orthodox story of Jesus and his teaching, which was to become the New Testament.
Christianity as we know it, as a powerful world-class religion, backed by an orthodox grand story (the Bible), can be dated from this Council. From the beginning, then, Christianity has been closely associated with empire and with state hierarchy. Indeed, for many centuries, after the fall of the Roman Empire and up until 1648 (Peace of Westphalia) when nationalism began to arise, the Catholic Church itself was the overarching political power in Europe. And in the various European wars throughout the centuries, the soldiers of both sides have been told that God is on our side.
As regards matters which relate to what we would now call science and engineering, the church hierarchy turned to Aristotle, and his writings became essentially a third book in the orthodox grand story of humanity, along with the two books of the Bible. As the scientific movement began to emerge, c. 1600, the theories of Aristotle came increasingly under challenge as new scientific discoveries were made. The scientific community was in fact beginning to develop its own grand story, based on the scientific method. The hegemony of orthodox doctrine, as the exclusive grand story of Christendom, was beginning to unravel.
As the scope of scientific discovery broadened, particularly after the discoveries of Darwin and Mendel, the grand story offered by science became a full-fledged competitor to that offered by religion. Indeed, there has been an ongoing rivalry to capture the public mind, with scientists generally considering religion to be superstition. The ever-evolving grand story offered by science, however, fails to provide answers to the most important questions that grand stories need to deal with, if they are to be psychologically satisfying, such as the meaning of life and the universe.
Orthodox theology continues to be the grand story for millions of people, partly because of the unsatisfying nature of the story offered by science, and partly because religious parents typically subject their children to intensive religious indoctrination from an early age. This is a difficult cycle to break, as the Soviets found out when they tried unsuccessfully to eliminate religions after the Russian Revolution. Once a grand story is firmly implanted in an impressionable mind, it typically cannot be dislodged, particularly if no satisfying alternative is on offer.
Our modern society, for better or worse, has no unifying grand story. We are divided as to what we believe. In fact, divisiveness re/beliefs, has become one of the primary control mechanisms employed by elites these days. That and television. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy put it this way:
Television, the drug of the Nation
Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation
Drug is a very apt characterization of television. It doesn’t try to indoctrinate us into one particular story; that is now out of date. Instead, television offers a continuous drip feed of what Guy Debord refers to as The Spectacle. We sit there hypnotized, watching entertainment, news, documentaries, or whatever, the content doesn’t really matter. The real point is that we are watching television instead of living. Is there really any difference between sitting in front of a television, or spending your time smoking in an opium den? In both cases, we’re basically trying to escape from the emptiness of our lives, lives made empty partly because we have no story that gives meaning to our lives, and partly because all of our friends are at home watching their own televisions.
What I have been writing here can be seen as a history of grand stories, an analytical work, perhaps of interest and perhaps not. That is not however what I intend this story to be about. From my perspective, what I have been writing here is itself the grand story of humanity, or at least a start at it, and that’s why I gave the piece the title I did.
It’s got a beginning, in the evolutionary origins of our species, and the desrctiption of our first Golden Age. It’s got a dramatic middle sequence, where we got hijacked by the perverse paradigm of an exploitive class society, and the form of our earlier grand stories was hijacked and became propaganda. And it brings us up to the present where we don’t really care about grand stories, or don’t think we do, and we sit addicted to flashing images on a television screen, in very much the same situation as the people floating in pods in the first Matrix film.
People like Joseph Campbell and David Korten have noted our lack of a grand story, or at least the lack of a helpful one, and they have called for the development of new stories, that can serve humanity better. But they don’t really understand the purpose and nature of a grand story. It’s not about creating a new mythology, and it’s not about reclaiming our harmony with nature.
The attempt to create a new mythology is like trying to put grapes back on the vine. We know about science now, and we can’t go back to a literal belief in metaphorical representations of reality. Those kinds of things served us well millennia ago, but we can’t go back there, not without closing our eyes and pretending. And achieving harmony with nature is not a grand story at all. It’s the identification of an attribute of a healthy culture.
In our first Golden Age, our grand stories were our best attempt at understanding who we are, where we came from, and what is the meaning of our lives. We included in these stories the knowledge and wisdom we had accumulated, and the important episodes from our history. These stories were not fabrications invented to achieve social harmony. They were the truth as best we knew it.
The religious grand story, and the scientific grand story have one thing very much in common. They both cut us off from 97% of our grand story as humans, and from an understanding of our Golden Age. Religion does that intentionally, whether or not current theologians are aware of that, in order to more easily subjugate us to hierarchy. Science does the same thing out of arrogance, out of it’s groundless assumption that that everything can be explained in materialist terms, and that everything not published in a refereed journal is superstition.
As far as scientists are concerned, nothing much interesting happened prior to c. 1600. Science is an elitist cult with blinders on, defining reality as that which can be accurately measured with its limited instruments that are restricted to the material realm. They are looking for the keys by the lamp post where the light is good; they aren’t looking where the keys were lost. The keys were lost some six millennia ago, and they won’t be found with a telescope or a test tube. They can only be found within ourselves, but scientists won’t venture inside – that wouldn’t be objective.
The only grand story that can function effectively for us is our story, as a species, as we best understand it. That is what I have been endeavoring to convey, as best I understand it. Of all the things I’ve talked about, the most important is the fact that for the past 6,000 years we have been in bondage, and for about 200,000 years before that we enjoyed a Golden Age, where we were not in bondage, and we lived in harmony with one another and with nature. As I see it, there is not really much worth talking about other than, how can we escape from bondage? Rearranging prison chairs is no more productive than rearranging deck chairs.
The saga of our species is an adventure, an adventure that we are meant to participate in, to co-create, not to watch on television. It’s an action story, where the villain has tied us up in the basement, and our business is to get free and escape – otherwise our children and their children will be in bondage as well. It’s an adventure that unfolds on a canvas measured in millennia, but it’s not history – it’s right now. And it’s not far away – it’s right here where I am, and it’s right there where you are.
In our primordial innocence, back in the garden, we talked to one another, we listened to one another, and we were quite capable of getting along and dealing with the problems of life together. In fact, it wasn’t very difficult at all, and we spent a good part of our time just hanging out, chatting, singing, or dancing around the fire. We have lost none of these capacities; we have simply forgotten that we have them, and have therefore not attempted to exercise them.
The tree of life is far more bountiful now than ever before. We have powers, with our technology and our science, that our ancestors could never have dreamed of. We were never banished from the garden; we were abducted from the garden by those who ate the forbidden fruit of exploitation, and turned our powers against us. We are guilty of no sin, there is nothing flawed about us, and we can return to the garden whenever we wake up and choose to do so. We are no longer restrained by chains, but only by our own timidity, and our lack of confidence in our own good sense and that of our fellows.
We cannot change the part of our grand story that lies in the past, but we need to know that story so that we can know who we are, where we came from, and what our life is about. We now know why the the forbidden apple is poisonous to us, even if we were not the ones who did the tasting. We are no longer innocent, but we can return again to harmony and wisdom, wiser from our experience in bondage, and knowing that the first thing we need to do is to build a strong fence around the forbidden tree.
Look not to the officials of Babylon for assistance in our return to the garden, for they are neither our protectors nor our representatives – they are the servants of our exploiters. Yank your television from the wall, just as Neo yanked the cable from his skull, and see for the first time the real world, which has been all around you all the time, while you’ve been entranced by the spectacle. The time has come to click your heels together three times and return to your real home.
The drama that matters is the drama that is around us every day. We, along our friends and neighbors, are the actors in that drama, and there is no script and no director; real life is improv. It is up to each of us and all of us to create the next episode of our grand story. The first step is to begin listening to the stories of those around us, and to share our own stories. That is how we learn who we are and where we came from, at the local level. Then we can begin sharing our dreams with one another, and that is how we can learn what our life is about, at the local level. By the time we get that far we don’t need to worry about what we need to do next. That will be obvious.
Our second Golden Age awaits us.