More poetic and precise ways of making the point that you can’t tell people what to do
This idea – that no matter how tempting, no matter how certain you are, no matter even if you are in fact correct, you simply cannot tell others what to do, and that all our dependence on perfecting society through the intrusion of centralized authority into other people’s lives is a mistake that destroys the order upon which society is built – this idea is anti-intuitive. That is to say, it seems so obvious, so natural that if your steps are misaligned, and I can correct your gait, I ought to – I must – help you to see your mistake. And if there are a lot of people moving wrong, there will be joint damage and wasted effort and it will take up the society’s resources, and all the wasted energy, so I have an obligation to society to institute rules that ensure everybody walks straight –
This idea seems, intuitively, true – but in fact is very wrong. The truth is that it takes all our thought and focus and experience to steer our own steps. Not one among us is so wise and all-seeing as to guide the paths of others. You may well think that you have the wisdom and the calling to command the walk that others take through this terrible, wonderful world. You don’t.
Demanding the Correct Path be kept to will not help others as they find their way through this garden of horror and delight. It can only hinder them, and in hindering, will hinder rather than help society, encouraging anger and resentment that eventually destroys the culture. You have not that wisdom, nor do I, nor does anyone. Your path is yours. My path is mine.
So human intuition is a dangerous guide to how an advanced culture advances further, how it solves the problems those advances create. Since this concept, which the Greeks called ‘hubris’, is in such opposition to ‘reality’ as our top-down-ordering minds so strongly and so wrongly see it that it’s hard to put into words – at least for a non-scientist non-writer like me.
But one can find others who have put it well.
There went out a sower to sow his seed. And it came to pass, as he sowed, that some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up, it was scorched, and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundredfold. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
– The Gospel According to Mark, chapter 4, verses 3 through 9
A word of apology and an appeal for forgiveness is in order at this point, because I’m going to talk about Jesus as a teacher, and though this may give unintended offense, it has long seemed to me that the best way to refer to his teachings (at least as they’ve come down to us and assuming, in order to focus on the teachings without reference to the religious, that what we read is what he taught; there is, after all, much reason to think his words have been changed and added to, but to consider them as life lessons, that really doesn’t matter here) is to give him his most probable name, Joshua, or as some put it, Yeshua ben Yosef – Joshua, son of Joseph. No Hebrew names ended in ‘-us’. ‘Jesus’ as a name is something of an accident, a romantization of Joshua, from the Hebrew ‘Yeshua’ to the Greek ‘Iesoua’ (var) to the Latin ‘Iesus’ to anglicized ‘Jesus’.
I’m sorry if that offends. I’m not a religious man, nor have I any interest in any spiritualistic discussions; I don’t feel opposed to it, it just bores me. The unexamined life holds no attraction; Occam and his razor are the only thing in which I have any ‘faith’, that all measures of reality are provisional and subject to change. Well, that’s me. Whatever is true for you is just as true, and that’s fine.
I’ve always been fascinated with this parable. The accepted interpretation is about spreading the word, a sort of salesman’s tool. But think of how well it describes what actually happens every day to you and to me. As you go through your day, every act, every word, every snarl or snap or laugh, every joke you tell or oath you yell, the choice you make to give a nice word or complement or complaint, all of it, the things you choose to do or not to do – each has an effect on others, on the world around you, on your own mind and attitude. You encounter someone; do you smile? Frown? Ignore? Avoid? Every one of those things, or any other thing you might choose to do or not do –
Every one of those things done or not done is a little swirl of energy that flows out from you to affect the world around you. Probably any particular one means nothing, changes nothing. Probably it affects no-one. Just another little eddy in the vast river of life. But maybe it means a little something, maybe very much, maybe everything.
A stranger asks for a little help. You don’t help, or you do; and maybe that small act of kindness helps that stranger to find an answer not only to that problem of the moment but touches him so deeply that it goes on to change his life, to empower him to find better answers to challenges that had defeated him. Or maybe that refusal to help makes him realize he’d come too much to depend on begging. Either way, maybe – just maybe, we can never tell for sure – that stranger, so deeply changed by your kind act or kick, goes on to change the whole world. Maybe he was Christ returned, or the Buddha, or a brilliant scientist down on his luck who goes on to invent a whole new way to end disease or hunger.
Or maybe he’s Hitler.
Either way, the parable holds true. Whether you would or not, you cast your seeds about you with every word, every step, every choice taken or avoided, every second of every day of your life. You don’t need religion to see this. The science of chaos theory makes clear that this not only can be, but since we live within a highly complex system we call ‘society’, must be true. Nothing you can do – not even by becoming a hermit – can prevent these tiny or enormous whirlpools of energy from spinning out from your actions or inactions, your presence or your absence.
By now you’ve scattered seed enough to feed a world. Is it good seed? Did it grow beautiful flowers, or nourishing fruit, or brambles that scratch and trip and make others’ lives more painful? Or did it simply drop where it fell and blow away? For the vast majority of the seed you sow – you’ll probably never know what grows.
It’s the way the world works, but it’s hidden from us. It isn’t the way the world appears to us. That’s not at all an aspect of the world. It’s an aspect of our intelligence. For complex reasons, the tendency to see patterns, whether they exist or not, to see randomness as purposeful design and design as random behavior, is an almost unavoidable result of the hierarchy we assume must be responsible for the patterns we think we see, just as we see our own minds as being in top-down command of our bodies and our thoughts when mind in fact exists in a complex negotiation within the brain and body.
Assume Joshua understood this. How does he explain? By parable, like all his teachings. But such an anti-intuitive idea is hard to weave into a homely tale. A farmer who wasted such a vitally importance resource would be shunned, ridiculed, attacked. Even in my childhood, that seemed obvious to me, and as I grew up and thought about it, it seemed obvious also that this difficult lesson meant so much more than the Sunday school teacher wanted me to believe.
And then this question; how do we know if what we do is good and right?
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
– The Gospel of Mathew, chapter 12, verses 33 through 37
You have no choice about this. You scatter such seeds about you as you walk through this life, by deeds both kind and cruel, words both wise and foolish. You can only know which is which by seeing what does, or doesn’t, grow; the only guidance we really get is by the tree that grows from our seeds, tasting the fruit of it.
This strikes me as an elegant way of putting what I’m clumsily claiming as the rules all technologically advanced cultures anywhere must obey or perish. But I agree that this interpretation is arguable, even before anyone has a chance to inject their own pet spiritual belief system into it. There’s another way of putting it that I find applicable, although this one carries it’s own, though not religious, uncertainty. That’s the myth of a Ring of Power, as beautifully presented by JRR Tolkien in his trilogy ‘The Lord of the Rings.’
“And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
Thus Galadriel, queen of the woodland elves and herself the bearer of a great ring. Now those of you more schooled than me in Professor Tolkien’s biography, will instantly yelp. We must remember that the good Professor grew up at the end of the Victorian era in England, when just about every other work of fiction was allegory, usually trying to impose some Christian dogma on the reader, and he was heartily sick of it. Still, he was uniquely dedicated to the idea that a mythology, to be of value, must be internally ‘true’ – that is, no matter what fantastical characters and imaginary world the writer creates, the beings within it must behave in ways the reader can identify as human and believable. His creation of Middle Earth, though not meant as a portrayal of the real world, nonetheless successfully held up a mirror to our life, which is to say, we can identify with behaviors, actions, attitudes as those we and others we know might have.
This was terribly important to him, and he put decades of intense effort into its construction, starting as a young man. This is why his works have their power, their endurance; and its absence from the Harry Potter novels, where seemingly random things and arbitrary actions, serving only the author’s needs of the moment and carrying no overarching logic, creates a mythology that fails, mystifying rather than informing the reader.
Thus Tolkien’s great masterwork succeeds, and by so succeeding – by creating a ‘true’ mythology – cannot fail but to represent the world around us, whether he would or no; not in the allegorical literary tradition, but representational nonetheless. And here I would have you consider –
Does the Dark Lord move by magic? It may be that, in creating his minions, he forms them and commands them by his mystic powers; yet when these forces act upon the other characters in his novels, they do so in purely mechanical ways. His armies attack with entirely physical weapons, and even his most powerful followers use blade and knife. His forces attack with all the tactics and weapons of any Earth-bound invading army. He may use terror as a motivating force, as have many very real generals here in our world, but even if his minions use the knife in the dark, its still a very real knife, no matter the unreal hand that holds it.
And isn’t that just exactly as happens here on Earth? His power motivates his forces; is that really any different than the moral certainty and God-given passion of the Crusades? Is the cruelty of the King of Angmar really of a different sort than that of the Trail of Tears and the smallpox-infested blankets we gave to those First Nation victims on their long forced march?
I put it to you that there is not one iota of difference between Middle Earth and the power of the One Ring to rule and to command great armies, and our world with its police so certain of their power and the obligation of the people to respect and obey that the deaths of the innocent are of little moment, actions to be automatically and instantly defended, the killer to be protected at the cost of whatever lie or cover-up is needed.
And for that reason, I see no difference between the Ring of that world, and the Vote in this; once the Ring is put on, or the Vote taken, the result is the same. It invests its bearer with the right to rule others, a right not to be challenged, a power not to be resisted, leading, as Galadriel well understood – and as you don’t – only to evil and destruction, no matter how good the wearer. Would you have turned away the offer of the Ring, as she did?
Frankly, if you’ve ever voted for a law that reaches into other people’s lives to impose on them your own sense of right and wrong, to define a victimless crime like drug use or contract between consenting adults or the failure to wear a seat belt, then the clear answer is –
No. No, you would not.
Our politics is divided between those who would impel decency according to their God and those who would do so to save the whale and feed the poor. I admit I find the former cause absurd and the latter admirable, but the end result is exactly the same; men in dark uniform, in the night, with all the majesty of Law on their side, destroying people’s lives because of somebody else’s sense of Right and Wrong.
Galadriel passed the test. You failed. Think of this, now, January 20th, as a mentally unstable buffoon takes control of the forces of the State: The bell tolls for thee.
Still, this too is an argument, as any Tolkien scholar would loudly claim. But I’ve saved the best, most beautiful, most telling example of the Three Rules for last:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Because the forces of good and decency in our nation have failed to understand the vital need to defend the first sentence, they have empowered and unleashed forces that will carry out the rest. Because you know yourself to be Good, the reality of your Despotism eludes you. And so you have ensured the mayhem and destruction that is about to follow.
But worry not; cowards – fascism appeals most to the most cowardly of us – always start with the weak, the poor, the defenseless. So you still have time to sit back, comfortable, well-fed, and simply wither them with your (hidden) scorn.
Good luck with that.
And so, good luck to us all. I say this to you with all the passion I can, as a warning:
Americans need Freedom, but Freedom doesn’t need America.