A philosopher is what you become because you didn’t have the guts to do something actually interesting with your life.
Any good idea is worth having more than once.
If Philosopher A realizes a Great Truth and Philosopher B realizes the same Great Truth, it doesn’t mean Philosopher B copied Philosopher A. It means that if something is objectively True, different people will realize it at different times, each with their own angle.
In the same vein, if something is truly True, any given realizer of that truth should not be adored too much for doing so. What is great is the truth, not the person who realizes it.
Tonight the city is full of morgues
And all the toilets are overflowing
There’s shopping malls coming out of the walls
As we walk out among the manure
I pay no mind
Twenty-five years ago this summer, I and a group of my friends remained on campus in Western Pennsylvania. It was a pleasant time, the summer before our senior year, the last season of freedom before the world was forced upon us.
Beck’s first album, Mellow Gold, was popular that summer. I played it often in our sweltering little apartment. Besides “Loser,” the hit single, two songs really stuck out: “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” and “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997”
Rattlesnake on the ceiling
Gunpowder on my sleeve
I will live here forever
With the ocean and the bees
Lay it on to the dawn
Everything we’ve done is wrong
I’ll be lonesome when I’m gone
Lay it on to the dawn
My summer job was shelving in the library. It was not demanding. I had plenty of time to peruse the stacks.
“City of Quartz.” What a great title! What’s it about? It’s about Los Angeles and its fate.
My interest in Southern California had already been primed by a few things, such as Bruce Wagner’s miniseries Wild Palms (in which the themes of Southern California become the natural end of the entire country) and the essay collection Sex, Death, and God in L.A.—not to mention a longtime interest in the Manson Family (more on that next week). But Mike Davis’s neo-Marxist jeremiad reframed things. Davis had been lucky enough to sync with the ’92 riots, making him hailed as a prophet. His vision of Los Angeles, a rivalry between sunshine and noir on the brink of implosion, vibrated within my college-junior skull.
All the time I kept listening to Beck, kept listening to those two tracks on Mellow Gold. The most curious reveries filled my head.
In those songs, I heard a desiccated slow-apocalypse, the logical end of the City of Quartz. A crumbling motel next to empty dusty bungalows, the skeletons of realtors and talent agents left abandoned in empty swimming pools. Faceless cops patrolling the canyons. Luxury cars burning on the freeways. An infinite beach, because the tide kept going out and out and never came back, ’til you could walk to Catalina.
In those moments, I understood Los Angeles. The place that will someday be erased by the earthquake. The place where “the sun gives up and sinks into the black, black ocean.”
See what I did there?
I constructed a thought form. Out of various bits of information related to the objective existence of the territory and people termed “Los Angeles” and “Southern California” (used interchangeably), I formed a mental image and interacted with it, creating emotional responses that could lead to action. In this case, a variety of elements came together in my head to form a strongly “noir” picture of the city.
This fashioning didn’t really have any consequences. I was just a college student; I had no power to make them a reality. But it could have if I had gone on to have any power over, say, federal funding to Southern California.
Really, there was never any real threat that this thought form could lead to action, because I was skeptical enough about it even at the time. I did once warn someone against moving to L.A., but not seriously.
I touched on thought forms here. Thinking back to the summer of ’94, it occurred to me that my mental L.A. was a glass-case example. Note this thought form was developed from a poor & entirely theoretical information base—a few books, movies, and miscellaneous media. Most of our thought forms are developed on such poor bases, and, due to the Problem of Information, no one’s forms can encompass a significant amount of the relevant data.
Often our thought forms harden. We form them in youth and then invest ourselves in them. Information that reinforces our favored forms is welcomed; information that undermines them is passed over or rationalized away. We make the world we see and then we see the world we make.
But in the case of my view of L.A., I can report that I was not content to leave things on an last-chapter-of-Less Than Zero note. Steve Martin helped. His L.A. Story and the essay on Los Angeles in Pure Drivel paint the city as a place of ironic joys. There are countervailing voices, if you listen hard enough.
In the end, all our thought forms stand as beetles against the obelisk of reality. The actual thing called “Los Angeles” is the aggregate of every life carried out within its borders. Some end wonderfully, some horribly, all in infinite variety, each one slightly different. There’s no way to grasp it all. Lived experience will always ooze around our expectations.
Since 1994, I’ve actually been to Los Angeles. Just once, on a happy occasion, for a weekend. We drove the length of Santa Monica Boulevard, rode the ferris wheel at the pier, saw the moonlight on the Pacific surf while jets from LAX soared aloft like angels. It was beautiful. We can never comprehend the totality of real life. But every little bit helps.
Part 2: The Unprecedented Era
During the 16th century, and at an accelerating rate, people of the Western Cultural Sphere began to develop actual, accurate facts about the universe, in the face of the wisdom of antiquity. Copernicus challenged Ptolemy. Vesalius challenged Galen. Galileo challenged Aristotle. This was Science. As noted in Part 1, this had never happened before.
Why? Up until that point, the world’s Thinking Classes had been willing to overlook or explain away any discrepancies between those traditions and observed reality. Which only makes sense-the traditions served their social purposes, forming the warp & woof of their worlds. For some reason, people arose who were not willing to remain quiet. Why is an Open Question.
Is there a reason this occurred in the Western Cultural Sphere and not elsewhere? That’s another Open Question. The Western Sphere had made slightly stronger claims about nature than the other spheres, but only relatively. In any case, it only happened once. The other spheres never had time to undergo any similar changes independently.
Perhaps even these new claims, in the abstract, could have been maintained as developments in the Western cultural tradition except for one crucial difference, a difference that resulted in the world as we know it: accurate ideas about reality can be used as the basis for technology. This did not happen quickly. About three centuries passed before the new information being produced was put to work in any significant way. But when it happened, it supercharged everything else.
Let me give one example. In the 18th century, electricity was discovered. This new energy had been completely unsuspected by any of the Interpretive Traditions. In the early 19th century, a device, the telegraph, was invented which put this new information to practical use. Earlier ages could not have developed this technology; they had no idea the basis even existed. This was Unprecedented.
Our age is unprecedented.
It is unprecedented in Movement: Prior to the modern era, the fastest any human ever traveled was about 30 miles an hour, for short distances, aboard a galloping horse. We now routinely tool down the highway at over twice that. A clipper ship, the product of centuries of development of the sailing vessel, managed to travel between New York City and San Francisco in 89 days; airliners now traverse the distance in a little under seven hours.
In Power: Up until the Unprecedented Era, the vast majority of energy was provided by wood and mammalian muscle. Humans found some clever ways to harness wind and water power, there was marginal use of coal and peat. The total amount could not easily be increased.
In the Unprecedented Era, we have have harnessed the potential of the atom and the sun. Hundreds of millions of years worth of fossil fuels move, light, and heat us. The winds and tides fill in when they can. The total amount of energy available for human purposes has mushroomed, and increases steadily year by year.
In Creation: In the Unprecedented Era, we have a notion of ‘economic growth.’ We take it for granted that the amount of goods and services will tend to increase. This is a strange thing, one that implies change, takes change for granted as part of the landscape. The question we ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is bizarre. For the vast majority of human history, life was about what you had to do, and what came before you. Only now, with constant change, can we assume a child will be able to embrace and benefit from it.
In Destruction: In the Unprecedented Era, explosions have replaced warriors. The immense firepower of the modern battalion, backed by long-range air and sea support, has reduced war to arranging the enemy to be under your shells and bombs, preferably far from your own soldiers. Death comes from above, like thunder. Indeed, line warfare has grown so expensive and so destructive that it has almost been rendered obsolete, replaced by asymmetrical conflict between groups of lightly-armed insurgents. Every exchange of fire must take place in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. In the ultimate unprecedentedness, we can now destroy all humanity.
In Birth: Our ability to end Homo sapiens is even more flabbergasting in view of the vast increase in our numbers. In the forty-five years of my life, the population of the world has increased by three billion human beings—or as many as it took from the origin of our species through 1960 to accumulate. In that same time, the population of the United States has increased by one hundred and twenty-five million people, over a third.
Birth is now in our hands. For the vast majority of human history, the question “Should I have kids?” was nonsensical. Birth control was difficult and full of holes. We can now effectively control reproduction, the impetus behind evolution, one of the most basic forces of material reality.
In Death: In the Unprecedented Era, we rarely die from that which previous generations did. In fact, we rarely die—relatively speaking. In 1900 the world death rather was 17.2 deaths per 1000 population; it is now less than half that. Average global life expectancy was 34 a century ago; it is about 70 now. We take for granted such things as antibiotics, which freed us from ancient horrors. Doctors have access to diagnostic and therapeutic methods that were wishful thinking even fifty years ago. Modern health care is not distributed evenly, but even what there is in poorer nations, from international vaccine programs to insecticide-infused anti-malarial mosquito nets, has had immense effect—evidenced by massive increases in population.
In all these things and more, we are cut off from all previous humans who have ever lived. We cannot understand them. We have too much control, too much safety, too much knowledge, too much stuff. We can compare our situations with theirs all we want, but we’re fooling ourselves. Things have changed. At some point, a crisis point was reached. The gulf is unbridgeable.
But without any examples from the past, how can we have some idea of what to expect from the future? We can’t. No one has any idea what will happen. At no point in the last 200 years could any rational person have correctly surmised the course of oncoming events. There was no reason to see the mostly peaceful demise of the Soviet Union. There was no reason to see the redistribution of world manufacturing. There was no reason to see the decolonization of the Third World. There was no reason to see the revaluation of gender and sexual orientation. The shocks keep coming. It can be reasonably assumed they will continue to do—although if the constant flow of change stopped, that would also be unprecedented.
(There were those few who predicted what seemed impossible, but turned out to be correct. They were all crackpots. In the Unprecedented Era, the crackpots of one decade turns out to be the prophets of the next—but they exist alongside dozens of their fellow crackpots who were wrong.)
While we can’t know what the change will be, we can know the context in which that change will happen. Science and technology have made the stakes and our abilities higher than they ever have been. We have been placed at the wheel of a tractor-trailer truck, going 90 miles an hour, with no brakes. All we can do is hope no obstacle appears in front of us. So far, none has.
We want the past to have influence on the present, to be able to learn from the past. It seems wasteful to think there is no real connection between the two. But that’s an element of story, not reality. Sometimes things are indeed random and unconnected. Such is the case here.
My purpose here is not to recommend a course of action. The Unprecedented Era militates against the recommending of anything. I seek only to recognize what is happening around me, to understand and describe.
The following is intended as a loose description of those parts of human history that are relevant, at least somewhat, to ourselves. Since these only cover about 2800 years—in context of 200,000 years of Homo sapiens, 600 million years of multicellular life, 4.5 billion years of the planet Earth and 13.8 billion years of the universe, I think they can properly be called “recent.”
Part 1: The Era of Interpretive Traditions
At some point, humans in certain regions began to depend on agriculture for their food. No one is sure why. The process likely took centuries. The reasons probably changed along the way.
It’s impossible for us to truly understand how humans of that era saw the world and their own lives. For that matter, it’s impossible for us to be sure of how people of, say, the Victorian Era saw the world and their lives, but in the case of the contrast between ours and those of the pre-Interpretive-Traditions-age time, the gap is even more profound. Sometimes people say “Primitive people invented myths to explain the world around them,” but that’s completely off. That’s us trying to explain them in our terms, not theirs. It’s deceptive.
Beginning in the 8th century BCE, something very peculiar happened. Some folks started expressing large ideas about life, in ways no one ever had before. Even more peculiarly, this phenomena occurred on three separate occasions in three separate places. This is often referred to as the Axial Age.
In India, religious scholars started trying to explain and elaborate on the Vedas, the immense complex mass of hymns and rituals developed by the Indo-European populace of the northern part of the subcontinent. They recorded their new visions in compositions called the Upanishads. Springboarding off this, other thinkers rejected the Vedas in favor of their own metaphysical systems, designed to escape the chains of existence. These were called the sramanas, and included such movements as the Buddhists, the Jains, and the Ajivikas.
In China, a need for experts in government led to a profusion of schools, each of which taught their own system of how a prince should rule and an official administer. The Confucians, the Daoists, the Moists and many others competed for the attentions of the ruling classes.
Finally in Greece, a bunch of weirdos & cult leaders—the Pre-Socratics–started spouting theories on the secrets of the universe. All of these theories were completely useless, but they led to a high standard of arguing with one another. As it happened, around this same time, many of the Greek city-states were changing from monarchies to more representational forms of government, which led to a high demand for people who could teach persuasive arguing.
Having a demand for their services, the leading weirdo groups formed themselves up into schools, such as the Peripatetics, Platonists, Skeptics, Stoics and Epicureans.
Now these three eruptions all occurred at roughly the same time, but in three separate ways, with relatively little contact. One very important commonality is that they all developed in decentralized, multipolity environments, which then unified, with the added dynamic of these new thought-systems. In China, the Warring States were unified by the short-lived Qin dynasty, under the banner of the Legalist school, and then the subsequent Han dynasty, which replaced the Legalists with Confucianism. In India, the Mauryas conquered all the Vedic states and then some, and promoted sramana ways, especially Buddhism. In Greece, Alexander brought all the city-states under his aegis, with his tutor Aristotle of the Peripatetic School nodding approvingly. Now these empires weren’t too stable—the Qin, Maurya and Macedonian states toppled soon—but they established the new thought forms on a high plane, a plane off which they would never again be pried.
Two important Almosts: in Persia, the prophet Zoroaster reworked and drastically simplified the existing system of gods and ritual in his native Iran. Over time, his successors developed new ideas, like an all-powerful single God, an almost-all-powerful spirit of evil to oppose him, and a state of existence after death that depended on moral behavior during life.
Meanwhile the unusual and stiff-necked Hebrew people developed their own unique system of thought. Neither Zoroastrianism nor Judaism per se had much influence outside their own peoples, but through their influence elsewhere—Zoroastrianism on Judaism and then Judaism on the Christianity and Islam—their effect has been profound.
(Note that religion and philosophy are not separated here. They should not be. Through most of human history, they have operated in ways more similar than not, and usually in ways intertwined.)
Now there was nothing about being an agricultural civilization that required the development of philosophy&worldreligion. In the Americas, the Mayans and Teotihuacans created major urbanized polities without its dubious benefits. In Persia, as noted, they developed a world religion, but no philosophy, and never seemed to regret the lack. Why exactly these things appeared where they did when they did is something I’m still trying to understand. It’s a major project. Writing this is a step along in that endeavor, not a capstone in any way.
So with those three empires (the Qin, the Maurya, and the Macedonian), the Era of the Interpretive Traditions was officially underway. It’s important to know what that meant. The Interpretative Traditions gave a measure of new social cohesion and new axes for conflict. What it didn’t provide was science. Although each of the new traditions had bodies of information and theory dealing with the physical universe, none of them were science.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to use “Science” as meaning the body of information that accurately portrays how the independent reality operates. In this regard, all of the Interpretive traditions were as off from the mark as a mouse in Acapulco looking for Boise, Idaho. The earth does not have seven great oceans composed of such substances as clarified butter. Heavier objects do not fall faster than light ones. The heart is not the seat of human thought. The elements that make up the world are not earth, air, water, fire, and aether, nor are they wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Virtually the only thing any of them got right was the Greek consensus that the Earth was round, and even that had more to do with Plato’s sphere fetish than with observation of fact.
The Interpretive Traditions could not be used as the basis for technology. Science can and is used as the basis for technology. That’s the crucial difference. As we will see, it has momentous consequences.
(In considering the Interpretive Traditions, we must be open to the idea that their work was entirely useless. Just to give one example, each tradition has an accompanying body of medical practice—and all of them are, by light of what we now know of the human body, completely wrong. It is an open question whether medicine prior to the Unprecedented Era killed more people than it healed. We must remember that it is entirely possible for human beings to spend lives and resources in pursuit of aims that have no existence save in their own minds.)
From their beginnings, the Interpretive Traditions developed
In India, the swift rise and fall of the Maurya hold over most of the subcontinent was followed several centuries later by the Guptas. Besides these two large empires, no native state ever again managed to establish itself over more than a third of India. In the intervals, states took over varying portions. After the rise of Islam, waves of Muslim invaders invaded from the northwest. Indian civilization found itself doing whatever it could just to preserve itself.
For several centuries Buddhism, Jainism, and the Hindu sects competed for the patronage of princes and followers. Following the Mauryas, Buddhism acquired a plurality of followers, but subsequently declined. New Hindu varieties rose up, focused around bhakti, supreme personal devotion to a god. These intensely emotional and popular forms pushed aside the old sramana ways. Buddhism faded away entirely, forgotten in its homeland. The invasions from Muslim lands brought new ideas, but Indian thinkers mainly reacted against them, rather than adopting them. One more syncretic new form was Sikhism, which drew from both Muslim and Hindu traditions while proclaiming itself separate from either.
In China, a rhythm of dynasties developed, each established, then falling into some time of chaos, only to be succeeded by another. A line of tension developed with the nomads of Inner Asia, with invasion a constant threat.
After the fall of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century Indian culture, via Buddhism, flooded into the Chinese sphere, the only time such a major breach ever occurred in the Interpretive Era. From this point, Confucianism, Buddhism and a third new force, the Daoist religion, maneuvered in conversation with Chinese folk practice to form a unique blend. During the 13th century Confucianism, which had declined after the introduction of Buddhism, found itself rejuvenated by a movement similar to that of the European Renaissance.
After the fall of the Macedonian Empire, the Greek West and its Mediterranean cousins found their sphere unified and extended through the mighty Roman Republic/Empire, carrying the ways of Greece, as modified by the Romans, to the very ends of Europe and North Africa.
During the early centuries of the Roman Principate, a strange thing happened. A movement arose that took the Zoroastrian-influenced corpus of Judaism and applied to it the methods of Western Philosophy. That movement was Christianity, and its appeal, whatever that appeal was, caused it to spread throughout the Empire. With three centuries, it grew into an established subculture, powerful enough that an emperor decided to use it as his power base, which caused it to grow further. In time, it became the nigh-universal form of Western thought throughout that sphere (although the Jewish minority, stubborn as always, maintained their traditions even under persecution).
Both Christian and Jewish ideas bounced around the Arabian peninsula in the centuries of Late Antiquity, conversing with local beliefs and emerging in new forms. One of those forms found a political base and quickly expanded out of the region into Roman and Persian territory. Inside of a century, this new cultural region, that of Islam, extended from Spain to Inner Asia.
It could be said that the Islamic Sphere is part of the Western Sphere. Both its religious and philosophical traditions come out of the Western corpus. However, the degree of difference, to my eye, is great enough to think of as a separate sphere, or at the very least that the “Abrahamic Sphere” is composed of two wings, the Christian and the Islamic. In any case, Islam was the last major religion to be founded, and the Islamic interpretive tradition the last to appear.
As the Interpretive Traditions developed, they expanded. The population holding these traditions spread over more of the Earth’s surface, and swelled to a higher proportion of the total number of humans on Earth. Sometimes this was by force, but just as often it was voluntary. The Prince of Kiev, for instance, actually held auditions among Islam, Judaism and Christianity to determine to which world religion (and accompanying cultural sphere) his people would convert. The Indian sphere spread into the Malay Archipelago and Southeast Asia. The Chinese sphere, with the addition of Buddhism, spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The Western sphere spread north over Europe; Islam south into Africa and northeast into Central Asia. Once accomplished, these conversions mostly held, though there were some exceptions—the Malay region, for example, converted from the Indian cultural sphere to the Islamic. However, no region or polity, having accepted any Interpretive Tradition, reverted to the state of having no Interpretive Tradition at all.
Technological change happened during the Era of the Interpretive Traditions. But technology improved less on knowledge than on empirical trial-and-error. Generation of brilliant craftsmen honed their arts as far as they could while never understanding what, exactly, they were causing to occur. Though at times one of the cultural spheres fell behind or sprang ahead in terms of economic development (as during the Dark Ages in Western Europe, or, conversely, the commercial surge of Song Dynasty China), none ever got substantially ahead of the others. In the same way, none of the cultural spheres ever substantially outpaced any of the others in understanding of objective reality.
By the year 1500, all four major interpretive traditions were comfortably ensconced, interwoven with the societies that propounded them. Individual institutions, such as the Papacy, might have problems, but to the traditions as a whole, there were no threats. Such had been the state of affairs for centuries. At that point, there was no sign that anything would ever have to substantially change.
In philosophy, there can be viciously vibrant thinkers, people who weave visions of ontology, technology, religion, science and the occult, those who are, as Nietzsche sang, a terrible explosive endangering everything. I’ve seen these folks. They’re very exciting.
However, it may be that the universe is really boring. In fact, I think there’s a good chance of it. The universe, humanity included, is not interesting. It is merely an assortment of particles and forces, coming from accident and winding down to a icy cold nothing. Anything “interesting” about it is an illusion of the human ego. A toad fart on a distant moon, dispersed in solar wind.
But if a philosopher were to say that, they’d be really boring. As boring as the universe they were accurately portraying. So no one would pay any attention to them. Everyone would naturally, and rightly, gravitate toward the interesting people.
Who would be wrong. But it wouldn’t matter.
And the facts of All That is the Case may be just that.
To declare a philosophy before the world is akin to declaring what you think are the hidden cards in the board game Clue.
All guesses so far have been wrong. No one has won the game.