Dark Triad Domination

It has been noted that some indigenous languages have words that can be interpreted as what, in English, is referred to as psychopathic, sociopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian, etc. This is the region of the Dark Triad. One Inuit language has the word ‘kunlangeta‘, meaning “his mind knows what to do but he does not do it.” That could be thought of as describing a psychopath’s possession of cognitive empathy while lacking affective empathy. Or consider the Yoruba word ‘arankan‘ that “is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded.”

These are tribal societies. Immense value is placed on kinship loyalty, culture of trust, community survival, collective well-being, and public good. Even though they aren’t oppressive authoritarian states, the modern Western notion of hyper-individualism wouldn’t make much sense within these close-knit groups. Sacrifice of individual freedom and rights is a given under such social conditions, since individuals are intimately related to one another and physically dependent upon one another. Actually, it wouldn’t likely be experienced as sacrifice at all since it would simply be the normal state of affairs, the shared reality within which they exist — their identity being social rather than individual.

This got me thinking about psychopathy and modern society. Research has found that, at least in some Western countries, the rate of psychopathy is not only high in prison populations but equally as high among the economic and political elite: “Studies say psychopaths constitute about 1.2% of the general population. About 16% of the prison population are said to be psychopaths. A research study in Australia estimated that twenty-one percent of CEOs are psychopaths” (Tom Bunn, The People Who Govern Us: Are They Psychopaths?). My father left upper management in a major corporation because of how ruthless was the backstabbing, a win at all costs Social Darwinism. This is what defines a country like the United States, as these social dominators are the most revered and emulated individuals. Psychopaths and such, instead of being eliminated or banished, are promoted and empowered.

What occurred to me is the difference for tribal societies is that hyper-individualism is seen not only as abnormal but dangerous and so intolerable. Maybe the heavy focus on individualism in the modern West inevitably leads to the psychopathological traits of the Dark Triad. As such, that would mean there is something severely abnormal and dysfunctional about Western societies (WEIRD – Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Psychopaths, in particular, are the ultimate individualists and so they will be the ultimate winners in an individualistic culture — their relentless confidence and ruthless competitiveness, their Machiavellian manipulations and persuasive charm supporting a narcissistic optimism and leading to success.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. First off, there might be something about urbanization itself or a correlated factor that exacerbates mental illness. Studies have found, for example, an increase in psychosis across the recent generations of city-dwellers — precisely during the period of populations being further urbanized and concentrated. It reminds one of the study done on crowding large numbers of rats in a small contained cage until they turned anti-social, aggressive, and violent. If these rats were humans, we might describe this behavior in terms of psychopathy or sociopathy.

There is a second thing to consider, as discussed by Barbara Oakley in her book Evil Genes (pp. 265-6). About rural populations, she writes that, “Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologist David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures.” And she continues:

“But what about more urban environments? Cooke’s research has shown, surprisingly, that there are more psychopaths from Scotland prisons of England and Wales than there are in Scottish prisons. (Clearly, this is not to say that the Scottish are more given to psychopathy than anyone else.) Studies of migration records showed that many Scottish psychopaths had migrated to the more populated metropolitan areas of the south. Cooke hypothesized that, in the more crowded metropolitan areas, the psychopath could attack or steal with little danger that the victim would recognize or catch him. Additionally, the psychopath’s impulsivity and need for stimulation could also play a role in propelling the move to the dazzling delights of the big city — he would have no affection for family and friends to keep him tethered back home. Densely populated areas, apparently, are the equivalent for psychopaths of ponds and puddles for malarial mosquitoes.”

As Oakley’s book is on genetics, she goes in an unsurprising direction in pointing out how some violent individuals have been able to pass on their genetics to large numbers of descendants. The most famous example being Genghis Khan. She writes that (p. 268),

“These recent discoveries reinforce the findings of the anthropologist Laura Betzig. Her 1986 Despotism and Differential Reproduction provides a cornucopia of evidence documenting the increased capacity of those with more power — and frequently, Machiavellian tendencies — to have offspring. […] As Machiavellian researcher Richard Christie and his colleague Florence Geis aptly note: “[H]igh population density and highly competitive environments have been found to increase the use of antisocial and Machiavellian strategies, and my in fact foster the ability of those who possess those strategies to reproduce.” […] Beltzig’s ultimte point is not that the corrupt attain power but that those corrupted individuals who achieved power in preindustrial agricultural societies had far more opportunity to reproduce, generally through polygyny, and pass on their genes. In fact, the more Machiavellian, that is, despotic, a man might be, the more polygynous he tended to be — grabbing and keeping for himself as many beautiful women as he could. Some researchers have posited that envy is itself a useful, possibly geneticall linked trait, “serving a key role in survival, motivating achievement, serving the conscience of self and other, and alerting us to inequities that, if fueled, can lead to esclaated violence.” Thus, genese related to envy — not to mention other more problematic temperaments — might have gradually found increased prevalence in such environments.”

That kind of genetic hypothesis is highly speculative, to say the least. Their could be some truth value in them, if one wanted to give the benefit of the doubt, but we have no direct evidence that such is the case. At present, these speculations are yet more just-so stories and they will remain so until we can better control confounding factors in order to directly ascertain causal factors. Anyway, genetic determinism in this simplistic sense is largely moot at this point, as the science is moving on into new understandings. Besides being unhelpful, such speculations are unnecessary. We already have plenty of social science research that proves changing environmental conditions alters social behavior — besides what I’ve already mentioned, there is such examples as the fascinating rat park research. There is no debate to be had about the immense influence of external influences, such as factors of socioeconomic class and high inequality: Power Causes Brain Damage by Justin Renteria, How Wealth Reduces Compassion by Daisy Grewal, Got Money? Then You Might Lack Compassion by Jeffrey Kluger, Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity by Ken Stern, Rich People Literally See the World Differently by Drake Baer, The rich really DO ignore the poor by Cheyenne Macdonald, Propagandopoly: Monopoly as an Ideological Tool by Naomi Russo, A ‘Rigged’ Game Of Monopoly Reveals How Feeling Wealthy Changes Our Behavior [TED VIDEO] by Planetsave, etc.

Knowing the causes is important. But knowing the consequences is just as important. No matter what increases Dark Triad behaviors, they can have widespread and long-lasting repurcussions, maybe even permanently altering entire societies in how they function. Following her speculations, Oakley gets down to the nitty gritty (p. 270):

“Questions we might reasonably ask are — has the percentage of Machiavellians and other more problematic personality types increased in the human population, or in certain human populations, since the advent of agriculture? And if the answer is yes, does the increase in these less savory types change a group’s culture? In other words, is there a tipping point of Machiavellian and emote control behavior that can subtly or not so subtly affect the way the members of a society interact? Certainly a high expectation of meeting a “cheater,” for example, would profoundly impact the trust that appears to form the grease of modern democratic societies and might make the development of democratic processes in certain areas more difficult. Crudely put, an increase in successfully sinister types from 2 percent, say, to 4 percent of a population would double the pool of Machiavellians vying for power. And it is the people in power who set the emotional tone, perhaps through mirroring and emotional contagion, for their followers and those around them. As Judith Rich Harris points out, higher-status members of a group are looked at more, which means they have more influence on how a person becomes socialized.”

The key factor in much of this seems to be concentration. Simply concentrating populations, humans or rats, leads to social problems related to mental health issues. On top of that, there is the troubling concern of what kind of people are being concentrated and where they are being concentrated — psychopaths being concentrated not only in big cities and prisons but worse still in positions of wealth and power, authority and influence. We live in a society that creates the conditions for the Dark Triad to increase and flourish. This is how the success of those born psychopaths encourages others to follow their example in developing into sociopaths, which in turn makes the Dark Triad mindset into a dominant ethos within mainstream culture.

The main thing on my mind is individualism. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, such as in terms of the bundle theory of the mind and the separate individual, connected to my long term interest in community and the social nature of humans. In relation to individualism, there is the millennia-old cultural divide between Germanic ‘freedom‘ and Roman ‘liberty‘. But because Anglo-American society mixed up the two, this became incorrectly framed by Isaiah Berlin in terms of positive and negative. In Contemporary Political Theory, J. C. Johari writes that (p. 266), “Despite this all, it may be commented that though Berlin advances the argument that the two aspects of liberty cannot be so distinguished in practical terms, one may differ from him and come to hold that his ultimate preference is for the defence of the negative view of liberty. Hence, he obviously belongs to the category of Mill and Hayek.”  He states this “is evident from his emphatic affirmation” in the following assertion by Berlin:

“The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense or else metaphor. To strive to be free is to seek to remove obstacles; to struggle for personal freedom is to seek to curb interference, exploitation, enslavement by men whose ends are theirs, not one’s own. Freedom, at least in its political sense, is coterminous with the absence of bullying or domination.”

Berlin makes a common mistake here. Liberty was defined by not being a slave in a slave-based society, which is what existed in the Roman Empire. But that isn’t freedom, an entirely different term with an etymology related to ‘friend’ and with a meaning that indicated membership in an autonomous community — such freedom meant not being under the oppression of a slave-based society (e.g., German tribes remaining independent of the Roman Empire). Liberty, not freedom, was determined by one’s individual status of lacking oppression in an oppressive social order. This is why liberty has a negative connotation for it is what you lack, rather than what you possess. A homeless man starving alone on the street with no friend in the world to help him and no community to support him, such a man has liberty but not freedom. He is ‘free’ to do what he wants under those oppressive conditions and constraints, as no one is physically detaining him.

This notion of liberty has had a purchase on the American mind because of the history of racial and socioeconomic oppression. After the Civil War, blacks had negative liberty in no longer being slaves but they definitely did not have positive freedom through access to resources and opportunities, instead being shackled by systemic and institutional racism that maintained their exploited status as a permanent underclass — along with slavery overtly continuing in other forms through false criminal charges leading to prison labor, such that the criminal charges justified blaming the individual for their own lack of freedom which maintained the outward perception of negative liberty. Other populations such as Native Americans faced a similar dilemma. But is one actually free when the chains holding one down are invisible but still all too real? If liberty is an abstraction detached from lived experience and real world results, of what value is such liberty? The nature of negative liberty has always had a superficial and illusory quality about it in how it is maintained through public narrative. Unlike freedom, liberty as a social construct is highly effective as a tool for social control and oppression.

This point is made by another critic of Berlin’s perspective. “It is hard for me to see that Berlin is consistent on this point,” writes L. H. Crocker (Positive Liberty, p. 69). “Surely not all alterable human failures to open doors are cases of bullying. After all, it is often through neglect that opportunities fail to be created for the disadvantaged. It is initially more plausible that all failures to open doors are the result of domination in some sense or another.” I can’t help but think that Dark Triad individuals would feel right at home in a culture of liberty where individuals have the ‘freedom’ to oppress and be oppressed. Embodying this sick mentality, Margaret Thatcher once gave perfect voice to the sociopathic worldview — speaking of the victims of disadvantage and desperation, she claimed that, “They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.” That is to say, there is no freedom.

The question, then, is whether or not we want freedom. A society is only free to the degree that as a society freedom is demanded. To deny society itself is an attempt to deny the very basis of freedom, but that is just a trick of rhetoric. A free people know their own freedom by acting freely, even if that means fighting the oppressors who seek to deny that freedom. Thatcher intentionally conflated society and government, something never heard in the clear-eyed wisdom of a revolutionary social democrat like Thomas Paine“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” These words expressed the values of negative liberty as made perfect sense for someone living in an empire built on colonialism, corporatism, and slavery. But the same words gave hint to a cultural memory of Germanic positive freedom. It wasn’t a principled libertarian hatred of governance, rather the principled radical protest against a sociopathic social order. As Paine made clear, this unhappy situation wasn’t the natural state of humanity, neither inevitable nor desirable, much less tolerable.

The Inuits would find a way for psychopaths to ‘accidentally’ fall off the ice, never to trouble the community again. As for the American revolutionaries, they preferred more overt methods, from tar and feathering to armed revolt. So, now to regain our freedom as a people, what recourse do we have in abolishing the present Dark Triad domination?

* * *

Here are some pieces on individualism and community, as contrasted between far different societies. These involve issues of mental health (from depression to addiction), and social problems (from authoritarianism to capitalist realism) — as well as other topics, including carnival and revolution.

Self, Other, & World

Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:
The Case for an Ontological Turn
by Greg Anderson

“[…] This ontological individualism would have been scarcely intelligible to, say, the inhabitants of precolonial Bali or Hawai’i, where the divine king or chief, the visible incarnation of the god Lono, was “the condition of possibility of the community,” and thus “encompasse[d] the people in his own person, as a projection of his own being,” such that his subjects were all “particular instances of the chief’s existence.” 12 It would have been barely imaginable, for that matter, in the world of medieval Europe, where conventional wisdom proverbially figured sovereign and subjects as the head and limbs of a single, primordial “body politic” or corpus mysticum. 13 And the idea of a natural, presocial individual would be wholly confounding to, say, traditional Hindus and the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea, who objectify all persons as permeable, partible “dividuals” or “social microcosms,” as provisional embodiments of all the actions, gifts, and accomplishments of others that have made their lives possible.1

“We alone in the modern capitalist west, it seems, regard individuality as the true, primordial estate of the human person. We alone believe that humans are always already unitary, integrated selves, all born with a natural, presocial disposition to pursue a rationally calculated self-interest and act competitively upon our no less natural, no less presocial rights to life, liberty, and private property. We alone are thus inclined to see forms of sociality, like relations of kinship, nationality, ritual, class, and so forth, as somehow contingent, exogenous phenomena, not as essential constituents of our very subjectivity, of who or what we really are as beings. And we alone believe that social being exists to serve individual being, rather than the other way round. Because we alone imagine that individual humans are free-standing units in the first place, “unsocially sociable” beings who ontologically precede whatever “society” our self-interest prompts us to form at any given time.”

What Kinship Is-And Is Not
by Marshall Sahlins, p. 2

“In brief, the idea of kinship in question is “mutuality of being”: people who are intrinsic to one another’s existence— thus “mutual person(s),” “life itself,” “intersubjective belonging,” “transbodily being,” and the like. I argue that “mutuality of being” will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether “consanguineal” or “affinal,” as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, “mutuality of being” will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds— of the kind often called “mystical”— whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.”

Music and Dance on the Mind

We aren’t as different from ancient humanity as it might seem. Our societies have changed drastically, suppressing old urges and potentialities. Yet the same basic human nature still lurks within us, hidden in the underbrush along the well trod paths of the mind. The hive mind is what the human species naturally falls back upon, from millennia of collective habit. The problem we face is we’ve lost the ability to express well our natural predisposition toward group-mindedness, too easily getting locked into groupthink, a tendency easily manipulated.

Considering this, we have good reason to be wary, not knowing what we could tap into. We don’t understand our own minds and so we naively underestimate the power of humanity’s social nature. With the right conditions, hiving is easy to elicit but hard to control or shut down. The danger is that the more we idolize individuality the more prone we become to what is so far beyond the individual. It is the glare of hyper-individualism that casts the shadow of authoritarianism.

Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.

We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.

All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough, Kindle Locations 3337-3342

“And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.”

Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher, pp. 18-20

“[…] In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

“The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

[…] in the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (p. 20):

“[…] But incoherence at the level of what Brown calls ‘political rationality’ does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, and, although they proceeded from very different guiding assumptions, Brown argues that neoliberalism and neoconservatism worked together to undermine the public sphere and democracy, producing a governed citizen who looks to find solutions in products, not political processes. As Brown claims,

“the choosing subject and the governed subject are far from opposites … Frankfurt school intellectuals and, before them, Plato theorized the open compatibility between individual choice and political domination, and depicted democratic subjects who are available to political tyranny or authoritarianism precisely because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that they mistake for freedom.”

“Extrapolating a little from Brown’s arguments, we might hypothesize that what held the bizarre synthesis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism together was their shared objects of abomination: the so called Nanny State and its dependents. Despite evincing an anti-statist rhetoric, neoliberalism is in practice not opposed to the state per se – as the bank bail-outs of 2008 demonstrated – but rather to particular uses of state funds; meanwhile, neoconservatism’s strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility.”

[…] what Robin describes touches upon my recent post about the morality-punishment link. As I pointed out, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation imagines the possibility of a social order that serves humans, instead of the other way around. I concluded that, “Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.” The neoliberal vision subordinates the individual to the moral order. The purpose of forcing the individual into a permanent state of anxiety and fear is to preoccupy their minds and their time, to redirect all the resources of the individual back into the system itself. The emphasis on the individual isn’t because individualism is important as a central ideal but because the individual is the weak point that must be carefully managed. Also, focusing on the individual deflects our gaze from the structure and its attendant problems.

This brings me to how this relates to corporations in neoliberalism (Fisher, pp. 69-70):

“For this reason, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two step procedure – since structure will often be invoked (either implicitly or openly) precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished. At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals – but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor. And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by/ expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”

Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

The modern self is not normal, by historical and evolutionary standards. Extremely unnatural and unhealthy conditions have developed, our minds having correspondingly grown malformed like the binding of feet. Our hyper-individuality is built on disconnection and, in place of human connection, we take on various addictions, not just to drugs and alcohol but also to work, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and on and on. The more we cling to an unchanging sense of bounded self, the more burdened we become trying to hold it all together, hunched over with the load we carry on our shoulders. We are possessed by the identities we possess.

This addiction angle interests me. Our addiction is the result of our isolated selves. Yet even as our addiction attempts to fill emptiness, to reach out beyond ourselves toward something, anything, a compulsive relationship devoid of the human, we isolate ourselves further. As Johann Hari explained in Chasing the Scream (Kindle Locations 3521-3544):

There were three questions I had never understood. Why did the drug war begin when it did, in the early twentieth century? Why were people so receptive to Harry Anslinger’s message? And once it was clear that it was having the opposite effect to the one that was intended— that it was increasing addiction and supercharging crime— why was it intensified, rather than abandoned?

I think Bruce Alexander’s breakthrough may hold the answer.

“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them,” Bruce explained in a lecture in London31 in 2011. “The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”

A sense of dislocation has been spreading through our societies like a bone cancer throughout the twentieth century. We all feel it: we have become richer, but less connected to one another. Countless studies prove this is more than a hunch, but here’s just one: the average number of close friends a person has has been steadily falling. We are increasingly alone, so we are increasingly addicted. “We’re talking about learning to live with the modern age,” Bruce believes. The modern world has many incredible benefits, but it also brings with it a source of deep stress that is unique: dislocation. “Being atomized and fragmented and all on [your] own— that’s no part of human evolution and it’s no part of the evolution of any society,” he told me.

And then there is another kicker. At the same time that our bonds with one another have been withering, we are told— incessantly, all day, every day, by a vast advertising-shopping machine— to invest our hopes and dreams in a very different direction: buying and consuming objects. Gabor tells me: “The whole economy is based around appealing to and heightening every false need and desire, for the purpose of selling products. So people are always trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in products.” This is a key reason why, he says, “we live in a highly addicted society.” We have separated from one another and turned instead to things for happiness— but things can only ever offer us the thinnest of satisfactions.

This is where the drug war comes in. These processes began in the early twentieth century— and the drug war followed soon after. The drug war wasn’t just driven, then, by a race panic. It was driven by an addiction panic— and it had a real cause. But the cause wasn’t a growth in drugs. It was a growth in dislocation.

The drug war began when it did because we were afraid of our own addictive impulses, rising all around us because we were so alone. So, like an evangelical preacher who rages against gays because he is afraid of his own desire to have sex with men, are we raging against addicts because we are afraid of our own growing vulnerability to addiction?

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

Another thing happened with suppression of festivities. Local community began to break down as power became centralized in far off places and the classes became divided, which Ehrenreich details. The aristocracy used to be inseparable from their feudal roles and this meant participating in local festivities where, as part of the celebration, a king might wrestle with a blacksmith. As the divides between people grew into vast chasms, the social identities held and social roles played became hardened into place. This went along with a growing inequality of wealth and power. And as research has shown, wherever there is inequality also there is found high rates of social problems and mental health issues.

It’s maybe unsurprising that what followed from this was colonial imperialism and a racialized social order, class conflict and revolution. A society formed that was simultaneously rigid in certain ways and destabilized in others. The individuals became increasingly atomized and isolated. With the loss of kinship and community, the cheap replacement we got is identity politics. The natural human bonds are lost or constrained. Social relations are narrowed down. Correspondingly, our imaginations are hobbled and we can’t envision society being any other way. Most tragic, we forget that human society used to be far different, a collective amnesia forcing us into a collective trance. Our entire sense of reality is held in the vice grip of historical moment we find ourselves in.

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

A wide variety of research and data is pointing to a basic conclusion. Environmental conditions (physical, social, political, and economic) are of penultimate importance. So, why do we treat as sick individuals those who suffer the consequences of the externalized costs of society?

Here is the sticking point. Systemic and collective problems in some ways are the easiest to deal with. The problems, once understood, are essentially simple and their solutions tend to be straightforward. Even so, the very largeness of these problems make them hard for us to confront. We want someone to blame. But who do we blame when the entire society is dysfunctional?

If we recognize the problems as symptoms, we are forced to acknowledge our collective agency and shared fate. For those who understand this, they are up against countervailing forces that maintain the status quo. Even if a psychiatrist realizes that their patient is experiencing the symptoms of larger social issues, how is that psychiatrist supposed to help the patient? Who is going to diagnose the entire society and demand it seek rehabilitation?

Winter Season and Holiday Spirit

With this revelry and reversal follows, along with licentiousness and transgression, drunkenness and bawdiness, fun and games, song and dance, feasting and festival. It is a time for celebration of this year’s harvest and blessing of next year’s harvest. Bounty and community. Death and rebirth. The old year must be brought to a close and the new year welcomed. This is the period when gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons must be solicited, honored, appeased, or driven out. The noise of song, gunfire, and such serves many purposes.

In the heart of winter, some of the most important religious events took place. This includes Christmas, of course, but also the various celebrations around the same time. A particular winter festival season that began on All Hallows Eve (i.e., Halloween) ended with the Twelfth Night. This included carnival-like revelry and a Lord of Misrule. There was also the tradition of going house to house, of singing and pranks, of demanding treats/gifts and threats if they weren’t forthcoming. It was a time of community and sharing, and those who didn’t willingly participate might be punished. Winter, a harsh time of need, was when the group took precedence. […]

I’m also reminded of the Santa Claus as St. Nick. This invokes an image of jollity and generosity. And this connects to wintertime as period of community needs and interdependence, of sharing and gifting, of hospitality and kindness. This includes enforcement of social norms which easily could transform into the challenging of social norms.

It’s maybe in this context we should think of the masked vigilantes participating in the Boston Tea Party. Like carnival, there had developed a tradition of politics out-of-doors, often occurring on the town commons. And on those town commons, large trees became identified as liberty trees — under which people gathered, upon which notices were nailed, and sometimes where effigies were hung. This was an old tradition that originated in Northern Europe, where a tree was the center of a community, the place of law-giving and community decision-making. In Europe, the commons had become the place of festivals and celebrations, such as carnival. And so the commons came to be the site of revolutionary fervor as well.

The most famous Liberty Tree was a great elm near the Boston common. It was there that many consider the birth of the American Revolution, as it was the site of early acts of defiance. This is where the Sons of Liberty met, organized, and protested. This would eventually lead to that even greater act of defiance on Saturnalia eve, the Boston Tea Party. One of the participants in the Boston Tea Party and later in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Sprague, is buried in the Boston Common.

There is something many don’t understand about the American Revolution. It wasn’t so much a fight against oppression in general and certainly not about mere taxation in particular. What angered those Bostonians and many other colonists was that they had become accustomed to community-centered self-governance and this was being challenged. The tea tax wasn’t just an imposition of imperial power but also colonial corporatism. The East India Company was not acting as a moral member of the community, in its taking advantage by monopolizing trade. Winter had long been the time of year when bad actors in the community would be punished. Selfishness was not to be tolerated.

Those Boston Tea Partiers were simply teaching a lesson about the Christmas spirit. And in the festival tradition, they chose the guise of Native Americans which to their minds would have symbolized freedom and an inversion of power. What revolution meant to them was a demand for return of what was taken from them, making the world right again. It was revelry with a purpose.

* * *

As addiction is key, below is some other stuff in terms of individualism and social problems, mental health and abnormal psychology. It seems that high rates of addiction are caused by the same and/or related factors involved in depression, anxiety, dark triad, etc. It’s a pattern of dysfunction found most strongly in WEIRD societies and increasingly in other developed societies, such as seen in Japan as the traditional social order breaks down (e.g., increasing number of elderly Japanese dying alone and forgotten). This pattern is seen clearly in the weirdest of WEIRD, such as with sociopathic organizations like Amazon which I bet has high prevalence of addiction among employees.

Drug addiction makes possible human adaptation to inhuman conditions. It’s part of a victimization cycle that allows victimizers to not only take power but to enforce the very conditions of victimization. The first step is isolating the victim by creating a fractured society of dislocation, disconnection, and division. Psychopaths rule by imposing a sociopathic social order, a sociopathic economic and political system. This is the environment in which the dark triad flourishes and, in coping with the horror of it, so many turn to addiction to numb the pain and distress, anxiety and fear. Addiction is the ‘normal’ state of existence under the isolated individualism of social Darwinism and late stage capitalism.

Addiction is the expression of disconnection, the embodiment of isolation. Without these anti-social conditions, the dark triad could never take hold and dominate all of society.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
~ Johann Harri

“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

The New Individualism
by Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert
pp. 117-118

Giddens tells us that reflexivity, powered by processes of globalization, stands closest to autonomy. In a world in which tradition has more thoroughly been swept away than ever before, contingency appears unavoidable. And with contingency comes the potential to remake the world and negotiate lifestyle options — about who to be, how to act, whom to love and how to live together. The promised autonomy of reflexivity is, however, also a problem, since choice necessarily brings with it ambivalence, doubt and uncertainty. There is no way out of this paradox, though of the various, necessarily unsuccessful, attempts people make to avoid the dilemmas of reflexivity Giddens identifies ‘addiction’ as being of key importance to the present age. As he writes:

Once institutional reflexivity reaches into virtually all parts of everyday social life, almost any pattern or habit can become an addiction. The idea of addiction makes little sense in a traditional culture, where it is normal to do today what one did yesterday . . . Addictions, then, are a negative index of the degree to which the reflexive project of the self moves to the centre-stage in late modernity.

Reflexivity’s promise of freedom carries with it the burden of continual choice and deals with all the complexities of emotional life. ‘Every addiction’, writes Giddens, ‘is a defensive reaction, and an escape, a recognition of lack of autonomy that casts a shadow over the competence of the self.’

How Individualism Undermines Our Health Care
from Shared Justice

Addictions Originate in Unhappiness—and Compassion Could Be the Cure
by Gabor Maté

Dislocation Theory of Addiction
by Bruce K. Alexander

Addiction, Environmental Crisis, and Global Capitalism
by Bruce K. Alexander

Healing Addiction Through Community: A Much Longer Road Than it Seems?
by Bruce K. Alexander

What Lab experiments Can Tell Us About The Cause And Cure For Addiction
by Mark

#7 Theory of Dislocation
by Ross Banister

‘The globalisation of addiction’ by Bruce Alexander
review by Mike Jay

The cost of the loneliness epidemic
from Broccoli & Brains

The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think
by Johann Hari

The Politics of Loneliness
by Michael Bader

America’s deadly epidemic of loneliness
by Michael Bader

Addiction and Modernity: A Comment on a Global Theory of Addiction
by Robert Granfield

The Addicted Narcissist: How Substance Addiction Contributes to Pathological Narcissism With Implications for Treatment
by Kim Laurence

Wordplay Schmordplay

What Do You Call Words Like Wishy-Washy or Mumbo Jumbo?

Words like wishy-washy or mumbo-jumbo, or any words that contain two identical or similar parts (a segment, syllable, or morpheme), are called reduplicative words or tautonyms. The process of forming such words is known as reduplication. In many cases, the first word is a real word, while the second part (sometimes nonsensical) is invented to create a rhyme and to create emphasis. Most reduplicative begin as hyphenated words, and through very common usage, eventually lose the hype to become single words. Regardless of their hyphenation, they underscore the playfulness of the English language.

Reduplication isn’t just jibber-jabber

There are several kinds of reduplication. One type replaces a vowel while keeping the initial consonant, as in “flip-flop,” “pish-posh,” and “ping-pong.” Another type keeps the vowel but replaces that first sound, as in “namby-pamby,” “hanky-panky,” “razzle-dazzle,” and “timey-wimey,” a word used by Dr. Who fans for time-travel shenanigans. Reduplication doesn’t get any simpler than when the whole word is repeated, like when you pooh-pooh a couple’s attempt to dress matchy-matchy. My favorite type is “schm” reduplication, though some might say “Favorite, schmavorite!” All the types show that redundancy isn’t a problem in word-making. Grant Barrett, host of the public radio show “A Way with Words,” notes via e-mail that even the word “reduplication” has an unnecessary frill: “I’ve always liked the ‘re’ in ‘reduplicate.’ We’re doing it again! It’s right there in the word!”

Reduplication

Reduplication in linguistics is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word (or part of it) or even the whole word is repeated exactly or with a slight change.

Reduplication is used in inflections to convey a grammatical function, such as plurality, intensification, etc., and in lexical derivation to create new words. It is often used when a speaker adopts a tone more “expressive” or figurative than ordinary speech and is also often, but not exclusively, iconic in meaning. Reduplication is found in a wide range of languages and language groups, though its level of linguistic productivity varies.

Reduplication is the standard term for this phenomenon in the linguistics literature. Other terms that are occasionally used include cloningdoublingduplicationrepetition, and tautonym when it is used in biological taxonomies, such as “Bison bison”.

The origin of this usage of tautonym is uncertain, but it has been suggested that it is of relatively recent derivation.

Reduplication

The coinage of new words and phrases into English has been greatly enhanced by the pleasure we get from playing with words. There are numerous alliterative and rhyming idioms, which are a significant feature of the language. These aren’t restricted to poets and Cockneys; everyone uses them. We start in the nursery with choo-choos, move on in adult life to hanky-panky and end up in the nursing home having a sing-song.

The repeating of parts of words to make new forms is called reduplication. There are various categories of this: rhyming, exact and ablaut (vowel substitution). Examples, are respectively, okey-dokey, wee-wee and zig-zag. The impetus for the coining of these seems to be nothing more than the enjoyment of wordplay. The words that make up these reduplicated idioms often have little meaning in themselves and only appear as part of a pair. In other cases, one word will allude to some existing meaning and the other half of the pair is added for effect or emphasis.

New coinages have often appeared at times of national confidence, when an outgoing and playful nature is expressed in language; for example, during the 1920s, following the First World War, when many nonsense word pairs were coined – the bee’s knees, heebie-jeebies etc. That said, the introduction of such terms begin with Old English and continues today. Willy-nilly is over a thousand years old. Riff-raff dates from the 1400s and helter-skelter, arsy-versy (a form of vice-versa), and hocus-pocus all date from the 16th century. Coming up to date we have bling-bling, boob-tube and hip-hop. I’ve not yet recorded a 21st century reduplication. Bling-bling comes very close but is 20th century. ‘Bieber Fever’ is certainly 21st century, but isn’t quite a reduplication.

A hotchpotch of reduplication

Argy-bargy and lovey-dovey lie on opposite ends of the interpersonal scale, but they have something obvious in common: both are reduplicatives.

Reduplication is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-ayemishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit.

Reduplicatives emerge early in our language-learning lives. As infants in the babbling phase we reduplicate syllables to utter mama, dada, nana and papa, which is where these pet names come from. Later we use moo-moo, choo-choo, wee-wee and bow-wow (or similar) to refer to familiar things. The repetition, as well as being fun, might help children develop and practise the pronunciation of sounds.

As childhood progresses, reduplicatives remain popular, popping up in children’s books, songs and rhymes. Many characters in children’s stories have reduplicated names: Humpty Dumpty, Chicken Licken and Handy Andy, to name a few.

The language rule we know – but don’t know we know

Ding dong King Kong

Well, in fact, the Big Bad Wolf is just obeying another great linguistic law that every native English speaker knows, but doesn’t know that they know. And it’s the same reason that you’ve never listened to hop-hip music.

You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one.

All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip. Every second your watch (or the grandfather clock in the hall makes the same sound) but we say tick-tock, never tock-tick. You will never eat a Kat Kit bar. The bells in Frère Jaques will forever chime ‘ding dang dong’.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists, it might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.

Jibber Jabber: The Unwritten Ablaut Reduplication Rule

In all these ablaut reduplication word pairs, the key vowels appear in a specific order: either i before a, or i before o.

In linguistic terms, you could say that a high vowel comes before a low vowel. The i sound is considered a high vowel because of the location of the tongue relative to the mouth in American speech. The a and o sounds are low vowels.

See-saw doesn’t use the letter i, but the high-vowel-before-low-vowel pattern still applies.

This Weird Grammar Rule is Why We Say “Flip Flop” Instead of “Flop Flip”

As to why this I-A-O pattern has such a firm hold in our linguistic history, nobody can say. Forsyth calls it a topic of “endless debate” among linguists that may originate in the arcane movements of the human tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. Whatever the case, the world’s English speakers are on-board, and you will never catch Lucy accusing Charlie Brown of being washy-wishy.

Reduplicative Words

Ricochet Word

wishy-washy, hanky panky – name for this type of word-formation?

argle-bargle

Easy-Peasy

Double Trouble

English Ryming Compound Words

Rhyming Compounds

Reduplicates

REDUPLICATION

English gitaigo: Flip-Flop Words

Arete: History and Etymology

Arete (moral virtue)
Wikipedia

Arete (Greekἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”.[1] The term may also mean “moral virtue”.[1] In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.

The term from Homeric times onwards is not gender specific. Homer applies the term of both the Greek and Trojan heroes as well as major female figures, such as Penelope, the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus. In the Homeric poems, Arete is frequently associated with bravery, but more often with effectiveness. The man or woman of Arete is a person of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties—strength, bravery and wit—to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, then, Arete involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans.

In some contexts, Arete is explicitly linked with human knowledge, where the expressions “virtue is knowledge” and “Arete is knowledge” are used interchangeably. The highest human potential is knowledge and all other human abilities are derived from this central capacity. If Arete is knowledge and study, the highest human knowledge is knowledge about knowledge itself; in this light, the theoretical study of human knowledge, which Aristotle called “contemplation”, is the highest human ability and happiness.[2]

History

The Ancient Greeks applied the term to anything: for example, the excellence of a chimney, the excellence of a bull to be bred and the excellence of a man. The meaning of the word changes depending on what it describes, since everything has its own peculiar excellence; the arete of a man is different from the arete of a horse. This way of thinking comes first from Plato, where it can be seen in the Allegory of the Cave.[3] In particular, the aristocratic class was presumed, essentially by definition, to be exemplary of arete: “The root of the word is the same as aristos, the word which shows superlative ability and superiority, and aristos was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility.”[4]

By the 5th and 4th centuries BC, arete as applied to men had developed to include quieter virtues, such as dikaiosyne (justice) and sophrosyne (self-restraint). Plato attempted to produce a moral philosophy that incorporated this new usage,[5] but it was in the work of Aristotle that the doctrine of arete found its fullest flowering. Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean is a paradigm example of his thinking.

Arete has also been used by Plato when talking about athletic training and also the education of young boys. Stephen G. Miller delves into this usage in his book “Ancient Greek Athletics”. Aristotle is quoted as deliberating between education towards arete “…or those that are theoretical”.[6] Educating towards arete in this sense means that the boy would be educated towards things that are useful in life. However, even Plato himself says that arete is not something that can be agreed upon. He says, “Nor is there even an agreement about what constitutes arete, something that leads logically to a disagreement about the appropriate training for arete.”[7] To say that arete has a common definition of excellence or fulfillment may be an overstatement simply because it was very difficult to pinpoint arete, much less the proper ways to go about obtaining it. […]

Homer

In Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, “arete” is used mainly to describe heroes and nobles and their mobile dexterity, with special reference to strength and courage, but it is not limited to this. Penelope‘s arete, for example, relates to co-operation, for which she is praised by Agamemnon. The excellence of the gods generally included their power, but, in the Odyssey (13.42), the gods can grant excellence to a life, which is contextually understood to mean prosperity. Arete was also the name of King Alcinous‘s wife.

According to Bernard Knox‘s notes found in the Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey, “arete” is also associated with the Greek word for “pray”, araomai.[8]

All Things Shining
by Hubert Dreyfus
pp. 61-63

Homer’s epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life, that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being.6 Many admirers of Greek culture have attempted to define this notion, but success here requires avoiding two prominent temptations. There is the temptation to patronize that we have already mentioned. But there is also a temptation to read a modern sensibility into Homer’s time. One standard translation of the Greek word arete as “virtue” runs the risk of this kind of retroactive reading: for any attempt to interpret the Homeric Greek notion of human excellence in terms of “virtue”—especially if one hears in this word its typical Christian or even Roman overtones—is bound to go astray. Excellence in the Greek sense involves neither the Christian notion of humility and love nor the Roman ideal of stoic adherence to one’s duty.7 Instead, excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one’s sense of gratitude and wonder.

Nietzsche was one of the first to understand that Homeric excellence bears little resemblance to modern moral agency. His view was that the Homeric world understood nobility in terms of the overpowering strength of noble warriors. The effect of the ensuing Judeo-Christian tradition, on this Nietzschean reading, was to enfeeble the Homeric understanding of excellence by substituting the meekness of the lamb for the strength and power of the noble warrior.8

Nietzsche was certainly right that the Homeric tradition valorizes the strong, noble hero; and he was right, too, that in some important sense the Homeric account of excellence is foreign to our basic moralizing assumptions. But there is something that the Nietzschean account leaves out. As Bernard Knox emphasizes, the Greek word arete is etymologically related to the Greek verb “to pray” (araomai).9 It follows that Homer’s basic account of human excellence involves the necessity of being in an appropriate relationship to whatever is understood to be sacred in the culture. Helen’s greatness, on this interpretation, is not properly measured in terms of the degree to which she is morally responsible for her actions.

What makes Helen great in Homer’s world is her ability to live a life that is constantly responsive to golden Aphrodite, the shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence. Likewise, Achilles had a special kind of receptivity to Ares and his warlike way of life; Odysseus had Athena, with her wisdom and cultural adaptability, to look out for him. Presumably, the master craftsmen of Homer’s world worked in the light of Hephaestus’s shining. In order to engage with this understanding of human excellence, we will have to think clearly about how the Homeric Greeks understood themselves. Why would it make sense to describe their lives in relation to the presence and absence of the gods?

Several questions focus this kind of approach. What is the phenomenon that Homer is responding to when he says that a god intervened or in some way took part in an action or event? Is this phenomenon recognizable to us, even if only marginally? And if Homer’s reference to the gods is something other than an attempt to pass off moral responsibility for one’s actions, then what exactly is it? Only by facing these questions head on can we understand whether it is possible—or desirable—to lure back Homer’s polytheistic gods.

The gods are essential to the Homeric Greek understanding of what it is to be a human being at all. As Peisistratus—the son of wise old Nestor—says toward the beginning of the Odyssey, “All men need the gods.”10 The Greeks were deeply aware of the ways in which our successes and our failures—indeed, our very actions themselves—are never completely under our control. They were constantly sensitive to, amazed by, and grateful for those actions that one cannot perform on one’s own simply by trying harder: going to sleep, waking up, fitting in, standing out, gathering crowds together, holding their attention with a speech, changing their mood, or indeed being filled with longing, desire, courage, wisdom, and so on. Homer sees each of these achievements as a particular god’s gift. To say that all men need the gods therefore is to say, in part at least, that we are the kinds of beings who are at our best when we find ourselves acting in ways that we cannot—and ought not—entirely take credit for.

The Discovery of the Mind
by Bruno Snell
pp. 158-160

The words for virtue and good, arete and agathos, are at first by no means clearly distinguished from the area of profit. In the early period they are not as palpably moral in content as might be supposed; we may compare the German terms Tu end and gut which originally stood for the ‘suitable’ (taugende) and the ‘fitting’ (cf. Gatte). When Homer says that a man is good, agathos, he does not mean thereby that he is morally unobjectionable, much less good-hearted, but rather that he is useful, proficient, and capable of vigorous action. We also speak of a good warrior or a good instrument. Similarly arete, virtue, does not denote a moral property but nobility, achievement, success and reputation. And yet these words have an unmistakable tendency toward the moral because, unlike ‘happiness’ or ‘profit’, they designate qualities for which a man may win the respect of his whole community. Arete is ‘ability’ and ‘achievement’, characteristics which are expected of a ‘good’, an ‘able’ man, an aner agathos. From Homer to Plato and beyond these words spell out the worth of a man and his work. Any change in their meaning, therefore, would indicate a reassessment of values. It is possible to show how at various times the formation and consolidation of social groups and even of states was connected with people’s ideas about the ‘good’. But that would be tantamount to writing a history of Greek culture. In Homer, to possess ‘virtue’ or to be ‘good’ means to realize one’s nature, and one’s wishes, to perfection. Frequently happiness and profit form the reward, but it is no such extrinsic prospect which leads men to virtue and goodness. The expressions contain a germ of the notion of entelechy. A Homeric hero, for instance, is capable of ‘reminding himself’, or of ‘experiencing’, that he is noble. ‘Use your experience to become what you are’ advises Pindar who adheres to this image of arete. The ‘good’ man fulfils his proper function, prattei ta heautou, as Plato demands it; he achieves his own perfection. And in the early period this also entails that he is good in the eyes of others, for the notions and definitions of goodness are plain and uniform: a man appears to others as he is.

In the Iliad (11.404—410) Odysseus reminds himself that he is an aristocrat, and thereby resolves his doubts how he should conduct himself in a critical situation. He does it by concentrating on the thought that he belongs to a certain social order, and that it is his duty to fulfill the ‘virtue’ of that order. The universal which underlies the predication ‘I am a noble’ is the group; he does not reflect on an abstract ‘good ’but upon the circle of which he claims membership. It is the same as if an officer were to say: ‘As an officer I must do this or that,’ thus gauging his action by the rigid conception of honour peculiar to his caste.

Aretan is ‘to thrive’; arete is the objective which the early nobles attach to achievement and success. By means of arete the aristocrat implements the ideal of his order—and at the same time distinguishes himself above his fellow nobles. With his arete the individual subjects himself to the judgment of his community, but he also surpasses it as an individual. Since the days of Jacob Burckhardt the competitive character of the great Greek achievements has rightly been stressed. Well into the classical period, those who compete for arete are remunerated with glory and honour. The community puts its stamp of approval on the value which the individual sets on himself. Thus honour, time, is even more significant than arete for the growth of the moral consciousness, because it is more evident, more palpable to all. From his earliest boyhood the young nobleman is urged to think of his glory and his honour; he must look out for his good name, and he must see to it that he commands the necessary respect. For honour is a very sensitive plant; wherever it is destroyed the moral existence of the loser collapses. Its importance is greater even than that of life itself; for the sake of glory and honour the knight is prepared to sacrifice his life.

pp. 169-172

The truth of the matter is that it was not the concept of justice but that of arete which gave rise to the call for positive individual achievement, the moral imperative which the early Greek community enjoins upon its members who in turn acknowledge it for themselves. A man may have purely egotistical motives for desiring virtue and achievement, but his group gives him considerably more credit for these ideals than if he were to desire profit or happiness. The community expects, and even demands, arete. Conversely a man who accomplishes a high purpose may convince himself so thoroughly that his deed serves the interests of a supra-personal, a universal cause that the alternative of egotism or altruism becomes irrelevant. What does the community require of the individual? What does the individual regard as universal, as eternal? These, in the archaic age, are the questions about which the speculations on arete revolve.

The problem remains simple as long as the individual cherishes the same values as the rest of his group. Given this condition, even the ordinary things in life are suffused with an air of dignity, because they are part of custom and tradition. The various daily functions, such as rising in the morning and the eating of meals, are sanctified by prayer and sacrifice, and the crucial events in the life of man—birth, marriage, burial—are for ever fixed and rooted in the rigid forms of cult. Life bears the imprint of a permanent authority which is divine, and all activity is, therefore, more than just personal striving. No one doubts the meaning of life; the hallowed tradition is carried on with implicit trust in the holy wisdom of its rules. In such a society, if a man shows unusual capacity he is rewarded as a matter of course. In Homer a signal achievement is, as one would expect, also honoured with a special permanence, through the song of the bard which outlasts the deed celebrated and preserves it for posterity. This simple concept is still to be found in Pindar’s Epinicians. The problem of virtue becomes more complex when the ancient and universally recognized ideal of chivalry breaks down. Already in Homeric times a differentiation sets in. As we have seen in the story of the quarrel over the arms of Achilles, the aretai become a subject for controversy. The word arete itself contains a tendency toward the differentiation of values, since it is possible to speak of the virtues of various men and various things. As more sections of society become aware of their own merit, they are less willing to conform to the ideal of the once-dominant class. It is discovered that the ways of men are diverse, and that arete may be attained in all sorts of professions. Whereas aristocratic society had been held together, not to say made possible by a uniform notion of arete, people now begin to ask what true virtue is. The crisis of the social system is at the same time the crisis of an ideal, and thus of morality. Archilochus says (fr. 41)that different men have their hearts quickened in various ways. But he also states, elaborating a thought which first crops up in the Odyssey: the mind of men is as Zeus ushers in each day, and they think whatever they happen to hit upon (fr. 68). One result of this splitting up of the various forms of life is a certain failure of nerve. Man begins to feel that he is changeable and exposed to many variable forces. This insight deepens the moral reflexions of the archaic period; the search for the good becomes a search for the permanent.

The topic of the virtues is especially prominent in the elegy. Several elegiac poets furnish lists of the various aretai which they exemplify by means of well-known myths. Their purpose is to clarify for themselves their own attitudes toward the conflicting standards of life. Theognis (699 ff.) stands at the end of this development; with righteous indignation he complains that the masses no longer have eyes for anything except wealth. For him material gain has, in contrast with earlier views, become an enemy of virtue.

The first to deal with this general issue is Tyrtaeus. His call to arms pronounces the Spartan ideal; perhaps he was the one to formulate that ideal for the first time. Nothing matters but the bravery of the soldier fighting for his country. Emphatically he rejects all other accomplishments and virtues as secondary: the swiftness of the runner in the arena, or the strength of the wrestler, or again physical beauty, wealth, royal power, and eloquence, are as nothing before bravery. In the Iliad also a hero best proves his virtue by standing firm against the enemy, but that is not his only proof; the heroic figures of Homer dazzle us precisely because of their richness in human qualities. Achilles is not only brave but also beautiful, ‘swift of foot’, he knows how to sing, and so forth. Tyrtaeus sharply reduces the scope of the older arete; what is more, he goes far beyond Homer in magnifying the fame of fortitude and the ignominy which awaits the coward. Of the fallen he actually says that they acquire immortality (9.32). This one-sidedness is due to the fact that the community has redoubled its claim on the individual; Sparta in particular taxed the energies of its citizenry to the utmost during the calamitous period of the Messenian wars. The community is a thing of permanence for whose sake the individual mortal has to lay down his life, and in whose memory lies his only chance for any kind of survival. Even in Tyrtaeus, however, these claims of the group do not lead to a termite morality. Far from prescribing a blind and unthinking service to the whole, or a spirit of slavish self-sacrifice, Tyrtaeus esteems the performance of the individual as a deed worthy of fame. This is a basic ingredient of arete which, in spite of countless shifts and variations, is never wholly lost.

Philosophy Before Socrates
by Richard D. McKirahan
pp. 366-369

Aretē and Agathos These two basic concepts of Greek morality are closely related and not straightforwardly translatable into English. As an approximation, aretē can be rendered “excellence” or “goodness” (sometimes “virtue”), and agathos as “excellent” or “good.” The terms are related in that a thing or person is agathos if and only if it has aretē and just because it has aretē. The concepts apply to objects, conditions, and actions as well as to humans. They are connected with the concept of ergon (plural, erga), which may be rendered as “function” or “characteristic activity.” A good (agathos) person is one who performs human erga well, and similarly a good knife is a knife that performs the ergon of a knife well. The ergon of a knife is cutting, and an agathos knife is one that cuts well. Thus, the aretē of a knife is the qualities or characteristics a knife must have in order to cut well. Likewise, if a human ergon can be identified, an agathos human is one who can and on appropriate occasions does perform that ergon well, and human aretē is the qualities or characteristics that enable him or her to do so. The classical discussion of these concepts occurs after our period, in Aristotle,6 but he is only making explicit ideas that go back to Homer and which throw light on much of the pre-philosophical ethical thought of the Greeks.

This connection of concepts makes it automatic, virtually an analytic truth, that the right goal for a person—any person—is to be or become agathos. Even if that goal is unreachable for someone, the aretē–agathos standard still stands as an ideal against which to measure one’s successes and failures. However, there is room for debate over the nature of human erga, both whether there is a set of erga applicable to all humans and relevant to aretē and, supposing that there is such a set of erga, what those erga are. The existence of the aretē–agathos standard makes it vitally important to settle these issues, for otherwise human life is left adrift with no standards of conduct. […]

The moral scene Homer presents is appropriate to the society it represents and quite alien to our own. It is the starting point for subsequent moral speculation which no one in the later Greek tradition could quite forget. The development of Greek moral thought through the Archaic and Classical periods can be seen as the gradual replacement of the competitive by the cooperative virtues as the primary virtues of conduct and as the recognition and increasing recognition of the significance of people’s intentions as well as their actions.7

Rapid change in Greek society in the Archaic and Classical periods called for new conceptions of the ideal human and the ideal human life and activities. The Archaic period saw different kinds of rulers from the Homeric kings, and individual combat gave way to the united front of a phalanx of hoplites (heavily armed warriors). Even though the Homeric warrior-king was no longer a possible role in society, the qualities of good birth, beauty, courage, honor, and the abilities to give good counsel and rule well remained. Nevertheless, the various strands of the Homeric heroic ideal began to unravel. In particular, good birth, wealth, and fighting ability no longer automatically went together. This situation forced the issue: what are the best qualities we can possess? What constitutes human aretē? The literary sources contain conflicting claims about the best life for a person, the best kind of person to be, and the relative merits of qualities thought to be ingredients of human happiness. In one way or another these different conceptions of human excellence have Homeric origins, though they diverge from Homer’s conception and from one another.

Lack of space makes it impossible to present the wealth of materials that bear on this subject.8 I will confine discussion to two representatives of the aristocratic tradition who wrote at the end of the Archaic period. Pindar shows how the aristocratic ideal had survived and been transformed from the Homeric conception and how vital it remained as late as the early fifth century, and Theognis reveals how social, political, and economic reality was undermining that ideal.

p. 374

The increase in wealth and the shift in its distribution which had begun by the seventh century led to profound changes in the social and political scenes in the sixth and forced a wedge in among the complex of qualities which traditionally constituted aristocratic aretē. Pindar’s unified picture in which wealth, power, and noble birth tend to go together became ever less true to contemporary reality.

The aristocratic response to this changed situation receives its clearest expression in the poems attributed to Theognis and composed in the sixth and early fifth centuries. Even less than with Pindar can we find a consistent set of views advocated in these poems, but among the most frequently recurring themes are the view that money does not make the man, that many undeserving people are now rich and many deserving people (deserving because of their birth and social background) are now poor. It is noteworthy how Theognis plays on the different connotations of uses of the primary terms of value, agathos and aretē, and their opposites kakos and kakia: morally good vs. evil; well-born, noble vs. low-born; and politically and socially powerful vs. powerless. Since the traditional positive attributes no longer regularly all went together, it was important to decide which are most important, indeed which are the essential ingredients of human aretē.

pp. 379-382

In short, Protagoras taught his students how to succeed in public and private life. What he claimed to teach is, in a word, aretē. That this was his boast follows from the intimate connection between agathos and aretē as well as from the fact that a person with aretē is one who enjoys success, as measured by current standards. Anyone with the abilities Protagoras claimed to teach had the keys to a successful life in fifth-century Athens.

In fact, the key to success was rhetoric, the art of public speaking, which has a precedent in the heroic conception of aretē, which included excellence in counsel. But the Sophists’ emphasis on rhetoric must not be understood as hearkening back to Homeric values. Clear reasons why success in life depended on the ability to speak well in public can be found in fifth-century politics and society. […]

That is not to say that every kind of success depended on rhetoric. It could not make you successful in a craft like carpentry and would not on its own make you a successful military commander. Nor is it plausible that every student of Protagoras could have become another Pericles. Protagoras acknowledged that natural aptitude was required over and above diligence. […] Protagoras recognized that he could not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but he claimed to be able to develop a (sufficiently young) person’s abilities to the greatest extent possible.28

Pericles was an effective counselor in part because he could speak well but also by dint of his personality, experience, and intelligence. To a large extent these last three factors cannot be taught, but rhetoric can be offered as a tekhnē, a technical art or skill which has rules of its own and which can be instilled through training and practice. In these ways rhetoric is like medicine, carpentry, and other technical arts, but it is different in its seemingly universal applicability. Debates can arise on any conceivable subject, including technical ones, and rhetorical skill can be turned to the topic at hand whatever it may be. The story goes that Gorgias used his rhetorical skill to convince medical patients to undergo surgery when physicians failed to persuade them.29 Socrates turned the tables on the Sophists, arguing that if rhetoric has no specific subject matter, then so far from being a universal art, it should not be considered an art at all.30 And even if we grant that rhetoric is an art that can be taught, it remains controversial whether aretē can be taught and in what aretē consists. […]

The main charges against the Sophists are of two different sorts. First the charge of prostituting themselves. Plato emphasizes the money-making aspect of the Sophist’s work, which he uses as one of his chief criteria for determining that Socrates was not a Sophist. This charge contains two elements: the Sophists teach aretē for money, and they teach it to anyone who pays. Both elements have aristocratic origins. Traditionally aretē was learned from one’s family and friends and came as the result of a long process of socialization beginning in infancy. Such training and background can hardly be bought. Further, according to the aristocratic mentality most people are not of the right type, the appropriate social background, to aspire to aretē.

Lila
by Robert Pirsig
pp. 436-442

Digging back into ancient Greek history, to the time when this mythos-to-logos transition was taking place, Phædrus noted that the ancient rhetoricians of Greece, the Sophists, had taught what they called aretê , which was a synonym for Quality. Victorians had translated aretê as “virtue” but Victorian “virtue” connoted sexual abstinence, prissiness and a holier-than-thou snobbery. This was a long way from what the ancient Greeks meant. The early Greek literature, particularly the poetry of Homer, showed that aretê had been a central and vital term.

With Homer Phædrus was certain he’d gone back as far as anyone could go, but one day he came across some information that startled him. It said that by following linguistic analysis you could go even further back into the mythos than Homer. Ancient Greek was not an original language. It was descended from a much earlier one, now called the Proto-Indo-European language. This language has left no fragments but has been derived by scholars from similarities between such languages as Sanskrit, Greek and English which have indicated that these languages were fallouts from a common prehistoric tongue. After thousands of years of separation from Greek and English the Hindi word for “mother” is still “Ma.” Yoga both looks like and is translated as “yoke.” The reason an Indian rajah’ s title sounds like “regent” is because both terms are fallouts from Proto-Indo-European. Today a Proto-Indo-European dictionary contains more than a thousand entries with derivations extending into more than one hundred languages.

Just for curiosity’s sake Phædrus decided to see if aretê was in it. He looked under the “a” words and was disappointed to find it was not. Then he noted a statement that said that the Greeks were not the most faithful to the Proto-Indo-European spelling. Among other sins, the Greeks added the prefix “a” to many of the Proto-Indo-European roots. He checked this out by looking for aretê under “r.” This time a door opened.

The Proto-Indo-European root of aretê was the morpheme rt . There, beside aretê , was a treasure room of other derived “rt” words: “arithmetic,” “aristocrat,” “art,” “rhetoric,” “worth,” “rite,” “ritual,” “wright,” “right (handed)” and “right (correct).” All of these words except arithmetic seemed to have a vague thesaurus-like similarity to Quality. Phædrus studied them carefully, letting them soak in, trying to guess what sort of concept, what sort of way of seeing the world, could give rise to such a collection.

When the morpheme appeared in aristocrat and arithmetic the reference was to “firstness.” Rt meant first. When it appeared in art and wright it seemed to mean “created” and “of beauty.” “Ritual” suggested repetitive order. And the word right has two meanings: “right-handed” and “moral and esthetic correctness.” When all these meanings were strung together a fuller picture of the rt morpheme emerged. Rt referred to the “first, created, beautiful repetitive order of moral and esthetic correctness.” […]

There was just one thing wrong with this Proto-Indo-European discovery, something Phædrus had tried to sweep under the carpet at first, but which kept creeping out again. The meanings, grouped together, suggested something different from his interpretation of aretê . They suggested “importance” but it was an importance that was formal and social and procedural and manufactured, almost an antonym to the Quality he was talking about. Rt meant “quality” all right but the quality it meant was static, not Dynamic. He had wanted it to come out the other way, but it looked as though it wasn’t going to do it. Ritual. That was the last thing he wanted aretê to turn out to be. Bad news. It looked as though the Victorian translation of aretê as “virtue” might be better after all since “virtue” implies ritualistic conformity to social protocol. […]

Rta . It was a Sanskrit word, and Phædrus remembered what it meant: Rta was the “cosmic order of things.” Then he remembered he had read that the Sanskrit language was considered the most faithful to the Proto-Indo-European root, probably because the linguistic patterns had been so carefully preserved by the Hindu priests. […]

Rta , from the oldest portion of the Rg Veda , which was the oldest known writing of the Indo-Aryan language. The sun god, Sūrya , began his chariot ride across the heavens from the abode of rta. Varuna , the god for whom the city in which Phædrus was studying was named, was the chief support of rta .

Varuna was omniscient and was described as ever witnessing the truth and falsehood of men—as being “the third whenever two plot in secret.” He was essentially a god of righteousness and a guardian of all that is worthy and good. The texts had said that the distinctive feature of Varuna was his unswerving adherence to high principles. Later he was overshadowed by Indra who was a thunder god and destroyer of the enemies of the Indo-Aryans. But all the gods were conceived as “guardians of ta ,” willing the right and making sure it was carried out.

One of Phædrus’s old school texts, written by M. Hiriyanna, contained a good summary: “Rta , which etymologically stands for ‘course’ originally meant ‘cosmic order,’ the maintenance of which was the purpose of all the gods; and later it also came to mean ‘right,’ so that the gods were conceived as preserving the world not merely from physical disorder but also from moral chaos. The one idea is implicit in the other: and there is order in the universe because its control is in righteous hands.…”

The physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe. Rta is both. This was exactly what the Metaphysics of Quality was claiming. It was not a new idea. It was the oldest idea known to man.

This identification of rta and aretê was enormously valuable, Phædrus thought, because it provided a huge historical panorama in which the fundamental conflict between static and Dynamic Quality had been worked out. It answered the question of why aretê meant ritual. Rta also meant ritual. But unlike the Greeks, the Hindus in their many thousands of years of cultural evolution had paid enormous attention to the conflict between ritual and freedom. Their resolution of this conflict in the Buddhist and Vedantist philosophies is one of the profound achievements of the human mind.

Pagan Ethics: Paganism as a World Religion
by Michael York
pp. 59-60

Pirsig contends that Plato incorporated the arete of the Sophists into his dichotomy between ideas and appearances — where it was subordinated to Truth. Once Plato identifies the True with the Good, arete’s position is usurped by “dialectically determined truth.” This, in turn, allows Plato to demote the Good to a lower order and minor branch of knowledge. For Pirsig, the Sophists were those Greek philosophers who exalted quality over truth; they were the true champions of arete or excellence. With a pagan quest for the ethical that develops from an idolatrous understanding of the physical, while Aristotle remains an important consideration, it is to the Sophists (particularly Protagoras, Prodicus and Pirsig’s understanding of them) and a reconstruction of their underlying humanist position that perhaps the most important answers are to be framed if not found as well.

A basic pagan position is an acceptance of the appetites — in fact, their celebration rather than their condemnation. We find the most unbridled expression of the appetites in the actions of the young. Youth may engage in binge-drinking, vandalism, theft, promiscuity and profligate experimentation. Pagan perspectives may recognize the inherent dangers in these as there are in life itself. But they also trust the overall process of learning. In paganism, morality has a much greater latitude than it does in the transcendental philosophy of a Pythagoras, Plato, or Plotinus: it may veer toward a form of relativism, but its ultimate check is always the sanctity of the other animate individuals. An it harm none, do what ye will. The pagan ethic must be found within the appetites and not in their denial.

In fact, paganism is part of a protest against Platonic assertion. The wider denial is that of nature herself. Nature denies the Platonic by refusing to conform to the Platonic ideal. It insists on moments of chaos, the epagomenae, the carnival, that overlap between the real and the ideal that is itself a metaphor for reality. The actual year is a refusal to cooperate with the mathematically ideal year of 360 days — close but only tantalizingly.

In addition, pagans have always loved asking what is arete? This is the fundamental question we encounter with the Sophists, Plato and Aristotle. It is the question that is before us still. The classics considered variously both happiness and the good as alternative answers. The Hedonists pick happiness — but a particular kind of happiness. The underlying principle recognized behind all these possibilities is arete ‘excellence, the best’ however it is embodied — whether god, goddess, goods, the good, gods, virtue, happiness, pleasure or all of these together. Arete is that to which both individual and community aspire. Each wants one’s own individual way of putting it together in excellent fashion — but at the same time wanting some commensurable overlap of the individual way with the community way.

What is the truth of the historical claims about Greek philosophy in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
answer by Ammon Allred

Arete is usually translated as “virtue,” which is certainly connected up with the good “agathon” — but in Plato an impersonal Good is probably more important than aletheia or truth. See, for instance, the central images at the end of Book VI, where the Good is called the “Father of the Sun.” The same holds in the Philebus. And it wouldn’t be right to say that Plato (or Aristotle) thought virtue was part of some small branch called “ethics” (Plato doesn’t divide his philosophy up this way; Aristotle does — although then we get into fact that we don’t have the dialogues he wrote — but still what he means by ethics is far broader than what we mean).

Certainly the Sophists pushed for a humanistic account of the Good, whereas Plato’s was far more impersonal. And Plato himself had a complex relationship to the Sophists (consider the dialogue of Protagoras, where Socrates and Protagoras both end up about equally triumphant).

That said, Pirsig is almost certainly right about Platonism — that is to say, the approach to philosophy that has been taught as though it were Plato’s philosophy. Certainly, the sophists have gotten a bad rap because of the view that Socrates and Plato were taken to have about the sophists; but even there, many philosophers have tried to rehabilitate them: most famously, Nietzsche.

Classics@ 15: A Concise Inventory of Greek Etymologies
Edited by Olga Levaniouk

The term aretḗ (ἀρετή) is conventionally translated as ‘excellence’ and is first attested in the hexametrical traditional poetry. Here, it applies to both human and non-human qualities, take, for instance, Iliad 15.642–643 παντοίας ἀρετάς, ἠμὲν πόδας ἠδὲ μάχεσθαι || καὶ νόον ἐν πρώτοισι Μυκηναίων ἐτέτυκτο ‘in all kind of aretaĩs (qualities), both in fleetness of foot and in fight, and in mind he was among the first of the men of Mycenae’, and Iliad 23.276 ἴστε γὰρ ὅσσον ἐμοὶ ἀρετῇ περιβάλλετον ἵπποι ‘for you know how far my two horses surpass in excellence’. In parallel, the plural form aretaí (ἀρεταί), which originally meant ‘the aretḗ-deeds’, came to denote ‘achievements’, compare, Pindar Nemean 3.32–33 παλαιαῖσι δ᾿ ἐν ἀρεταῖς γέγαθε Πηλεὺς ἄναξ, ὑπέραλλον αἰχμὰν ταμών ‘in achievements of long ago lord Peleus took delight, after cutting his matchless spear’. Moreover, in philosophical works, aretḗ acquired the semantic nuance of ‘(moral) virtue’, such as in Plato Crito 53c ἢ οὕσπερ ἐνθάδε, ὡς ἡ ἀρετὴ καὶ ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλείστου ἄξιον τοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ τὰ νόμιμα καὶ οἱ νόμοι; ‘Or will they be the ones (: arguments) you use here, that goodness and justice are of the highest value to mankind together with institutions and laws?’

The noun aretḗ (ἀρετή) may be traced back to the same root as Greek ararískō (ἀραρίσκω) ‘to fit’, harmózō (ἁρμόζω) ‘to join’ and hárma (ἁρμα) ‘chariot’, or ‘the vehicle, whose parts have been fitted together’ (Prellwitz 1931), as well as Greek ἄριστος ‘the best’ (‘the most fitting one’). Indeed, a gloss by the ancient lexicographer Hesychius reflects a synchronical connection between aretáō (ἀρετάω), a denominative verb based on aretḗ and harmózō: Hesychius α 41 L ἀρέτησαν· ἥρμοσαν ‘arétēsan (they did with aretḗ): they harmonized / they joined together’.

As the Greek words aretḗ, ararískō, harmózō and hárma display an initial alpha, all these terms can be traced back to a Proto-Indoeuropean root *(H)ar- ‘fit, join’, that is to say, a root which can be reconstructed as *h2er- or *h1ar- und underlies Vedic sám aranta ‘join’, Young Avestan arånte ‘fasten’.

Some of the Greek terms belonging to this word family have a non etymological initial aspiration, while others lack it. Specifically, Greek hárma (ἁρμα) retains a regressive non etymological aspiration. It may reflect *(H)ar-s-mn̥-, a derivative from the root enlarged with an complex -sm(e)n-suffix or a *(H)r̥s-mn̥- stem, that is to say, a neutral derivative built on the zero grade of a putative s-stem *(H)ar-o/es-. The aspiration of harmózō (ἁρμόζω) ‘join’ could be explained as secondary as well.

By assuming a root *h1ar-, Greek árnumai (ἁρνυμαι) ‘to win, to struggle to win’ and Cuneiform Luvian ārlanuwa- ‘to make (something) owned (by someone)’ (Melchert 1999:246), as well as the Hittite adverb āra– ‘right’, which show no trace of an initial laryngal two, may be included as further linguistic congeners of Greek aretḗ (ἀρετή). As pointed out by Nagy’s comment on Iliad 18.121 and Odyssey 1.5 (Nagy 2017), the Greek hexametrical poetry árnumai (ἁρνυμαι) is often attested in connection with ‘epic goals’, such as, among others, kléos, kũdos (κλέος, κῦδος) ‘glory’, timḗ (τιμή) ‘honor’, aéthlia (ἀέθλια) ‘prize’, nóstos (νόστος) ‘homecoming’. A semantic development from ‘fit’ (Indo-European *h1ar-) to ‘make something fit to oneself’, that is to say, ‘take, win, gain’ (Greek árnumai, Luvian ārlanuwa-) is easily conceivable and, at any rate, not unparalleled, compare German eignen ‘to fit’, zueigen ‘to take something’.

Greek aretḗ (ἀρετή) can thus reflect *(H)ar-eteh2, a feminine or a collective form of an etó-derivative, which originally meant ‘(what is) good to join / to articulate’ (Vine 1998:61). A nominal derivative with a suffix –etó- exists beside a -tó-formation, *(H)r̥-tó-, underlying Vedic r̥tá- ‘cosmic order, rightness, truth’ and *(H)ar-tó-, reflected by Avestan ašạ- ‘rightness, truth’.

The etymological connection between aretḗ (ἀρετή), r̥tá- and ašạ- is confirmed by a wide set of collocations and associations that the three terms have in common (Massetti [in preparation]). To begin with, Greek aretḗ (ἀρετή) is associated to ‘truth’ (alḗtheia, Greek ἀλήθεια) and ‘justice’ (díkē, δίκη), which are semantic structural components of both Vedic r̥tá- and Avestan ašạ-:

ἀρχὰ µεγάλας ἀρετᾶς, ὤνασσ᾽ Ἀλάθεια
Pindar fr. 205
‘Starting point of great aretā́, Queen Truth’

ἐν δὲ δικαιοσύνῃ συλλήβδην πᾶσ᾿ἀρετή᾿στί

Phocylides fr. 10 West
‘In the justice there is together every aretḗ’

Greek poets and philosophers have sometimes likened positive concepts such as ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ to objects consisting of several parts, which have been fitted together, such as the ‘wheel’ and the ‘chariot’. In Parmenides (1.29 DK), the Truth (alḗtheiē) is said to be eukuklḗs (εὐκυκλὴς) ‘which has a beautiful circle / wheel’, while Simonides (11.12 W) speaks of the ‘chariot of the justice’, hárma díkēs (ἅρμα δίκης). As pointed out by Calvert Watkins (1979), Vedic r̥tá– and Avestan ašạ– are associated with the same images. Vedic r̥tá– occurs in the collocations ‘wheel of the r̥tá-’, Vedic cakrám […] r̥tásya (RV 1.164.11b) and the ‘chariot of the r̥tá-’, Vedic ráthaḥ […] r̥tásya (RV 2.23.3b+). Furthermore, both Vedic r̥tá– and Avestan ašạ– are connected to the Proto-Indoeuropean root *u ̯egh- ‘drive’, as few examples can show: ašạhiiā važdr ə̄ ṇg ‘conveyors of the ašạ-’ (Y. 46.4), ūhyā́the […] r̥tám ‘you have conveyed the r̥tá-’ (RV 4.56.6c). Strikingly, Pindar makes aretḗ the direct object of a verb ‘lead’, Greek elaúnō, which commonly applies to chariots and horses in the epic poetry:

ἐλᾷ […] ἀρετὰς ὁ θνατὸς αἰών
Pindar Nemean 3.74–75
‘(Our) mortal life drives a team of four aretaí (virtues)’

The Pindaric image indirectly provides a twofold parallel for the semantic shifts underlying aretā́. The ‘team of four aretaí’ recalls the image of a chariot, which is both the vehicle consisting of many parts, which have been fitted together (hárma), and the means for winning a prize in races (árnumai).

Just as Vedic r̥tá- and Avestan ašạ-, Greek aretḗ is associated with the image of the ‘straight, direct path’:

εὐθεῖα δὴ κέλευθος ἀρετὰν ἑλεῖν
Pindar fr. 108a.3
‘Straight indeed is the path to achieve aretā́’

ábhūd u pārám étave
pánthā r̥tásya sādhuyā́

RV 1.46.11ab
‘And the path of truth has come into being to lead right to the far shore’
sīṣ̌ā nā̊ aṣ̌ā paϑō vaŋhə̄uš xvaētəṇg manaŋhō

Y. 34.12
‘Show us trough truth the paths of good thought, easy to pass’

Consequently, in a passage of Plato’s Phaedrus (253de) the horse that possesses aretḗ is opposed to the skoliós (σκολιός) ‘crooked’ one:

ἀρετὴ δὲ τίς τοῦἀγαθοῦἢ κακοῦ κακία […] νῦν δὲ λεκτέον. ὁ µὲν τοίνυν αὐτοῖν […] εἶδος ὀρθὸς καὶ διηρθρωµένος […] κελεύσµατι µόνον καὶ λόγῳἡνιοχεῖται· ὁ δ’ αὖ σκολιός […] µάστιγι µετὰ κέντρων µόγις ὑπείκων

Plato Phaedrus 253de

‘We have now to define […] what the goodness of the one and the badness of the other is. The one of them […] is upright and has clean limbs […] he is guided only by the word of command and by reason. Instead, the other is crooked […] hardly obedient to whip and spurs’

Analogously, Vedic r̥tá– is mentioned as the opposite of ‘crooked things’ in R̥gveda 4.23.8b r̥tásya dhītír vr̥jinā́ ni hanti ‘the vision of truth smashes the crooked’.

In conclusion, the term aretḗ (ἀρετή), ‘excellence’ can be traced back to *(H)ar- ‘to fit, join’ which underlies Greek ararískō (ἀραρίσκω) ‘fit’, harmózō (ἁρμόζω) ‘join’ and probably árnumai (ἄρνυμαι) ‘win’. The form *(H)ar-etéh2 parallels *(H)r̥-tó- and *(H)ar-tó-, which are reflected by Vedic r̥tá- and Avestan ašạ– ‘justice, rightness, truth’. The analysis of common associations and collocations supports that aretḗ (ἀρετή) matches Vedic r̥tá- and Avestan ašạ- almost perfectly.

Massetti, L. 2013–2014. “Gr. ἀρετή, ved. r̥tá-, av. aṣ̌a– e l’eccellenza come ordine aggiustato.” Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft 67.2:123–148.
———. [in preparation]. Phraseologie und indogermanische Dichtersprache in der Sprache der griechischen Chorlyrik: Pindar und Bakchylides.
Melchert, Craig H. 1999. “‘(Zu-)eignung’ in Anatolian and Indo-European.” Studia Celtica et Indogermanica: Festschrift für Wolfgang Meid zum 70. Geburtstag, eds. Peter Anreiter and Erzsébet Jerem, 243–247. Budapest.
Nagy, Gregory. 2017. A sampling of comments on the Iliad and Odyssey. Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.A_Sampling_of_Comments_on_the_Iliad_and_Odyssey.2017.
Prellwitz, Walter. 1931. “Zur griechischen Etymologie. ἐτάζω, ἑταῖρος, ἑτοῖμος, ἀρετή.” Glotta 19:85–89.
Vine, Brent. 1998. Aeolic ὄ ρπετον and Deverbative * – etó – in Greek and Indo-European. Innsbruck.
Watkins, Calvert. 1979. “Is tre fir flathemon: marginalia to Audacht Morainn.” Ériu 30:181–190.

From the arete of the Ancient World to the arete of the New Testament. A Semantic Investigation
by Kyriakoula Papademetriou

The Etymology of “Ἀρετή”
by David Conan Wolfsdorf

Edge of the Depths

“In Science there are no ‘depths’; there is surface everywhere.”
~ Rodolf Carnap

I was reading Richard S. Hallam’s Virtual Selves, Real Persons. I’ve enjoyed it, but I find a point of disagreement or maybe merely doubt and questioning. He emphasizes persons as being real, in that they are somehow pre-existing and separate. He distinguishes the person from selves, although this distinction isn’t necessarily relevant to my thoughts here.

I’m not sure to what degree our views diverge, as I find much of the text to be insightful and a wonderful overview. However, to demonstrate my misgivings, the author only mentions David Hume’s bundle theory a couple of times on a few pages (in a several hundred page book), a rather slight discussion for such a key perspective. He does give a bit more space to Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, but even Jaynes is isolated to one fairly small section and not fully integrated into the author’s larger analysis.

The commonality between Humes and Jaynes is that they perceived conscious identity as being more nebulous — no there there. In my own experience, that feels more right to me. As one dives down into the psyche, the waters become quite murky, so dark that one can’t even see one’s hands in front of one’s face, much less know what one might be attempting to grasp. Notions of separateness, at a great enough depth, fades away — one finds oneself floating in darkness with no certain sense of distance or direction. I don’t know how to explain this, if one hasn’t experienced altered states of mind, from extended meditation to psychedelic trips.

This is far from a new line of thought for me, but it kept jumping out at me as I read Hallam’s book. His writing is scholarly to a high degree and, for me, that is never a criticism. The downside is that a scholarly perspective alone can’t be taken into the depths. Jaynes solved this dilemma by maintaining a dual focus, intellectual argument balanced with a sense of wonder — speaking of our search for certainty, he said that, “Beyond that, there is only awe.

I keep coming back to that. For all I appreciate of Hallam’s book, I never once experienced awe. Then again, he probably wasn’t attempting to communicate awe. So, it’s not exactly that I judge this as a failing, even if it can feel like an inadequacy from the perspective of human experience or at least my experience. In the throes of awe, we are humbled into an existential state of ignorance. A term like ‘separation’ becomes yet another word. To take consciousness directly and fully is to lose any sense of separateness for, then, there is consciousness alone — not my consciousness and your consciousness, just consciousness.

I could and have made more intellectual arguments about consciousness and how strange it can be. It’s not clear to me, as it is clear to some, that there is any universal experience of consciousness (human or otherwise). There seems to be a wide variety of states of mind found across diverse societies and species. Consider animism that seems so alien to the modern sensibility. What does ‘separation’ mean in an animate world that doesn’t assume the individual as the starting point of human existence?

I don’t need to rationally analyze any of this. Rationality as easily turns into rationalization, justifying what we think we already know. All I can say is that, intuitively, Hume’s bundle theory makes more sense of what I know directly within my own mind, whatever that may say about the minds of others. That viewpoint can’t be scientifically proven for the experience behind it is inscrutable, not an object to be weighed and measured, even as brain scans remain fascinating. Consciousness can’t be found by pulling apart Hume’s bundle anymore than a frog’s soul can be found by dissecting its beating heart — consciousness having a similar metaphysical status as the soul. Something like the bundle theory either makes sense or not. Consciousness is a mystery, no matter how unsatisfying that may seem. Science can take us to the edge of the depths, but that is where it stops. To step off that edge requires something else entirely.

Actually, stepping off rarely happens since few, if any, ever choose to sink into the depths. One slips and falls and the depths envelop one. Severe depression was my initiation experience, the weight dragging me down. There are many possible entry points to this otherness. When that happens, thoughts on consciousness stop being intellectual speculation and thought experiment. One knows consciousness as well as one will ever know it when one drowns in it. If one thrashes their way back to the surface, then and only then can one offer meaningful insight but more likely one is lost in silence, water still choking in one’s throat.

This is why Julian Jaynes, for all of his brilliance and insight, reached the end of his life filled with frustration at what felt like a failure to communicate. As his historical argument went, individuals don’t change their mindsets so much as the social system that maintains a particular mindset is changed, which in the case of bicameralism meant the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations. Until our society faces a similar crises and is collectively thrown into the depths, separation will remain the dominant mode of experience and understanding. As for what might replace it, that is anyone’s guess.

Here we stand, our footing not entirely secure, at the edge of the depths.

The Art of the Lost Cause

Many people are understandably disappointed, frustrated, or angry when they lose. It’s just not fun to lose, especially in a competitive society. But there are advantages to losing. And losses are as much determined by perspective. Certainly, in more cooperative societies, what may be seen as a loss by outsiders could be taken quite differently by an insider. Western researchers discovered that difference when using games as part of social science studies. Some non-Western people refused win-lose scenarios, at least among members of the community. The individual didn’t lose for everyone gained. I point this out to help shift our thinking.

Recently, the political left in the United States has experienced losses. Bernie Sanders lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton who in turn lost the presidency to Donald Trump. But is this an entirely surprising result and bad outcome? Losses can lead to soul-searching and motivation for change. The Republicans we know now have dominated the political narrative in recent decades, which forced the Democrats to shift far to the right with third way ‘triangulation’. That wasn’t always the case. Republicans went through a period of major losses before being able to reinvent themselves with the southern strategy, Reagan revolution, trickle down voodo economics, the two Santa Claus theory, culture wars, etc.

The Clinton New Democrats were only able to win at all in recent history by sacrificing the political left and, in the process, becoming the new conservative party. So, even when Democrats have been able to win it has been a loss. Consider Obama who turned out to be one of the most neoliberal and neocon presidents in modern history, betraying his every promise: maintaining militarism, refusing to shut down GITMO, passing pro-biz insurance reform, etc. Liberals and leftists would have been better off to have been entirely out of power these past decades, allowing a genuine political left movement to form and so allowing democracy to begin to reassert itself from below. Instead, Democrats have managed to win just enough elections to keep the political left suppressed by co-opting their rhetoric. Democrats have won by forcing the American public to lose.

In the Democratic leadership failing so gloriously, they have been publicly shamed to the point of no redemption. The party is now less popular than the opposition, an amazing feat considering how unpopular is Trump and the GOP at the moment. Yet amidst all of this, Bernie Sanders is more popular than ever, more popular among women than men and more popular among minorities than whites. I never thought Sanders was likely to win and so I wasn’t disappointed. What his campaign did accomplish, as I expected, was to reshape the political narrative and shift the Overton window back toward the political left again. This period of loss will be remembered as a turning point in the future. It was a necessary loss, a reckoning and re-envisioning.

Think about famous lost causes. One that came to mind is that of Jesus and the early Christians. They were a tiny unknown cult in a vast empire filled with hundreds of thousands of similar cults. They were nothing special, of no significance or consequence, such that no one bothered to even take note of them, not even Jewish writers at the time. Then Jesus was killed as a common criminal among other criminals and even that didn’t draw any attention. There is no evidence that the Romans considered Jesus even mildly interesting. After his death, Christianity remained small and splintered into a few communities. It took generations for this cult to grow much at all and finally attract much outside attention.

Early Christians weren’t even important enough to be feared. The persecution stories seem to have been mostly invented by later Christians to make themselves feel more important, as there is no records of any systematic and pervasive persecution. Romans killing a few cultists here and there happened all the time and Christians didn’t stand out as being targeted more than any others. In fact, early Christians were lacking in uniqueness that they were often confused with other groups such as Stoics. By the way, it was the Stoics who were famous at the time for seeking out persecution and so gaining street cred respectability, maybe causing envy among Christians. Even Christian theology was largely borrowed from others, such as natural law also having been taken from the Stoics — related to the idea that a slave can be free in their mind and being, their heart and soul because natural law transcends human law.

Still, this early status of Christians as losers created a powerful narrative that has not only survived but proliferated. Some of that narrative, such as their persecution, was invented. But that is far from unusual — the mythos that develops around lost causes tends to be more invented than not. Still, at the core, the Christians were genuinely pathetic for a couple of centuries. They weren’t a respectable religion in the Roman Empire, until long after Jesus’ death when an emperor decided to use them to shore up his own power. In the waning era of Roman imperialism, I suppose a lost cause theology felt compelling and comforting. It was also a good way to convert other defeated people, as they could be promised victory in heaven. Lost Causes tend to lead to romanticizing of a distant redemption that one day would come. And in the case of Christianity, this would mean that the ultimate sacrificial loser, Jesus himself, would return victorious! Amen! Praise the Lord! Like a Taoist philosopher, Jesus taught that to find oneself was to lose oneself but to lose oneself was to find oneself. This is a loser’s mentality and relates to why some have considered Christianity to be a slaver religion. The lowly are uplifted, at least in words and ideals. But I’d argue there is more to it than seeking comfort by rationalizing suffering, oppression, and defeat.

Winning isn’t always a good thing, at least in the short term. I sometimes wonder if America would be a better place if the American Revolution had been lost. When I compare the United States to Canada, I don’t see any great advantage to American colonists having won. Canada is a much more stable and well-functioning social democracy. And the British Empire ended up enacting sweeping reforms, including abolishing slavery through law long before the US managed to end slavery through bloody conflict. In many ways, Americans were worse off after the revolution than before it. A reactionary backlash took hold as oligarchs co-opted the revolution and turned it into counter-revolution. Through the coup of a Constitutional Convention, the ruling elite seized power of the new government. It was in seeming to win that the average American ended up losing. An overt loss potentially could have been a greater long term victory. In particular for women and blacks, being on the side of the revolutionaries didn’t turn out to be such a great deal. Woman who had gained the vote had it taken away from them again and blacks hoping for freedom were returned to slavery. The emerging radical movement of democratic reform was strangled in the crib.

Later on, the Confederates learned of the power of a lost cause. To such an extent that they have become the poster boys of The Lost Cause, all of American society having been transformed by it. Victory of the United States government, once again, turned out to be far from a clear victory for the oppressed. If Confederates had won or otherwise been allowed to secede, the Confederate government would have been forced to come to terms with the majority black population that existed in the South and they wouldn’t have had the large Northern population to help keep blacks down. It’s possible that some of the worst results could have been avoided: re-enslavement through chain gangs and mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws and Klan terrorism, sundown towns and redlining, etc —  all the ways that racism became further entrenched. After the Civil War, blacks became scattered and would then become a minority. Having lost their position as the Southern majority, they lost most of the leverage they might have had. Instead of weak reforms leading to new forms of oppression, blacks might have been able to have forced a societal transformation within a Confederate government or else to have had a mass exodus in order to secede and create their own separate nation-state. There were many possibilities that became impossible because of Union victory.

Now consider the civil rights movement. The leaders, Martin Luther King in particular, understood the power of a lost cause. They intentionally staged events of getting attacked by police and white mobs, always making sure there were cameras nearby to make it into a national event. It was in losing these confrontations to the greater power of white oppression that they managed to win public support. As a largely Christian movement, the civil rights activists surely had learned from the story of Jesus as a sacrificial loser and his followers as persecuted losers. The real failure of civil rights only came later on when it gained mainstream victories and a corrupt black leadership aligned with white power, such as pushing the racist 1994 Crime Bill which was part of the Democrats becoming the new conservative party. The civil rights movement might have been better able to transform society and change public opinion by having remained a lost cause for a few more generations.

A victory forced can be a victory lost. Gain requires sacrifice, not to be bought cheaply. Success requires risk of failure, putting everything on the line. The greatest losses can come from seeking victory too soon and too easily. Transformative change can only be won by losing what came before. Winning delayed sometimes is progress ensured, slow but steady change. The foundation has to be laid before something can emerge from the ground up. Being brought low is the beginning point, like planting a seed in the soil.

It reminds me of my habit of always looking down as I walk. My father, on the other hand, never looks down and has a habit of stepping on things. It is only by looking down that we can see what is underneath our feet, what we stand on or are stepping toward. Foundation and fundament are always below eye level. Even in my thinking, I’m forever looking down, to what is beneath everyday awareness and oft-repeated words. Just to look down, such a simple and yet radical act.

“Looking down is also a sign of shame or else humility, the distinction maybe being less relevant to those who avoid looking down. To humble means to bring low, to the level of the ground, the soil, humus. To be further down the ladder of respectability, to be low caste or low class, is to have a unique vantage point. One can see more clearly and more widely when one has grown accustomed to looking down, for then one can see the origins of things, the roots of the world, where experience meets the ground of being.”

* * *

Living Differently: On How the Feminist Utopia Is Something You Have to Be Doing Now
by Lynne Segal

Another anthropologist, the anarchist David Graeber, having been involved in protest networks for decades, remains even more certain that participation in moments of direct action and horizontal decision-making bring to life a new and enduring conception of politics, while providing shared hope and meaning in life, even if their critics see in the outcomes of these movements only defeat:

What they don’t understand is that once people’s political horizons have been broadened, the change is permanent. Hundreds of thousands of Americans (and not only Americans, but Greeks, Spaniards and Tunisians) now have direct experience of self-organization, collective action and human solidarity. This makes it almost impossible to go back to one’s previous life and see things the same way. While the world’s financial and political elite skate blindly towards the next 2008-scale crisis, we’re continuing to carry out occupations of buildings, farms, foreclosed homes and workplaces, organizing rent strikes, seminars and debtor’s assemblies, and in doing so laying the groundwork for a genuinely democratic culture … With it has come a revival of the revolutionary imagination that conventional wisdom has long since declared dead.

Discussing what he calls ‘The Democracy Project’, Graeber celebrates forms of political resistance that in his view move well beyond calls for policy reforms, creating instead permanent spaces of opposition to all existing frameworks. For Graeber, one fundamental ground for optimism is that the future is unknowable, and one can live dissident politics in the present, or try to. This is both despite, and also because of, the insistent neo-liberal boast that there can be no alternative to its own historical trajectory: which has become a linear project of endless growth and the amassing of wealth by the few, toil and the struggle for precarious survival for so many.

Furthermore, Graeber points out that historically, although few revolutionaries actually succeeded in taking power themselves, the effects of their actions were often experienced far outside their immediate geographical location. In a similar reflection on unintended consequences, Terry Eagleton suggests that even with the gloomiest of estimates in mind, many aspects of utopic thinking may be not only possible but well- nigh inevitable:

Perhaps it is only when we run out of oil altogether, or when the world system crashes for other reasons, or when ecological catastrophe finally overtakes us, that we will be forced into some kind of co-operative commonwealth of the kind William Morris might have admired.

Even catastrophism, one might say, has its potentials. […]

It should come as no surprise that most of the goals we dream of will usually elude us, at least partially. However, to confront rather than accept the evils of the present, some utopian spirit is always necessary to embrace the complexity of working, against all odds, to create better futures. A wilful optimism is needed, despite and because of our inevitable blind-spots and inadequacies, both personal and collective.

For many of us, it means trying to live differently in the here and now, knowing that the future will never be a complete break with the present or the past, but hopefully something that may develop out of our most supportive engagements with others. To think otherwise inhibits resistance and confirms the dominant conceit that there is no alternative to the present. Thus, I want to close this chapter repeating the words of the late Latin American writer, Eduardo Galeano, which seem to have been translated into almost every language on earth, though I cannot track down their source:

Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep moving forward.

Our political dreams can end in disappointment, but are likely, nevertheless, to make us feel more alive, and hence happier, along the way, at least when they help to connect us to and express concern for those around us. Happiness demands nothing less.

 

Damnation: Rural Radicalism

Damnation is a new show on USA Network (co-produced by Netflix). It’s enjoyable entertainment inspired by history and influenced by literature.

As Phil De Semlyen at Empire summarizes the background of the show, it is “a 1930s saga of big business concerns and poor, struggling families, with possibly a sprinkling of Elmer Gantry-like religious hypocrisy, crime and demagoguery thrown in for good measure. “It’s set in the Great Depression and based on true events,” Mackenzie tells Empire of this heady-sounding mix, “It’s about strikers and strike-breakers in Iowa, almost the Dust Bowl, which is bloody interesting.” A bit Steinbeck-y, then? “Kind of. A little bit more amped than that, but yeah.”” And from a Cleveland.com piece by Mark Dawidziak, the show’s creator Tony Tost explained in an interview that,  “They’re unquestionably two of my favorite writers… The world of John Steinbeck as presented in ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Cannery Row’ was a big influence, as was Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, ‘Red Harvest,” which is set in a Western mining town. All of that went into the soup when writing ‘Damnation.’ ” In mentioning that interview, Bustle’s Jack O’Keeffe writes that,

While the show’s creator has named The Grapes Of Wrath as a touchstone for the series, it also calls to mind one of the most acclaimed period films of the past decade. The 2007 film There Will Be Blood covers the first three decades of 20th Century America, stopping just shy of the Great Depression. However, the small-town rivalry between a suspicious preacher and a business-minded capitalist that arises in There Will Be Blood seems to mirror the central conflict present in Damnation. Damnation seems to be drawing from some pieces of American fiction about the sociopolitical realities of this particular era.

In an interview with Cleveland.com, Tost admitted that Damnation’s influences don’t stop at Steinbeck or the violent filmography of Quentin Tarantino. Tost also listed iconic western director Sam Peckinpah, the Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead, and the non-fiction book Hard Times: An Oral History Of The Great Depression among his many inspirations. While Damnation may have invented the details of its story, the creative forces behind the show seemed to do their homework when it came to capturing an accurate picture of what life was like then.

While many of the show’s influences are set 80 years ago, the most surprising source for Damnation may be 2017. Tost told Cleveland.com in the previously mentioned interview, “If you look at the 1930s — a time when there was increasing distrust in institutions, there was fear of finding meaningful work, there is this onslaught of new technology taking away jobs — the relevance [of the show to 2017 audiences] is almost inescapable.”

In a Fayetteville Flyer interview, Tost describes “it as 1/3 Clint Eastwood, 1/3 John Steinbeck, 1/3 James Ellroy. That is, it takes some characters you’d normally see in a tough western, plops them in the world of Grapes of Wrath, and places them in the sort of pulpy paranoid narrative you see in Ellroy’s novels.” About the research, he says:

It’s a blast. Back in my academic days, my field of study was American literature from 1890 to 1945 and I wrote a dissertation on the influence of new technologies in the 20s and 30s on the American imagination. Then I wrote a book about Johnny Cash which delved into the same time period from a different angle, looking at the music and preachers and myths of Americana. So by the time I came up with Damnation as a TV show, I had a good feel for the period, I think. I’ve done plenty of research since then: oral histories and historical accounts of the period and so forth. We have a person who works on the show who daily does research into various arenas we’re interested in, whether it’s carnivals or bootlegging or pornography or baseball or what have you. Largely, I subscribe to David Milch of Deadwood’s advice: do a ton of research, then forget it, and then use your imagination. So Damnation mingles official history with fiction. I sometimes call it a “speculative history” of the time period.

And about “parallels between that period and today,” he states that there are, “Too many to list. I think that’s one of the things that got us the series order from USA network. Populist anger, fears about technologies and immigrants taking away jobs, fascist tendencies, fears of environmental apocalypse (dust bowl), life and death struggles over who is or isn’t a “real” American. The parallels are often spooky.”

So, even as it follows the general pattern of known history, it doesn’t appear to be based on any specific set of events. It is about the farmer revolts in Iowa during the Great Depression (see 1931 Iowa Cow War, 1932 Farmers’ Holiday Association, & 1933 Wisconsin Milk Strike), the kind of topic demonstrating traditional all-American radicalism that triggers the political right and makes them nostalgic for the pro-capitalist political correctness of corporate media propaganda during the Cold War. But I don’t think the fascist wannabes should get too worried since, as we know from history, the capitalists or rather corporatists defeated that threat from below. The days of a radical working class and of the independent farmer were numbered. The show captures that brief moment when the average American fought against the ruling elite with a genuine if desperate hope as a last stand in defending their way of life, but it didn’t have a happy ending for them.

The USA Network can put out a show like this because capitalism is so entrenched that such history of rebellion no longer feels like a serious threat, although this sense of security might turn out to be false in the long run. Capitalist-loving corporations, of course, will sell anything for a profit, even tv shows about a left-wing populist revolt against capitalists — as Marx put it, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” The heckling complaints from the right-wing peanut gallery are maybe a good sign, as they are sensing that public opinion is turning against them. But as for appreciating the show, it is irrelevant what you think about the historical events themselves. The show doesn’t play into any simplistic narrative of good vs evil, as characters on both sides have complicated pasts. One is free to root for the capitalists as their goons kill the uppity farmers, if that makes one happy.

As for myself, the show is of personal interest as most of the story occurs here in Iowa. The specific location named is Holden County, but I have no idea where that is supposed to be. There presently is no Holden County in Iowa and I don’t know that there ever was. All I could find is a reference to a Holden County School (Hamilton Township) in an obituary from Decatur County, which is along the southern border of Iowa (a county over from Appanoose where is located Centerville with an interesting history). Maybe there used to a Holden County that was absorbed by another county, a common event I’ve come across before in genealogical research, but in this case no historical map shows a Holden County ever having existed.

The probable fictional nature of the county aside, there is a reason the general location is relevant. Iowa is a state that exists in multiple overlapping border regions, between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, between the Midwest and Far West, between the Upper Midwest and the Upper South. It is technically in the Midwest and typically perceived as the Heart of the Heartland, the precise location of Standard American English. The broad outlines of Iowa was defined according to Indian territory, such as how the northern border of Missouri originally formed. What became a boundary dispute later on almost led to violent conflict between Missouri and Iowa, based on the ideological conflict over slavery that would eventually develop into the Civil War.

Large parts of Iowa has more similarity to the Upper Midwest. It is distinct in being west of the Mississippi River, one of the last areas of refuge for many of what then were still independent Native American tribes and hence one of the last major battlegrounds to fight off Westward expansion. Iowa is the only state where a tribe collectively bought its own land, rather than staying on a federal reservation. As for southern Iowa, there is a clear Southern influence and you can occasionally hear a Southern accent (as found all across the lower edge of the Lower Midwest). That distinguishes it from northern Iowa with more of the northern European (German, Czech, and Scandinvian) culture shared with Minnesota and Wisconsin. And the more urbanized and industrialized Eastern Iowa has some New England influence from early settlers.

Maybe related to the show, southern Iowa had much more racial and ethnic diversity because of the immigrants attracted to mining towns. This led to greater conflict. I know that in Centerville, a town once as diverse as any big city, the Ku Klux Klan briefly used violence and manipulation to take control of the government before being ousted by the community. The area was important for the Underground Railroad, but it wasn’t a safe area to live for blacks until after the Civil War. In Damnation, some of the town residents are members of the Black Legion, the violent militant group that was an offshoot of the KKK (originally formed to guard Klan leaders). In the show, the Black Legion is essentially a fascist group that opposes left-wing politics and  labor organizing, which is historically accurate. The Klan and related groups in the North were more politically oriented, since the black population was fewer in number. In fact, the Klan tended to be found in counties where there were the least number of minorities (racial minorities, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities), as shown in how they couldn’t maintain control in diverse towns like Centerville.

One of the few blacks portrayed in the show is a woman working at a brothel. I supposed that would have been common, as blacks would have had a harder time finding work. In a scene at the brothel, there was one detail that seemed to potentially be historically inaccurate. A Pinkerton goon has all the prostitutes gathered and holds up something with words on it. He wants to find out which of them can read and it turns out that the black woman is the only literate prostitute working there. That seems unlikely. Iowa had a highly educated population early on, largely by design — as Phil Christman explains (On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality):

This is a part of the country where, the novelist Neal Stephenson observes, you can find small colleges “scattered about…at intervals of approximately one tank of gas.” Indeed, the grid-based zoning so often invoked to symbolize dullness actually attests to a love of education, he argues: 

People who often fly between the East and West Coasts of the United States will be familiar with the region, stretching roughly from the Ohio to the Platte, that, except in anomalous non-flat areas, is spanned by a Cartesian grid of roads. They may not be aware that the spacing between roads is exactly one mile. Unless they have a serious interest in nineteenth-century Midwestern cartography, they can’t possibly be expected to know that when those grids were laid out, a schoolhouse was platted at every other road intersection. In this way it was assured that no child in the Midwest would ever live more than √2 miles [i.e., about 1.4 miles] from a place where he or she could be educated.7

Minnesota Danish farmers were into Kierkegaard long before the rest of the country.8 They were descended, perhaps, from the pioneers Meridel LeSueur describes in her social history North Star Country: 

Simultaneously with building the sod shanties, breaking the prairie, schools were started, Athenaeums and debating and singing societies founded, poetry written and recited on winter evenings. The latest theories of the rights of man were discussed along with the making of a better breaking plow. Fourier, Marx, Rousseau, Darwin were discussed in covered wagons.9

If you’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, you know that many of these schools were founded as centers of abolitionist resistance, or even as stops on the Underground Railroad.

The rural Midwest was always far different than the rural South. Iowa, in particular, was a bureaucratically planned society with the greatest proportion of developed land of any state in the country. The location of roads, railroads, towns, and schools was determined before most of the population arrived (similar to what China is now attempting with its mass building of cities out of nothing). The South, on the other hand, grew haphazardly and with little government intervention, such as seen with the the crazy zig-zagging of property lines and roads because of the metes-and-bounds system. This orderly design of Iowa fit the orderly culture of Northern European immigrants and New England settlers, contributing to an idealistic mentality about how society should operate (the Iowa college towns surrounded by farmland were built on the New England model).

The farmer revolts didn’t come out of nowhere. The immigrant populations in states like Iowa were already strongly community-focused and civic-minded. With them, they brought values of work ethic, systematic methods of farming, love of education, and much else. As an interesting example, Iowa was once known as the most musical state in the country because every town had local bands.

Unlike the stereotype, Iowans were obsessed with high culture. They saw themselves on the vanguard of Western Civilization. With so many public schools and colleges near every community, Iowans were well educated. The reason school children to this day have summers off was originally to allow farm children to be able to help on the farm while still being able to attend school. These Midwestern farm kids had relatively high rates of college attendance. And Iowa has long been known for having good schools, especially in the past. My mother has noted that so many Iowans she knows who are college-educated professionals went to small rural one-room schoolhouses.

Another factor is that Northern Europeans had a collectivist bent. They didn’t just love building public schools, public libraries, and public parks. They also formed civic institutions, farmer co-ops, credit unions, etc. They had a strong sense of solidarity that held their communities together. As the Iowa farmers stood together against the capitalist elites from the cities (the banksters, robber barons, and railroad tycoons), so did the German-American residents of Templeton, Iowa stood against Prohibition agents:

The most powerful weapon against oppression is community. This is attested to by the separate fates of a Templetonian like Joe Irlbeck and big city mobster like Al Capone. “Just as Al Capone had Eliot Ness, Templeton’s bootleggers had as their own enemy a respected Prohibition agent from the adjacent county named Benjamin Franklin Wilson. Wilson was ardent in his fight against alcohol, and he chased Irlbeck for over a decade. But Irlbeck was not Capone, and Templeton would not be ruled by violence like Chicago” (Kindle Locations 7-9 [Bryce T. Bauer, Gentlemen Bootleggers]). What ruled Templeton was most definitely not violence. Instead, it was a culture of trust. That is a weapon more powerful than all of Al Capone’s hired guns.

Damnation is a fair portrayal of this world that once existed. And it helps us to understand what destroyed that world — as vulture capitalists targeted small family farmers, controlling markets when possible or failing that sending in violent goons to create fear and havoc. That world survived in tatters for a few more decades, but government-subsidized big ag quickly took over. Still, small family farmers didn’t give up without a fight, as they were some of the last defenders of a pre-corporatist free market based on the ideal of meritorious hard work — the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer with its vision of agrarian republicanism, in line with Paine’s brand of socially-minded and liberty-loving Anti-Federalism.

On a more prosaic level, one reviewer offers a critical observation. Mike Hale writes, from a New York Times piece (Review: ‘Damnation’ and the Sick Soul of 1930s America):

Any fidelity to the story’s supposed place and time is clearly incidental to Mr. Tost. He’s transposed the clichés of 19th-century Wyoming or South Dakota to 1930s Iowa, and doesn’t even get the look right — shot in Alberta, the locations look nothing like the Midwest.

Perhaps he was drawn to the contemporary echoes of the Depression-era material but wanted to give it some mock-Shakespearean, “Deadwood”-style dramatic heft. There’s a lot of literary straining going on — the characters are more familiar than you’d expect with the work of Wallace Stevens and Theodore Dreiser, and the sordid capitalism and anti-Communist fervor depicted in the story invoke Sinclair Lewis and Jack London.

I’m not sure why Mike Hale thinks the show doesn’t look like Iowa. He supposedly grew up in Iowa, but I don’t know which part. Anyone who has been in Western Iowa or even much of Eastern Iowa would recognize similar terrain. I doubt anything has been transposed.

Iowa is a young state and, as once being part of the Wild West, early on had a cowboy culture. Famous Hollywood cowboys came from the Midwest, specifically this region along the Upper Mississippi River — such as Ronald Reagan who was from western Illinois and worked in Iowa and John Anderson who was born in Western Illinois and was college-educated in Iowa, but also others who were born and raised in Iowa: John Wayne, Hank Worden, Neville Brand, etc (not just playing cowboys on the big screen but growing up around that cowboy culture). This isn’t just farm country with fields of corn and soy. Most of that is feed for animals, such as cattle. Iowa is part of the rodeo circuit and there is a strong horse culture around here. A short distance from where I live, a coworker of mine helps drive cattle down a highway every year to move them from one field to another.

But as I pointed out, none of this contradicts it also being a highly educated and literate population. I don’t know why Hale would think that certain writers would be unknown to Midwesterners, especially popular and populist writers like Jack London. As for Theodore Dreiser, he was a fellow German-American Midwesterner who wrote about rural life and was politically aligned with working class interests, including involvement in the defense of radicals like those Iowa farmers — the kind of writer one would expect Iowans, specifically working class activists, to be reading during the Great Depression era. That would be even more true for Sinclair Lewis who was from neighboring Minnesota, not to mention also writing popular books about Midwestern communities and radical criticisms of growing fascism — the same emergent fascism that threatened those Iowa farmers.

It’s interesting that an Iowan like Mike Hale would be so unaware of Iowa history. But maybe that is because he was born and spent much of his life outside of Iowa, specifically outside of the United States. His family isn’t from Iowa and so he has no roots here. I noticed that he tweeted that he “Was intrigued ‘Damnation’ is set in my state, Iowa. Didn’t expect the crucifixion, gun battles and frontier brothel”; to which someone responded that “If in Palo Alto, San Jose & NYC since ’77, IA hasn’t been ur state 4 awhile.” Besides, part of his childhood wasn’t even spent in Iowa but instead in Asia. And beyond that, many people simply don’t think he is that great of a critic (see Cultural Learnings, Variety, and Mediaite).

A better review is by Jeff Iblings over at The Tracking Board (Damnation Review: “Sam Riley’s Body”). The review is specifically about the first episode, but goes into greater detail:

Damnation is a new show on USA Networks set in the 1930’s during prohibition, the dust bowl era, and the social unrest during the unionization and strikes that accompanied the corruption of that time. It’s an intriguing look at a moment in American history when people began to wrest control away from a government bought and paid for by industrialists, only to have their movement squashed by the collusion of moneyed interests and the politicians they’d paid for. The series begins in Holden, Iowa as farmers have formed a blockade around the town so no more shipments of produce can reach the city. The powerful banker in town, who owns the newspaper and the Sheriff, has bribed the market in town to keep his food prices low, to price the famers out of making a profit on their crops so they’ll default on the loans he’s given them. A preacher in town fans the flames of the farmer’s unhappiness and gets them to revolt against the banker. Who is this mysterious preacher, and what does he have planned? […]

Damnation is clearly well researched, and the true-life stories it uses to flesh out its world are there to service the narrative, not overburden the show. 1930’s America was a desperate, bleak time, where moneyed interests controlled everything. The game was fixed back then, with politicians in the pocket of industrialists and wealthy bankers. The people had nothing more to give, since the wealthy had taken nearly everything from them. It’s a very relevant tale. Almost the same exact thing is going on again in present day America, which I would imagine, is one of the points of Damnation.

Iblings writes in another Damnation review of the second episode:

Tony Tost and his writers room delve into the history of the Great Depression in order to mine forgotten aspects of our political and social movements. It’s incredible how prescient much of the struggles of the farmers depicted still are problems today. Price fixing, bank negligence and dishonesty, politicians in the pockets of big business, the stifling of the labor movement when it’s needed most, and the inherent racism and protectionism of white Americans towards other races are all as topical today as they were in the 1930’s. It’s as if little has actually changed 100 years later. Damnation may be a historical television series, but it’s speaking to the America of today.

And about the third episode, he writes:

There are a few interesting moments I want to point out that really stuck with me. The first is the opening scene of a couple watching their kids playing baseball and taking great joy in it. When the wife goes into the shed to get the kids some cream soda, there are nooses hanging from the ceiling and Black Legion outfits hung up on the walls. The man then exclaims to his wife, “If this isn’t the American dream, I don’t know what is.” Damnation uses this banal setting, and these uneventful people to show how the American dream was an exclusionary ideal. They look like normal people you’d run into, but underneath this veneer are racist secrets. This prejudice was pervasive back then, but in Trump’s America this type of hatred and racism has become the norm once again. It was disgusting then, and it’s disgusting now.

What I like about the show is how it portrays the nature of populist politics during that historical era. The show begins in 1931, a moment of transition for American society in the waning days of Prohibition. The Great Depression followed decades of Populism and set the stage for the Progressivism that would follow. The next year Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected and later on re-elected twice more, the most popular president in US history.

What many forget about both Populism and Progressivism is the role that religion played, especially Evangelicalism. In the past, Evangelicals were often radical reformers in their promoting separation of church and state, abolitionism, women’s rights, and such. Think of the 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech given by William Jennings Bryan. This goes back to how Thomas Paine, the original American populist and progressive, used Christian language to advocate radical politics. Interestingly, as Paine was an anti-Christian deist, the leader of the farmers revolt is a guy falsely posing as an itinerant preacher, although he shows signs of genuine religious feeling such as sparing a man’s life when he sees the likeness of a cross marked on the floor near the man’s head. However one takes his persona of religiosity, the preaching of a revolutionary Jesus is perfectly in line with the political rhetoric of the period.

I also can’t help but appreciate how much it resonates with the present. The past, in a sense, always remains relevant — since as William Faulkner so deftly put it,  “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” In a New York Post interview, the show’s creator Tony Tost was asked, “How relevant is the plot about the common man battling the establishment today?” And he replied that, “I wrote the first two episodes, like, three years ago, but contemporary history keeps making the show feel more and more relevant. I’m not necessarily trying to do an allegory about the present, but history is very cyclical. There’s some core elemental conflicts and issues that we keep returning to. In a way, the present day almost caught up.”

As with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, Damnation has good timing. Such hard-hitting social commentary is important at times like these. And in the form of entertainment, it is more likely to have an impact.

* * *

State of Emergency: The Depression and the Plots to Create an American Dictatorship
by Nate Braden, Kindle Locations 510-571
(see Great Depression, Iowa, & Revolts)

“In September 1932 Fortune published a shocking profile of the effect Depression poverty was having on the American people. Titled “No One Has Starved” – in mocking reference to Herbert Hoover’s comment to that effect – Fortune essentially called the President a liar and explained why in a ten page article. Predicting eleven million unemployed by winter, its grim math figured these eleven million breadwinners were responsible for supporting another sixteen and a half million people, thus putting the total number of Americans without any income whatsoever at 27.5 million. Along with another 6.5 million who were underemployed, this meant 34 million citizens – nearly a third of the country’s population – lived below the poverty line. [1]

“Confidence was low that a Hoover reelection would bring any improvement in the country’s situation. He had ignored calls in 1929 to bail out banks after the stock market crashed on the grounds that the federal government had no business saving failed enterprises. With no liquidity in the financial markets, credit evaporated and deflation pushed prices and wages lower, laying waste to asset values. Two years passed before Hoover responded with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created to distribute $300 million in relief funds to state and local governments. It was too little, too late. The money would have been better served shoring up the banks three years earlier.

“With each cold, hungry winter that passed, political discussions grew more radical and less tolerant. Talk of revolution was more openly voiced. Harper’s, reflecting the opinion of East Coast intellectuals, pondered its likelihood and confidently asserted: “Revolutions are made, not by the weak, the unsuccessful, or the ignorant, but by the strong and the informed. They are processes, not merely of decay and destruction, but of advance and building. An old order does not disappear until a new order is ready to take its place.”[2]

“As this smug analysis was rolling off the presses, the weak, the unsuccessful, and the ignorant were already proving it wrong. Most people expected a revolt to start in the cities, but it was in the countryside, in Herbert Hoover’s home state no less, where men first took up arms against a system they had been raised to believe in but no longer did. On August 13, 1932, Milo Reno, the onetime head of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, led a group of five hundred men in an assault on Sioux City. They called it a “farm holiday,” but it was in fact an insurrection. Reno and his supporters blocked all ten highways into the city and confiscated every shipment of milk except those destined for hospitals, dumping it onto the side of the road or taking it into town to give away free. Fed up with getting only two cents for a quart of milk that cost them four cents to bring to market, the farmers were creating their own scarcities in an attempt to drive up prices.

“The insurgents enjoyed local support. Telephone operators gave advance warning of approaching lawmen, who were promptly ambushed and disarmed. When 55 men were arrested for picketing the highway to Omaha, a crowd of a thousand angry farmers descended on the county jail in Council Bluffs and forced their release. The uprising just happened to coincide with the Iowa National Guard’s annual drill in Des Moines, but Governor Dan Turner declined to use these troops to break up the disturbance, saying he had “faith in the good judgment of the farmers of Iowa that they will not resort to violence.”[3]

“The rebellion spread to Des Moines, Spencer, and Boone. Farmers in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota declared their own holidays. Milo Reno issued a press release vowing to continue “until the buying power of the farmer is restored – which can be done only by conceding him the right to cost of production, based on an American standard of existence.” Business institutions, he added, “whether great or small, important or humble, must suffer.” While advising his followers to obey the law and engage only in “peaceful picketing,” Reno issued this warning: “The day for pussyfooting and deception in the solution of the farmers’ problems is past, and the politicians who have juggled with the agricultural question and used it as a pawn with which to promote their own selfish interests can succeed no longer.”[4]

“Reno and his men had laid down their marker. Aware that the insurrectionists might call his bluff, the governor stopped short of issuing an ultimatum, but he kept his Guardsmen in Des Moines just in case. The showdown never came – a mysterious shotgun attack on one of Reno’s camps near Cherokee was enough to persuade him to call off the holiday – but others weren’t cowed by the violence. The same day Reno issued his press release, coal miners in neighboring Illinois went on strike after their pay was cut to five dollars a day. Fifteen thousand of them shut down shafts all over Franklin County, the state’s largest mining region, and took over the town of Coulterville for several hours, “exhausting provisions at the restaurant, swamping the telephone exchange with calls and choking roads and fields for a mile around” the New York Times reported. Governor Louis Emmerson ordered state troopers to take the town back. Wading into a hostile, sneering crowd who shouted “Cossacks!” at them, the police broke it up with pistols and clubs, putting eight miners in the hospital.

“The rebels were bloodied but unbowed. Vowing to march back in to coal country, strike leader Pat Ansbury told a journalist, “if we go back it must be with weapons. We can’t face the machine guns of those Franklin County jailbirds with our naked hands. Not a man in our midst had even a jackknife. When we go back we must have arms, organization and cooperation from the other side.” Shaking his head at the lost opportunity, he made sure the reporter hadn’t misunderstood him. “This policy of peaceful picketing is out from now on.” Reno conducted a similar post-mortem, acknowledging that his side may have lost the battle but would not lose the war: “You can no more stop this movement than you could stop the revolution. I mean the revolution of 1776.”[5]

“Not only were farmers burdened by low commodity prices, they were also swamped with high-interest mortgages and crushing taxes. In February 1933 Prudential Insurance, the nation’s largest land creditor, announced it would suspend foreclosures on the 37,000 farm titles it held, valued at $209 million. Mutual Benefit and Metropolitan Life followed suit, all of them finally coming to the conclusion that they couldn’t get blood from a rock.

“It was also getting very dangerous to be a repo man in the Midwest. When farms were foreclosed and the land put up for auction, neighbors of the dispossessed property holder would often show up at the sale, drive away any serious bidders, then buy the land for a few dollars and deed it back to the original owner. By this subterfuge a debt of $400 at one Ohio auction was settled for two dollars and fifteen cents. A mortgage broker in Illinois received only $4.90 for the $2,500 property he had put into receivership. An Oklahoma attorney who tried to serve foreclosure papers to a farm widow was promptly waylaid by her neighbors, including the county sheriff, driven ten miles out of town and dumped unceremoniously on the side of the road. A Kansas City realtor who had foreclosed on a 500-acre farm turned up with a bullet in his head, his killers never brought to justice. [6]”