The Arch of Metahistory:
To create society within the setting of a natural
habitat raises many complex issues regarding how human needs may conflict
with the environment or harmonize with it. Stories of an original paradisical
state or Golden Age may be more than mere fantasies about the mysterious
past of humanity. These myths encode the belief that humankind lived
without conflict when it was totally immersed in the bond with Sacred
Nature. (Basic Reading: Memories
and Visions of Paradise)
In the arch of metahistory, the left-hand side represents the long
passage from evolutionary roots in prehistory to the recorded origins
of civilization. Long before the first evidence of historical origins for
instance, the earliest traces of the first Dynasty in Egypt, dated
to around 3400 BCE the human species had been engaged in defining
itself as distinct from nature, forming settlements and societies,
introducing culture. The struggle for survival involves
conflict with nature, but socialization introduces other kinds of conflict.
The complexities of power-sharing and the differentiation of individuals
according to their capacities present many occasions for strife and
confusion. The necessity of leadership in any social order introduces
the possibility of conflict over who will assume that role. Conflicts
that arise within society are initially assessed and resolved by trial
and error, but gradually a sense of order emerges, rules and norms
of behavior are established, and society becomes (ideally) a self-regulating
organism. This development reflects the theme of Moral Design whose
position across the arch is complementary to Eternal Conflict.
For years, historians assumed that warfare was the primary
motive behind civilization, but recent discoveries at the mother
city of Caral in Peru challenge that theory. (SIDEBAR on Caral).
We know precious little about how prehistorical civilized societies managed
conflict, but it is fairly certain that War Gods did not appear until
full-blown civilization arrived. Hence warfare may not have been so much
the catalyst for civilization as a consequence of it. If homo sapiens
is truly a social animal, social order could have emerged without the
need for violent force to control and subdue human energies. Once it
was established, however, stability and continuity might well have become
problematic. War and strife could have arisen over the transfer of
power consolidated in the social order. This development is reflected
in the origin myths of many cultures, stories of war and strife among
the Gods or between Gods and humans. The founders of nations are often
twins who compete to the death: Horus and Set in Egypt, Romulus and Remus
in Italy. Even the creation of the world often begins with a scenario
of warring twins. Twinning is a universal mytheme applied in countless
instances to describe Eternal Conflict.
What applies for the mythological background of life also figures in history. The birth of European classical culture begins with a massive conflict, the Trojan War. In this situation the Greeks, who represent Western Europe and the future, gain independence from Asia, which represents the archaic past. Another aspect of European destiny is determined by the founding of Rome by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. This event is historically recorded in the chronicles of the Roman Empire, yet the action is attributed to mythical characters a unique example how myth and history can converge. (Technically, this is called a mythohistorical nexus). The brothers compete for the honor of founding the first city, but the matter is decided by fate: an omen appears over the hills of Rome, twelve vultures sighted by Romulus, who then kills his brother and claims the sovereign role of empire-builder.
Historians later assumed the omen to indicate that the Empire had an allotted time-span, and speculation raged over how to calculate it. The estimate of one vulture per century turns out to be very close to the historical reality, for Rome endured from 747 BCE to around 450 CE, when it fell to the hordes of Attila the Hun. This anecdote typifies the archaic belief that all human activity, including the rise and fall of civilizations, is allotted a timeframe by higher powers that oversee human fate. It indicates how Eternal Conflict may have a regulatory role in human affairs. The assurance that conflict will in time bring a cycle of activity to an end sets limits on the range of human desire and ambition, although it would be wiser for humanity to set its own limits. How it might do so is a question to be explored in the context of another master theme, Moral Design.
The Roman Empire triumphed on the strength of its war-making machine, only to be shattered by marauding barbarians. The belief that a war-based Aryan culture could dominate the whole world was re-enacted by the Nazis who followed the catastrophic theories of Hans Horbinger, a crackpot geologist whose World Ice Theory assumed that the earth was cyclically devastated by massive planetary disturbances. (Basic Reading: Arktos) The periodic destruction of the world by fire and ice is one of the most widespread mythological motifs on record. With the Nazis it became a pathological fixation linked to their belief in the ability of the Master Race to survive the catastrophes. Not surprisingly, Hitler, like the Roman emperors before him, employed a team of astrologers to compute the cosmic odds for and against his war-machine. Hitler engaged in Eternal Conflict as if it were a chess game he could win.
These are late, historically based examples of Eternal Conflict. The belief that might makes right has driven many historical movements, but whether it was so important in prehistory is an open question. If the motif of Eternal Conflict is assigned to prehistory (left-hand side of the arch), there must be some primary event in prehistory to exemplify it as well as, or better than, cases taken from history.
The key event in prehistory is undoubtedly the introduction of agriculture. At least one cultural historian (Jared Diamond) has argued that agriculture is the single greatest mistake in the life of our species. A similar view is developed by Daniel Quinn, an author who presents metahistorical issues in fictional form. In Ishmael a gorilla plays guru to an anthropologist, enlightening him about how humanity became split into two camps, Takers and Leavers, represented by Cain and Abel in the Bible. The Leavers are hunter-gatherers who live off nature and leave it intact, but the Takers are agriculturalists who take more than they need, thus devastating nature and infecting themselves with envy and competition. Here again, the crux of Eternal Conflict in the human realm seems to involve lack of self-regulation.
Some alternative scenarios of prehistory attribute the discovery and development of agriculture to women. This claim figures strongly in the Feminist revision of history that proposes an alternative to the glorification of man the hunter as the mastermind of civilization. The value assigned to womans achievement in prehistory depends on the view one takes of agriculture. Ironically, giving women credit for this innovation during the Neolithic Revolution can be a way to blame them for the worst mistake in human evolution. The agricultural leap made it possible for large-scale settlements to be established, and the resulting social organization led (in many but not all cases) to urban-mercantile centers. The agricultural-urban experiment in the Middle East exacerbated and exaggerated the nature-culture split, thus upping the ante of Eternal Conflict. Now much more than survival was at stake, for agriculture introduces a division of wealth and labor, luxury, privilege, bureaucracy as well as the opposing factors, enslavement, deprivation, graft, poverty.
Social identity develops through conflict (taking sides) and social power is acquired by mastery of conflict or by arbitration among squabbling factions. What previously appeared to be conflict in nature, such as the interplay of light and darkness, now becomes symbolic of what is developing in humanity, in its collective soul-life. Here the human species enters a long experiment that is highly paradoxical, because every conflict challenges humanity to restore balance, within the individual and without.
God demands war, a script found in the Old Testament, encodes the belief that a divine will works through organized aggression and violence. Needless to say, this is a most volatile script, whose enactment is now evident globally on a daily basis. In the departure from Sacred Nature, humanity tends to look to an abstract deity for a sense of purpose at least such has been the trend of Judeo-Christian-Moslem monotheistic religions. The Holy War script which first appears in the Old Testament is a scenario for conflict from the outset, because it requires pitting the belief that God supports goodness against the belief that God incites aggression, including genocide and forceful territorial seizure. Compounded, these two conflicting beliefs produce a weird permutation: God supports aggression in the cause of His ultimate plan for goodness to triumph. That such a proposition might incite schizoid behavior in whomever it infects is not hard to understand. In this formula, Eternal Conflict is assured for humanity because it is projected into human affairs by the superhuman volition of the Creator. Most historians agree that the religious leadership of the ancient Hebrews derived the notion of the eternal conflict of absolute cosmic principles of Good and Evil from Zoroastrian teachings encountered during the Babylonian Captivity (586 - 516 BCE) when a large part of the Jewish population was exiled in Mesopotamia. Zoroastrianism is extremely obscure but the scenario of two absolute and independent principles, two gods of Light and Dark, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, is widely thought to have originated in this archaic religion of Persia.
Significantly, the Persian culture matrix, which may date from as early as 6000 BCE, is associated with the rise of agriculture, for the plow (figuratively if not literally a male innovation) is said to have been introduced by Zoroaster. The juxtaposition of plowing the earth with the Good-Evil theology is striking because it echoes the belief of many native-mind peoples that the violation of Mother Earth by the plow is an evil deed, an actual rape that upsets the symbiotic balance between humanity and Nature. To this day native Americans in the Four Corners region of the southwest engage in ongoing legal battles with the US government over the right to mine sacred land for minerals. Similar confrontations have arisen in Africa and Australia where aboriginal people protest that extracting minerals from the earth harms the Earth Mother and threatens cosmic order. (Lawlor, Voices of the First Day in reading for Sacred Nature) Prehistoric though it may be, the motif of Eternal Conflict is very much current today behind the debate over the environment.
Well before the standards of civilized life were defined (for instance, in such legal statutes as marriage and inheritance laws and the rules of commerce), it was believed that cosmic and social order were a unity, but a polarized one. In Zoroastrian religion, the Twin Spirits, Asha and Drug pervade all activities in the cosmos at all levels, natural, human and divine. These are not Good and Evil, however. Asha is Rightness (that which is just and correct) and Drug is deceit or error. Hebrew priests who adopted a late, decadent form of Zoroastria religion may have missed the difference between error (a mistake) and evil (deliberate wrong-doing). In the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran near Jerusalem in 1947, the Twin Spirits re-appear as a good angel and an evil angel born with each human being. The alignment of the individual to Gods will depends upon whose advice is taken. The battle of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness announced with militaristic fervor in the War Scroll is a sure-fire formula for Eternal Conflict with no solution except a final apocalyptic showdown between the two sides. The Jewish apocalyptic scenario of Qumran was inherited by Christianity and Islam. The Zealots, a splinter group of revolutionaries, then incited an apocalyptic war against Rome that resulted in the destruction of temple Judaism and the eradication of the nation of Israel in 70 C.E.. It remains central to humanitys dominant religious traditions.
By contrast to the fundamentalist creeds of today, pagan religion encompassed the belief in many gods whose devotees coexisted in a wide spectrum of sects and schools. Polytheism was the form of religion suited to racial and cultural diversity, mirroring the diversity of species in the natural world. The pagan gods, even the gods of the Mysteries, are not jealous of one another; they form, as it were, an open society. (Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults) Likewise, among indigenous peoples, each tribal group has its own gods who are, in many cases, the same entities recognized under different names. There was no conflict or competition among races to assert the supremacy of their tribal gods, except in the highly unique case of the ancient Hebrews for whom their Lord God, Jahweh, (identical to the Canaanite Haddad and other pagan deities), was elevated to a supreme and exclusive role. After the Captivity, monotheistic belief became encoded in the story that asserts one god rules all of humanity. When the racial identity of a people is determined by the imagined approval or disapproval of an exclusive, demanding deity, conflict is sure to become endemic.
The problem of monotheism was compounded by the Good-Evil formula derived from Zoroastrianism, as described above. With this development a variety of confusing beliefs emerge: the assertion that good defeats evil (a belief brutally contradicted in many cases by the evidence of human experience) jostles with the assertion that god sends evil (a belief that contradicts faith in the supreme deity as a benevolent parent to humanity) and results in a compromise formula, evil is given by God to test humanity. This proposition is extremely problematic, because it empowers evil as a moral directive rather than a sheer blind force of violence and negation. As such divinely schizoid notions compete for a believers credulity, their moral terrain becomes muddied and the clear mental atmosphere necessary for reasoned choice turns dangerously murky.
The complex of righteousness, Tzaddik in Hebrew, may be a derivation of the Zoroastrian Asha, rightness, but if so, it is a distortion: to be right is not necessarily to be righteous, and vice versa. Tzaddik is scripted heavily in the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Basic reading: The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception) It is the central ideological principle of the Qumran sect, a splinter group of radical Jews who combined mystical aspirations with a militant agenda for the liberation of Palestine from Roman occupation. It is also the root of Judaeo-Christian-Moslem religion. Tzaddik enshrines the belief that gods approval ultimately goes to a chosen few who strictly follow his rules.
In the fusion of the Old Testament with the New Testament, the righteous judgment of Jehovah is said to be tempered by the forgiving love of Jesus Christ: the script says, the father god tests humanity but his son redeems humanity because the son loves humanity, and the love of the son is believed to come from the father. In the early disputes over Christian doctrine, heretical theologians called Gnostics flatly rejected this O.T.-N.T. link because they could not see a way to blend the vengeful father god script with the forgiving son script. Nevertheless, the connection was ultimately enforced and it remains the cornerstone of the redemptive theology of Christianity. Christians believe that the life-of-Jesus script fulfills the sacred history of the Jews, but with the qualification that this fulfillment is universal (catholic) and intended for all humanity, not for the racial group who originated the script.
The religious-racial script problems based on Zoroastrian cosmic duality have been a continuous issue through the Christian era and remain unresolved. In the present moment of history, the ramifications of these belief-systems are still highly volatile and threaten to engulf the global community in irresolvable conflict.
Most modern nations have come into existence through conflict or revolution. The adversarial role of the national hero is evident in all countries and the resultant nations often find themselves involved in scripts of competition rather than cooperation. The ideal of a community of neighbor states, the international community, is widely hyped in the media but this beguiling notion remains largely hypothetical. Thoughtful observers such as Noam Chomsky note that the power of one nation depends upon the diabolization of another: hence America-Iraq is a polarized entity charged with the elements of Eternal Conflict. Chomskys suggestion that America actually keeps Saddam Hussein in power to provide a foil for its own hegemony in the Middle East looks outrageous to some, but not unreasonable to others. The axis of evil cited by American President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union speech is a ritual pronouncement of Eternal Conflict, for an axis must have two opposing poles. No matter how international diplomacy may be operating at any moment, Eternal Conflict still dominates in the realpolitik of the nation states.
The theme of Eternal Conflict is also reflected sexually. The belief that all sexual intercourse consists of men raping women, proposed in the Feminist classic Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller, may appear extremist, but it is supported by mythological scenarios of rape and male aggression. Countless myths indicate that violation of woman and expropriation of her power (spiritual, biological, intellectual and moral) was required for the establishment of the first male-led societies. Often these mythological scripts appear to carry memories of lost or forgotten history. (This confirms the intuition of William Irwin Thompson, a pioneer of metahistory, who proposed that myth is the detritus of actual history. See Basic Reading: The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light.)
In Greek myth, Europa, a goddess in human form, was the mother of King Minos, one of the male figureheads of Cretan civilization. She was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. Since Zeus the Olympian represents the generation of gods who define Western intellectual culture rooted in the Greek Golden Age, the myth indicates how Greece followed (i.e., succeeded, overcame) Crete in the succession of ancient civilizations. The myth prefigures historical events and Europa becomes the namesake of an entire subcontinent.
Despite many scenarios of the war of the sexes, positive sexual scripting does exist, however. The belief that says sex is healing, chanted by rhythm-and-blues singer Marvin Gaye in the 1960s, is reflected in a long tradition of love-stories in which sexual union assumes a sacramental and healing efficacy. The argument for sacred pleasure, presented by Riane Eisler in her book of that title, represents a framework for positive beliefs that might overcome the perennial battle of the sexes. Radical psychologist Wilhelm Reich developed a daring range of scripts for overcoming Eternal Conflict at the sexual level. His work (see suggested reading below) proposes the belief that orgasm cures aggression. This contrasts sharply with the Brownmiller script, worded in almost the same terms: orgasm discharges aggression. Is orgasm a violent discharge, a way to dispel male violence by draining it, or is it a way to access tenderness through the meltdown of body armoring described by Reich? The close wording of these scripts illustrates how subtle the syntax begins to look when we investigate encoded beliefs about Eternal Conflict. Cosmos, Chaos and World Order by Norman Cohn describes the dualistic religion of Zoroaster from which the three fundamentalists faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) derive their concepts of good and evil, as well as their doctrines of cosmic justice and apocalypse.
The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich is a unique study of the biological basis of control mania as it manifest in two deviant tendencies, mysticism (religious fanaticism) and militarism.
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm is perhaps the most complete psychologically oriented overview of the question of violence in human society.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.