Scattering the Proud – Chapter II

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The Upward Journey and the Pyramid of Esteem

The chasm between the word and the deed is a pervasive phenomenon, affecting humans everywhere and throughout history. Yet today we in the West generally behave most of the time as though it doesn’t exist, as though just one more rationalist theory will automatically move our species towards real happiness and fulfilment. Usually there is a jargon that goes with this new theory, a new slogan or buzzword to accompany a new panacea. But the chasm still yawns between the intention and the reality, and most of us fall into it. The existence of the chasm – the reality that characterises our human world more clearly than any other – that we humans have a tendency towards self-harm – remains unacknowledged.

The original reason for this is that the Enlightenment made it a matter of dogmatic faith that no such chasm exists. The chasm – known for most of western history as sin – was the special province of the clergy, those obscurantist reactionaries who wished to shut out the light of reason, which would make everything right. Their specific expertise, knowledge of God and of good and evil, was believed to be obsolete, and their dominance of society was therefore seen as pernicious. Reason, not faith, would discover the truth about human behaviour, and once understood, this truth would free humankind from the superstition of sin.

Yet the  chasm is not an intellectual problem. It can be discerned intellectually, but not closed intellectually — because it has to do not with thought but with action or, more often, inaction. The chasm is a moral problem, so that not even a perfect and omniscient psychology will solve it. To illustrate, think of yourself at your most indolent. Is there a theory that will automatically solve this problem?

There is, of course, another reason why ‘sin’ is an awkward term in the late twentieth century. Christian fundamentalists tend to apply it predominantly to a specific area of human frailty — sexuality — and to ignore its application to others (for example the addictions upon which our overconsuming culture is based). As a result, the term tends to be associated with people who are hung up on sex – the reason I have approached it in terms of a mysterious but pervasive tendency of us humans to live in nonconformity with our highest ideals, affecting all aspects of our lives, including the sexual. It is also therefore an inability to live happily, to bridge the gulf between our highest aspirations and our best achievements.

The Triumphs of Secularisation

It is also true that enormous benefits have followed from the secularisation of western society, and from the elevation of science to a dominant role in education. We have had two centuries of extraordinary progress in our technical control of the material problems of life. We have also developed to an extraordinary degree the range of occupations available to children on the brink of adult life, increasing the possibility that developed talents will be matched with career niches. These are the great benefits of modern life — but the chasm still intrudes. We are developing an underclass of people whose talents are undeveloped and who can find no niche, and their despair is a reproach and a threat to the rest of us. In one critically important respect human society has not changed at all: wealth and power is skewed in favour of a minority, and there remains even in the most advanced economies a deprived third, the disadvantaged who cannot rise up the meritocratic ladder.

Ideologies Never Bring Equality

After two centuries of ideological attempts to resolve this problem, we should be ready to acknowledge that ideologies as such are counter-egalitarian. They are created and then commandeered by intellectuals who demand the privileges to which their expertise entitles them. So the Soviet Union, supposedly founded upon the pure idealism of Karl Marx, was in fact based upon a communist party elite given privileged and exclusive access to the consumer goods of the West. Anyone who publicly noticed this flagrant disregard for the egalitarian principles of Marx was consigned to the Gulags. This was the moral chasm which eventually undermined the system completely. It proved the tenacity of human selfishness, and the common tendency of our species throughout history to build pyramids of power and esteem which are unjust.

Yet the pyramid of respect and power is just as pervasive in the West. Based upon the free market, our economies concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who control and develop technology. The classic example iin 2000 was Bill Gates, CEO of the most successful computer software firm on earth. His personal fortune in 1998 was estimated at over $50 billion. Yet median income in the USA was no higher in that year than it had been in 1989, although longer hours were being worked to maintain that income. Poverty levels had not changed in the same decade. Thirty million people, including 13 million children, suffered from involuntary hunger in the richest economy on earth.

‘Success’ Defeats Equality

Why do we maintain these pyramids, despite such a long historical experience of their injustice? Why are they so tenacious? The answer seems to be that nearly all of us see our lives as an upward journey to success, which we define as the recognition and admiration of the world. And this has always been the case. True, there are many differences between the life of Bill Gates and that of Marcus Licinius Crassus, but both aimed at amazing the world, and both succeeded – and their worlds were both dominated by an elite that ignored the deprivation that surrounded them.

Gates’ story is well known. In the early 1980s he dropped out of university to develop the basic software that gave IBM’s newly designed microcomputer, the PC, its ability to interact with its first users. Using this knowledge, Gates and his firm Microsoft set out to develop the other software — word processors, spreadsheets, databases — that the mass-market PC owner would use. By the late 1990s Microsoft had a virtual monopoly in these fields, while the PC had become the standard microcomputer in business and the home, with an estimated 600 million in use worldwide. Gates dominated the most dynamic industry on earth, and was fighting to maintain his virtual software monopoly against antitrust moves by his rivals. These had gained some leverage with the US government due to Gates’ commercial bid to dominate the Internet software market also.

It is clear enough that Gates is one of the most gifted entrepreneurs on earth, and a model for thousands who seek to follow him. They seem completely fulfilled in their successful scaling of the pyramid, that upward journey towards wealth and public acclaim, and their commercial success guarantees the durability of the pyramid itself. Their aim is to become one of those fifty ‘movers and shakers’ lauded annually in Time magazine — for it is the function of the media also to concentrate the attention of the world on the successful minority — to maintain the world’s belief that some people are vastly more important than others. We consumers of the media then do our bit to help to maintain the pyramid by buying into this admiration of the few. It is axiomatic that only a few people can be really important, so that most humans must be ignored and frustrated. Apparently, that is the way we want the world to be. We buy the media output that consigns us to the role of spectator of the lives of others, convinced that we ourselves are unimportant.

The Pyramids and the Climbers

The Roman world in 70 BCE knew nothing of microcomputers, but just as much as we do about the adulation of the few. Their word for adulation was glory, possessed only by Gods and great men who just might become Gods themselves. In that year, Marcus Licinius Crassus took a further step on his upward journey by ordering the crucifixion of 6,000 rebellious slaves along the Appian Way from Padua to Rome. Slaves provided the home comforts of much of the Roman elite, so the possibility of a slave revolt necessarily haunted their dreams. This mass execution served two purposes – to terrify all slaves into mute obedience, and to further Crassus’ political career. The upward journey must necessarily have a dual result: the advancement of ‘great men’ and the subordination of others who, at this extreme, become naked victims whom history will necessarily forget.

The essential point here is the connection between the upward journey and the social pyramid. One confirms and supports the other. At the summit of the pyramid of esteem there will always be a small minority of powerful people, at the base a horde of nonentities, some of whom will become victims.

Throughout human history, from the ancient world to the world of the microchip, this is an essential element of continuity. Because of human selfishness, power and recognition is concentrated in an elite who then dominate a social system which must deny both to a majority. The upward journey, the heroic journey of the ancient world and the commercial world still today, creates the pyramid which in turn condemns the majority to obscurity, self-disregard and sometimes extreme suffering. Here we find the origin of all chasms also, in all historical periods. The prevalence of the upward journey, celebrated in almost all literature, bears witness to a human fixation with recognising and rewarding the few at the expense of the many. Money now substitutes for the honours and titles of the past, commercial competition for military rivalry, but the essential result is the same – the pyramid of esteem which condemns most to self-dislike.

The Exception

It is only when we see this pattern as a human constant that we can begin to understand the historical person who was Jesus, for his journey, far more emphatically than any other in human history, was in precisely the opposite direction – not upward towards glory or apotheosis like that of Augustus and Tiberius (his contemporaries), but downward towards recognition of the powerless, personal execration and violent death, in precisely the mode chosen by Crassus to humiliate the slaves. We may remember that Spartacus was the leader of those whom Crassus immolated, but the rest are nameless. So should be all the crucified victims of Pontius Pilate. Yet this was the destination that Jesus chose.

Even if we are determined to exclude the possibility of Jesus’ divinity, we for that very reason are faced with a profound mystery. Why would anyone, particularly anyone so gifted, choose this impossible journey towards ultimate pain and humiliation?