Intellect vs Will

There was one aspect of the movie that was the subject of last week’s post, Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, that I think it is useful to spend more time going over and that is the relationship between Intellect and Will. Kurosawa places this distinction at the heart of the plot of Sanjuro since the group of naïve young aristocrats who are on the verge of getting themselves killed at the start of the movie are exercising their Intellect but not their Will. Meanwhile, the wily Samurai who will save them is operating from Will. What Kurosawa makes clear time and again throughout the movie is that Will trumps Intellect in “the real world”.

Will (the samurai) vs Intellect (the aristocrats)

In my archetypal table, I assign Intellect to the Orphan phase of life and Will to the Adult phase as follows:-

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, sexual maturityWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

The young aristocrats are Orphans because they have no official responsibilities in the clan. That is why they must petition the clan leader to get something done. They have correctly used their Intellect to figure out that there is corruption going on. What they don’t realise is that knowing something to be true is a very different thing from proving it and a different thing again from ensuring justice gets served.

Even in the modern world with our egalitarian ethic and the nominally equal access that everybody has to the courts, there is incredible naivete around how the justice system works. The justice system does not guarantee justice. It only guarantees the chance at justice. The pursuit of justice belongs more to the realm Will than to the Intellect. Going through a court case takes time, energy and especially money. Knowing something is true intellectually is a different thing to standing in court and asserting that truth, especially since others will stand and assert that you are wrong. In short, the pursuit of justice rests far more on Will than Intellect. The young aristocrats begin the movie with the mindset that many naïve people still have in our time that just because they are right means that justice will be served.

But the naivete of the aristocrats goes deeper than that. The Intellect, when used in the absence of other faculties, operates much like a modern computer and, just like modern computers, the principle of Garbage In, Garbage Out holds. People operating purely by Intellect are easily deceived. All you have to do is control the input they are operating from and then you control the output, the conclusions that they will draw.

Throughout Kurosawa’s movie, various traps and deceptions are laid by the bad guys, the superintendent and his accomplices. Their goal is to lure their opponents into situations where they can either frame them for made up crimes or just kill them outright. The naïve aristocrats fall for the bait every single time and it is only because they have samurai to help them that they escape.

What does the samurai have that they do not? We could sum it up in a word whose modern meaning has taken on a negative connotation, cunning. In Old English, the word cunning used to mean simply “to know”. It was one of a pair of words that most other European languages have but which has disappeared in modern English. In modern German, there is still the difference between kennen and wissen. Cunning comes from the same root word as German kennen.

Although the semantic difference is not clean, the difference between wissen and kennen is that between abstract knowledge and practical knowledge. What I am calling Intellect is about abstract knowledge and therefore maps to German wissen. Kennen, and English cunning, are about practical knowledge. Because practical knowledge comes from lived experience, and because lived experience is based more on Will than on Intellect, cunning is the kind of knowledge that comes from Will-fully acting in the world.

Part of Will-fully acting in the world is coming to understand that the world does not run on Intellect and its abstractions. Many a philosopher throughout history has come to the conclusion that the world should run on Intellect and the way to do that is precisely to remove the element of Will from the equation. It’s a nice idea, but, as the movie Sanjuro shows, it can get you killed, especially in the domain of politics. To operate in the real world, you need cunning. That is what the naïve aristocrats completely lack.

But, the distinction between Will and Intellect, cunning and knowing, holds even outside of political gamesmanship.

The consequences of any enterprise of reasonable complexity cannot be calculated in advance. To refuse to act until you have attempted to calculate all possible effects leads to analysis paralysis. This is before we even get into the various paradoxes of Intellect which call into question the possibility that Intellect can generate valid outputs in the first place.

The question of determinism has been around for millennia, but the late 19th century saw a particularly strong form of determinism take shape fuelled by the enthusiasm surrounding the progress of science. It was genuinely believed by certain thinkers and scientists that the Intellect would soon solve all problems and we could know pretty much everything there was to know. We could then predict the outcome of any action with complete certainly. Put into our terminology, it was the belief in the infinite power of the Intellect. Of course, it fell apart in multiple ways including from within the scientific paradigm itself.

We can frame the problem in the terms of system theory by simply saying that action in the real world requires dealing with irreducible complexity and therefore the results cannot be calculated in advance. To act knowing that the consequences cannot be known in advance requires the use of Will. It follows that action according to Will requires an understanding of the limits of Intellect.

The supreme activity of man according to Aristotle

But it’s also true that orientation to the world based on Will is different from orientation based on Intellect. The Greek philosophers like Aristotle were at least consistent since they explicitly eschewed worldly action. Sitting on a mountain and using their Intellect was what they considered to be the highest attainment for a human being. It was how we could get closest to God. Their god was a god of Intellect and not of Will.

Part of the reason why Kurosawa’s Sanjuro is such a great movie is because it makes clear what is the difference between acting in the world according to Intellect and according to Will. The samurai and the bad guys are acting according to Will. The naïve young aristocrats are acting according to Intellect. What does this mean in practice?

Well, one of the main differences is that both the samurai and his opponents are inherently distrustful of information. More precisely, they judge information only once they know its source. There’s a great scene towards the end of the movie where Sanjuro is attempting to lure the troops of the superintendent to a specific location. When the fake news is reported to the superintendent, his first question is “who is this samurai?” He doesn’t take the information on face value. He wants to know who is providing it. He wants to know the intention, the Will, behind the information.

By contrast, time and again, the naïve aristocrats take whatever they hear at face value as if it’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They have no concept of Will and therefore no concept of deception. The idea of deception might sound obvious to those of us who live in the real world where lies are commonplace, but for cloistered aristocrats who live in ivory towers, it can be a real shock.

It was also a central problem in the philosophy of Descartes. Descartes introduces it via the concept of the evil demon which is essentially a question of how the Intellect can know it’s not being deceived. Descartes wanted to create a system where the Intellect could be sovereign and not have to rely on the other faculties.

Descartes and the evil demon

Some philosophers and theologians have gotten around the problem of the potential corruption of the Intellect by stating that the world we live in is inherently corrupt and we should not expect to find truth here at all. Maybe they’re right. But there is another strand of thought in modern Western culture which has explored the idea that maybe Will is more fundamental than Intellect (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and others).

In his own way, Kurosawa also explores this idea in the attitude that the aristocrats have towards the samurai. There’s a scene where one of them calls the samurai a “monster”. Another says that he can’t be trusted. This happens quite late in the movie after the samurai has saved their lives several times. How could the aristocrats fail to trust a man who has saved their lives repeatedly?

The reason is because they do not understand him and, for the aristocrats, Intellect is everything. They can only trust what they understand. Compare this to ancient Greece and Rome. Before any major decision, the Greeks and Romans would consult various oracles. The oracles were not there to predict the outcome of a course of action. Rather, they were there to ascertain the Will of the gods. The Greeks and Romans would consult whichever god was seen to have authority over whatever it is they were doing, be it planting a crop or going to war.

Whatever else you want to say about this, one of the effects of such a practice is to take decision making out of the hands of Intellect and place it in the domain of Will. Reading oracles is an inherently irrational process. It meant that the decision could not be judged by Intellect.

Why would you want a decision not to be judged by Intellect? Because of our aforementioned point: the consequences of any enterprise of complexity cannot be known in advance. But that doesn’t stop the Intellect from judging those consequences after the fact. One of the ways this manifests is in the phenomenon of preachers thundering away in pulpits about how everything that goes wrong in the world is evidence that God is punishing us. We see the exact same thing in the modern world where various ideologues will judge actions after the fact with the implication that if we only followed their ideology none of it would have happened.

All this is born out of the same error of not understanding the limits to Intellect. Does the preacher or ideologue have a broadband connection directly to the central server of heaven? Do they know (Intellectually) what God knows? If so, why didn’t they enlighten us all before the action rather than wait for the consequences to manifest? The reason is because they couldn’t have known in advance. All they can do is judge after the fact. But this is an invalid use of Intellect and the result is fake knowledge. Of course, this problem is not limited to preachers and ideologues. We all have a tendency to fall into this trap through the misuse of Intellect.

One could argue that the ancients took the idea of Will too far and ended up in the realm of fatalism where life was just a long process of being thrown this way and that by the Will of the gods and all you could do was accept it. This explains the extreme stagnation that set in during the Roman Empire where scarcely any attempt was made to change things for the better. Why bother when it was just the Will of the gods? The same was true for Egypt and, seemingly, for most civilisations of that era.

Kurosawa’s movie shows us a more mundane version of the same dynamic. It is about how those who operate according to Intellect alone (the aristocrats) misjudge those who operate according to Will (the samurai).

But the reverse is also true. The samurai must learn how to deal with the aristocrats. He is used to operating by Will alone and not having to worry about making his Will comprehensible by others. That’s part of the reason the aristocrats don’t trust him. He doesn’t explain his strategy to them in terms they can understand. Eventually, at the end of the film, he figures it out. How does he solve the problem? By giving them explicit, binary instructions. When this, do that. Otherwise, do nothing. Finally, they are able to follow along and his plan comes to fruition.

The moral of the story is that those who would lead must translate their Will into terms their followers, using Intellect, can understand. Here we have the origins of bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is an organisational structure that runs on rules like a machine. Since the Intellect is good at comprehending rules, a bureaucracy is the natural place for people like the aristocrats in Sanjuro.

It is noteworthy in this respect that bureaucracy was created in Asia while the ancient Greeks and Romans had almost no bureaucracy until very late in the Roman Empire, and even then only a minimal one. The ancients had solved the same problem in a different way. Consulting the oracle was a way to take the matter completely out of the hands of Intellect and therefore get alignment based on a shared agreement to the “Will of the gods”.

In our times, we see both of these “solutions” present. On the one hand, we have an enormous bureaucracy. But it’s one of the ironies of our time that “science” has largely come to take the place of the oracles used by the ancients. Since the average person assumes in advance that they cannot understand science, Intellect is removed from the equation. The pronouncements of modern science have thus become equivalent to the pronouncements of the ancient oracles and, as the corona debacle showed, they are often just as irrational.

Life Lessons from Kurosawa Films Part 1: Sanjuro

Since I enjoyed writing the little mini-series of posts on Shakespeare at the end of last year, I thought I’d replicate the pattern but this time tackle the works of possibly my favourite filmmaker, the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa actually made a couple of film adaptations of Shakespeare, not to mention two adaptations of Dostoevsky. Still, he’s best known for his action/adventure films, most of which of which nevertheless deal with deeper themes around politics and society. It’s those deeper themes which we’ll be exploring in this series using the archetypal schema I introduced in the series on Shakespeare.

Akira Kurosawa

A prime example of films with unexpected deeper meanings are Kurosawa’s numerous samurai films. Such films provide ample opportunity for cool camera angles and entertaining sword battles, but they are also the expression of the Warrior archetype. Each archetype has its own strengths and weaknesses. We can call the weaknesses the shadow forms of the archetype since, in a Jungian sense, they really are challenges thrown up from the Unconscious. If they didn’t come from the Unconscious, they wouldn’t be challenges.

Each archetype has characteristic challenges in the forms of temptations and traps that they risk falling into. For the Warrior, the primary shadow form is what I have called the hyper-masculine. Having accrued the skills and knowledge to use lethal force, what is to stop the Warrior from using those skills for wrong instead of right? Most stories with a Warrior hero deal with this question in one way or another.

Kurosawa holds what we might call a traditional political philosophy on the correct ordering of society. Following Plato, Aristotle, Toynbee and numerous other thinkers throughout the ages, Kurosawa sees the correct place for the Warrior class as subservient to a just and wise ruling class. It is when a just and wise ruling class is not present that the Warrior class is tempted to the shadow form of the hyper-masculine.

The wonderful Toshiro Mifune plays Sanjuro

It is this state of affairs which Kurosawa investigates with his wandering-samurai character, Sanjuro. The fact that Sanjuro is a wanderer tell us something right off the bat because a wandering samurai is, by definition, not being ruled over by a just and wise ruler. That is indeed the case because the two movies that feature the character of Sanjuro, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, are set in the declining phase of the Tokugawa era of Japan. At that time there was a huge problem with the samurai who had been made redundant from their traditional role serving the various clan leaders around the country. Many did, in fact, turn to crime.

In the first movie, Yojimbo, Sanjuro wanders into a village that is being torn apart by two mob bosses. The two strongmen are hiring whatever criminals they can find to try and build up a force that can destroy the other. Sanjuro, as a skilled Warrior, becomes a highly prized asset whose services both strongmen try to obtain. Meanwhile, the local authorities are corrupt and taking bribes from the two mafia bosses. Sanjuro comes up with a plan to hasten the destruction of the two groups but, when his plan is foiled, he gets sucked more and more into the situation and eventually must use all his wits just to survive.

Yojimbo is considered one of Kurosawa’s most influential movies. It was the inspiration for many a western film. In fact, Sergio Leone was so inspired by it that he lost a lawsuit to Kurosawa who successfully argued that A Fistful of Dollars was a copyright violation.

In my opinion, the follow-up film, Sanjuro is far more interesting since it involves the samurai wandering into a town where there is still a just ruling class but one that is under attack. Sanjuro’s job is then to perform the archetypal mission of the Warrior by holding the bad guys to account and restoring justice and wisdom to its proper place.

Sanjuro and his group of clueless aristocrats

This might sound like a classic Warrior movie with plenty of opportunity for battle scenes and justice to be served. That it is. But the movie is far more subtle than that. In fact, what is really going on is nothing more or less than the Orphan – Elder dynamic that I’ve written about extensively over the last couple of years. Sanjuro’s mission is, in fact, to initiate a group of Orphans into the ways of the world.

This forms the opening scene of the movie. A group of naïve young aristocrats, one of whom is the nephew of the clan leader, has discovered a fraud committed in the court and written a petition to the leader to address it. The leader tells them he will handle the situation himself. Unsatisfied with this response, they go to the superintendent. Unbeknownst to them, the superintendent is the crooked one and a sequence of events unfolds where the samurai saves the group from the superintendent’s men and then must try to rescue the clan leader who has now been framed for the crime by the superintendent himself. (Framing your opponent for the crime you committed is a story as old as politics.)

In archetypal terms, the group of young aristocrats are the Orphans trying to make their way in the world. They are overenthusiastic and naïve. The uncle, the leader of the clan, may want to handle the corruption quietly, but in doing so he provides no guidance or learning opportunity for the Orphans. He fails to become their Elder. Accordingly, they go and do something silly by alerting the very man who is behind the corruption who then tries to kill them.

Sanjuro happens to overhear their conversation. As an experienced man of the world, he instantly weighs up the matter and concludes that the superintendent is the corrupt one. Since Sanjuro has just arrived in town and owes no allegiance to the young aristocrats, he has no compunction talking to them and treating them like the fools that they are. For their part, they neither understand his ways nor trust him, despite the fact that he repeatedly saves their lives.

In this way, the movie Sanjuro is a demonstration of the archetypal breakdown of the Orphan – Elder relationship. It’s not enough to have just and noble leaders. That can work as long as those leaders are in place. But what happens when they are gone? A society must train the next generation of leaders. Therefore, somebody has to become an Elder to that next generation of Orphans and pass on the knowledge and skills required to continue the culture. That is the problem in the clan. The clan leader is failing to fulfill his role as Elder and has allowed the young aristocrats, the archetypal Orphans, to blunder into trouble.

Of course, the clan itself is under attack from the shadow form of the Warrior. The superintendent represents the Warrior class of the clan but he is the one behind the corruption. It takes the noble Warrior, Sanjuro, to restore the clan to stability by riding into town and saving the aristocrats from their own naivete.

Thus, Sanjuro is partly the story of the coming-of-age of the young aristocrats. They are going to have to learn about the real dangers of holding political power where naivete and innocence can get you killed. If that’s true, it makes Sanjuro their Elder.

Remembering the archetypal table I introduced last year:-

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, sexual maturityWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

The Warrior archetype is included in the generic Adult archetype alongside the two other primary archetypes of Ruler and the Sage (priest/scientist/wizard). Sanjuro begins the movie as the Warrior and is thrown together with a group of Orphans. His mission is to teach them the ways of the world. In order to do that, he must transcend to the next level in the table. He must become an Elder and confront his Soul.

What does Soul mean in this context? It means doing what is right for its own sake. In the earlier film, Yojimbo, Sanjuro’s mission was the standard Warrior’s mission. He had to kill the bad guys. That is the Warrior’s archetypal job. What is left ambiguous in the first movie is whether Sanjuro is doing what is right. Is it right to hasten the destruction of a town that is doomed to destroy itself anyway? Of course, the movie finds a way to make it clear that Sanjuro is doing what is right but it’s not so naïve to present this as an unalloyed victory.

This comes back to the eternal problem faced by the Warrior. How can you know that the use of lethal force is the best course of action? The answer is you can’t because the second and third order effects of lethal force can never be predicted in advance. The Warrior must act with imperfect information. Once the battle is over and the second and third order effects are known, it’s always possible to make the argument that the use of lethal force wasn’t worth it. Moral ambiguity is a problem that the Warrior must deal with. The temptation is to discard morality altogether, but that way leads to the shadow side of the Warrior.

Since Warriors need to get paid like anybody else, there is the added temptation to treat the work like a job. That’s exactly what we see at the beginning of Sanjuro. The aristocrats thank the samurai for his help by offering payment. Sanjuro takes that payment and is about to walk away when he realises that the superintendent is going to gobble up the young fools unless he stays and helps them. Thus, Sanjuro’s decision at the very start of the movie is to do what is right even though it is going to involve significant personal risk for little to no personal gain. That’s his first step towards the Elder archetype and the Soul.

I mentioned in last year’s posts about Shakespeare that the male Soul is almost always represented in film and literature by a female character which symbolises the Jungian anima. Sure enough, in Sanjuro, we find the anima represented by two noblewomen, the wife and daughter of the clan Ruler. The wife provides the wisdom that Sanjuro needs to hear and which exemplifies his transcendence to the Elder archetype: the best sword is kept in its sheath. We can translate this to more general archetypal terms: the strongest Will must be tempered by Soul.

The symbolic anima
The Warrior vs the Shadow Warrior

It is this message that Kurosawa reinforces in the dramatic final scene of the movie. The counterpart to Sanjuro throughout the movie is the equally strong Warrior, Hanbei Muroto. Muroto is the Shadow Warrior working for the corrupt Shadow Ruler, the superintendent. Sanjuro outsmarts Muroto several times during the film using various deceptions the last of which is discovered by his opponent leading him to challenge Sanjuro to a duel. Sanjuro attempts to talk him out of it but Muroto is insistent.

The film ends with an interesting archetypal observation which Kurosawa makes in several of his other films. Only the Warrior can appreciate the challenges faced by other Warriors, including and especially the temptations of the shadow forms of the archetype. Sanjuro and Muroto may be enemies by circumstance, but they are friends to the extent that both understand what it means to be a Warrior when nobody around them, especially the foolish young aristocrats, has any idea. The final scene captures both Sanjuro’s transcendence and Muroto’s downfall. Muroto is the Warrior who cannot sheath his sword. He succumbs to the shadow form of the archetype: the hyper-masculine. Sanjuro learns that the best sword is kept in its sheath.

Welcome to the Machine

Last year I happened to catch the interview which Tucker Carlson did on Twitter with Hunter Biden’s “business partner”, Devon Archer. The interview didn’t reveal any great surprises from my point of view. I think Archer mentioned the word “strategic” about a thousand times. Much like the joke about how any scholarly discipline that has the word “science” in the title isn’t a real science, we could make a similar joke about how job titles with “strategy” in them have nothing to do with the subject. A “strategic adviser” is a person who facilitates deals in the murky domain at the intersection between government, capital and the private sector. That’s why Archer was “in business” with Hunter Biden.

What I did find surprising about the interview was Tucker Carlson’s attitude to Devon Archer. After insinuating and even outright stating that the business with Hunter Biden was corrupt since it was predicated on insider dealings with a government official, Carlson nevertheless praised Archer. I think at one point he even said something like “well done, that’s good business”. In Tucker Carlson’s world, Devon Archer is a “good businessman” and Joe Biden a “corrupt politician”. It’s a bit like congratulating the drug dealer while throwing the drug user in jail.

How could Tucker Carlson on the one hand claim to be super concerned about government corruption while on the other hand have a nice friendly interview with a man whose job it was to facilitate that corruption? And how could Devon Archer willingly confess to doing that job and sit there with a big smile on his face as though he’d done nothing wrong?

The reason relates back to the point I made in last week’s about the three metaphysical pillars of the modern West: democracy, capitalism and science. The case of Devon Archer and the Biden family is the perfect illustration of how capitalism corrupts democracy. But capitalism can’t be called into question since it’s an article of faith. That’s why Carlson can praise Archer as a businessman while criticising Joe Biden as a public official.

The truth, of course, is that capitalism is subverting democracy and not just in the case of the Biden family. Capitalism is also subverting science as we saw during the corona debacle. That’s what happens when you encourage people like Devon Archer to chase money to the exclusion of anything else. What the USA and the rest of the West desperately needs to reclaim both democracy and science from the clutches of money but the right side of politics has framed the issue such that any criticism of capitalism makes you a “communist”.

We should remember that both capitalism and communism are products of the Western mind and they have a lot in common. In order to see these commonalities, we need a point of comparison and, as usual, the Roman Empire provides the ideal example since in this, as in most things, it is opposite of the modern West.

Some historians have trawled through Roman history trying to find evidence that the Romans must have had something resembling our capitalism, as if all civilisation must somehow be based on the exact same values as the modern West. The truth is there is no evidence for capitalism in ancient Rome and quite lot of evidence against it. But we can go a step further and get closer to the core of the issue by making the broader point which is the one that the historian Spengler also made: the Romans had almost nothing that we would give the general label of organisation.

This doesn’t mean the Romans were disorganised. Clearly, they had a disciplined military, a legal code, a governance structure, a justice system and other things required for a peaceful and orderly society. What they didn’t have were bureaucracies, corporations, armies of lawyers or enormous public services. And they sure as hell didn’t have “strategic advisers”, “diversity officers” and human resource managers.

It’s incredible to think that, in the golden age of the Roman Empire, the Caesars ruled with almost no bureaucracy at all. The basis for Rome’s power was the army. But this was more than just an accidental occurrence. The army represented the basic ethic of Rome which we can sum up in the phrase might is right. Roman aristocrats earned their honour and status through public service and the highest form of public service was military service. They would have considered it deeply dishonourable to get involved in business dealings.

Of course, business dealings did happen in ancient Rome and many of the aristocracy became incredibly rich as a result. But they were not actively involved in business. They just accrued the money which they often spent on public works. This is another reason that Rome had a tiny government. The tax take for most of Roman history was a paltry 1% and when the government is only taking 1% in tax, it can’t afford to hire bureaucrats or public servants.

That was one reason why the government and bureaucracy was so small. Another was the simple and informal nature of Roman law. Rome never had general public education. As a result, most Romans were illiterate. Accordingly, there was no possibility of reading or signing complicated contracts. The law reflected this by allowing most arrangements to be made verbally. A classic example is marriage. A Roman man and woman could enter into marriage simply by announcing their intention to do so and then moving in together. They could break up the marriage just as easily. No lawyers were required. No government bureaucrats needed to be notified.

Related to the relative simplicity of their legal system is the fact that the Romans had no police force. What force did exist was very similar to the form taken in early modern Europe where there was a “watch” made up of ordinary citizens. In general, Roman citizens were expected to enforce the law themselves. This was literally true in the early days of the republic. If somebody committed a crime against you, you had to arrest them and drag them before the courts yourself. If the judge found in your favour and sentenced the other party to some kind of corporal punishment, you were the one who carried out the punishment.

Of course, why would you bother to go through the courts when you could just mete out the punishment directly and that’s what often happened. By our standards, Rome was a relatively lawless society. But, again, the ethic was might is right. That was true at an everyday level and it was true at the highest levels of government. The Roman system required and rewarded strongmen. That’s just how they operated, as did most societies of that era.

In summary, outside of the army, the Romans had essentially no large organisations at all. They had no corporations, bureaucracies, banks, police forces, unions, chambers of commerce, NGOs, law firms, legal societies, football clubs, political parties, United Nations, World Banks, World Health Organisations or International Monetary Funds.

Romans looked down their noses at trade, banking and commerce. The reason the Romans did not pursue organisation in these spheres was not because they didn’t have the intelligence or capability but because they did not value such things. Accordingly, the institutions which existed were rudimentary. When emergencies happened, the Romans solved the problem not through organisation but through force.

Incidentally, this was also true in the early days of modern Europe. Kings needed bankers to fund wars. Once the war was over, the kings would often refuse to pay their debts and the banker was left to foot the bill. If he had a problem with it, he could take it up with the king’s army. That was also how Rome worked. Might was right.

We can see, therefore, that one of the main differences between our society and the Romans is the scale of our organisations. How did we get so good at organisation?

There is, of course, no single answer to that question but we can state for sure that trade and commerce played a very important role and this where capitalism comes into the picture.

The British East India Company is arguably the proto-corporation of the modern world. For many years it was the largest corporation in the world and may even have been the largest in history (it’s probable that the Chinese or Indians had something larger through sheer population size). In any case, the British East India Company was orders of magnitude larger than any Roman organisation.

How did the British East India Company come about? Well, Francis Drake is sometimes called an “explorer” or a “privateer”. We could more accurately call him a pirate since the original purpose of the voyage which made him famous was to sail to South America and steal gold from the Spanish. He achieved that aim and then, while sailing back to England, landed in what is now Indonesia. He traded some of the gold he had stolen from the Spanish for spices, apparently not realising their enormous value in Europe at that time. When he got back to England, he was a hero. More importantly, those who had invested in his voyage became fabulously wealthy. Thereafter, other “privateers” decided to try their luck on the open seas and the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s much that could be said about this story but notice one crucial aspect: all of this activity was not instigated by the crown or the state but by private citizens. The East India Company had what we would now call a CEO, it had a board of directors, it went through all the legal hoops required for its creation. Already by the year 1600, most of the organisational and legal pre-requisites that we recognise as “trade and commerce” were already in effect in Britain. The reason we are all so familiar with them is because it was that “trade and commerce” which would become the basis for the British Empire. It took over the world quite literally.

By the time of the creation of the United State of America, trade and commerce had become more than a way to get rich by stealing Spanish gold. It had become an article of faith. In Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, arguably the founding document of the USA, we find the idea of trade and commerce as a way to gain freedom from the “tyranny” of kings such of King George III.

It’s worth noting again that all this is the inversion of the Roman paradigm. The Romans would never have dreamed of elevating trade and commerce above the Caesar, but the British and the Americans did. This is why capitalism really is an article of faith for Americans and has been from the beginning of that nation.

There’s another way in which the paradigm of the British and American empires is different from Rome. The Romans led with military might. Trade was a secondary benefit. The British and Americans have led with trade with military power reserved for situations that threatened trade (of course, military power has also been used for other reasons too).

Some people on the right of politics in the US have criticised the recent bombings of Houthi targets in Yemen. This reveals a surprising naivete about how the world works. The US and British are bombing the Houthis because the Houthis had managed to shut down shipping in the Red Sea thereby causing major disruption to transportation networks. That is not a new policy. It’s quite literally as old as America itself.

The conflict with the Houthis is an almost exact replica of the Barbary Wars fought at the beginning of the 19th century under the presidency of none other than Thomas Jefferson. What was at stake then, as now, is the freedom of navigation required to enable trade. America and Britain have always been prepared to go to war when trade and commerce were threatened. All of the shenanigans in the Middle East in the 20th century have been predicated on maintaining the most important trade of all; petrolem.

The rise of trade and commerce has, from the beginning, been accompanied by the enormous growth in the law, especially commercial law. In modern America, being involved in public life at all let alone in business requires a team of lawyers working round the clock to manage your affairs. Law is what enables our enormous organisations to be created. Thus, we can say that law is also a cornerstone of the modern Western paradigm.

As international trade became a huge boon for Britain, it incorporated mercantile law into its common law. As Lord Mansfield put it at the time – “Mercantile law is not the law of a particular country but the law of all nations”. It’s fair to say that Lord Mansfield did not ask other nations whether they agreed with this statement. It’s also fair to say that many nations, from the Barbary states of the 19th century through to the Houthis today, did not and do not agree with this statement. Nevertheless, the success of Britain and America has meant that other nations have had to abide by mercantile law whether they wanted to or not and so mercantile law has ended up becoming international.

It is these mercantile laws that form the basis for the incredible complexity of the modern global economy. When we enter into a contract, we know that it will be enforced and we can rely on the outcome being delivered. How many different contracts must exist in order for an iPhone to be created? Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of independently organised contracts have to be signed that coordinate the producers of minerals, plastics and electronic components with transportation companies, intermediaries and retailers from around the globe.  It’s a stunningly complex system that runs on laws.

Laws are the great strength of the system. But, increasingly, the costs of the system are outweighing the benefits and that is, I believe, what is behind the religious crisis that is affecting us today. We are the victims of our own success.

Consider this. The word “contract” comes from the Latin contractus which originally had the meaning of “to draw in, to shrink”. A business contract is a metaphorical extension of the original meaning. This makes some sense when you consider that to enter a contract is to limit yourself by binding yourself into an agreement with somebody else. The more contracts you enter into, the more you are binding yourself and reducing your ability to do other things. The Roman and Greek aristocrats’ distaste for trade and commerce was precisely because they saw it as a form of slavery; of being bound.

In the modern West, we have come to think that it’s the other way around since the contacts we enter into as consumers result in some benefit to us. But everything in life has diminishing returns. There probably was a time where the benefits of signing a contract outweighed the cost. That is clearly no longer true. The average person now enters into a huge number of contracts but, increasingly, they must go into debt in order to so. For the average person over the last 30 or so years, contracts have become little more than a chain around their neck; a form of debt bondage. That’s one huge problem that we face right now.

There’s a second and related problem. The enormous complexity of our society is facilitated through laws, rules and contracts. Increasingly, it is corporations and bureaucracies who control and operate those rules in a way that is not visible to the general public.

Consider the corona debacle. At the beginning of corona, I received pamphlet in my mailbox. The pamphlet was printed on the letterhead of my local council (local government organisation in Australia). It contained information about a supposedly new disease called “covid” whose symptoms were indistinguishable from the common cold/flu. In the fine print at the bottom of the page was stated that the information had been provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

What chain of command had to exist in order for that pamphlet to get delivered to my house? There is the Australian postal service which delivers the mail. There is an administration assistant, a graphic designer, and whoever else is employed by my local council to produce pamphlets. There is a printing facility to print them. The council gets its instructions from the state public health bureaucracy who gets its instructions from the national health bureaucracy who get their instructions from the bureaucrats at the WHO.

All of this chain of command exists because the Australian government is a signatory to a contract with the WHO. That contract requires the Australian government to do things when the WHO tells them to. In order to do those things, the Australian government funds the bureaucracies which operate according to strict rules.

The general public thinks that those bureaucracies are “intelligent”, that the people who work for them are highly educated and that their job it is to know things. In fact, the people who work in bureaucracies are only required to know that which enables them to follow the rules. That is what bureaucracies are good at. It might be the only thing bureaucracies are good at.

What has happened in the post war years with the massive expansion of bureaucracy both in the public service and in the private sector is to create a machine-like system that runs on rules and contracts, not on thinking. The corona debacle represented the complete absence of thinking. It’s exactly what you would expect if you put bureaucrats in charge of the world.

The corona debacle was made possible by a system where people mindlessly follow the rules. Why were so many people tested at hospitals early on, even people who had no symptoms of respiratory illness? Because that’s what the rules said had to happen. Hospitals were contractually required to carry out testing. Of course, hospitals were also incentivised by the fact that they received thousands of dollars per “covid patient”.

In one sense, the corona debacle was stunningly well-organised. Think of all the contracts, invoices, bookkeeping, information systems, laboratory reports etc that were needed to make it possible. But what corona proves is that we are no longer driving the machine. The machine is driving us.

Remember the double meaning of the word contract. It’s now the case that, with every new contract, we contract. Every new contract now contracts individual liberty and humanity in general. There can be no starker example of that than the corona lockdowns. Of course, the average person had no idea they had entered into the corona contract. Their governments did it on their behalf. An entire bureaucratic machine was built that nobody knew about.

Quite a number of people have recently had idea that modern society is possessed by Satan or some other force outside ourselves. That force is the machine. We created the machine and now the machine controls us. The great strength of the modern West has been organisation. But we now have too much organisation.

That’s how every great tragedy plays out. The hero’s greatest strengths become the flaws that lead to doom. Macbeth and the Othello were the great warriors who kept fighting when they should have sheathed their swords. King Lear was the ruler who could not retire. Romeo and Juliet were the passionate youths who could not control their emotions. Western civilisation has been the great organiser. But our solution to every problem is now one more rule, one more law, one more contract, one more bureaucracy, one more vaccine, one more technology. Every time we add one more of these, we bind ourselves tighter to the machine.

The Religious Crisis of the Modern West

One of the questions I’ve been puzzling through recently is the state of rites of passage in modern Western society. Nominally speaking, we seem to have very few rites of passage and this also seems to be tied in with the absence of the Elder archetype in our culture since, from an anthropological point of view, it is the Elder who conducts rites of passage. No rites of passage, no Elders. Makes sense. But is it actually true?

Let’s begin our answer to that question by defining some terminology. The rites of passage concept was coined by the anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, based on a comparative study of ceremonies and customs from across many different cultures. What van Gennep realised was that, beneath the surface differences, rites of passage all had the same form which he characterised as a three-part movement out of the status of “profane”, into the status of “sacred” and then back to “profane”. We can diagram this using a circle since a rite of passage begins where it ends i.e. in the status of “profane”.

Arnold van Gennep

There are three phases to a rite of passage: Separation – Transition – Incorporation. In the first phase, we separate from the normal world that we live in day-to-day. We then enter a new state that is different from that world. That’s the Transition phase. The Incorporation phase involves navigating back to the everyday world with some new thing or property that we have incorporated or made part of ourselves.

In addition to van Gennep’s original concept, I would add a few points. Firstly, a rite of passage is a linkage between the individual and society. We can think of it as a way for society to initiate individuals into a culture. Since most rites of passage are designed to navigate through a dangerous period of time, it is also a way to lend assistance to the individual. For example, almost every society has elaborate rites of passage around pregnancy and pregnancy has, for most of history, been very dangerous for both woman and child. Thus, we can also think of the rites of passage a way to assist the initiate through a dangerous period.

A societal Elder conducting a rite of passage. Note that the word “priest” comes from the Greek “presbyteros” which literally means “elder”

Another point about the rites of passage is the one mentioned above: they are almost always conducted or led by a societal Elder. Rites of passage are about navigating through a period of sacredness. While the individual is in sacred status, they are usually not considered a full member of society. They are in a kind of limbo. It is the Elder who guides the initiate out of limbo and back to being a full member of society.

The Elder who conducts the rite of passage is always a representative of an institution of society. Traditionally speaking, there are three classes of Elders: the political Elders, the religious Elders and the warrior Elders. Here is another key point. The Elders themselves are “sacred” since they have more power than the other members of society. Accordingly, there are usually elaborate rites dealing with the interaction between Elders and general members of society. These are there for the “protection” of both parties since Elders are a threat due to their power and their power puts them at risk from the rest of the public. It’s also for this reason that Elders are located in a “sacred” placed that is separate from the general run of society.

From this lightning overview alone we can see why rites of passage are foreign to us in the modern West since with our extreme secular and materialist outlook this all sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo. Nevertheless, we do have our rites of passage and our Elders. Let’s take one example: a job interview.

For a job interview, there is already an implied change of status for you as the interviewee. That status can be called “available to work”. Most of the time when we are employed, we are not looking for work. That is the normal state of affairs. When we start looking for work, we have changed state. This signals the beginning of the Separation phase. We want to separate from our current job and take a new one.

Rites of passage almost always mark the Separation from the everyday with special clothing. This is true of a job interview since most people will show up in a suit or similar formal outfit. Assuming you actually want the job, you’ll probably make sure you get a good night’s sleep the night before so that you perform at your best in the interview. Before the interview itself, you might take a shower and pay extra attention to your grooming and appearance so that you look your best. These are all parts of the Separation phase; the break from normal life.

A panel of Elders evaluates an initiate

The transition phase begins with the interview and is probably marked by you shaking hands with the interviewer(s). The interviewer in this case is the archetypal Elder. They represent an institution of society (the organisation offering the job) and they have a position of power within that institution. They will also be dressed appropriately for the occasion. They will use formal, polite language and, in general, there is a special code of behaviour and a fairly fixed format for a job interview that is different from everyday life. All this belongs to the Transition phase of the rite of passage.

When the interview ends, you move into the Incorporation phase. What is up for grabs is quite literally whether you will be incorporated into the company. If the Elders of the company agree to incorporate you, your status changes from “available for work” to not available and there are a variety of culturally prescribed ramifications including tax payments, banking arrangements and your formal incorporation into the company via whatever onboarding and training they need to give you.

In short, a job interview is a paradigm example of a rite of passage from an anthropological point of view.

Since a job interview is a rite of passage, the question then arises: why don’t we think of it in those terms? My guess is this: we are unconscious of the rites of passage in our own culture. An anthropologist traipsing through the jungle with some strange tribe is acutely aware of the rites of passage of that tribe because they are foreign to him or her. Once you’ve viewed or studied enough different cultures, you can learn to see the formal, outward markers of a rite of passage. But from within a culture, you don’t see a rite of passage as such because it’s just a part of the culture. We experience our own culture subjectively, not objectively.

But there’s a more philosophical reason why we don’t recognise our own rites of passage and this relates to van Gennep’s concept of religion which he defined as metaphysics + magic. Magic can be further defined as a ceremony which achieves a specific effect in line with the metaphysical assumptions of the culture.

While the effect of the magic “works” on us, we don’t think about it any further. It was Nietzsche who made the point that the metaphysics of a culture are only ever brought into question when they no longer work. It’s only once the magic stops that we are inclined to start doubting. It follows that the arrival of philosophy implies a religious crisis. Consider that the first pages of Descrates’ great work Meditations on First Philosophy involve him doubting the assumptions of his culture.

Rene Descartes

We seem to be in the middle of exactly such a religious crisis in modern Western society and this implies that our metaphysics, the religious basis of society which grounds our rites of passage, is starting to fail to produce the magic. We have already identified one element of that metaphysics. A job interview is a rite of passage the magic of which is to create an employee who will contribute to the economic prosperity of a company. The economic prosperity of companies is the basis for the economy of our society. The underlying assumption, the metaphysics, is capitalism. In order to understand the other main pillars of our metaphysics we first need to zoom out and do a quick historical overview.

As we have already noted, the Elders of most societies throughout history can be grouped by three archetypes: the Ruler, the Sage (priest) and the Warrior. Plato’s Republic is very largely concerned with maintaining the right balance between these groups. In practice, the three are often combined in different ways. When Octavian became the supreme ruler of Rome, one of the noteworthy things that happened was that he took all three positions for himself. He was commander-in-chief, tribune, censor and pontifex maximus (Pope). He was the Ruler, the Warrior and the Sage.

Look at me. I am Pope now.
Look at me. I am boss now.

All through the Roman empire, including the later Eastern Empire, the Caesar retained authority over the church. That is a fairly common state of affairs for most societies throughout history but in western and northern Europe, following the collapse of the western Roman Empire, something strange happened. There were all kinds of small kingdoms and warring political factions but the church managed to unite all these under the rubric of Christianity leading back to the Pope in Rome. The result was that, for many centuries, the Church enjoyed supremacy over the political leaders.

One of the main reasons this could happen was because of the way in which Christianity got integrated into the Roman Empire in its later phase. In Roman society in general, there was never a separation of church and state. What we would call administrators also had a religious function. This was also true of the highest political offices. When Christianity became the state religion, what we call bishops retained the old administrative functions and implemented the new religion alongside them. The word bishop comes from the Latin episcopus which simply means “watcher” or “overseer”. It was a title given to government officials.

In the aftermath of the Roman Empire in western and northern Europe, something of the administrative and organisational structure of the church remained in place including the bishops and their boss, the Pope. At that time, the glory of Rome was not forgotten by the barbarian tribes of Europe and they were eager to align themselves with it. That seems to be the marketing angle that the bishops and other churchmen used to win over the various warlords and create a unified region under Christianity. For a brief period, the Pope really was the boss.

Over time, the political leaders of the region came to resent the power of the Pope and some even went to war against him. Eventually, a kind of equilibrium was reached in which the church, following the pattern inherited from Rome, retained a significant share of the administrative functions including control of education, scholarship, the sciences and bureaucratic record keeping.

Enter Martin Luther (stage right).

We said above that a philosophical challenge to the metaphysics of a society implies a religious crisis. That is what the arrival of Luther represented. Luther was a gifted scholar and intellectual who wrote extensively. Much of what he wrote is very hard for us to understand these days but one thing rings through very clearly even to modern ears. Luther denied the authority of the bishops and the Pope. For him, they had strayed far too much into worldly affairs and forgotten the religious basis of their role. Forget the fact that the church had always been involved in worldly affairs ever since its beginning in ancient Rome. Forget the fact that it was solely because of the church that anything resembling civilisation even existed in northern Europe. Luther wanted them gone.

The religious crisis that Luther led eventually led to the metaphysical basis for our modern society, although mostly in ways that Luther would have despised.

Firstly, the reason Luther had support from the kings and princes of Europe was because they saw the opportunity to reduce the power of the church. It took all the way til the 19th and 20th centuries, but eventually the state finally pried the last administrative and cultural functions of education and record keeping out of the hands of the bishops and popes. We swapped bishops for bureaucrats. Since bureaucrats are not Elders, there was a vacuum. That vacuum was filled by another group: the Technocrats.

Consider the two most important rites of passage in any society: birth and death. Once upon a time, these were presided over by priests as our religious Elders. Not any more. Where are we born and where do we die? In hospital. Who presides over our birth and death: doctors.

Doctors have become the Elders who navigate us through the rites of birth and death. Ergo, doctors and technocrats more generally, have become our religious Elders. Once upon a time, a baptism was the rite of passage by which we joined society and the baptism certificate was the official proof of our existence. Now, a doctor fills out a birth certificate and a death certificate. Same rites of passage, different Elder and, more importantly, different metaphysics.

Luther and the other protestants were responsible for this development for at least two reasons. Firstly, they demanded to get rid of the religious Elders of bishops and priests. For them, we didn’t need an earthly Elder since we had Jesus as our spiritual Elder and we could answer to him directly. Nice idea. Doesn’t seem to work in practice.

Calvin was proven right…eventually.

The second, and related, problem is that Protestantism created modern atheism by diving the public up into those who were saved and everybody else. As John Calvin put it: “there remaineth nothing else for the rest but the reproach of atheism”. It took several centuries, but eventually Calvin was proven right and most people eventually accepted that they really were atheists, as can be seen in the collapse in church attendance. Modern secular materialism is the logical outcome of Protestantism. The protestants wanted to get rid of the priesthood. Instead, they created a vacuum which was filled by the new priesthood: the Technocrats.

There is one more group of Elders that Protestantism gave birth to and, again, we are going to skip over the details and simply cite the book which summed it up: The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Since we have already provided the analysis of how the rite of passage of the job interview fits the metaphysics of capitalism, we simply point out that the societal Elders who rule over this sphere are not just the capitalists anymore but also the Technocrats in the form of the bankers and other financial wizards.

There remains just the political sphere to talk about and let’s again skip the detailed analysis by simply pointing out that a democratic election is a paradigm example of a rite of passage. Here in Australia, the Separation phase involves the Governor General dissolving parliament. The Transition phase is the election campaign itself and the Incorporation phase is the swearing in of the new parliament all done with a ceremony and pomp befitting an old-fashioned rite of passage.

How does parliamentary democracy relate to the Reformation? Well, the protestants wanted to run their churches in a completely democratic fashion with elders and other officials elected by popular vote of the congregation. This mostly never happened because the princes and kings of Europe did not want to encourage democratic tendencies among their subjects. It took a few hundred years and a few decapitated kings for the protestants to win the argument.

From this historical overview, we can see the metaphysical foundations of the modern West ushered in by the religious crisis of the Reformation are democracy, capitalism and science. Each of these has its own societal Elders. Each of these has its magic (ceremony + effect) which is manifested in the rites of passage of our culture.

The Incorporation phase of the US presidential election rite of passage

I mentioned at the top that these metaphysical assumptions are now being called into question. We can see that that’s true from the election of Trump. Trump is a capitalist who became President thereby fulfilling two of the primary Elder roles of the modern West. In the aftermath of his election, we saw a flurry of learned think pieces, including from some famous names from academia, honestly stating that democracy was broken and had to be replaced by, well, something else (exactly what wasn’t clear).

The one thing many westerners seem to agree on is that democracy isn’t working and after the last few years of inflation, capitalism isn’t looking too crash hot either. That leaves the third metaphysical foundation of modern society: science. As we saw during corona, science has become corrupted too. That message has been reinforced in just the last couple of weeks with the growing scandal around plagiarism in academia. What lies beneath that scandal is the fact that most of modern academia is a fraud that is riding on the coattails of the faith (and it really is faith) that the general public has in science.    

Those are the broad terms of the religious crisis that has been building now for several decades in the West. What makes our crises different from the Reformation is that the Reformation was led by the heroic figure of Luther. By contrast, nobody is leading our crisis. Rather, our crisis presents itself as a force of nature like green slime bubbling up from the sewer. In next week’s post, we’ll try and identify where the slime is coming from.