“Knowledge itself is unknowable.”
—from Plato’s dialogue The Theaetetus
“All men naturally reach out for knowledge.”
“Knowledge itself is power.”
Today I will tell you a story about how we traveled through time, discovering and collecting knowledge about our world, and what we have done with this knowledge.
By ‘we’ I mean people like us who share this great world, even those who live so far away we shall never meet them.
We began as people not quite like ourselves many years ago, so many years ago our heads cannot hold the largeness of the number.
How large? Well, let me ask, how long can a human live? Yes, one hundred years is a good enough number, thank you. This story begins twenty thousand lifetimes ago.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Don’t try. The numbers will get easier as the story unfolds.
Twenty thousand lifetimes ago, something happened. A new tribe of beings emerged from the many lives in the world. We have named these beings Hominids.
The Hominids were curious and sought knowledge of the world. They used this knowledge to make things, new things that other lives did not have or make.
They made fire, the knife, and the axe. These things and others that they made helped them live longer and produce more people like themselves. Nevertheless, the possible lifetime of a Hominid wasn’t as long as ours—maybe only twenty-five years.
Over the next eighteen thousand of our lifetimes the Hominids hunted and gathered in the plains and forests where they lived.
How many of their lifetimes passed during eighteen thousand of ours? Many more of course. The exact number cannot be known, and it isn’t important for our story, except to keep in mind the great amount of time it represents.
The Hominids survived to evolve, and eventually developed into other tribes.
These tribes passed through their time in the world and continued to gain knowledge.
Then around two thousand of our lifetimes ago, one branch of Hominids became Humans who eventually displaced all the Hominids.
It was cold in much of the world, but the ice to the north began receding for the next seventy-five thousand years and the world became warmer, and the seas gradually rose.
Humans moved to lands newly uncovered by receding ice, and grew in number, forming groups.
Some groups moved to other parts of the vast land in which they first appeared.
Others moved north and east, advancing, retreating, adapting to new conditions.
They made more tools: the spear, the bow and arrow.
They made caves into shelters and clothes from animal skins, allowing them to live in colder places. They drew pictures in these caves about the world they lived in, how they hunted, how the sun and the stars move through the sky.
They took animals into their families and hunting parties.
They encountered other types of humans and either joined with them or fought them.
The world was warm for many generations of humans. They were able to roam lands far from where their ancestors started.
Then the ice appeared again, around eighty thousand years ago, and grew, and grew. As the ice thickened and advanced from the poles, the seas drew away from the edges of the land allowing humans to move to new places which were warmer.
The cold lasted seventy thousand years, with two shorter warm times of around four thousand years each toward the end of this period.
These were hard times for humans, and eventually only one kind of human survived—Homo sapiens. We are the descendants of these surviving humans.
We built farms, and cities, and temples during the most recent warm time, but a final cold time returned and then retreated. During these years almost everything was destroyed by erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, and great floods. The Humans who survived were diminished in number and in social disarray.
Now the number of years in this story are more easily imagined.
By one hundred thirty of our lifetimes—that is, thirteen thousand years ago—the ice had gradually and finally receded, and the cold times abated, never, at least yet, to return in full. But the seas rose upon the land as the water trapped in the ice were released. We moved inland as the seas advanced, and found new land the ice had previously covered, as our ancestors did many thousands of years before.
The warmer climate encouraged plant and animal life, including humans. Most humans changed their lives from hunting and foraging to farming and animal husbandry—and cities.
They, that is we, became ever greater inventors of tools and methods, using knowledge inherited from our ancestors and developed through trial and error in our work.
We developed irrigation and other improvements to farming.
We developed measures for weight, for length, and for the passage of days.
We developed alphabets, writing, record keeping, and counting boards.
We planned cities and put walls around them. We constructed stone buildings, with arches to create larger spaces within them. We stored and transported water through channels.
We made more tools: the bow drill, the windlass, the composite bow, rope, simple pulleys, abrasives, the glass lens, and mirrors.
We made more effective weapons.
We created and refined new materials: leather, glass, iron, copper, silver, zinc, boron, tin, mercury, bronze, papyrus, pottery, linen. silk, cotton. We invented the loom, knitting, smelting, metal casting, stone quarrying, and the mining of ores and metals.
We developed systems of trade with people in other cities and locations.
We developed methods of governing the affairs of the people in the city and on the farms, including laws and courts.
We examined the night skies and made maps and stories about the stars, and developed calendars based on their movements.
We began to develop the arts, including music and dance.
We imagined gods who inhabited the things and processes we discovered, made, and built upon.
All these things happened before we discovered any written record of them. Such surviving records started around four thousand years ago, just forty of our lifetimes ago.
Four thousand years ago, around the time for which we have written records, we began to see the world differently. We became more conscious as individuals. We began to consult ourselves and each other, instead of gods and kings and priests and portends. Some people challenged the idea of having rulers over them and created self-governing cities.
Some people challenged the concept of many gods affecting our lives, and that there was but one God or force in the world.
We created tools for writing our languages which allowed them to endure and travel.
We discovered number, which aided commerce and helped to create great wealth and empires, sometimes through our own labors and sometimes by taking them from others, or by enslaving captives after warring on other peoples. The empires enabled and encouraged scholars to develop even more knowledge of the world, including knowledge of ourselves, as if we were separate from the world we saw.
We created instruments which helped us develop our music beyond basic rhythms and melodies.
Theories and uses of mathematics became schools of study, even religions.
We developed the concepts of ethics and logic
We began to talk about The Soul, and The Self.
Empires, and armies of nomads made war on each other, destroying much of what had been built, but written documents and oral histories preserved much of the knowledge we had gained.
In the several centuries after we became more conscious of the power of our observations and thoughts, great prophets, sages, and scholars came to be throughout the world.
They made findings and assertions and posed and answered questions on issues of interest to seekers, and in doing so, found and created ever more knowledge. Among them was Plato, who said: “Knowledge itself is unknowable”. And Aristotle, who said: “All men naturally reach out for knowledge.”
Countless other thoughts and findings of these and other sages culminated around thirty-five hundred years ago, when we numbered around one hundred million souls throughout the world.
A library and museum were built by the ruler of Egypt around three thousand years ago. It held almost all the knowledge which had been put into writing, in drawings, and on stone carvings. But it was burned and destroyed over several centuries by accident, and by conquering armies. Some knowledge was lost forever, but enough survived in other places to allow us to use it and build upon it, perhaps even replacing that which was lost in Egypt. But we’ll never be certain of this
The world before the time in which we now live was a violent world. Leaders of some people formed armies and navies to conquer other peoples. They killed and enslaved those whom they could conquer or suffered a similar fate if they failed. Some people killed other people because the gods of other peoples were offensive to the gods they held sacred. In all cases, the successful armies gained stolen wealth, including land, and the knowledge developed and held by those they conquered. Sometimes the conquerors destroyed everything, finding anything of the other peoples offensive to them, or of possible future danger to them.
Large and small conflicts endured for many hundreds of years before and after the time of the great sages and scholars.
Some of the successful leaders and their descendants built great empires, which rose and fell over the centuries,
Around one thousand years ago, a span of time equal to only ten of our lifetimes, knowledge from the works of the ancient sages began to be uncovered and rediscovered, and a great flowering of philosophy and the arts resulted.
As more people had access to the writings, translations, and transcriptions of the ancient scholars, the more knowledge spread throughout the world. We continued to build larger cities, larger empires, greater weapons.
Eight hundred years ago a man named Roger Bacon, employing knowledge gained from the ancient sages, from some contemporary scholars, and through his own investigations and conclusions, declared that Humans were now able to discover the secrets of Nature and to control and rule her. He said, “Knowledge itself is power.”
The era of Science and Technology had begun.
From this point until only two of our lifetimes ago, we accomplished things which in previous times would have been called magical.
We found ways to cure and prevent diseases which had plagued Humans ever since large cities were created.
We created immense farms which fed so many people that the numbers of people in the world were able to grow exponentially.
We created weapons which were so destructive that, if we fully employed them, we could destroy ourselves and much of life in the world.
We found ways to replace and repair parts of our bodies that were damaged or missing.
We examined the stars ever more closely and accurately and imagined ways to travel beyond this world.
We examined living things ever more closely, including ourselves, to find the mechanisms that made us what we are.
We examined matter, down to the smallest portion that could be perceived or imagined and found—nothing. That is, no thing. What we had been perceiving as physical stuff were actually vibrations in what was then called space-time.
We were perplexed because we thought that through our investigations, what we called Science, it would finally be revealed, with certainty, how the world was made and how we could control and manage it to our benefit.
This is when our founders began to take action.
Well, you know the rest of the story from your parents and grandparents.
World-wide governments and organizations were created to control all knowledge and its uses, to gain ever more power over the people and the forces of Nature. Leaders and scientists divided the world into so many parts and processes that eventually nothing could be controlled, and the last great civilization collapsed. Billions of people died from starvation and disease. People lost the ability to cooperate and collaborate for the common good and they killed each other over access to the remaining food and shelter.
Two lifetimes of world-wide horror and misery finally ended with small numbers of people in groups together, scattered over the world, just as in the beginning.
What was different from the beginning, however, was the immense store of knowledge that had been created over thirteen thousand years.
The leaders of our community had foreseen the terrible collapse. They had gathered and stored in hidden places all the knowledge which was available, much being hidden by governments and other organizations. Along with knowledge, they stored food and medicine and other things necessary for our people to survive what had been foreseen.
There were not many of us in the community then, maybe one hundred souls. During the terrible times, as others were killing and dying, these one hundred thought about how we could prevent such a horror in the future, assuming we would even survive it.
Of course, we did survive it and we gathered into our community others who had survived.
During the two hundred years of hiding and surviving we consulted the knowledge to see if others had foreseen such things, and what they may have suggested to prevent the collapse of society. We found many who had predicted or warned of this, from thousands of years ago.
Many of the ancient prophets, sages, and scholars warned us of improperly using the powers found in Nature, and in naming these forces to make them gods to worship and emulate.
These warnings and the experience of the Great Horror are why we remind ourselves with a prayer at the beginning and end of every day, including an ancient word at the end:
“Oh, Great and Nameless Powers, we thank you for the knowledge you have lent us so that we may make tools, grow food, and make shelter for ourselves. We thank you for the beauties and pleasures of the world. We remind ourselves that we are not gods, even though the forces of Nature flow through us as they do through everything we see and use.
“Please allow us to continue; Amen.”
You brought up this post to me. I have seen it before. It seems I skimmed it when you published it, but I gave it a more close reading this time. Unsurprisingly, some of this makes me think of Julian Jaynes. You write that, “Some people challenged the concept of many gods affecting our lives, and that there was but one God or force in the world.” This took many forms. More than one God or force in the world, what is maybe more interesting was the emergence of the idea of one world that one God/force created, ruled, controlled, determined, contained, etc.
In Greece, the idea of Kosmos as a singular world began showing up with some of the Presocratics. Monistic thinking in general became common, in looking for single, overarching explanations. Then control of the world is closely related to a need to control the dominant ideological system, since in this mindset multiple views cannot be allowed. World control and social control follow from thought control.
The idea of control was on my mind earlier today. As I walked into work, I was looking at the yards I passed. All the manicured grass, carefully planned landscaping, and maintained gardens reminded me of our culture’s obsessive need for control. It led to contemplating the source of this impulse of control that controls us. My mind drifted back to the detail of how agriculture became much more orderly after the fall of bicameral civilization, in how fields began to be weeded rather than left in a semi-wild state as they had previously.
But control took harsher forms as well and much earlier than this. As you know from Jaynes’ writing, as the bicameral societies became too large and cumbersome, they were stressed beyond the old system working effectively for maintaining social order. So, leaders turned to more brutal tyranny while power became more concentrated and hierarchies more rigid, along with the appearance of written laws and standing armies. You seem to be describing this shift in one particular paragraph:
“The world before the time in which we now live was a violent world. Leaders of some people formed armies and navies to conquer other peoples. They killed and enslaved those whom they could conquer or suffered a similar fate if they failed. Some people killed other people because the gods of other peoples were offensive to the gods they held sacred. In all cases, the successful armies gained stolen wealth, including land, and the knowledge developed and held by those they conquered. Sometimes the conquerors destroyed everything, finding anything of the other peoples offensive to them, or of possible future danger to them.”
We seem to be stuck in this mentality that possesses us. As William S. Burroughs understood so well, the control is controlled by its need for control. I like to bring this up because he also understood that systems of control are always about an addictive mentality, addictive behaviors, and addictive ways of relating. That goes into my own theory about the reason why addictive substances, specifically stimulants, have increasingly replaced psychedelics that once were far more common. There is also an interesting angle involving authoritarianism and (egoic or hyper-)individualism, as both necessitate rigid control. There is a great book, Blitzed by Norman Ohler, about meth addiction and the Nazis, a society that destroyed itself out of its need for control.
I had Jaynes in mind.
By the way, Blitzed is an interesting book. The Nazis, of course, are always fascinating. They have that typical reactionary combination of nostalgic fantasy about invented pasts and a hyper-modernizing impulse of control. The Nazi ideal was the hyper-masculine heroic individual that can accomplish anything and defeat everyone. They pushed to an extreme the link between authoritarianism and hyper-individualism. And so they turned to meth to enact this inhumanly impossible ideal. It was highly effective and successful, in the short term. It got results.
The sadly ironic part is that the Nazis originally were anti-drug, as they promoted an ideology of clean living, health, and physical vitality. When they first came to power, they killed drug addicts as being inferior, no different than Jews, homosexuals, the handicapped, etc. This was part of their eugenics program to create a more perfect race. Neo-Nazis still uphold these ideals. I remember reading about a group neo-Nazis in the United States who would go around beating people up if they saw them doing anything unhealthy like smoking cigarettes. It didn’t occur to them that beating people up doesn’t improve their health.
It’s an interesting story about how an anti-drug ideology could lead to mass drug addiction. At one point, nearly every German was taking meth. Not only those in the military but factory workers doing long hours, house wives trying to live up to another ideal of perfection, etc. The demand was tireless work for the war effort and for building a new kind of society. One was always supposed to be doing something, doing it quickly and efficiently, and always accomplishing some end. Relaxation was not part of this deal and so people had to be constantly wired, which was only possible through a powerful stimulant like meth. The Nazis came to rationalize this substance dependence by calling meth a vitamin.
It did make them total badasses for a time. Meth was the reason they were able to overwhelm enemy soldiers and to surprise them with seemingly inhuman feats. It was the secret ingredient to their Blitzkrieg. When the crossed the Pyrenees over night, the Allies were unprepared because they didn’t think it was possible. All of those Nazi soldiers were on meth and it allowed them to march at high speed without rest, as no army had ever before done. Long-term use of meth, however, leads to psychosis. That is what the Ally soldiers perceived as Berazerkers, Germans that were crazed out of their minds. After a few years of that, the German army was incapacitated with the health effects of meth addiction. This included Hitler whose teeth were falling out because of it.
Addictive stimulants are the drug of choice for systems of control. Modern authoritarianism of the 19th and 20th centuries might not have been possible without them, whether meth or cocaine. Even the combo of caffeine and cane sugar, maybe with nicotine thrown in (the infamous coffee and cigarette), allows people to do what otherwise is possible, from sitting at a desk writing and reading for long hours to working night shifts and double shifts. There is a reason there was a revolution of the mind with the colonial trade that introduced and made widespread stimulants. Modern intellectuality is a product of addictive stimulants. I’ve come to realize this in my personal experience, as I can’t get my mind focused for intellectual tasks like writing a long complex post without caffeine.
Yet most people don’t think of themselves as addicts. The use of addictive stimulants has become normalized. Few people ever attempt to go cold turkey with all addictive stimulants, especially caffeine and sugar. They don’t realize how much they rely on these substances just to function and manage themselves in our overly stressed out society. Our extreme rigid ego consciousness is a result of this. The Nazis demonstrate what happens when this is taken too far, but all of modernity has pushed it pretty far as it goes. Consider all of the legal drugs people are prescribed, including stimulants given to children for ADD and ADHD. Most of the drugs sold on the black market actually originated from legal prescriptions. That is particularly true for the younger generations, the most drugged than any generation before. As with the Nazis, our society of obsessive-compulsive control wouldn’t be possible without all of those drugs.