Part of the series God: From Magic to Motivation
One of the themes of this series has been (or was meant to be) mathematics. Mathematics is a kind of aesthetic. People appreciate it and trust it. In the time he’s given, Joseph Campbell paints a very simple picture of the birth of city culture and the importance of mathematics. Cities seem to be the children of agriculture and trade. It may be debated whether those two are the legitimate parents. The silver-tongued devil of written language may have snuck into the tent when opportunity struck.
Whatever may be the genealogy, when the city priests had time to look up and map the order of the stars, as Campbell suggests, they eventually sorted out predictable and numerical patterns. This was the equivalent of a revolution in mythological consciousness. As Campbell explains, myths changed from being about how to act in exceptional situations to the universal order of things. Instead of overcoming a dragon of chaos, heroes and gods start to construct reality out of the pieces that remained of the vanquished dragon. The story of Marduk is an example of this. One of the first things the hero does as victor is to create a calendar.
Agriculture needs calendars, and calendars need some general understanding of counting and mathematics. Mathematics and numbers also became important in managing large-scale work projects. Cities need walls and roads and monuments. Citizens are attracted to predictable, meaningful structure.
Not every citizen, however, seems to appreciate math in the raw, or math as an aesthetic. They aren’t convinced by it, or compelled by it.
People are inspired by exceptional things. People are inspired by art and story. People are also inspired by really really big and impressive things. People are also inspired by what’s predictable and what’s taken for granted. We have an addiction to the predictable.
Enter the pyramids.
The pyramid is an exceptional shape. If a piece is removed, the shape remains. If part of the structure suffers a collapse, it will fall in the shape of a pyramid. If you deconstruct it, the pyramid remains.
I am reading “Hierarchy in the Forest”, a book by Christopher Boehm, suggested to me by one of my readers. Early in the book, Boehm writes:
For more than five millennia now, the human trend has been toward hierarchy rather than equality.
I’m still finding out what Boehm thinks this means, but I think hierarchies motivate us in ways that equality can’t. Pyramids and hierarchies have implications in their structure. For example, by rising even one more step, it’s implied that you are better off. The view is better. And the next step is the next goal.
Pyramids pervade our urban lifestyles. The shelves of your grocery store are organized in structured, hierarchical patterns. An ex-employee of mine once gave me the book “The E-Myth”. It simplifies the business world into three kinds of people – technicians, managers and entrepreneurs. The lesson of the book is to adopt a hierarchical framework of responsibilities, so that things are done predictably and done to a set of policies or standards.
Know your role. Measure up. Perform. Step up.
I think we are motivated by predictability and growth more than we ever could be by equality.
The simple brick hasn’t changed much over the last five thousand years. Architecture, however, has changed. We now have things like elevators. Practically anyone can go up to enjoy the city’s skyline.
But you still have to be motivated by the view up there. Someone still has to be motivated to build the tower.
Our calendar today, even after many changes, shows hints of old hierarchies. After Julius Caesar became Emperor of Rome, he named the month of the summer solstice, when the sun becomes most dominant, after himself. Following him, Caesar Augustus revised the calendar and named the next summer month after himself.
These two men became gods regardless of their very mortal natures. Without being conscious of it, we worship them as much as we worship any of our gods (and non-gods) today. Their stories are hidden underneath layers and layers of bricks upon bricks.
Like the calendars and the not-quite-conscious hierarchies that govern our shopping, they are part of our present-day, civilized, urban environment.
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My thoughts are scattered right now. This is to be continued with another post on the middle class, different shapes of pyramids, and trying to dismantle pyramids after they have been erected and institutionalized.