I am not the first to claim that the problems with the societies that we have now are structural problems, integrally related to the foundation that these societies rest on. Many others have seen this relationship.
About 2,450 years ago, the great thinker and mathematician Pythagoras spread the same basic message. His ideas offended many people who believed in the established order and wanted others to believe in it too. Pythagoras was asked to stop saying such things several times.
He didn’t stop. People began to threaten him. He was trying to undermine the existing order. They believed in the existing order. They wouldn’t allow him to do this. He decided to take his message underground. He created an organization called the ‘Pythagoreans,’ what historians record as a ‘secret society.’ Pythagoras had a keen logical mind. He had worked out several mathematical principles that helped people understand important aspects of our existence, including the famous ‘Pythagorean theorem’ that we all learned in school.
Pythagoras actually had a very wide impact on human thinking. His theorem about right triangles was only one of hundreds of theorems that he worked out; these theorems form the foundation for mathematics as we understand it today. Pythagoras is also responsible for western music, as it is played today. He created something called the ‘circle of fifths’ that forms the foundation for the chromatic scale (the 13-note scale that is the foundation for all music in the western world today; to play this, you play all keys on the piano keyboard). He showed that there is a simpler scale inside of this 13-note scale, which has only 8 notes. (This is called the ‘harmonic scale; to play it, you play only the white keys on the piano.) He explained the mathematical relationships between the things we call chords (the chord C, on any instrument, includes the notes C, E, and G; these notes sound good together because of mathematical relationships that Pythagoras explained).
Pythagoras made contributions to many fields. But he devoted his later life to his analysis of human societies. Pythagoras believed that the basic structures of human societies could be made to make sense in the same way that music and mathematics made sense.
We know very little about Pythagoras and have nothing directly from him. We know that he traveled a great deal and was devoted to both teaching and learning; he is claimed to have gotten his great wisdom from various different places where he lived, including Egypt, Persia, Greece, Italy, Crete, Palestine, and Macedonia. We don’t know for sure when the Pythagorean secret society came to exist, but we do know that it eventually became very large, it included many people who were very important to history, and it survived a great many very dedicated attempts to destroy it.
In 495 BC, Pythagoras was giving a lecture in Croton, a town in southern Italy. His enemies heard about this and must have decided it would be a good time to destroy the movement. Led by the politician Ceylon of Croton, they blocked all of the exits of the building where Pythagoras was giving his lecture and set the building on fire, killing everyone inside.
This didn’t destroy the movement. It still had chapters in many places in Europe, Africa, and Asia that met on a regular basis. Again, because these meetings were illegal and didn’t provide a paper trail that might have allowed the authorities to treat other members of the group as they had treated Pythagoras, we don’t really know much about them; we just know that this society existed and had many followers in the places where Pythagoras had lived.
The most important and influential Pythagorean in history was Alexander the Great. Roughly two centuries after Pythagoras was killed, Alexander made the most significant attempt in history to create rational societies, by putting Pythagorean principles into effect.
We can learn a lot from Alexander’s attempt. We can see that certain rather simple changes to society can have an enormous impact. We can see that many of the tools that Alexander created (almost certainly with the aid of his tutor, Aristotle), are capable of working to create a healthy society. We can see that his attempt almost worked, and we can use this information to see what we can do to build on his successes.
His failures also tell us a great many important things. If we know what attempts people made to do something we want to do, and we know why they failed, we can know what we have to worry about. To really understand what Alexander the Great did and how we can learn from it, we need to go back to before he was born and examine the development of the ideas that he tried to put into place. Alexander got his ideas about society through a chain of brilliant scholars that starts at Pythagoras. Socrates’ grandfather, Timaeus, was a noted Pythagorean and raised Socrates to think about human societies logically, something the Pythagorean society taught. Like Pythagoras, Socrates’ ideas offended many; Socrates was eventually put to death for heresy (disputing that the gods created the structures of societies) and sedition (teaching ideas potentially harmful to the state to young people). One of Socrates’ students, Plato, didn’t want Socrates’ ideas to die and wrote a series of books explaining Socrates’ ideas (the Πολιτεία, the Timaeus, and the Critias, discussed below). Plato opened a very famous school, the Academy, that attracted scholars from all over the world to study Socrates’ ideas; the most famous of these scholars was Aristotle, who became the personal tutor to Alexander the Great.
To understand the ideas that eventually made their way to Alexander, we need to look at the only place where they are really written down: the series of three books that Plato wrote about Socrates’ ideas for society.
The books are:
1. The Πολιτεία [The Politica Society]
2. Timaeus [The perspective of Timaeus, Socrates’ grandfather and a follower of Pythagoras]
3. The Critias
I want to go over these books a little here because the book you are reading, ‘Preventing Extinction,’ follows the same basic line of analysis as Socrates followed in these books.
The first book, ‘Πολιτεία’ (Politica Society) is an attempt determine if the type of society that dominated Europe at the time, a society that divided the world into independent political units (countries) could meet the needs of the human race. The book clearly shows that it cannot. In the book, Socrates first explains why this kind of society can’t meet the needs of the human race. Then, several of his students try to argue that it can work well, and its foundations are sound, it just needs certain minor modifications to work well. Socrates shows clearly that this is not the case. The problems in the πολιτεία (politica society, a society that divides the world into individual political units like sovereign states or sovereign countries) are structural. No superficial changes can make any difference.
The book shows that any society built on this foundation will necessarily have war. The benefits of war are essentially infinite in this society and they will push with ever increasing force until war ultimately breaks out. It is not possible to prevent this. (The book uses the Greek term αναπόφευκτος, which means ‘inevitable;’ war, it says, is inevitable.)
War creates certain needs that force societies to operate in very dangerous ways. The leaders and decisions-makers in these societies must organize their societies around the needs of war, not the needs of the people. As a result, there is never any real attempt made, in politica societies, to even try to meet the needs of the people. The governments kind of pretend to be trying to meet the needs of the people, but anything that improves their country’s ability to make war will become reality, even if it does great harm to the people and anything that harms the war effort will stop, even if it brings great benefits to the people of the country.
In the final analysis, war is nothing but organized, planned, and intentional mass murder and destruction. This is an ‘inevitable’ part of any politica society; it is a side effect of the operation of the most foundational forces in these societies. We can’t start with a society that must be built around organized mass murder and build a sound, safe, peaceful society. The book concludes that a politica society cannot ever be sound, safe, or healthy. It can’t meet the needs of the human race. (The exact word used in the book is δικαιοσύνη, pronounced ‘dikosey,’ which is often translated as ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’ or ‘piety’ or ‘morality’ but actually has a far broader meaning. It basically means ‘the ability to meet the needs of the human race.’ This is something that the politica society can never have, the book shows.)
The last few pages of the book claim that there is a way to make this happen, but it requires creating a religion that tricks people into believing that reality isn’t really real. Rulers can create a religion that tells people that this world is not the real world, just a test world where our souls are tested for placement in the real world. The book proposes that the foundation of this religion be this: first, the idea of multiple gods, the foundation of the Greek religion, has to be abandoned and they must convert to a system based on monotheism. The god must be portrayed in a certain very specific way; this portrayal is described in great detail in Πολιτεία. The god must have a son that is killed; the son’s soul then goes to the place of afterlife placement, witnesses it, and then comes back to the original body that comes back to life. The resurrected son of god tells people about the afterlife judgment so the can prepare and, if they live only for the afterlife, not this one, they will be saved and go to a wonderful afterlife world with all comforts and luxuries.
This book was written about 400 BC, some 722 years before Constantine abolished the polytheistic Roman religion and replaced it with a religion that was built around the exact same premises as described in Πολιτεία. Perhaps Constantine was trying to create a sound society the only way possible (at least in the opinion of Socrates and Plato) in a world divided into countries. If this was the case, he failed: the system he created degraded into the system that now dominates the world.
The next book in the series is the ‘Critias.’ This book presents transcripts of conversations between Critias, Timaeus (Socrates’ grandfather) and Socrates that discuss how to build a society that can meet the needs of the people.
The book opens with a discussion about a continent that the speakers claim exists on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. They call this continent ‘Atlantis.’ The book claims that the continent was low and easily flooded; it ultimately washed away entirely, leaving nothing but an archipelago of islands, where the inhabitants of Atlantis fled after their continent sank. The book starts out by describing the society on one of the islands in this archipelago that is 375 miles by 275 miles (3,000 Stadia by 2,000 Stadia), the same size as the island of Haiti, the place where Columbus landed and the island he made his home. Here, Critias describes the people who lived on this island:
They possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them.
Unfortunately, the details of the societies on this island were lost: many book burnings took place word and almost all of the ‘Critias’ was lost.
Here is what we do have: this book introduces the societies of the people who lived on the other side of the Atlantic in glowing terms, in the passage above and similar passages. Then, it goes into a passage that seems to be trying to lay open arguments that show that, although this society had great advantages, it wasn’t perfect and had some very serious flaws. The surviving part of the book then ends, very suddenly, in the middle of a sentence. My copy ends with:
We can get some idea of what the lost part of the book probably says by looking at the third book in the series. The third book is ‘Timaeus;’ it describes various conversations between Socrates and his grandfather (a noted Pythagorean). This book starts by accepting that the readers already understand the way a sound and healthy society works. This makes it seem pretty likely that this is exactly what the ‘Critias’ explains.
But what might this society look like?
It can’t be a politica society. The first book in the series showed that this society can’t be the foundation for a sound system. It can’t be exactly the same as the societies of the people who lived on the islands on the other side of the Atlantic: the book clearly is getting ready to explain flaws in these societies. If this is the case, why start with a description of both of these unsound societies? Why bother to describe the society on the western islands at all? Clearly, people have to understand both of these societies to understand the sound and healthy society explained in the ‘Critias.’ If this is the case, it seems very reasonable to assume that the sound and healthy society mixes together the features of the two starting societies. We can tell by analysis of the changes that Alexander the Great was later to make—clearly inspired by the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—that the society he was trying to create had many of the features described above for the socratic. (We will examine the similarities shortly.)
The third book doesn’t go into great detail about this society (something that most historians call an ‘ideal society,’ and which I simply say is a ‘sound and healthy society’). The ‘Critias’ clearly does describe it but we don’t have these descriptions.
The third book is about the idea of societal change. What must we do if we don’t like the society we inherited and want something else? Timaeus had ideas in this regard. The book goes over these ideas.
Plato and The Academy
How did all this get to Alexander?
To understand this, we have to know a little bit about another person in the chain, Plato.
At his trial, Socrates talks about one of the charges against him, the charge of sedition or ‘corrupting youth.’ Socrates believed that the type of society he lived in was structurally unsound and could not meet the needs of the human race. He met people who thought otherwise: they thought the idea behind the country-based society was sound, that the particular country where they were born was superior to other countries, and that by advancing the interests of the country, they were making the world better. Socrates talked to a lot of people who believed this and came to believe that these people could not defend their position logically. It was based on beliefs, prejudices, implanted patriotism (the book ‘Politica’ goes into great detail about the idea of implanting patriotism). These people claimed to be wise and the people who followed them thought they were wise, but Socrates called them ‘pretenders to wisdom.’ If he could get these people into a discussion, he could ask them a few simple questions about how and why these societies were sound; in trying to answer, they would show that they were fools and the people around them would realize that they did not really know what they were talking about.
At his trial, he discusses the reason he was being charged with sedition (‘corrupting youth with dangerous ideas’):
Young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me, and proceed to examine others; there are plenty of persons, as they quickly discover, who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing. Those who are examined by them instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me: This confounded Socrates, they say; this villainous misleader of youth!
If somebody asks them: Why, what evil does he practice or teach?
They do not know, and cannot tell; but in order that they may not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges which are used against all philosophers about teaching things up in the clouds and under the earth, and having no gods, and making the worse appear the better cause; for they do not like to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected—which is the truth. As they are numerous and ambitious and energetic, and are drawn up in battle array and have persuasive tongues, they have filled your ears with their loud and inveterate accusations.
And this is the reason why my three accusers, Meletus and Anytus and Lycon, have set upon me; Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets; Anytus, on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians; Lycon, on behalf of the rhetoricians. As I said at the beginning, I cannot expect to get rid of such a mass of calumny all in a moment. And this, O men of Athens, is the truth and the whole truth; I have concealed nothing, I have dissembled nothing. And yet, I know that my plainness of speech makes them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am speaking the truth? This has led to the charges against me.
Socrates said he just asked questions. The questions made the people who claimed to be experts look like fools. Young men liked to hear this and, after they saw it, they imitated Socrates, asking the same questions to others claimed to be experts, who were also revealed to be ‘pretenders to wisdom.’ He is not to blame for this; he wasn’t trying to corrupt anyone and never sought out followers or made any attempt to influence them. He just wanted to understand how societies worked.
Plato was one of these ‘young men of the richer classes.’ He came from one of the richest and most well-connected families of Athens. In the year 388 BC, Plato inherited a property that had once been owned by the one of the most important people in Athenian history, Hipparchos. Hipparchos had developed this property as a kind of private retreat. It had an enormous gymnasium, several heated pools for soaking and swimming, luxurious accommodations, and about 3.5 acres of park-like land with olive groves, surrounded by a 30ft high wall with guard towers at regular intervals.
(Why did he feel he need this security? Hipparchos is also known as the ‘tyrant of Athens.’ He had a lot of enemies and wanted to be able to feel safe himself and entertain his guests in a safe space.)
Hipparchos named this resort after an Athenian military hero of the ancient past; he called it Ἀκαδημία, which would be pronounced ‘Academia’ or ‘Academy’ in English. Originally, this had nothing to do with learning; it was simply the name of a military hero.
Plato inherited this property 11 years after Socrates had been executed. In this 11-year period, Plato had written the three books described above. He continued to believe that Socrates was right: the societies built on political divisions (politica or πολιτεία societies) couldn’t meet the needs of the human race. If we want sound and healthy societies, we need something else. Of course, this line of inquiry was not considered acceptable and couldn’t be discussed in public. However, the Pythagorean secret society continued to expand. A very large number of people believed that we needed to use logic and reason on societies. Plato wanted a place where these people could come together and discuss this issue, and consider the contribution that Socrates had made, without having to worry about the authorities.
The walls stayed up. There was one entrance; people could only get in if they were known to have the right state of mind. Although we don’t know much about the details, because secret societies obviously don’t want to make their practices public, it is thought that the society that came to be called the ‘Masons Templar’ used the same general practices to identify their members as the Pythagoreans. (In the recent excavation of the Academy, researchers found that the Academy buildings used the same symbol as the Pythagorean, which happens to be the same as the Masons Templar, the mathematician’s compass.)
The Academy was originally designed and built as a luxury retreat for the richest and most powerful people of southern Europe. It was a very pleasant place to spend time. I can imagine people getting through the gates of the Academy and away from the hustle and bustle of the city, into the shady groves, going to the baths for a soak, sitting beside the pool drinking wine and talking.
The Pythagorean society had chapters in many cities. Aristotle was born in Stagira, a small city in the nation of Macedonia, about 350 miles northeast of Athens. Aristotle heard about the Academy at an early age, presumably from other Pythagoreans. He moved to Athens in 367 BC to study there. He remained at the Academy, living on the grounds for another 20 years, studying under the direct tutelage of Plato.
He came to the Academy when he was 17 years old. Plato was 60 years old at the time. I can imagine the eager teenager questioning the wise Plato about the ideas of Pythagoras, the lectures that Socrates had given, the idea of a sound society—as discussed in the Critias, which Plato had written—and the tools that practical people might be able to use to create a system capable of meeting the needs of the human race.
Plato passed away at the age of 80 in the year 347 BC. Plato was rich and had a lot of political connections. As long as he was alive, people felt safe at the Academy. After his death, many people believed it was no longer safe to remain and left the property. One of the residents was from Turkey. His name was Xenocrates and he and Aristotle were close friends. Xenocrates and Aristotle left for Turkey shortly after Plato died. Xenocrates was friends with a Turkish sultan named Hermias. Aristotle became friends with Hermias and, shortly after they met, Hermias made dramatic changes in his administration, making some of the changes that Alexander was later to make in the areas under his control. (This seems to back the conclusion that the ideas behind the changes that Alexander made came from Aristotle.)
His changes led to an extremely rapid and immense increase in prosperity in the parts of Turkey under Hermias’ control. Aristotle got diverted: he fell in love with Hermias’ daughter, Pythias. They married and spent their honeymoon on the Greek island of Lesbos. They liked it there so much they decided to stay and raise their family there.
According to many accounts, Aristotle was one of the most brilliant men who ever lived. When I read his books today, I am in awe of his mental skills. He was a prolific author and wrote a very large number of books on an incredible variety of topics. No matter what topic he dealt with, he started with an analysis of objective evidence that could be verified scientifically.
He worked out what must be happening in botany, biology, physics, chemistry, or many other fields, based on logic that most historians credit Plato for developing and that Aristotle is famous for using. By the time Aristotle moved to Lesbos, he was already famous all around the Mediterranean for his mental talents.
In 343 BC, King Phillip of Macedonia was looking for a tutor for his son Alexander. He interviewed several scholars who were eager for the position. But his first choice Aristotle. He sent people to Lesbos to try to convince Aristotle to take the position. Aristotle’s terms were very strict, and we can tell by Phillip’s acceptance of these terms how badly he wanted Aristotle to teach his son.
Aristotle would only agree to teach Alexander if Phillip first totally eliminated slavery in his kingdom. Phillip would have to buy back all slaves from their owners and free them. If the freed slaves had owned property before capture, Phillip would have to restore it to them; if it had been destroyed, Phillip would have to rebuild it. I can’t think of a more persuasive argument for the incredible intelligence of Aristotle than the fact that Phillip wanted him so badly he was willing to accept all of these terms.
Aristotle arrived at Naoussa, the location of the school, in 340 BC. He was Alexander’s personal tutor for the next four years. Aristotle was 41 and Alexander was 13.
Four years later Phillip was assassinated, and Alexander became the king of Macedonia. Alexander was 17 years old, the same age that Aristotle had been when he had arrived at the Academy 28 years earlier.
What We Know And Don’t Know
In the next 17 years, Alexander did the seemingly impossible. He united more than 500 million people in a new kind of society that stretched over more than 2 million square miles, included hundreds of ethnic groups with dozens of different languages and cultural backgrounds. He built more highways than had ever been built before in history, including most of the highways that are still the main arteries today in the lands that were a part of his new society. He built the largest and most complete libraries that had ever existed, he founded universities, he introduced new kinds of capital markets, he created banking and credit systems, and he built more than 20 master-planned cities from scratch.
The changes he made led to massive increases in production, creating great prosperity that brought opportunities to all members of society. In the new system he created, cast and class distinctions weren’t nearly as important as in the old society. People could start with nothing; by taking advantage of the information in the open libraries and the funding opportunities that came from his new financial systems, they could make something for themselves.
The changes that Alexander made were unprecedented; the world had never seen anything like it and if we put it into realistic perspective, we would have to say that nothing even similar has taken place in the more than 2,300 years since. Alexander did more to advance the human condition than anyone ever had done and, today, he is one of the few men who are remembered as truly great.
And he did this all in less than 17 years.
How did he do it?
It is very unfortunate that the book burnings that started shortly after Alexander was assassinated were as successful as they were. The libraries that Alexander built throughout the lands were some of the finest and most complete that have ever existed. They almost certainly contained complete descriptions on exactly how Alexander accomplished what he accomplished. After Alexander was out of the way, people brought the old system back and did their best to destroy any evidence that anything better had ever existed.
Unfortunately, the book burnings were incredibly effective. Almost all of the details were lost. All we have left are a few scattered records that weren’t destroyed because they weren’t considered important enough, and the remains of the durable structures he built and devised that the Romans and later conquerors continued to use (and continue to use to this day) because of the great benefits that they brought to them.
We do know this: Alexander didn’t just make a few modifications in the details of the society around him. Working with Aristotle, he analyzed the societies that were in place at that time (the same type that Socrates had claimed could never be healthy or workable societies, which are the same type that we have today). He examined their structural elements and worked out changes that would cause these structures to operate differently.
He didn’t just create a slightly modified version of the politica societies that were in place, he actually built an entirely different system.
Alexander clearly did not believe the principle that the wealth inside of the lines that make up a given country are supposed to only benefit the people of that country. If Alexander thought a shipping port should be in a certain place, and the particular political unit that controlled that part of the world didn’t produce enough surpluses to afford the port but the land of another political unit did, Alexander didn’t see anything wrong with violating inherent principles of independence and sovereignty for the political units by using the wealth where it was most needed. Alexander was also flexible with the principle of ownership of land. Many people thought of the idea of ownership as a religious or philosophical principle: if you own, you own everything; if you don’t own, you don’t own anything. Alexander could see that it is possible to allow people to buy and own certain rights to use the world without owning that part of the world itself. He realized he could grant rights to people who would own those rights, but not own the land itself.
Alexander did things no one else had ever done before and achieved things that no one after him has been able to match. It is hard to understand how he was able to do these things if we think of him as simply trying various combinations of minor alterations to the details in the then-existing societies and hoping for the best. If we think of him as building on the work of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to work out logical and reasonable principles that put societies on an entirely different foundation, the things he did do make sense.
Military Advantages That Come From Granting Rights to People
For more than 2,000 years, military analysts have tried to figure out how Alexander could possibly have gained control of the massive amounts of land he came to control in such a short time. In less than 17 years, he gained control over 2 million square miles, which is about the area of the lower 48 United States. This land had 500 million inhabitants, significantly more than the current population of the lower 48 United States.
Before Alexander came along, this land was divided into hundreds of kingdoms. The kings had all built walls, hedgerows, and other barriers and heavy fortifications to protect their land. They kept highly trained armies equipped with the best weaponry the kings could afford to protect their land. These fortifications had held for centuries.
What kind of military genius could overcome all of these defenses, taking more land in a single month than had been conquered by all military commanders combined in centuries before Alexander came along?
To see how difficult this task is, consider one tiny part of the land that became a part of Alexander’s community of nations: the 250,000 square miles that is currently called the ‘country of ‘Afghanistan.’
As I write this, the United States has been fighting to gain control the administrative apparatus of Afghanistan for 20 years, longer than the entire 17 years Alexander was in power. But this giant superpower with all its advantages and technology and enough nuclear bombs to destroy the world thousands of times over is no closer to forcing the people of Afghanistan to accept its rule in 2020 than it was in 2001 when the war began.
If you try to use force to make people conform to your wishes, they resist in many ways. They may pretend to be your friends and pretend to be complying but if you turn your back on them, they will do anything they can to make sure you don’t get what you want.
The people of Afghanistan today hate the United States invaders just as much as they hated the next most recent invaders of Afghanistan, the Russians. Neither of these superpowers has had any success at bringing this land under its dominion.
Alexander annexed Afghanistan in passing. This annexation took so little time and effort that historians didn’t even bother to record the events; they weren’t interesting, there were no battles and there was no resistance.
How could this be?
I submit to you that Alexander didn’t try to do the things the United States is trying to do, and the Soviet Union tried to do. He wasn’t trying to force the Afghan people to accept control by his military. He didn’t ‘conquer’ Afghanistan at all.
He gave people an opportunity. He understood how to put together societal structures that benefited the people. People who wanted to join could do so; he would help them build the necessary institutions and get them started. He let them know that many people had joined the system so far and if they joined themselves, they would be joining a community of humankind, not a ‘country’ that would try to advance its interests at the expense of other countries. The empire he was forming was vast, productive and prosperous; if they joined, this prosperity would begin to flow to them immediately. The wealth of the empire would be used to build roads, schools, parks, libraries, banking systems, and other facilities that pull them out of poverty and want and into the modern world.
Alexander did incredible things, things no one else had ever done or has ever done since. He came closer to changing the realities of human existence, and putting us on a path to sustainable, peaceful, non-destructive societies, than anyone else either before or after him.
Shortly after his 33rd birthday, Alexander began to show signs that are associated with arsenic poisoning. Alexander trusted people around him because he believed they loved him and most of them did love him. He got invitations to dinner all the time and went out frequently. He was very fond of wine and often got so drunk he had to be helped back home. He didn’t take precautions against poison. He was 33 years old, in his prime, an age when men believe death is so far in the future that they don’t even have to think about it.
Arsenic has cumulative effects. A few drops will hardly affect you; the same amount added tomorrow will make you a little sick; another dose will confine you to the toilet for a few hours; a few more drops and you can’t leave your bed. Eventually, the body stops functioning. Alexander’s aids kept detailed records of the last two weeks of Alexander’s life. We can’t really account for the symptoms with any known disease, but they match arsenic poisoning perfectly.
Alexander clearly had a plan. But we know from his communications with Aristotle that he hadn’t really explained all of the details of this plan with the people around him. (In letters, Aristotle admonishes Alexander for discussing certain principles of society in public.) He had not appointed or trained a successor. When he died, there was no one to take over.
We can get some idea of what he hoped would happen from his last will and testament:
People of the Near East are to be encouraged to marry with those of Europe and those of Europe to do likewise; in so doing, a new culture would be embraced by all.
He wanted a world community that included all members of the human race. Their rights wouldn’t have anything to do with which ‘nation’ their mothers were in when they were born, their race, their language, or their culture. Humans would all have human rights.
The system he started to set up would have made all humans a part of community of humankind. The flows of value that had been going to the kings and governments of the world, and used mainly for war, would go instead to the people of the world, to help them have better lives.
After Alexander was out of the way, the old power systems came back very quickly. Immense flows of wealth were available. Alexander had used these flows of wealth to build roads, libraries, universities, to build port facilities for shipping and trade, and to fund banking systems to finance capital improvements. People who controlled military units, or had the means to raise them, realized that they could take control of the land that produced the wealth, call it their ‘country,’ and then rule the country for their own benefit.
The wealth that had gone to universities and libraries could be used to pay for castles and harems. To prevent the system from rising again, the scholars were purged, the books burned, and any who supported the now-dead Alexander could be put to death. The old system could be wiped from the face of the Earth and from the memories of survivors, in the same way that Cortez was to wipe out all of the books and libraries of the Aztec people.
We can learn a lot from Alexander, from his successes, his failures, and the aftermath of his period of history. From his successes we can learn that if we can set up a system so that the interests of the individuals in society align with the interests of society as a whole, we can have truly fantastic progress. A system can grow very rapidly. Considering the technology that existed 2300 years ago, and the progress that he made in a very short time, we might imagine that if someone had the background, training, and leadership skills that he had, combined with the communication technology and other very powerful tools that we have now to bring people together, the world could be united in an extremely short period of time, perhaps as short as a few decades.
His failures tell us that the vested interests in the system now in place have great power. We need to be aware that even a great movement toward a better world can be crushed. Certain people who run the sovereignty-based societies of the world today know how to prevent the kinds of changes that would harm their power base. These people need the world divided: as long as we are fighting each other in petty and ridiculous disputes that don’t change anything fundamentally about the world, and as long as we believe these wars are the most important reality of existence, we aren’t going to take the time to understand anything really important about our world. We aren’t going to come to understand the big picture. The structures that enrich the tiny minority at the expense of the great majority can remain in place.
In his book ‘1984,’ Orwell discusses the idea of mind control at great length. He claims that our minds can only really be controlled if we let them be controlled. We must consciously split our minds and think of certain things logically, while refusing to think of other things logically. He calls this splitting of the mind ‘doublethink.’ He claims that doublethink is a primary tool that the people in power use to prevent us from having hope, so that we will never make progress:
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. Ultimately it is by means of doublethink that the Party has been able — and may, for all we know, continue to be able for thousands of years — to arrest the course of history.
Alexander failed to change the world. But this wasn’t because his plan was bad. He needed to show the people that a better world was possible before they would truly believe it. The people had been raised and educated to live in fear and hate: their countries were the source of all good things and the enemies were the ultimate in evil, trying to destroy all good things everywhere. After people realized that this was nonsense, and the training had been designed to turn them into tools of a defective system, they could safely be given power and control over enormous flows of wealth that came from the planet; they would use this power and wealth to advance the interests of the human race, rather than to try to split themselves into teams and fight for the rights of the teams.
From the aftermath, we can learn the true danger, the one thing the people in charge know can alter society: knowledge. After Alexander had been taken out of the picture, and the structures that removed power from the entities called ‘countries’ had been disassembled with power redistributed, the people in charge began burning books. Alexander had proved that a better system was possible. If people accepted a better society was possible, they would spend their time and effort to try to recreate the structures that had made the world better, not trying to find better ways to give their ‘countries’ advantages in wars, or otherwise trying to change details that had no effect over any large scale structures of societies.
After Alexander was gone, the libraries were put to the flames. The schools were closed, the scholars persecuted and sent to places they could do no harm, because no one would hear them. The people who had been displaced and removed from power by Alexander’s system knew that knowledge was their enemy, reason and logic were their enemies. If the people knew that a better society was possible, they would try to create it; Alexander had proven that a better society was possible. They had hard evidence it could be done. This evidence must be destroyed.
The historians then played a neat trick on future generations. How could they make it appear that Alexander had not done anything extraordinary? They couldn’t hide the evidence: the roads, aqueducts, ports, and other structures he created were still there. But they could create a general picture that Alexander was ‘just another conqueror.’ They could portray him as a soldier who just happened to be a little better at soldiering than others. They could play down the importance of the structural changes he made to the areas that joined his system. They could play down his relationship with the heretics of the past, including Socrates and Pythagorean, who claimed and taught that humans really could do better. If they worked hard enough, they could cause Alexander to simply fade into the background of history, perhaps giving him a page or two and having these pages claim nonsense that he was primarily a military man with no social conscience. They could make it appear that he hadn’t really done anything structurally at all: he simply figured out the system well enough to manipulate it to his advantage.
In his book ‘1984,’ Orwell talked about the idea of ‘disappearing’ people who caused problems for the power structure. He uses the term ‘disappearing’ as a verb, something that the ‘Ministry of Truth’ (which hides and distorts the truth) does to wipe all traces of dangerous people from the books and, through the ‘Ministry of Love’ (involved with torture and mind control), from the minds of the people. Alexander the Great is probably the most dangerous of all historical figures to those in power because he gives us hope. He shows it is possible for humans to organize themselves differently and, if we do, we can have a much better world. The historians couldn’t totally ‘disappear’ Alexander. His impact had been too great. But they could render him fuzzy and semi-transparent and prevent future generations from seeing him clearly enough to understand that he really does give us hope.
Alexander never finished the system he was building. He had priorities. He had to do certain things first. First you bring prosperity to the people. Once people are lifted out of poverty and given the tools they need to make something of their lives, the society as a whole moves forward. Then, the people need to be educated: they need to know the things that Socrates and Aristotle understood about how human societies work. They need to know that people who try to divide them from each other, by splitting off land and people and calling each combination a separate ‘sovereign and independent country,’ and training them that they owe their allegiance to the country they live in—not the human race or planet Earth—are only trying to trick them. You can’t really tell them that they have been tricked and hope to get them on your side. People don’t like to think of themselves as dupes: tell them that they have been tricked and they only get angry at you. You need to bring them to a condition where they can realize this for themselves. They can see that the people who claim that they know why the divisions are for the best and try to make them fight for the divisions are, to use Socrates’ term, ‘pretenders to wisdom.’ You can show them that these people don’t know what they are talking about by letting them live in and experience a better society firsthand. They will see that it has nothing in common with the war-driven systems that the ‘pretenders’ claim is the best.
Then, after you have created this state of mind in the people, it is safe to give them tools that allow them to control their collective destiny. They will realize that the ways of the past are primitive. They will not use their control over wealth to divide themselves into clans called ‘sovereign states’ or ‘sovereign countries’ or anything similar and build weapons to use in battles against others with these beliefs. They will realize that the old ways were silly, the people who taught them that they were the right ways really were ‘pretenders to wisdom’ and had themselves been duped to believe nonsense. After you have created the required mindset, you can transfer power to the people.
Unfortunately, Alexander didn’t have time. I was a 33-year-old man once. If you had told me I had to prepare for the time when I wouldn’t be there, I would have laughed. This time was far in the future. Unfortunately, it wasn’t far in the future for Alexander. He didn’t prepare.
His successes show us that there really are great advantages to organizing society in a logical way. They show that prosperity really does increase when wealth is used to unite people, rather than to tear them apart. It shows that opportunity empowers people and that people who were normally stupefied by poverty can become highly productive and create real wealth.
His successes tell us that a movement towards a sound society can gain momentum over time: success leads to more success. Over time, people will realize that things can be done that they had believed could not be done. They will get on board to changes that they otherwise would have opposed.
His failures tell us that the vested interests in the system now in place have great power. We need to be aware that even a great movement toward a better world can be crushed. Certain people who run the sovereignty-based societies of the world today know how to prevent the kinds of changes that would harm their power base.
Two Approaches to Converting to a Healthy Society
We have a lot to learn from the past. Two approaches have been taken to alter society; each has their advantages and disadvantages.
The first is the approach that Henri Dunant took involves leaving governments and countries out of the equation entirely. Start with an NGO. Have the NGO do things that bring real benefits to the human race. The people will support it because they will want it to do more. (We know this happens; the Red Cross grew into one of the largest organizations of any kind in the world.)
I am personally drawn to the idea of starting with a non-governmental organization and working for change through avenues that have nothing to do with governments. Perhaps a part of my attraction comes from prejudice: I have a general mistrust of governments that derives from my experiences growing up. Governments don’t know what the people want; only the people know what the people want.
Since non-governmental organizations work outside of the nationalistic system, and take advantage of structures that governments have to protect in order to function, governments won’t be able to prevent its growth even knowing in advance that it will eventually put the human race in charge of variables that the governments of nations now control.
Why NGOs take advantage of structures that governments MUST protect: Corporations are essential to make the tools of war. These tools are simply too complex, and the machines required to make them are too expensive for individuals to fund. All nations in the world today accept corporations as legal entities with rights that are protected in courts. The governments have to protect the rights of corporations because, if they don’t, the corporations wouldn’t be able to operate efficiently enough to provide tools of war. As long as governments fear war, they will have to protect corporations, even corporations designed specifically to make the world a better place.
But Dunant’s approach has disadvantages. The first is that it takes time. Even with an enlightened populace, it may take more than a human lifetime before this approach creates enough power and wealth for the human race to give us the ability to prevent wars and destruction.
We may not have the time.
The second problem involves information. Before this approach will work, a large percentage of the people of the world have to know and accept on a conscious level that the society type that they inherited from past generations can’t meet the needs of the human race, that a sane, sound, and healthy society is possible, and that certain steps will take us to that society.
At first glance, the required steps seem to have nothing to do with the problems of war and destruction. They are based on the idea that war and destruction are symptoms of a disease, not the disease itself. They deal with the underlying forces only, not the symptoms.
For thousands of years, governments have been successful in making people think that the entities called ‘countries’ are real things and that we have some sort of moral obligation to fight, kill, and even give our lives if this can help advance the interests of the country of our birth. Socrates described the methods used during his time to create this mindset in great detail (in the ‘Πολιτεία,’ available in full on the PossibleSocieties.com website). If you read this book, you will recognize that the schools of today use the exact same tools to instill this state of mind that schools used in the time of Socrates, more than 2,400 years ago. These tools were effective 2,400 years ago. They are still effective. It may be that people thus trained simply aren’t able to open their minds enough to think about society objectively.
This is my greatest fear. Brave people like Pythagoras, Socrates, Sir Thomas More, and George Orwell, have told us that the people who run the systems we live are tricking us and controlling our minds for thousands of years. Yet the deception continues and seems to work as well as it ever did. I hope that the scientific revolution that is taking place, together with the availability of correct information on the internet, will help change this. But it may not.
The real problem with Dunant’s approach is that it relies on enlightenment to work with enough speed to have any hope of helping us get out of our mess. I hope that the new tools that are now available are contributing to enlightenment. But there doesn’t appear to be any way to tell for sure.
The second approach, the approach that Alexander took, has different sets of advantages and disadvantages. He gained control of a nation and then set up a system that was not nationalistic. Set up a system that takes advantage of incentives to encourage progress and growth, as Alexander did, and use the wealth generated for projects that lead to even greater wealth creation.
Rather than expanding by conquering and subjugating people, it can expand by welcoming people outside of the starting nation to abandon their own nationalism and join the system. Make it clear that there is no ‘base system’ that will use wealth the newcomers provide to improve the lives of the people in the base system. Make it clear to any who may want to join that, if they do join, they will be working for the betterment of the human race as a whole, not just the collection of people who originally created the system.
This system also has advantages and disadvantages. The first advantage is speed. Alexander showed how fast such a change can spread. If it could spread as rapidly as it did 2,300 years ago, during a time with no telephones, jets, or even cars, we might expect it to spread even more rapidly in our own time.
The second advantage involves education. It isn’t necessary to make everyone aware that foundational changes are needed and are taking place. The ordinary people will see only that the conditions of their own lives are improving. They will see that backing change increases their incomes and makes their lives better.
They don’t have to know there is a grand plan; they only have to act in their own interests.
That is something we all know how to do.
The disadvantages of this system involve the fundamental problems of granting power to any group with any tools at all. The group that asks for power so that they can work to put the human race in charge may be lying from the first. Politicians will say anything they have to say to get into power. Once in power, they can then act as if they never said anything and do whatever they want. We all can dig up as many examples of this as we want.
This system depends on one enlightened person to take charge. This gives it an important weakness: eliminate that individual, and the movement can be killed rather easily.
But we don’t have to do one or the other. The different approaches taken in the past aren’t necessarily exclusive. If we are smart, if we use logic and reason, if we put together the best of what we can learn from the past with the best of what is available now, we can have a real hope of success.