Mountains

Mountains held an important place in almost every ancient culture. If a society lived near any sort of alpine terrain, it was inevitably woven into the culture’s myths and legends. More often than not, it was seen as the realm of the gods. Perhaps the most recognizable example in Western culture is Mount Olympus as the home of the Ancient Greek pantheon. Mount Sinai, in all Abrahamic religions, is the place where some of the most important teachings of God were handed down. Mount Fuji in Japan is home to countless Shinto temples all long its base. Mount Kailash and Mount Meru both play an important part in many Hindu myths. Native peoples such as the Taranki in New Zealand, the Incas in Peru, and the Wintu in California centered their religious life in nearby mountains.

It’s plain to see why so many cultures were inspired by the grandeur of mountains. Their peaks represent a place beyond humanity. Mountains impose their immense figure on the surrounding landscape for leagues in every direction. It is hard to look at a far-off mountain and not get a sense of power. The mountain seemingly leep up to the stars and clouds. Its rocky peak is the only thing to break up the monotony of a clear, azure sky. Mountains were as distant and insurmountable to the ancients as the heavens above. The gods were seen as a bridge between the human and the divine forces. It’s only fitting that they would call the mountains their home.

Human settlement has never touched the highest peaks. It is simply impractical to sustain civilization at great altitudes. All of the necessary ingredients for a society such as agriculture, commerce, and architecture are made difficult. Because of this, most ancient cultures were uninterested in conquering them. Life at the lower elevations was difficult enough. The activity of mountaineering for pure pleasure is a thoroughly modern pursuit.

A good candidate for the first mountaineer is Petrarch, a 14th-century scholar and poet. He completed an ascent of Mont Ventoux in southern France in the spring of 1336. He described the entire event in a letter to a friend, which has made it into the general body of his work. Being an unknown activity at that time, he goes to great lengths to justify his desire to climb. He describe to his friend how he was inspired after reading a text by Livy. It told of a general who desired to survey the terrain an upcoming assault with his army. Only the highest vantage point would satisfy the general, so he climbed a nearby mountain. Petrarch thought this sort of act was singular to the heroic nature of the ancients. To better understand this ethos, he too would climb a mountain.

He spends the remainder of the letter describing his ascent of Mont Ventoux. On his way up, his thoughts wandered to his every day life. He became pensive in a way that he had never been before about such things as the woman he loved, the books he was reading, and the direction of his life. Upon reaching the peak, he was struck by the new appearance his surroundings took on. He able to see across great expanses into France, including the path of the river Rhône and the neighboring Cévennes range of mountains. He stood on the peak for quite while, contemplating the beauty of nature and why men are almost universally moved it. On his descent, he grew silent and melancholic, bemoaning the insignificance of men’s actions on the larger world.

As with Petrarch’s climb hundreds of years ago, mountaineering today gives an immensely personal experience. One cannot simply see a photo from the heights and be inspired in the same way a climber can. Mountain climbing is a inherently heroic accomplishment. It is only through struggle that the activity gains meaning. No one but climber can bring himself to the top of a mountain. It must be conquered through perseverance, an active application of strength, and the endurance of one’s own will. It is not an accomplishment that can be attained through patience, prudence, and passivity. The climber can turn around at any point on the ascent. The path downward will always be easier than pushing forward.

There is a rare kind of purity and simplicity in mountaineering not found in other sports. It does not require any special equipment except in the harshest of conditions. It offers as much or as little challenge as one desires and at any pace the hiker sees fit. The easiest hike can be a peaceful stroll while the most dangerous peaks kill thousands every year. Mountain climbing reflects in life in this sense. More satisfaction is derived from a hard accomplishment than an easy one. By their very nature, mountains bring out the will to excel and push oneself to greater heights. The ever present peak is in the distance throughout the entire journey. The climber has a constant reminder of what he is struggling for.

Once the climber approaches the zenith of the mountain, he is greeted by an intense and inhospitable environment. The very air itself is hard to breath. Shelter from sun is non-existent. He might be lucky to find a boulder large enough that can protect him from unhindered gusts of wind. No water, plants or animals can exist here. Only the everlasting snow and glaciers break up the monotony of the stark landscape.

The world below has changed as well. The climber is free to peer over the precipice on the opposite side of the peak and see an entire world once obscured to him. Even the largest of trees are now only part of an indistinct sea of green. It carpets the slopes below as far as the eye can see. The contours of the valleys hills are now plainly visible. Cities and towns are no longer made up of homes, stores, and offices but rather a sprawling mass of concrete, brick, and asphalt.

Beside the climber are the other peaks of the range. Their silent majesty appears even clear now that he is on equal footing with them. Each of them in turn, beckons him to ascend once more. They might provide a tougher journey, filled with wider horizons, freer skies, and clearer air.

Socratic subversion

To understand the importance of Socratic thought in European civilization, one must first understand how it arose. First and foremost, one should keep in mind the Athens that he lived in. The most well known parts of Socrates’ life are the events leading up to his trial and death. He was an old man of approximately 70 years at the time of Plato’s dialogues. He was born around 470 B.C., just as the Athenian empire was rising to prominence as a true power in the Mediterranean. He was not born into a noble family. His parents would probably be best described as “working class” today.

In the early years of his life, he was stonecutter by trade, working on all sorts of projects to build the ever expanding city of Athens. He was even to have said to have made statues that stood near the Parthenon. He also was a soldier, fighting in several battles that lead up to the Peloponnesian war.

His was life intimately entwined with the rise and fall of ancient Athens. By the time of the dialogues, Athens, who had once been the most powerful of all city-states, had been reduced to the puppet of Sparta. The hubris and arrogance of the Athenian government had lead it from a golden age to rubble. No city in Greece had ever been so high or fallen so low. His characteristic irony and sarcasm are known for having a general sense of disappointment of humanity in them. The fall of Athens and the flaws in its democratic government played a formative role in such attitudes.

The ideological and scholastic developments that Athens displayed during Socrates’ life are just as important as the political. In his elder years, Athenian academics was thoroughly sophist. Many of the wealthy and powerful in Athens were taught by Sophist tutors. As a school of thought, its core teachings espoused the superiority of rhetoric in all things. The tools of argument, if properly wielded, could be used to sway any audience to any conclusion. It did not matter the truth of what was ultimately being said. Sophist thought is a prime example of “form over function”.

From what the dialogues tell us, Socrates was consistently and vehemently an anti-Sophist. He saw their use of rhetoric as a nihilist abomination, an affront to the gods. He held that the underlying truth of the universe was unchanging and could be reasoned with. Disaster was the only outcome for those who would seek to subvert this fact.

Socrates actions in the dialogues, when viewed through this light, take on a new significance. He is no longer just a wise man, exposing the folly of the citizens of Athens, but a critic of his society. One cannot help but see Socrates’ Athens as a civilization in decay, rotting from the inside out. Whatever ethics they had that brought them glory in the past had fled.

Socrates fought against this pervasive attitude by using the own tools of the Sophists against them. Rhetorical flourish depends on exploiting uncertainty caused by the inexactness of language. One can say something vague enough so that it has an effect on any listener. The Socratic method thrives on absurdity. His method of overcoming this vagueness was by raising questions that demanded exact answers. It immediately put his subjects on the defensive. This easily put himself in control of the debate, from beginning to end.

Most of the people Socrates conversed with in the dialogues were much younger and higher born than him. They had lived their lives in a world dominated by Sophist thought. Things they saw as completely reasonable, Socrates saw as foolish. However, it is important to see that he was not arguing with these people for any personal reason, as they were often strangers to him. He argued for the sake of Athens. Ultimately, he was put to death for this very reason, “corrupting the youth” of Athens. The case brought against him was not for any individual offense. His accusers saw the danger he represented against their society as a whole.  The worst punishment comes when the heretic speaks the truth.

There are many parallels between the Athens of Socrates and the modern world. Both are societies who quickly rose to prominence but now are in constant existential doubt. Deep down, both are aware of their tenuous right to authority. They lost the will to create greatness because most realize that the logical conclusion to their way of life creates nothing. It only brings about destruction, yet both societies are too cowardly to change course. As a consequence, they try to stamp out any that might challenge this order as quickly as possible.

Socrates found an effective method for exposing the absurdity of the time he lived in through irony and logic. By questioning everything, including the beliefs held common by most Athenians, he could get people to consider ideas that would otherwise be alien to them.

So much of the opposition to modernity today is pointless. It takes the path of most resistance when it comes to argument. Persuading people against deeply ingrained held beliefs by arguing directly against them is, for the most part, impossible. Trying to save the environment by stopping loggers or picketing an abortion clinic only serves to create contention. Those sort of methods don’t help anybody because they don’t attack the root cause, the insane beliefs brought us here in the first place. One only has to expose the absurdity of the modern world for what it is. Lies collapse in on themselves when the slightest amount of truth is introduced in an understandable way. The Modern worldview is its own worst enemy, but only if people see it for what it truly is.

Putting the rage in suffrage

“There’s really no point to voting. If it made any difference, it would probably be illegal.”

–H.L. Mencken

One of the most sacrosanct values of modern government is the ability to vote. The last 300 years, particularly in the Anglosphere, are a litany of ever expanding suffrage to more classes of people. The path of extending this privileged from white, land owning, adult males to anyone over the age of 18 is a long but steady one. It’s clear when you look at politicians and political movements of days gone by and see if they were on the “right side of history”, in this regard. Small battles are still being fought over technicalities, but the war over who can and should vote is long over. Any attitude besides universal suffrage has been banished from mainstream thought for decades.

If you ask anyone if you should vote in an upcoming election, the answer will be a resounding yes aside from a few malcontents. Ask the same person if they plan on voting and you will most likely get a polite lie in return. Barely half of the eligible persons in “the great democracy” of the United States show up to cast a ballot. The disconnect between these two attitudes is obvious and apparent. The highest civic duty and privilege of democracy is barely being utilized.

If you press somebody on this, you might get a bit closer to the truth. “It’s too much of a hassle and one vote never makes a difference anyway.” It takes a rare kind of person to do something even when they know their action will have no affect on it. In fact, it sounds like a form of insanity. Most people with OCD know that nothing changes when they perform their tics ad nauseum. In this light, it is somewhat amazing that half of the population still feels compelled to take half a day to vote. They will put off whatever they were doing to pull a lever in a cardboard station to vote for someone they will never see in person, let alone meet.

The last time I voted, it was out of sheer boredom. The polling station was literally outside my front door and the line was an obstacle to get out onto the street. My curiosity got the better of me, and I thought it would be interesting to join the line.

What ensued was the most potent soul-crushing mix of boredom and frustration in recent memory. First off, the line only had 30 or so people in it, so I figured it would pass fairly shortly. There were several polling stations and five or so odd people assisting the process along. It took me over half an hour to reach the front of the line. The only thing that compelled me further to stay in the line than five minutes was my own sense of stubbornness.

Once I had reached the front of the line, it took them an additional five minutes to verify my identity. I couldn’t simply hand them my drivers license or tell them that I lived on this block, they had to look me up by name in some arcane tome of bureaucracy. After some fumbling around, the half-awake poll worker finally realized the correct order of the alphabet and found the right record.

This got me a ballot in a manilla folder and a cheap ballpoint pen. After wandering over to the makeshift privacy stations they had set up, I proceeded to look over the options on the ballot. It instantly brought me back into my childhood, when I took public school standardized tests. I saw a few names I had recognized from TV ads and sign posts, but the majority of options were faceless people filling previously unknown positions. Part of me just wanted to randomly mark names that sounded nice, and the other part of me wanted to rip the elongated piece of paper into shreds.

I left leaving most of the options blank. I think one of the poll workers might have put it in the wrong box when I left. It made me wonder if my ballot would be thrown out on a technicality. It is too bad you don’t get a revote in that case. The entire process is designed to make it as hard as impossible to do anything right.

The essential flaw behind voting in a modern democracy is that is voluntary while other parts of society are compulsory. Even in countries where voter turn-out is mandatory, abstaining is still an option. Abstaining from paying your taxes, dodging a draft, or ignoring a court subpoena are not. As a consequence, these are the parts of government that people actually pay attention to. It doesn’t matter if you feel these things are honorable or not. It does not need propaganda and peer pressure to speak well of it. You either do it or bad things happen to you. The action taken is based in fear of consequences and a sense of powerlessness.

In this, one can see the true operational capacity of democratic governments. The sense of cooperation and appreciation of diversity are nothing more a facade for the uglier and more necessary parts of government. It’s success relies on the combination of these two forces. They both need each other to thrive. In a society deprived of any sense of commonality or nationhood, something else needs to jump in and fill the void. Otherwise, people will never work together. The farther a society falls into this trap, the more propaganda and fear are needed to patch the gaps.

I sure as hell know that I’ll never go out of my way to vote again.

Slaves of desire

Freedom is a meaningless word. It is cursed with such ambiguity in the modern era that it has lost all significance. It is without form because it it takes many shapes. Ask a thousand people what freedom means to them and you will get a thousand different answers. To the poor man it means being able to have enough money to quit a job he hates. To a rich man means being able to use his wealth however he pleases. It is bent by the whims of whoever interprets it.

Many take advantage of the sorry state of this word. It is a popular platitude for those who wish to been seen favorably in the eyes of others. Countless ideologies, movements, and politicians have hijacked ‘freedom’ as a rallying cry. Don’t like where you live? You simply haven’t been given enough freedom to escape it. Don’t like who rules over you? They are tyrants who have taken your freedom. Do you feel powerless to change your life? Don’t worry, it isn’t your fault, you’ve simply been oppressed.

Freedom is effective as a political tool simply because it shifts the blame away from the individual. It moves it on to shady cabals and devious oppressors who seek to destroy all of the good things in life. The problem is that these people simply do not exist. Every election and revolution starts out with the same premise: liberate the oppressed and crush the oppressors. The outcome is always the same. Not everyone can be “free”. Some men are born to rule and all others must follow.

In modern society, many see freedom as a synonym of permissiveness. It means the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want it. It does not matter how it effects the external world. This attitude can be seen every time nature is crushed to make way for a new freeway, every time a couple aborts a child to extend their prolonged adolescence, and every time politicians kick today’s problems further down the road for future generations to deal with. Let the good times never end. It’s not our problem. It will just go away if we sweep it under the rug and keep it there long enough.

To be free in this sense is a desire to live in a world without consequences. It is to be responsible for nothing except your own whims. This is a form of cowardice. Those who run away from responsibility do so because they are scared of it. It stems from a complete lack of self esteem. When you are responsible for something, it means you have the power to create or destroy it based on your actions. When one runs away from responsibility, he is essentially admitting he is not up to the task. He is afraid that by taking responsibility over something, he is more likely to hurt it than help it.

The tragedy of this mindset is that it destroys any possibility of having a meaningful life. If you look towards your ancestors and search for what gave their life a purpose, you will see that every great accomplishment required taking on a great responsibility. Whether that takes form in preserving a culture, defending their land from invaders, or making a home and raising a family in it. Modernity’s complete rejection of these values has created a vast wasteland without purpose. Reclaiming the world so it is full of meaning once more requires us to give up on the illusion of false freedom. Only then can we take responsibility for the things that matter most in life.

The blind leading the blind

Humans are social animals. We face many problems that are too big for any one person to accomplish. As a result, we form groups to solve these problems. Once a team is formed, roles are needed for each individual. Without them, it is impossible to divide labor in any meaningful way. The most logical way to form roles is based on the strength and weaknesses of each team member.

This is much easier said than done. It takes a great deal of foresight and leadership to reach this optimum balance. More often than not, it seems like the most incompetent get put in positions of power. This is nowhere more apparent than in modern society. People today are deeply dissatisfied with leadership at every level in society, from their bosses at work to their national politicians.

The root of this problem comes from modernity’s core values. It values appearances and words over results and action. It values popularity over actual competency. Only those who appear the most confident are able to convince the masses that they are able to lead. The truly wise are in constant doubt of what they know. They know that they know nothing. When you are inexperienced, big problems appear small. You can only know the true size of any problem when you fully understand the smallest parts of it.

Every individual only has a very limited set of knowledge about reality. Even the smartest physicist knows next to nothing about almost every other subject. Ignorance is the natural state of all knowledge. Very few people actually understand what it takes to be a great leader. When everyone gets an equal say in who rules over them, it naturally follows that most leaders will be chosen for superficial and unimportant qualities.

This can only be overcome by silencing the ignorant and promoting the wise. We must start speaking truthfully about the limitations of everyone. The modern tendency to pander to self-esteem and inoffensiveness is in direct opposition to this. As a consequence, honesty takes a back seat. Reality is subverted. What people want rules over what actually is. People having the courage to call out idiocy is the first step towards a healthier society.

The return of nothing

“From desire I rush to satisfaction, but from satisfaction I leap to desire.”
–Goethe

Go outside right now. Wander off your concrete porch and go find that patch of ugly part of your yard where nothing grows. Reach down and stick your fingers into the barren earth. Pick up a dry clump of dirt. Hold it in your palm and look at it closely. Squeeze your hand tightly and crush it. Feel the filth compact and break into a million little pieces.

You’ll get an urge to wipe your hand clean on your pants. When you wipe away the dust, you’ll be getting rid of millions of life forms from you. Among them are thousands of small worms known as nematodes. Even the most doubtful can get a powerful enough microscope and see them.

To think nematodes have a purpose just doesn’t make sense. They sit in a larval state for the majority of their life. They emerge in a single day. They mate with other worms. Afterwards, they quickly die. This cycle has been that has been perpetuated throughout aeons, billions upon billions of years. An innumerable amount of these minuscule worms have lived and died without any record of their existence.

Their life doesn’t add up to anything but more worms. No one judges them. Nematodes don’t dream. They don’t love or hate. There is no afterlife for them. They appear to be only an slightly interesting, self-sustaining chemical reaction. Eat, survive, reproduce, and repeat. Give them the right environment and they multiply. Pour liquid nitrogen on them and they all die.

Humans are different in only superficial manners. We like to think we have a purpose. We might want that new job that will give us more money for doing less. We might want that new house that is bigger and better than our cramped apartment. We might want to go on a date with that girl you’re always hitting on at the bar. We all want to prove we are worthwhile.

The truth is, these all come from the same place. They all come from the will to persist. This is plainly evident in single celled organisms because they are so simple. We are often so caught up in our own little lives that we fail to see the same behavior in ourselves.

Look into your own desires. Examine what brings you satisfaction. Is any of it lasting? We all are born and we all die.  We are all given desires to want.  We all have dreams to chase.  Surely, they must serve some purpose. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.

Atavism

Conspiracy theories are far more common than we give them credit for. Everyone harbors some belief that the majority rejects. We live in a world where we only see an incomplete picture of reality. You only have one set of eyes.

For a narrative to be compelling, it must be complex. Everyone has tried to interpret a dream at one point in their life. The best ones are the dreams where you only remember bits and pieces. Meaning comes when you try to formulate a cohesive story out of the dream.

Our worldviews are created in a similar way. Wars spring up on every corner of globe. Genocide is a regular occurrence in history. We hear about another mass shooting every month like clockwork. Some people are so rich that they couldn’t be bankrupted from spending a fortune each a day. Others are so poor they can’t even afford food. All of these are begging to be explained. They must have a reason.

Understanding is the basic purpose of consciousness. It is the interpretation of the past to predict the present. The smaller the system, the easier it is to understand. All scientific knowledge is gained by isolating a phenomenon down to its essentials. This sort of thinking is not universally applicable. Treating life like a science experiment is a recipe for disaster. A person is a infinitesimally minute part of a much larger system.

Despite this, we are still implanted with the desire for understanding. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t smart enough to connect the dots, you are going to anyway. Much like the trope of the obsessed detective scouring through random clues to break a case, we search the world for meaning. You see that shady figure behind the bush in this photograph? That isn’t a smudge on the negative, that’s the real the killer.

Modernity has made the world more complex than most people can handle. People want to know why they can’t find a job. They want to know why their kids are so fat. They want to know why their country seems to get worse with each passing year. Most people have a hard time staying awake in history class. Why should we expect them to understand global politics?

What they end up with is nothing more than patchwork. An ideology based on appearances and intuition rather than reality. Some people put their faith in God for these answers. Some people put their trust in a charismatic politician. Very few are honest enough with themselves to realize that truth isn’t a birthright.

Horror vacui, nature abhors a vacuum. Meaning and purpose have always been a useful mechanism for survival. Even if modernity has made it irrelevant, the urge lives on.