I started my morning with the reading of letter 103 titled “On the Dangers of Association with Our Fellow Men.” This must be one of the shortest letters by Seneca I’ve read so far and as such it serves as the best debut blog post for 2020. And it’s only befitting since I ended last year with a blog post about Seneca. I continue to read through the massive work of Seneca the Younger in the magnificent collection of letters compiled by the industrious Tim Ferriss in The Tao of Seneca and I’m halfway in Vol. 3. I almost feel like I’m going to miss it since it’s been my daily morning reading for such a long time now. Fortunately, the Stoics left such a substantial body of work that I will not get to miss it anytime soon.
In this brief letter, Seneca talks about the proper place to aim one’s expectations of harm is towards fellow men. It serves no purpose to worry about any number of unforeseen and unexpected natural disasters that might, or might not, befall any of us. It almost seems paranoid in a way until you give it some careful thought. Man is the apex predator of this planet and the most dangerous creature to roam the earth. Through ingenious creativity and resourcefulness, man crushed nature and tamed much of its powers to his advantage and keeps on doing so mercilessly. Man is a formidable enemy to have.
At the time I write these words I am also reading through Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. This magnificent book walks you through the stages of human society and how Homeosapient conquered the globe and spread everywhere under the sun during a rather short time in the history of the universe. The creativity of mankind and his ability to always find a way to achieve his goals associated with its baser primitive instincts make a person indeed far more dangerous than any natural disaster. Men and women managed to adapt to all sorts of environments in the world. They found resources by every means to secure nourishment and shelter and increased their strength by increasing their numbers and building communities. As hunter-gatherers, human societies formed mobile and sedentary hunting and foraging parties. Later on, farming emerged and it allowed for the sudden increased strength of those farming societies as the food was secured for a greater number. The enhanced technology of farming allowed child-bearing to be more convenient and reproduction to happen faster than it used to be for a hunter-gatherer society that had to limit child-bearing out of necessity for a family constantly on the move in search for food. Practically speaking, a mother cannot bear another child until her first child can walk beside her. Strength through numbers, with the availability of a secure food source, gave way to specialization and hierarchy. A farming society afforded to have soldiers to protect against raiding enemies, builders to build homes, walls, motes, castles and defenses, tool-makers, and blacksmiths to forge farming tools, weapons and shoe horses. It also needed leadership, spiritual guidance, traders, etc. Soon enough we had kingdoms and nations, through time, war and conquest, our social structures evolved, our political systems evolved, our laws evolved, democracy evolved, capitalism evolved, globalization evolved, transportation evolved, sources of energy evolved, weapons evolved, we had reached the moon and will soon enough venture into the stars.
Man is smart, but that doesn’t necessarily make our fellow men evil on purpose. I cannot read this letter by Seneca and not remember the aphorism, “never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” People indeed cause more harm to other human beings by sheer stupidity rather than by pure malicious intent. More often than not the harm, pain, and injustice you have to deal with is caused by someone’s complete disregard for other people fueled by self-interested greed. The problem with this type of behavior is that it misses the bigger picture of how we’ve gotten so far in life, that is by depending on each other and creating a greater entity made up of all of us with each doing a specific role and with each of us adding to the whole and making it stronger. Many of the pains of humanity rise from forgetfulness of how we as humans evolved the way we did. Or perhaps it’s just that in the face of utter ignorance, we revert back to our baser instincts and turn back into a self-interested hunter-gatherer who has no one to count on but his own self. That how I imagine we get antisocial behavior when the person loses their connection to their society and find that they cannot count on anyone else helping them. It’s hard being on your own and no one does it because they want to, but rather because it’s less painful than being surrounded by malice and harm, whether physical or emotional. People build a shell around themselves to guard against the invasion of their freedom to think, feel and act the way they prefer and within that small social bubble, they allow only the absolute minimum number of other people who will not judge or harass them in any way.
These thoughts come at a particular time of a global pandemic rummaging through the world with no end in sight. It seems like the only viable solution at this point is to learn to coexist with the silent killer that preys on our need to deal with one another for our every need. Whether social distancing actually was effective or not, and whether you prefer to be outside with other people or to keep working from home, like it or not, no man is an island and no matter how you instinctively at times wish that you go get away from it all and stick to yourself and your own and shun away the outside world, well, the outside world will not leave you alone. During these tumultuous times, every nation in the world is trying to get the machines of trade and industry to adapt to the necessary limitations of human contact, and the heightened preventive sanitary requirements to jump-start the economy severely damaged by the COVID-19 outbreak. The wheels are slowly turning and solutions have to be created for the multitudes of people who have lost their livelihood. The situation is dire for a great many people and desperate situations promote fear, uncertainty, anger, and volatility.
The news media is all over the unrest in the US following the sad circumstances surrounding the death of George Floyd which reflamed the rage about the rift caused by racism in American society. The riots, looting, civil unrest served as the catalyst for the ensuing blowout of a media circus and rabid online debates. It’s just sad but it raises more than a few questions related to how we got here from an evolutionary point of view. I’m captivated by Jared Diamond’s recounting of how men colonized the world and how the strong always claimed the resources and the properties of the weak as our civilizations evolved and our human societies got all the more complex. A brief look back at how the Spaniards colonized the Americas and how Europian ships came to the new world with superior weapons, tools, language, science, disease and medicine and simply exterminated the aboriginal Indian inhabitants of the continent to simply lay claim to their lands and expand the dominion of the strong against the will of the defenseless. In proper context, it serves as a mere reoccurrence to how the evolution of human societies has always taken that very same path all over the world. All we really need to do is learn about these facts and remember them when we discuss the inevitability of conflict between two groups of people when there’s one at an obvious disadvantage. It’s survival of the fittest and the strongest in the most brutish sense. When a powerful entity finds more resources for the expansion and increase of its powers sees an opportunity at the negligible cost of an inferior adversary it will always exploit the advantage. It’s wired into our DNA and we can’t escape that our behavior hasn’t evolved much since our ancestors descended from the trees and started walking upright 6 million years ago. We’re brandishing the same hardware in our brains and our animalistic basic instincts are pretty much still in play when it comes to how to perceive loss and gain.
I find the matter of racism in the United States quite peculiar in such a light. Here you have a nation of immigrants who flocked into a world and took over its lands, rivers and wealth and thrived into a powerful modern civilization with laws for human rights and governance that represent the accumulation of hundreds of years of human intellect and yet it falters at the seams of racism because of some sort of lack of perspective. The white man who took control of the land in America had to employ slavery as an old solution to the problem of productivity. Long before the colonization of America, human societies used to conquer their enemies, and the victors always enslaved the vanquished. Slavery was a common practice in Africa, Arabia, Asia and Europe; everywhere there were warring nations and tribes, the losers were hauled back as slaves. The increased muscle power of a slave workforce turned slavery into a thriving business and trade. European colonization practices took advantage of the abundance of primitive societies in Africa and it descended upon the continent with slave ships that chained together entire tribes and packed them to be sold off as laborforce in the new world. African men and women tilled the land, worked the mines, and laid down railroad tracks all over the continent.
During the 1800’s the political movement to abolish slavery which culminated with Abraham Lincoln winning the 1860’s election on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery caused the break of Civil War between the north and the south. The abolitionists took victory and legally put an end to slavery in the United States through the ratification of the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution in December 1865.
That was a triumph of human intellect and the rule of reason over the primitive greed of basic human tendencies. It wasn’t the end of the battle though. Tension remains active between the races in the United States and it never completely faded since the 1860s. Even after the decades of battle of the civil rights movement the issue of racism remains a huge problem that has since improved considerably yet slowly.
The entertainment industry has helped give voice to the matters of racial issues in the United States to the degree it is globally recognized and understood. You can’t really get past the abundance of discussion of the topic in countless movies and TV shows. Countless books discuss the matter from countless angels. The internet abounds with resources to keep you informed and to allow you to understand why it all started and why it’s still happening.
I believe it all boils down to our susceptibility to the weaknesses of basic human behavior coupled with a malignant rampant ignorance and vile greed that we have reached this strange place in the world. There you have in a country that created some of the most powerful laws to guarantee human freedom and dignity in the world, a huge section of the population harboring a superiority complex and deeply ingrained hatred towards a significant section of their fellow countrymen who share the same history. I do not claim to understand it all or to have studied the history close enough, but I have an outsider’s view which may prove to be useful as I share my viewpoint. The ancestors of modern-day African-Americans were brought into that country against their will as laborforce. Their emancipation and integration into the fabric of society has taken a very long time during which it has been an established fact that all human lives matter and we are all deserving of respect, dignity, and freedom. It’s just mind-boggling at times how much effort is being poured into stoking the bigotry and hatred in such a society by those who refuse to let go of long past ideology that is no longer accepted by law or simple human decency. With the current optics of the situation in America, it’s fair to assume that there is discrimination against minorities still in effect. It’s obvious they are being kept poor and uneducated on purpose which inexorably drives them into crime. It’s easier then to just associate the minorities with criminality to fan the fires of fear and hate. It’s a simple formula really, keep a certain traunch of society below a certain economical level to keep them poor, do not invest many resources in their education, subject them to the harshest application of the law, smear their reputation, throw them in prisons, label their communities are criminal, label them as a menace to society and to peace and prosperity and then use them as leverage against the wealthy. It’s the same game really being played all over the world with the names of the players changing, an old tool of government used by every and all governments in one form or another.
I believe that greed and politics use these methods to control people through the manipulation of the shared ideologies in society. As a government, you have to control the narrative, you have to control which thoughts get voiced and a free rein and which to stifle. You must control the opinions of the public and manage their perceptions. I cannot help but think of how human social structures evolved in a complex way to gain control over the millions of people it has to support. Most of the control tools are psychological and aimed at keeping the public in check. This includes creating complex ways of making masses of people group together in the face of a common enemy from within and without. Social injustice and foreign wars can be argued to be nothing more than tools of government and mass-control. The dynamics of such powerful forces and how it’s manipulated can be understood a whole lot better by reading this absolutely genius series of blog posts titled “The Story of Us” by the prolific and the brilliant Tim Urban on his famous blog Wait But Why. I urge you to take the time to read it as I cannot possibly summarize such detailed and extensive research and do it justice in one paragraph. But I leave you with this wonderful comic representation of the thought process of people who have had their perceptions manipulated for a very long time in the face of basically every single major sweeping current event in the world.
In the end, I leave you with the reason why I took you on this journey with me, this ancient letter by a Stoic philosopher and the wisdom it provides.
“On the Dangers of Association With Our Fellow Men” by Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Why are you looking about for troubles which may perhaps come your way, but which may indeed not come your way at all? I mean fires, falling buildings, and other accidents of the sort that are mere events rather than plots against us. Rather beware and shun those troubles which dog our steps and reach out their hands against us. Accidents, though they may be serious, are few—such as being shipwrecked or thrown from one’s carriage; but it is from his fellow-man that a man’s everyday danger comes. Equip yourself against that; watch that with an attentive eye.
There is no evil more frequent, no evil more persistent, no evil more insinuating. Even the storm, before it gathers, gives a warning; houses crack before they crash; and smoke is the forerunner of fire. But damage from man is instantaneous, and the nearer it comes the more carefully it is concealed. You are wrong to trust the countenances of those you meet. They have the aspect of men, but the souls of brutes; the difference is that only beasts damage you at the first encounter; those whom they have passed by they do not pursue. For nothing ever goads them to do harm except when need compels them: it is hunger or fear that forces them into a fight. But man delights to ruin man.
You must, however, reflect thus what danger you run at the hand of man, in order that you may deduce what is the duty of man. Try, in your dealings with others, to harm not, in order that you be not harmed. You should rejoice with all in their joys and sympathize with them in their troubles, remembering what you should offer and what you should withhold. And what may you attain by living such a life? Not necessarily freedom from harm at their hands, but at least freedom from deceit. In so far, however, as you are able, take refuge with philosophy: she will cherish you in her bosom, and in her sanctuary you shall be safe, or, at any rate, safer than before.
People collide only when they are travelling the same path. But this very philosophy must never be vaunted by you; for philosophy when employed with insolence and arrogance has been perilous to many. Let her strip off your faults, rather than assist you to decry the faults of others. Let her not hold aloof from the customs of mankind, nor make it her business to condemn whatever she herself does not do. A man may be wise without parade and without arousing enmity.
As a parting gift, I share with you this beautiful clip of an eloquent and touching Ryan Holiday article about Justice which is related to the ideas in my blog post. Ryan is such a brilliant writer and he writes in such a spirit that you can’t help but get moved by a torrent of emotions.