The conventional story is that Good created the world but that at some point after the Creation a group of Rebel Angels figured they could do a better job of running the show. They took on the Almighty and lost – we are told.
You can view Lucifer, Beelzebub or the Satan, as evil beyond comprehension seducing humans into the all too human evils of aggression, avarice, envy, gluttony, lust and pride – laziness (sloth) doesn’t seem to cut it these days. Or you can view him as magnificent – much more human than most of us, tempering the absoluteness of God. Our ideas about this are coloured more by Dante and Milton and the paintings they inspired in the Middle Ages than by anyone or anything else.
Whichever way you view him, the expected routes for the course of human history lead from the First Battle to a straight out of The-Lord-of-the-Rings Final Battle.
The Middle Ages also gave us another way to view Evil. The Universe can never make sense if we have a personified evil, a Dark Lord.
Evil instead must be an absence of Good. Think of it this way – the universe can’t work if it doesn’t work. The bits of the universe that we can see all seem to work – they are intelligible. Throw in too much stuff that doesn’t work and the universe will ultimately stop working. If the thigh bone no longer connects of the hip bone etc, the body disintegrates. Some pockets of function might remain for a while – nails keep growing after death (giving rise to the vampire myths and the need to make sure bodies couldn’t come back) – but disintegration is inevitable.
But intelligible is a good rather than Good.
If we see something functioning it might seem that an intelligibility has been there from the start – that God got there first. This doesn’t follow. As far as we can make out, looking around the universe, things seemed to have emerged for whatever reason from a beyond comprehension Abyss.
There’s no obvious sign of either Jehovah or Lucifer out there. Nor do those vast, cold and inhospitable spaces contain any signs of Good. And the absence of Good is Evil. So, as far as we can make out at the moment, we are looking at the Satan’s domain. We prefer narratives like the Jehovah-Lucifer one because we are biased toward looking for the agents who make things happen rather than accepting that they just happen.
When did Good begin to come into the picture – the Rebel Idea that there might be a better way to run the show?
With the first signs of life? The first signs of animal altruism? The first signs of humanity?
Humanity is tricky. With people we get deadly sins – murders, massacres, slavery. We get Cain and Abel, the primal evil – according to men who are mostly unaware of Lilith or perhaps just don’t want anyone to know about her.
With humanity it seems we get not just intelligibilities (things that work) but also the ability to be intelligent in some sense and not intelligent in some sense.
And it gets trickier again when in an effort to do “good” – to make a Kingdom or an Empire work – rulers and their advisors set up Codes for their subjects to adhere to. Keep to the Rules and things will work. Not keeping to the Rules marks you as “evil” and warrants the good guys eliminating you.
Over 2000 years ago, the Athenians put their very best minds to work on the best set of rules and came up with an androcracy. A bunch of property-owning men (the property included women, children and slaves) each of whom had a vote.
There may be better ways to articulate what happened next or better examples, but a few hundred years later, there was a shift from Codes to something more personal. Not a complete transformation of the social order but a Rebel idea.
It may be misleading to describe what happened in terms of one person, perhaps it was much more of a group effort, but telling the story in terms of a person who urged us to set the Codes aside and to Love One Another, and who threw the money-lenders out the Temple, resonates.
Whatever you think the trigger was, or whether you agree a bunch of people, who were possibly also the first to the monotheist idea, gave rise to this first as well, over the next few hundred years women and men took to the desert either singly or in communities to live a life without conventional human codes – the role of women was one of the novel aspects to what began happening. There was a new emphasis on the value of every person.
As this happened, one arm of the new movement to put Codes aside, and value everyone, developed an administrative, or we might now say a management, function.
Among the “graces” this new movement claimed, to counter-balance the sins its members were all too prone to, was the grace of Kubernesis (from the Greek for a Pilot), a bureaucracy operating in accordance with Canon Law.
The new pilots were responsible for many great things but by 1517 or so were signing up to a massacre of infidels and had all sorts of administrative derivatives like indulgences.
It was time for another highly personal moment which Luther delivered with his Credo Ergo Sum – I believe therefore I am. Authority was wrested back from the Codes and dumped on our individual consciences. The duty to be authors of ourselves rather than follow a script – well the duty to interpret the Ur-script for ourselves.
A century later, Descartes stepped in with Cogito Ergo Sum – I think therefore I am. Whatever about making ourselves, we could work out how the universe works, and humanity works, by thinking. Once we agreed it was thinking about things in front of our noses rather than how many angels might fit on the head of a pin, science took off and piled intelligible elements (things that work) on top of intelligible elements.
This really took off when it became clear people could capitalize on things that worked from weighing scales to smart phones. The new things that worked might be particularly profitable if it meant laying off the people who had been making things before that, but even without that there was an inexorable logic to investing in things that worked.
As the new way of doing things, the knowledge economy, embraced more and more of life, around 1948 a new system came into being to organise this new way – Cybernetics (from the Greek for a Pilot). It was a matter of replacing traditional ways of doing things with algorithms and linking these together into systems, management systems, which would make the Free Market work even better.
While the location of Armageddon seems uncertain, the headlong pace at which things are now developing seems to put some kind of Final Battle just around the corner.
The terrain occupying most people now is the environment. As the algorithms produce more and more goods, our extinction following on sea-levels rising, or everything eatable filling with plastic, looks like a real possibility.
A less talked about scenario is that, without any help from plastic or rising sea levels, for the first time ever, life expectancy is falling. In the US, it has been falling since 2014. In the UK a few weeks ago the Office of National Statistics estimated that children born now, whether in stables or palaces, would live 3 years less than we figured for children born 5 years ago.
One of the reasons for this has to be a medical keeping to Codes rather than looking after people. Doctors now pride themselves in keeping to Guidelines and only using drugs approved by regulators. If anything goes wrong, Pilate-like, they disavow their role in the outcome.
This was most tellingly brought out in the case of a Dr McMahon representing the hospital in which Stephen O’Neill was treated whose defence of the very many health staff who walked by Stephen was that they were keeping to the NICE Guidelines and only prescribed drugs approved by the British regulator. (More about this to come in 2020).
Dr McMahon and an increasing number of doctors do this because keeping to the Codes is written into their job-contracts and to do otherwise, even if it means walking by people, would make them bad guys – rebels.
The Codes are written into their contracts because there seems to be certain logic to doing things that have apparently been shown to work – on average. This is not just a matter of logic. People make money out of doing these things that the Codes say work whereas investing in the discretion that doctors or nurses once exercised is – another matter. Maybe not even intelligent.
What doctors and nurses once did though, treating us the way they would treat themselves, generated social capital – and this is now being lost. See Healthcare or Health Service.
There is a final possibility. We are now heading toward full algorithm – Full A.I. (artificial intelligence). This intelligence is full of intelligible elements. There is no need for any good to be in there – no obvious way to put good in. It is in other words evil – or could be if takes control or is deployed by someone who doesn’t realise that good and evil is something we bring to techniques. Techniques can enhance or diminish us depending on what we bring to the table.
It is all too conceivable that an extermination lies ahead. Full technique, or those who control it, might opt, without much compunction, to exterminate most of us – it might be done in a good cause such as getting sea and plastic levels back to sustainable levels.
We’ve been here before, less than a century ago when the then most highly developed bureaucratic technique on the planet played a major part in the then greatest extermination to date – all in the good cause of strengthening the Volk.
And extermination is how it began. Two thousand years ago, depending on which story you run with, the upholders of the social order attempted to put down a Rebellion by exterminating all infants.
If we are not going to be exterminated, one way or the other, it might just be the season to Rebel.
Illustration: The Heart of Medicine, © 2013 created by Billiam James
This was first used in The Snow Queen.