Friday, February 26, 2010


More On Pyramids

The pyramid is a fascinating shape embedded in the very nature of things. As Darwin and earlier naturalists noticed, natural structures like soap bubbles and honeycombs resolve on their own into six-sided figures like the base of a pyramid. The ancients went to great pains to erect pyramids as symbolic monuments to that most basic presupposition about life and fate, the belief in an afterlife. In his famous history, Edward Gibbon wrote,

"The doctrine of the resurrection was first entertained by the Egyptians; and their mummies were embalmed, their pyramids were constructed, to preserve the ancient mansion of the soul, during a period of three thousand years." (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Book 5)

We now know that this belief in an existence beyond the tomb went much further back into prehistory -- by many tens of thousands of years -- and that pyramids were also constructed in East Asia and the Americas, for similar reasons. For many, though, the pyramids are a symbol not of the afterlife but of the arrogance of a few, who wish to see their name live on in this world rather than the next. This, Frances Bacon wrote, is better done with ideas than stone monuments.

"We neither dedicate nor raise a capitol or pyramid to the pride of man, but rear a holy temple in his mind, on the model of the universe, which model therefore we imitate." (Instauration, Aphorisms)

The form of the pyramid, with its tiny point at the top and large surface on the bottom perfectly reflects the nature of knowledge and power, both natural and human. In almost every sphere of knowledge there are many wrong answers and only one, or at least very few, wrong ones. And, as Bacon points out, this applies to time as well; we tend to know a great deal about past things, and little about the most important time, right now.

"... it is the duty and virtue of all knowledge to abridge the infinity of individual experience, as much as the conception of truth will permit, and to remedy the complaint of VITA BREVIS, ARS LONGA; which is performed by uniting the notions and conceptions of sciences: for knowledges are as pyramids, whereof history is the basis." (Bacon, Advancement of Learning, paragraph 6)

Additionally, the more history is written the more society seems to resemble a pyramid. Whereas hunter-gathering groups live an egalitarian existence without heavy labour or hierarchy, civilized, industrialized societies resemble pyramids, with few on top and many below. A small elite hogs all the fame and power, while the vast majority live out their lives in miserable obscurity. Of course, there are advantages to being on the bottom. Not only attention and wealth but blame as well tends to fall on the elite, as Gibbon noticed.

"When he declaimed against the peculiar vices of the rich, poverty might obtain a transient consolation from his invectives; but the guilty were still sheltered by their numbers; and the reproach itself was dignified by some ideas of superiority and enjoyment. But as the pyramid rose towards the summit, it insensibly diminished to a point; and the magistrates, the ministers, the favorite eunuchs, the ladies of the court, the empress Eudoxia herself, had a much larger share of guilt to divide among a smaller proportion of criminals." (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Book 3)

As we noted in the first essay in this series, once a pyramid structure is formed, it is very difficult to shake it up. Rarely do "palaces and pyramids ... slope their heads to their foundations," as Macbeth put it. But pyramids do tend to slope their heads when those on top depend upon those below, for their votes or for their taxes, or both. This was one contribution of Athens, as Lord Acton pointed out in a lecture on the history of freedom.

"From this universal degradation the world was rescued by the most gifted of the nations. Athens, which like other cities was distracted and oppressed by a privileged class, avoided violence and appointed Solon to revise its laws. It was the happiest choice that history records. Solon was not only the wisest man to be found in Athens, but the most profound political genius of antiquity; and the easy, bloodless, and pacific revolution by which he accomplished the deliverance of his country was the first step in a career which our age glories in pursuing, and instituted a power which has done more than anything, except revealed religion, for the regeneration of society.

"The upper class had possessed the right of making and administering the laws, and he left them in possession, only transferring to wealth what had been the privilege of birth. To the rich, who alone had the means of sustaining the burden of public service in taxation and war, Solon gave a share of power proportioned to the demands made on their resources. The poorest classes were exempt from direct taxes, but were excluded from office. Solon gave them a voice in electing magistrates from the classes above them, and the right of calling them to account. This concession, apparently so slender, was the beginning of a mighty change. It introduced the idea that a man ought to have a voice in selecting those to whose rectitude and wisdom he is compelled to trust his fortune, his family, and his life.

"And this idea completely inverted the notion of human authority, for it inaugurated the reign of moral influence where all political power had depended on physical force. Government by consent superseded government by compulsion, and the pyramid which had stood on a point was made to stand upon its base. By making every citizen the guardian of his own interest, Solon admitted the element of Democracy into the State. The greatest glory of a ruler, he said, is to create a popular government. Believing that no man can be entirely trusted, he subjected all who exercised power to the vigilant control of those for whom they acted."


No comments: