Are Nation-States an Attempt to Replace Lost Meaning?
In Humanity’s First Colossal Blunder, we looked at the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East and the dramatic shift in lifeway it imposed. Until then, for tens of thousands of years, humans lived their entire lives, generation after generation, in close-knit, thick communities of — according to anthropologist Richard Leakey — a few dozen people. Despite driving prey species into extinction one after another, compared to modernity, humans were in balance with nature. As population geneticist Spencer Wells tells it in Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, ten millennia ago, “we made a conscious decision to change our relationship with nature.” We went from finding our food to creating it. If not the first, that act was one of the first disenchantments of the world, the first step to becoming the factory floor of an agri-planet. As anthropologist James Suzman puts it, “[With farming] all work becomes future-focused. That means you have to focus on accumulating surpluses. So, you had these early agricultural religions where hard work becomes a virtue, idleness and sloth a sin. Our obsession with wanting to do more comes from the risks of farming, and they’ve been baked into us ever since 10,000 years ago when people started experimenting with agriculture.”
With communal ties of hunter-gathers transformed by the sedentary life of farming and its assets as an invitation to theft and warfare, people became naturally detached on an increasingly overpopulated landscape. Per historian Yuval Noah Harari, “These plants domesticated Homo sapiens…” Close quarters with more people and domesticated animals about the same time favored pathogens, jumping from four-legged animals to those with two. Disease exploded, people got shorter, they died sooner, and the single dominant food source from farming made supplies vulnerable to drought, flood, and insect infestation. “This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution,” writes Harari, “the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”
This new lifeway “transformed everything that humans had held against themselves to maintain permanent identity with the past into a reversal of unrestrained action against everything around them,” writes historian and philosopher Marcel Gauchet. “The old way submerged human order in nature’s order, feeling at one with nature, a co-belonging so strong any damage done required ritual compensation restoring the balance. Nature became opposed and possessed in a renunciation of this world in the name of the other.” Divinity was exiled from nature. Nature became de-sanctified and external to man. For people, the planet, and its non-human inhabitants, the Agricultural Revolution was the Agricultural Catastrophe. The stage was set. The nation-state was just around the corner with its massive numbers of detached strangers. Humans had put themselves on a path to massification, eventually massified by mass production, mass traffic, mass communication, mass waistlines, mass murders, and who wouldn’t want to be massified by asocial media turning their democracies upside down?
But to handle all that mass required a new way to control it — chiefs, kings, pharaohs, gods. “What is much harder to ascertain,” writes Egyptologist Barry J. Kemp, “is how or why the process began in the first place, given the long period in which human groups remained small and marked by practices which ensured that dominant leadership did not develop… Why should an equilibrium which allowed humans to maintain themselves as a viable species gradually break down and give way to something more complex and prone to turmoil?” Was it because they couldn’t see that each new fix, each social innovation would have unintended consequences?
“Permanent occupation and working of the same tract of land triggered, through a powerful psychological process, a sense of territorial rights,” says Kemp, “which came to be expressed in transcendental, symbolic terms which in turn created a peculiar sense of self-confidence within the communities concerned.” That transcendental and symbolic innovation appears to be the first glimmer of a state religion. Was it compensation for the meaning once garnered by close-knit hunter-gatherer groups? And once the worship of nature turned to worship for the goddess, then later for gods, was that too a replacement for those who knew everything about us and us about them in the natural human condition of community?
According to sociologist and historian Robert Bellah, hunter-gatherers appear to have had no gods. They had spirits of the dead, of animals, natural phenomena like the thunder, and power held by the great mountain or sea as “a sacred order of things,” but they had no need for gods. Community was all. Life of the community after one’s own death was the promise. Individuals per se didn’t exist to fret about their ultimate doom. The community was everlasting.
However, as populations grew with ever more strangers, the gods took on a new flavor. “Religion’s early roots did not have a wide moral scope,” writes psychologist and historian Ara Norenzayan. And the early spirits had none or were concerned only with a family or clan. They were “certainly not omnipotent or omniscient — they could even be injured or killed.” But, in increments, the gods did become concerned with moral behavior. Eventually, the idea of an all-powerful god evolved as the lord of lords. Finally, the innovative evolution of gods led to just one “true” God. First, with a false start ca. 1350 B.C. by the so-called heretic king, Pharaoh Akhenaten, with his short-lived monotheism, but in the same place from which Israelites claimed to have emerged a century later. (Hmm…)
Why did these late god-of-gods take an interest in human morality? Per Norenzayan, as a replacement for the watchful eye of hunter-gatherer community. In intimate “transparent groups, encountering kin is common, and reputations can be monitored and social transgressions hard to hide.” Not so in states made of mass aliens. Individuals lost in the crowd need to be watched. On their own, humans need compensation. And if all those other loners out there are just like me, whatever that compensation is had better be bigger than laws, regulations, and flimsy norms made by mere mortals. How about the ultimate? Why not something superior to humans, something supernatural? So it was said, God is all-knowing, always watching. God not only gives meaning through belonging as the community once did, God sees all as the tribe once saw. God maintains order over strangers.
According to Norenzayan, like a kind of unnatural selection, societies with Big Gods survived to reproduce and got bigger. “Some early mutant [ideas] in this template were watchful Big Gods with interventionist inclinations,” writes Norenzayan. “Believers who feared these gods cooperated, trusted, and sacrificed for the group much more than believers in morally indifferent gods or gods lacking omniscience. Displays of devotion and hard-to-fake commitments such as fasts, food taboos, and extravagant rituals further transmitted believer’s sincere faith in these gods to others… Through these and other solidarity-promoting mechanisms, religions of the Big Gods forged anonymous strangers into large, cohesive moral communities tied together with the sacred bonds of a common supernatural jurisdiction.” Like fads, beliefs are transmitted as a kind of mental virus. Communicated from one to the next, they can and do in time, colonize entire populations. However, this is a fad that fills an actual human need: order that allows for daily purpose through social stability and meaning attendant to belonging. Belonging and the meaning it provides evaporated with the increasing temperatures of civilization as more strangers were confined to tighter spaces in the city, state, empire.
“With the imagined community — the nation,” writes Kemp, “people feel that they share bonds of common interest and inherited values with others, most of whom they will never see. It is a vision of people. By contrast, the state is a vision of power, a mixture of myth and procedure that twines itself amidst the sense of community, giving it political structure.” Compared to hunter-gathers, by the time of the state’s arrival some 6000 years after agriculture, “community” becomes an ever more abstract concept. No longer defined by those few we know for a lifetime, community is defined by location, boundaries, and most notably by myth, eventually with a god at its head to give it legitimacy greater than mere human rules of order. Myth as bonding agent: the attraction of our imagination to an intellectual innovation. With death ineluctable, our god-centered myths match emotional yearning to our calculating intellect, convoluted as that intellect can sometimes be.
Was all this history an unconscious struggle to recover lost meaning? The city-state, the gods, the nation-state, the God, the wars of us against them; all the band-aids, the trials, the social experiments from Rousseau’s “common will” to Hitler’s “Fatherland” to saluting the flag — one long labor to fix what we broke with the Agricultural Catastrophe?
Paragraph 1: “we made…”, Wells, p. 16. “[With farming]…”, Daniel Susskind, The Compass, BBC podcast, June 2021.
Paragraph 2: Harari, p. 90. “This is the…”, Ibid., p. 94
Paragraph 3: “The old way…”, Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, Princeton University Press, 1999.
Paragraph 4: “What is much harder…”, Kemp, p. 70
Paragraph 5: “Permanent occupation…”, Ibid., pg. 70
Paragraph 6: “a sacred order…”, Bellah, p. 95
Paragraph 7: “Religion’s early roots…”, Norenzayan, p. 7. “certainly not…”, Bellah, p. 95
Paragraph 8: “transparent groups…”, Norenzayan, p. 7
Paragraph 9: “Some early mutant…”, Norenzayan, pp. 8,9
Paragraph 10: Kemp, p. 57