In the fifth century BC, in the Gulf of Taranto, in the arch of Italy’s boot sole, Hippasus of Metapontum was murdered for having discovered a mathematical truth. He was a member of the Pythagorean sect that had taken refuge in Italy after being persecuted in Greece for preaching vegetarianism and total abstinence from alcohol.
Mathematical mystics, they practiced a religion based on numbers, cosmology and geometry, concluding that reality, in which music and astronomy were prominent components, was based on math. Certain whole numbers equaled particular aspects of reality. For instance, 1 was the essence of everything, 2 was matter, 4 was justice, 5 was marriage and so on. I have been unable to discover what 3 was.
The core of their belief was that the universe could be expressed in whole numbers. Everything reflected the harmony between numbers, rational numbers; all was in ratio—the root of the word rational.
Hippasus, perhaps in working on getting the dodecahedron into a sphere, although the Pythagorean’s weren’t particularly interested in circles, discovered there were other numbers that could “not be expressed as a ratio of two integers”. These numbers had infinite, non-repetitive decimals that went on and on like the tail of a comet, like Pi. These have become known as irrational numbers.
However, what Hippasus had done by discovering irrational numbers, was to crash the Pythagorean belief system. His friends took him out fishing and drowned him, or so the legend goes.
The first human reaction on being faced with a provable, factual demolition of a belief is to kill the messenger rather than rethink the message. That is why the Dalai Lama’s statement that if a scientific discovery conflicts with something in Buddhism, it is the later which must adjust, is an extraordinary declaration from a religious leader.
Our need for perfection, built into our brains, psychology and emotions, is illogical, intense, internal and humanly eternal. We want order. We do not want to live in an irrational universe. We want it to be tidy. I suspect this is because perfection makes us feel safe. If we cannot have perfection we will accept its drab replacement, uniformity. Often we confuse the two. However, either appears to build invisible psychological walls around us. Although why that should be true I don’t know, but it seems to be integral to our DNA. This human foible causes catastrophes, endless murders and massacres, yet we hardly ever notice it.
The human need for reassurance through perfection is not benign. The Inquisition, Senator McCarthy in the1950’s in the US, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia being three obvious examples. The level of uniformity desired is not, and this is what makes it blood curdling, think 1984, is not external. It must be internal as well, this conformity.
The first person I know of who actually “voiced” the problem of internal uniformity was China’s first Emperor, Quin Shi Huang. A man of extraordinary executive talents, he unified China in 221 BC when he was 38. He designed a military organization that created, possibly for the first time, a chain of command through which the man at the top could quickly locate anyone not effective at their job beneath him. With that army he conquered the severely chaotic states of China and then enlarged the territorial mass of the country. He created the title emperor. Before leaders had been mere kings.
Having unified the country he began systematically to standardize the regulation of practices within his domain. He unified the various walls of the old states into one wall, constructed a massive national system of viable roads. He is most famous for his Terracotta Army in his grave. It is believed he burned books, banned them and executed scholars.
In the midst of all of his strenuous and brilliant managerial work, he realized that what he lacked was a method by which he could be assured that all the people in his domain would think the same way and that this was necessary for a continuous, peaceful state to exist. The execution of the scholars I would guess was an attempt in the direction of the perfection he was seeking. He did not find a solution to this problem of achieving mental uniformity but various states have been working at it ever since, although most dictators have been perfectly happy to achieve apparent mental standardization through terror.
But the first Emperor was more philosophical, more humane. He was not a little Hitler exercising his ego. To him a nation’s purpose was to provide for people. It was a unit that to be efficient needed to be systematized. It was not a culture; it was a machine that needed to effectively function economically, supply people with work, a legal system and such necessities. Dance, poetry, books, ideas were not just superfluous but potentially dangerous. I suspect he was against emotion since all these arts and sciences are expressions of human emotions. Emotions are messy and unregulateable.
I think Quin Shi Huang is an amazing, fascinating and thoroughly terrifying person. I doubt that he gave even a glancing thought to what such mental conformity would mean in terms of enormous cultural impoverishment. Society was a machine to him and the fact that people thought differently was the equivalent of metal protrusions on cogs causing friction and stoppages in the mechanism. That the eradication of those protrusions would eviscerate the richness of the arts and sciences, of life itself, was not of interest. He wanted a smoothly running machine. It would not have occurred to him or interested him that this kind of regulation of people was dehumanizing. Confucius’ teachings were suppressed during his reign.
Probably he was completely aware that multiracial and multicultural societies, because of their built in diversity, require greater amounts of regulation than more homogeneous cultures even necessitating genocide should the population resist conformity. Genocide would have been for Quin Shi Huang merely a method, one of many to hand, like that array of picks and burrs one’s dentist lays out on her tray. The present Chinese government has embraced it, however, with some but not great reluctance, as an action of last resort for the Uighurs of western China. This may mean we have made some progress over the centuries.
In the US, because it is a young, unsure society of diverse peoples, conformity tends to be rigid particularly in the internal states. Individuality is psychologically punished and may be physically punished as well. In contradistinction, while Britain was homogeneous, or believed itself to be, “eccentricity,” provided it wasn’t sexual, was not only enjoyed but encouraged. Deviation was delightful.
Monotheism may be a result of this human perfectionistic urge. How messy to have a conglomeration of gods. Who should you pray to for your son’s health, your husband’s promotion? There might be three or four candidates. It is much simpler to have one entity to go to for everything. Monotheism and Amazon seem to me to have a lot in common as monopolies. The fact that under multi-god religions there was little persecution because of differences in belief while with the advent of monotheism the institutionalization of persecution, via civil as well as ecclesiastical organizations, to enforce religious conformity became standard practice is rarely noticed or discussed.
Many have been burned, tortured and cast out of their societies for spiritual nonconformity. The case of Hippasus and the Pythagoreans is an exact parallel to Galileo and the Catholic Church.
But this destructiveness results from our yearning for perfection, which we desire because it helps us feel safe. It is imposed by us upon us because we want to have a comfortable or comforting emotion. Yet practically never, at least in the West, do we acknowledge safety is totally illusionary. Buddhism uniquely deals with the facts of our lack of control.
Once conceived you, whether man or mouse, are at the mercy of the uncontrollable. You may be aborted, miscarried, strangled on your own umbilical as you emerge from the birth canal. Once out and breathing dangers multiply.
An acquaintance in the US a year or so ago contacted me about moving to Spain. Every third query was the same. “Is it safe?” I gained her eternal hostility by responding, “No. It is not safe. There is nowhere that is safe.” I find this fact just as upsetting as do most of my friends. The pandemic has made our awareness of our ineradicable insecurity more intense. My downstairs neighbor pushes the elevator button with his key. I wash my banana in the morning before I peel it. Neither action necessarily makes us safe.
But we live in a universe where “safe” is a non sequitur as is “perfection,” because they are not real but anomalous human inventions. What does the Horse Head Nebula have to do with perfection or the Grand Canyon or my cat, Galata? Perfection and safe are not among the concepts of physics, chemistry, biology, or astronomy. What we yearn for does not exist except within the confines of our brains. They are our delusional inventions.
8 thoughts on “The Quarantine Blog XIII: August 30, 2020”
great job, dear Karen, of squeezing the juice out of such a historically complicated bowl of fruit and putting it in a glass for us to drink from. Very restorative!!!!! xxxxxBetty Fussell
Your mind is clicking away!
You pulled together so many centuries and cultures to make your atgument. Something to ponder.
Finely done, Karen. “Brilliant,” as someone says above. I’m for making a connection, however, between “drowned by friends” (!) and his “preaching vegetarianism and total abstinence from alcohol.”
Hola …. thank you … as said above …. refreshing … and good thinking food …
Excellent, thought-provoking piece, Karen.
Ms. Swenson, I am sure you do not remember me, but I assuredly remember you. I am Ron McFarland’s younger daughter, Jennifer (Jennie). I now teach English and Humanities at a small, rural school not too far from Moscow. This piece was what I needed to read tonight. I want my students to read it, too. Please, could I share this with them and let them understand Aristotle’s views on rhetoric to see an amazingly solid and well-spoken, well-researched blog post?
Dear Karen, your writing is very philosophical and one needs to do more research on your conception which will be very helpful for mankind, your writing is a dissertation in itself. Very happy to read and enjoy your work that helps my little brain works at the moment. Thank you.
As human beings, we like to conjure up all sorts of fictions as if we think we can regulate the laws of nature. The output I’m afraid is so much unnecessary suffering. How simple it would be if we could simply surrender our self-centeredness.
Funny I was taught the numeral 3 represented divinity or perfection. I guess it’s no accident that we set everything up in triads. Heretic if you think otherwise.