Natural Laws vs Social Laws
Before cultures clashed, our social behaviors – rituals and traditions – would have seemed as natural as the seasons: each are controlled by the gods, or nature. So, there wasn’t really reason to question the social structure and cultural dogmas that had evolved.
Some five hundred years before Christ, though, as cultures near the Mediterranean expanded and clashed, people were finally given reason to question whether god or nature had a monopoly on social structures, traditions, rituals, and behaviors.
The Persian King Darius I (550–486 BC), for example, in a rather inspired moment of teaching and, no doubt, to mess with some Greeks living under his rule at the time, asked the Greeks how much money it would take to convince them to eat the flesh of their fathers when they died.
The Greeks, whose custom was to burn their dead, freaked out and said no amount would convince them. So, King Darius called over the Callatians, whose custom was in fact to eat their dead, and asked them how much money it would take to persuade them to burn their dead. They too freaked out and asked why he would suggest such a thing.
In any case, whatever the effect was Darius’ subjects, there was one Greek who learned a great deal from these culture clashes. Growing up in a city under the control of Darius’ son Xerxes, Protagoras (c. 490 — c. 420 BC) witnessed firsthand the clash of beliefs, norms, and traditions from those cultures that had been swallowed by the Persian empire. And it led him to conclude that our social norms and behaviors are quite different from natural laws.
Social norms, he argued, are created and enforced not by god — or nature — but by each of us.
This had dramatic consequences because it shifted the burden to distinguish between right and wrong from god — or nature — to each individual. Only you, the individual, he claimed, can judge whether a behavior, norm, law, or institution is right or wrong. The burden is yours and yours alone. You can’t shift it to god, nature, history, or even to society. Because, whatever authority you accept, it is still you who must accept that authority.
Heavy, I know. But, heavy as it may be, this ability to paint over the world with our own morals is, I agree with Protagoras, incredibly motivating and inspiring.
Just think: unlike our critter friends, who’re confined to the narrow range of behaviors that natural selection has carved out for them, you and I can radically change our behaviors once we’re aware of them. And, what’s more, we can now even change our genes!
We can ask what problem a behavior or gene is meant to solve, and then, with a healthy cyclical dose of creativity and criticism, we can improve our solutions. And even more impressive, if after a long and critical discussion we think the problem a behavior or gene is intended to solve is objectionable, then we can toss the problem or gene altogether.
So, unlike the other animals and unlike all those who came before Protagoras, your morality is up to you.
The Space of Possibility is yours. And it’s wide open.
You wanna paint a thought onto canvas or express an emotion with a cello. What about start a punk-rock band or dress up in drag? You wanna parachute out of an airplane? Take up tap-dancing or design a fashion label? What about build a computer or write the code for a virtual dream world? Wanna find yourself laying on your back in Goblin Valley, munchin’ on some magic shrooms, gazin’ up at the heavens in awe? Or maybe you wanna pull an Elon Musk and plan a trip to Mars?
The Space of Possibility is endless! So, start exploring it now.
Just remember to course-correct as you go. Continue to adjust both your aims and your solutions, your will and way, as you communicate honestly with experience, as you learn from it, as you chip away at your mistakes.
The Birth of Freedom
Socrates (c. 470–399 bc) is the symbol of this wisdom. In masterful displays of irony, he would lead people to their ignorance – to the infinite space beyond the Wall – by asking questions that highlight clashes in one’s own beliefs, morals, and assumptions.
He spent his days questioning people about things like justice, goodness, and beauty. And in the end, he even gave his life to defend the right to do so.
Looking for a scapegoat to blame for Athens’ misfortune in the Peloponnesian War, the jury sentenced Socrates to death for corrupting the youth and undermining the state religion.
Had he apologized, he probably would’ve been exiled. But Socrates refused to abandon reason. ‘To put it bluntly,’ he tells the jury, ‘I’ve been assigned to this city as if to a lazy horse who is in need of a great stinging fly. All day long I will rouse and criticize every last one of you.’ Not flattered, the jury poured Socrates the hemlock.
Socrates wasn’t stupid. He understood the consequences of his provocation. But, to him, the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reason, he believed, is what makes us human — it’s the divine spark; the spirit of progress; the path to truth, beauty, and goodness. So, he courageously gave his life to defend it.
Nor was Socrates an enemy of democracy, as some believed. Rather, he criticized Athens as any responsible democrat should — to find holes in the state’s laws and institutions in order to clear the way for a better life. He understood that a democracy is the only system of government that allows people to reform their institutions with reason rather than bloodshed.
And he also understood that democracy itself can’t provide reason. Only individuals can. It wasn’t the Athenian democracy that turned its back on reason and sentenced him to death. It was the people. Governments and institutions are merely fictions that live in the minds of individuals. They have no existence or power apart from us.
The responsibility to engage in reason, then, will always lie with the individual. The heavy lifting is on you to build a better life.
Democritus (c. 460 — c. 370 bc), the atoms and void guy, was also an individualist. He believed each of us carries the burden to create a better life for ourselves.
He believed that every person is a little world of her own. Only the individual can suffer. Only the individual can feel love, joy, and happiness. It is up to each individual, then, to put social laws and institutions into place. It’s up to each of us to judge and improve them. And, if necessary, it’s up to each of us to defend them.
Pericles (c. 495–429 bc), the general of Athens at its peak, took this burden seriously. Before him, Athens was essentially an oligarchy in all but name, since the aristocrats still held all the wealth. But, to even out this imbalance, Pericles created the first civil project in history — a state-sponsored economic incentive to inspire all of Greece.
‘We will build all kinds of enterprises,’ he declared, ‘to provide inspiration for every art and to find employment for every hand.’ True to his word, the project was a success. It created many jobs for the middle and lower classes and produced art that is still admired today. He also introduced state salaries for jurors and soldiers. And even used the state treasury to pay for the occasional public festival.
Pericles believed that the whole of Athens was an education. It doesn’t compete with other nations. It sets an example. And, so it did. Under the influence of the great thinkers of Pericles’ generation, Pericles and his fellow Athenians not only created a world empire. They implemented the world’s first open society — a society whose values are sketched out beautifully in a speech he gave at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War:
“The laws afford equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, but we do not ignore the claims of excellence. When a citizen distinguishes himself, then he will be called to serve the state, in preference to others, not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward of merit; poverty is not a bar. The freedom we enjoy extends also to ordinary life; we are not suspicious of one another, and do not nag our neighbor if he chooses to go his own way…But this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to respect the magistrate and the laws, and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those unwritten laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling of what is right…And although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it. We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to acting wisely…We believe that happiness is the fruit of freedom and freedom that of valor….”
Pericles’ words symbolize the commitment of a new generation — a commitment, not to the gods or to the state or to a specific group, but to the individual. It is a commitment to freedom — the freedom to express one’s self; the freedom to distinguish between right and wrong for one’s self; the freedom to vote for one’s political leaders; the freedom against institutional prejudices and biases; the freedom against unwanted physical force; and the freedom to go your own way if you so choose.
Freedom does not come free. As the great thinkers of Pericles’ generation stressed, only you can build these freedoms into our institutions. Only you can criticize and improve them. And, if necessary, only you can defend them. Nature, god, and society cannot do this for you. The future depends on you. The burden is on you to build a better future, to build a better life, to build a better world.