Monday, January 03, 2011

Story and Anthropoculture

Once upon a time, stories were sacred, dedicated to the gods, designed to accomplish culture's highest calling - anthropoculture, the cultivation of good human beings.

The classical Greeks (among others) recognized that human nature is extremely variable, that people can be as good as angels, as evil as demons, or anything in between. The people who come out on the evil side of the human spectrum together with the many average people who foolishly follow or support them are the source of most of the problems humanity has faced since long before the dawn of history. Of the remaining problems, most of those are caused by people who come out on the good end of the spectrum, since even the best human being is still deeply flawed. In other words, as the wise cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The Greeks realized - as did other cultures such as the Navajos and Hopis - that to make a safer, better world we have to learn how to make better people. Anthropoculture, then, is our most vital responsibility, to make sure that people come out on the good end of the human spectrum.

These cultures also realized that it's very hard to succeed at anthropoculture. Therefore, they decided that to count as truly civilized a culture would need to reinvent every part of itself so that every part of the culture helped cultivate goodness and virtue in people.

For example, the Greeks deliberately reinvented their entire religion. They replaced their many separate tribal faiths with a new Olympian religion, that helped them reduce civil warfare and that also helped them replace their old tribal conflicts with peaceful competitions at festivals like the Olympic games.

As another example, the Navajos integrated their religion so completely with every aspect of their life that when European invaders first met them they couldn't identify a separate religious part like they had. Europeans mistakenly concluded the Navajos had no religion, instead of realizing that on the contrary the Navajos were profoundly more religious than the Europeans were. Everything about Navajo culture, including the layout of their houses and even the structure of their mocassins was designed to reinforce their cosmological and ethical beliefs, which made separate churches and periodic religious services superfluous.

In the cultures that made this breakthrough, those that committed themselves to anthropoculture, even the spinning of yarns was reinvented to replace a simple pastime with an indispensible tool in the struggle to understand and improve human nature.

Maybe we should do likewise.

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