The following is an extract from a book I’m reading at present, which I’m very much enjoying and heartily recommend, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage 2015); the extract is from Part Two, on the Agricultural Revolution, section 6 ‘Building Pyrimads’ (pp. 118-24 and 126-33).
In 1776 BC Babylon was the world’s biggest city. The Babylonian Empire was probably the world’s largest, with more than a million subjects. It ruled most of Mesopotamia, including the bulk of modern Iraq and parts of present-day Syria and Iran. The Babylonian king most famous today was Hammurabi. His fame is due primarily to the text that bears his name, the Code of Hammurabi. This was a collection of laws and judicial decisions whose aim was to present Hammurabi as a role model of a just king, serve as a basis for a more uniform legal system across the Babylonian Empire, and teach future generations what justice is and how a just king acts.
Future generations took notice. The intellectual and bureaucratic elite of ancient Mesopotamia canonised the text, and apprentice scribes continued to copy it long after Hammurabi died and his empire lay in ruins. Hammurabi’s Code is therefore a good source for understanding the ancient Mesopotamians’ ideal of social order.
The text begins by saying that the gods Anu, Enlil, and Marduk — the leading deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon — appointed Hammurabi ‘to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak.’ It then lists about 300 judgments, given in the set formula: ‘If such and such a thing happens, such is the judgment.’ For example, judgments 196–9 and 209– 14 read:
196. If a superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they shall blind his eye.
197. If he should break the bone of another superior man, they shall break his bone.
198. If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver.
199. If he should blind the eye of a slave of a superior man or break the bone of a slave of a superior man, he shall weigh and deliver one half of the slave’s value [in silver].
209. If a superior man strikes a woman of superior class and thereby causes her to miscarry her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver 10 shekels of silver for her fetus.
210. If that woman should die, they shall kill his daughter.
211. If he should cause a woman of commoner class to miscarry her fetus by the beating, he shall weigh and deliver 5 shekels of silver.
212. If that woman should die, he shall weigh and deliver 30 shekels of silver.
213. If he strike a slave-woman of a superior man and thereby causes her to miscarry her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver 2 shekels of sliver.
214. If that slave-woman should die, he shall weigh and deliver 20 shekels of silver.
After listing his judgements, Hammurabi again declares: ‘These are the just decisions which Hammurabi, the able king, has established and thereby has directed the land along the course of truth and the correct way of life…I am Hammurabi, noble king. I have not been careless or negligent towards humankind, granted to my care by the god Enlil, and with whose shepherding the god Marduk charged me.’
Hammurabi’s Code asserts that Babylonian social order is rooted in universal and eternal principles of justice, dictated by the gods. The principle of hierarchy is of paramount importance. According to the code, people are divided into two genders and three classes: superior people, commoners, and slaves. Members of each gender and class have different values. The life of a female commoner is worth 30 shekels in silver and that of a slave-woman 20 silver shekels, whereas the eye of a male commoner is worth 60 silver shekels.
The code also establishes a strict hierarchy within families, according to which children are not independent persons, but rather the property of their parents. Hence, if one superior man kills the daughter of another superior man, the killer’s daughter is executed in punishment. To us it may seem strange that the killer remains unharmed whereas his innocent daughter is killed, but to Hammurabi and the Babylonians this seemed perfectly just. Hammurabi’s Code was based on the premise that if the king’s subjects all accepted their positions in the hierarchy and acted accordingly, the empire’s million inhabitants would be able to cooperate effectively. Their society could then produce enough food for its members, distribute it efficiently, protect itself against its enemies, and expand its territory so as to acquire more wealth and better security.
About 3,500 years after Hammurabi’s death the inhabitants of thirteen British colonies in North America felt that the king of England was treating them unjustly. Their representatives gathered in the city of Philadelphia, and on the 4th July 1776 the colonies declared that their inhabitants were no longer subjects of the British Crown. Their Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal and eternal principles of justice, which, like those of Hammurabi, were inspired by a divine power. However, the most important principle dictated by the American god was somewhat different from the principle dictated by the gods of Babylon. The American Declaration of Independence asserts that:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
Like Hammurabi’s Code, the American founding document promises that if humans act according to its sacred principles, millions of them would be able to cooperate effectively, living safely and peacefully in a just and prosperous society. Like the Code of Hammurabi, the American Declaration of Independence was not just a document of its time and place — it was accepted by future generations as well. For more than 200 years, American school-children have been copying and learning it by heart.
The two texts present us with an obvious dilemma. Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all men are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The American of course would say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.
It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and ‘commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically? Let us try to translate the most famous line of the American Declaration of Independence into biological terms:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
According to the science of biology, people were not ‘created’. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.
Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals. ‘Endowed by the Creator’ should be translated simply into ‘born’.
Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings. And it’s not true that these organs, abilities, and characteristics are ‘unalienable’. Many of them undergo constant mutations, and may well be completely lost over time. The ostrich is a bird that lost its ability to fly. So ‘unalienable rights’ should be translated into ‘mutable characteristics’.
And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ‘Life’, certainly. But ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree. And what about ‘happiness’? So far biological research has failed to come up with a clear definition of happiness or a way to measure it objectively. Most biological studies acknowledge only the existence of pleasure, which is more easily defined and measured. So ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ should be translated into ‘life and the pursuit of pleasure’.
So here is that line from the American Declaration of Indepencence translated into biological terms:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.’
Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be ‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: ‘I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ [. . .]
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy, or capitalism? First you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith says so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature.
You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairytales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions. For example, today people believe in equality, so it’s fashionable for rich kids to wear jeans, which were originally working class attire. In the Middle Ages people believed in class divisions, so no young nobleman would have worn a peasant’s smock. Back then, to be addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ was a rare privilege reserved for the nobility, and often purchased with blood. Today all polite correspondence, regardless of the recipient, begins with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’.
[…] Three main factors prevent people from realising that the order organising their lives exists only in their imagination:
- The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Though the imagined order only exists in our minds, it can be woven into the material reality around us, and even set in stone. Most Westerners today believe in individualism. They believe that every human is an individual, whose worth does not depend on what other people think of him or her. Each of us has within ourselves a brilliant ray of light that gives value and meaning to our lives. In modern Western schools teachers and parents tell children that if their classmates make fun of them, they should ignore it. Only they themselves, not others, know their true worth.
In modern architecture, this myth leaps out of the imagination to take shape in stone and mortar. The ideal modern house is divided into many small rooms so that each child can have a private space, hidden from view, providing maximum autonomy. This private room almost invariably has a door, and in many households it is accepted practice for the child to close, and perhaps lock, the door. Even parents are forbidden to enter without knocking and asking permission. The room is decorated as the child sees fit, with rock star posters on the wall and dirty socks on the floor. Somebody growing up in such a space cannot help but imagine himself ‘an individual’, his true worth emanating from within rather than from without.
Medieval noblemen did not believe in individualism. Somebody’s worth was determined by their place in the social hierarchy, and by what other people said about them. Being laughed at was a horrible indignity. Noblemen taught their children to protect their good name whatever the cost. Like modern individualism, the medieval value system left the imagination and was manifested in the stone of medieval castles. The castle rarely contained private rooms for children (or anyone else, for that matter). The teenage son of a medieval baron did not have a private room on the castle’s second floor, with posters of Richard the Lionheart and King Arthur on the walls and a locked door that his parents were not allowed to open. He slept alongside many other youths in a large hall. He was always on display and always had to take into account what others saw and said. Someone growing up in such conditions naturally concluded that a man’s true worth was determined by his place in the social hierarchy and by what other people said of him.
- The imagined order shapes our desires. Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary. But in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order’s most important defences.
For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries. Friends giving advice often tell each other, ‘Follow your heart.’ But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day, and the very recommendation to ‘follow your heart’ was implanted in our minds by a combination of nineteenth-century Romantic myths and twentieth-century consumerist myths. The Coca-Cola Company, for example, has marketed Diet Coke around the world under the slogan ‘Diet Coke. Do what feels good.’
Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined social order. Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.
Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about how ‘a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life.’
Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product (a car, new clothes, organic food) or a service (housekeeping, relationship therapy, yoga classes). Every television commercial is another little legend about how consuming some product or service will make life better.
Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences’, on which the modern tourism industry is founded. The tourist industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences. Paris is not a city, nor India a country — they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, fulfil our human potential, and make us happier. Consequently, when the relationship between a millionaire and his wife is going through a rocky patch, he takes her on an expensive trip to Paris. The trip is not a reflection of some independent desire, but rather of an ardent belief in the myths of romantic consumerism. A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on a holiday to Babylon. Instead he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted.
Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.
- The imagined order is inter-subjective. Even if by some super-human effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination — it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.
In order to understand this, we need to understand the difference between ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, and ‘inter-subjective’.
An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them. Marie Curie, one of the discoverers of radioactivity, did not know, during her long years of studying radioactive materials, that they could harm her body. While she did not believe that radioactivity could kill her, she nevertheless died of aplastic anaemia, a disease caused by overexposure to radioactive materials.
The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. Many a child believes in the existence of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world. The imaginary friend exists solely in the child’s subjective consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the imaginary friend fades away.
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
Peugeot, for example, is not an imaginary friend of Peugeot’s CEO. The company exists in the shared imagination of millions of people. The CEO believes in the company’s existence because the board of directors also believes in it, as do the company’s lawyers, the secretaries in the nearby office, the tellers in the bank, the brokers in the stock exchange, and car dealers from France to Australia. If the CEO alone were suddenly to stop believing in Peugeot’s existence, he’d quickly land in the nearest mental hospital and someone else would occupy his office.
Similarly, the dollar, human rights, and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organisations, it’s necessary many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
In order to dismantle Peugeot, for example, we would need to imagine something more powerful, such as the French legal system. In order to dismantle the French legal system we need to imagine something even more powerful, such as the French state. And if we would like to dismantle that too, we will need to imagine something yet more powerful.
There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.
From Sapiens: a brief history of humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (Vintage 2015); taken from Part Two, on the Agricultural Revolution, section 6 ‘Building Pyrimads’ (pp. 118-24 and 126-33).