The storytelling of a tribe gives each member a common remote past, communal heroes to emulate, shared social rules, and an answer to “Who am I?”
Editor’s Note: This essay is the first of a series dedicated to Senior Contributor Dr. Eva Brann of St. John’s College, Annapolis, in this, the year of her 90th birthday.
The modern world begins with humankind acquiring the capacity to command nature, a power not envisaged by Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, or Thomas Aquinas. The first person to grasp that nature could be commanded through knowledge was Francis Bacon. He announced, in 1620, that “those twin objects, human knowledge and human power, do really meet in one” and that the new experimental science would make mankind the master and possessor of nature, much as Adam was in the Garden of Eden. Small pox vaccine, the steam train, and the electrical telegraph convinced theologians, philosophers, and ordinary people that scientists and technologists commanded nature. The century in which Newton died, the eighteenth, included inventions that would transform society, such as the Franklin stove, gas lighting, the Watt steam engine, the cotton gin, and the flying shuttle. Far less apparent to the intellectual elite and the man on the street was that Modernity rested ultimately on storytelling, not science and technology.
Storytelling is as old as humanity, itself. Aboriginals living along the south coast of Australia today tell stories that include accurate descriptions of the sea floor of the Bass Strait that separates Tasmania from the Australian mainland—a land surface last exposed as dry land during the Ice Age that ended twelve thousand years ago. The Aboriginals, like all peoples, understand themselves and nature through stories about gods, goddesses, and supernatural beings, myths that recount the creation of the cosmos and man, and tales about paradise, holy persons, and death and the afterlife. The storytelling of a tribe gives each member a common remote past, communal heroes to emulate, shared social rules, and an answer to “Who am I?”
Natural Group Size
Our remote ancestors lived in small communities. The average size of the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in Australia and southern Africa is 1,500. The size of the tribe is defined by all the people who speak the same language, or, in the case of widespread languages, the same dialect. The size of clan group whose members live and roam together is much smaller, on average around 150. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar searched through the scientific literature and found that twenty-one different hunter-gather societies from the Walbiri of Australia to the Tauade of New Guinea to the Ammassalik of Greenland to the Ona of Tierra del Fuego the average village size was 148.4.
In other traditional societies, village size also approximates 150. Neolithic villages in the Middle East around 6000 BC contained 120 to 150 people, judging by the number of dwellings. The estimated size of English villages recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 was 150. During the eighteenth century, the average number of people in every English village, except Kent, was around 160.
In most modern armies, the smallest independent unit is the company, normally three fighting platoons of thirty to forty soldiers each plus the command staff and some support units, making a total of 130 to 150. “At this size, orders can be implemented and unruly behavior controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts,” Dunbar explains. With larger groups, hierarchies with complicated rules and regulations must be instituted to command loyalty; rank determines an individual soldier’s entitlement to respect, not his character or past performance in battle. In small companies, word of mouth and personal assessment suffice to determine another soldier’s trustworthiness.
In the Vietnam War, grunts risked their lives to save buddies from death out of loyalty and friendship, not because of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s assessment of ‘Nam: “This is not a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity,” which was irrelevant, if not nonsense, to ground pounders.
The number 150 appears to be a natural group size for human organizations and is known as the Dunbar number. The Hutterites and Amish, two groups of religious fundamentalists who live and farm communally in the Dakotas and in Pennsylvania, respectively, have average community sizes of around 110, because they split their communities once they exceed 150. Mutual obligation keeps the community together and breaks down once a community exceeds 150, when people become strangers to one another. Community members, bound together through daily living, know others’ strengths and weaknesses, work together for a common good, and take pleasure in social living. Even though highly religious, the Hutterites and Amish are directed by concrete living, not stories about God and what He wants. In small groups, storytelling is not needed to get people to cooperate.
The current analyses of social groups indicate that four discrete sizes occur across all cultures and continents, 5, 15, 50, and 150; each group includes the previous ones. In the terminology of anthropologists, the smallest natural group is the “support clique” composed of the individuals a person seeks advice or help from in times of severe emotional or financial distress. The next in size is the “sympathy group,” those individuals who would grieve over a person’s death. The third largest group is the “personal social network,” all those individuals with whom a person has regular face-to-face contact. Finally, the largest group is the “extended social network,” all those individuals a person is actively engaged with.
Dunbar recently simplified and unified these groups in terms of friendship: “We might characterize these [groups] as primary partner(s), intimate, best and good friends and, finally, just friends.” Both the Buddha and Jesus preached a love beyond friendship that includes all humanity, one called such love compassion and the other agápē, the way God loves all humans. As history has shown, such universal love failed to unite humanity; more often than not, religion served as parochial storytelling that led to such dismal events as the Thirty Years’ War in Europe between Protestants and Catholics and recently to Buddhists ethnically cleaning the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
The maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a social relationship appears to be 150; in a larger group, we cannot know who everyone is and how they are related to us, if at all. When the size of a business, college, or hospital exceeds the Dunbar number, middle and upper management are needed, which entails a mission statement, objectives, a strategic plan, numerous committees, and quarterly reports—in short, a bureaucracy.
In terms of size, the turning point for humankind was the Agricultural Revolution that occurred about 10,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers were slowly replaced by farmers and herders. Cultivated plants yield considerably more calories per acre than wild roots and berries. One acre typically can feed ten to a hundred times more farmers than hunter-gathers. The domestication of wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, millet, and barley required permanent villages; as a result, population density increased dramatically. Before the Agricultural Revolution, the human population was thinly spread over vast territories and estimated to be smaller than that of today’s Cairo, Egypt, about nine million.
The fixed settlements of farming increased population in another way. A hunter-gather mother frequently abandoned camp and could carry only one child, along with her few possessions. She could not afford to bear her next child until the previous toddler could walk fast enough to keep up with the tribe. Hunter-gathers spaced their children four years apart by means of prolonged nursing, sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion. In contrast, farmers conceived and raised as many children as they could feed. The usual spacing of farm children was two years.
The Agricultural Revolution Produced Empires
Five thousand years after the cultivation of plants in the Mideast, villages of less than 500 had increased enormously; the population of Urak, Iraq was 45,000, that of Memphis, Egypt 60,000, and that of Babylon, Iraq 200,000.
In a city of 100,000 or in a kingdom of more than one million, people with no blood ties had to agree how to divide land and water, how to settle conflicts, and how to act in times of social stress caused by war or drought—nontrivial problems, given the high murder rates among some hunter gather tribes.
At one time, anthropologists idealized hunter-gather societies, taking the peaceful San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa as the norm, not knowing that in some hunter-gather tribes murder is the leading cause of death. Recently, an Iyau woman in New Guinea, recounting her life to an anthropologist, said, “My first husband was killed by Elopi raiders. My second husband was killed by a man who wanted me, and who became my third husband. That husband was killed by the brother of my second husband, seeking to avenge his murder.” Such a life story is common among the Iyau, once thought a gentle tribespeople. Among the Iyau, murder is extremely common, supporting Thomas Hobbes’ contention that life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
To maintain public order and curb violence, cities and kingdoms instituted laws and judges, often a council of local elders. Babylon, in 1776 BC, included most of modern Iraq and parts of present-day Syria and Iran, and was the world’s largest empire with over one million subjects. Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonia Dynasty, reigned from 1792 BC to 1750 BC. Through war, he brought almost all Mesopotamia under Babylonian rule. Hammurabi issued a law code that attempted to resolve all possible conflicts in Babylonian life, such as the liability of a builder for a house that collapses, disputes over paternity and inheritance, and what is the redress if property is damaged while left in the care of another.
The Prologue of the Code of Hammurabi states that “the gods Anu and Enlil, for the enhancement of the well-being of the people, named me by my name: Hammurabi, the pious prince, who venerates the gods, to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak.” The Code lists 282 judgments in the form if such happens, then the remedy is. For example, judgments 196 to 199 are:
196. If an awïlu [a superior man] should blind the eye of another awïlu, they shall blind his eye.
197. If he should break the bone of another awïlu, 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 an awïlu’s slave or break the bone of an awïlu’s slave, he shall weigh and deliver one-half of his value [in silver].
These judgments show that the people of Babylon were divided into three classes, superiors, commoners, and slaves, each with different economic value. At the top of this hierarchy was the king, not a divine person as a pharaoh of Egypt. Hammurabi never claimed to be a god, but in the stone depiction of his Code, he stands before Shamash, the god of the sun, basking in divine light.
What held the one million Babylonians together was not the Code of Hammurabi, but storytelling. In Mesopotamian myths, the divine was a force that brought order out of chaos. The chief of heaven, the sky-god Anu, maintained the order of the cosmos. The representative of Anu on earth was the king, who was given the responsibility to make the divine will manifest on earth by bringing order to human society. What we moderns take for storytelling or myth, the ancient Mesopotamians understood as actual history. Superiors, commoners, and slaves unquestioningly obeyed the gods and their earthly representatives; consequently, Babylon had neither police forces nor prisons. Murder and violence became the prerogative of the State; through warfare, the warrior class increased the territory and wealth of Babylon, transforming a city into an Empire.
Unlike an Empire, a hunter-gather tribe did not employ supernatural beliefs to keep peace or establish authority. Leadership was informal and acquired through character, intelligence, fighting skills, and success at settling disputes, not through inheritance.
All the land and waters of Babylon belonged to the gods and were managed by their representatives and servants. The kings and priests held the largest parcels of land. Social classes were determined by land ownership. A superior man was a member of a landholding family, a commoner was free but did not possess land, and a slave obviously neither owned land nor was free.
The economic benefit derived from the use of land and water was subject to taxation. Because coinage had not yet been invented, taxes were paid in goods, a share of what had been produced, such as grain, dates, fish, wool, or livestock, or in labor on public projects, such as the excavation and maintenance of irrigation canals, the harvesting of crops grown on communal land, and the construction of temples and palaces or through military service.
To keep records of taxes, goods produced, and services rendered, the Sumerians invented writing. The oldest examples of Sumerian writing were bills of sale that documented transactions between buyers and sellers. On clay tablets the Babylonian scribes recorded everything consumed in the temples and placed the tablets in the temple archives. Scribes also kept running lists of kings and dynasties as well as chronicled significant historical events. Special schools were created to rigorously train scribes, librarians, and accountants, the world’s first professional class.
In contrast, no member of a hunter-gather group could become disproportionately wealthy, because everyone had material debts and social obligations to others. The exchange of goods was one of the principal means to develop and strengthen social relations. “In almost all forms of exchange in the Trobriands,” anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed, “there is not even a trace of gain, nor is there any reason for looking at it from the purely utilitarian and economic standpoint, since there is no enhancement of mutual utility through exchange.” In a typical Trobriand exchange a man gives twenty baskets of yams to another man, receiving in return a small polished blade; a week later, the whole transaction is reversed. From the viewpoint of participants in a free market nothing transpired, so such an exchange is absurd and perhaps causes laughter. But for the Trobriand Islanders the exchange is perfectly rational; the passing of material objects back and forth strengthens social bonds.
In Babylon, crop surpluses allowed specialized artisans to trade their goods for food. Potters, weavers of baskets and cloth, shoemakers, metalworkers, millers, and brewers supplied the basic needs of life, while perfumers, confectioners, and jewelers provided luxuries for the wealthy.
Among the hunter-gathers, economic specialization was mainly a division of labor between men, women, and children. Each adult had to know how to make a stone knife, mend sandals, lay a trap for small game, and depending upon the continent, how to face avalanches, poisonous snakes, or hungry lions. The absence of economic specialists meant slaves were pointless, for there were no specialized menial jobs for slaves to perform.
The kings and priests harnessed much of the labor freed by crop surpluses to build monuments to themselves and temples for the gods on a previously unknown scale. The walls of Babylon and the Temple of Bel (Babel) were depicted by nineteenth-century illustrator William Simpson, using early archeological investigations. (See illustration.)
Historian Yuval Noah Harari argues, and anthropologist Jared Diamond concurs, that the cultivation of grains enhanced the collective power of humankind but worsened the life of the average individual. Diamond called the Agricultural Revolution “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” He cites one straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from ancient skeletons found in Greece and Turkey: “The average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’9” for men, 5’5” for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of only 5’3” for men, 5’ for women.” Before the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals, the Paleolithic diet consisted of uncultivated plants and wild game exclusively, a diet high in fiber, protein, and micronutrients.
The kings and priests of the Babylonian Empire constructed monuments to the State and temples for the gods, while the peasants dug canals, carried water buckets, harvested barley and emmer wheat, and lived on a diet inferior to their Paleolithic ancestors. “In exchange for all this hard work,” Harari says, “most peasants got a far worse diet than hunter-gatherers, because hunter-gatherers relied on dozens of species of animals and plants and mushrooms and whatever, that provided them with all the nutrients and vitamins they needed, whereas peasants relied on usually just a single crop, like wheat or rice or potatoes. And on top of that, you had all the new social hierarchies and the beginning of mass exploitation, where you have small elites exploiting everybody else.”
Any large-scale human cooperation, whether in an ancient empire, the medieval Church, or a Nation-State requires common storytelling, or if you like myths, that succinctly present “reality,” the way things truly are. And, the United States of America is no exception.
The Chosen People
The founding of American was based on the Puritans’ belief that they were the new chosen people of God. For a time, the Puritans believed God had selected England as the country in which the Reformation would reach its consummation. They expected that the Established Church of England would someday be broken up and reorganized into independent, covenanted congregations.
By 1620 the Puritans, however, were prosecuted in England and routed out of Europe. Just when their cause seemed hopeless, the hand of God stretched forth and led the most select of His saints out of Egypt to the New Jerusalem to build a “city upon a hill” for all humanity to see. In route to New England, in 1630, John Winthrop stood on the deck of the Arbella and delivered a sermon on the Puritans’ historic destiny: “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
The New England Puritans saw themselves as having been given a mission by God to show the world how the Reformation was to be completed. The Puritans entered covenants first with God, then with each other in the Church, and lastly in society to form a political state. Before disembarking at Plymouth, in 1620, the Puritans drew up the Mayflower Compact: “We . . . do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue of hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. . . . “
The Puritans knew their government had been brought into existence by an act of the people; furthermore, they believed the people created the one kind of government outlined by God. “New England political theory made the state almost a kind of second incarnation, a Messiah fathered by God and born of the people,” Perry Miller writes in his classic study The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Once again, and perhaps for the last time, God had entered history to create a new political order by acting through the people. The goal of the new political order was to prepare citizens for the Final Judgment: The Puritans believed that when mortals “combine their several regenerate wills into one all-inclusive will, the state becomes the savior, the child of God and man, leading men to righteousness and preparing them for the final reckoning.”
As religious inspiration waned in America, the belief remained that Americans are the chosen people with a special destiny in history. America was a new continent, a new beginning for humanity, a beacon to light the way for the rest of the world. John Adams, in 1765, expressed this national Messianism in his diary: “America was designed by Providence for the theater on which man was to make his true figure, on which science, virtue, liberty, happiness, and glory were to exist in peace.” George Washington in his First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789, proclaimed, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man more than those of the United States. Every step by which we have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token providential agency.” Thomas Jefferson in his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, said, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”
Historian Hans Kohn, a theorist of nationalism, writes that “under Puritan influence the three main ideas of Hebrew nationalism were revived: the chosen people, the Covenant, and the Messianic expectancy. The English nation regarded itself as the new Israel.” Later, Jefferson would see America as the new Israel.
For the Puritans, the state was an instrument of Christianity, a means to prepare citizens for the Final Judgment. With the waning of religion, Christianity became subservient to the Nation-State, inverting the Puritan hierarchy of religion and state. In peacetime, priests and ministers were forbidden by democratic consensus to advocate moral restraints on free markets or to interfere with lawmaking, apart from such moral issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. During wartime, the clergy were called upon to bless the troops, their armaments, and the Holy Destiny of the Nation-State. In Modernity, Jesus’ preaching that the Kingdom of God could only be founded on agápē, the selfless love for everyone, was drowned out by the love of the Nation-State.
Later, the Puritan’s belief that God’s covenant with the new chosen people aimed at their salvation from sin was forgotten; however, the idea remained that the government was formed by a social compact between individuals. When no longer seen as a continuation of the will of God, Americans understood their government was founded on the self-evident truths of nature; the social compact between individuals was believed to be instituted not to carry out God’s salvation plan for humanity, but to secure men’s inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What then held the nation together was an idea—liberty under law; the people themselves had formed the new Covenant, the Constitution—a storytelling that began with the Pilgrims and continued by Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.
Every schoolchild in America learns that the Puritans fled to America to escape religious persecution in England and that these seekers of religious freedom believed the material prosperity they achieved in the New World was a sign of God’s blessing. What I did not learn in grade school was the degree to which the Puritans understood economic activity as part of God’s plan.
The Colony of Massachusetts Bay enjoyed ten years of unprecedented prosperity, when suddenly, in 1641, the Colony fell into an economic depression because the Long Parliament in England revived the Puritan cause at home. Immigration to the New World ceased, and without new buyers, the market for locally produced goods collapsed.
But God had pre-determined the prosperity of His People, so that the true church polity, the Congregational, would light the way for the rest of mankind. God, in His infinite Providence, contrived that the Catholics would continue to eat fish on Fridays, and He created the cod off the banks of Newfoundland and the depression of 1641, so the Puritans would engage in pious labor, rewarded with gold and silver from the errant Catholics.
The notion of pious labor to fulfill God’s plan quickly disappeared in America. In the New World, a landed gentry, an established church, and a class based on birth did not exist. As a result, America “opened a thousand new roads to fortune and gave any obscure adventurer the chance of wealth and power.”
The Puritans also put an indelible stamp of individualism upon America. The Puritan was “one entire person, who must do everything of himself, who [was] not to be cosseted or carried through life, who in the final analysis [had] no other responsibility but his own welfare.” Protestantism substituted the individual for the community; the new man of God was to achieve “salvation through unassisted faith and unmediated personal effort.”
The storytelling of America captured the imagination of the poor and downtrodden in the Old World. In America, a peasant from Europe was no longer oppressed by the lord of the manor, a village priest, or an educated magistrate. Unlike the Old World, a person of low birth could work hard, acquire wealth, and be happy. Freedom, equality, and individualism permitted each person to look out for his own welfare, and in this way, the great potential and talent hidden within each human being was unleashed; as a result America became an amazing place, the home of an unheard of prosperity, widely shared.
In the nineteenth century, young adults read Horatio Alger’s novels about how impoverished boys through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty rose from their humble background to a respectable middle-class comfort.
Through mass media in the twentieth century, Steve Jobs became the iconic American hero; rejected by his biological parents, a dropout from Reed College, invented with Steve Wozniak the personal computer, went head-to-head with IBM and won, conceived the iPhone and changed the world.
Obviously, American and Babylonian storytelling embody three opposed elements, freedom vs. obedience, equality vs. hierarchy, individualism vs. collectivism. Nevertheless, because of their wealth and vast size, the two societies share much in common: Laws and courts substantially reduced violence between strangers; the State reserved violence and murder exclusively for itself; a large, paid military supported an empire with extensive territorial holdings and associated wealth; professionals and bureaucrats administered the affairs of State (and in America corporations); an elite, so-called kleptocrats, owned most of the wealth produced by agricultural (and modern technology). The last point of similarity needs elaboration.
In 2007, 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. The upper 1% took in 23 % of the nation’s income. In 2017, the top 1% controlled 38.6% of America’s wealth. Twenty billionaires were worth as much as the bottom half of America. The five heirs to the Walmart fortune were worth $140 billion.
Yet, laptops, flat-screen TVs, and smartphones are everywhere, in the ghetto as well as aboard yachts, which is not to deny the scandal that three million children in America live in abject poverty, the kind found in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world or to discount the marked increase in midlife mortality of white non-Hispanic Americans, the result of “deaths of despair” caused by drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide in a declining middle class.
The storytelling of America seems to be losing believability. The global economic crisis of 2008 caused many citizens to conclude that the financial elite callously manipulated markets for its own profit, that big banks were bailed out at the expense of “the little guy,” that the tax code was written by the wealthy, and that equal opportunity for all no longer existed. On social media and on cable TV, two different stories of America emerged, one of an imaged future where each individual is free to choose any lifestyle he or she desires unhindered by social pressure and law; the other of the past, sometimes imaged, where America embodied the traditional values of the Protestantism, essentially middle-class life in 1950s. In the absence of a unifying war, true believers in these two dominant stories will probably continue to work to politically destroy each other. Conspiracy theories, hate speech, and political extremism abound on the Web, further splintering storytelling.
What Is Next?
All that remains of the Babylonian Empire, the Code of Hammurabi, and the sky-god Anu are clay tablets once buried beneath the ruins of edifices to kings and gods. Near the collapse of the Empire, Babylonian scribes probably expressed sentiments similar to their Egyptian counterparts at the end of one of their Dynasties: “Robbers abound. People say, ‘We do not know what will happen from day to day.’ The masses are like timid sheep without a shepherd. Impudence is rife.”
The rule of Babylonian Empire ended over 3,500 years ago, and I would not hazard a guess where the American Empire will be in 100 years. But, in the short term, say 25 years, modern life will be dominated by the global economy, mass migrations, and digital technology, all three undermining the Nation-State. To buy American is virtually impossible. Last month I replaced an old wireless router made in the USA with a new one made in Vietnam for a California company whose intellectual property rights and profits are lodged in Ireland. Many Americans are worried that the large number of immigrants from Mexico and Central America will destroy the ethnic purity and cultural heritage of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. Recent data from the Census Bureau indicates that by 2044 the non-Hispanic white-alone population will be a minority.
As we saw, the storytelling of America moved from the divine to the secular: The Chosen People of God became America with the historic destiny to lead humankind to democracy; the pious labor that fulfilled God’s plan became the hard work that results in wealth and happiness in this world; the goal of salvation through unassisted faith became responsibility for one’s own economic failure or success.
The secularization of the American storytelling will probably continue. The story of the Chosen People with the underlying myth of progress is no longer believable, mainly because the ever-ascending arc of science and technology may be headed to a thermonuclear war that annihilates humankind or to a severe climate change that destroys Homo sapiens and most other creatures.
If the myth of a Chosen People vanishes from political life, then the Nation-State loses its divine aura, much like the Babylonian Empire did for its subjects. The lives of few young Americans are dominated by the patriotic stories told by their flag-waving great-grandparents. For the youth of the Digital Age, the new reality that is replacing the Nation-State worldwide is the Big Five—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Alphabet, the parent company of Google. With the loss of believability of the storytelling that held an Empire together, no narrative binds 325 million individuals; stories are easy to tell, but in the Digital Age convincing everyone to believe a story seems impossible. The absence of a shared story that holds a culture together does not mean that things fall apart like they did in Babylonia. For most Americans, young and old, the structures of federal, state, and local governments, including the judiciary system, are just there, are not the children of God or rooted in human nature, and are expected to last forever.
Social media, not society, is becoming the new glue that holds Americans together. Twenty-seven percent of adult Americans use Snapchat, 35 percent Instagram, 68 percent Facebook, and 73 percent YouTube. Social media is causing society to fragment into small, digitally connected groups. The median number of friends a Facebook user has is roughly 150, the familiar Dunbar number. But these small groups are not like those of the hunter-gathers, who lived together daily and could not avoid face-to-face contact.
I checked the Facebook pages of my former students, many of whom are married. A parent, usually the mother, reached out to the world from her nuclear family by posting photos to celebrate the birth of her new child, a birthday, a new home, or a beach vacation. In addition, I saw many trivial photos, such as those of a restaurant menu, a bird in a tree, a sunset over a lake, or the announcement of an upcoming Dance Sport Competition. I guessed that for Facebook users, if an image of an event is not online, then it did not happen. More common than I would have guessed were posts seeking consolation from depression, lack of financial success, or a failed relationship. I, of course, saw the ubiquitous cat videos and other “funny” videos. The political comments were short, angry, and not aimed at action. Rarely were books mentioned or significant ideas discussed. Some posts sounded like hunter-gatherers sitting around a campfire reflecting on stories told by the elders, but the stories came from movies produced by independent studios and from TV series made by Amazon and Netflix, the new purveyors of myths. Here my former students excelled; in their world of moving images, they were astute observers, comparing various seasons of a TV series with great depth and often disagreeing with the choices the director made.
My overall impression was that the United States of America is fragmenting into social media groups of roughly 150, confirming Alexis de Tocqueville’s worst fear of what awaited an American: “Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in himself and for himself. . .” In the Digital Age, individuals, bound together in small groups by shared images, cannot touch one another. Isolated, in front of a screen, each individual believes he is the center of the universe, and the Big Five willingly use tailored analytics to deliver customized news, entertainment, and products to him.
But for citizens with a life not dominated by social media, the fragmentation of America can be positive. In politics, some people have given up on the federal government to rescue their communities from social decay and economic stagnation. For example, Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a crime-ridden ghost town, in 1997, where people were afraid to venture out at night; the principal industrial employer, Armstrong World Industries, was dying. Seven men and woman were unwilling to let their hometown die. They founded Hourglass, a foundation to make local government an agent of positive social change. By 2018, the imagination, persistence, and cooperation of business leaders, educators, philanthropists, social innovators, and local government officials had made, according to Forbes, Lancaster one of the “10 Coolest U.S. Cities to Visit”: It “boasts a bustling food scene and is quickly becoming a cultural hotbed. The architecture is the real star, so explore the alleys and cobblestone streets by foot, checking out the many repurposed old warehouses that house thriving businesses.”
Many educators realize that large institutions of higher learning are incapable of innovative change to address the absence of traditional learning and character development in the prevailing college programs. A small number of academics founded new Great Books colleges, such as St. Thomas Aquinas (California), Wyoming Catholic College, and Magdalen College (New Hampshire), now Northeast Catholic College.
Many religious and laypersons lament the decline of Christian faith and culture. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a Benedictine oblate and priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Greenville, South Carolina, decided to structure his parish around obedience, stability, and conversion of life, the three vows taken by Benedictine monks and nuns. The root word of obedience is “obedere”—to listen. The young families of Fr. Longenecker’s church listened to each other, when they prayed, read Scripture, and worked together, and as a result, their lives became “full, joyful, and active.”
So, for many people the withering away of the Nation-State is not all bad; genuine local government directed by neighbors can re-emerge; higher education founded on human nature, not the interest of the State can reappear; and, a Christianity lived in this world can return. In such small groups, the mindless machinery of the Nation-State—the bureaucratic rules, regulations, and dictates—are spurned in favor of face-to-face human relations.
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1 Francis Bacon, The New Organon and Related Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960 ), pp. 29, 15.
2 For a timeline of inventions, see http://theinventors.org/library/inventors/bl1700s.htm.
3 Robin Dunbar, How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 82.
4 Ibid., p. 33.
5 R.I.M. Dunbar, “Co-Evolution of Neocortex Size, Group Size and Language in Humans,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16, No. 4 (1993): 681-735.
6 Dunbar, How Many Friends Does One Person Need?, p. 27.
7 Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 76.
8 President Johnson’s Message to Congress August 5, 1964. Available http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/tonkin-g.asp#message.
9 Dunbar, How Many Friends Does One Person Need?, pp. 27-28.
10 R.I.M. Dunbar, “The Anatomy of Friendship,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, (January 2018) 22. Also see W.-X. Zhou, D. Sornette, R. A. Hill, and R. I. M. Dunbar, “Discrete hierarchical organization of social group sizes,” Proc. R. Soc. B (2005) 272, 439–444 and Marcus J. Hamilton, Bruce T. Milne, Robert S. Walker, Oskar Burger, and James H. Brown, “The complex structure of hunter–gatherer social networks,” Proc. R. Soc. B (2007) 274, 2195–2202. These three papers use somewhat different terminology and arrive at slightly different sizes of the four natural social groups.
11 Dunbar, “The Anatomy of Friendship,” p. 36.
12 Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper, 2015), p. 47.
13 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 89.
14 Ibid., p. 277.
16 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994 ), p. 76.
17 Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995), p. 76.
18 Ibid., p. 121.
19 Stephen Bertman, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (New York: Facts on File, 2003), p. 68.
20 Ibid., p. 70.
21 See Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, p. 269.
22 Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul),
23 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
24 Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine (May 1987), http://www.ditext.com/diamond/mistake.html.
26 Yuval Noah Harari, “Death Is Optional: A Conversation: Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel Kahneman,” 4 March 2015, http://edge.org/conversation/yuval_noah_harari-daniel_kahneman-death-is-optional.
27 John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, ed. Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 199. Our text is in modern English.
28 In Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001), p. 102. Our text is in modern English.
29 Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1939), p. 419.
30 Ibid. Italics added.
31 John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L.H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1961), vol. I, p. 282.
32 Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1965), p. 16.
33 Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence, of course, knew that John Locke, the philosopher who supplied the theoretical foundations of both modern democracy and capitalism, held that government secured life, liberty, and property, not the pursuit of happiness.
34 Perry Miller gave a brilliant presentation of the Puritan economic outlook in an address delivered at the annual of the Unitarian Ministerial Union, held at King’s Chapel, Boston, May I8, 1942. See “Individualism and the New England Tradition” in The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines: Essays by Perry Miller, ed. John Crowell and Stanford J. Searl, Jr. (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.)
35 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835,1840]), p. 11.
36 Perry Miller, “Individualism and the New England Tradition,” pp. 5, 6.
37 Robert A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 90.
38 One dismal conclusion is that every society that produces an abundance of wealth will inevitably have kleptocrats, bureaucrats, and oppression of the poor, regardless of the means of production, an odd, depressing way to subvert Marxism.
39 National Poverty Center, Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011, http://npc.umich.edu/publications/policy_briefs/brief28/policybrief28.pdf.
40 Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/casetextsp17bpea.pdf.
41 Our edited text is from Adolf Erman, Die Literatur der Aegypten, quoted by Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, Routledge Revival Edition (New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 24.
42 “New Census Bureau Report Analyzes U.S. Population Projections” (3 March 2015), https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-tps16.html.
43 John Gramlich, “5 facts about Americans and Facebook,” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact- tank/2018/04/10/5-facts-about-americans-and-facebook/.
44 Aaron Smith, “What people like and dislike about Facebook,” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact- tank/2014/02/03/what-people-like-dislike-about-facebook/.
45 Tocqueville, pp. 691-692. Italics added.
46 See Thomas L. Friedman, “Where American Politics Can Still Work: From the Bottom Up,” The New York Times (July 3, 2018). Available https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/03/opinion/community-revitalization-lancaster.html.
47 Ann Abel, “The 10 Coolest U.S. Cities to Visit in 2018,” Forbes (Feb. 26, 2018). Available https://www.forbes.com/sites/annabel/2018/02/26/the-10-coolest-u-s-cities-to-visit-in-2018/#6cfc3a68663b.
48 Dwight Longenecker, “Opting for Saint Benedict in an Ordinary Parish,” The Imaginative Conservative (Aug 4, 2018), http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2018/08/saint-benedict-option-parish-dwight- longenecker.html.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte (The Grandfather Tells a Story)” (1884) by Albert Anker (1831-1910), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.