Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Beast at Tanagra

In one of my favorite Star Trek The Next Generation episodes, the crew of the Enterprise comes in contact with another race that they can’t communicate with. Their computer translator can translate the words, but the words are in the form of metaphors, stories from their culture. Without knowing the story, you can’t understand the words. So, using this page to translate, my title here refers to an obstacle to overcome. In the end Captain Picard figures it out and he realizes that he should re-familiarize himself with the legends and stories of his own culture. In the final scene he is reading the book Gilgamesh, in it’s paper form, not on one of their hand held data devices.

I’m more of a data person, more like Mr. Spock than I am a story person, but I’m coming around. I have found many people hard to communicate with if you don’t understand their story. Religious people are a good example. I try using logic, but at some point it gets to me needing to be familiar with a parable or obscure character from Leviticus to be able to continue the discussion. If I’m not familiar with their story, I can’t be sure if their point is valid or not.

This can also be true in politics too. I found this recently in my reading of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. To demonstrate how this works, I’ll refer to a metaphor she used. In this case, my understanding of the use of the myth led me to conclude that her point was not valid. I had figured that out anyway, but if someone who has read the book tries to use this metaphor, I’ll be ready.

The book was written around 1960 and set in her not too distant future, which has now past for us. In it, all of the great minds of the day, the inventors, the industrialists, the engineers and the innovators go on strike because they feel their value is not recognized, that the riches they have created for society are being squandered in a welfare state. They do it secretly at first and wait for things to begin to collapse, then come out and say “I told you so.” One of the analogies that Ayn Rand uses is that of Prometheus. In the story, she says Prometheus has gone on strike.

Prometheus is the guy who was chained to a rock and got his liver pecked out every day by an Eagle. His liver would grow back, so he would never die, just suffer. His punishment was meted out by Zeus, the King of the Greek Gods. It was for giving fire to the humans. Prometheus had helped Zeus come to power, but then had some different ideas about what to do. So the analogy is to the inventors who create things that are used and consumed by all humankind. That’s about as far as I can see the analogy being accurate.

In no Greek myth that I have read does humankind appear ungrateful to Prometheus. He is the one being tortured, so I gotta assume that the teller of the story wants you to sympathize with him. It’s the mean guy who just wants something from you, and will toss down a lightning bolt if he doesn’t get it, that you are supposed to hate. He may be in charge of running the world, but he doesn’t command respect, just fear. For Prometheus to give up his torture, he would have to apologize to Zeus and somehow take fire back from humankind. He’s not going to do that, he represents those who struggle for justice.

More important, and Ayn does not address this at all, Prometheus is freed from captivity by Hercules. He is freed by strength. This has happened throughout history, when leaders become too brutal, people rise up and defeat them by force. More often than not the result is a new leadership with different problems, but that’s another story. If you try to apply Atlas Shrugged’s story back on to the Greek mythology characters, humankind and Zeus are conspiring to keep Prometheus in chains and somehow they control Hercules to make sure he stays there.

The myth doesn’t go that way, because history hasn’t gone that way. For short periods, yes, a government can raise an army and force people to use their minds to benefit only the ones behind the guns, but eventually the army itself becomes powerful enough to work for it’s own good, or another army comes along. An army can only get so big if it is not supported, and that support requires something worth fighting for.

In Atlas Shrugged, the people are all lethargic, they have given up and don’t know what to do. The welfare state gave them the option to be lazy and they took it. When it becomes obvious it is not working, they just go on waiting for a hand out and whining. There is a lot of whining in that book. I know there are people like this, but it is a very small minority. Most people want to work, want to leave things better than they found them. I think a story about industrialist going on strike would be a good myth for our times, but I think the result would be that nobody cared, it would be a chance to clean up the messes they made.

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