Highlights from The Patterning Instinct

Highlights from The Patterning Instinct

Alexander and Ashoka: Two divergent ​conceptions of power:  A Study In Contrasts

A pattern that emerges from history is the propensity of Europeans to use innovative technologies to change the rules of the game and thus gain a power advantage. This proclivity seems to arise from a deep structure in European cognition that identifies power as a value in itself, even if gaining such power causes massive disequilibrium. 

How deeply ingrained in European culture was this readiness to violently disrupt an equilibrium for the sake of power? An unscientific but intriguing comparison of two legendary conquerors suggests this European mindset goes all the way back to the birth of Western culture in ancient Greece.

Alexander and the veneration of brute force

Even today, after more than two millennia, people are awed by the breathtaking military feats of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), who created one of the largest empires in the ancient world in a few short years, conquering the entire Persian empire and then, desiring to reach the “ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea,” led a campaign to invade India, only turning back when his army threatened mutiny.

Historians have long wondered about the psychology underlying Alexander’s spectacular achievements. In the words of one, “Alexander seems increasingly to have seen his progress in terms of a Grail-like quest for the supposedly unattainable. He sought the ‘ocean’, the ultimate limit of terrestrial empire. Through knowledge of this great ‘beyond’, he aspired to a kind of enlightenment which… would become a cliché of Western exploration.”

A famous legend that hints at Alexander’s frame of mind – and strikingly portends the later European approach to power – is the story of the Gordian knot. According to ancient lore, the Phrygians were once without a ruler and an oracle prophesied that the first person to enter the capital in an oxcart would be their next king. The peasant Gordias was that man, and he dedicated his cart in gratitude to the gods, tying its shafts to a post in an elaborate knot. The same oracle then prophesied that whoever undid that knot would become the king of all Asia. No-one had ever succeeded in undoing it because of the special way it was tied together, without any loose ends to work. When Alexander arrived there, he came up with a devastatingly simple solution. He drew his sword and sliced the knot cleanly in half. As the oracle predicted, he did go on to become ruler of all Asia.

The significance of the story is that Alexander’s approach established a paradigm of power: an equilibrium was destroyed by violating the previous rules of the game with brute force. Most importantly, instead of being condemned as “cheating,” Alexander’s behavior was lauded to the extent that it became the stuff of legend.

The remorse of Ashoka

Now let’s turn to another great ruler of ancient times: Ashoka of India (304-232 BCE), who inherited an empire covering most of the Indian subcontinent forged by his grandfather Chandragupta. Ashoka showed military prowess himself, conquering the region of Kalinga, which we know about because he erected a monument commemorating his achievement. What is amazing about this monument is how Ashoka describes what he has done: rather than glorying his conquest, Ashoka, now converted to the new religion of Buddhism, laments the destruction he has caused. In his own words:

On conquering Kalinga the Beloved of the Gods [His Majesty] felt remorse, for, when an independent country is conquered, the slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind…  Today if a hundredth or a thousandth  part of those people who were killed or died or were deported when Kalinga was annexed were to suffer similarly, it would weigh heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods…

Perhaps even more remarkable than Ashoka’s self-recrimination is the admonition he then offers his descendants:

This inscription of dhamma (dharma) has been engraved so that any sons or great-grandsons that I may have should not think of gaining new conquests…  They should only consider conquest by dhamma to be a true conquest, and delight in dhamma should be their whole delight.

In the words of Indian historian R. K. Mookerji: “Herein lies the greatness of Ashoka. Even as a mere pious sentiment this is hard to beat; at least no victorious monarch in the history of the world is known to have ever given expression to anything like it.”

Conquering with virtue

These are, of course, just two rulers out of a host of monarchs throughout history, but their stories stand in stark contrast to each other and appear emblematic of two contrasting approaches to the meaning of power. Ashoka did not believe in relinquishing power itself, but rather in using it to promote an enlightened set of values, an approach that was not unique to him but imbued in his culture.

​During the reign of his grandfather, a classic of statecraft named the Arthasastra was written, which advises how a ruler should treat nations conquered in battle. “Having acquired new territory,” it goes, “the conqueror shall substitute his virtues for the enemy’s vices and where the enemy was good, he shall be twice as good. He shall follow policies that are pleasing and beneficial by acting according to his dharma and by granting favours and exemptions, giving gifts, and bestowing honours.”​

​​Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 16 | Great Rats: The Story Of Power and Exploitation

Exploitation and Betrayal: The European Way Of Conquest
​When Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, his letters back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain move effortlessly from initial awe to plans for violent exploitation of the Arawak people he encountered.

They are so artless and so free with all they possess,” he writes, “that no one would believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.​

He was equally amazed by their lack of weaponry, reporting: “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance.”

Then, his mind wanders to thoughts of exploitation. “They would make fine servants,” he reflects. “Should your Majesties command it, all the inhabitants could be taken away to Castile [Spain], or made slaves on the island. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

The European way: surprise and betrayal

Within a few short years, these musings of power and exploitation would come true beyond Columbus’ wildest dreams. Some of the most astonishing stories in history recount the way the greatest empires of the New World – the Aztecs and the Incas – were laid waste by two small bands of Spanish explorers led respectively by Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro.

When Cortés first arrived at the gates of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519 with less than a thousand Spanish soldiers, his entire group could have been wiped out by the Aztecs, whose formidable warriors firmly controlled the central region of Mexico. Instead, they were welcomed in friendship and invited into the city to join a festive celebration.

The Spanish promptly betrayed their hosts’ welcome and began slaughtering the singers and dancers, chopping off their hands and heads and disemboweling them with their swords. They then retreated from the panicked crowd to the royal palace where they took the Aztec ruler Montezuma as hostage.

​Once the Aztecs realized their terrible mistake, they tried to fight back but it was too late. Within two years their empire was gone forever and Cortés claimed their territory for Spain, renaming the capital Mexico City.

Inspired by Cortés’ achievement, Pizarro set out a few years later to emulate his conquest, targeting the Inca empire of South America. With fewer than 200 soldiers facing an army of 80,000 Inca warriors, Pizarro also used the strategy of surprise and betrayal to meet the Inca leader Atahualpa face to face, then began slaughtering Atahualpa’s troops while taking him hostage. Within a year, the capital Cuzco was conquered and the Inca empire was no more.

The sacred warfare of the Aztecs

There are many reasons for this one-sided conflict between the Spanish and the empires of the New World. Jared Diamond has identified some important ones, such as the industrial infrastructure that permitted the Spanish to sail to the New World in the first place, their use of horses, swords, and guns, and the devastating impact of the diseases they brought with them.

One factor, however, that is left out of the discussion, but which underlies the entire European conquest of the New World, is the vastly different conceptualizations of power and warfare held by each side. For the Aztecs, who believed they needed the blood of human sacrifice to keep the sun in motion, warfare was a sacred endeavor to provide a continual supply of victims to propitiate the gods. The Aztecs thus conceptualized power literally in terms of the fuel needed to keep the sun rising each day.

The sacred nature of warfare meant that treachery or fraud was unthinkable. They would announce their intentions to conquer a city in advance, and would even send along food and weapons to the inhabitants, making sure they had a worthy adversary in battle. It was for this reason that they acted in a way that our modern viewpoint deems hopelessly naïve, inviting Cortés’ soldiers into their city to join their celebration.

The idea of such treachery was inconceivable to them, just as it had been inconceivable for anyone to break the legendary Gordian knot until Alexander drew his sword and sliced it in half.

​​Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 16 | Great Rats: The Story Of Power and Exploitation

Selected references:
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years (London: Vintage, 2005).
​David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)
With God On Their Side: The Christian Genocide Rulebook 
“All the mischief and damage that we can”

The European conquerors used Christian theology as the basis of their rulebook for the exploitation of the New World.The leading spokesman for this narrative was eminent Spanish scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who explained that the Indians of the New World were intended by God “to be placed under the authority of civilized and virtuous princes or nations, so that they may learn, from the might, wisdom, and law of their conquerors, to practice better morals, worthier customs and a more civilized way of life.”

To ensure legal and theological validation for their plunder, the Spanish went through a bizarre process each time they encountered an indigenous community. They would read a statement to the Indians ordering them to swear allegiance to the Pope and the Spanish crown. If the Indians didn’t do as commanded (unlikely since they wouldn’t have understood a word), the statement went on:

I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of Their Highnesses.

​We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as Their Highnesses may command. And we shall take your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist and contradict him.

With this proclamation, known as the requerimiento, the Spanish considered the pillaging of the New World to be legally and morally justified.

The “beneficial order of Providence”

Even the diseases the Europeans brought with them were widely believed to be a demonstration of God’s support. An influential Spanish priest, Father Domingo de Betanzos, proclaimed in the early days of the conquest that God had condemned the entire Indian race to perish because of their sinful paganism.

This laid the foundation for a viewpoint embraced wholeheartedly by later generations, so that in 1843, respected American historian W. H. Prescott could write: “[I]t was beneficially ordered by Providence that the land should be delivered over to another race, who would rescue it from the brutish superstitions that daily extended wider and wider.”

There are innumerable British accounts claiming God as an active participant in the gruesome massacres of the indigenous people. In describing a British attack on the Pequot Indians in 1636, Captain John Mason echoes the more bloodthirsty passages of the Old Testament:

​And indeed such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits, that they would fly from us and run into the very Flames, where many of them perished… [And] God was above them, who laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven… Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling the Place with dead Bodies!

Like the Spanish, the British were certain that the diseases they brought with them were God’s vehicle for clearing their path to conquest. This attitude became so ingrained that even Benjamin Franklin, known for his otherwise tolerant values, gladly justified the slaughter of the Indians, writing of “the design of Providence to extirpate those savages in order to make room for the cultivators of the earth.”

​​Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 16 | Great Rats: The Story Of Power and Exploitation

Selected reference:  ​David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)
The Pseudo-Scientific Racism Of Social Darwinism  
The rise of scientific racism
As they swept their way across the world, restructuring the demographics of the globe while condemning untold millions to the servitude that fueled their ever-increasing wealth, the Europeans were as convinced as their colonial forebears of the moral rectitude of their exploitation.With science replacing Christianity as a framework for making sense of the world, leading European thinkers showed great dexterity in appropriating the new way of thinking as further justification for world domination. The early 19th century French naturalist, George Leopold Cuvier, contributed to a newly emerging field of scientific racism by declaring that “the Caucasian race has given rise to the most civilized nations, to those which have generally held the rest in subjection.”

A moral duty to dominate the world

Early affirmations of Caucasian racial superiority were given a more robust platform with the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Although Darwin himself never applied his theory to social evolution, Herbert Spencer – one of his early advocates – was only too eager to do so. His approach, known as Social Darwinism, soon became the new philosophical foundation for theories of European superiority, giving imperialists what seemed like a moral duty based in biology to dominate the rest of the world.

The new racist ideology of white supremacy rapidly spread throughout the world. The following, for example, passed as acceptable scientific material in late nineteenth century Australia:

To the Aryan… apparently belong the destinies of the future. The races… who rest content in…placid sensuality and unprogressive decrepitude, can hardly hope to contend permanently in the great struggle for existence…

​The survival of the fittest means that might – wisely used – is right. And thus we invoke and remorselessly fulfil the inexorable law of natural selection when exterminating the inferior Australian.

As the world entered the twentieth century, this supposed “law of natural selection” was about to be sorely tested. After two world wars, the colonial structures established by the Europeans would get dismantled.

The systematic exploitation of the entire world by one region had reached its zenith. However, the massive global inequalities it had created still show no sign of diminishing. Human exploitation continues to ravage billions of lives across the globe, with the wealthiest fifth of the world enjoying 70% of its income, while the poorest fifth scrapes by on just 2%.

​​Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 16 | Great Rats: The Story Of Power and Exploitation

From Disconnection to Connectedness

A worldview based on disconnection

Our global civilization is on an unsustainable course because the meaning we’ve derived from the world has historically been based on disconnection.

​Beginning with the dualistic conception of human being and cosmos in ancient Greece, Western civilization (more recently becoming global civilization) has followed a path of cognitive separation. By valuing reason over emotion, splitting human existence into mind and body, and then defining humanity only by its mind, we set the cognitive foundation for the scientific and industrial revolutions that transformed the world.

In our relationship to the external world, we pursued a similar path of disconnection, finding meaning in transcendence while desacralizing the earth, creating root metaphors of nature as an enemy to be conquered and a machine to be engineered. Since then, we’ve been busy developing technologies designed to turn those metaphors into fact.

By continuing to see humans as essentially separate from nature and from each other, we’ve found ourselves on a path either to collapse or a bifurcation of humanity.

What is ultimately required is a shift towards a new way of finding meaning from our existence – a new global consciousness, based on an underlying and all-infusing sense of connectedness.

Finding meaning through connection

The meaning we derive from our existence must arise from our connectedness if we are to succeed in sustaining our civilization into the distant future: connectedness within ourselves, to other humans, and to the entire natural world.

A new global consciousness could allow our society to undergo a Great Transformation in values and behavior towards a sustainable and flourishing civilization. It would need to be founded on a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth into the future.

In place of root metaphors such as nature as a machine and conquering nature, the new worldview would be based on the emerging systems view of life, recognizing the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on earth, and seeing humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world.

In contrast to the dualistic framework of meaning that has structured two and half millennia of Western thought, the systems way of thinking – integrated with the insights of traditional wisdom – leads to the possibility of finding meaning ultimately through connectedness within ourselves, to each other, and to the natural world.

This way of thinking, seeing the cosmos as a web of meaning, has the potential to offer a robust framework for the Great Transformation values emphasizing the quality of life, our shared humanity and the flourishing of nature.

Creating New Norms: The Rights of Nature Tribunal

The Deep Ecology of Pope Francis

Liology: A worldview for sustainable flourishing

Understanding Li: The Organizing Principles of Nature

A Global Ethic for the 21st Century

China’s Greatest Gift to the World: Its Philosophy