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Who's laughing now?

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

"As it turned out, Ionia, between 600–400 BC was the place where science was born. The key to this great revolution in thought was the hand. Some of the brilliant Ionian thinkers were the sons of sailors and farmers and weavers. They were accustomed to poking and fixing, unlike the priests and scribes of other nations, who, raised in luxury, were reluctant to dirty their hands. They rejected superstition, and they worked wonders." – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Whenever I watched a movie with the kids, and the villain was winning (The Wizard of Oz comes to mind) they’d hold me tight and tell me they were scared. I told them I was scared too, but we had to be brave. And to just follow the hero.

Every story has one. And whether the movie ends in comedy or tragedy depends almost entirely on him. Our hero, at least in this history, is Democritus, an Ionian philosopher and scientist born in 430 BC in a butt-of-lot-of-jokes town called Abdera. Also known as The Laughing Philosopher, he’s going to show us the answers to the questions: Where does Western Civilization come from? (Homer’s Odyssey in circa 750 BC started the rise of the city state, and let’s say St. Augustine’s death ended the initial phase of that colossal cultural experiment in around 430 AD.) But what is it exactly? And why? And how did it come about?

I lived in Egypt way back when they were still writing in hieroglyphics, and have a special place in my heart for that country and people, and fond memories, too. But I still find it astounding, after ruling the world from 3000 BC –700 BC, and being high and mighty, Egypt fell, precipitously, and had virtually no influence over the rest of the world ever after, and were very little influenced itself by the future trajectory of mankind, on its way to an enviable, affluent orbit.

Why did they fail? They were a pyramidal society, politically (and, architecturally speaking, literally) with a pharaoh at the top, and then serfs at the bottom, with only the whispers of a middle class, but not one that wielded any power. They were never able to grasp the concept of the unleashed genius of the common man, the incredible power of reason and logic over superstition, unfortunately, even though their myths and gods were incredibly well-thought out and in their own way, a brilliant distilled interpretive view of the chaos of the world turned into understandable order.

Except for a brief re-flutter in the dovecote of relevancy, prestige, and knowledge-is-power after the founding of the great eponymous city by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and its monstrous library, Egypt has become almost a scholium in the annals of modern history. Magnificently bursting with failure today, looking back at the surpassed world through the sad disdain.

The Mycenaeans were also a gigantic and successful people, ruling their prosperous patch of Earth from 1900–1200 BC–seven hundred years of sophisticated advance from bare survival impressively upward. They had even invented a primitive form of writing called Linear B, but Mycenae too eventually collapsed due to one or several of many causes–natural disaster, invasion, disease–it’s not clear from the archeological evidence which.

Shortly thereafter, from roughly 1150–800 BC is what is known as the Dark Ages of Greece descended–a turn away from agriculture back to goat-herding and pig husbandry, bartering, subsistence farming, illiteracy, and early death. The monumental Mycenaean civilization almost completely vanished.

Around 750 BC a new civilization arose and was a patchwork of around 1,000-1,500 Greek city-states, with the yeoman farmer class its common element. With a modified and enhanced Linear B alphabet taken from their ancient forebears and which became classical Greek–this civilization was to revolutionize the world forever. The Odyssey is the astounding kickstart–the West’s first novel in a certain sense–and a written record of a time and place and people that’s still valid today: the Acheans in the drama were probably Mycenaeans, and there must have been some sort of Trojan War, circa 1080 BC, that was passed down orally through the generations into Homer’s careful ear and out his magical pen.

Why here in Greece then? In sterquiliniis invenitur as the saying goes: We’ve got to look into the dirt of the earth of all places for the answer. But a bit of context first. Today, in America, it only takes one farmer to make enough food for a hundred people. So one in a hundred people in America is a provider. Back in Ionia in Democritus’ time, nine out of ten people were farmers–so any revolution that was going to take place had to begin there.

Around 700 BC the Ionian farmers had mastered the art of grafting: they could take hardy grape roots that yielded little fruit, and graft them onto high yield vines that had poor roots. Same with olives. Through years of failure and careful study, they had also realized that the health of the soil determined the abundance of the harvest more than anything else, and experimented with manure, crop rotation, lime to kill pests, elevated and irrigated terraces to finally master the hilly countryside. The marvelous Mediterranean Triad was eventually midwifed into fecundity: Wheat (and barley), grapes, and olives. What was life-altering about these three humble-seeming crops? They were diversified, therefore freeing the farmer from the benign but fickle and unfeeling weather, or any other disaster that might kill one of his harvests, but never all three, and therefore spared his family the Sword of Damocles of starvation (or servitude) that used to hang over every family man's head up until that point in history.

Wheat and barley were planted, obviously, because they provided the bread of life. And barley could also be made into a nutritious soup. Grapes supplied, most importantly, a non-perishable beverage, but also fresh grapes for two months of the year, which could then be dried and stored all winter as raisins. Olives provided everything else–olive oil for cooking, lubrication for cart wheels, as well as soap.

Most importantly, all three of these crops required processing or refining–wheat and barley had to be threshed; grapes and olives needed to be pressed and refined. This meant that the farmers had full control of a finished product, not just a raw “fruit” that would need a middleman before it could be brought to market.

If we look at the growing seasons of each, we also see the timely beauty of this trifecta: grain is harvested in the early summer, grapes in the late summer, and olives in the fall, making for an almost-perfect manpower-to-work flow. Think about how powerful this autonomia (autonomy) and autokartia (self-sufficiency) made the Ionians and their fellow Greek city-staters at the time.

Their main concern, now that the imminent threat of famine and death receded a bit, became how to protect their land and home, and the best way to pass on their property to their children. The first constitutions were originally for property rights and the rule of law associated with them, and not for individual rights or freedom, which they eventually obviously became. So people could now go into town with their own grain, wine, olive oil, and sell it, without having to worry about the oppression of a feudal lord who demanded his share, or more than his share, or who owned the land itself and could take it away on a whim. Or a middleman who could extort and coerce, controlling the market and the sale price of goods. And the farmers went back home with cold, hard cash, in hand.

Alongside this was the development of a self-organized citizen militia made up of Hoplites–men who could afford to buy and bear their own arms, and who fought in a tightly-formed phalanx of shields and lances, usually over border disputes with neighbors. Friend and foe were in similar circumstances and suffered the same consequences with the same stakes, but were willing to defend their homeland and family no matter what. Both sides’d clash and jab, and once the dispute was settled, usually over the ownership of a few acres on this side or that, the men then all went home, to happily till their lots in life once again. The point is, the men had a monopoly over the means of violence–the power to protect themselves was in their own hands, and not some mercurial distant king or satrap, disconnected and aloof, interested only in the accounting of tallied power and owed money. And there is a certain soul-crushing efficiency and sadism in bureaucracy.

Where did the Ionians get these ideas? The silver lining of the Dark Ages is that people were left alone, to sink down and drown or swim and succeed on their own, and what happened was nothing less than revelatory: they became efficient. And they sought out and bonded to their also efficient neighbors, who had a stake in their own lives too, both in cahoots with the spirit of freedom and exploration and self-help. The military, the mother of all blood covenants, was another brave step, hugely bonding and affirming, to building a like-minded and tightly-bound community. This liberation also led to scientific discovery, since taboo, superstition, and the vested interest of the state in the status quo, in both the secular and non-secular sense, was absent. Which brings us back to, lastly but not leastly, Democritus.

Democritus wasn’t interested in worldly goods, or women, or jockeying for acclaim or position, since all those distractions took time away from his thinking about the world. But in a certain sense he was the ur-Epicurean–living a happy and simply enjoyable existence (“cheerfulness is the goal of life”), surrounded by friends, while trying to figure the universe out, which was his worthwhile, lifelong endeavor. He was the first person to really realize that everything was made out of small particles, and he invented the word atom (Greek for “that which cannot be divided”), building on an experiment by his contemporary Empedocles about the nature of air. This was earth-shattering stuff. He contemplated the Theory of Limits even though he didn’t know it at the time, when he sliced into an apple and observed that one side of the cross section was slightly smaller than the other, knocking at the door, as it were, of differential and integral calculus.

And then came Pythagoras (and Plato, sorry to say) and his Pythagoreans, anti-science philistines who hated debate and open scientific inquiry, putting the kibosh on the potential discoveries and revelations of the bigger-picture people. The Pythagoreans were rigid and authoritarian fascists, and unapologetic, like almost all orthodox religions, and with their typical response to anything provocative or counter the narrative, “The Master said so,” would crush all dissent and scare debate away, letting established authority prevail, unsupported by facts or reason. This ended the brief but beautiful scientific flowering in Ionia, and so the West, wilting, was plunged into another Dark Ages until, literally, the renaissance of the late 15th Century AD.

What wisdom and truths can we learn from all this, since history will always repeat itself if we don’t take away the right lessons. Does any of it sound familiar? Of course, history is always instructive and relevant, well, because the Greeks are us. For me the loaded gun in the house next door is this: unless We the People feel in control of our own lives and families, have a vested interest in our own protection and military, are un-coerced by an authoritarian elite who only have power and pillage on their mind, and are able to exercise free thought and free inquiry by voicing our opinions unconstrained and unafraid, we and our great nation are doomed to once again plunge into another gloom of solicitude and ignorance.

Wait a minute! I’m looking all around me and at the world and thinking: Who’s laughing now?

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