Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hesiod, Mises, and the Two Strifes

In the following passage of his Works and Days, Hesiod distinguishes between the deleterious "strife" involved in violent conflicts and the beneficent "strife" involved in economic rivalry:

So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves(...) But the other (...) is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel.

Two and a half millennia later, Ludwig von Mises characterized the two kinds of "strife" as "biological competition" and "catallactic competition". In chapter 15, section 5 of Human Action, Mises wrote:

In nature there prevail irreconcilable conflicts of interests. The means of subsistence are scarce. Proliferation tends to outrun subsistence. Only the fittest plants and animals survive. The antagonism between an animal starving to death and another that snatches the food away from it is implacable.

Social cooperation under the division of labor removes such antagonisms. It substitutes partnership and mutuality for hostility. The members of society are united in a common venture.

The term competition as applied to the conditions of animal life signifies the rivalry between animals which manifests itself in their search for food. We may call this phenomenon biological competition. Biological competition must not be confused with social competition, i.e., the striving of individuals to attain the most favorable position in the system of social cooperation. As there will always be positions which men value more highly than others, people will strive for them and try to outdo rivals. Social competition is consequently present in every conceivable mode of social organization. If we want to think of a state of affairs in which there is no social competition, we must construct the image of a socialist system in which the chief in his endeavors to assign to everybody his place and task in society is not aided by any ambition on the part of his subjects. The individuals are entirely indifferent and do not apply for special appointments. They behave like the stud horses which do not try to put themselves in a favorable light when the owner picks out the stallion to impregnate his best brood mare. But such people would no longer be acting men.

Catallactic competition is emulation between people who want to surpass one another. It is not a fight, although it is usual to apply to it in a metaphorical sense the terminology of war and internecine conflict, of attack and defense, of strategy and tactics. Those who fail are not annihilated; they are removed to a place in the social system that is more modest, but more adequate to their achievements than that which they had planned to attain.

In a totalitarian system, social competition manifests itself in the endeavors of people to court the favor of those in power. In the market economy, competition manifests itself in the fact that the sellers must outdo one another by offering better or cheaper goods and services, and that the buyers must outdo one another by offering higher prices. In dealing with this variety of social competition which may be called catallactic competition, we must guard ourselves against various popular fallacies.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cosmology as Praxeology

The episode in the Iliad recounted previously, in which a plague is attributed to the vengeance of a god, is typical of the general cosmology of the holy man, of primitive man, and of the infant.

In Human Action, Chapter 1, Section 6, Mises writes:

Both primitive man and the infant, in a naive anthropomorphic attitude, consider it quite plausible that every change and event is the outcome of the action of a being acting in the same way as they themselves do. They believe that animals, plants, mountains, rivers, and fountains, even stones and celestial bodies, are, like themselves, feeling, willing, and acting beings.

This is the worldview of the kind of thinker Aristotle called the theologos.

For the ancient Greek theologos, the sun is a blazing chariot being driven by the god Helios, earthquakes are either caused when Poseidon is angry or when Zeus is nodding his head in making a promise, agricultural seasons come and go according to the mood of Demeter, and the souls of the dead are escorted by Hermes into the underworld kingdom of Hades and Persephone.  Even human emotional states are explained by the influence of gods like Aphrodite and Eris, goddess of strife.

Sometimes such individual acts of god are constituent parts of a greater plan.  The events leading up to the fall of Troy are said, by Homer, to all be toward the fulfillment of the will of Zeus.

 Dios d' eteleieto boulê

(thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment)

But, even Zeus is said to be bound by the Moirae (the apportioners, or Fates) and their mother Ananke (Destiny or Necessity).

Thus, according to the most complete theologos, all phenomena are at bottom actions in the Misesian sense: purposeful behavior, products of will.  Therefore, to the theologos, all the sciences are branches of praxeology, and to interpret the workings of the cosmos is to interpret the will of the gods.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Divine Revelation: The Common Font of Priests, Poets, Prophets, and Holy Books

Ancient holy men, whatever their motives, and whatever their methods, held forth on matters of hidden causes and predictions. Therefore, they were their ages closest thing to a philosopher or a scientist.

Of course the favorite epistemology of the priesthood is that of divine revelation. In Theory and History Chapter 3, Mises discusses revelation:

Revealed religion derives its authority and authenticity from the communication to man of the Supreme Being's will. It gives the faithful indisputable certainty.

This revelation can be through direct meetings with a deity (Moses on the Mountain), a message sent by a deity via a portent (the manifestation of a cross before Constantine). It is usually the task of the high priest to participate in direct meetings, usually behind curtains in an inner sanctum. And it is usually the task of a diviner, augur, or reader of dreams to perform the latter.

There is yet another, quite remarkable form of divine revelation is the kind which Homer himself, as a poet, proclaimed to have been privy to: divine inspiration

One of the most evocative expositions of inspiration can be found in the Theogony of the other great archaic Greek poet. Hesiod vividly tells the story of his divine inspiration, which can be paraphrased as follows.

One ancient day, at the foot of Mount Helicon in Boeotia, a lowly shepherd named Hesiod tended his flock.  Upon entering a clearing, he found to his astonishment nine unspeakably beautiful goddesses standing before him.  These were the Muses, the divine patronesses of the rhythmical arts (that which we call "music" in derivation from their name).  It is by the grace of the Muses that the choir sings, the flutist trills, and the dancer twirls.  One might call them the stage moms of the universe.

These benificient goddesses impart their own divine abilities upon the mortals they favor.  And on that day, they chose to favor a mere shepherd.  The Muses gave Hesiod a staff of laurel to signify his new status, and literally inspired him by exhaling their "divine voice" directly into the shepherd's lungs (the word "inspire" is derived from the Latin word for "to breathe in").  With the divine voice came not only the ability to sing, but the knowledge of songs themselves.  And these were not short songs of love or worship.  These were songs that told stories: true stories.  Nor were these just brutish tales of kings and wars, but of origins: the genesis of man, the births of the gods, and the dawn of existence itself.  Thus did Hesiod the shepherd become Hesiod the poet.

Divine inspiration is also the purported source of authority for many prophets (see the inspiration by Apollo of Cassandra and the Delphic Oracle, as well as the inspirations of Mohammed of the authors of the Holy Bible).

Inspiration might be thought of as a form of divine empowerment, or as Socrates has it in Plato's Ion a form of possession.

In all its varieties, divine revelations presents an insurmountable problem for the scientist. As Mises continues in Theory and History:

However, people disagree widely about the content of revealed truth as well as about its correct—orthodox —interpretation. For all the grandeur, majesty, and sublimity of religious feeling, irreconcilable conflict exists among various faiths and creeds. Even if unanimity could be attained in matters of the historical authenticity and reliability of revelation, the problem of the ve- racity of various exegetic interpretations would still remain.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ideological Might in the Iliad

Let us meet one of these classes of proto-philosopher through visiting a scene from the Iliad of Homer.

A beleaguered man decked out in priestly regalia treks along a beach on the coast of Asia Minor. He carries a rod of solid gold, and is followed by a train of servants bearing a palanquin filled with bricks of gold. Through the tears obscuring his peripheral vision, he can see the great city of Troy towering in the distance. But his focus and his destination lies further along the beach: the military camp of Agamemnon and his Achaean forces. This man is Chryses, priest of Apollo. Previously, in an Achaean raid, Agamemnon abducted the daughter of Chryses, and took her as a concubine.

Chryses gains an audience with the great king, and begs for the return of his daughter, offering his great quantity of gold in exchange for his daughter's return. Especially as portrayed in this 4th century BC Greek vase, this might seen a rather pathetic scene, in which the power relation is completely one-sided. An unarmed priest (a vocation often seen as effeminate) in a completely supplicant attitude, while a great warrior-king looks down upon him in disdain.

Agamemnon is indeed likely much more formidable in personal combat than Chryses. But that is not where Agamemnon's true might lies. Might, in the Misesian sense, is not in the power of a man's limbs, but in the power of ideology. In Human Action, Chapter 9, Section 3, Mises wrote:

Might is the faculty or power of directing actions. As a rule one says only of a man or of groups of men that they are mighty. Then the definition of might is: might is the power to direct other people's actions. He who is mighty, owes his might to an ideology. Only ideologies can convey to a man the power to influence other people's choices and conduct. One can become a leader only if one is supported by an ideology which makes other people tractable and accommodating. Might is thus not a physical and tangible thing, but a moral and spiritual phenomenon. A king's might rests upon the recognition of the monarchical ideology on the part of his subjects.

He who uses his might to run the state, i.e., the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, rules. Rule is the exercise of might in the political body. Rule is always based upon might, i.e., the power to direct other people's actions.

Up to this point in Homer's story, Agamemnon has demonstrated a prodigious degree of ideological might: sufficient to assert his authority over the kings of a great many city-states in Hellas, and thus raise the greatest ever military expedition, even for such a dubious goal as avenging the honor of his cuckolded brother. His sister-in-law Helen may have had the face that launched a thousand ships, but it never could have happened without the ideological might of Agamemnon.

But Chryses has potential ideological might of his own: for Chryses is a priest. The arsenal of a priest is much more purely ideological than that of a king. But it can be enormously potent. And Chryses brought with him not only a carrot, but a stick; not only a ransom, but a potential curse. Chryses warns Agamemnon to be reasonable, else he elicit the anger of Apollo. Thus does he try to use one of the chief ideological weapons of clerics: the perception of others that they are the vicars of powerful deities. But Agamemnon, for whatever reason, is unperturbed by this threat, and arrogantly rebuffs him:

Old man," said he, "let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you."

Chryses duly scampers off in terror. But as soon as he is out of earshot, he follows through with his threat, and calls the anger of Apollo down upon Agamemnon's hapless army. Of course, the Iliad is fiction, and in it Apollo is very real. Thus, Chryses' prayer is the mythological equivalent of calling in an airstrike:

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

The great Achaean warrior Achilles than calls for an assembly, at which he proposes that a diviner be consulted. The army auger, Calchas, steps forth, and confirms everyone's suspicion that the plague ravaging the army is indeed punishment for Agamemnon's pig-headedness. Agamemnon realizes the game is up, and returns Chryses' daughter along with a hundred head of cattle. In Calchas', another cleric in the service of Apollo1, we see another weapon in the ideological arsenal of the holy orders; the perception that they are not only representatives, but interpreters, of divine will.

Of course this is all very fanciful. But given the long record of real ideological might in the priestly office throughout human history2>, it is easy to imagine the following analogous real-life scenario, paralleling the mythical story. Chryses begs for his daughter, and Agamemnon refuses in front of all the men, just as in the Iliad. Then after the men see their king humiliate a priest, they happen to be struck by a real plague (not an uncommon occurence in an ancient war camp3). Soldiers are often a superstitious lot; so even without a diviner pointing the finger at the king, they might become restive at the belief that they are dying because of their king's impiety. To avoid a mutiny, Agamemnon, in real life, could very well have been forced to relent to Chryses' "spiritual authority."

1Were the episode not fictional, one would wonder if Calchas' divination was him merely looking out for a fellow member of an international Apollonian cult.

2A tradition that extends from the Egyptian priesthood's ultimate triumph over the heresy of the Pharoah Akhenaten to the "Walk to Canossa": Pope Gregory VII's humbling of Emperor Henry IV. 3 See the Athenians' harrowing experience in Thucydides' History of the Pelopennesean War.

The Proto-Philosophers

Man's quest for the great mysteries of the universe began long before philosophy proper is thought to have begun, with the life and thought of Thales of Miletus. In fact the calling of the philosopher was anticipated by, and perhaps grew out of, the callings of the Sage, the Poet, the Singer, the Prophet, and even the Priest.

A Misesian Perspective on the History of Thought

A thinker's journey is never done. But at this stage in mine, it seems evident that the thought of Ludwig von Mises is, thus far, the apogee and culmination of man's age-old quest for soundness of thought. In the essays that follow, I will put that impression to the test in a study of the most important ideas in the history of mankind, viewed through the lens of Mises' thought.