Sunday, December 18, 2011

Our Augean Stables

Augeas, King of Elis, was proud owner of one thousand divine cattle, all housed in vast stables that hadn’t been cleaned in thirty years. No one knows the exact tonnage of dung those beasts had produced in that time, but it didn’t bother Augeas; the cattle were divine and hence could not get sick. He was a very proud and ensconced king of Elis. Until, one day, a famous hero visited him, and took a shine to his beautiful heifers.

Heracles wanted one hundred of Augeas’ cattle, so offered to clean their stables in one day. Augeas, convinced the task was totally impossible, accepted the offer, not knowing Heracles had a cunning plan; rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus. Heracles ripped a hole in two of the stables’ walls, dug a trench through the stables and to the rivers, rerouted their waters and washed the dung away. Augeas was royally miffed, more so when he discovered Eurystheus had set his heroic opponent this task as one of the famous Twelve Labours (Eurystheus was Hera’s choice in a battle she fought against Zeus, who had chosen Heracles to be his hero—even heroes are pawns to the gods). Augeas refused to pay up, so Heracles, as one might expect, killed him.

Heracles battles the Hydra

Out with the old, in with the new. But of course there is plenty to this myth which is appropriate to all sorts of situations. Zeus and Hera had set Heracles and Eurystheus in hot contest with one another, to determine which of the two would earn the honour of being the hero fated to usher in the long reign of the Twelve Olympians. The victorious hero would kill off the old guard, the old beasts still holding power on earth. So not only are the stables cleansed of accumulated junk in this part of the tale, the deed itself was a task set by an aspiring hero chosen by an ambitious goddess hungry for the honour of backing the right man in fulfilling a long prophesied destiny. What screams out at me in all this is adversarial competition, opposites struggling against one another, producing change and, to some eyes, ‘progress.’ A kind of Hegelian dialectic; thesis and antithesis yielding a higher truth, a synthesis, a ‘progression’ to something new. Competition breeding cooperation, or cooperation as an overarching ‘outcome’ of competition. I think this is how we see reality for thousands of years, as a battle of opposites. While we do, reality ‘complies’ by showing us that of its ‘selves’ our presumptions selectively reveal. This isn’t solipsistic, more of a multi-trillion node tango of infinite counter-influences and caused causes.

At a narrower angle there is the theme of unattended business, or procrastination, perhaps hubris. Because Augeas’ cattle are divine, he can ignore their waste. But the countryside is not divine. While the cattle can remain healthy forever, Augeas’ casual confidence is a threat to the future; the stables are not infinitely big, must overflow at some point, by which time perhaps even a hero of Heracles’ stature wouldn’t be up to the task. The parallel to our modern situation is obvious. Human Progress (now enshrined in GDP Growth) is divine, must go on forever, should go on forever, because it is inherently Good and Right, no matter the finite nature of the environment supporting our ‘ascent.’ We can sustain belief in infinite growth while our stables hold, but if we wait too long, our effluent will overpower the supporting environment and we will be washed away by the resulting collapse.

And yet manure, as we all know, is fertilizer. It is only a problem if used incorrectly, in this case left to accumulate in one spot. And here another parallel emerges; hoarding and desert. Being usury-based, our money system encourages hoarding. Being elitist-based our broader, hierarchical system assigns the largest rewards to those most ‘deserving’ of them. We ‘decide’ who is most deserving of the largest slices of the pie via the so-called ‘free’ market. Because we Just Know this ‘free’ market ‘impartially’ distributes money rewards to the most ‘deserving,’ it necessarily produces, over the long term, the best possible outcomes for all, as long as there is no interference (an obvious impossibility). What we actually experience is stubbornly growing rich and poor divides (hoarding), with the rich fearfully defending their cash cows, because they, as if by divine right, ‘deserve’ them, Market says so; Market says they are kings all. We must not ‘punish’ success, hence things stay as they are, rich-poor divides and all. Muck accumulates, being muck precisely because it accumulates. Sadly, the deeper aspects of what it is to ‘deserve’ a reward are not explored in the mainstream. One of them is of course free will, a concept at least very difficult, if not, then probably impossible to prove, and that’s before we even look at the impossibility of ‘equal’ opportunities.

Daniel Pinchbeck, author, journalist, and writer of the film “2012, Time for Change” describes money as fertilizer, perhaps as a new twist on ‘stinking rich.’ We should put (invest) money there where it will yield the healthiest returns. What “healthy returns” might be needs to be discussed. As readers of this blog know, I am not for mindless consumerism, and support strongly any redesign of the money system which encourages gift giving, stronger community, ‘individual’ health and societal health (i.e., low crime, high ‘freedom’ to live life as creatively and generously as possible), open education systems, maximum political and emotional maturity for all, a prevention-based not cure-based health system, renewable energies, etc. One part of achieving this would be to keep money flowing, to prevent hoarding. I suspect one part of that is losing the casual confidence of King Augeas in believing in our divine right, that simply because we are human, we deserve to multiply infinitely upon the face of the earth, then out into space, forever. I expect a far richer and maturer confidence would emerge if we managed this new humility, and not the barren and system-rescuing ‘austerity’ parroted by the financial industry, and their two stooges the mainstream media and political actors.

On a personal level, we all have our own Augean Stables. In a small way, Econosophy is a place where I share some of my negativity with anyone who cares to comment (I too like to bitch and moan). I am here, at a late stage in my life, growing up in public. There are articles I posted here which embarrass me now, but I will not delete them. I noticed a line I had written of which I am now deeply ashamed; “Bankers are the scum of the earth.” I leave all that crap out there to remind myself how I have progressed through this learning arc I was set on by Peter Joseph’s “Zeitgeist: Addendum”, and to try and teach myself patience with others, and with myself. None of us is perfect. I ‘fail’ again and again. But better to have out with it than let it fester in some dark corner, convinced the Bright Toby, the bits of me I’m proud of, are immortal, divine, forever robust and healthy, unaffected by the dark. There is no separation, no matter how clearly we think we can see it. Dark and light are matters of perception, each suggesting the other, each meaningful in a vast and seamless web we call Universe. And it is beautiful.

So the opposites we perceive are not necessarily opposites. There is something about this stage of our wisdom that needs to see reality this way, split it into good and bad, light and dark, for just while longer. This is changing though, and quickly now I feel. Good and bad guys in our literature, in film, are softening, becoming complex, tortured, blurred. In some films it is impossible to tell which is which. And a growing number of us prefer it that way, welcome that richness. It feels more accurate, more nuanced, human, natural. The clumsy old opposites feel antiquated, childish, obvious, boring. The new song of wisdom emerging through this crisis in part transcends clumsy opposites, and recognises context, perception, history and creativity together determine what levels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we can work into existence, perceive into existence, imagine. This is part of what it means to recognise that it’s up to us, that we are as involved in the process of wising up as those we berate for blocking our progress, our ‘freedom.’

In a few days the northern hemisphere will pass through its longest night. Many will celebrate the imminence of spring, of renewal, in a tradition preceding Christianity by millennia. Bob Dylan sung, “They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.” There’s something to that, but no two dawns are alike, and the same goes for our darkest hours. And though we are always hoarding, always cleansing, always failing and succeeding, I strongly believe we, as a species, are at the crossroads (crisis) of the profoundest change we have known. Staying humble and hopeful, though hard, is wisest. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”


Debra said...

Excellent, Toby, in my opinion.
I really like your starting out with the Greek myth.
I did not know all that. You taught me quite a bit, there.
Only one teeny tiny quibble : what you say about the free market. If.. the market WERE free, then we would not be in the same place we are right now, IN A PLANNED ECONOMY that idolizes filthy lucre to the exclusion of almost everything else.
I believe...
Cheers, and best wishes for the holidays.

Toby said...

In my opinion there can be no such thing as a free market, but planned won't fly either. In fact neither can in the current paradigm. There's no 'solution' to be found in 'free' markets, because we totally misunderstand 'interference' and 'freedom.' We have kind of adolescent takes on both, as far as I'm concerned. Markets, in this 'close to free' system, are as planned as any 'socialist' or 'fascist' arrangement you care to contemplate, because big fish eat little fish and the objective of the game is to acquire as much as possible, to protect self against the Alien Other, in conditions presumed scarcity, all of which fosters our addiction to Perpetual Growth. While we have that foundational belief and its attendant consequences, no amount of planning, no amount of 'freedom,' is going to help us evolve to a better and wiser way of distributing the fruits of nature's genius.

Happy holidays to you, Debbie. Relax, and enjoy whatever you have planned!

Debra said...

Hi Toby,
This is off topic but, I thought you might be interested in it.
About a week ago, it came to me that I could be more GRATEFUL in my life.
And I decided that I wanted to THANK.
So... at night in bed, before going to sleep, I run my hands over my body, and find a moment to thank the billions of busy individuals who are working, who are in service to me, so that I can go about my daily business, and do what I need to do.
Of course, I can't thank them all individually, but I address myself to them, in thanks.
And I call that a PRAYER...

Toby said...

Only slightly off topic. That is exactly the kind of prayer I believe in, an expression of gratitude to Universe for making life possible. Of course, there are those who suffer horribly, human and otherwise, but I think while you can feel gratitude, and take a little time out to expressly do so, it helps.

Well said, Debbie, well said.

Timbo614 said...

Well Toby, today is longest night and I for one always feel pleased when it has passed.

The feeling you have put into this piece is also close to "goodwill to all men at this time of year" maybe we should make it Christmas every day or at least once a week and then we could make some progress! (minus the consumerism part of course, we could just pass the "Presents" around every week to those who needed them most - just like Tolkien's "manthoms"(sp?) that Bilbo gave out).

Debra's quibble about the free market is of course accurate, if capitalism is the mantra then 3 years ago there would have been an awful lot of capitalist casualties (of their own system) in the banking sector. Banks are not evil of course, but they are and always have been foxes in charge of the hen house, They can't resist taking advantage of their position. They are after all just people, human in all respects.

I'd like to thank you again for your writings and musings this year and I hope you are settling in well to your alternate lifestyle (Insurances to one side). I wish you the best, especially at this time of year!


Toby said...

Thanks Timbo. Yup, settling in well, very well actually. Some folk like a fast paced rat race kind of a life, but I like the quiet of study, musing, pondering and writing. And for my next trick I shall work out how to earn enough money to do as much of my fave things as time and energy allow.

All the best to you and yours. Spring will soon be upon us!

Longhaired blog said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours and regular readers here Toby.

Debra said...

Hi friends,
Yesterday was Christmas, and we spent three hours together, the three generations, opening our presents...
There was everything (well, not quite...) for everybody under the tree. From the almost gadget, to the small perfumes, conventional gifts, but unconventional ones too : my daughter gave me a beautiful mohair sweater that she picked up in a charity shop in your mother country, Toby, and I gave... a just started almanach to my daughter in law in spirit, one which I will write in, like I have been doing for my children. She was very very quiet while she read all the way through what I had already written.
Lots of small presents for the old folks, too. Some expensive ones, and some not so expensive ones.
All in all... a very DIVERSIFIED bunch of presents, and people. And we were all like children together opening them. I, for one, can still not resist the temptation of palpating the wrapping and trying to guess what's underneath. I have done it since I was a small child.
In past years, I have felt large pangs of guilt FOR OUR EXCLUSIVE HAPPINESS as a family together at this time.
But... two weeks ago, I took a woman out to lunch, and gave her a small Christmas present. She has NO MONEY, and is in dire straits. And in January, I plan to do the same with my favorite clodo/hobo.
We are NOT all equal... Fortunately, or unfortunately ? But to a certain extent, economics does not really work if we are all "equal" (whatever that means...).
Hope your Christmas was happy, peaceful, but especially JOYFUL.