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The Ancient City
A scattered book review
Housekeeping: This week on Moment of Zen, we spoke to Noah Smith about YIMBYism, California Land Use, and The best run city. For Econ 102, Noah and I did a deep dive on China. On Media Empires, I spoke with Sahil Bloom about scaling a newsletter to ten different businesses. And on In the Arena, we turned the tables on our host Jesse Genet and asked her about her crisis when selling her company.
So far the most insightful book I've read on the deep history of how we’ve operated for 99.9% of human civilization is "The Ancient City" by Fustel de Coulanges.
Turns out that the original form of Western society was a fascist-communist cult that joined ethnicity, religion, culture, and space. Every form of Western society since is a heavily diluted version of that. Who knew?
What Fustel describes is a pattern of emergent three-layer societies, from family to tribe to city. Each grouping was a conjoined phenomenon of religion, culture, polity, place, and ethnicity. There was no concept of individual rights at all. The leader of the family/tribe/city had absolute power of life and death. Members of other families/tribes/cities did not count as human and were to be killed immediately.
This isn’t what I predicted, but it makes sense that we’d have warped perceptions of the past. Consider this thought experiment: Pretend that 99.9% of our historical records were erased, and centuries later people were trying to reconstruct what Christianity was like. And all the materials they had available to them were a few fragments of the Gospels, a few philosophy books, and a few chapters of Ibram X Kendi or whatever current pop social justice authors. Would you get a solid idea of what Christianity was like? No. Of course not. Well this is how we view the medieval world. We only have Plato and Aristotle, who came very late and were highly critical. However smart they were, they weren’t informed or unbiased. So Fustel tries to provide a comprehensive picture of what ancient political life was like, since he felt that the liberals of his day who wanted to recreate Greek democracy were misguided.
Fustel attempts to reconstruct, from that material, what Indo-European civilization was like before the emergence of the Greeks and then the Romans. It reads like a prophecy: The description of the state of the world under Roman imperial rule—the collapse of peoplehood and religion, the loss of meaning in the concept of citizenship, the rule of money. He says you see this pattern playing out into Greek history, where when the classical Greek cities would go to war with each other, it always resolved in one city completely destroying the other one, killing all the men and enslaving all the women and children. David Reich's ancient DNA work confirms this pattern too: After an ancient conflict, the male line completely vanishes from the genetic record. This is how the Indo-Europeans took over the West: they killed or enslaved all the other men.
The Greeks and then the Romans and then the nation-states that followed broke all of this apart. But the primal urge to have a ‘people’ remains. Or so goes the theory.
The religion was not exactly the worship of Zeus and Jupiter, it’s much older than that. Probably the closest analogue that most people have would be something like ancient Egyptian religion, which was concerned with the dead, and where there was a very strong connection between soul and body.
Today of course we believe that your soul is not your body. When your body dies, the soul goes somewhere else, if we even have a soul at all. People back then believed something different: They believed that the body and the soul were intimately bound up and that when you died, your soul remained in the body.
This is where ancestor worship comes from. Since your soul lives on, people needed to continue to serve it. So you need to essentially worship them and pour out libations and make offerings to them so that they will be happy in the afterlife, otherwise you’d have hungry ghosts who’d haunt you forever. The burial had to be on their property, so they could feed the dead once a day. So this is where we derive the sacredness of private property. It’s where we derive the idea of “blood and soil”. It’s why trespassing on someone’s property often had the punishment of the death penalty. You also needed someone to feed you when you were dead, which is what encouraged you to have children. The family was a bond between the living and the dead.
In contrast to today’s constantly universalizing and centralizing global society, back then neighboring families basically had nothing to do with each other apart from possibly marriage. They didn't have the same rights, they didn't have the same gods, they didn't have the same property. They were essentially little islands unto themselves. The OG filter bubbles.
My interpretation was that prehistoric societies all took it for granted that religious, political, cultural, geographical, and ethnic affinities were the same. Otherwise known as "a people". A concept which survives in the West in the form of Israel, and nowhere else. And is being challenged in Israel in real time.
The model is kinship selection: we are evolved to have greater affinity with people who share more of our genes, and vice versa.
This is a big takeaway from the book: People want to be kin-based, marry their cousins, preference their family/tribe/city, treat everyone else as the enemy. Any variation off of that is an aberration and easy to lose.
Yes, actually “marry their cousins”. Henrich's WEIRD book goes through a lot of detail on the importance of breaking the cousin marriage pattern. Henrich's thesis is that if you have cousin marriage, families remain so strong across generations that you can never have a society that isn't family based/kin based. So the only way to modernity is to break that, which the Catholic church did in Europe.
Since there is no fundamental boundary between family, ethnic group, and race, Van Den Berghe coined the term "ethnic nepotism" to describe the human tendency to favor "our people" at the expense of others.
You do see this phenomenon today where, even in an era where ethnic distinctions are supposed to vanish, people are stoked to pick up a racial or ethnic identity/group classification, or the other mutant/constructed forms of same. It's such a rush to finally belong.
Indeed: The main conclusion I drew from the book is that ethnic divisions aren't going anywhere, and in fact will still be the basis of much of human society a thousand years from now.
I find knowing where we came from to be illuminating for understanding who we are now. We aren’t intensification of the past, we are dilution. Our modem concepts of politics, religion, ethnicity, etc are profound dilutions of what people experienced 3,000 years ago. Same patterns, incredibly attenuated.
In this old world you have a deep sense of rootedness in your family and ancestors. Your identity back then would have been, I am the father of X, the son of Y. People in China and other countries still have family-based identities. Your identity today is most likely your career. Or your belief system. This is why beliefs are so important to people, even if they’re irrational. Especially if they’re irrational. They cement their allegiance within their tribe, which is their identity and source of security.
Of course, identity based on belief is weak, because it can change. You can't be argued out of being your father's son. Beliefs can be changed, and you can be propagandized out of them.
Throughout history, people have died for ideas, of course. But for much, much more of history, people have died for their family, and they've died for the people they love and the people that they've grown up with, I think that's a much more secure basis for identity.
It makes me think of Paul Graham’s essay “keep your identity small”. Well, people need identities. Maybe the better thing is to reorient around family. While the benefit of beliefs-as-identities is that you build a “chosen family” that you can better resonate with, the con is that that bond is on shakier ground, and has to be consistently renewed.
The reality is that people vote against communalism in multicultural societies. It's why the states where social democracy works best are often homogeneous. The US used to do an end-run around this tribal piece of human nature by crafting a creedal identity that sat above race...but the identitarian movement destroys even the possibility of that. The net result of all this is a net decrease in social empathy and the ability to solve problems in common.
So the roots of this being a ‘people’ are very, very old. This is basically the way that people lived for about probably the first 99% of human history, from the time when we became anatomically modern up until the day before yesterday, basically, historically speaking.
The old religions were a combination of ancestor worship and nature worship. This leads to the enticing theory that this is where we've ended up today, where modern day ancestor worship is identity politics and modern day nature worship is environmentalism. These are two biggest threats after all: being cut off from family and being killed by nature.
By destroying the big traditional religions, perhaps we've ended up back where we started. Indeed, what’s truly sacred in 2022? It’s not any of the religions, at least in the west. It’s not Christianity. It’s not Judaism. It’s Race. What’s old is new again!
In conclusion, basically every social organization we have today is an extremely, extremely, extremely watered down version of the cults described in "The Ancient City". All the same behaviors, though. Communities, fandoms, companies all maintain the basic framework of a religious cult—a way to bind people together, just with less hate and violence. These groups are being diluted so heavily, however, that they lose their power and authority—leaving us as ‘atomized’ individuals trying to find our own way in the world.
So when we see the rise of identitarianism, of nationalism, of environmentalism, we can trace it back to how humans have lived for nearly all of eternity. It makes sense.
Thanks to Marc for the book recommendation.