July 17, 2023

Why are the countries of the West sliding toward electronically enhanced totalitarianism? Was it inevitable that government employees and corporate technicians wielding digital and psychological tools would promote a false conspiracy theory to cripple a sitting American president, and suppress and discredit news to aid a favoured candidate? Or that public health officials in Europe and the English-speaking world would use what may have been the deliberate release of a Chinese bioweapon to infringe civil liberties and hijack representative democracy?

Many factors have contributed to this predicament. But the ultimate cause lies in human intelligence, the germ and sap of the great hard oak that is, or was, the West (it’s old now, and growing soft with rot). That intelligence is a curse as well as a blessing was clear enough to the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, whose oldest legends drew vital meaning from the black earth, the primordial fundament of early human experience.

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The origin myths of Genesis and Hesiod explain how the first human beings, wanting more, broke with God or the gods. It was a kind of primitive artificial intelligence that caused this quarrel: the combination of art and artifice that has always characterised the schemes of the human mind. Impelled not just by need, but by ungoverned desires, we came to rely on cunning deception and the use of tools to imitate things and living beings — skills that have always been essential, for example, in hunting, fishing, and warfare. The myths also teach that each advance — fossil-fuel power plants, for example, or the free-for-all of the internet — produces real or perceived problems that invite increasingly large-scale scientific and political “solutions”.

Seen in this light, recent developments such as the rush of American and European governments to transition to clean energy and electric vehicles, the emerging threat of a stealthy, two-pronged attack by electronic as well as biological viruses, the extensive manipulations or “nudges” of post-modern technocracy, and the employment of AI for the purpose of “information warfare”, are entirely unsurprising.

Hesiod tells a story from the Golden Age, before poverty, sickness and death came into the world, and gods and men (there were no women then) feasted together. The Titan Prometheus was the priestly master of ceremonies, in charge of dividing and distributing meat to the two parties, mortals and immortals. This office suited his presumably impartial nature: he was a god, but a philanthropic one with a recognisably human mind. In fact, he is not easily distinguished from man himself. Prometheus means Forethought, yet he saw only what was visible in the blaze of his cleverness. This is why, in myth, his brother Epimetheus — Afterthought — follows him through the dark like a comet’s tail of foolishness, constantly spoiling his work with unintended consequences.

On the occasion Hesiod relates, Prometheus came up with an ingenious fraud, a trick designed to hoodwink Zeus himself. He roasted portions of meat from an ox and arranged the pieces into two parts. He stuffed all the meat into the animal’s inedible stomach: a deliberately unappetising sight, emblematic of man’s insatiable hunger. In the other part, he hid the animal’s bones beneath its deliciously crispy fat. Then he asked Zeus to choose between the two portions. Zeus saw through Prometheus’s trick. Stung by the insult, but playing a long game of justice, he chose the fat-covered bones.

The success of Prometheus’s grasping scheme came at a price he seems not to have anticipated. An earthquake in cosmic relations, it ended the convivial co-existence of gods and men. The Greeks preserved the memory of this signal event in the sacrificial ritual of burning fat and bones. This practice confirmed that, while we mortals are slaves of our stomachs, the gods have no need of our food. But Zeus would have found cold comfort in the thought that he is honoured by being cheated of the pleasures of taste. Allowing the Olympians to enjoy the savour but not the flavour of feasts is like barring them from sex because they don’t need to reproduce. Concealment being conatal with the earliest arts, it is no accident that Zeus subsequently hid fire from human beings, or that Prometheus stole it back.

Zeus exercised merciful forbearance in allowing us to keep control of fire. But he was not finished with us. He instructed Hephaestus, the divine craftsman, to fashion a woman — Pandora — from the earth, in the likeness of a goddess, an echo of the Bible’s “in the image of God he created them”. And what an image! Athena dressed Pandora in rich robes, a fine veil, and fresh flowers; Hephaestus fashioned a wondrous gold crown for her, on which the animals of the earth and sea were depicted “like living beings with voices”. Thus adorned, she was “sheer guile, irresistible to human beings”. In accepting this gift of the gods, a mistake Hesiod attributes to Epimetheus, man brought into his life the miseries of old age, strife, toil, illness, and death — all of them hidden, like bones beneath fat, under Pandora’s lovely flesh, or in her infamous box. Zeus repaid Prometheus tit for tat: woman was “a beautiful evil in exchange for the good”.

This is much more than misogyny, although it certainly is that. Pandora and her splendid crown embody the deceptive allure of technical ingenuity. She is the object not just of sexual desire, but even more, of lust for the godlike power afforded by advanced technical skill. (In The Odyssey, Hephaestus invents the world’s first robots.) That power, or the secure prospect thereof, became the possession of human beings the minute Prometheus stole “undying fire” from Zeus, for the control of fire is the essential precondition of anything more than rudimentary development of the arts and sciences.

This is not all. In Greek myth, Pandora’s garments register as symbols of nomos: the laws and customs that protect us from human harshness, just as clothes shield our skin from thorns and thistles. These protections are matters of political wisdom or prudence, a virtue that was unnecessary in the Golden Age. Both technical expertise and politics are basic means of existence in the hardscrabble life that opens before us upon our divorce from the gods, a life in which we must labour to secure food and shelter, fight predators (including the human sort), suffer injurious blows and ward off sickness, only to succumb, inevitably, to death. Yet political wisdom remains elusive to this day. The fundamental meaning of the myth is clear. The good of the arts and applied sciences is inseparable from the ills they both combat and exacerbate. We Prometheans have been bested. Zeus, king of gods and men, and dikē (justice), the unforgiving structure of the real world, have the last laugh.

The story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden covers the same ground, and sounds many of the same themes, as the myths of Prometheus and Pandora. This tale, too, begins when human beings lived in the company of God, and tells the story of their divorce. The biblical God divided the watery chaos to fashion a world, but he never divided human beings from himself. That was once again the work of human intelligence, which, as Hesiod saw, is irresistibly attracted to beautiful evils. Woman plays a key role in this drama, although she is not a punishment for hubris, as in Hesiod, but a vehicle of it. And technical skill again proves to be a necessary compensation for the ills that mortals are heir to when they leave the divine presence.

Adam and Eve at first lived in direct communion with God, who walked in the Garden seeking their company, until the day they hid from him after eating of the forbidden tree. To Eve, the tree of knowledge “was lust to the eyes” (in the translation of Robert Alter) as well as good for eating and lovely to look at. This recalls Pandora, whom Hesiod described as “an evil in which all may delight at heart”. Adam and Eve hoped to “become as gods”, but this is another case of “be careful what you wish for”. Here, however, is something not in Hesiod: they immediately felt shame before God, and hid their genitals, and themselves, behind fig-leaves and pretexts. They must have learned these tricks of art and artifice from eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. That seductive fruit is a strange, bittersweet hybrid of benefit and ill. It gives us the technical power to become prosthetic gods, as Freud says — but forgetful ones, reaching for some distant good but constantly plagued by afterthoughts. Politically, it demands that we build and maintain, if only out of shame, something resembling a habitable space of minimal peace and order.

God brought order to chaos in fashioning the universe and laying out the Garden. Ejected from paradise, Adam and Eve were obliged to imitate his work, even if crudely. God showed them how to make garments of animal skin — a skill they would need to protect their bodies, and a sign that they had now broken with the beasts as well as God. Otherwise, they were on their own.

The first couple wanted knowledge of good and evil and they got it, in spades. With Cain’s murder of Abel, they experienced a breakdown of moral order that could be remedied only by the slow work of politics in the broadest sense: education and character formation. Ever since then, human beings have tried to correct the chaotic motions of the microcosms of psyche and society. They have been compelled to sort chaos and so become as gods (as the serpent, whom the Talmudic sages associated with lust, promised they would) — or, in a variant reading, as kings (elohim means both).

But we mortals aren’t gods, and we generally make poor kings. Left to our own devices, we turn our existence into something nasty and brutish. Exiled from the presence of the Lord, Cain founded the first city, and his descendants were artisans who developed skills in metalwork, music, and herding. But technical competence does not imply, much less substitute for, moral or political soundness. Cain’s great-great-great-grandson Lamech was a violent boaster, and in later ages, giants did evil so great that it corrupted the very earth and “filled [it] with outrage”.

After God cleansed the earth with the Flood, he formed a covenant with Noah and his sons, and gave them moral instruction in the form of the so-called Noahide commandments. But Noah’s single-minded descendants lacked political prudence, and confused healthy order with hive-like uniformity. They tried to build a great Tower at Babel to scrape the sky and ward off destruction, whether from God or other men is unclear. This massive project of social and material engineering, an abomination to God, resulted in the city’s collapse into universal incoherence, anarchy, and the dispersion of its inhabitants. Human life, Scripture teaches, isn’t reducible to high walls of densely packed man-bricks, made, like Adam, from the soil (adamah), not with a divine Word but with trowel, chalk, and level.

So why are we intent on building Babel yet again — on constructing an increasingly artificial and fragmented world in which digital babble and propaganda drown out truth, and social order gives way to chaos? The beginning, Plato wrote, is the most important part of every work, not least because those who go wrong at the outset find it difficult to recover. This is especially true if the mistake is discovered after millennia, when long habit must be corrected no less than nature. Nor does it help that our age is too proud, and too rushed, to notice the past as it marches toward the future: the digitally mediated, electronically controlled, increasingly virtual apotheosis of AI-powered technocracy.

This is a grave concern, but not yet cause for despair. In Scripture, God offers the revelation of law and, in the New Testament, of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. And the consolation of Hesiod is that human intelligence has a natural core that is not limited to overreaching appetite. The Greek myths themselves express a deep and broad intelligence, one that acknowledges the limits of art and artifice, and subordinates itself to a higher good. In this way, they give us hope — the last thing left in Pandora’s box — that long-sedimented character need not be destiny for human beings.