We Still Consult our Oracles

This post has had a few different lives.  It was one of the first posts on the blog years ago, but occasionally I come across a bit of information that might confirm what is a favorite and wild theory of mine.  I cannot prove the assertions I make, but I “feel” it to be true.  Below is the original post. . .


For some time I have had a pet theory that I am far too proud of.

When we look at the ancient past we sometimes see law in the hands of the priesthood, or at least understanding of the law in their hands.  When civilizations are at this stage it is not uncommon to see people spend a lot of time going to oracles to help interpret law, make sense of their surroundings, and so on.

When we see this historians and archaeologists immediately think, “This civilization is in its early, pre-sophisticated stage.”  We assume that the obfuscation of law and the concentration of those who interpret in the hands of a select few must mean that their society has yet to come to intellectual maturity.

But then, look at us today.  What layman can understand our laws?  Who can fathom the depths of the health-care bill?  Who can actually read it, let alone make sense of it?

Only a special class of people, our priests, whom we call “lawyers.”

Not having understanding, the layman seek out their oracles to bring clarity to the foggy mysteries of law.  Some go to FOX, CNN, Stephen Colbert, Rush Limbaugh, or NPR.  They interpret for us. They become our ‘mediums’ to give us access to the secret knowledge.  But notice, we never interact with the law itself.  Nor do we interact with the ‘holy’ priesthood of lawyers.

And yet no one would say we are an unsophisticated civilization in its “early stages.”  If anything we are far too sophisticated.  But this sophistication may really be a form of regression, albeit a regression that cleverly hides behind advancing technology.

So, when we look at the past and see priests and oracles playing a large role maybe we should not think, “New, unsophisticated civilization,” but ponder the possibility that instead we see, “Old, over-complicated, tired civilization,” one with possibly a more vibrant and clearer past.


That was the original post of a couple years ago, but recently I came across somethings else that made me think of the topic again.

UnknownIn Toynbee’s Cities on the Move he makes a fascinating observation to begin his examination of the city throughout history.  He begins by looking at the nomadic character of early civilizations, where those who kept flocks had to keep their livestock moving to find land to graze.  He also cites the “slash & burn” agricultural practices of the earliest civilizations.  He then writes,

Our pre-nineteenth-century ancestors would have been surprised but perturbed if they could have seen present-day descendants of theirs who had seceded from the sedentary way of life as the pastoral nomads had seceded from it three or four thousand years earlier.  They would have hardly believed that any human being who once lived in a fixed house would prefer life in a traveling car.  The trailer towns in present-day Florida would have reminded our forefathers of the pastoral nomads of huts or tents.  The daily orbit of the present day commuter would have recalled the annual orbit of the nomad or shepherd; and it would have seemed appalling that ‘civilized’ sedentary populations should have been driven by economic necessity once again to become peripatetic.   . . . It is a spiritual misfortune for a worker to be alienated emotionally from the place where he has done his work and earned his living. . .

This modern sense of rootlessness manifests itself in our lack of connection with where we work and where we live.  So many notables of past eras, be they Thucydides, Socrates, Cicero, Dante, Machiavelli, or Browning all professed a great love for their respective cities.  We may pine for our homes, but I doubt that anyone pines for Centreville or any of the other random suburbs throughout America, which exist mostly as the equivalent of bus stations to take people somewhere else.

The most recent update to this post comes in the form of . . .

UPS drivers now use a system called “Orion” to guide their routes, and nearly all do not like it.  The formula they use makes no sense to the drivers, leading to what Alex Tabborok called “Opaque Intelligence.”  He writes,

I put this slightly differently, the problem isn’t artificial intelligence but opaque intelligence. Algorithms have now become so sophisticated that we human’s can’t really understand why they are telling us what they are telling us. The WSJ writes about driver’s using UPS’s super algorithm, Orion, to plan their delivery route:

Driver reaction to Orion is mixed. The experience can be frustrating for some who might not want to give up a degree of autonomy, or who might not follow Orion’s logic. For example, some drivers don’t understand why it makes sense to deliver a package in one neighborhood in the morning, and come back to the same area later in the day for another delivery. But Orion often can see a payoff, measured in small amounts of time and money that the average person might not see.

One driver, who declined to speak for attribution, said he has been on Orion since mid-2014 and dislikes it, because it strikes him as illogical.

He continues with what I think is the key point, “Human drivers think Orion is illogical because they can’t grok Orion’s super-logic. Perhaps any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.”

I’ve always thought Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man an underrated work.  Here he attempted to reframe the typical evolutionary way of viewing history made popular especially by H.G. Wells’ Outline of History.  He may cinch the argument with his opening lines in the chapter “The Antiquity of Civilization:”

The modern man looking for ancient origins has been like a man watching for daybreak in a strange land and expecting to see that dawn breaking behind bare uplands or solitary peaks.  But the dawn is breaking behind the black bulk of great cities long built and lost to us in the original night; colossal cities like the houses of giants, in which even the carved ornamental animals stand taller than the palm trees. . .  The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized [i.e. see how quickly “civilization” develops in the early chapters of Genesis].  Perhaps it reveals a civilization already old.  And among other important things, it reveals the folly of most of the generalizations about the previous and unknown period when it was really young.