One of the most fascinating aspects of human history has been the remarkable success of the human species. Man, pitted against all Nature, has been able to thrive in nearly every climate. Man’s dominance over his environment can be seen in every aspect of his life. Man acts as Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer, building environments to suit his needs, maintaining them according to his expectations, and destroying them when and where they no longer suit him.
Man exerts his control over his environment in many ways, from metaphorical response to concrete pragmatism. From his earliest days, Man has used storytelling to create meaning and understand the world around him. By interpreting natural events in mythical ways, early Man was able to conceptualize the complexities of his environment in his own terms, and then respond to the story, rather than the base environment, in a way that allowed cultures to unite and prosper in pursuit of common goals. By sharing stories, individuals were able to share their interpretations of the world in which they lived. While the creative story defines the meaningful world in which Man lives, his interaction with that world tends to take a concrete form, in the use of tools and technology. From the crudest axe to the particle accelerators and nuclear reactors we see today, Man has long sought to use the elements of his environment to shape it into one more suited to his desires. Whether building structures for safety or damming rivers for power, whether moving mountains for easier travel or developing medicines to double his lifespan, Man uses technology to shape the reality he encounters into the reality he desires. Even within his own communities, Man creates reality, building up social structures to define the roles of community members, and manipulating expectations so that the creative energy of a multitude might work together to strengthen their shared environment. This last process can be most clearly seen in any established institution, from the covenant of marriage to the culture of Western Science, societies work together to construct shared systems of control on their environment.
Of course, these institutions are as much devoted to sustaining as they are to creating, and this can be seen clearly in the tendency of such systems to incorporate a great degree of tradition and respect for history. The base concept of “culture” — that is, the collection of human creations that most clearly illustrates a society’s constructed environment, most commonly in art and stories — is a maintenance force. That is, the cultural works of a society are valuable precisely because they are able to illustrate aspects of the society’s constructed reality, and encourage an audience to continue to construct for themselves a similar reality. By “constructed reality,” I mean those aspects of a society’s environment that are not inherent, not absolutely natural. This extends to every manufactured good, every built structure, but also to ephemerals that factor — in a very real way — into the lives of the society’s members; ephemerals such as morality, covenant relationships of any sort, and higher-level constructs such as worldview that, though based on the natural environment, will not naturally occur in precisely the same way from individual to individual, or society to society. Whenever a society agrees to share a constructed reality — again, from a similar architectural style to a generally compatible worldview — the society tends to devote itself to the maintenance of this constructed reality. On the most practical level, this is seen in Man’s animal instinct to survive, as the individual seeks to maintain a reality that includes him, rather than accepting nature’s proposed reality that…doesn’t. This same practical survival instinct echoes through all levels of a society’s constructed reality, as people strive to maintain what they have built, encouraging others to accept their own creations, and defending them against outside threats. Just as Man’s creative aspect can be found in the tools he uses to create, so too his sustaining aspect can be seen clearly in the tools he uses to measure and to record. Man’s clear desire to ever-more-perfectly measure and describe the world around him arises out of a desire to defend that world, to replicate his reality as faithfully as possible, whenever it is threatened.
Any force capable of creating and sustaining, must necessarily be able to destroy, as well. Consider the example of Man’s animal desire to survive, used earlier. This very basic sort of sustaining can only be achieved through the act of destruction, whether of plants and animals used as nourishment or of enemy creatures competing for resources. In the same way, Man’s power over nature includes a powerful destructive aspect on every level. Just as story and myth are used to create a meaningful worldview, there are methods of philosophical and rhetorical speech that can be used to destroy constructed meaning, from Nihilism to parody and satire. Furthermore, some methods of constructing meaning, such as Rationalism and Western Science, simultaneously construct meaning while destroying any other constructed systems that might rely on the same source material. Of course, Man’s destructive nature is not limited to his own constructions, but can also be bent against his base environment, destroying aspects of it that stand in his way (such as a mountain demolished to clear a path for a highway). Naturally, such destruction must also extend to those competing with Man to define his environment — namely, other societies of Man. Thus we have seen, throughout history, the violence and brutality of war, the viciousness of execution and murder, as Men ultimately destroy those who would challenge them to define the environment in which they move.
It is easy to focus on this last aspect of Man’s power and despair. It is equally easy to look on great works of art from time gone by, and regret what has been lost, or to consider Man’s wondrous accomplishments and marvel at the greatness of Man’s spirit. It is most important, though, to consider the whole aspect of Man’s power, to see clearly the ways in which Man builds environment (and maintains it, and destroys anything that would challenge it). It is important to understand the whole picture, to consider the parts together, so that we can more wisely interact with our fellow Man, and more powerfully, more perfectly shape an environment that will benefit us all.
(Click on Comments for links to previous posts on this topic.)