On the Importance of Storytelling

Alexander III of Macedonia, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was 22, when he landed in Asia Minor with an army of 50.000 soldiers. Once he put his foot on shore, he symbolically stuck his spear on what for him was Asian ground and said: this land is mine”. This is the incipit of one Alessandro Baricco’s memorable lectures on the vital importance of storytelling and, of course, he chose a great story to tell in order to get his point, so let’s keep on with the narration.

First of all: why did a Macedonian king claim those vast Asian territories named Persia, the greatest empire of the time? It could seem like madness at first glance, but he had a powerful reason: to save the honour of the Greeks. Long time before, the Persians had invaded Macedonia and Greece, a war which was won eventually by the Greeks, but at great expense for the people. Everything had been destroyed: villages, houses, temples. As the Persians had come there and burnt their temples, hence it was his right to conquer their land and burn theirs. Alexander had inherited this pan-Hellenic project from his father, who had hired Aristotle himself for his education. When his father died and he was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch the campaign for the conquest of Persia.

By the way, it was a crazy enterprise. He arrived with “only” 50.000 soldiers, a small bunch of men if we consider that the Persian empire was inhabited by millions of people who could be recruited any time by Darius, the King of Kings. Wherever he went, the Persians could have put together an army three times his. Something more had to be done, that’s why Alexander’s story of conquest and revenge took necessarily the form of legend. He wanted his people to see him more like a God than a king. That is why he started his conquest of Persia with three symbolical actions. First of all, he went to pay homage to the tomb of Protesilaus, who was the first  to leap ashore at Troy, and thus the first to die in the war. That was the destiny of any “first” man who put his foot on Persian land according to a prophecy. Alexander, wanted to be the first to touch the ground, but he didn’t die, thus proving that predictions didn’t work on him as he was a God.

Then he went to visit the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus along with Hephaestion, his life mate. Achilles was among those legendary figures of the war of Troy, the one and whose values he identified himself the most and he was a demigod, after all. Finally, he felt the urge to do something apparently nonsensical. He risked his life and that of the comrades who followed him to reach the Libyan desert to ask the oracle of God Amon  the following question: ” Am I Amon’s son”? Alexander must have had a monumental ego, this is a matter of fact, but all this was to make his story more appealing. They were about to fight a war, which would subdue Persia under the Greek dominion and the only one who could lead them to victory couldn’t but be a God. Gods are no losers.

Well, they won. Alexander won because he had an appealing story to tell, made of dreams, legend, conquest and his people followed him to victory. He had understood the immense power of storytelling. Can we give a definition of storytelling to make all this clear? Of course. Reality = facts + storytelling, namely, it is the reality devoid of facts and a fact without a storytelling does not exist, it is not real. Only those facts which are part of a narration are true.

At this point of Baricco’s lecture, I understood. Those large movements, which are growing worldwide, are fed with storytelling and they will never be stopped by facts. The facts of the unattainability of electoral promises or the evident incapability of this or that politician, these are facts, but they can’t be a barrier to what is mostly irrational and emotional. It is a sort of collective automatic response, an indomitable stream. It follows man’s animal instinct, the one which makes you believe to absurd things. Alexander wanted to conquer Persia, as they had destroyed the Greek temples 150 years before. Never mind if they were not exactly your temples, as Alexander was Macedonian, it is a meaningless detail compared to the power of the storytelling.

That is why, as long as we want to oppose those movements taking the evidence of the ineptitude of leaders or the folly of some election programmes, with facts, we are in the wrong. Facts do not appeal masses. We need to find a new storytelling; and soon.

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Leviathan

 

“What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals..” (Hamlet Act. II Scene 2)

Angels“, “Gods“, “the beauty of the world“: is this what men actually are? If it were so, the societies we have built in time should have been able to express such perfection or at least some of them and we know it has not been so. If we were thus “noble in reason“, “infinite in faculty” the “piece of work” of creation, for what reason would we lock our doors at night? Thomas Hobbes believed that any idea of modern society should start from a realistic, rather than idealistic, analysis of the nature of man.

His vision of mankind, in fact, takes the form of a sort of anthropological pessimism where human beings are all dominated by passions, greed, vainglory and distrust. These are the conditions that throw humankind into a permanent state of war, which is for Hobbes the natural state of human life, the situation that exists whenever those natural passions are unrestrained. A war where every individual faces every other individual as an enemy; the “war of every man against every man.” The consequent total absence of collaboration cannot but make us miserable and renders life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hence, rather than angels, it seems we act more like wolves: aggressive, violent, mean, selfish.

In such a world where everybody struggles to preserve his life and goods and where violence at the hands of others is the greatest fear, the only possibility to live in peace together for each individual is to give up his natural right to acquire and preserve everything in whatever manner he chooses. It must a collective endeavor, of course, since it only makes sense for an individual to give up his right to attack others if everyone else agrees to do the same and he calls this collective renunciation: the “social contract.”Of course, how can it be trusted that everybody keeps his words? Hence; a system needs to be instituted, a “visible power to keep them in awe,” to remind them of the purpose of the social contract and to force them, for fear of punishment, to keep their promises. The power necessary to transform the desire for a social contract into a commonwealth is the sovereign, the Leviathan, or the “king of the proud.”

“For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a Common-wealth, or State, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended” (Leviathan. Introduction)

Therefore; the Leviathan is but an artificial man, made in the image of its imperfect creator. The Sovereignty is its artificial Soul and gives life and motion to the whole body. The Joints are  the Magistrates and other Officers of Judicature and Execution ; Reward and Punishment which are fastened to the seat of the sovereignty are the Nerves, The Wealth and Riches are the Strength of all the particular members ; the Counsellors are the Memory; Equity and Lawes are an artificial Reason and Will; Concord, Health. By the way, as any other man, the Leviathan is vulnerable and it experiences Sickness if there is a Sedition and a Civil War brings it to Death. We can feel Hobbes fears in these last words, in fact, the Leviathan was published in 1651, few years after the Civil War which had ended with the trial and execution of Charles I.

By the way, the Leviathan must not necessarily be a king. Hobbes makes clear that the sovereign power can be composed of one person, several, or many—in other words, the Leviathan can equally well describe a monarchy, an aristocracy, a democracy or even that republic made by Cromwell which rose from the ashes of the Civil War. The only requirement that Hobbes sets for sovereignty is that the entity has absolute power to defend the social contract and decide what is necessary for its defense.

Just few questions: is Hobbes only a pessimist or did he get it right? Does only a Leviathan, whatever political form it takes, make us safely stay together and restrain our animal, aggressive nature? What would happen without such control? Well, just check  any social network and as its presence has not been clearly outlined yet, you will see millions of hungry wolves running wildly, free and happy to have found a place to unleash  their repressed nature at last.

Another Brick in the Wall?

Since the dawn of humanity, when the first men started to colonize this planet , there is one thing that we have never ceased to do: move. Peoples have always moved from one place to another, driven by the need to find better areas where to find or grow food or even by that innate curiosity to explore and break any limit reason places, whatever its nature might be. Peoples have always moved; and whether you like it or not, they’ll keep on doing so, despite the walls short-sighted government mean to erect. These walls will be destroyed, this is what any history book has taught us.

Even the strongest wall cannot resist the blows of the most powerful, dangerous drive: survival instinct. If we, western cultures, accustomed to live such a pampered life where it has become hard for most of us to distinguish our needs from our wants, weakened by the certainty of our welfare, dazzled by the superiority of our technology, believe to keep our status erecting walls, I’m afraid we are just deluding ourselves.Think about the Romans, for example, they had power, armies, technology, a very refined culture, but their rich, sophisticated world fell under the blows of the rude, illiterate tribes of the barbarians, who were driven by stronger needs.

It cannot be denied that immigration is a great issue of our times and for this reason governments had better avoid selfish policies and work hard on shared solutions.The majority of those who eventually manage to land on our coasts are driven by that kind desperation that makes them stronger despite their physical weakness and slight statures, as they are ready to defy any danger even death to change their lives. We, fortunately, have lost memory of what that means, but this makes us vulnerable. Furthemore, they are many and they will be more as they make children, so in a possible conflict among races even mathematics is on their side.

Hence, what can be done if we don’t want to end up just like the Romans? Since walls are no effective solution, I can only see two possible reasonable ways:

1. developing genuine integration policies thus making of immigration a resource;

2. helping them make a productive system in their own countries. Very difficult to be achieved in the short-term, by the way, as it should be planned with the local powers.

However, now that I think of it, there would be another way to go in the case the two solutions I mentioned above could not be effectively pursued, only, that would not be a choice, but a consequence of myopic policies. As immigration cannot and will not ever be stopped, the only thing left to do it to “exterminate the brutes“. (Conrad, Heart of Darkness)