The essence of civilization

Nov 17, 2014

New York, New York

Dear Diary,

We remind readers that we can't reply directly to every piece of correspondence that comes to the Diary. But we read everything that comes to us. We'd like to reply, but we often don't have a very good answer to the suggestions, questions, and complaints that come our way.

There is surely more under Heaven than is contained in our philosophy. If not, it's a pretty sorry world. We report what we see...what we think...and our guesses about what it means and where it leads. Sometimes right. Sometimes wrong. And always in doubt.

Today, we write about something that was hidden in our new book, Hormegeddon. Something hidden from the author, that is.

When you write a book you are supposed to be the master of your subject. That is especially true when you've practically invented the subject yourself. But then, along comes someone who says:

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"Don't you missed the most important point..."

When Porter Stansberry first wrote about the 'secret' of the book and how it was the secret to success, we were puzzled. We didn't know what he was talking about. Secret? What secret?

We had merely noticed that public policies - pursued too ambitiously - we subject to a particularly nasty phenomenon, which we called 'hormegeddon.' We were so focused on this that we failed to notice an even bigger and more important phenomenon, one that describes an important 'secret' to success in individual lives and careers - one that works in business...and investing too. It is also the secret to civilization. Without it, civilization falls apart. This 'secret' was in plain view, of course. But the book's author, yours truly, had not noticed it. It took a clever reader to drag it out of the shadows and expose it to the light of day.

But now that the secret has been put on display, let's examine it more closely. Let us prod it with a stick, turn it over on its back...and see what kind of beast it is.

Our knowledge of human life in pre-historic times is sketchy. We have a limited archeological record. We also have legends and stories. And we have inferences we can make from studying primitive tribes in remote areas of the globe, before civilization got ahold of them.

What they tell us is that Jean Jacques Rousseau was a fool.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Europe, he had to be practically dragged to the home of Rousseau, whom he considered unworthy of homage. In our book, we mention that his 'Social Contract' theory of government is preposterous. You can't have a contract with an unwilling, uninformed, and unwitting counterparty. Contracts are made between relative equals, not between rulers and rulees. You can't make a valid contract with someone while you hold a gun to his head. But an even bigger imbecility is Rousseau's concept of the 'noble savage.' There was nothing very noble about pre-civilized man. He may have had some fine qualities, but he was also ignorant, murderous, and cruel. This is not to say that modern, 'civilized' human beings are not also ignorant, murderous and cruel. But the difference is that civilized people aim to be better than that... and often, they succeed.

If you read the accounts of early explorers you get a glimpse into what life was like before civilization emerged. For example, in the 18th century, an Englishman spent time with tribes in what is today Canada. He noticed that they would go on raiding parties, attacking other tribes. The idea was to kill the men (and take their scalps as proof)...and to capture the women. The women thus captured were raped repeatedly over several weeks whilst they were dragged to another tribe and sold.

Today, these sorts of things still happen, but they are the work of mental defectives, sociopaths or hardened criminals. Back then, it was normal.

In another story, recounted briefly in Hormegeddon, a tribe of "native Americans" hiked for weeks through the forests of Quebec, taking along with them the aforementioned European explorer. He assumed it was a hunting party. Finally, the group arrived at the shores of Hudson Bay...where they found an encampment of Inuits (or Eskimos). The native Americans went right to work. To the surprise and horror of their companion, they killed every man, woman and child in camp...and then returned to their own territory. Again, this was apparently a routine summer activity.

Trappers and explorers also tell about how men captured from other tribes might be treated. Sometimes they were summarily killed. Sometimes they were tortured, with the entire tribe - especially the women - taking part in the entertainment.

Yes, today's civilizations still have people who still like torturing other people, but these practices are generally outlawed. Those who partake in these dark pleasures do so rarely and surreptitiously.

Civilization changed behavior. More important, it changed what people thought their behavior should be. That was the real meaning of the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain. These were the new rules. These were the rules of a civilized people. They were well adapted to the new phase of human life. Later, Jesus of Nazareth squeezed the rules to get at their essential oil - 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' That was the message of civilization. And you didn't have to be a Christian to get it. Hillel the Elder, a Jew, who lived about the same time, said the same thing in a different way: "That which you wouldn't want someone to do to you, don't do it to anyone else."

This new code flourished - oft ignored, oft transgressed, oft forgotten - because it made civilization possible. And civilization made material progress possible. If you are going to have civilization you can't kill people just because they're not of the same tribe. And you have to be ready to do business with buy and sell from them. You have to respect their property. And they have to respect yours. Transactions in this new world had to be 'win-win' deals. Otherwise, people wouldn't want to do business with you.

More on The Secret...tomorrow...

Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.

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