Toward A New Era of Nation-States, Part VII: The Will to Power and Unbridled Egoism, Part 2Algis Avižienis
How the Intellect Gets Disconnected From its Social Milieu
Universal doctrines and industrialization played important roles in cultivating the individualistic traits that impede unified responses to the modern threat of globalization. But there are certain inborn characteristics of the mind that tempt man to overestimate the significance of the self. In order to gain a better comprehension of how modern man becomes an individualist, increasingly detaching himself from social obligations, we must turn our attention to the workings of the human brain. What concerns us most at this juncture is the stupendous power of the mind. This is the instrument that allows man to dominate all the other living beings on earth.
We can explain how the mind becomes detached from common concerns by noting that, in general, means and ends often merge into each other. The means to power, especially if they are of great potency, often become ends in themselves. As we have already noted, a person aiming at the highest echelons of power may believe that his success will serve as a vehicle for personal aggrandizement. But the aspirant to power will eventually discover that his career will absorb the greatest part of his time and energy, leaving only limited opportunities for the enjoyment of the fruits of his labors.
The pre-industrial history of Europe highlights many examples of a balanced attitude regarding the proper role of an individual’s mind. The cultivated mind was seen as both a means regarding its service to God, the throne, and the community in the medieval era and increasingly as an end with respect to the individual in possession of an educated intellect in later periods. Beginning in the early part of the 19th century, however, we observe that rising literacy and increasing leisure time have contributed to shifting this balance towards the view that individual consciousness and welfare are the overriding reality.
The Extraordinary Capacity of Memory to Accumulate Power
The more developed living creatures — which have acquired a greater range of functions — possess more powerful nerve centers, or brains in the most highly developed cases, to coordinate the actions of a variety of organs. The expanded sphere of possible actions surpasses the capacity of inherited traits in the genes to automatically guide appropriate responses.
Thus the need for intelligent choice emerges, and the brain comes forward as the enabler of appropriate alternatives. Of course the brain must first be filled with experience obtained either directly or through the upbringing of parents or other adults. Some large mammals like mother bears stay with their cubs for a year and one-half or longer, during which time the offspring have a chance to learn the requisite skills for living on their own. Most bird species spend several weeks teaching their young how to fly; then the latter must fend for themselves.
By contrast, humans require nearly two decades of nurturing before they can be considered adults. Experience in turn requires memory to serve its owner. As the more highly developed organism observes successful behavior — for example, the correct method of capturing prey — it converts impressions of bodies and force in play into mental representations, or neurological impulses, and stores them in memory. Neurological impulses, being reflections of matter and energy in action, retain their character as force, but in an altered state: as stored energy.
The more advanced animal species are able to gather together knowledge and experience of varying degrees of sophistication. This is potential power, for experience vastly improves the capacity of the organism to oppose the environment. By means of memory, living subjects have the ability to make use of previously expended force.
Knowledge and experience are thus potential force waiting for the individual will, and favorable external conditions, to reconvert the representation into physical reality. Stored information can act to provide the brain with appropriate pathways through which the organism will then channel its living force for optimal results.
As forms of energy, knowledge and memory are dynamic captives of the mind, exercising a continuing influence at different levels of mental activity. These impulses can remain at an unconscious level or emerge in the conscious parts of the mind if their magnitude reaches a critical mass.
Man’s Decisive Advantage Against Other Living Beings
If all living beings seek to appropriate as much power as possible, why do human beings accumulate more of it than any other plant or animal species? What accounts for man’s superiority over other forms of life? What explains the immense power of the human being?
The answer to this question must be traced to the capacity of man’s brain to transform the visible, perceptible interplay of matter with energy into neurological impulses. Although interactions between matter and energy — for example, the collision between two automobiles — occupies space and time, the human brain can compress this sight to a microscopic level, file it, and then immediately restore it in the mind‘s eye.
An individual who has experienced the destructive power of a hurricane will long retain an image of it in memory. Should the victim of this storm find himself in the path of a hurricane again, he will instantaneously know what to do.
An amazingly large quantity of impressions of the world can fit into a person’s mind. Even such stupendous events as the eruption of Vesuvius in ancient Rome or the vast destruction of World War II can be accommodated in an individual‘s mind in a represented form through history books and other channels of communication. No other living being is capable of gathering so much potential force in one compact place.
In a strange sense the workings of the mind parallel the functioning of money. As we already discussed, money can compress vast quantities of physical wealth and power into a represented form. Money needs very little space and can be moved, converted, or mobilized quickly, while the reality of physical power will imperiously resist attempts to alter it. Hence man is obliged to transform real power into a represented mode, which will then be more susceptible to manipulation by the intellect.
It is for this reason that the human being’s activities, his drive to attain power, apparently differ so much from the behaviour of other living beings. If the lower forms of life expend the greater part of their energy towards the collection or capture of food, then it is noteworthy that the inhabitants of technically advanced nations spend more time acquiring knowledge and skills than directly securing physical nourishment. Thus we see that physical nourishment and information are both continually appropriated resources that permit our lives to go forward.
By enhancing his knowledge of the world, the individual human being extends his power, much as animals acquire more strength by securing food. Feeding by its nature is a limited function because it involves the ingestion of real, physical objects that have mass and weight and thus cannot be absorbed by an organism in infinite quantities. By contrast, learning approaches the immeasurable in that the objects this activity appropriates are light, insubstantial, and represented, being separated from their physical attributes. There is seemingly no limit to the amount of information a person can acquire.
The Role of Imagination
But as amazing as this faculty of representation is, it does not yet fully account for man’s superiority with regard to other living beings. It is also necessary to discuss another unique quality of homo sapiens, which can be called his imagination or creativity. The latter consists of the following: (a) man is able to disassemble phenomena into their components and reassemble them without regard to their time and space limitations, and (b) he can attach invented qualities to these represented components of reality.
By contrast, manipulating real, physical objects or forces is not easily accomplished. For example, we cannot divert the flow of a river with just our hands. But once the mind has transformed the perceived physical world into represented components, it becomes possible to reverse the course of a river, at least within the confines of an engineer’s mind.
Hence the imagination can conceive of man going forward or backward into time, regaining his youth, or changing his gender. The authors of stories and myths are free to regale us with visions of flying carpets, talking horses, and mountains of gold. In a practical sense, however, human creativity opens the way to titanic achievements and can literally move mountains.
A child observing the flight of a bird can dream of someday flying, though his physical characteristics prevent him from doing so without external help. But a grown man may be able to take practical steps towards the realization of this ambition.
It would therefore appear that we have nearly accounted for the superiority of man vis-a-vis other living creatures and his ability to mobilize seemingly unlimited quantities of power. Once again, the key factors are the following: (a) the transformation of perceived force into represented, potential energy in a compact and usable form; (b) its accumulation in great quantities and (c) the restructuring of represented phenomena through the imagination.
The Vulnerability of the Isolated Individual
Yet, as we have indicated previously, there is still another key factor that accounts for man’s prominent role on earth. The lone individual is an unusually vulnerable creature. It is unlikely that the typical urban inhabitant of our times — isolated and without the wonderful inventions of civilization or any reserves of food — could survive in a wilderness for more than a few weeks. Should adverse weather intervene, he would probably perish even sooner. To man’s shame, a tiny field mouse could survive on its own for much longer than he.
In reality, the power of the individual human being is mainly potential power contained in one person’s brain. In order to turn this potential energy into manifested force, man needs material instruments and other people with their available physical and mental properties. The pre-historic inventor of the first axe clearly needed flint and a wooden stem to bring his conception into reality. Once it was created, the primitive axe could become a significant factor in human development only when large numbers of tribesmen learned how to produce and use them, especially against other tribes that lacked such devastating weapons.
The overestimation of the self. Intellectual power which can relegate an individual’s physical nourishment to secondary importance might easily imagine itself as standing higher than material phenomena. The overestimation of the self is a constantly recurring and costly error in human life. Unfortunately, the development of civilization itself, which is closely tied to the accumulation of knowledge, has a harmful tendency to turn civilized people into individualists incapable of sacrificing a part of their lives for common goals.
Since at first glance the gathering of information appears as an individual enterprise, an intellectual may conclude that his accumulated wisdom is entirely due to his own efforts and as such can be considered his private property. Having acquired intellectual prowess, the educated individual might imagine that he has no further need for the many associations of people that helped him on his way to maturity or the community in which he grew up and from which he obtained a large measure of his knowledge. Highly educated people also have a tendency to feel superior to those lacking in educational experience and consequently will underestimate the contribution of low-skilled individuals to the common welfare.
It is true that a talented person’s intellectual achievements cannot be realized without individual effort and talent. But the effort that an individual invests into his education represents only a tiny fraction of the work invested in him by his parents and educators, and those who educated the educators in a long progression extending over the centuries.
Most of the things we take for granted have been given to us by previous generations. In a physical sense the books that an intellectual makes use of are the product of centuries of technical improvements passed on from one generation to the next. Some of the aspects of the printing process that Gutenberg perfected even date back to the later Roman era.
At the same time, the great inventors and thinkers of history could not have devoted themselves to years of study and contemplation without the contribution of less talented individuals. The worker bees, as it were, helped create the material, economic, and security foundation that made possible the leisure time required by the great minds for their creative achievements.
The most significant ideas must find their way from the represented to the physical domain.
The living creatures with the most advanced intellect, human beings, have accumulated such a quantity of representations of objects and forces that the latter seemingly overshadow the reality of the physical foundation of life. Since the represented objects have no weight and occupy virtually no space, there apparently is no barrier to their infinite expansion in the brain. Instead of regarding life as primarily a function of the interplay of real bodies and force, civilized man increasingly thinks of existence as the life of the mind, spirit, or soul, which in reality is his individual ego and representation of the outside world.
But if consciousness is mainly the reflection and representation of real forces and matter of external origin, then it must be emphasized that the conscious existence of the individual is more representation and potential rather than reality and true power. The individual is in possession of some real strength, but not as much as he would like to think. Most of the real power with which the individual will contend throughout his life comes from his social environment.
The ideas that an individual may possess can be potent, but their power is only potential force, which needs a material medium – mainly other human beings and the physical and intellectual forces they command – to become reality. In the long run, man cannot ignore the cardinal law of life, which requires all living beings to struggle for power that is rooted in physical reality.
But if a hyper-developed consciousness and the capacity to think are the special characteristics of a human being, and if the intellect considers itself as a fundamentally individual phenomenon, then how can all of this be passed on to succeeding generations? Are we to think only of crude physical existence as the true reality of our being, which is to be defended against the corrosive work of time?
The solution to this problem must be sought in the distinction between real and potential power. Yes, the mind should continue striving for knowledge, but it should not do this only for itself. A major part of Intellectual exertions should also benefit the associations of which the individual is a part, beginning with the family, continuing on to the work organization, local community, and ending with the national community. For it is the collective, and the physical living beings which comprise it, that will give the ideas of an individual concrete reality, durability, and power.
Consciousness and thought should help to consolidate the formations to which the individual attaches himself and which form and nourish the person. Through service to groups of people and the wider community, the intelligence of man finds a channel by which it attains physical, perceptible reality. In this way the individual and the potential become the social and the real.
A durable society with a developed collective identity will become the home of a distinctive culture contained in the body and spirit of real, physical human beings. This culture will live as long as the conscious members of the community remain alive in a biological sense.
Although individual consciousness will cease at the end of a person’s biological life, his conscious gift to society will be manifested as conscious reality in the living, physical members of the community and the social power they command. Transmission of an idea, a suggestion, a doctrine, or a culture proceeds in a manner analogous to the relaying of the life force of primitive living beings, echoing physical reproduction. Socially consolidating ideas resemble seeds. The potential force of a transplanted idea expands exponentially by taking root in new individuals, who by their nature are capable of further propagation in turn.
By way of illustration, a good teacher of English in the public school system of Lithuania could expect to train up to 1,000 students over a thirty-year career. After retiring, this teacher can take satisfaction in knowing that her exertions will continue helping hundreds of young people in their professional lives and in other spheres for decades into the future.
The power of the human intellect can be self-defeating.
The potential power of man’s intellect is indeed a wonder to behold. Some neuroscientists maintain that the brain is the most complicated organ in the universe, having more than 100 billion neurons, each of which is connected by up to 40,000 synapses to other neurons. This means that the mind’s opportunities to creatively reconstruct phenomena are roughly comparable to the number of interconnections between its neurons. In other words, the possibilities are virtually limitless. And from this vast and almost unimaginable potential power the individual may draw the mistaken conclusion that he is free to conceive of and pursue an unlimited number of opportunities.
The naively ambitious individual may reason that if the mind can conjure up infinite possibilities, then they must be attainable. This capacity to imagine infinite creative power may explain why many people become attached to abstract freedom as the guiding principle of individual or social life. For freedom seemingly opens the door to infinite possibilities, to the realization of the individual’s apparently boundless potential.
But here is an example of evolution outrunning the basic life instinct. The marvelously powerful human brain creates too many seductive pathways of opportunity, thereby often overtaxing the capability of the will to power to correctly assess which will lead to consolidation and which will dissipate strength. Gathering together a mass of undifferentiated information, dabbling in unrelated fields or constantly changing one’s social milieu will only dissipate force.
The Vital Power of the Will
A vital factor, the will, is needed to compress the mass of impressions that crowd the mind into a defined pathway leading to strength. Memory gathers and transforms past force into potential energy, thereby making it possible for the intellect to create a profusion of new functions, values, and choices. Thinking of himself as God-like, man occasionally imagines the range of his prospects as unbounded. But it is the will, concentrating attention on the one, or the few goals, which brings increase, profit, gain, or a surplus above and beyond the energy expended in their pursuit.
The will to power is the thread of continuity which links us to all the other living beings on earth, including the most primitive and simple. It is the supreme command to grow or perish, which the earliest forms of life imparted to man through the course of evolution.
Unlimited growth of the individual is not possible.
The individual living being, no matter how elaborately developed its functions, cannot grow indefinitely as an individual. Each increment of mass and power increases the demands placed on the directing and coordinating faculties of a coherent system. At some point, unceasing growth would create an unwieldy mass, incapable of supple responses to a changing environment. Moreover, the wear and tear of daily life will age the organism and its component parts.
The greater the mass and complexity of a living being, the greater will be the chances that the aging process will affect a significant organ of an individual living being, and therefore undermine the organism as a whole. Consequently, each species tolerates individual growth only to a particular magnitude that is optimal for that species.
But the expansive nature of life, its unceasing need to act on the external, cannot surrender. Concentrated force demands an outlet. Living individual beings that have reached maturity (that is, optimal accumulation of power) find that outlet by breaking out of the shell of individuality. Among the most primitive organisms, the individual living units split into two copies of the original.
The Unity of Growth and Reproduction
If we carefully examine the brief lives of extremely primitive organisms, we will see in the clearest manner the close affinity between growth and reproduction in living beings. The original organism simply becomes two organisms virtually identical to each other. The original force of the one is thereby doubled. There can be no alienation of individuality since the unicellular creatures have no capability of sensing their individuality. They do not perceive, but are forces which need to expand. They do not think; they act in opposition to the external world.
For the individual organism, reproduction opens up vast opportunities for the pursuit of power. The lone organism is limited by its solitariness and mortality. Procreation offers the chance to by-pass death for a time through immersion in the life of the species, which in comparison to the individual, is nearly limitless.
Although death deprives an individual creature of its consciousness as an individual being (to the extent a living creature has this quality), reproduction allows an essential part of individual existence to continue. It is the power to overcome the environment in a manner specific to the species, which the individual organism borrows from the species and which it returns to the species by means of reproduction.
Through procreation, this power not only endures, but can increase well beyond the scope of an individual being’s life. That is why the reproduction impulse can be stronger in some species than the instinct of individual self-preservation.
Sigmund Freud’s Overestimation of the Sexual Drive
Within the context of evolution, the instinct to increase power and reproduce predates the faculty of the consciousness of self in highly developed individual organisms. Thus the development of man’s intricate mental functions should be regarded as refinements of this basic instinct. Freud believed that the sexual drive decisively influences a person’s consciousness and is more powerful than conscious thought.
The human intellect’s capacity for rational thought must therefore have inherited the trajectory of the original impulse. According to Freud, sexual energy is the motive power behind a person’s inclination to improve his mind, accumulate knowledge, and create. Humanity’s highest achievements and civilization itself are merely products of this primal urge. In his Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud taught that over time human societies learned to repress, control, and re-direct this instinct towards more elaborate pursuits.
But civilization, which represses the sexual drive in order to advance, also imposes a heavy cost to the human psyche. Thus, persons whose upbringing is associated with sexual repression will be more prone to psychological imbalances than individuals who live in primitive societies that Freud believed were more tolerant with regard to promiscuity.
We can appreciate Freud’s insights into the relationship between the intellect and the basic human drives. But we believe that the sexual instinct cannot be the primary motive force of life. Mating and the rearing of the young among the more developed living creatures claim only the smaller portion of the expended energy of mature organisms. Moreover, some living forms reproduce asexually.
More importantly, it is obvious that civilized societies, which surrender to the dictate of sexual passions and return to a primitive form of association, will fall victim to external aggression by assertive, disciplined and technically more advanced societies.
The circumscription of the sexual drive within traditional norms in reality is all about containing the destructive potential power of sex with respect to durable human associations. It should be apparent that a promiscuous attitude to sex in the family and in a working environment could undermine the cohesion of a family or a working enterprise. Since the highest forms of power are associated with long-lasting associations like the family, it will be seen that the unrepressed sex drive will tend to weaken a society. At an individual level, it should be evident that a young person obsessed with sensual gratification will lose the opportunity of developing self-discipline and learning the benefits of focused and sustained effort.
Decadent civilizations die and are replaced by vigorous cultures. Hence, decadence cannot be the primary motive of life. We must conclude that Nietzsche was right in asserting that the will to power is at the top of the hierarchy of primal instincts.
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