Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations I respect but seldom follow, wrote, "What does not benefit the hive is no benefit to the bee" (6.54, A.S.L. Farquharson translation). The message here is not that the individual bee has no integrity or value, but rather that the individual's integrity or value derives from the well-being (albeit not always the approval or respect) of the larger society. 

As many Greek and Roman philosophers noted (as well as the book of Job in the Hebrew bible), human beings are less equipped for survival in nature than most beasts--lacking the strength of the tiger, the camouflage of chameleons, the hard shell of tortoises, the speed of gazelles, or the eyesight of eagles. Humankind has survived through reason, technology, and the establishment of civilizations. Without the benefits of manmade order and society, an individual human being is further down the food chain than most (if not all) animals his size. Cooperation, compassion, and the pursuit of science (knowledge) have ensured human survival up till now.

The earliest human cultures regarded virtues as the qualities that enable people to get things done, for the good of self and others, not as the avoidance of certain disreputable actions, as so many moderns interpret "virtue." Ask people today if they're good and virtuous, and they may tell you they are because they do not steal, do not cheat, and do not murder, but ask them what positive good they personally bring to anybody else, and many of them will be stumped for an answer.

What's interesting to me is that those who have most benefited society--Socrates, Galileo, Alan Turing, just three examples that spring immediately to mind--have often been victims of their respective societies. Societies have been known to view their greatest benefactors as their biggest threats. I'm not sure why that should be the case, except to say that it's not an easy thing to see who most benefits the human hive except in looking backwards, at history--another feature of human civilization that's helped ensure its survival.

Those who seek to annihilate social order (rather than to revise or revolutionize it) are ultimately self-destructive, like the guy (Burgess Meredith) in the Twilight Zone episode who wished that he could be alone in the world so he could read the great books in peace. When his wish is granted and he is the last man alive on earth, he almost immediately steps on his reading glasses by accident and shatters them. Many hands give, one hand takes--but the ideal pattern of society is circular--individual diversity benefits society, which in turn protects and improves its diverse individuals, who are the builders of culture and technology.

As Marcus Aurelius points out repeatedly, the benefits of connectivity are not limited to human beings. We humans are connected to each other for survival, but we are also connected to the non-human world around us--the one mirroring and interacting with the other. The bees are vanishing from our world now, at a time when humans are becoming more alienated, more drastically individualistic, and less diligent in seeking the common good.  The disappearance of bees, as a recent Salon article suggests, may ultimately cripple agriculture, one of the first things humans developed to ensure their survival in a natural world indifferent to human survivability. We must "cultivate our garden," most definitely, but we must add value to the hive as well.

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