The Origin of Hierarchies

by radimentary

I want to retell a central story that Jordan Peterson tells better, because it bears more telling.

Our story begins, as all stories must, in medias res. We were tribes of hunter-gatherers, we began to learn to speak and thereafter to think, but before we opened our mouths our words were already puppets to forces beyond our understanding, forces older than the trees, forces locked in eternal struggle for eons of evolutionary time. The wisest of men recognized these forces, and named them gods.

At first there were many gods for each tribe, and many tribes. As the tribes grew and men learned to master fire and earth, they settled and merged into agricultural towns and cities. As the peoples merged, so too did the forces that drove them, into pantheons of amalgamations of deities, each with many eyes on many heads. Each god represented simultaneously: a force of nature, a set of occupations or orientations, and perhaps most importantly a primordial human motivation or sub-personality. And can we blame them? Near impossible it was to distinguish between the bonfire at the center of town and the fire in their hearts.

But there were too many gods and too many languages and civilization could not survive in such chaos. So the gods set up a tournament, or a dominance hierarchy to bring order unto chaos – or rather these hierarchies were merely the next step in a long tradition of competitions. Lesser gods merged, or submitted, or were abandoned. Two percent of this work was done consciously by exceptional human minds interested in the streamlining of tradition. The rest – as it always had been: some battles played out in literal wars of conquest, some in articulated debate, some through the slow and arduous generational shift of the collective imagination.

When the dust settles, a stable hierarchy emerges among the gods. It is a hierarchy of forces of nature, but more appropriately a hierarchy of values and modes of being. It is not only a hierarchy, but the archetypal one: the one that stands the tests of time. We began in the middle of things but it is time to retrace our steps, to see the origins of this hierarchy and to figure out who the hierarch – the ideal at the top of the hierarchy – is.

The first test was millions of years of natural selection, where a fight between our primordial motivational systems played out in the most Hobbesian manner. At the beginning, when we were mere crustaceans: the strong rose from the weak. Two lobsters enter a dispute, and one emerges the victor, with a permanent(!) change in brain chemistry to show for it. Only in this era was the hierarchy genuinely one of dominance. The hierarch is the one best at winning the game.

The second test was social. Even the basest of mammals engage in play behavior, which is distinguished from mere dominance by the fact that the loser in a game has nonzero power. Two rats wrestle in a pen. The bigger rat can almost always win, but if he wins too often the little guy will stop playing altogether, so he loses the occasional bout on purpose. Already the hierarch begins to understand that “winning” the hierarchy is not a matter of winning every individual game. The most vicious of predators will sheathe their claws and severely handicap themselves to engage in dominance disputes. A cruel and antisocial chimpanzee leader is torn apart (usually literally) by teams of younger males. The hierarch must be good at winning the game, but only in a way that gets him invited back.

The third test was sexual. At some moment after diverging with chimpanzees, human females began to be picky mates. It is hard to overstate the effect this had on speeding up human evolution, and not hard to see why we personify nature as female. Each woman stands in as a embodiment of natural selection, and skims off – insofar as she is able – the top of the male dominance hierarchy. Human leaders were extraordinarily prolific – probably half of all Chinese surnames can be traced back to a handful of emperors. To those at the bottom of the hierarchy, rejection by women meant: “You’re all right as a friend, but I see no reason for your genes to stay in the gene pool.” The hierarch wins the game in a way that is attractive and admirable, and this is not up for interpretation because the capacity to recognize the hierarch is built into us viscerally.

And so here we are: a billion years later, the hierarch – the embodiment of virtue – has been built into our very bodies long before the first human spoke the first word. But with conscious thought we began to articulate, abstract, and manipulate these ideas into being. We told stories of our heroes, and extracted and analyzed until we knew the meta-story of the ultimate hierarch, but what we were really doing was to simply articulate the values we already understood subconsciously. Every superhero movie is the same, and we still pay good money to see the story play out over and over again. The hierarch is the individual who ventures into chaos to save the world.

When we write these stories we are merely articulating the rules of the game we already understood. But it is absolutely wrong to say merely: to articulate these rules is perhaps the most important thing that ever happened, and we know this too! The moment Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God is divine, because the moment of inspiration that leads to any new articulated knowledge is divine. The hierarch is the person who embodies our ideals and then speaks them into magic words – so that others may follow his example.

Another piece of the puzzle is an ancient symbol: the eye on the top of an Egyptian pyramid. The pyramid is the hierarchy, and the eye is at the top, and separates from the rest of the pyramid. The eye – that which can see clearly into the distance, and perhaps even farther into the future – is the element of the hierarchy which faces the ultimate challenge: the failure or corruption of the hierarchy itself. As long as the hierarch cannot see, the civilization is ultimately doomed because no rigid structure can last forever in an evolving landscape. So we have come to the transcendent idea: so long as we are not perfect, the highest value must be the value that transforms our values. The hierarch is the eye of Horus, the spirit which revitalizes a dead hierarchy with new ideas, and in doing so transcends the hierarchy itself.

And the final piece is this: the hierarch is not any given person, but lives in every individual. It brings forth the idea that every human being is created equal: an idea that is patently absurd in the usual sense. As long as there is a hierarchy, each member is unequal and plays a different role within the hierarchy according to their ability. But the top of the hierarchy is the force that changes the hierarchy itself – and it is the right and duty of every human being to play this role too. So long as we are not perfect, the hierarch must be the divine spark which improves the hierarchy itself, and it lies in the heart of every human being.

The hierarch is a triumphant call to being. Learn to win games. Play in such a way as to get invited to play better and bigger games. Test yourself against the admiration of others and the judgment of the opposite sex. Venture willingly into the unknown to save the world. Save the world by speaking the truth, even if your voice trembles. And never sacrifice what you could be, for what you are.