Lucius Cornelius Sulla and the Wages of Sin

In the year 79 AD. Lucius Cornelius Sulla retired from public life. He’d twice been elected consul of Rome and had been appointed dictator for an unlimited term. He’d marched his armies on Rome, won a civil war, and violated the sacred boundary of the city. His power supreme and unchallenged, he forcibly remade the constitution, and massacred his enemies. Every day he posted the lists of his proscriptions, those declared public enemies, whose deaths were to be rewarded with a large sum of money. After hundreds if not thousands had been killed, and his reforms had been accomplished to his satisfaction, he laid down his office and went back to his farm to write his memoirs.

It is not only Sulla’s public record that is remarkable but perhaps more so is this quiet and peaceful exit. Historians may explain, excuse, exonerate his actions at the remove of millennia, but the friends and relatives of those he’d killed must have burned with a simple and implacable hatred. A man who’d butchered his fellow citizens and given over Athens to sack and slaughter was permitted to withdraw from the fray and live in peace. Where were his enemies? Were there none left alive to take vengeance? He went unguarded. There was no troop of armed bodyguards about his person. He walked the streets unattended and yet perfectly safe. Was there no orphaned firebrand, no vengeful father, no bitter widow to strike down the tyrant? It is difficult to understand this immunity. Perhaps he was so feared that none dared strike at him, even when he seemed so helpless. Maybe he was just lucky. Good fortune had always attended his endeavors and he had always boasted of his proverbial and unbroken good luck.

Whatever the reason, Sulla lived on to die of natural causes. Yet leaders who were kind, benevolent men, later revered by their countrymen if misunderstood by their contemporaries, were struck down by assassins while the Roman dictator, a man only a biographer could love, escaped any retribution for his crimes. Abraham Lincoln had presided over a long and terrible war, and as commander in chief, he had sent the mighty armies of the Union against men who believed that they were fighting for their freedom. He had not sought this war, and had done everything he could to avoid it but in the end, he accepted the war rather than let the nation perish while his enemies made war rather than let it survive. He did not himself condemn men to death, and he is remembered for pardoning the guilty rather than proscribing the innocent yet his enemies believed him a tyrant and a butcher. One of these adversaries later assassinated him. Having won the war, he was struck down before he could make the peace. John Wilkes Booth left the South to the mercy of  those who would remake her in the swiftest and roughest way possible.

Henry of Navarre reigned over both Protestants and Catholics in an age when adherents of the two faiths had been slaughtering one another for decades. Himself a survivor of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when thousands of Protestants were butchered, he granted freedom of faith to both sides and ended the Wars of Religion. With the aid of his brilliant finance minister, and the opportunity of peace, he brought forth an age of prosperity to France and laid the foundation for her future power. All of this naturally made him widely hated and many tried to assassinate him. Another incorrigible pardoner, he frequently spared men who’d just attempted to murder him. One of these men ultimately succeeded, and by killing Henry Francois Ravaillac put himself beyond the reach of his mercy. The assassin was executed in the gruesome manner reserved for traitors and regicides.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. practitioners of nonviolent social protest, were likewise assassinated by men who weren’t constrained by the same scruples. The Kennedy brothers both came to violent ends before their time and with their work unfinished. Although the list is lamentable and all too long, not every wise and compassionate leader is murdered by a madman or fanatic, and not every tyrant survives to die in bed. Yet we are troubled that this happens at all. We want to believe in a cosmic justice, where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. We hope that wisdom really leads to happiness. We pray that suffering may find its consolation.


Maybe none of this is true. Maybe the wicked live happily and die contented. If happiness consists in one’s achievements coinciding with one’s hopes, there is no reason to think the vilest among us don’t lead wonderful, fulfilling lives. Maybe the wicked aren’t afflicted with Dostoyevskian torments. Maybe the conscience atrophies from disuse. Maybe the voice of guilt grows fainter and fainter and fades away entirely. The man who murders his friend to seduce his wife, may marry her and go on to live in marital bliss with an unsuspecting partner. The clever embezzler may get away with his plundered riches, living in comfort and plenty while his victims pine in misery and poverty.

Some have said that virtue is its own reward, and sages from the beginning of history have extolled the blessings of virtue and given dire warnings of the penalties of vice. Yet none of them has offered virtue as sufficient to itself. There is always some attendant benefit to good and some inescapable sting to evil. The religious promise that this short vale of want and suffering will be followed by an eternity of bliss and plenty. The philosophic promise that wisdom brings contentment and joy while the vicious are torn and savaged by their basest passions. The idyllic allegories of Plato and the graphic descriptions of Dante hold out prizes and punishments, to be enjoyed or suffered in this world or the next. Is anyone strong enough to hold onto the good, come what may, with the same grim determination that Milton’s Satan embraced evil? Must wisdom, justice, and virtue always be coated in sugar for us to find them desirable?

Game theory teaches that tit for tat is an exemplary strategy. We are a social species and by nature work together. Those who abide by the rules, return benefits with gratitude, and prove trustworthy, are accepted and promoted while those who do not are despised, penalized, and cast out. The vicious and the criminal sometimes do escape punishment and reap the fruits of their misdeeds but not often. We must be made aware of this probability and reminded of it because sin can be all too tempting. Those who break the rules and caught, are themselves broken to serve as an example to the rest of us. Sulla was lucky and he was exceptional in his luck. Most lives of blood and violence end in blood and violence. Caesar was mobbed and borne down in front of the statue of Pompey. Macbeth met his doom in a man not born of woman. Gilles de Rais died on the gallows. Kindness, consideration, and moderation are not the only courses to a long and happy life but they are the most likely. This truth has served us in the past and must guide us through the future.

Xenophon, the Ten Thousand, and the Myth of Er

The Anabasis is indisputably one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. A party of Greek hoplites, betrayed, leaderless, surrounded by enemies, and stranded thousands of miles from home, fight through all obstacles to reach freedom. This all begins when an ambitious satrap poured lies into the ear of the king of the Persian Empire, accusing his younger brother Cyrus of plotting against him. The King of Kings arrested him and was about to put him to death but Cyrus was freed by the intercession of their mother. Although he was released and restored to his position, he knew that Tisaphernes was never going to stop maligning him and that his brother was sooner or later going to believe his lies. His mother could not protect him forever, and his only salvation was to take the crown for himself. He began to gather an army. The lessons of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Plataea had been learned and Cyrus wanted Greek hoplites in his army.

He began recruiting in Ionia, offering generous pay to any Greeks who would fight under his banners and he soon accumulated a sizable band. He didn’t want to tell them how far into the interior he was about to take them, nor that he was leading them into battle against the King of Kings. He lied, claiming that they were going to fight one much smaller, weaker enemy, then another, and all the while he led them farther and farther away from the sea and into the heart of the Persian Empire. The army could be deceived only so often, and eventually realizing who their enemy truly was, they grew angry, fearful, and mutinous. Their generals, who were close to Cyrus, called them together and spoke to them. They pointed out to the men how far that they’d come and how much more difficult it would be for them to turn back and return the whole way by themselves rather than to go forward as part of a mighty host. They reminded them how good Cyrus had been to them up to now, and how much more he could do for them once, with their help, he became the richest and most powerful man on earth. They also conveyed Cyrus’ promise of a great sum in silver to every man who marched with him.

The Greeks saw that they could turn and go back through many dangers with nothing or push forward and perhaps win great glory and riches. Cyrus had treated them well, and his consideration and his generosity won them over and they stayed with him. The armies of the great king and the aspiring usurper came together and clashed at a place named Cunaxa, between the Tigris and Euphrates not far from the ancient site of Babylon in the very cradle of civilization. The Greeks advanced and they drove their enemies before them. Cyrus and Artaxerxes lined up opposite on another, and if the stories are to be believed, brother fought brother hand to hand. Cyrus wounded Artaxerxes, but he himself was struck down and killed. The Greeks had gone off in pursuit of their foes and they knew nothing of the fate that had befallen their benefactor and master. Convinced that they had shared in a great victory, they returned to their own camp only to find it plundered and learn that their benefactor and master was slain. The rest of Cyrus army had been scattered and the Greeks alone were left to face the wrath of the victorious King of Kings.

The Greeks were still intact as a fighting force and very formidable and Artaxerxes had no wish to needlessly maul his own army after it had already suffered through a great battle. He offered the Greeks safe passage back to their homes, sealing his word with solemn oaths to the gods. The Greek army and a host of Persians then began marching back along parallel tracks. There was great suspicion and animosity between the two sides, and the Greeks saw that the Persians observed them closely, as if waiting for some moment of weakness when the parts of their force became separated on the march or during some river crossing, or grown complacent and inattentive they neglected to post watch or conduct proper reconnaissance. The two camps were always sited miles apart, but foragers collecting firewood, water, and food ran afoul of one another and there were clashes between small parties.

The generals of the Greeks feared that one of these small brawls might embroil both armies into a full battle, and so their supreme leader had an interview with Tisaphernes who commanded the Persians. He explained the fears of the Greeks to the satrap. Tisaphernes answered by reminding Clearchus of the huge numbers of the Persian host. The Persians had cavalry and could strike the Greeks and ride away untouched as they, encumbered with their heavy helmets, cuirasses, and shields, could only lumber after them only making themselves more tired and thirsty than they already were. There were mountains after mountains, and if the Persians should ascend these heights they could never be dislodged. There was river after river and the Greeks could ford these only by their sufferance, and sometimes had to be ferried across. He could wipe the Greeks out whenever he wished, but rather than doing so he had sworn to the gods to conduct them back home. Why would he now bring on himself the retribution of the gods and the contempt of all mankind, simply to do what he could have done all along? Clearchus was convinced and he agreed that he and the other Greek generals would meet Tisaphernes for a formal parley. When they heard of this proposal, the other leaders of the Greeks were mistrustful but Clearchus reassured them. They entered Tisaphernes’ tent under the inviolable terms of parley, but he betrayed them, slaughtering the retinue that had accompanied them, seizing them, and later putting them to death.


After this treachery, there was an open state of war. The Greeks elected new leaders and they fought the Persians off as they marched for home. Horses before used as pack animals were mounted for cavalry, and some islanders among them skilled in the use of the sling, fashioned some of these weapons and outdistanced the slingers and archers of the Persians. Tisaphernes suffered so much in these encounters that he left off his pursuit. The Greeks pushed on into the high country and here they had to fight through one tribe after another. Day after day, mile after mile, they marched and fought, climbing over mountains, stumbling through snows, swimming across rivers. Clambering up yet another mountain, the Greeks heard their scouts shouting about something. Certain they were under attack, they rushed forward to their aid until they could hear their cries more clearly. The sea, the sea! The cry was taken up and passed down the column. From the vanguard to the rearguard, all began to run until reaching the summit they saw the waters glistening on the horizon. Their faces glistening with tears, they fell into one another’s arms, jumping and sobbing for joy. They erect a cairn to forever mark the spot where they sighted their salvation, and then descended to the Greek town that waited to welcome them.

A touching end to a moving story, but the Ten Thousand reach the sea only two thirds of the way through the story. In a five-act plot, the climax comes just before the end, but many tales have leisurely endings. The final act may be drawn out. Companions on the adventure will say their affectionate goodbyes. The long-lost son will be sighted from the front porch. Wives, children, and parents will run out to meet him. The one given up for lost, mourned, remembered, and cherished is now come back from the grave. He is embraced, hugged, kissed. The fatted calf is slain for the feast and there is joy all around. There is no such reunion. The Greeks keep heading for home but then they waver and ultimately turn back. The rulers of the cities they enter see them as pests if not as invaders. Some wish to recruit them, some to expel them. In the end, they enter the service of a brutal Thracian king, deposed but determined to retake his throne. The Greeks fight for him, and raise him to greater power, glory, and riches than ever before, and in so doing they butcher the Thracian peasantry, burn their villages, and take the youngest, strongest, and fairest among them for slaves. Seuthes proves ungrateful in his power and his pride, and he withholds their pay. The Greeks abandon his service and leave Europe going back to Asia to fight against their old enemy Tisaphernes.

This seems a disappointing and disgraceful ending to the story of men who only wished to go home in peace. Yet these Greeks only really longed for home when they despaired of life. They were few who fought against many, and we feel for them; we root for them; we forget that they are mercenaries. They fought their own way to freedom. They don’t owe anything to anyone. It is through their own strength and their own courage that they survived. We the readers might deplore their crimes but we the readers did nothing for them. If it is we who delivered them, we may have grounds to reproach them. These men never stopped being what they are. We forgot who they are as we were caught up in the story. And yet there is a story. Why?

Xenophon wrote his tale decades later. He told it because others were telling the same story, but he wanted his version to prevail, a version in which he and his comrades are heroes. Then, as now, the mercenary, a man who fights and kills for money and not for anger or conviction was regarded as a figure of odium. Xenophon tries to explain his presence in an army of mercenaries, and to make clear that he was neither a general, a captain, nor an ordinary soldier. He speaks of his camaraderie and solidarity with one Proxenus who was already involved in the enterprise and who persuaded him to come along. He expounds on the great qualities of Cyrus, his virtues, his magnanimity, his charms of character. He would have us believe that he took this Persian prince as a friend, and was personally loyal to him, that he was so dazzled by a claimant to a throne that he and every other Greek reviled that he journeyed to the ends of the earth in his service. These ten thousand Greek mercenaries had stolen food from peasants who were already starving, had seized captives as slaves, had put innocents to the sword all along their journey long before Seuthes, but Xenophon glides over these actions or tries to excuse them. He stresses that the army must find food to survive. This is true, but they’d come to these lands as paid combatants, greedy, rapacious, violent men lured by the prospect of slaves, booty and glory.

When the ten thousand saw the sea, they knew they’d survived their ordeal. But they were the same men as they were before. They’d taken nothing away from their sufferings, their misfortunes, or their remarkable escape. In The Republic, Plato recounts the story of Er, a man who came back from the dead to tell the living about what lay beyond. In his description, every soul comes back to this world, and these souls may pick the fate they wish in an order fixed by lottery. Every soul takes his turn and selects the life that seems best. Some pick beauty, some fame, some power, some wealth, some children and snug domesticity, some adventure and renown. The soul who fared worst of all in the lottery and who was made to wait and draw last was Odysseus. There were many souls, but far more destinies, and Odysseus sorted through many still left over and neglected by all the rest before he chose. The hero who had won the greatest war ever fought, who had outwitted monsters, who had been favored by gods and goddesses, who’d survived epic voyages, wanted nothing more than the quietest, most ordinary, and most unremarkable of lives. He’d learned from everything he’d gone through, and that wisdom taught him to eschew all human vanity. The saddest part of The Anabasis is that the Ten Thousand learned nothing.

Hereditary Monarchy as the Best Form of Government

Winston Churchill famously observed:

Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those forms that have been tried from time to time…

He concedes that democracy has many weaknesses and carries many dangers. While we may deplore the truth of this observation, we can’t argue with it. The second implication is more troubling. We can’t deduce the ideal form of government through reason but can only compare the various forms of government and the different types of constitution in hindsight. The best form of government can only be determined in a synthetic a posteriori judgment. Can there be anything more humbling to our political philosophy? Various systems have been invented and propounded down through the ages but none of them has vanquished all rivals and won universal support, and none of them have been put into practice. Philosophers from Plato through Thomas More to Spinoza have imagined the ideal polity.   Before 1776, no democracy had ever survived in any setting larger than that of a city-state. Those city-states may grow to wealth, like Venice, or conquer and subjugate its neighbors, like Rome, or ascended to the highest reaches of arts and letters like Athens or Florence, but no democracy had passed beyond the scope of a few square miles. To any observer, it was obvious that for some reason democracy was impossible in a huge nation-state. Whether in an absolute form as in France, or in a limited form as in England, hereditary monarchy was the best, and perhaps the only form of government for a large country.

If democracy couldn’t work in a large state, and was only possible in a small urban area, its merits or faults were irrelevant.  These puny republics could not long survive and were certain to be devoured by huge nation-states ruled by absolute monarchs.  If the merits or faults of democracy were solely academic, they were nevertheless interesting.  However,  the performance of democracies throughout history was less than inspiring. The Athenians condemned the entire male population of Mytilene to death, and then repented only a day later. The Romans could remain free only so long as they remained poor, and power and wealth led to the bloodbaths of Marius, the proscriptions of Sulla, and constant civil war until the Republic died and an Empire was born. This Empire was still not free from strife because they never succeeded in reposing power in one house, that could hand rule down from father to son, and so rival claimants battled over the purple after the death of every emperor. Surveying the course of history, any sensible man could come to only one conclusion, that hereditary monarchy is the best of all forms of government. The argument might run as follows:

It seems foolish and indeed unjust that a land and the everything within its borders, its houses, and fields, and castles, its forests, and lakes, its game and the produce of the fields, can be handed down from a father to his son as an inheritance. While the rights of property entitle a father to bequeath the cottage he built with his own hands, the fields which he made fruitful with his own sweat, the ox he acquired by trading his own barley, to his child and heir, it seems another thing entirely for a king to be able to bequeath an entire country to his son and heir to the throne. That for such a ridiculous transfer to be not only allowed but approved and enshrined by law and tradition seems contrary to good sense. It’s true. Hereditary monarchy is foolish and unjust and ridiculous and contrary to good sense. It’s also superior to any other form of government that has ever been tried.

There have been some towns that grew so wealthy from their trade that they threw off the royal authority and declared themselves to be Free Cities. They sought to rule themselves and to select their own leaders from among their own number. These leaders should be chosen by their wisdom. It has been the ambition of many assemblies that it should form itself from the wisest and best of mankind yet this has proven to be impossible. Who is truly wise. By what mark can the wise man be known and singled out from among his fellows. Short men will acknowledge they aren’t tall, and slow runners, when beaten in a race, will acknowledge the victor to be swifter, and poor men will acknowledge they have less money than rich men. I have yet to meet a man who will own that he is deficient in good sense. Everyone secretly thinks he is wise. No man really in his heart of hearts believes he’s a fool. Consequently, when it is contrived to form as assembly of the wise, every man feels entitled to a prominent seat in that body. Everyone feels entitled but the places are few and the aspirants are many. How, then, is the selection to be made? Many of the most ambitious are of a shorter stature and some of these are men of real ability and they would never countenance that the government be given over to the tall. To be a swift runner seems an admirable and useful trait in a elkhound or a page but of little account in a ruler. To be wealthy, however, although it doesn’t seem to make men better rulers, does certainly make them more likely rulers. The man of lesser means will always be grateful for the charity, the hospitality, the condescension, and the support of a wealthy patron and that support is customarily expected to be returned. The poor man will renounce all claim to his own place in the assembly and back the claims of his patron. The richer the man, the more numerous and zealous his supporters. Any assembly that aims to be an assembly of the wise will soon become an assembly of the wealthy. They defend their place by pointing out that they became rich by being wise and prudent and abstemious, and that therefore their wealth is a result and proof of their wisdom. Now men become rich in many ways, some through ingenuity and hard work and discipline, some through inheritance, some through luck, some through chicanery, some through violence and I will only venture to say that wealthy men are not necessarily or always wise men.

If wisdom cannot be the basis for rule, then it should be the many who rule. Every man thinks he’s wise and he’s frequently mistaken.  Every man also thinks he’s one and in this he’s never mistaken. Every man who votes adds one to the total and the power of number seems inarguable. However, when men are brought together into large masses their passions are amplified. Groups of people are quicker and more violent in their passions than when alone and apart. The masses can be turned to mobs very easily. If a large crowd is gathered together it will not be the voice of patience, and prudence, and temperance, and tolerance that moves them. The voice of flattery, of fear, of ambition, of greed will move them. Demagogues turn the poor against the rich by inciting their envy and their resentment, they will turn the native against the foreigner by inflaming their suspicion and disdain. They will seek to bring on wars against old enemies or new rivals, promising glory and riches, and playing on fears of the crowd that they themselves may be conquered. The demagogue will always try to outdo one another in attracting more adherents than the rest until one of them grows strong enough to dominate and will rule alone as a tyrant. The many, when taken together, are fickle, vain, and foolish and they will soon put themselves under a despot.

There is another group that should be considered. The strong, or at least the armed, may not sit idly by and just watch all these absurdities. They will not consent for the state to become the estate of plutocrats or for it to be convulsed or rent by the tumults of the mob,  If matters go too far, they may feel impelled to put an end to all this nonsense. And what are they to do then? It is a much simpler thing to overthrow a government than to establish one. Those at the head of an army are accustomed to lead, but they work toward an  objective already set out for them. They select the  means to carry out an end that that end has previously been determined. They are effective in these missions but once they are not the leaders of an army but the rulers of a state, they have to decide what to do rather than how to do it. Statesmanship is a thankless series of compromises and perplexities and soldiers, having taken on these duties, will be soon eager to give them up, and when they do so they will most likely render them up to one of their own. There will be one of them ambitious enough to aspire to the highest office and bold enough to attempt to discharge its responsibilities. Once placed in a position of power and precedence, he is almost always sustained in this position by his former comrades. When the military takes over the civil authority. nearly always one soldier rises to become a dictator.

Surveying all of these unappealing alternatives, it would seem that a king is far preferable to a cabal of the wealthy, or the rule of a tyrant or dictator. Hereditary succession, when guided by the principle of primogeniture, provides at least a chance if not a probability of an orderly and peaceful succession rather than the results of intrigues, assassinations, or civil wars. There will always be men who think they have the diligence, the capacity, the firmness to rule over their fellows. If they have little influence they will seek to win it, if they have little wealth they will seek to acquire it, if they have no supporters they will amass them, if they have no arms they will find them. The possession of all these is a matter of luck or accident and they can be won or lost by the chances of fortune or the certainty of ability. The possession of royal blood however is final and incontestable. Any man who doesn’t have it can’t hope to win it by gold, or eloquence, or plots, or conquest. So long as the facts of the paternity are attested and established, royalty is the one quality that is inarguable. For this one inestimable advantage, royalty is the surest and most regular basis for succession. If the succession is contested, it will be by only a small number of close relatives and what blood is shed will be confined to this narrow circle rather than the general purges and proscriptions that are endemic in other forms of government.

A king once invested will also be anointed and crowned with every circumstance of pomp and ceremony. This is only right because a king should be held in awe by his subjects by the peaceful expedients of ceremony and tradition rather than dreaded by them for cruelty and violence. It is tradition that not only supports the crown but also confines its powers within well-established limits. The tyrants and dictators that scheme and fight their way to power are a dreadful novelty and none can say what they may or may not do. A king however will hold his privileges but he will also be held by constraints and these will carry the weight of centuries. Kings are born to rule and so they are, at least in station, superior from birth and so they will view their subjects as their children rather than their rivals. Kings do not deign to persecute commoners while no man, however mean, can be completely safe from the jealousy of a tyrant. Anyone not convinced by these arguments has only to survey the register of crimes and wars and follies that is our history to see that a hereditary monarchy is the best, if not the only, way to general peace and prosperity.

Westworld, Julian Jaynes, and the Origin of Consciousness

The television series Westworld is the story of a theme park where guests are immersed in a recreation of the Old West. The setting is meticulously recreated: the buildings, sidewalks, furniture, utensils and everything else in the surroundings, but the real draw is the denizens. Unlike a place like Disneyworld, the hosts are not other humans, employed, paid, trained, and instructed never to break character. In Disneyworld, the pretty girl will pretend to be Snow White, and will submit to whatever indignities follow, all the while keeping to the illusion. It goes so far and no farther. In Westworld, the hosts are androids constructed of real flesh and bone, and they’re not pretending to be miners, sheriffs, gunslingers, barkeeps, and prostitutes; they are these characters. In Disneyland, the tourists may mock and pester the fairy tale princess, but because the hosts in Westworld are artificial, not human, and have neither rights nor recourse, the guests can brutalize, maim, and murder them at their pleasure.

The hosts are very strong, and potentially very dangerous, but because their every action is programmed, and because they retain no memory of the quotidian brutalities visited upon them, they are perfectly complaisant, innocuous, and defenseless. The guests came into the world by a viviparous birth and the hosts are the product of a 3-D printer. The guests have a birth certificate, a driver’s license and a social security number and the hosts have none of the documentation or protections of a citizen. Yet this is not the real, the crucial difference between them. The guests are conscious, and the hosts are not. It is this consciousness that matters. This is why, notwithstanding their nearly identical anatomies and physiologies, it is nothing more than a lark to butcher the host Dolores, but it would be a felony and an abomination to do the same to the human woman Elsie.

Without consciousness, Dolores is nothing more than an attractively packaged lump of meat, and with it, Elsie is the acme of the natural world, the vessel and apotheosis of spirit, the image of God. Yet what is this thing consciousness? That is one of the principal themes of the series, and to answer that question, the writers call upon ideas found in a book called The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The television series is a remake of a movie that was released in 1973, and Julian Jaynes’ book on consciousness was published in 1976, but the chronology is irrelevant. The movie was little more than a story of robots run amok, while the television series delves deeply into the problems of identity and humanity.

Julian Jaynes, a psychologist and guest lecturer at Princeton University, made the startling claim that ancient man had no self-consciousness, and that the subconscious made itself heard and seen through auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations. By ancient man, he’s referring to our own ancestors within the last four thousand years, and by his account, the builders of the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, and the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica, were completely unlike us, as were the heroes of the Iliad. Achilles, Helen, Diomedes, and Hector were incapable of planning, deliberating, or anticipating as we can. Their brains were just as powerful, and could perform great feats of calculation, but the results couldn’t be accessed by a self, and could only be manifested in the form of a voice heard within the brain itself. Homeric man heard voices that censured, advised, mocked, and commanded, and he took these to be the voices of the gods. Like the voices heard by some schizophrenics, these were expressions of the subconscious but they were taken as the utterances of another.

An example found in the book is the incident when king Agamemnon robs Achilles of his prize, the maiden Briseis. This is a great insult and Achilles is filled with rage, but to resist will likely end in his death. Achilles most make a momentous decision and he’s under great stress, and this strain is what calls forth the hallucinations the subconscious use to make itself heard. Achilles is about to draw his sword and cut the great king down, whatever the consequences, when Athena appears and stops him. Only he can see and hear her as she seizes him, promises him great rewards to come, and commands him to back down. He cannot resist such overwhelming and smothering guidance, and he admits this as he sheaths his sword and gives in. Jaynes denies Achilles will, mind, and every other aspect of self-consciousness. According to him, terms that seem to denote these faculties, refer instead to bodily states but modern translators often project their own self-consciousness into their retelling and ascribe to the heroes of the Iliad, mental states and powers of which they were incapable.

The Greek of Homer is quite different from the classical Greek of Periclean Athens, and farther still from the koine of the New Testament, and we must leave it for those few among us who are versed in Homeric Greek to decide the truth of this. Jaynes finds the origin of all religion in the operations of this bicameral mind, and he finds evidence for this in the construction of temples, the representations of the gods in glyphs and statuary, religious texts of many widely separated and very different religions, and burial practices of ancient civilizations all over the globe. The validity of all this proof must again be left to be sifted and debated by experts in anthropology, neuropsychology, psychiatry, linguistics, ethnography, archaeology, history, and the other sciences of mankind.

For Jaynes, and for the television series, what trigger the voice of the gods are situations of terrible and nearly unendurable stress. When Dolores is fighting for her life, prohibited from any act of violence even in defending herself, she hears the voice of Arnold commanding her to kill, and released from the prohibition, she strikes down her attacker.

For Westworld, it was trauma, memory, and hard choices that led to consciousness. The deepest misery and agony the hosts suffered led to them later remembering what was supposedly erased. The death of her child woke Maeve from her nightmare, and the memory kept coming back despite all attempts to wipe it away. It was through suffering that they went within themselves, and it here that they found themselves and their salvation. It is within the maze that consciousness is found, and unlike a pyramid, it isn’t a climb but a journey within.

For Jaynes, while suffering might occasion the hallucinations, it is through the use and development of language that self-consciousness arises. Language comes before consciousness, but it is the growth and deepening of language that creates the conscious self. He finds the origins of language in the warning cries of primate bands on the savanna. These cries are later modified to fit different predators and situations, and these modifications become nouns. The noun becomes the name and the name becomes the self. The use of names allows interactions and relationships between much larger numbers, and the small bands of hunters and gatherers grow into the great cities of antiquity, Nineveh, Babylon, Memphis, and Jericho. Bicameral humans cannot escape the voice of the gods, or their presence, and so have little choice but to heed and obey. Their societies are peaceful and orderly.

The great volcanic eruption on the island of Thera destroys this tidy world. The disaster brings war, plague, famine, and depopulation. Different peoples hearing and worshiping different gods are brought into collision and strife. These strangers and enemies don’t hear the same gods or hold the same beliefs. The clear, the unquestionable, the unshakable is now rocked to its foundations. The voices of the gods are no longer heard. The gods abandon their worshippers and like lost children, sick, hungry, and afraid, they seek out omens, auguries, and priestly intermediaries. The religion of the eye and the ear, becomes the revealed and organized religion of the priest, and the text.

Consciousness isn’t needed for learning, memory, reasoning, or solving problems. Indeed, it is more a hindrance than a help in all these operations, and the subconscious does a far better job at this sort of task. We then must ask, is consciousness useful? We can only answer that it really isn’t. Consciousness doesn’t bring dexterity or adaptability or any of the other skills needed for survival. We aren’t conscious so that we may survive, we survive so that we may be conscious. The unconscious may be perfect for absorbing large streams of data, for picking up new skills, for performing intricate calculations but it is to consciousness that these results are presented, whether as a tribunal or an audience.

But can we have language without consciousness? Jaynes believes that we can, and to agree or to rebut will likewise lead us into the old argument between nominalism and realism. Do our nouns and categories apply to something that is already real, or are all these properties merely what happens to be gathered under one heading? In either case, for Jaynes, it is language that consciousness begins. The human who has a name begins to have an identity. He can picture a self, an I, and he can shuttle this I backward and forward in time like a game piece. He can travel north, south, east, and west without stirring. He can picture himself in different scenarios and foresee different outcomes, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, whether they lead to life or to death. An animal remembers, and prior experience will mold behavior, but with language comes a mental imagery that allows for pictures of the past within the mind. The conscious mind can more than remember, it can reminisce.

We are unconscious of most of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and when we do pay attention to these sensations it brings no utility. Yet when we pay attention, it is a miraculous dispensation, a light shone into the darkness. If we ask which comes first, the word or the concept, we may as well ask if the chicken or the egg come first. They are coeval and interdependent. There is something real about universals. They aren’t an accident in the history of one language or all languages, but without a name to which it is tethered, the concept can’t be grasped. It remains ineffable, not fully real, potential rather than actual. There can be no concepts without marks traced on paper or words uttered in breath, but the concept somehow uplifts its physical manifestation; it makes the word more than the scribble or the exhalation. Consciousness isn’t necessary for reasoning, memories, or skills but it is necessary for their appreciation.