The Human Journey
The Axemaker's Gift

Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society

A report on The Axemaker’s Gift
Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997

Pages 1234

Chapter 3: ABC of logic

Axemaker gifts often trigger self-fulfilling prophecies because they create problems that only they can solve. In Egypt and Mesopotamia and the other riverine civilizations, the fact of living together in such large numbers (made inevitable by the reasons for which we had been led to settle down in the first place) created the need to organize and quantify the products of the agricultural techniques we then used to survive. The food surplus raised the population and boosted commerce to the point where regulation through writing was the only alternative to chaos. Regulation in turn standardized behavior through legal regimentation. And, of necessity, living within walls brought a new hierarchical attitude toward each other. We had been freed from the vagaries of nature to be deviled by regular meals.

map or Phoenician trade routes

Our alphabet reached its modern form 2500 years ago. Many of the refinements in the alphabet can be attributed to the Phoenicians of around 1000 BCE. The Phoenicians were the ultimate traders in the ancient world, and the alphabet helped them in communication with people of different languages. Thus, trade benefited from, and helped to spread, the alphabet.

The Greeks of that time already had a flourishing culture, having adopted many things from other societies. They brought arithmetic from Mesopotamia, Geometry from the Egyptians, and Metallurgy from the Assyrians. They adopted the alphabet from the Phoenicians, and this adoption seems to have occurred in a single place, since the form adopted all over Greece contains the same transcription errors with respect to the Phoenician alphabet.

Phoenician alphabet
Phoenician alphabet

The alphabet codified nature, and allowed further advances in our ability to ‘cut and control’. The alphabet allowed written records of events – history was invented. The ease of learning the new tool caused literacy to spread. Our external memories were greatly enlarged. Thinking could be publicized. This allowed Democracy to develop, and education to improve.

After Plato’s death, Aristotle moved to Asia Minor. Here he considered the problem of how the mind (which to him was separate from and superior to the world) acquires an understanding of matter. Aristotle provided the ultimate philosophical bulwark for the ‘cut and control’ faction. He formalized deductive reasoning, and standardized thinking. His method came to be called logic. He categorized all organisms according to a single matrix: The Great Chain of Being. After Aristotle, certain things were allowed to be thought, and others were not.

The new ways of thinking were mirrored in all aspects of Greek life. Strato of Lampsacus was doing scientific experiments by 250 BCE. He became head of the Museion at Alexandria, where Archimedes and Aristarchus worked. Euclid, Apollonius, Herophilus, Eristratus, and Eratosthenes also worked here. The transition to this new way of thinking was reflected in the evolution in Greek drama, from early religious forms to the later Greek tragedy.

It is perhaps too easy to view the rise of Greek thought, epitomized by Aristotle, as the first magnificent attempt to free the human mind from the grip of thousands of years of ignorance and blind ritual. But this view is itself constrained by the fact that what happened twenty-five hundred years ago in Greece shaped the way we ourselves see those events. Our thinking is the product of the Aristotelian system of logic, which itself was designed to prevent the anarchy made so frighteningly possible by the alphabet and made so seductive by the Sophists.

In an echo of the way the earliest axemaker gifts were used, the enormous value to those in power of this new mental tool was that it let them cut to the core of the world in order to find the essential order in all things and then to use that order to shape social behavior appropriately. Deductive reasoning standardized thinking as never before. Logic cut at the root of free thinking before it could become anarchic, or develop in whatever alternate form, and would go on doing so over the following two thousand years. It would take that long for another revolution in language technology to offer the human mind a second chance.

Chapter 4: Faith of Power

Map of the Roman Empire around 395

By the time Rome emerged as an imperial power, the axemakers had provided the means for a small elite to live in relative comfort and order, and for the majority to involve themselves in a myriad of different activities. In the fifth century when Rome fell, it seemed to its citizens the end of civilization was near.

Once again axemakers came to the rescue. This time their gifts, in the form of Classical knowledge preserved almost intact throughout the Dark Ages, would place in the hands of a single central authority more power over more people, who would conform to more rules of behavior more extensive and constraining than any that had gone before. If the Mesopotamians defined the social structure and the Greeks shaped thought, the new constraints that came in the early Middle Ages would narrow the individual’s options even further. These axemaker’s gifts would make it possible for leaders to control their followers’ most fundamental personal beliefs.

After the fall of Rome, the Celtic monasteries in France and Italy – Jumiecges, St. Gall, Bobbio, Luxeuil, Ripon, Wearmouth, Jarrow, Bangor, Kells, and Corbie – became transition points from which the knowledge of the ancient world would nourish and give birth to mature medieval thought. This was a time for intellectual consolidation, rather than new knowledge, so the church tried to preserve what it could with vast compilations of axemaker knowledge. In the 8th century, St. Boniface began accumulating texts. The English monk Bede, and Isidore of Seville began compiling encyclopedias of knowledge. For centuries, these compiled texts would be the only source of knowledge about nature in Europe, and the Church would control access to it.

Fresco: St. Augustine
St. Augustine by Alessandro Botticelli

The Church modeled itself after the Roman hierarchy. St Augustine, in City of God, published in 424, set the framework for earthly Papal power, with the Pope the representative of heaven on earth. The knowledge of the monks helped the church suborn the secular monarchs, most of whom were illiterate. Over the next four centuries, the church was able to increase its control over the rulers. Early on, Pope Gelasius I (492-496) had emphasized the primacy of papal power over secular authority. Pope Gregory set up a message network between monasteries in the 7th century. In the 8th century, the tithe became mandatory. The Paris council of 829 actually went as far as to define what the roles of kings were. From Paschal II on (1099), the Popes were the ones who crowned the kings. In the 12th century, the Popes title changed to “Vicar of Christ”, further emphasizing the ‘divine right’ to rule. Confession was made mandatory – even people’s thoughts were subject to the control of the church.

Photo of a Nestoian archbishop

In the Arab world, other developments had been taking place. The Nestorians had carried much of the Alexandrine knowledge with them eastward. Caliph Al Mansour, in 7th century Baghdad, had set up a center of learning. Much of the Greek was translated to Arabic, and the study of certain subjects, such as astronomy, medicine, and mathematics, flourished. All knowledge had to be reconciled with the tenets of Islam however, so they could not become a threat to order.

The highly centralized nature of Islamic society, which placed tight constraints on the individual’s freedom of intellectual movement, made innovative thinking possible but its application strictly controlled. The same was true of medieval Chinese society, where at this time other axemaker knowledge was being generated, which would, like Islamic advances, eventually find its way West. In China, the state controlled all activity, and the comprehensive social organization originally required for irrigation and other large-scale public works gave Chinese life a collective character.

Painting of Cistercians harvesting grain
Cistercians harvesting grain.
Painting by Jörg Breu the Elder.

When Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085, this knowledge started back towards the West. The diffusion of this knowledge back to the West would give the Catholic leadership unprecedented power to cut and control. The thinking of the monasterial groups, epitomized by the Cistercians, was that nature existed to be improved, and dominated. The structure of the Cistercians was much like modern factories, with every facet of nature bent to man's dominion. The invention of clocks also provided for more effective marshalling of social forces. An ordinance was issued in Ameins in 1355 ordering workers’ days according to the movements of the clock.

Drawing of an early clock
Giovanni de’Dondi's
astronomical clock

The re-introduction of this knowledge, particularly Aristotle, did contain its threats. In the 2nd half of the 13th century, universities were being formed. Some of the new thinkers, such as Abelard, were questioning the bases of authority. Abelard had, by 1110, exposed some of the inconsistencies in theology. The church was so threatened that the study of Aristotle was forbidden in 1210 at the Council of Paris. In 1277, all discussion of rationalism was forbidden.

Fresco of Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas
by Fra Angelico

Thomas Aquinas provided the tools to preserve church authority. He separated theology from philosophy by differentiated knowledge gained from logic, and knowledge gained from revelation. With this, Aquinas released the full power of the gift of rationalism into secular hands. Although they would labor for centuries in the name of the church, eventually they would facilitate the transfer of power to other centers.

Chapter 5: Fit to print

Wood cut of a printing studio
Printing press in 1568 ce.

The next gift would radically change how knowledge was recorded and disseminated. It would also change the nature of knowledge itself, how it could be used, and how many people could have access to it. And in the way that all advances in communication make things more complicated, their gift would break up the monolithic social structure of Christendom and diffuse control outward to many peripheral centers of power. This was possible because, at a stroke, the new gift also increased the number of change makers.

In 1439, in the German town of Mainz, Gutenberg began development of moveable typeface. The development of printing would change the map of Europe, considerably reduce the power of the Catholic Church, and later the very nature of the knowledge on which political and religious control was based.

Printing spread throughout Europe rapidly. In 1455 there were no printed texts. By 1500 there were 20 million books in 35,000 editions. More than 200 editions of the Bible had been commissioned. Presses existed in 245 cities. The century between 1500 and 1600 saw the production of 150 to 200 million texts. The most mass-produced books were the Bible, and the devotional Imitation of Christ.

Rome thought the dissemination of Bibles in the languages of the people would help further entrench their power. This would prove to be a major mistake. In 1466, the 1st vernacular bible was printed in German, in Strasbourg. This was followed by an Italian bible in 1471, Dutch in 1477, and six more languages by 1500. These publications gave permanence to the languages, and areas they were printed in. Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Wales, Ireland, Catalonia, and Finland had their own Bibles. They also strengthened unity and the power of the national rulers. Languages without printed bibles receded, and those political entities faded. Sicily, Provence, Brittany, Frisia, Rhaetia, Cornwall and Prussia faded. The languages strengthened people's nationalistic feelings. Languages and boundaries consolidated.

The technology and economics of print production and distribution inevitably also tended to concentrate output on fewer, larger markets, so the printers themselves contributed to a rapid homogenization of the many dialects of Europe into a few major languages. The development of national languages, the loss of a Latin lingua franca, and the break-up of Christendom concentrated local control in the hands of independent national leaders.

The standardization of languages led to increased nationalism on many fronts. This could be seen most clearly in Elizabethan England. The English Book of Common Prayer was printed in 1549, and with the help of the printed word, England was a united cultural and linguistic entity by about 1600. The King James Bible was published in 1611, which further standardized language and religion. Much of the texts being printed stressed conformity and obedience to authority.

The new literacy aided kings in moving from Papal control. In 1545 Rome called the council of Trent to combat Luther. This council called for standardization of texts. Plantin was commissioned to print a ‘Royal Bible’, a huge compendium of knowledge of the Bible, its context, history, and geography. This was published in 1572. This publication, with its appendices full of information on diverse subjects, spurred a spread of knowledge through Europe. Almanacs of all types became popular. This helped to create job specialties, ones with special knowledge, not readily available to others. The old ways of apprenticeship were being disturbed – information could be had from books.

The problem for the authorities was to what extent and in what form all this novelty could be safely disseminated without causing disruption. Luther was urgently concerned with education and the indoctrination of the young. Education standardization was intense. The young were to be molded into suitable roles to support the existing power structures. Rome responded by forming the first of the Jesuit colleges in 1542. Other institutions were formed. Henry VIII formed the Royal College of Medicine in 1518, soon followed by others of their kind.

The process of streaming and grading in education helped to single out those with the potential to be admitted to positions of authority. New pedagogic experts emerged to control and administer the new indoctrination process. At Lutheran urging, curricula became official, teacher training was state-controlled, approved texts were printed, and use of the vernacular rather than Latin ensured that the new regimentation would reach down to the lowest stratum of society.

The focus of the new education was what concerned educators most: the need, in a time of rapidly growing trade and commerce, to use education as a tool for inculcating “useful” knowledge. Children in school were now to be given tools so that they might experience work and make their choice of vocation early. However, Komensky stressed the potential of education to control and predict human behavior: “for there will be no ground for dissenting, when all men have the same truths clearly presented to their eyes.”

Then the whole world was turned upside down by the discovery of America.

Chapter 6: New Worlds

Map of the world dated 1507
Waldseemuller map 1507

In 1502 Americo Vespucci returned from his explorations of Brazil, and published an account of his journey in 1505. Waldseemuller published a map in 1507 showing continents between Europe and Asia. This caused quite a stir in Europe. The unveiling of the nature of the new world to Europe revealed that the world was not like it had been pictured, and everything was thrown into question.

From the time of the first flint tool, axemakers’ gifts had given the institutions of leadership the means to reshape the world. Each time they did, entirely new structures and systems appeared in the form of carpentered hunter-gatherer shelters, law with which to control the cities of Mesopotamia, Greek logic to enforce conformity on the investigation of natural processes, the medieval trick of “reproducing the phenomenon,” and the new regulated print professions. But now an entirely new kind of knowledge was to emerge as it became clear that the world was not all it seemed. The axemakers response to the problem posed by the New Worlds took the form of a gift that would bring to the community material benefits far beyond anything that had been offered before and at the same time would remove specialist knowledge entirely from public gaze and place it in new, artificial worlds. We call it “science.”

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Portrait of Galileo

Galileo, working in Padua in 1603, tried something new. He worked out a problem mathematically, and then experimented to verify the math. He studied falling bodies and tried to derive a natural principle from these studies. Francis Bacon worked on developing a standardized approach to knowledge. He opened the door to new avenues of data collection. He believed that only the exhaustive gathering and classification of information would bring the kind of certainty that would maintain social stability because it would reveal, in a new way and with new kinds of evidence, the orderliness of God's creation and the regularity of the workings of nature and society.

Portrait of Rene Descartes by Frans Hals
Portrait of René Descartes
by Frans Hals

In 1637 Descartes published his Discourse on Method. This set rules for seeking constancy in an uncertain world. His method was reductionism, the ultimate in ‘cut and control’ methodology. According to the ‘Discourse’, anything that could not be previously categorized would not be studied. With Descartes’ reductionist axe, the selective and exclusive process of human perception, originally modified by language and the alphabet millennia earlier, was now even more constrained.

Knowledge must be controlled. Groups for the regulation of knowledge formed, like the Royal Society in England in 1662. These societies emphasized orthodoxy, and standardization of approach. It was dangerous not to conform.

Illustrations of an early microscope and vacuum
A. Early microscope, B. Vacuum

This time saw an explosion of ‘instrument’ generated knowledge, and one discovery could have ramifications for apparently unrelated endeavors. The discovery of the vacuum (which was philosophically dangerous, since it should have been impossible) stimulated developments in meteorology and chemistry. The telescope and microscope revolutionized astronomy and the medical sciences, and started a public health revolution. The world revealed by the microscope was particularly unexpected. An account of the anatomy of bees was published by Stellenti in 1625. Harvey published his theory of the circulation of the blood in 1628, and embryology was effectively formed by 1651. Biology was separating into many differentiated, specialist branches.

The twin axemaker gifts of the air pump and the microscope for the first time also linked the crafts of engineering and metallurgy with scientific theory. This in turn generated the new occupation of scientific instrument-maker and the new concept of precision. And with the proliferation of esoteric knowledge into so many new theoretical disciplines, demand surged for systems of measurement and quantification. Initially this need was most clearly seen in astronomy, where the drive to produce better lenses in turn encouraged the production of more precise ways of pointing the instruments.

Adam Smith
Adam Smith
Dudley North
Dudley North

The advances in technology had parallels in economics. In 1692 Dudley published his Discourse on Trade. This quantified economics for the first time and led eventually to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Here Smith formalized the concept of division of labor. John Locke applied similar thought to society; he talked of the members of society in a mechanistic way, with the force of self interest ruling each individual. America's formation incorporated these ideas from the very beginning.

John Locke
John Locke

In a final, more general manifestation of its power, the scientific method also generated mechanistic attitudes in the political thinking of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Knowledge of the universal law of acceleration, for instance, led people to expect that the progress of society would also accelerate with the passage of time. The sole aim of government should be to make sure that nothing constrained this natural force of self-interest. Since its most common expression was ownership of possessions, then the prime responsibility of the state should be to protect individual property, leaving citizens free to concentrate on increasing their wealth.

These ideas, as expressed by Locke, would find their most powerful expression in America itself, at the birth of the United States. The industrial revolution gave America more tools to cut and control, on a planetary scale.

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