Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Cells of Gods

The ancient Greeks had a very week sense of self. Rather than identify as individuals, they were more inclined to identify with their City-State, such as Athens or Sparta. This phenomenon persists today in other cultures, though in the U.S. we tend to identify primarily with ourselves. One study elegantly demonstrated this by asking people from different cultures to write a list of words describing themselves. While people from Western societies tended to list words like “smart,” “athletic,” “funny,” and “pretty,” people from collectivistic societies such as Japan and rural Mexico used words like “brother,” “friend,” or “employee of Toyota.” In the West, we identify ourselves by self-contained characteristics, while in collectivistic cultures people identify themselves by their relations to others.

Returning to ancient Greece, we see the same attitude. People took great pride in their membership to a City-State and identified themselves most heavily through this association. Just as they were less aware of their personal characteristics, they were more aware of the personalities of these cultures as a whole. The Athenian mentality was very different from its Spartan corollary. To them, the personalities of these cities were so strong that the civilizations themselves became like gods. Athens was Athena. Sparta was Aries. When Sparta attacked another city, it wasn't just the wrath of Sparta, it was the wrath of Aries. When the Athenian elites cast their judgment on Socrates, it wasn't just their judgment, it was the judgment of Athena.

Today, we've lost our sense of this. Our focus is so keyed into individuals that we no longer see what these individuals constitute. This is similar to how we see ourselves as discreet individuals and not as collections of cells. In some ways, this is only natural. It is our level of perception. We do not see our cells because they are too small for us. We do not see societies because they are too big for us. Still, we can pull out a microscope. Still, we can stand on the top floor of sky-scraper. We can societies into focus just as we can put our own bodies into focus, and at times its important to see life from these other perspectives.

When we look deep into ourselves, we see the human body divided into billions of specialized cells: liver cells, blood cells, neurons, epidermis. Each of them has a job, be it transporting oxygen or processing sugars. By working together, they are able improve their odds at survival. Human society is similar. On our own, people have trouble surviving. We aren't tigers or eagles. When we band together, though, we're able to live long and relatively comfortable lives. As with cells, this entails specialization. Some of us process food while others dispose of waste. Some of gather is vast office towers and process information. Some of us behave like white blood cells, patrolling the city streets and maintaining order.

The cells of the human body are not aware of the creature they compose. Similarly, it is not obvious that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Yet just like the cells of a body, our collaborations create something. We are Austin and Chicago and New York. These cities are more than just buildings and roads. They are alive in their own right. They have their own personalities, their own momentum. They go through periods of depression and excitement. Their economies flourish and wane.

From 'Into the Night':

Were the gods truly in the heavens, or were they down here on Earth? I only had to stare at the city sprawled out beneath me, its own lights twinkling in reflection of the sky. It was alive. Cars pulsed through the intersections, moving in an organic, statistical harmony. Their brake lights were crimson, blood flowing through a giant's heart. It was something I never saw down there, wandering its veins, lost in its flesh, a part of it. But standing so high, this creature seen in a single glimpse, it was as clear as a diagram of the human body. I was forced to wonder, was this what the elite saw? When they moved into their loft apartments, was part of their reward a truer perspective of human society? As crazy as this sounds, maybe Athens was Athena. Maybe Poseidon was the sea. Maybe we are the cells of gods.

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