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what is history?
History tells of empires, battles, kings and popes. Admittedly, even common man appears in these pages. He debuts in 1776 and 1789 when he overthrows his monarch. But common man is significant only when he becomes a power-player himself. For history is the recording of a power-struggle and the players that partake in that struggle.
Of course, a lot of other things have happened in five thousand years. Countless millions have lived fascinating, happy and even consequential lives, but they did not go down in history. We don't know their names.
Rather, it is power that fascinates us most. Man has an innate desire for a larger piece of the cake. And power is the key to enlarge your piece. Power unlocks access to money, sex and attention.
In a Darwinian sense, it offers the best chances for survival. So how to gain power, and how to hold onto it? That struggle is fought at school playgrounds, at the world’s battlefields and everywhere in between.
Physical strength and the use of force are obvious answers to the power question, simply because the strong have an advantage over the weak. And yet, muscular strength plays no discernible role in recorded history. Nowhere was the throne reserved for the strongest man in the land.
Mostly, the opposite seems true. Civilization is not the reign of strength, but the reigning in of strength. It controls strength and allocates power with priests, kings and presidents, who have other things going for them than their biceps.
This may be because even the strong have a vested interest in civilization. The strong know that they will grow old and weak, and will need civilization to protect them from the next generation of muscular young men.
If indeed civilization is the reigning in of strength, then the power-question becomes the question of the control over civilization. Whoever controls civilization, controls power.
But can one control civilization? Probably no single person, and not even a single group, could make that claim. But we may point to those with a disproportionately large influence over civilization.
- In antiquity, perhaps the Greek philosophers.
- During the Middle Ages: Catholic priests.
- After the reformation, it shifted to the laymen of the protestant church
- Then, perhaps the men of science.
- In the heyday of democracy, one might argue that the citizen had a large influence.
- In the communication era, movie stars and celebrities have come to fore.
The common characteristic of these people is that they -in their own days and in their own ways- have a strong claim on truth. That claim is the source of their power.