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Pyramids: Amazing Accomplishment or Narcissistic Lunacy?

Civilization looks like a bargain only when you ignore its costs.

Henry David Thoreau wasn’t impressed by the Pyramids. In his classic book, Walden , he wrote, “As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.” But civilization is adamant that we at least pretend to admire the ambitious boobies in our midst. Most of our holidays venerate the crooks, rapists, and pillagers overly credulous historians have helpfully repackaged as “founders,” “conquerors,” and “civilizers.” We erect statues, consecrate tombs, and close the banks to commemorate their difference-making. But make no mistake. Most of these monuments memorialize lunatics intoxicated by unconstrained ego, raving greed, and unimaginable savagery.

History,” wrote Alexander Herzen, “is the autobiography of a madman,” and in historical fact, most of the “great men of history” were criminals on a rampage. We celebrate them because they “changed the world.” But what’s the rational reason to believe they changed it for the better? Isn’t it just as likely that these madmen shaped civilization to reflect their own twisted values and ambitions? And who says the world needed changing in the first place? Far too easily, most of us simply accept the logically indefensible idea that the present was the pre-determined destiny of the past, and we should thank the ambitious boobies for giving us a shove down the path we were fated to follow. That line of thinking is similar to the nonsense of people who say, “I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, because if I changed anything, I wouldn’t be me!” Well, in that case, Mr. Manson, parole is denied.

Though as common as ironic socks on Wall Street, this kind of circular thinking won’t stand up to a moment’s thought. Evolutionary scientists refer to these sorts of circular explanations as “just-so stories,” in reference to the fanciful explanations in a children’s book written by Rudyard Kipling. In Sex at Dawn , Cacilda Jethá and I called this retroactive thinking “Flintstonization.” Take a look at the present and imagine a past based on what you see, just more old-fashioned and rustic. After all, there’s no arguing with the here and now, is there?

Sure there is. George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Patriotism is your conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” Presentism is an expression of the same sort of ignorance, just applied to a historical time and place rather than a particular country: “We’re here now, so this is the best place to be, baby!” But just because we happen to live in it doesn’t mean this is the best of all possible worlds—or even necessarily any better than worlds that have been trampled and discarded on the way to where we are. Just because this is the course that history happens to have taken doesn’t mean it was the best possible outcome. To believe otherwise, one would logically have to believe in some kind of predestination, and argue that it was all worth it to get here: the Dark Ages, bubonic plague, centuries of slavery, uncountable wars, the Holocaust, disco—all of it. No doubt, we’ve come a long way. But was it a long way up, a long way down, or just a long, long way?

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