Apes and Ape-men

I started writing a comment in response to something Walt said, but decided to try to expand it into a new post. He said:

There’ll never be heaven on earth because, like the tigers, we’re all still animals. Trained and semi-domesticated apes. Robert Stone’s great line that “all history is a catalog of ape behavior.”

“Apes” and “animals” are rather loaded concepts, I think. When we talk about “going ape” or “behaving like animals” we mean being violent, savage (another loaded word referring to lower races), or brutal (yet another one). We seem to tend to ascribe our own worst behaviours to something “animalistic” and malign as opposed to something “human” and benign.

I tend not to think in quite such terms. I tend to see living things (not yet a loaded idea) as being more or less idle. The very busiest of them have to work almost continuously to survive. And the very idlest of them have to work hardly at all to survive. The busiest of them would have to work 23 hours of every 24 to survive. And the idlest would have to work 1 hour in very 24. The unattainable condition of perfect idleness (0 hours work every 24) is what I call Heaven, and the all-too-easily-attainable condition of being completely busy (24 hours work every 24) is what I call Hell. And God and his angels are what resides in Heaven, and the Devil in Hell.

And I replace “ape” and “animal” with “busy“, and “human” and “divine” with “idle“. It’s a conceptual shift. I regard animals as leading largely busy lives. I can’t say for sure without becoming one, but birds always seem to be flying around, and cattle and sheep all seem to spend much of their lives grazing, and insects are furiously busy – with ants and bees the very busiest. But they’re not completely busy. Sometimes the birds just sit on branches, and sometimes cattle lie down. The animals sometimes sleep. Although ants and bees never seem to stop.

By contrast “human” life, at least in “civilised” societies, seems much more idle. It’s only in our idle time that we humans can talk, read, write, think, sing, dance, dream. All human culture – religion, science, philosophy, art, music, literature – is the product of idle time. If no idle time, then no religion, science, philosophy, art, etc. And what used to be called the “lower races”, that had little such culture, were simply busy people with little time for such things. It wasn’t that they were inherently “savages” or “brutes”: it was simply that they had little idle time at their disposal.

In the same way, “apes” and “animals” are only “wild” or “feral” or “ferocious” to the extent that they are leading busy lives. When animals live idle lives – like most pet cats and dogs – they are generally as benign and friendly as any human. Pet dogs are often described as “man’s best friend”. Their counterparts in the natural world, which must work to survive, lead far busier lives, and are correspondingly less friendly.

For friendship is also a product of idle time. It is only in their idle hours that people get to know each other, and talk, and laugh.

And it’s only in their idle time that anyone can be considerate of other people. Because friendship requires consideration. Offering someone a cigarette or a drink is showing consideration towards them. Listening to someone is showing consideration towards them. Opening a door for them, or stepping aside for them, is showing consideration towards them.

Busy people have little time for such consideration or friendship. And so they are helplessly inconsiderate. They’re just too busy. And so they are necessarily “ill-mannered” or “brutish” or “uncivil”.

All progress in human life consists in increasing idleness. The industrial revolution (which is still in progress) has seen a quantum leap in idleness in the industrially-developed world. Most of the physically hard work – carrying stuff around, lifting stuff up, cutting things apart – is now done by machines. And now quite a lot of the intellectual work is also being done by machines (computers). If we have mass unemployment, it is because of this quantum leap in idleness.

This wasn’t how people increased their idleness in antiquity. Back then, if you wanted to live an idle life, you got somebody else to do your work for you, as your slave. And in antiquity, from many accounts I have read, slaves outnumbered freemen 3 to 1 or 4 to 1, suggesting that the ancient world was 33% or 25% idle.

Wars are fought by idle men busying themselves. In antiquity, armies were relatively small, with only a few thousand soldiers in them, many of them members of the social elite (Alexander, Caesar). That was the most that any single nation could manage to maintain in unproductive employment. But since the quantum leap in social idleness of the Industrial Revolution, armies are very often made up of millions of men.  And these days, even women too.

The great philosophers and mathematicians and artists were idle men who devoted their entire lives to thought and calculation and art. And so were the prophets. Maybe Jesus had been a working man for many years, but in the last few years of his life he seems to have just wandered around talking to people, or making speeches. Jesus never seemed to be too busy doing carpentry to do anything else. Same with the Buddha, who started life as a prince.  I dare same the same was true of all the rest of them. e.g. Lao Tzu, or Confucius.

One of the reasons that I hate smoking bans is that the old pubs, in which people sat talking and drinking and smoking, were idle places. The antismoking busybodies are trying to stamp out idleness. Busybodies always seem to think that everyone should keep busy. The antismoking Dr W always kept himself busy doing something. He never went to any pub ever, as far as I know.

I came to regard pubs as being very like churches, performing a very similar social role. They were places where people gathered and talked (and sometimes sang). I preferred going to the pub-churches, because you could have a drink and a smoke and a chat, and in most churches drinking and smoking and chatting are all forbidden. Which is probably why I no longer go to church. And why going to church was always a bit of an ordeal when I did used to go.

And so the smoking ban also seems to me to be a religious war, and the closure and bankruptcy of many pubs akin to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. It’s a religious war by killjoy busybodies on idle, congenial pub culture. The antismoking busybodies are not motivated by love of anything, least of all idleness. They are instead driven by hatred of a singular evil: tobacco.

I’ve rather wandered off my original impetus to write – which was that I don’t think we are inherently and irredeemably ape-men who will always be “going ape”. Heaven on earth is impossible not because we are apes, but because we are always busy. We will never be perfectly idle, like God. Perhaps we are not as busy as we once were, but we’re still pretty busy – and therefore correspondingly thoughtless, inconsiderate, and cruel.


About Frank Davis

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8 Responses to Apes and Ape-men

  1. Rowan says:

    One of your best posts ever! Well done.

  2. Rhys says:

    Thanks for this one, Frank.

  3. waltc says:

    You make a good case but I’ll stick to my guns.

    From almost our start we were–at best–apes with imagination. We could imagine the need for tools–and invent them. We could imagine the need for gods–and invent them. We could imagine a future–and attempt to plan for it. The impulse to art was early. Busy as we were, we scrawled bison on the cave walls at Lescaux and our apish gods demanded apish things like the sacrifice of virgins in exchange for, say, rain or for wind in our sails. (Agamemnon v Iphigenia.) The patina of what we now call civilization was slow to evolve and remains a patina–maybe thicker in some individuals than others, but basically the icing on our ape cake. We were and remain tribal, we follow Alphas, we move in herds and, whenever the patina is scraped away, we’re as easily capable of brutalizing each other as is any wild animal.

    A story that remains with me from the Serbian War in the early 90s, was of formerly friendly neighbors–one family Muslim, the other not– but when war broke out, one formerly-friendly family invaded the other’s house, eviscerated their former friends and poured ammonia into the gaping wounds to be sure they died in agony. That, for example.

    Otoh–or maybe the same one– I remember thinking, when I walked through Notre Dame, that there possibly was a God for whatever else could inspire us apes to create such soaring beauty. Though I wondered, too, if the men who climbed those scaffolds–and the ones who died, falling–knew that it was anything other than a day’s grueling labor.

    • Frank Davis says:

      formerly friendly neighbors–one family Muslim, the other not–

      We don’t need to go to Serbia to see this happening. How about formerly friendly neighbours – one family smokers, the other not -.? I used to wonder how these murderous conflicts broke out. But now that it’s started happening in my own life, I can draw on my own experience. And in fact, going to Serbia only serves to render the these things incomprehensible, because I’m not Serbian, and have little or no knowledge of Serbian history or culture. And I look for explanations and understanding in my own life, not someone else’s.

  4. Rose says:

    Goodbye glamour-puss and rugged hero: smokers lose brand identity with plain cigarette packaging
    March 10

    “We predicted that by stripping away branding, plain packs take away the established smokers’ sense of positive brand identity that was helping to maintain their smoking behaviour.

    It’s important to note here that media advertising for tobacco has been banned in Australia since 1992.”

    Delusional, but I suppose it keeps them happy.

    Harley, if you are about, the Mummies and your remarks of Vitamin K in tobacco have come in useful.

    Why are people buying Vitamin K supplements?
    “Vitamin K2 is also absorbed better by the body, and is linked to cardiovascular health. It directs calcium to the bones, and prevents it from being deposited where it shouldn’t be, for example arteries and organs, where it can cause harm,” she says.”
    http: //www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24049950

    Effects of vitamin K2 (menatetrenone) on atherosclerosis and blood coagulation in hypercholesterolemic rabbits.

    “The excessive dose of vitamin K2, even at the high dose of 100 mg/kg/day for 10 weeks, did not accelerate the progression of atherosclerosis and did not promote the coagulative tendency in the rabbits. In contrast, the vitamin K2 treatment (1 to 10 mg/kg/day) suppressed the progression of atherosclerotic plaques,..”
    https: //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9414028

    “Where the mummies’ arterial structure had survived, the researchers were able to attribute a definite case of atherosclerosis by looking for the tell-tale signs of vascular calcification.
    In some cases, the arterial structure had not survived but the calcified deposits were still present in sites where arteries would have once been.”

    “Tobacco contains high levels of vitamin K, and its use may have contributed directly to the failure of warfarin therapy to achieve therapeutic INR levels in this patient.”
    http: //journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1345/aph.1D087?journalCode=aopd

    I see now why people are buying vitamin k2 supplements despite the cost.
    Perhaps vapers and quitters should take note, there is more to tobacco than just the nicotine.

    • nisakiman says:

      I left a couple of comments on that article in ‘The Conversation’. I wonder if they’ll be allowed to stand. Four comments had been deleted already when I left my first comment five hours ago. It was still there when I just looked, so I left another. We’ll see if they really do ‘welcome debate’.

  5. Mark Jarratt, Canberra, Australia says:

    Used some of my rationed idle time to write this brief post. More great thought provoking and well crafted interesting views Frank. Unfortunately I conclude you are far too astute to join the ranks of the kleptocracy (aka the tyrants who just know what others value and abuse the power of the state to dictate, to achieve their dystopian conformist vision).

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