Pyramids and the Origin of Western Civilization
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
- The Power of the Pharaoh
- “Egypt Built the Pyramids—and the Pyramids Built Egypt”
- The Desire to Submit
- The Origins of Tyranny
- The Megamachine
- The Burden of Civilization
- Homicidal Violence
- Release from Morality
- Twentieth Century Pharaohs
I. The Power of the Pharaoh
Louis Mumford examines the meaning of Kingship in ancient societies such as Egypt in his classic The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (1967). He writes about the absolute power associated with Pharaohs and other kings in early Near Eastern civilizations. The king, Mumford says, was conceived as a “god in his own right.” When he uttered a command, it had to be obeyed.
Because everyone had to obey the commands of the king, therefore words coming from his mouth could “bring a world into existence.” Mumford connects the obligation to obey with the king’s capacity to create a “colossal labor machine.” The special powers that the King commanded enabled him to bring together many human beings to work on gigantic projects, such as building a pyramid.
The Pharaoh was conceived by the Egyptians as the living incarnation of society. The community lived and flourished vicariously through the king. By virtue of the king’s centrality, the community attained a sense of coherence or unity. Mumford states that the king alone had the power to create a “colossal labor machine:’ the godlike power of “turning men into mechanical objects and assembling these objects into a machine.” Mumford uses the term “megamachine” to describe the gigantic labor force that the king—by virtue of his godlike status—could command and direct.
Because of the Pharaoh, Egyptian society was able to engage in building giant, collective works such as pyramids. The king gave forth commands, demanded absolute conformity, and punished even trivial disobedience. Kings demonstrated how much popular communities—once collectively organized in great mechanical units—could accomplish. By virtue of the capacity to mobilize tens-of-thousands of human beings into a great labor force, kings accomplished big things.
There was, however, a human price to be paid: absolute subjection to the king. Metaphors appearing in ancient Pyramid texts convey a kind of “unrestrained cannibal lust” dwelling on the scope and power of the divine king. The most horrendous crimes punished by civilized authority stemmed back to the “unpardonable sin” of disobedience to the sovereign.
“Murderous coercion,” Mumford says, was the royal formula for establishing authority, securing obedience, and collecting booty, tribute, and taxes. The other side of the coin of the creation of a colossal labor machine, in short, was the requirement that subjects be absolutely obedient. Mumford claims that, at bottom, every royal reign was a “reign of terror.”
The great projects brought forth by the Ancient Egyptians, then, grew out of the following dynamic: First, the belief that the king was the embodiment of a god. And secondly that—because of the king’s divine status—absolute obedience was required. The capacity of the Pharaoh to command obedience allowed him to produce a colossal labor force capable of undertaking gigantic building projects.
Building monumental structures such as a pyramid required enormous sacrifices by the populace. Soldiers, similarly, were required to be obedient to the sovereign and to perform acts of sacrifice. The capacity to generate collective sacrifice, Mumford believes, remained the identifying mark of sovereign power throughout history.
Mumford concludes that the two poles of civilization are mechanically organized work and mechanically organized destruction (or extermination). The king’s extraordinary power derived from his capacity to bring many people together into a single unit, and to command their absolute
II. “Egypt Built the Pyramids—and the Pyramids Built Egypt”
What were the pyramids? It appears they were elaborate temples or enclosures, houses and tombs, symbols of the immortality of the Pharaohs and permanence of Egyptian civilization. The Great Pyramid of Giza, built as a tomb for the Pharaoh Khufu around 1575 B.C., consisted of approximately 2,300,000 individuals blocks of stone each weighing over 2.5 tons on the average.
What motives would generate this extraordinary, monumental project? Most of us share the intuition that building pyramids revolved around the desire or quest for immortality. Pyramids were made of limestone and granite, substances not easily destroyed. Pyramids embodied the fantasy that some things could last forever.
Many of the Pyramids still stand, but the Pharaohs—in spite of mummification efforts—are long dead. Do any of us remember the name even of a single Pharaoh? Perhaps only King Tut, and perhaps because of the song Steven Martin sang on the Saturday Night Live show: “Now when he was a young man, he’d never thought he’d see, People stand in line, to see the boy king. King Tut. How’d you get so funky? Funky Tut. Did you do the monkey?”
What enormous sacrifices were required to build the pyramids! Norman O. Brown says that the ambition of civilized man is revealed in the pyramid—the hope of immortality. Death is overcome, Brown says, on condition that the real actuality of life pass into these “immortal and dead things.” Pharaohs sequestered the energies of the Egyptian people to build monumental structures that functioned in the name of denying death.
The image that many of us have of the men who built the pyramids is that of slaves: people who worked under the bidding and whip of the Pharaoh and his taskmasters. Recent archaeological findings suggests that the construction of the pyramids may have occurred more along the lines of a national project in which most of Egyptian society participated.
Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner’s reinterpretation of the pyramids is based on excavations that reveal what appears to be a village or encampment where the people who worked to build the pyramids lived. Evidence from this site suggests that the living conditions of the pyramid workers were better than many people had assumed.
Evidently they often had their families with them, their diet was more varied than had been expected, and there are signs that they were provided with medical care. Hawaas proposes that building the pyramid was the national project of Egypt—“everyone had to participate.”
Mark Lehner claims that the picture of a highly centralized bureaucracy going through the land and conscripting people for labor by force is highly doubtful. Rather, local rulers, heads of villages and estates, etc. would send laborers to the royal house. Thus, because the labor pool was a rotating force contributed by local authorities from all over Egypt, the Pyramid project may have had a “tremendously socializing effect.”
Lehner provides a sense of what may have occurred and what people may have experienced as they came from all parts Egypt to work on building the pyramid at Giza:
And so here are these stupendous, gigantic things thrust up to the sky, polished white limestone, blazing in the sunshine. And then they go on down to Giza and they come around this corner, actually the corner of the Wall of the Crow right into the harbor, and there’s Khufu, the biggest thing on the planet actually in the way of a building until the turn of the century 20th century. And you see, for the first time in your life, not a few hundred, but thousands, probably, of workers and people and industries of all kinds.
And you’re rotated into this experience and you serve in your respective crew, gang, phyles and division, and then you’re rotated out and you go back because you have your own large household to whom you are assigned on a kind of an estate organized society. You have your own village; maybe you even have your own land that you’re responsible for. So you’re rotated back but you’re not the same. You have seen the central principle of the first nation state in our planet’s history, the pyramids, the centralization, this organization. And so they must have been powerful socializing forces.
It was a “coming together of people from throughout the land.” Working on the pyramids functioned to “socialize information” and “bound all these disparate areas and provinces into a whole.” It was, Lehner believes, the “beginnings of Egyptian unity.” The focus of Lehner’s research now, he says, is not so much how the Egyptians built the pyramids, but how the “pyramids helped to build Egypt.”
The Pyramid, Hawaas explains, was a monument that symbolized the might and power of the royal house. Every household from Upper to Lower Egypt participated in the construction of the Pharaoh’s tomb by sending food, materials and manpower. Lehner suggests that the centralization and organization generated by the project of building the pyramids brought about the “first nation-state in our planet’s history.”
The project of building the Pyramids, in short, functioned to unify the Egyptian state. One might say that the people rallied round the Pharaoh to assist him in bringing to fruition his dream of eternal life. This was a dream with which people could identify. Hawaas even suggests that the Pyramids were built by volunteers motivated by “love.”
Based on my lifelong research on Hitler and Nazism, I do not find this interpretation unreasonable. The man-in-the-street views Hitler as a dictator, but historians know that what held Germany together was the attachment of the people to Hitler and Nazi ideology. At the Nuremberg rallies, people came to a gigantic stadium from all parts of Germany. Coming together in this way—just as people came from all parts of Egypt to build the Pyramids—the German people could feel they were united as single community or political entity.
III. The Desire to Submit
The Pharaoh according to Mumford was the “living incarnation of the community.” The community lived and flourished vicariously, through the person of the king. People could share or partake of the fantasy of immortality embodied in the idea of the Pyramid. They too could imagine that it was possible to live forever.
There is a dialectical relationship between the elevation of certain human beings into the status of divine kings or totalitarian leaders, on the one hand, and submission to these political leaders on the other. It is not simply that people in power force human beings to submit. Rather, human beings create symbols of absolute power in order to give themselves the opportunity to submit.
Hitler was one of the most popular political leaders of the 20th century. We have seen films of mass-rallies in auditoriums and stadiums depicting Hitler—speaking hysterically and gesticulating widely—bringing audiences to their feet in unison, shouting “Heil Hitler.” Because people worshipped Hitler as if he was a god or divine king, they were willing to submit to him.
German soldiers upon joining the army vowed that they were prepared to offer their lives at any time to Adolf Hitler. The SS-man pledged that he would be “obedient unto death.” On September 26, 1938, Hitler spoke before a crowd of 15,000 after having given the Czechs an ultimatum. The mob interrupted every sentence of Hitler’s speech with fanatic applause, shouting and chanting, “Fuhrer command, we will follow.”
Rudolf Hess declared, “We follow Hitler’s orders and thus we prove our faith in him.” Bland terms like “obedience to authority” and “following orders” do not accurately convey reality. It is not that human beings passively go along with people in authority. Rather, there is a profound tendency to identify with people in positions of power and what they represent—to submit to them in order to partake of the omnipotence they are imagined to possess.
Human beings want to believe in the existence of powerful people like divine kings and totalitarian leaders who are not obligated to submit to ordinary rules; are permitted to do things ordinary people are not allowed to do. Kings, for example, can mobilize great armies and ask military personnel to kill people en masse.
IV. The Origins of Tyranny
Eli Sagan’s At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression and the State (1985) seeks to explain how human beings broke away from kinship systems and began to organize societies as large collectives or states. Central to the process of separation from tribes, bands and villages, Sagan argues, was the development of the institution of Kingship—that represented a response to the need to actualize the idea that omnipotent beings exist in the world.
As people attempted to separate from their families and kin, Sagan suggests, they needed the idea or ideal of an omnipotent leader. Such a powerful leader—with whom the individual could identify—constituted a centrifugal force that enabled individuals to pull away from the small world of the tribe or village and into the world of the large community or state. There seems to have been a need to “actualize in the real world a view of omnipotence.” The idea of this kind of power acted as a lure.
What helped people to separate from their families and kin, according to Sagan, was the idea of omnipotence embodied in the divine king. Sagan suggests that people felt better when they could believe that powerful, omnipotent beings existed on the face of the earth. It is a mistake to imagine, he says, that the evolution of tyrannical power happens without the consent of the governed. If members of society did not want this kind of authoritarian power, the entire process would have been stillborn.
The desire to create or believe in omnipotent objects goes along with the desire to submit to these objects. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that our desire and willingness to submit—to humble ourselves before certain objects—is what leads to the creation of human beings or entities conceived as omnipotent.
Hitler said to the German people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” In order to elevate Germany into a position of being everything, one had to conceive of one’s self as nothing. This is what the SS-man’s vow to be “obedient unto death” meant. What is being asserted is that Germany is such a significant object that one should be willing abandon one’s life in her name.
Hitler and Germany embodied the fantasy of immortality. Human beings may be willing to relinquish their own, individual lives—in the name of binding to an object that is imagined to confer omnipotence. The fantasy of immortality and idea of sacrificial submission are inextricably linked.
One might say that willingness to sacrifice is what brings the idea of omnipotence into being. So almighty were the kings of complex societies, Sagan says, that they constantly exercised the right to take human life in religious ritual. Human sacrifice constituted the “ultimate certification of the power of early kings.” In other words, the essence of being a king lay in his capacity to kill, that is, to authorize the sacrifice of human beings.
V. The Megamachine
In the second volume of The Myth of Machine entitled The Pentagon of Power (1970), Lewis Mumforduses his concept of the “megamachine” to interpret Twentieth Century phenomena such as atomic warfare and the military-industrial complex. Mumford demonstrates that the ancient model—the dynamic that arose in ancient Egypt—persists.
The concept of the “Pyramid Age,” Mumford says, refers not only to what occurred in Egypt 2700-2300 B. C., but to a typical constellation of institutions and cultural inventions revolving around the cult of divine kinship, the building of imposing monumental structures (such as temples, palaces, walled-cities, canals and irrigation systems, etc.), and to organized conquest or war.
Mumford calls this institutions or invention the megamachine: a system of bringing large numbers of human beings to work together guided by a plan. What motivated people to come together and work on these massive projects was their belief in the divinity of the king. The divine king had the power to give orders—and to be obeyed.
The Babylonian god Marduk, Mumford tells us, insisted that when he gives a command, he must be obeyed by his fellow gods without question: “Let my word instead of yours determine the fates; unalterable shall be what I may bring into being: neither recalled nor changed shall be the command of my lips.”
Mumford suggests these words are worth noting because they set forth the “terms on which the new collective mechanism was brought into being.” Men believed in the divinity of the king, and therefore were willing to do his bidding—obey his orders. Thus, it was possible to organize a great labor machine that could build megalithic structures like the pyramids, and also a military machine of great potency capable of destroying massive walls, wrecking dams, razing cities and temples.
It is highly doubtful, however, that these heroic public works—that demanded an almost superhuman effort and purpose—would have undertaken for any purely mundane purpose. “Only prostration before the mysterium tremendum,” Mumford observes, some manifestation of godhead in its awful power and luminous glory, could “call forth such excessive, collective effort.”
Through history, Mumford says, the great mission of kingship has been to call forth human devotion and effort. Attachment to the king acted to overcome the particularlism and isolation of small communities, wiping out differences that separate one human group from another. Kings demonstrate “How much popular communities, once they were collectively organized in great mechanical units, could accomplish.”
VI. The Burden of Civilization
While the development of this “ancient power complex” led to the immense productivity of the Pyramid Age, the weight of the megamachine, Mumford claims, is also the “chief burden of civilization.” Never was the burden heavier than at the beginning, when the greatest public activity in Egypt was mainly directed to “supporting the claim of the Pharaoh to divinity and immortality.”
The Pyramids constitute an extraordinary accomplishment, but they are also useless from a practical point of view. Civilization begins with a project that is entirely irrational and useless. What could cause a society to build these monumental structures? What a gigantic effort was required to cut 2.3 million stones from rocks—each weighing over 5000 pounds—to transport them to a central location, and then to lift them up to create these massive structures. The mind boggles.
In Life Against Death (1959), Norman O. Brown suggests that the need to produce an economic surplus is constructed, not on the psychology of possession, rather upon a deeper psychology of giving. The Ancient Egyptians needed an economic surplus in order to finance or fund the building of the Pyramids. Building Pyramids represented a form of sacrifice.
The labor of tens-of-thousands of men was devoted to building megalithic structures whose only purpose was to make manifest the power of the Pharaoh: to show what he was capable of. Pyramids represent a testimony to the power of the divine king. Civilization begins with a monumental act of sacrifice.
In Sagan’s view, the transition from a kinship to a complex society requires the idea of omnipotence, often projected into the person of a king. Societies, Sagan says, were “intoxicated with the idea that some human beings could become omnipotent.” It was not simply that divine kings imposed their will. Rather, people embraced the idea that the Pharaoh was god because they needed or desired this idea of omnipotence.
Mumford draws our attention to extreme forms of obedience that characterized ancient societies in the near East. The king’s commands were to be obeyed as if divine law. Sagan discusses the most extreme form of submission to the king, human sacrifice. So almighty were the kings of complex societies, Sagan says, that they constantly exercised a prerogative that even Yahweh was not sure belonged to any creature, human or divine—the right to “take human life in religious ritual.” Human sacrifice represented the “ultimate certification of the power of early kings.”
Sagan reports that on the island of Tahiti, ritual homicide made kingship. The heir to the throne, from birth on, was the subject of a multitude of rituals: circumcision, presentation to the various districts of the kingdom, coming of age, etc. At each occasion, one of several victims was killed for the greater glory of the prince royal.
In fact, Sagan tells us that so powerful a sanction was human sacrifice and so apparently necessary was it to chiefly authority, that some chiefs, upon being urged by Europeans to give up the practice, exclaimed, “If we do, there will be no chiefs.” In short, kingship required the “exercise of ritual homicide.”
The “extreme concentration of human potency” in a single person, Sagan says, would require “equally exceptional rituals of obeisance from ordinary people.” Like Mumford, Sagan emphasizes the relationship between belief in the omnipotence of the king, and the king’s right to require submission. The king’s power to compel obedience and submission, taken to its extreme, became the right to kill.
VII. Homicidal Violence
Acts of homicidal violence testify to the fact that the king—as embodiment of society or the state—is allowed to do anything. What is being demonstrated or conveyed by virtue of acts of violence is that the king—the leader of society—is not subject to the laws or limitations that govern the behavior of other people.
Violent acts performed by or in the name of the king—such as killing and ritual sacrifice—validate his omnipotence. Insofar as the king is authorized to do anything, he becomes like a god: free of limits. The fact that he is able to do whatever he wishes to do demonstrates that the King is above and beyond ordinary human beings.
Sagan hypothesizes that kings are allowed to behave in ways that put him above or beyond the law because human beings possess the desire to imagine that some people have this kind of power. In the first states, Sagan says, omnipotent human beings walked on the earth, “not in mythic fantasy but in reality.” The kind of power those first kings wielded never before had been experienced. The institution of kingship was created not only to oppress human beings, but also “to exalt them.”
In order to raise themselves up from the savannah—to leave their small, limited worlds—human beings needed an ideal to look up to: an embodiment of potency that suggested we might become more than small, limited human beings. The existence of great kings functioned to inspire people; encourage them to “be all that they could be.”
Sagan emphasizes the profound freedom that many kings possessed. Omnipotence, he says, is a pale word to describe fully the ideal of kingship in complex societies. It does not give enough of the poetic, dreamlike sense of living without bounds of restrictions, in a world in which there are no laws; no shadow between the wish and the need, no temperance, no measure, no “reality principle.”
For kings in complex societies, Sagan says, every woman in the world (save one) is food for his sexual appetite, and the death of every man is subject to the nod of his head. “Nothing is forbidden.” Nothing seems to matter except that “what is done is done on a scale of which mere humans are incapable.”
Kings, in short, were people who could do pretty much whatever they wanted to do. The function of kings, Sagan concludes, was to embody the idea that certain human beings “did not have to give up anything.” One thing kings didn’t have to give up was the desire to kill people. Thus, Sagan says, the childlike power wielded by kings unfortunately “brought death to others.”
Powerful anthropomorphic gods and kings, Sagan suggests, are both inventions of the human spirit. When we read of an omnipotent king, we tend to describe him as “godlike.” In advanced complex societies, Sagan says, it is equally accurate to describe gods as “kinglike.” People did not “invent the gods first and then monarchs in imitation of them.”
Rather, Sagan concludes, the creation of both powerful kings and powerful leaders was the result of something more fundamental: the wish for the existence of that kind of power.
Both gods and divine kings are human creations that articulate or fulfill psychological desires. And there is one central desire giving rise both to the idea of gods and divine kings, namely the need to project a fantasy of omnipotence into the outer world: to believe that some people are more than human; to imagine that some beings or entities not subject to the laws that govern ordinary lives.
The most painful reality of human existence is the fact of death. Like all organisms, human being are born, live, and then pass into non-existence. The reality of death gives rise to the idea of beings that are capable of living eternally.
Gods are imagined to be immortal—not subject to death and decay. The Pharaoh was conceived as a divine king—united with a god—who could live forever if only the proper measures were taken. Pyramids were built to assure the immortality of the Pharaoh.
Kingship represents a social institution that evolved out of the need to believe that omnipotent beings exist on the face of the earth. The institution of kingship, Sagan says, was “invented in a thousand places because there was a human need for that kind of symbolism.” If one could not be a king oneself, one could identify with the king, partaking of his omnipotence and immortality. Sagan observes that even the “lowliest person on the ladder wants that kind of power to exist in the world.”
VIII. Release from Morality
Why are institutions that produce extraordinary violence—such as that of war—more-or-less taken for granted as elements of society? When an individual acting on his own kills large numbers of human beings, we call him a mass-murderer and are astonished that he could perform such an act. This person is morally condemned, and often assumed to be suffering from a mental disorder.
On the other hand, when an individual kills large number of people in the name of the society he represents, we take an entirely different stance. If killing is undertaken by a member of our society—for example by a soldier who fires a machine-gun or a pilot who drops a bomb—we attach positive moral valence to this act. We assume that his behavior is justified and justifiable.
Historians study specific episodes of political violence. Looking at the sequence of events that lead to a particular war, the assumption is that each case has a separate, distinct cause. I hypothesize that a broader dynamic is at work; that the tendency of societies to perform acts of violence is inherent in the nature of the state.
What is it about the domain of politics that releases people from ordinary moral strictures and structures? Why—in the domain of politics—is everything permitted? Why—within this sphere—are extraordinary acts of brutality considered to be normative?
What occurs as “history” is felt to be beyond good-and-evil, transcending ordinary human existence. Within this domain, standards used to judge other spheres of existence are not applicable. Societies that engage in murderous acts of war may not be considered immoral. What is the nature of the political domain that makes it immune from ordinary moral standards?
One may hypothesize that human beings have created politics as a unique domain precisely to establish a place where people can be released from laws and conventional forms of behavior. Within this privileged sphere, human being are allowed to commit acts of mass-murder.
When waging war, human beings shoot one another, blow each other up, torture one another, drop bombs on cities and murder thousands of people. Yet these events are not considered unusual or abnormal. They are reported in newspapers and recorded in history books. By virtue of having been reported and recorded, these forms of behavior are rendered normative. They become the stuff of ordinary life. This is how things are.
IX. Twentieth Century Pharaohs
Lewis Mumford traces the extraordinary violence of the Twentieth Century to the model or ideology established at the beginning of civilization, which revolved around the extreme centralization of political power in the person of tyrants, despots and kings—who exerted unqualified command over private wealth by taxation, expropriation, and conquest. Out of this personal sovereignty of the king by divine right rose the impersonal sovereignty of the state.
The “megamachine” refers to the system that allowed powerful leaders to command and direct large numbers of men in concerted effort. The megamachine, Mumford explains, is not a mere administrative organization, rather is a machine in the orthodox sense: a combination of interchangeable parts designed to perform standardized motions and repetitive work.
The prototype of the megamachine was the laborers of Egypt who came together to build the Pyramids. Commanded by the Pharaoh and his court, men from all parts of the Egyptian state—like soldiers in an army—united to create a gigantic monument. Civilization, Mumford says, evolved out of the capacity for a central agent or agency to direct and command the work of tens-of-thousands of men. Only by virtue of such concerted efforts could “big” projects—like the building of a pyramid—be accomplished.
Warfare was another project requiring the assemblage of the megamachine. To keep the threat of war constantly in existence, Mumford observes, is the surest way to hold the “otherwise autonomous or quasi-autonomous components together as a functioning working unit.” To this day, the threat of war allows political leaders to conscript members of society.
Mumford argues that Twentieth Century totalitarian societies operated according to the same dynamic that drove ancient Near Eastern societies. Fascist and communist dictatorships were headed by flesh-and-blood “incarnations of the old-time ‘king by divine right’.” Men like Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao stood at the center of their respective societies and—like Pharaohs—required absolute obedience to their commands and whims.
According to Mumford, there is no component of the modern megamachine that did not exist “in fact or in dream” in the original model. The ancient and modern megamachines have similar technological capacities. They are systems of organization capable of performing tasks that lie “outside the range of small-work collectives and loose tribal or territorial groups.”
The difference between the ancient and modern megamachines is the level of technology that can be put at the disposal of the latter. What is distinctly modern, Mumford explains, is the effective “materialization of archaic dreams” that hitherto had been technologically impractical. What were once impossible wishes, vain hopes and empty boasts in the mouths of ancient gods and kings have now become actualities, and herald even more “wanton expansions of irresistible power and unrestrained irrationality.”
Writing during the nuclear competition between the United States and Soviet Union, Mumford in The Pentagons of Power (1970) states what the ancient and modern megamachines have in common is that each ignores the needs and purposes of life in order to “fortify the power complex and extend its dominion.” Both megamachines, Mumford says, are “oriented toward death.”
The project of building pyramids may be understood as a form of death-in-life, that is, a project in which life is devoted to overcoming death. Builders of Pyramids toiled their entire lives at back-breaking labor for the sake of bringing a monument into the world—whose only purpose was to assure the immortality of the Pharaoh. The wealth of Egypt and energy of its people were siphoned off into building these dead things.
In the Twentieth Century, energy & wealth were siphoned off to support ideologies that promised immortality. Hitler dreamt of a “thousand year Reich.” Lenin, Stalin and Mao embraced the ideology of communism that—they imagined—would come to dominate the world. What do we have to show for these ideologies now?
Mumford discusses new forms of the Pyramid complex, e. g., skyscrapers, atomic reactors, nuclear weapons, superhighways and space rockets. These contemporary megalithic structures “reproduce all the features of the ancient form of Pyramid building on an even larger scale.” Mumford says that our attachment to the modern megamachine possesses the quality of a religion.
Just as static physical structures supported the worshipper’s belief in the validity of Pharaoh’s claim to divinity and immortality, so Mumford says do contemporary megalithic projects equally “validate and exalt the new religion.” More broadly, we may suggest, people in the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries worship and are devoted to the idea of the nation-state.
Nation-states rest at the heart of modern societies, capable of mobilizing human energy and material resources on a vast scale. The most extreme form of national mobilization occurs when a nation goes to war. Mumford says that the institution of war represents a “special form of social organization” that grew out of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian communities of the pyramid age.
During times of war, the megamachine rolls into action (see “War is the Health of the State”, Randolph Bourne, 1918). Leaders can call upon hundreds-of-thousands of human beings. Factories produce guns, bullets, tanks, artillery shells, aircrafts, bombs and military uniforms. Soldiers may be required to go into battle—and to die. Warfare constitutes the state in all its glory.
Mumford hypothesizes that the dynamic that he uncovered at the heart of ancient civilization also governed the massive destructiveness of the Twentieth Century. In each case, a single individual—at the center of society—was granted enormous power and the capacity to compel absolute obedience.
Only belief in the divinity of the king and willingness to unconditionally obey his orders, Mumford says, could bring forth the unified efforts required for large-scale projects such as building Pyramids. Some of these projects—such as building dams for irrigation—were extremely beneficial to human beings; other large-scale projects produced no concrete benefits.
In the Twentieth Century, higher levels of technical performance allowed the megamachine’s capacity to inflict destruction and death to be both “expanded and speeded up.” Writing about the nuclear competition between the United States and Soviet Union, Mumford observes that no human purpose was served by the modes of extermination that were developed.
The development of nuclear weapons demonstrated the “deep underlays of psychotic irrationality” upon which fantasies of absolute weapons, power and control were laid. Compared with the pervasive dedication to death in our own culture, Mumford says, the Egyptian cult of the dead—with its magniloquent pyramids, magic rituals, and elaborate techniques of mummification—was a “relatively innocent exhibition of irrationality.”
The democratic revolutions of the last 200 years represent a reaction against the tendency to endow political leaders with absolute power. The French and American revolutions sought to liberate people from the idea of the “divine king.” Yet the inclination of people to believe that certain individuals possess extraordinary powers—and to seek to connect with these powerful people—remains fundamental.
This mechanism took on an extreme form in totalitarian societies that dominated the Twentieth Century. People like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Mao were imagined to constitute the center of their respective societies. Like divine Kings, they were granted absolute power, and therefore were able to generate monumental destruction.
I suggest that the psychic mechanism that compels us to link ourselves with political leaders today is the same mechanism that generated attachment to Pharaohs during the time of the Pyramids. In each instance, some extraordinary force or power is imagined to emanate from a place in society outside the self. This place—separate from one’s personal, private life—is conceived as the center of society.
Of course, leaders at the center have power only because of their relationship to a nation. Rudolf Hess often declared, “Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler.” Hitler’s extraordinary power was based on the fact that he embodied or symbolized the German nation. Just as Pharaohs derived their power by virtue of their relationship to a god, so do leaders in the modern world derive power by virtue of their relationship to a nation.
The Pharaoh required obedience—used the energy of the Egyptian people to build a pyramid. Similarly, Hitler demanded the obedience of his people—asking them to wage war in the name of Germany. What each case has in common is that human beings are required to subordinate their own lives to an object or entity conceived as greater and more significant than the life of the individual.
Hitler declared to the German people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Leaders in Egyptian society might have said, “You are nothing, the Pharaoh is everything.” Or: “Your existence is insignificant—except as you devote your life to building a pyramid.” In each instance, human beings are asked to devote themselves absolutely to an object outside the self-conceived as omnipotent. This is what “sacrifice” means.
Like the Pharaohs, Hitler relished the creation of monumental architectural works. His building projects, Hitler said, were designed to “strengthen the National Socialist state.” Since we believe in the eternity of this Reich,” Hitler proclaimed, therefore “these works of ours shall also be eternal.” Buildings would be a symbol of the eternity of the Reich, that is, of a “people which lives forever.”
What the Pharaohs and Hitler had in common was their devotion to a fantasy of immortality. Human existence was devoted to sustaining this fantasy. The lives of individual human beings were sacrificed in the name of supporting this fantasy.