Roman copy of the 1st century BCE,
Greek original of the 5th century BCE.
Archeologico Nazionale, Naples
Photo Credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY.
The ancient Greek myth of the Labors of Hercules required some massaging to bring it into modern relevance—especially as our struggles rarely involve gods, monsters or farm animals. Yet curiously, even today, the most popular figure in the Olympic pantheon is Herakles—more widely known by his Roman name, Hercules. The stories about Hercules, developed two to three thousand years ago, are globally pervasive in the media, and the word “Herculean” is now applied to describe any difficult task. The Labors are easily adaptable to an overview of our modern condition primarily because the ancient Greeks were in fact physically and psychologically identical to us.
Hercules, the heroic half-mortal son of Zeus, was challenged with twelve seemingly impossible labors that he was required to perform before he could become fully divine. Because all stories about gods incorporate the qualities and failing of the humans who create them, Hercules represents the struggles of all ordinary humans to realize their full potential. The popular depiction of Hercules has today been simplified into the formulaic, action-adventure motif of good versus evil, with Hercules as a typical action-hero. The original myth, however, is very convoluted: Hercules was born the half-human/half-divine son of the adulterous god Zeus as a result of his father’s impersonation of a married woman’s husband. Zeus’ angry wife, Hera, who was also his sister, took unceasing revenge not on her husband/brother Zeus but on her innocent stepson. After many attempts to kill Hercules, Hera finally caused him to go temporarily insane and slaughter his family. As contrition for these murders—and in order to earn his way back into the pantheon of gods—Hercules spent the next 12 years performing his impossible labors. Before Hercules could reach his goal, after a life full of struggle and misery his second wife accidentally poisoned him. The pain was so agonizing that Hercules chose instead to burn himself to death on top of a blazing pyre.
By contrast, in the modern animated Disney version, Hercules is born fully divine. Zeus only has eyes for his wife, Hera, who is Hercules’ proud and loving natural mother. Hercules is the ideal husband and hero. After some successful battles to establish his greatness, he and his wife go off into the sunset to live happily ever after. Well-deserving of its G-rating, this sanitized Hercules is just right for its intended audience. In our real life R-rated world, people are a mixture of the profound and profane. Even people who seem quite ordinary sometimes run amok and slaughter their kin. In our world, as in the Greek myths, marriages crumble, cruel stepmothers abound, and no one lives happily ever after.
We are moving from an era of institutionalized denial to a time of tentative self-confrontation, but we are disorganized and we cling to our old habits. We take a step toward change and are immediately overwhelmed with the enormity of the challenge. It hurts to change, and we are not sure we should change. Some say we are doing the best we can, or that we should try to recapture an idealized version of the past. Meanwhile anyone with an established niche is terrified of any challenge to the status quo fearing a loss of power, status, and wealth.
However, when fear is put aside and we take a close look, it is clear we are courting disaster just as past generations have done, except now we have the added capability of thorough self-destruction. An honest assessment of our modern world provides the evidence we have not achieved competence, expediency, or compassion in relation to our human concerns. Nevertheless, I believe that society’s problems are comprehensible and solvable. What I have learned during this long project has only deepened my conviction.
My first career was in fine art, but my ideas about how things work in the world have been heavily influenced by my later experiences as a designer and builder. A building project, a morass of complex interrelated problems sitting on its small plot of earth, is a problem-ridden microcosm of the world. During the design process, there is a great deal of information gathering, local politics, negotiation, and planning. During construction, the building materials are brought together with workers and sub-contractors—each with their own specialties, needs and problems. A miniature economy is created, containing myriad financial interactions as money flows from its source to local governmental agencies, tax collectors, insurance companies, workers and suppliers. Water, waste disposal, energy, and telecommunication links are tentatively established, and then permanently secured, along with the all the other elements being drawn in and organized. Typical modern construction draws in raw materials and energy at a prodigious rate while, unfortunately, also spewing out great mounds of waste material. After the seemingly impossible is completed, the house and its occupants settle down into a relationship that continues to be defined by a symbiotic dependency on the concentric shells of community, county, state, country, planet, and universe.
I always begin each new building project by collecting a long list of defining conditions or variables that stretch from the specifics of a site to the project’s integration with the rest of the community and beyond. Hard variables are usually such things as location, size and topography of the building lot, climate, orientation of the sun, budget, and the prevailing building code. Softer variables can be such things as the style and aesthetics of the house, the needs and preferences of the people to be living in the house, and the configuration of the rooms. After the list of variables is firmed up, it serves as the structure and guideline to the designing of the structure. Revisions that follow always involve an underlying ambivalence or change in the variables. It is my task to design a building (or neighborhood or town, which is now my goal as an urban designer) so that the various conditions are balanced in the most satisfying manner possible. The Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius wrote the oldest surviving text on architecture in the 1st century BCE. He proclaimed that our dwellings should offer “firmness, commodity, and delight.”
Architects may come up with very different plans because of differences in opinion as to what constitutes what we now call structural soundness, function, and aesthetics. All architects agree that a building should have structural integrity, and the building and safety department will insist upon it; but an architect with an engineering background might give structural concerns more weight than aesthetic ones. Since World War II, most architects and their clients have given short thrift to delight, preferring bare functionality and square footage over either charm or integration into the community. Our world is now overrun with buildings we can hardly bear to look at and cities that are hard to live in. Nowadays, there is renewed interest in returning to aesthetics and putting delight back into our buildings and our cities. As a designer/builder who is also an artist, this is of special concern to me.
When I put on my building contractor’s hat and actually build something, there are always conditions related to function that have changed or were nonexistent when I was designing the plans. There are also opportunities to increase the delight by adding little touches or changing small details. Later, as a homeowner living in one of my finished houses, new conditions arise that will start my laying out a new garden, making alterations or building a new addition. One thing I can count on is that no matter how good the original design and construction was, maintenance is the only thing that will reliably endure. Human society is like an old, immense boarding house constantly being remodeled and maintained by billions of architects and builders, all with different opinions about what constitutes firmness, commodity and delight, each with varying emphasis on which of the three is the most important. The variables in such a scheme must surely be infinite; yet almost everyone seems to finds a niche in this flawed but dynamic structure. In the case of our global house-of-neglect, the structure is still standing; but if the universal building and safety inspectors came around and did an inspection, we would be cited for at least twelve problems:
- POLITICS: The last building inspector was fired after being caught accepting our payoffs. (He is now a politician whose influence can be bought legally by lobbyists and campaign contributors).
- OVERPOPULATION: Too many people are living in the house. An eco-optimist is crowing for us not to worry because we will build another house as soon as we find another Earth-like planet and figure out how to get there.
- POVERTY: The building is falling down.
- DRUGS: The police found a joint of marijuana on a terminally ill cancer sufferer living in one of the rooms. They are now getting a court order to seize the entire house under the provisions of asset forfeiture law.
- ENVIRONMENT: Outside the house, all the trees have been cut down for firewood, trash is piling up in the yard, the septic tank is leaking, the well is poisoned, and an unsupervised baby is chewing lead paint off the old banister.
- JUSTICE: Half of the tenants are pissed off and armed, and the other half are hiding behind locked doors.
- ECONOMICS: The owners have over-mortgaged their future, and the payments are two months past due on an upside-down sub-prime mortgage.
- ENERGY: The electricity is about to be turned off.
- URBANISM: The front yard is filled with cars but no one wants to venture out because the freeways are gridlocked. Unfortunately, nothing is within walking distance.
- HEALTH: Many of the boarders are sedentary smokers who are overweight and sick. Some of them have pre-existing conditions that would disqualify them even if they could afford to buy insurance.
- RELIGION: Jehovah’s Witnesses are at the door, and a saucer cult is on the roof waiting to be abducted by aliens. The devout are experiencing cognitive dissonance over whether to fall prostrate before the image of the Virgin on a screen door or kneel down to the image of Jesus that someone has found on a tortilla chip.
- THE FUTURE: Some await the Rapture (or some version of it), and do not care what happens; but most are corralled into believing they must vigorously defend the status quo in order to hang onto what little they have. Meanwhile, most are unaware that a real techno-rapture is brewing.
As this book came together it became clear that we already have learned enough about the defining conditions of our home planet to draw up a comprehensive blueprint for change and begin remodeling. There are still some unsettled variables, which will require changes later, as with any building project, but to delay any longer will cost a lot of money and might even doom the project. The essential and inflexible defining condition is well understood—we are on an 8,000-mile diameter rock with only a thin, fragile biosphere to protect our vulnerable, thin-skinned bodies from the vast and inhospitable reaches of space.
The next step is to pull the permit and start to work. The problem is that, before the permit can be applied for, we need to have consensus. The insidious danger is that the potential solutions will be compromised into ineffectuality, while the political functionaries at City Hall try to delay the permit with endless administrative review. Ultimately, the hardest task of all is to reach agreement about what to do.
The avenues leading to positive, substantive change are clogged with the victims of widespread disinformation, institutionalized denial, cultural inertia, organized religion, property interests, and greed. In yet another example of the banality of evil, one feels neither personally accountable nor empowered because the responsibility for our situation has been diluted among the growing billions of us, mostly just going about our business.
So where does a concerned citizen begin? It helps to look back to the founding fathers of our republic for inspiration. My favorite is Thomas Paine, an English political thinker who was also instrumental in the American Revolution. Paine insisted we must replace ignorance with reason, and he believed that common people should have the ability to determine their own fate through representative democracy. In January 1776 he published a best-selling pamphlet titled Common Sense. This rallying document urged the nation to make a declaration of independence, and then establish a “Continental Congress” to set up a constitution, a bill of rights, and a permanent congress. Understanding the traditional resistance to change, he wrote:
Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides.
When the tumult subsided about 12 years later, we were left with a watered down democracy that secured the economic and political interests of the 55 Founding Fathers and others like them. This Federal Republic was a vast improvement over the British monarchy, but it was not a democracy, nor is it truly one yet. Nevertheless, once Paine saw the United States established he returned to England, where he wrote The Rights of Man. Meanwhile, much of the credit for the founding of the Republic went to others, including Thomas Jefferson, who was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. It was Jefferson, inspired by John Locke, who wrote the words:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Despite these words, Jefferson apparently did not consider women as equals, and judging from the fact that he owned over two hundred slaves, it seems he also did not consider slaves to be men. Evidence shows that Thomas Jefferson sired and enslaved the seven children borne by his slave mistress Sally Hemings. This scandal first broke during Jefferson’s second term in office, and he denied the allegations.
Thomas Paine went further than Jefferson or nearly anyone else of his time and promoted the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and the establishment of a graduated tax scheme to balance the income between rich and poor. While living in England, he put himself in grave danger by railing against aristocracy, monarchy, and injustice. Paine was also a virulent critic of superstitious beliefs and the notion of a personal deity. He penned a devastating critique of the Bible and of organized religion that still is lively and informative more than two hundred years later. To understand democracy, to face the forces arrayed against it, and to speak out against people who used their doctrines of religious intolerance to abuse others, especially in those early days, took wisdom and courage. In 1792, for his role in the successful American experiment and his ideas about the monarchy, Paine was indicted in England for treason. However, soon thereafter he escaped to France, where he took a seat in the National Convention. Outspoken as always, he nearly lost his head to the guillotine. It was a time generally hostile to free thinkers. Thomas Paine eventually returned to America where he could at least speak his mind.
Martin Luther King once said, “The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.”
People who have nothing to lose are less afraid of change, but they have no power to institute change. Much of our hope must be pinned on changing the mindset of those with power whose fear and greed are blocking progress.
Big changes are often accompanied by violent upheavals. Someone who is willing to die or kill for his or her beliefs tends to get attention, as in the case of 9/11 and other suicide attacks. But violent change is often followed by retaliation that creates yet more injustice. Will we prove to be rational, far-sighted, and compassionate enough to change without waiting for civil strife, chronic terrorism, or other kinds of disasters to precipitate reform?
In recent years, when it has become impossible to ignore obvious problems in our country, someone inevitably stands up and cries out for change by returning to a nostalgia-clouded vision of the “good old days.” As with our look back to Thomas Paine, it is crucial to examine the history of ideas and respect the lessons of the past, especially to observe our failures and successes. But some important conditions have changed—we now live in a world where the effects of global population growth and pollution are threatening us in ways that demand urgent, yet unfamiliar solutions.
A minor example of this dilemma was the problem known as Y2K. Neglecting to program computers to tell the difference between 1900 and 2000 cost $300 billion to fix, and wasted millions of person-hours. The most frustrating aspect of the so-called “millennium bug” was that it had been publicly written about since 1958, so it would have been painlessly easy to phase in by 2000. By neglecting almost all of our serious problems, we are doing something that is having effects immeasurably worse than the Y2K glitch. A small, well-placed effort now will pay tremendous dividends in the near future. With this in mind, it is also prudent to err on the side of caution when it comes to having so much confidence in the ability of technology to solve our problems. Technology can be the tool to leverage a good idea, or it can be a bludgeon that deepens our mistakes and leads to long-term misery. In the case of Y2K, the problem turned out to be oversold, and thus became an example of how important it is to understand a problem before trying to fix it.
The twentieth century, largely because of advances in science and technology, was the most remarkable 100 years in human history. However, the twentieth century will also be noted by our descendents, assuming there will be descendents, for two remarkable stupidities, one high-tech and the other low-tech. The first is the global thinking that gave rise to the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD for short). This policy allowed the construction of tens of thousands of nuclear-armed missiles, which even long after the Cold War can still instantly destroy the world as we know it. The second one is the failure to stop exponential population growth, which is slowly destroying our world.
A branch of mathematics popularly known as “chaos theory” should sober those who think the Earth can support continued population growth. Chaos theory demonstrates how very small initial effects in natural systems can lead to large as well as unpredictable consequences even though they follow precise, determined mathematical laws. The most astonishing example is of how the smallest effect in the universe—a random quantum fluctuation, supposedly arriving out of zero mass/energy at the beginning of the universe—led to the large-scale structure of the universe, which is the largest known object in nature.
Meteorologist Edward Lorenz developed chaos theory in the 1960s after building on much earlier work by the French mathematician Henri Poincaré. Lorenz devised a chaotic weather model that, when plotted in three dimensions, created a butterfly-shaped fractal known as a strange attractor. This 3-D mathematical butterfly can be extrapolated to wind currents in the real world. It has been demonstrated mathematically that a real-life butterfly fluttering its tiny wings in one place—say the Amazonian rain forest—might set in motion small wind movements that could lead to a series of progressively larger weather events, eventually culminating in a hurricane that could devastate the peninsula of Florida. Even slight variations in the initial conditions would have dramatically different consequences. Because of this, Lorenz showed that it is impossible to make reliable long-range weather forecasts. Since many physical and biological systems are chaotic, this situation is also applicable to nearly everything within our biosphere.
If we start our scenario with a large initial effect—for example, the destruction of the rain forest where that butterfly was flitting about—the resulting effects will have tremendous consequences on many levels. The immediate and obvious loss of the rain forest is compounded by the almost infinite variables inherent in multiple, interconnected dynamic physical and biological systems that are also chaotic. Natural systems that are being pushed far from equilibrium by human activities are increasingly susceptible to unpredictable consequences. As a result, we may be stacking the odds against ourselves higher than a hapless tourist playing high-stakes poker with the wiliest dealer in Las Vegas.
Fortunately, small positive effects that arise from choices that we make in our individual life might also evolve into social movements that could transform the Earth. Naturally we hope for this sort of effect but hope is not enough. We must act wisely on our planetary concerns in order to remake our world. At present there is a growing and well-intentioned alarm but very few agreed-upon solutions. If we find concrete solutions that can be championed by wise leaders, then small steps in the right direction could be like the wind currents set in motion by the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings. The momentum could build into a storm of public opinion and positive actions that would sweep across the land. If so, these winds of change could dispel the clouds of lies, denial, and indifference that darken our political institutions. Our nation might then be free to rise exhilaratingly close to the vibrant and cherished ideals of honesty, justice and compassion.
The Hercules Myth
The bewildering pantheon of Greek gods and monsters arose from the desire of our ancestors to find structure and meaning in nature. Zeus, for example, was called Jupiter by the Romans and was identified with one of the planets observed by the ancient Greeks. The planets and constellations that enlivened the night sky were honored as immortal celestial beings with unique personalities.
Zeus became the top god in the Greek pantheon. The name Zeus seems to have originated with the Babylonian sky god Zu, who also hurled thunderbolts when he was feeling cranky. Jupiter, a.k.a. Jove, was later promoted by the patriarchal Jews into their own tribal deity, Jehovah, and Jehovah, of course, became a jealous God who would have no other gods before Him.
Zeus had three other marriages before he decided incest was best and hitched up for eternity with his sister Hera. Because the planet Jupiter seems to wander through the night sky from star to star, it is easy to see how Zeus might be credited with a wandering eye. On the evening that I write this there is some celestial intrigue going on. A pregnant moon is alone in the eastern sky, while Jupiter is already beaming proudly on the opposite side of the sky after a near conjunction with Venus.
Whether out of his wandering nature, boredom, or executive privilege, Zeus embarked on a series of adulterous liaisons that resulted in the conception of many children, including Hercules. One night, while Amphitryon, the husband of the mortal woman Alcmene, was away doing battle, Zeus descended from Mount Olympus and impregnated Alcmene by pretending to be her husband.
After Alcmene bore the demigod Hercules, Zeus slyly laid the baby at his sleeping wife’s breast so that his son could get a drink of Hera’s immortality-conferring milk. Instead, Hercules bit hard and sent a stream of milk from Hera’s breast into the sky, thus creating the Milky Way. Hera was awakened, Zeus’ infidelity was discovered, and Hercules was then hastily returned to Alcmene. Still jealous, Hera sent poisonous, fire-breathing snakes to kill the infant Hercules. But Hercules was already stronger than any man, and gleefully banged the snakes to death while playing with them like toys.
Zeus saw to it that Hercules was taught all the arts and disciplines of the time by the wise and virtuous Centaur Chiron, as well as by other great teachers. The tall, handsome, muscular Hercules spent his youth defending villages from beasts and performing good deeds. One day he was out walking and came to a fork in the path. At the entrance to the first path was a beautiful woman in a revealing dress. She said, “Come with me and I will give you pleasure and riches.”
Behind her the path was wide and strewn with flowers. In the first blush of excitement, Hercules was ready to skip down the path with this luscious creature. After a momentary swoon he came to his senses and peered intently into the distance. He could see that the way narrowed and became crowded by thorn bushes. It was then that he noticed a plain, dignified woman standing at the entrance to the second path. The woman said, “My name is Arete, I represent virtue. If you come with me you will do what is right by everyone. It might require some sacrifice, but you will leave the world a better place.”
Hercules looked over her shoulder and saw that the way was narrow and difficult. In the distance, however, he could see that the path grew wider and that the thorns were replaced with flowers. Being a sensible demigod, he chose to follow Arete. He performed many virtuous deeds after that, eventually catching the attention of the King of Thebes, who presented his daughter Megara to Hercules for marriage. Hercules and Megara enjoyed happiness for a while and she bore him six sons.
His success made Hera so jealous that she cast an evil spell over Hercules, causing him to go temporarily insane and slaughter his entire family. When he came to his senses, his first thought was to kill himself. He sought the counsel of the oracle of Delphi. The seer told him that in atonement for the murder of his family he should labor for twelve years in the service of his mean-spirited cousin, King Eurytheus. After Zeus heard about this, he convinced Hera to agree that if Hercules could complete this arduous servitude, he could become a full-fledged god, achieve immortality, and be able to join the divine pantheon. Hera agreed, but only because she thought Hercules would never succeed.
Even though we begin in myth, the solutions to our problems are fundamentally practical and secular. The mythological Hercules completed his labors in twelve years, and it will certainly take us at least that long to complete ours.