The Hydra

many_heads_of_the_hydraIn Greek myth, the Hydra is a monster with many heads. The Hydra cannot be defeating by cutting off its heads. Each severed head grows back faster and stronger. The only way to slay the Hydra is to strike at the heart.

The Hydra is also associated with the astrological constellation Cancer. Like the Hydra, cancer proliferates through growth. Unlike most diseases, which obstruct growth, cancer thrives by growing too much and crowding out the body. We often treat cancer by poisoning the patient with radiation, hoping we kill cancer cells faster than healthy cells can replicate so that the patient survives.

A similar construct exists in politics. One man may say we are getting screwed by the Republicans. Another man may say we are getting screwed by the Democrats. In both cases we are getting screwed and we are a victim. But perhaps you have heard an especially clever man say we are getting screwed by both the Republicans and the Democrats! Now you are doubly a victim.

In a sort of “inverse” parallel, you may have also noticed that a rather popular position to take is that of “fiscal conservative and social liberal.” With that view, instead of having two foes you have two allies. But what this all boils down to is a way to avoid commitment and appear “open minded.” It is a way to look cool, but not actually serve a purpose beyond yourself.

Despite all our finance and technology, what life really boils down to is relations between people. Hopefully you do not have conversations with your money. Hopefully you do not laugh with, learn from, teach, and make love to your money. Money is a means to an end, like a rake or garden shovel. It is not a goal. The real goal is more complex, but it starts with reality.

People waste time on questions like “does the individual precede society, or society precede the individual?” It doesn’t matter; reality precedes both. Similarly, you have heard the phrase “things change.” This is both true and not-true because it is not relevant to where such people are trying to apply it. You cannot step in the same river twice, but you can pour off water for your crops without caring that it’s the same water.

Material changes and appearances change. But the way in which, or the “process” by which, or the principle by which these things change, does not change. Water can freeze into solid ice, or boil into gaseous vapor, but the temperature at which either of these processes takes place does not change. So, water can change but the point at which it changes does not change.

This ability to distinguish between that which changes and that which does not change points to a third factor distinct from both change and non-change, namely the very faculty to distinguish between these things and make decisions. If everything is material (that which changes), and material is subject to strict laws (that which does not change), then what accounts for human decision making?

If all that exists in this world are material and the unchanging physical laws of it, then our choices are chemical reactions or mathematical equations. However, we seem to have the faculty of choice. Material and physical laws do not provide for this. It indicates that we have the ability to respond according to our own thought process, which isn’t as simple as pouring two chemicals together to get a third.

If I say “Jump!” you can respond in the affirmative, which one might say represents “change,” or you can respond in the negative, which represents “non-change,” or you might even respond nonsensically and ask me if I am a rodent. The very ability to make a choice represents a sort of option that eludes both change and non-change. Life is not as simple as being obedient or being disobedient; we cannot deny that there are other options on the table.

Perhaps the best illustration of the Hydra can be seen in the “national discussion” regarding spree killers. The same topics always come up like clockwork: mental health, gun control, video games, parenting. Rather than isolate one factor, we might try to say it is some combination, as if it is a perfectly calculable collection of percentages. This gets us closer to the answer than isolating only one of the factors, but such notions are also mistaken as life is not a math equation, nor is any event within it.

The key to get to the bottom of this is categorical thinking or logic. One must ask what all these factors of mental health, gun control, video games, and parenting have in common.

What they all have in common is they all fall under the heading of culture and values. For the sake of clarity, one might define ‘culture’ as values made manifest, thus they are one in the same. Culture and values does not fall under the category of any of the various factors, but all of the various factors do fall under the category of culture and values. It is not material, but a choice shared among people working together.

It may be a disheartening realization to know that the solution is via culture and values. Most people prefer a magic pill, a cop with unlimited authority, or psychologists to descend en masse with comforting excuses. Forming culture and convincing people to agree on generally similar values takes a lot of time and effort. Yet there is only one way to slay the Hydra, and that is to strike at the cultural disorganization that is its heart.

23 Responses to “The Hydra”

  1. NotTheDude says:

    There is no agreement on what is the standard is hence we have individuals working just for themselves, not giving a stuff about other’s well being or making the world nicer. I found that last night when I was getting a taxi home after being out drinking. (Slap wrist! But I am young!) I was hemmed in on all sides in the taxi office by the chatter of people who didn’t care to know you, wrapped up in their petty drunken squabbles. A girl turned to me and asked where I was going. I said, in Wessex dialect, ‘I’m goin’ back t’ the country, wur volk d’ dreat each udder roight’. I didn’t explain what I meant,, I just left.

  2. lisacolorado says:

    We vote our identities and according to those who treat us as though we have value. I must work on making my culture more important than my political opinions, even as many people I know are Barack worshipers. I’m not but I know we can’t convince one another. We can only value one another.

    • Take heart! Obama wasn’t the start of it, and like a bad flu, it’s going to have to run its course before the body is able to kick it out. In the meantime, I suggest two prongs of strategy: (a) get smart people like yourself into politics, and displace those fools in it right now, and (b) work on your local community and become known as the local Responsible Republican.

      (And then point them all to, of course.)

  3. The very ability to make a choice represents a sort of option that eludes both change and non-change.

    Classic conservatism: the question is not all of us joining with some progressive agenda, but individuals making choices outside of the social framework, such that their lives turn out well. When you think about it, it’s natural selection as well as the most antique and vivid of all moralities.

  4. crow says:

    The Swanson Effect. Thought-provoking, as always.
    Yet something really jarred, in the reading:

    …what life really boils down to is relations between people.

    I don’t see life in those terms, at all, at least not very much of life.
    But then, I don’t really have very much to do with people, in a direct way.
    So that statement may be true of social-life, but not of life in a wider context.
    In fact, to put such concerns too high in the hierarchy of what is important, seems a risky business.
    I seem to have a rather unusual outlook on such things:
    My own importance – or lack of it – defines my social interactions.
    I am somewhat important to me, but that is where my importance ends, and so the importance I attach to my own social interactions is pretty minimal.
    I try to get along, but failing that, I try to get away :)

    • NotTheDude says:

      That makes a lot of sense. When bad things happen to you or a loved one, your priorities all take a step back. What seemed like the most pressing goal before the operation, ain’t no more. Be honest about the importance of everything. Modern society thinks that this is being a killjoy and laughs or worse, sets upon you for no real reason, like when you tease a resting cat by touching it’s back legs untill it swipes at you. Haha.

    • Kevin says:

      I don’t frequent this site, and I mean no disrespect to Mr. Swanson, but I wanted to comment that I also found this section of the article to be “jarring”. In the first 2 paragraphs we’re pointed towards the Hydra as a representation of individuals trying to solve complex problems by focusing on just the symptoms to which they believe need remedies. This article seems to derail into a second train of thought mid-way through.
      I do not see any correlation between people victimizing themselves through political alliances, the hydra metaphor, and relationships being paramount to life… Also, it is a very bold gesture to categorize mental health care, gun control, parenting, and media consumption all under the heading of “cultural values” I do agree that we all fall prey to the urges of the magic pill to fix things. The answers are never that easy. However, I would argue that lumping all of these extremely complex topics under the culture umbrella and then saying, “we need to convince people to agree on similar cultural values” Is basically just a magic bullet argument in itself.
      Again, I want to point out that I mean no disrespect. I think Mr. Swanson and I would both agree that this country needs open forums and discussions on all of these topics. There is no future to be found in biased, tunnel vision and shouting matches over which head to cut off first. The hydra is an excellent metaphor describing the state of affairs in front of this great nation.

      • Ted Swanson says:

        No disrespect is taken at all. If you don’t frequent this site then you should start frequenting it!

        Think of it like this: whether it’s an individual or a nation, slaying the Hydra does not mean solving all problems or preventing all problems. It means more that when problems arise, they hardly phase us. It’s not a fix. It means that you hold steadfast to your values, your mission and your original vision. It means that if, in order to fix a problem, you have to violate your values or deviate from you mission, you don’t do it. Because even if you solve the problem, the very violation of values, creates even more problems.

    • Ted Swanson says:

      I do understand what you’re saying. But I often hear, in everyday chit chat, people identifying their politics as “I am a fiscal X, and a social Y.” A broad and superficial division, for sure, but that is roughly how people have divided it up. So with that in mind, I give priority to the social over the fiscal. The social side of conservatism must not be given up on. This is how you really capture hearts and minds. Let’s say your family goes out and cuts down a Christmas tree every year. You go to the same Christmas tree farm every year. You feed the reindeer at the farm every year. You talk to the farmer every year. You take it home and decorate it with your family every year. This represents social conservatism. Then you see liberals get bent out of shape, because they are putting up a Christmas tree in your state’s Capitol building. I know a lot of liberalish people that resent their fellow liberals for pulling precisely these kind of impotent stunts. Most of these people will never understand a fiscal argument in their lives. The imagination needs to be captured and this is precisely where both the social liberal and the fiscal conservative fail.

      • RiverC says:

        I think Lewis had a work – ‘Men without chests’ – about the capturing of the imagination, or as he would put it, the training of the affections.

        The discouraging part is that this training needs to be done before formal pedagogy – i.e. reading, writing, arithmetic, etc. – not after it. It should be obvious that people do more poorly in math who think of it it as worthless and a waste of time than people who are not great at it (low nonverbal IQ) but see it as an essential tool and it’s use well befitting a rational being.

        He argues – and this is prior to formal psychology on the topic – that our feeling proceeds our thought on things, that we are primarily intuitive or emotional and rationality only follows on it. He then argues that to feel rightly about things is the prerequisite to understand them and to think rightly.

        That makes sense – our nation’s heart is complete out of whack, so it therefore follows that its thinking will be. Granted, the connection is not one-to-one – free will exists even in situations where it is heavily enslaved and people still can recognize shadows for what they are if they really want to.

        This is why the liberals kept saying ‘it’s for the children’ – you’ve got to teach them deconstruction before they get attached to meaning.

        • Ted Swanson says:

          It certainly does make sense. My parents read to me all 7 books of The Chronicles of Narnia when I was in 1st or 2nd grade. I have not revisited them since then, but I believe they are still lurking somewhere within my consciousness.

          • crow says:

            Aha! Now I have an indication of your age.
            I had never imagined I might be your senior.
            My first long-term girlfriend, an American, read those books to me, in a tiny chalet on the North Norfolk coast, during a freezing winter. I was seventeen.
            The very idea of a wardrobe, leading to another realm, has never left me, either.

            • Ted Swanson says:

              You made your girlfriend read to you? I like the way you think, old bean.

              • crow says:

                Well, I once had a history of ‘making’ women do my bidding, but that was not the case here. She took it upon herself to read to me. Maternal stuff, you know. It was very pleasant, once I got used to it.
                I probably would never have read those books, myself, being a conflicted teen, and eager to leave childish things – and books – behind me.
                She was special.

    • Ted Swanson says:

      One more thing to keep in mind, crow. Some of the essays I write are about absolute things – reality, ontology. Some are about what I see as the general landscape of social reality, as it is right now. This essay belongs in the latter category, although I do prefer to write about the former. This is why I use those terms in this essay.

      • crow says:

        Wasn’t finding fault, Ted, old bean.
        Was saying it jarred me into a non-comprehending state.
        Crows know lots of things, but some things are unknowable to crows.
        People often think crows are very social, but really they are not.
        It’s just that all crows are all one crow, and so the distinction between various crows is meaningless to them.
        Arrrk (:>

        • Ted Swanson says:

          Oh, I know you weren’t finding fault! (;>

          Hell, I might as well just confess: I’ve always just wanted to take a shot at the so called “fiscal conservative, social liberal!” I just wanted to get a fight going!

  5. Joe says:

    The Hydra Constellation in the night sky can been seen best from Miami Beach.

  6. Archie says:

    On an unrelated note: That cheeseburger on the logo looks so damn tasty.

    Cheeseburgers taste good! Hot dogs taste good!

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