Zak and Thak were sitting around the entrance to the cave, just shooting the breeze in a primitive language that we have translated here into an even more primitive language. It was 24,032 B.C. and the sky was blue, the plains around them green and populated with many animals.
Thak: Things have been getting worse lately.
Zak: What do you mean? The last hunt brought in many wildebeast. We won the recent tribal war. It has rained bountifully, and all of our plants are doing well.
Thak: The problems that I can see coming, those never bother me. It is easy enough to notice that there are storm clouds on the horizon, but harder to know when your organization is about to fall apart. Remember Beta Cave?
Zak: Yeah, what about them? They just — poof! — up and vanished.
Thak: It is that sudden invisible doom that worries me. What happened in Beta Cave was simple: they had a big hunt and abundant crop, so the hunters and workers decided they did not have to work anymore, which made their leaders mad because they know that a big win this year can mean that next year will be lean. This meant that the leaders had to spent all of their time pushing people back into line so they would do their duties, and that meant that they were blindsided when Omega Cave attacked. They threw off that assault easily, but then people started to get uneasy because it was a surprise, and all the workers were complaining. The assumed their leaders were bad, kicked them out the door, and then tried to lead themselves. Every decision was a mass of debate, and soon they started deciding that some choices were off the table. They abolished the distinction between seed and feed. They stopped scheduling hunts by the moon. They allowed people to live wherever they wanted in the cave, instead of having people live according to their rank, so that warriors and leaders were near the opening. From what I hear, it was a virtual comedy — a “clown world” as they might call it someday in 2017 A.D. — because anything that was true was forbidden to say, and so people spent their time working on what was not true, and while they had enough competent people to have abundant crops and hunts, the confusion drove everyone mad so they simply scattered to the four corners.
Zak: Yes, that is what I heard as well. It was a mass craziness, like when the apples ferment and the pigs go insane after eating them.
Thak: That is what I mean by an invisible threat. Almost all of our failings as hominids occur because we are acting crazy. Sometimes it is like the pigs who ate the fermented apples, and there are some who are just broken in the mind, but usually it is simply us acting on things that we think were true or wish were true, or at first appeared to be true, but then we have not updated our knowledge from the world around us, and so we are acting as if we were in a different world, one located in our minds.
Zak: True, too true.
Thak: As we evolve, it seems to me that our biggest challenge is trying to stay organized. Life is like the hunt, a question of how to adapt to a rapidly-changing situation, which includes the need for logistics, doing things in the right order, and a hierarchy of command so that no question goes unanswered and we do not fall into confusion about how and when to act, and in what order. Our spearmen line up to charge a mastodon, but if they all throw at once, they will probably collide their spears and miss, then have no weapons as the injured animal turns on them. Someone must bring water and food, and if a hunter is hurt, there needs to be someone who can tell which two hunters we can take out of the hunt to carry him between spears. There are some who are better scouts, others better trackers, and some who are only good in the beginning or finishing of the attack. To have a successful hunt, the hunt-leader must assemble enough hunters who are good at each of the duties needed, then assemble the supplies and weapons, then have a plan about how to encounter the prey and what we will do at that point, including what happens when things do not go according to plan. Even with excellent hunters, we have had bad hunts when we were not prepared. When we are not organized, we fail.
Zak: We could just hunt rabbits. One man can take a half-dozen in a day.
Thak: And that will feed, what? Four people. When we go on the big hunts, or tend to the plants that produce the roots and fruits that we need, we can feed many more, which allows us to have a cave that can defend itself, where we have people to make pottery for storing food, keep the fires tended, and even have a shrine and altar so that we can keep up our spirits when there are storms or famines. What drives us to the big hunt is the opportunity to be greater masters of our world.
Zak: And yet, as you point out, it is this mastery that caused Beta Cave to collapse.
Thak: Maybe so. But I think there was something else as well. They became masters, but forgot their purpose, and so they allowed lesser men to dwell among them, and this made their leaders into slaves who had to spend all of their time keeping others in line. On the hunt, a man who cannot keep up is allowed to fall behind, and he gets nothing of the take. In a prosperous cave, everyone may have some of the plenty, and so soon there are many people who do nothing but take. If you want your cave to succeed, you have to send away the people who can do nothing or who need to be constantly told what to do.
Zak: Not very sociable, though.
Thak: What is socializing but looking for ourselves in others? For that we have the surface of a still river before dusk or after dawn.
Zak: What you say is true, but I cannot trouble myself by it. I am doing well enough, this year, and I know that over time, all things fall apart. Trees age and die, even mountains collapse. If I struggle against the inevitable, I will be wasting my life on the hopeless and will in turn become miserable. It is better to enjoy what I have.
Thak: Remember the time we brought down that giant woolly mammoth?
Zak: Oh man, do I ever. That was a great hunt! We almost lost. That thing was huge.
Thak: And would you have enjoyed it more if the beast had been smaller, or less dangerous?
Zak: No. That was what made that hunt the hunt I will always remember. We took down a beast that stood a good chance of killing all of us.
Thak: So if there were a smaller, weaker beast, would you hunt that instead?
Zak: Of course not! This is what distinguishes hominids like us from animals. We need a spirit, a feeling, a reason to enjoy existence. You cannot have that by hunting weaker animals, despite it being smarter to hunt those.
Thak: Or rabbits.
Zak: At that point, we might as well just go back to gathering roots, mushrooms and berries.
Thak: I think we understand each other. For me, the cave is the hunt: there is a challenge there, and a chance for greatness, not just an easy meal and place to stay. I think you are the same way. We are not satisfied with comfort, safety and plenty. We need mountains to climb, wars to wage, and great hunts where the beast has the upper hand.
Zak: Definitely that is true.
Thak: Our societies are not like mountains or trees, but like whole forests. They can live forever, or as long as the stellar gods allow this world to live, if they are pruned and renewed. When we take firewood, we pare down the old and the weak trees, and new trees take their place, so that even if there is a fire or drought, there are enough strong trees to endure and restart the forest again.
Zak: Such a fragile thing. If even one generation fails…
Thak: Nature is designed of many fragile things, because that way, they are not corrupted. They are either strong or they cease to exist. Strength comes from fragility. The lion seeks mates, but can easily become lost, bit by a snake, fall off a cliff, or be beaten by other lions. This fragility ensures that what endures is the strong.
Zak: And yet, over time, all things decay.
Thak: Individual lions decay, but the species of lions does not. It renews itself through fragility and strength.
Zak: And you would do this to our cave?
Thak: Yes, because I have a different approach than our leaders. We need leaders who are fragile inside, full of sensitivity and wonder for this life. They need to be able to be harsh and lazy like the king lion. Their job is not to clean up after others; it is to conquer, and to lead, and then to make a new generation. They must be willing to let the weak die out, and to send away the useless, because the very sight of uselessness offends them. In a world with so much to do, and so much greatness to discover, weakness and uselessness are intolerable. Any one who does not understand that life is sacred in this way is unfit to be in our cave. That is the pruning. And then, the renewal. People must be full of life, seeking challenges always, not reveling in what they already have, or they become crazy and bored at the same time, and give up. That path leads to clown world.
Zak: Do you think it is possible that our cave could become a clown world?
Thak: Strength comes from fragility, and fragility comes from strength that does not judge its object. When we are strong, it is because we recognize that not all are strong, and we send away the defectives. When we are weak, it is because we include everyone under the assumption that they can carry our strength just by doing the same things that we do. Most caves become clown worlds and perish, like Beta Cave. They all went insane, but they did not realize it, because everyone else was insane too, so insanity seemed like power, until all fell apart.
Zak: Surely this was the work of some demon, or a god for whom they had fallen into ill-favor?
Thak: You and I are hunters who have roved many plains. We have seen many things, including invisible things like the organization of a cave. But we have never seen demons, and we realize those are just ways that people represent their fears. The demon is within. Things fall apart, and when they are weak inside, hominids desire that falling apart. They do not want to struggle anymore. They want to just let go, and stop interacting with life, but this is a weakness that a predator would smell downwind, so they hide this behind false strength. This strength consists of a lust for power and prosperity because those enable them to escape their role in the cave. A bad hunter becomes an important man, or a weak person has a group of hunters to order around, or a dumb man finds a way to pretend that he is smart because he knows things, even if they are not useful, or especially if they are not useful, because then no one else knows them and he can cleverly invent ways to make them seem more important than what is useful. The weakness within must be concealed with activity that seems like power. A man who can be invisible because his orders go out through others feels as if he has hidden his weakness, and so he will do selfish things, confident in his invisibility. A man who is weak will in private do weak things, but in public, show off his strength. They are not fragile, like nature, because they do not respond to the world around them or even the gods, but they do exactly the same thing no matter what happens. This makes them strong until, like Beta Cave, they find themselves in a different world than this one, and then this world takes its revenge.
Zak: I fear for my daughters, that they may marry such weak men.
Thak: And well you should, but the better question is why we suffer weakness to live around us? We can send them to Beta Cave… I suppose we cannot. We must send them away, that is for sure, because the hearts of young people are filled with passion, and passion comes from the self and not the world, so they make bad choices.
Zak: I can tell them not to be seen with such men.
Thak: But then they will see them secretly, because strong hearts rebel against that which they do not understand.
Zak: I see that this is quite a challenge.
Thak: Like the Great Hunt, it must be. We find meaning in this world because it is a challenge, and when we master it, we have become greater. When we are surrounded by weakness, we become depressed, and stop caring if we go greater or lesser. This is why we must remove the weak men before your daughters find them.
Zak: But our leaders will not do this. They, too, seek power, and in the many heads of our tribe, they find it.
Thak: This is true. But then they are not leaders, but what will someday be called “government,” or a type of control that cultivates weak people so that they can be made to do what it wills, instead of what is natural and sensible. This is why our leaders avoid war. They do not want to lose any of those heads, even if many of them should be lost. It is not that we are prosperous that makes us do this, only what enables us to do so. It is a loss of strength because they are not fragile enough within to understand the difference between a good idea and a better one.
Zak: If we took the daughters and sons of our best hunters, and led them to a new cave, we could start over and be greater.
Thak: And we should be secret in doing so, and appear weak whenever possible, so that we escape the notice of those possessed by vanity and the lust for power and prosperity. They will find and fight others like themselves, increasing their weakness which they believe is strength.
Zak: I am a man of the Great Hunt. So it shall be done.
Thak: And this is why I have this conversation with you, and not with just any person from our old cave.
Dusk settled onto the land, and lightning played through the clouds. A soft rain fell. Somewhere, a tree splintered and caught flame, struck with the bolts of the gods. Still the men sat, looking out over the beauty and mystery of their land.