I was originally introduced to the concept of “patriarchy” by my mom’s dear friend and one of my “Feminist Aunts”, Mary Jane Shoultz, at one of the many cocktail parties my mom threw in the early 1970s when I was a teen. It was basically defined as an ancient societal organizing principle based on a hierarchy of controlling father figures, that has perpetuated itself thru at least the last 5000 years.
I had always been a student of and fascinated by the narratives of human history. But somehow all the endemic violence and subjugation of human beings by other human beings I read about in the history books lacked a context to make any sense to me, having been raised by parents who loved me and believed in the progressive principles of humanism and equality. It was not until I read Riane Eisler’s book, The Chalice & the Blade, which posited a theory of the development of human civilization around two profoundly different organizing principles – domination and partnership – that I began to have an inkling of what was going on.
After nearly six decades in this incarnation on planet Earth, after all that I have experienced, been made aware of, and studied, I see my own life within the context of a grand transition by our human species from domination to partnership, from hierarchies of control to egalitarian circles of equals. I have dedicated my own life to being a witness to and facilitator of this transition, which I see driven by our fundamental need for the continuing development of human consciousness.
From Wanderers to Settlers
For the first 200,000 years of the human species we were all hunter-gatherers, nomadic tribes of people, formed into mostly egalitarian communities, scattered about the Earth living in sync with the natural ecology of our bountiful planet. It is only in the last 10,000 years, with our development of agriculture and herding, that most of us transitioned to what we call “civilization”, a more complex and hierarchical structure for organizing society.
The impetus for that transition from nomadic gathering and hunting to settled life growing crops and domesticating herd animals is an interesting question. I suspect that there were some sorts of developmental opportunities, beyond mere physical survival, that helped drive the transition. Perhaps mimicking the development of higher organisms on our planet from simpler life forms by increasing differentiation of cells into larger organizations of tissues and organs, new societies developed that allowed humans to differentiate and specialize in certain aspects of society to allow for the tribe to become a sort of “super organism”, and create at least the potential for further development.
The Rise of Civilization, Patriarchy & Control
From the recorded history of the past 5000 years, plus archaeological evidence from before that, it is clear that the human transition to civilization was a mostly violent and coercive one. It involved more militaristic tribes conquering other tribes, and consolidating their power and control over those other societies. Conquered peoples were sometimes incorporated as full members of the conqueror’s society, or more likely were relegated to a status of slavery, providing a captive soldiery and workforce to facilitate more conquest and the building of cites and other infrastructure that marks the early civilizations of recorded history.
So for the first half of our recorded history, civilization featured mostly unmitigated violence, domination and empire, driven by powerful male warlords, and society organized around a controlling hierarchal elite of other men generally from the same extended family or clan. It is argued by media philosopher Marshall McLuhan that it was the invention of phonetic literacy itself that played a major role in this domination and empire, while more positively contributing to the human species’ ability to store, accumulate and transmit knowledge. The small male elite that controlled most of the civilized world used violence and coercion to control the vast majority of other people within their purview, including conquered peoples from other tribes as slaves, but even the women and children of their own clan as chattel. This form of societal organization and the male-centric ideology that supported it is known to many as “patriarchy”, essentially the rule of the angry father figure, and practiced by the conquering warlords of the ancient world. A world view built around an “us and them” duality and a world view of scarcity rather than abundance.
The Axial Age: Challenging the Ancient Warlords’ Unmitigated Control
There may have been previous countervailing efforts, but German philosopher Karl Jaspers argues that there were apparent efforts throughout the world to apply a more ethical framework to human society from around 800 to 200 BCE, dubbed the “Axial Age”. Many of those efforts were the beginnings of major religions that still exist today, emerging from the ethical teachings of great thinkers and advocates from the period. Notably, these teachers – like Lao Tzu, Homer, Socrates, Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Archimedes, Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah (1st & 2nd) – called for a shared concern for all humanity around a concept we now generally refer to as the Golden Rule. They generally did not directly challenge the patriarchal order, but instead advocated that it should wield its power based on ethical laws (like the Golden Rule) rather than raw power and domination (which in contemporary popular culture is often referred to as the antithesis of the Golden Rule or “he who has the gold makes the rules”). Certainly Alexander the Great, the greatest of all “warlords” from the Axial Age time frame, was known as a more “enlightened despot”, and attempted to mix conquest and domination with the advancement of culture (at least his Greek culture).
The Empire Strikes Back
Though their original intention was to enlighten people with views to the metaphysical side of life, some of these religions would later get adopted as official religions of secular empires and co-opted and reworked as instruments for controlling people. Case in point was Christianity, adopted by Constantine I as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and torquing the teachings of Jesus with a strong “us and them” duality portraying Jews as a threat, a duality perpetuated over the next 17 centuries.
A Second Axial Age?
The patriarchal empire built around a retooled Christianity held most of the peoples of Europe in its grips for 12 centuries, limiting human development there, until the Protestant Reformation and the dawn of the Modern Era, described by some as a “Second Axial Age”. Again according to media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, it was the invention of movable type and printing during this period that catalyzed a revolution in human consciousness, crystallizing provocative new ideas of individualism, emancipation, and the methodologies of science (including analysis, abstraction and reductionism). The developing threads of these new ideas have created both a broadening egalitarian challenge to the ancient patriarchal ideas of elite control while also creating new more powerful science-based tools for control through “social engineering”. Countering these ideas of expanding human capability and agency are the “cup half-empty” ideas of innate human depravity embodied in Calvinism, which have continued to champion the rule by hierarchical elites. This modern duality of liberation and the enlightened despotism of meritocracy is personified in the life and legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably the Alexander the Great of this “Second Axial Age”.
Towards the Circle of Equals & a World Beyond Hierarchies of Control
Modern ideas of individualism and emancipation have inspired a vision of a world beyond the hierarchies of control by elites that marked the beginnings of and continuing hallmark of civilization. That egalitarian vision is expressed most simply as a “circle of equals”, an idea emerging from various sources including Quakerism, the Iroquois Nation, and modern anarchist thought. I believe it is the imperative of the development of human consciousness to embrace this continuing progression towards a circle of equals, or put another way, a world with no bosses. As countries like the United States have moved in the direction of acknowledging the inherent worth and dignity of all adult people, still our young people can be argued to exist as a contemporary form of chattel, reinforced by a hierarchical “us and them” ideology of “adultism”, taking adult control of young people beyond any legitimate stewardship role.