There is an interesting irony in the last historical intellectual revolution, which ended the imperial period. The hierarchical social structures that dominated life then were presented as absolute, but were not actually justified by universalism, as we might think. In fact, universalism was a reform at the time: Hammurabi's code brought an abstract idea of justice, which broke with the judgment of powerful individuals in the hierarchy. And similarly, I think Rome was so successful in part because it came just a little later and was a transitional empire: Romans conceived of a universal Rome, and universal citizenship, so were able to be flexible and adaptable in a conscious way. The irony is that seeing something as everlasting allows you to change it. You can believe that underlying ideas are eternal, while the particulars can be rearranged--like into new societies.

Today, we suffer from very different problems; an iteration on our problems, really, now based on universalisms. Unlike the imperial people, we can imagine other societies very easily; theoretical thought is almost the same thing: playing around with components and rules. What allows this is a sense of universal logic, and universal man. And in fact, these two things are linked inextricably: man as the rational agent, optimizing the world around him.

We can see here the role of mind-matter dualism, which was created during the last revolution. It appears most directly in a split we perceive in existence: between a world we can manipulate, and us. But is also appears indirectly, and more powerfully, in a internal division of our minds: there is one part devoted to manipulating the world through our abstractions -- the rational agent -- and another part for everything left over. In practice, this second half is mostly an active set of desires -- the ends which the rational strategizing must aim for. Anything that does not fit into these two buckets is neglected entirely.

Today we believe full-heartedly in universalism, and the maleability of society. But our beliefs about humanity have ironically become more rigid. Oh, we certainly believe in personal development, growth, and salvation. But this is all inwardly driven, and inwardly directed. We even believe that circumstances of society can stymie an individual, hindering their natural growth potential. But this again is about how society can be good or bad; and might need reform. How humans should operate in a good society remains constant: use theoretical thinking to optimize desires. This is an absolutism about how humans think; about what thinking is; and therefore what human life must be.


Direct opposition never works to overthrow a system. Universalism undercut absolutism in the empires because it was not in direct opposition: the universal ideals and laws were not antithetical to what was normal or who was powerful, but provided a cross-current. So now, I think, we need an alternative universal -- not in the sphere of social organization, but in the sphere of what thinking means (i.e. theory). It must draw on something fundamental and ubiquitous, in order to supplant the singularity of theory. And since thought is essentially human (as far as we can now know), such a universal must especially go beyond humanity--cut through us, and connect us to other things.

(And we should remember that we will not be forgetting abstraction, analysis, or theoretical imagination. But these will change shape, and giving a more limited role.)