Wheels and Heroes                                       20/5/05

Written by You-Sheng Li

Click here to return to Website:Taoist Philosophy for 21st Century
Click here to read similar essays

            Traditionally people name wheels as the greatest invention in human history. With the speedy progress in science and technology, we are still relying on this ancient invention today. From the sophisticated spacecrafts and satellites to our cooking facilities such as microwaves and refrigerators, not to mention cars, trains, and airplanes, are all consisted of some wheels as the essential parts. Volcanoes are often cited as the symbol of the power of nature but they can only throw rocks miles away, but a man with wheels can move things thousands of miles away from its original location.

            If we extend the definition of invention to cover social science and culture as well, I would say the worship of heroes who kill human beings for the benefit of others is the greatest invention in human history. It is the very basis on which modern civilization is built. One of the definitions of countries is the organization that has the right to kill by its own reason. Army, police, and prison system are the professions that have the right to kill.

.           The founder of Communist China said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun"; "Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed". Killing is the essential way to force one's will on others. With the sophisticated social stratification and prison system, we do not need to kill to force one's will on others but killing is still the basis. Like the wheels overcome the physical nature of our world, military power is a social device to overcome human nature.

             Jane Goodall once observed in the wild that chimpanzees kill their infants and eat them. The mother chimpanzee protected her infant by running away from the chasing males. Peace assumed once the infant was dead, since chimpanzees lacked the social concept to ether demonize or glorify the killer.

             Humans do have a strong innate resistance to killing their own kind. According to a trained psychologist, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman (G. Dyer 1995), you can train and arm a man, put him on the battlefield, and expose him to the imminent danger of death, and in most cases, he still won’t kill. However such non-killers were shamed of their “cowardice’ and did not talk about it since soldiers are supposed to be heroes. It was only in the final years of the Second World War that USA army historians conducting post-combat interviews with several hundred infantry companies under the promise of anonymity, discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the soldiers ever fired their weapons in battlefield. Some of them even fired their weapons deliberately aiming high. The result was the few who could endure the killing were doing almost all of the killing. This must have been the truth for thousands of years without being noticed and studied. For example 90 percent of the abandoned muskets picked up after the battle of Gettysburg (1863) were loaded but not fired.

            The military overcomes this innate resistance by a combination of desensitization and conditioning techniques. The soldiers are asked to practice shooting at a target in the shape of a human being. They also make the shooting so easy and so automatic and reflexive that the soldiers have no time to think about it before the shooting. Such techniques worked well during the Vietnam War, and up to 95 percent of American soldiers were firing their weapons at the enemy. As a result the Vietnam veterans suffered a very high rate of post-traumatic stress disease since they were tricked into killing against their will. It is certainly not an easy job to be a hero.

            Like many scholars who are familiar with both Eastern and Western cultures, David N. Keightley noticed the striking difference of the image of Chinese legendary heroes in comparison with the Greek ones.

            According to Keightley, “Because cultures are man-made and serve to define man’s conception of himself, it is helpful in considering the question of what it means to be Chinese to start by comparing the conception of man as hero in ancient China with analogous conceptions in Classic Greece (fifth to fourth century BC), a culture that has contributed so much to our Western understanding of human condition. The legend of Achilles and the Amazon queen, for example, which was popular in both Greek and Roman cultures, expresses strategic views about the individual and society that would have been entirely foreign to Chinese contemporaries… At the moment when Achilles plunges his sword into the breast of his swooning victim, their eyes cross---and he falls in love! That moment of dramatic and fatal pathos is the one the artist has captured.”

            The above story reflects one of the major assumptions of the Western tradition that the human condition is tragic and poignant from the perspective of the individual. In contrast the Chinese contemporaries emphasized the ideals of social harmony and the heroes were models worthy of emulation from the view of man as a social being. Keightley also noticed that in ancient China the lord as the administrator hired an Assassin-Retainer to do the killing in comparison to the story of Achilles who did the killing himself.

            The primary society usually emphasized the unity of the community but used only the public opinion to ensure unity and stability of the community rather than appealing to a super powerful hero.

            The Western civilization was originally based on the tradition of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece where city states were the rule for the emergence of the secondary society while the first Chinese secondary society was an administrator class built above numerous small primary societies. This administer class took the primary society as their model.

            There was no need at all to worship a hero who killed other human beings in the primary society and in the administrator class society that modeled after the primary society since the internal harmony was essential when the people faced the nature directly: The powerful beasts and natural disasters were the concern and not other human beings.

            Only when what the people was facing was no longer nature but numerous hostile strangers, the worship of the heroes who killed other human beings became practically beneficial.

            At the moment when Achilles plunges his sword into the breast of his swooning victim, their eyes cross---and he falls in love! When you see another human being dying on your hand, you may suddenly realize the mutated nature of your act. That was exactly what Achilles felt. He did not fall in love with the Amazon queen but fell in love with the basic human nature, a nature every of us, including the artist who captured the moment, shares.


Please leave your comments on this essay, and join the New Epoch Forum