Part I: The Bumpy Road To Individualism

by | Oct 30, 2008

With the rise of the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt (between c. 5000 and 4000 BCE), men’s social groupings expanded. Previously, the social groupings of prehistoric man had slowly developed from family to clan to tribe. The advent of the Neolithic Revolution—the invention of farming and animal husbandry—saw a different kind of grouping and […]

With the rise of the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt (between c. 5000 and 4000 BCE), men’s social groupings expanded.

Previously, the social groupings of prehistoric man had slowly developed from family to clan to tribe. The advent of the Neolithic Revolution—the invention of farming and animal husbandry—saw a different kind of grouping and a different kind of living arrangement. The building of the first city (Jericho c. 8000 BCE) indicates that the new way of producing and keeping food required closer proximity of men to their farms and animals. Tribes may have started to live together side by side.

In any case, by the time King Menes united the tribes of Egypt (around 3200 BCE) individuals in both Egypt and Mesopotamia were regarded as members of one of two classes: the rulers and the ruled.

Among rulers arose two distinct types that often vied for predominance: those who sought dominion over men’s physical being, the kings, and those who sought dominion over men’s spiritual being, the priests. (The concept “spiritual” is here used throughout as synonymous with “consciousness” unless otherwise noted.)

The kings were those who ruled by might. They were the men of muscle, the men who made others do their biding through cunning and brute physical strength, aided by men of like kind who were promised riches in exchange for their allegiance to the head muscle-man.

The priests, like priests today, were those who ruled through fear and ignorance of nature. They were the equivalent of what other tribal societies came to call witch doctor. But instead of involving themselves with attempting to heal the wounded, they devised cosmologies—myths and fantasies—purporting to explain various natural phenomena.

Among the ruled were all those who produced material goods. These were the thinkers , the producers: the farmers, weavers and builders, including the artist/artisan/craftsman. It was these who kept the rulers alive. They did not know it. They did not know the importance of their work—or its moral meaning .


Rulers did not accumulate riches through trade, invention and improvements. They accumulated riches through plunder, annexation and war. Whereupon the ruler declared that he owned all the land under his purview, that his power was absolute, that it was divinely ordained and that therefore he was above the law (This is the source of the notion of today’s “eminent domain”). He pronounced himself the final and unquestionable authority on all matters. In effect, he held the power of life and death over every individual within his reach.

Rulers of both church and state dressed in the finest of fabrics—woven and sewn by weavers and seamtresses, i.e. the producers. Their skin was rosy and glowing from much good food—raised and harvested by the producedrs, farmers and livestock folk. They drank from cups in-laid with precious metals and stones, fashioned by skilled artisans, the producers. They commanded and the producers built magnificent tombs, pyramids, ships, chariots, palaces, grand cathedrals and country retreats with artfully landscaped gardens and fountains. Their domiciles were furnished with the finest furniture, decorated with rich tapestries crafted by artisans, the producers. Paintings of exquisite beauty adorned ceilings and walls. Sculptures graced walkways and lined the edges of scented pools of pristine water.

Both kinds of rulers postured before the populace, powerful only by dint of his willingness to destroy and his entourage to obey his commands. He gripped tight a mass of workers who had no idea of individual rights or property, their ignorance held in stasis by means of force.

The money to pay for the materials and to keep the craftsmen/artists alive long enough to do the work is said to have come from the munificence of the princes of church and state. Did it?

In the tribal states of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia everything that was, belonged to the ruler—no matter where it was made, who made it or what effort it cost the maker.

This remained the practice up to around 500 BCE when during the Ancient Greece period an implicit understanding of individualism began to develop, which held sway through much of the rule of Ancient Rome’s Republic. During the Medieval Ages, however, the idea of individualism was lost and ownership of everything reverted back once again to the ruler, with the church muscling in for a share of the loot.

In the feudal culture that dominated Europe from the ninth century AD to the middle of the seventeenth century, the king confiscated around thirty-eight percent of every peasant’s crop and of every subject’s product. On top of that, the church took one-tenth of every individual’s annual income.

Centuries later it could be stated with certainty that the rulers needed the art and the craftsmanship—and the nature of that “need” was not simply material comfort. They needed it “to impress themselves and foreigners alike with illusions of power which had little basis in reality.”1 Rulers were not merely keen to have fine architecture, paintings and sculpture. They were obsessed with having it. No matter what it cost the peasants they ruled.

“Is there not the story of how Nicomedes, King of Lycia, yearned for a statue of Praxiteles, and exhausted almost all the resources of his people in acquiring it? And did not Attalus believe in the same way being prepared to spend over six thousand sesterces for a painting of Bacchus by Aristides?”2

“. . . I must also add that some time later in the year 1060 the circular church of San Giovanni was built on the very same square, opposite the cathedral. It is an amazing thing, and almost unbelievable, that it took two weeks and no more to erect and complete the columns, pilasters, and vaulting of this church, as is recorded in an ancient document in the cathedral’s office of works. In the same record, which anyone may consult, it is written that a tax of a penny on every hearth was imposed to raise funds for building the church, although it does not say whether this means a gold or copper coin. And at that time, the record also tells us, there were thirty-four thousand hearths in Pisa.”3


The people who actually build a civilization yet accept the unquestioned authority of state and of church, find themselves the fodder of both. Previous to the Enlightenment, with one exception—that of Ancient Greece—the ruling idea that guided men’s actions was the notion that the collective was superior to and more important than the individuals who comprised it. This idea was then and is now dependent upon faith and force.

Civilizations advance by discovering the importance of the individual and by implementing objective law to protect him and his property. Those that never discover the importance of the individual remain ruled by force—such as most of the nations of Africa and Asia. Those that knew it but lose it, revert to savagery—such as those western nations who are every day more tightly embracing collectivism/socialism, including the United States of America.


1. Haskell, Francis, Patrons and Painters, Yale University Press, New Haven/London:1980, p 384. (NB: Haskell refers specifically to the rulers of Baroque Italy but his words are applicable to rulers everywhere.
2. Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Artists, Vol. I, Tr: George Bull, Penquin Classics, England: 1965, p 29.
3. Ibid, Vasari, p 43.

Sylvia Bokor is an artist and writer. You can read more of her writings on her blog.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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