I have wondered if Imhotep had some hidden meaning in the pyramid. Little is recorded about him, but he lived during the Old Kingdom of Egypt under Djoser. He seems to have been born a commoner, and become renown as a great architect, sage, and perhaps the first physician in the world. His monument to King Djoser, the Step Pyramid, is the archetype for all pyramids that followed and the oldest stone structure in the world.
Pyramids are uniquely stable structures. They have survived many thousands of years and all the storms and earthquakes that time could bring. The mass at the peak of the pyramid we may say is in a high energy state. It is supported by progressively larger masses that reside at lower points of the gravitational potential. This is the thermodynamic analogy I mean to draw, and I speculate:
That Imhotep, born a commoner and working at a time when there may have still been living memory of an Egypt much less advanced, and therefore much less hierarchical. He may have understood on some deep level the changes in social structure that were necessary to make the pyramid possible. Because pyramids are built by slaves, and laborers, and craftsmen of many kinds. Hunters and gatherers cannot build them, and pastoral nomads can’t either. Only a culture with advanced agriculture and the division of labor agriculture makes possible can build structures like this.
The great works of the ancient world were not possible without slavery, and systems of exploitation and power rise to reflect the skyward structures themselves. Then, at the earliest years of that civilization, Imhotep may have understood in some way that Egypt had passed into a new thermodynamic mode of existence. A mode in which energy is drawn up through the roots of plants, and into the people who plant and harvest them and other resources, to flow up and be concentrated into progressively more privileged classes, to terminate finally in the vested power, privilege, and abundance of the King.
There is a clear connection here to the flows of energy in ecosystems. Apex predators eat and scavenge whatever they can. A lion will steal a kill from a hyena. The grazing animals are fed ultimately by the sun. People deny this similarity because they don’t want to know they are eating each other.
In a way, modern civilization seems to be an extension of an ecological structure that humans used to be embedded in, or maybe civilization has superseded that ecology completely. We were prey once. Then we became apex predators. We have advanced our civilization by replacing most of the world’s fauna with our own biomass in both livestock and human chattel. And the more developed a society tries to become, the more material must be put underneath in the base. Egypt and other ancient civilizations could only advance so far, but the modern western imperium extends across the entire globe, purchasing its privileges with sweatshops and child miners.
There are observations to make and questions to ask. I won’t have a proper response to all of these. Among the most important:
- The poor don’t need the wealthy, but the wealthy do need the poor. The world is right-side up, not upside down as Ayn Rand would have it.
- Scientific discoveries are typically made by the upper classes. They benefit everyone, but not uniformly. Most of the benefit reaches the upper classes first, or exclusively.
- People are interdependent, and though it’s not clear that the quality of life in post-agricultural civilization is better in absolute terms, most people today would not be alive without modern technology. Is it forbidden by the laws of physics to have this modernity without its gross inequality?
- Are there scaling principles at work such that the thermodynamics of current societies could be used to predict an upper limit to any society’s development, assuming the total flux of energy on the surface of the Earth bounds its base?
- There are limits on an empire’s geographic span which seem to determine how wide the base can become, and these limits are primarily technological, viz. communications technology may have played a dominant role in determining the size of social structures in each era of history. What effects are due to new technologies, not just in the size, but in the topology of society?
- If preagricultural societies exist in a “first” thermodynamic mode, and post-agricultural societies are in a second mode, does a third mode exist? If I have anything worthwhile on this question it will wait until part 3 of these posts.
It has always bothered me that Americans never seem to understand their relationship to the rest of the world. It is the nature of privilege never to recognize itself, but it is absurd to see them so oblivious to how they in fact depend on the poverty in the greater part of the developing world and the working class in their own country.
I can’t go to the grocery store without being reminded of this. My hands aren’t the first to touch the onion and the tomatoes in the produce section. You see, it is apparently very hard to build a machine that can cut the stem of an onion and leave the bulb intact. It’s necessary to have people, sometimes children, do this by hand. They crawl through the field on their hands and knees under the summer sun and cut the stems with a knife. In the western United States of course, these people are mostly immigrants from Central and South America and their children.
The pyramid of Djoser is a reification of the Egyptian social structure in power and exploitation that was necessary to construct it. And like the pyramid, it may be that social structure is just as long lived, and reflects some underlying thermodynamic stability. There is an irony then in the old Arab Proverb,
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.
Do we really know how to build pyramids, or was that knowledge buried with Imhotep and hidden with his tomb? Have we learned the secrets hidden in our own societies? Do we know what is necessary for a long-lived, sustainable, self-sufficient society?
Does it bear repeating that the Step Pyramid is a tomb? And how long will it last, compared to the sand dunes that flow across the eons of the desert?
Some of these things I have understood, if dimly, since I was a 12 year old crawling through an onion field with a rusty knife in my hand. I don’t know if I’ve made much progress in my understanding. I was actually working on a post about Elon Musk’s Mars Colony, when I realized I hadn’t written this yet.
(3/3) In Extremis. (soon)