We live in a world filled with many amazing technologies. They let us travel with incredible swiftness. They let us talk to people at a distance, find out information or look at cat pictures. They let us limit the effects of a deadly virus.
What if there were other technologies in our world that enabled us to overcome loneliness? Or heal grief? Or solve mysteries? Or maintain courage in adversity? Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone could invent technologies like these?
Good news! Someone already has.
I’ve been reading the book Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher, and he makes the case that about 2500 years ago, a group of people living in the eastern Mediterranean area did just this. In total, Fletcher lists 25 different technologies invented by this group, all designed to help with how humans live their lives – how to remove anger, find love, feed creativity and many more.
It sounds magical, doesn’t it? How did these people – so primitive to us in so many ways – come up with such powerful technologies?
Here’s the secret: they wrote literature. Let me give you an example of how these technologies – or techniques if you prefer – can work.
How to Remove Anger
In our communities, we have an innate sense that people should comply with certain rules or standards, or justice must be done to them. Until justice has happened, we feel angry. So, what if we fall foul of that? What if, through either a complete accident or some change in community rules that takes us by surprise, we breach them and bring this anger down upon ourselves? What technology is available to us?
Angus Fletcher gives two main examples: Job and Oedipus. Now, unlike Oedipus, we probably haven’t killed our fathers and slept with our mothers, because we know that’s wrong, and beyond wrong. We know Oedipus deserves punishment for his actions. However, as he unleashes a cry of anguish when he understands what he has done, we see his acceptance that he has done wrong and we see his remorse. At that point, we forgive him. We don’t ignore what he has done, but we lose our anger, our sense that punishment must be inflicted upon him because of his horrible ways.
When Sophocles wrote the story of Oedipus, he was following in the footsteps of an unknown poet who wrote the Book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures. In that poem, Job is eventually forced to confront the fact that, when measured against who God is, Job’s response to the disasters that have come upon his life is incorrect. “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” According to Fletcher, this is the first apology in literature.
Just as with Oedipus, when we hear the remorse we forgive Job. And as we forgive him, we have come to learn the new technology: an apology, a show of remorse, can remove the anger someone rightfully feels towards us. It makes our community a better place.
I’ll give you that one for free! For the other technologies, make your way to Fletcher’s book. It quotes many different writers and characters from Shakespeare to Winnie-the-Pooh as it shows how the technologies that were discovered about 500BC have developed to modern times.
My own change
Throughout school and university, I’d always been taught that the primary things to examine in works of literature were themes, influences, what the book says about society – that sort of thing. I found it absolutely mind-blowing to read Fletcher’s opinion that the most important element of literature is the healing and fostering of the human condition.
Healing and fostering people is something that I – and many of you, I’m sure –dearly want to see more of. What came as a great shock was the revelation that one of my greatest loves, literature, was designed to enable this. This was such a great sea-change that I couldn’t come to terms with it quickly. After reading the introduction to this book, I couldn’t read any more of it for some weeks.
It’s only now that I’ve been able to pick the book up again, and I’m loving it. Not always agreeing with it, naturally, but very much enjoying the way it works out its thesis.
So, who were these people?
So, what happened to these wonderful people? Why did they stop inventing new technologies, and why have we never heard of them before?
According to Fletcher, they disappeared when two new groups emerged in classical Greece. The first were the rhetoricians, who weaponised the skills learned from the technologists to persuade others in the legal or political arenas. Then came the philosophers, concerned that the rhetoricians were reducing right and wrong to literary wordplay. These two groups battled each other, using the skills of argument but not the skills of literature. The technologists vanished in the war.
But their technologies live on. Grab a book. See if it can change you.