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The Hazards of Human Society

JG Bennett


(Excerpts from a talk by J.G. Bennett – undated. Published in the Enneagram, #5, April 1976. This and related talks by J.G. Bennett will soon be published by Coombe Springs Press under the title "Hazard; Transformation of Man Series Number 6)


Human Societies are hazardous; they prosper and fall, degenerate and change into something different from how they began.

First of all, there are the Hazards of power, which include the hazards of succession and of success. Societies are often established by a powerful person or group, or through the action, of powerful idea acting on an environment that is more or less passive. A society is organized round it that corresponds to the dominant drive. Inevitably power arouses resistance, the driving force can cope for a while but eventually the lack of correspondence between it and the environment leads to a breakdown.

Great conquerors or business entrepreneurs can overcome the initial resistance and maintain themselves in power but then difficulties of a different kind arise such as the administration of too large an organization; the autocratic power cannot handle it and the conqueror becomes absorbed into the conquered nation.

The hazard of succession appears when the dominant group cannot find, and does not know how to find, appropriate successors. The society fails to renew itself because those that come after do not have the qualities of the founders. The Achemenid rulers of Persia established benevolent, autocratic societies but everything went to pieces because their successors were degenerate.

The renewal of the relationship between the dominant and dominated elements depends upon a chance that is very seldom realized and becomes less and less probable each time a transfer has to be made.

So, we come to a second kind of hazard, the Hazard of Peace. This is as much a menace to human societies as the first kind. When a society takes what appears to be a permanent shape its days are numbered. It has always made a deep impression on me to see the ruins of ancient cities; the great buildings that were erected by the dynasties at what seemed to be the height of their success, set up, as it were, as a symbol of permanence, and within one or two generations at the most that power has disintegrated.

This shows the inner hazard that overtakes everything in human life that becomes stable and well organized. It seems as if no human organization can stand the inner strains of becoming stable and peaceful. While there is a struggle to overcome a tyranny, there can be a real harmony within a party or society -always there is a disheartening collapse as soon as the objective has been achieved, which goes to the point of the breakup of the society.

There is the hazard of the social order. No one can propose a regulative principle by which a balance between the different social orders can be maintained; there seems to be something in human nature which always enables the disruptive tendency to gain the upper hand over the regulative.

There have been some well-regulated societies with a prolonged existence, and they are of very great interest. A great deal of intelligence enters into their constitution. A striking example is the rule of St. Benedict which works even now. He was not himself a power-seeking man and it seems as if his regulative influence was able to transmit itself over a far longer period of time than most other kinds of stabilizing influences; but even in a case like this where stability is assured it is by no means assured that the society will fulfill the purpose for which it has been established. There was a tragic degeneration of the Monastic orders.

This leads us to look at progressive societies where there is pursuit of a high ideal. They do not seek power, but to fulfill some purpose for the good of mankind or for truth, knowledge or discoveries. Such societies are prepared to take risks and face dangers. They accept the hazard of their undertaking and achieve what they do through their readiness to accept sacrifices. E.g. missionaries and mountain climbers.

What do we see when we observe the life and history of such societies? Something very strange. They are able to proceed a certain distance towards the attainment of their object, and then they lose sight of the real reason why they were founded and look for some external form instead. For example, the missionaries that went to convert the Indians in South America did so at great risk and then became the instruments of the most appalling persecution and brought about the degradation of the entire population. This situation where a society founded to serve a high purpose in the end produces results which are the opposite of those it sets itself may be called the Hazard of High Mindedness.

Here we come up against another human weakness; of overestimating our capacity for service, sacrifice and goodness. We suppose that we can trust ourselves to carry through a good work whereas history teaches us that whenever man sets himself to do good it seems that some power that he is unable to resist; because he is unable to recognize it, drives him to destroy the very thing that he is trying to make.

There is a different way of looking at this kind of situation. Man himself can always profit from the uncertainties and even the failures of his societies. Many of us can remember how in the most recent Great War, at the time of material disintegration, there was an emergence of something else that produced, though only fleetingly, a different kind of society. At times of air raids and great fires complete strangers would accept one another and work together without any thought of either dominating or being dominated, of gain or loss, without even an aim of doing any good, simply facing a situation which existed in front of them. This kind of experience, the reaction of men to a crisis, of course does not occur only when there are great tragic events; we see this kind of understanding appearing spontaneously among people in certain kinds of conditions, and those conditions are what we should look for because all of us know that when we have experienced this we have experienced something altogether more precious, more significant, than any kind of successful or well organized social structure. We do not even expect this to be permanent. An accident occurs and some people sit around and gape but some, without thought and even at risk to themselves, step in at once to do what they can and a small society forms around that situation. That kind of society is chiefly characterized by its spontaneity. Nobody has planned it. If there are instructions to be given because some know what has to be done and some do not -they are not commands, they are really true human communications.

A spontaneous grouping in front of a need is a very interesting kind of society because in this case the hazard has come first. Because of this the price of union and mutual understanding has already been paid before the society has come together. When it is like that then something which we recognize as a true human relationship appears. But it cannot survive or go beyond the actual need. Those of us who have seen the transformation of spirit that occurs in front of such a crisis have also seen how impermanent it is. At the end of the last war in London a complete reversal occurred from a remarkable spontaneous unselfishness to a remarkable calculated selfishness.

This puts us in front of quite an extraordinary question. If we are to say that people can only accept one another and become in a true sense; social beings when there is a desperate crisis, are we just to live from crisis to crisis -to provoke disasters in order to have a friendship between people who suffer them! There is something obviously false about this.

The monastic order; of Benedict and Gregory were founded at the beginning of what are called the Dark Ages when there was a long enduring condition of hazard in the world; and in the same way when in the 13th century the whole of Asia was subjected to the most terrific hazard in the eruption of the Mongols there was a period of an extraordinary flowering of the Kwajagan and other spiritual groups -from such examples we should try to see that there is a kind of society the nature of which is to persist only so long as it is faced with a need, and its strength and coherence are proportionate to the need. It is preceded and enveloped by a situation of hazard.

Nobody can doubt that we are now living in a position of very great hazard, and that this is responsible for a kind of uneasy, universal society on earth. Nobody really trusts or believes that it has any secure foundation. They are looking for the kind of foundation that belongs to one of the other kinds of society.

Can we look at the present world situation and ask ourselves whether this society, which by ordinary conceptions looks particularly disastrous, may not in reality be the kind of society in which something positive can, rise? We deplore the Arms Race, the acute tensions and injustices in the world and perhaps the possibility of a disastrous war and perhaps would even like to have the power to change this into a well-ordered society. If we look at it from a more detached standpoint and remind ourselves what we have experienced in our own lives when we have been in front of situations of extreme hazard, we can ask ourselves whether this present time may not be a particularly favourable one. We see that it is quite possible that we do not know how to look at our present world situation at all, that we are looking at it very naively in terms of what we imagine would be desirable without asking ourselves what would happen if this desirable situation were to be achieved, whether it might not be the complete degeneration and disintegration of the whole human race. We think that if there could be an equitable distribution of the world's resources this would mean a very great improvement in the situation and something to be desired and worked for. We do not ask whether the outcome might not mean the cessation of all possibility of progress in the human race and its eventual disappearance. These questions are not even asked and even if they are we must recognize that we do not know the answers.

There is a situation of hazard which we have been living in for the greater part of this century. Many people look back nostalgically to the time before 1914 and think this was a better world, (though not a better social situation). Many of the grave social injustices of that period have been remedied, but to what advantage? Is there a more harmonious society in the world today as a result of the partial removal of social injustice towards the formerly unjustly treated, so called "proletariat"? Can we picture that there would be a more harmonious society if there were a complete removal of social injustice?

If we look at these questions in terms of the factor of universal hazard, I think we can all recognize that man becomes free only when he is faced with hazard and risk. There is no freedom in any situation of security. However, there can be societies of a truly orderly kind that can be the persisting instruments for a purpose, but such societies find it difficult to maintain their purpose unless there is also an interchange with the spontaneous action of which I have been speaking. The truth of it all is probably that it is only when there is a general interplay of all the kinds of society that there can be a full human life on the earth. Our tendency is to look for one kind of social dynamism to solve all our problems. That is a fundamental error. It is an equally fundamental error to reject completely any form of social dynamism as inherently wrong. There are situations, for example; where power, the exercise of authority, is the one right way to deal with that situation and there are other situations where stability and peace are necessary. Others again depend on interaction and exchange. There is a necessity for forms of order in the world, a sort of basic human jurisprudence, and for dedication to high ideals. Above all there is the need for situations of freedom that arise in front of crises.

All of them are required in their right place; all of them become pernicious and disastrous when they go outside the boundaries of their own appropriateness. No one is wise enough to be able to bring about this kind of symbiosis of human societies so we have to stumble from disaster to disaster, but in all this there is always the remaining possibility of the profit that comes from the freedom which disaster makes possible.


"Life has many dangers, and safety is among them." Goethe.