Promised Land — A Guest-post by Barry Zellen

Barry Zellen, our featured author last month, shares this final post with us, in two parts.

In my last post I started to describe some new work that dives into the ambiguous and haunting imaginations of philosophers of the state of nature, that allegorical, proto-historical realm of pre-history that describes mankind before the erection of political artifice. Even the classical era’s city-states, as fractious as they were in their constant state of war with their neighbors, are well beyond the primitivist world that these guys were trying to conjure up. Hobbes’ massive tome Leviathan has become an archetype for the darkest view of man, though only one chapter in his million-word, four-part tome is widely read, and one sentence quoted (and misquoted), the one that describes life in nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” if my memory serves me still.

When I went North in 1988 for what I had imagined would be a short motorcycle journey to the end of the road, I found that life truly began where the road came to its own gravelly conclusion. I had until then been imprisoned by the hive constructed two and a half millennia earlier by Aristotle, the Academy, actually Plato’s invention, placed outside the city gates to prevent the demos from lynching any more of its high faculty as they did poor Socrates, who practiced his new art of philosophy in the marketplace of Athens, royally pissing off the men of wealth who felt impoverished by his constant questioning. So they killed him, and in response Plato exiled the Academy, for its own protection. Then came Aristotle, Plato’s best student who strived to outsmart his teacher and create the very philosopher king that Plato had imagined but tragically failed to nurture in Sicily, nearly dying in the process. Aristotle founded his own competing institution of learning, the Lyceum, which he opened in Athens after returning from his own exile to the Macedonian court, which now ruled over Greece as its hegemon. There, Aristotle had tutored and unleashed upon the world his most infamous student, Alexander, who went on to swiftly impose regime change upon Persia, breaking the back of its empire and usurping its King, hoping to export not democracy per se but Hellenistic values to the entire world, but which, upon his untimely death, instead planted the seeds of lasting chaos, and even more so than Herodotus or Xenophon, poisoning relations between East and West.

My issue with Aristotle was not his bold ambition to unleash upon the world a grand vision of unification as practiced by Alexander. Indeed, had Alexander lived he would likely have conquered India, and from there, China, so in the end, one vast, ethnically intermixed and rebalanced society would remain, as old and new co-mingled: One world, one empire forged of so many peoples, a world with no more war. Maybe not so bad an idea? But after Aristotle unleashed Alexander, he came back to Athens to open his Lyceum, where he put pen to paper just the way I like, writing in longhand all of his great works, in essence creating the superstructure of the modern academic world to perpetuate of his new intellectual order, an edifice of ideas and observations as grand as Alexander’s military conquests. But what resulted was as vast a bureaucracy, a realm where administrators rule, and where ideas reify into a bureaucracy that replicates the polis in its conquest of nature. Blame it on Aristotle. He not only sought to have his pupil conquer the world. He sought to systematize all knowledge, and did a remarkable job when you consider this was only the third generation since the very birth of philosophy. But his legacy has been oppressive, as knowledge, meant by Socrates to illuminate, became transformed into a tool that crushes the very spirit of mankind, and rids it of all natural instinct. So when I came North, I was in search of a world still free, not subdivided by academic disciplines and its many morsels of disaggregated knowledge or its institutional resistance to cross-pollination across disciplines, its impulse to crush contrary views that did not conform to party line and which threatened to upend this new artificial order.

And so I headed North, to the end of the road, thinking it might be refreshing to see the last frontier. What I did not anticipate was that the frontier itself was an interface between ages and cultures, that where the road ended, a pre-existing world re-emerged, one that is still with us, one beyond the road’s end, beyond our own divisions, beyond Aristotle’s superimposed vision that presumes the known world defines the whole world, when it is the world unknown that we should aspire to know. Alaska is like that, a special blend of known and unknown, a realm where roads are still the exception. It has a tiny road network around which is clustered a world familiar to anyone from Outside, with its same Starbucks and Fast Food, the same McCulture that has replaced Alexander’s vision with its own world conquest. Alaska is blessed to remain mostly unpaved, where roadways seem to give up without a fight, and surrender to the predominance of nature, with the exception perhaps of the Alcan which the necessity of war precipitated, enabling one major push across fifteen hundred miles of taiga and bog, forever binding here with the there of the Outside. One long, thin line, like an intravenous line connecting us to the machine that keeps us on life support, unable to survive on our own.

If only we had the courage to cut that line. To cross into the realm where there are no roads, where no roads are wanted, nor needed. That world is our state of nature, the world that has been here long before we even knew there was a here to come to. A world as God imagined it, a promised land as innocent and pure as He conceived it. Not without heartbreak or tragedy or malice, no Rousseauian paradise. A rough and tumble and cold and forbidding land, one that is harsh but is also full of beauty and grace.

When I first came North, I put pen to paper to describe the world that re-appeared as the road ended, a world I felt more intuitively at home in than any place else the road interlinked, any place else I had ever been. When the road disappeared, replaced by river and lake, I could breathe deeply, for the first time, knowing the air that I inhaled was my first taste of nature’s purity. Though I put pen to paper for the first time twenty years ago this week, the words I wrote, my first impression, my first taste of freedom and my first intuition of the state of nature, were my most insightful observations, as if my eyes had opened for the very first time ever.

In my next post, I will share some of these words with you! See you then.

Barry S. Zellen is an author and political theorist. After riding his 250cc Honda Rebel up the Alaska Highway in 1988, he settled down in the Western Arctic region, living in Whitehorse, Inuvik and Yellowknife, working in the field of indigenous language media. Since 2004, he’s been with the Naval Postgraduate School where he directs the Arctic Security Project, edits journals, and writes books on various subjects including Arctic political and cultural history, political philosophy, and strategic studies.

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