Brief Candle

There is reality which we cannot see, smell, taste, hear, or touch, and while we know this intimately, we don’t often think about it. Social connections, emotions, and behaviors all influence people in profound ways, yet we only perceive them through their effects. To discuss and influence these intangible structures and networks we use metaphors, and metaphors make the intangible tangible. Through the transformative process of mental association of two disparate things that is metaphor, people can begin to build reality. Without such processes and abilities, life is merely a “…tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

The sun doesn’t rise in the morning[1], a hawk is killed by a small owl, horses eat one another.[2] These are the unnatural portents arising from the murder of Scotland’s King by Macbeth in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Macbeth is a Scottish lord who is visited by the ethereal, witch-like “Weird Sisters” and told he will become the King, along with several other prophecies and opaque statements. He becomes obsessed with the idea, kills the King of Scotland, Duncan, to usurp the throne, and starts murdering any potential opposition as he becomes a tyrant. Eventually he is killed, fooled by the equivocation of the witches who were speaking figurative half-truths which Macbeth interpreted literally.

The play is full of metaphors made literal, and those manifestations of guilty conscience, the dead rising from their graves and appearing as ghosts for example, are inversions of the natural order (too numerous to list here, the play is full, end-to-end, of inversions of language and unnatural events and behavior) which occur until Macbeth is killed. One facet of the play is an interrogation of Macbeth’s psychological state. He is a brave man, depicted as a loyal war hero, devoted to his wife and his friends. So how did he fall into tragedy?

One of the intriguing mysteries of Macbeth’s behavior is in noting how he precipitated the very things he feared, actions known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Was Macbeth always going to kill Duncan, was he always a murderer and a tyrant, or did the suggestion from the Weird Sisters lead him to those acts?

As Macbeth’s beliefs lead him to action, so do all our beliefs lead us to action. How we think about the world influences what the world becomes, and great revolutions in thought precipitate great revolutions in action. How we think of ourselves and our society can constrain us in ways we never intended, sometimes leading us to the very outcomes we sought to avoid, or guiding us to a false interpretation of the unseen powers we navigate.

Pity” By William Blake – Tate Britain [1], Public Domain – This is a literal interpretation of a striking metaphor used in Macbeth, Act I, Scene VII “And pity, like a naked new-born babe, striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed upon the sightless couriers of the air, shall blow the horrid deed in every eye that tears shall drown the wind.”

Once we had only the dictates of nature to tell us when to wake and when to sleep, when to store food, and when to plant crops. These still exist, we can’t escape our biology, but layered on top of these fundamental structures of life are the technologies which have come to define whole epochs in history and much of our lives.

Think about the number of mundanities that give us structure and define our thinking. These inventions that were once miracles are now just paving stones which we walk on, heedless. The tyranny of the ticking clock, the glare of artificial light, the comforts of on-demand heat and air-conditioning – our circumstances change our perception of the world, even if we are inured to the presence of these technologies.

Something as complex as society and culture could never be described directly – if we want to try and analyze it has to be done with a simplified framework and metaphors. Brilliant thinkers and artists used metaphors to describe the invisible structures of society and they filtered down to the mass of people and influenced how they thought about the world. The metaphors used to describe our societies have shaped our societies.

Plato described the city-state as a ship – the metaphor becoming generalized as the “ship of state.” In this extended, didactic metaphor Plato describes the populace as incompetent and volatile sailors who cannot steer the ship because of their own ignorance. This is a description he uses to bolster his argument that the rulers of a city-state should be wise “Philosopher-Kings.” This is an unmistakably anti-democratic sentiment, anathema to our current sensibilities, though perfectly in keeping with centuries of thought. It is, perhaps, a case of self-fulfilling prophecy: the learned Philosopher-King which Plato believes should be the ruler of a city-state is justified in his dictatorial control by the foolishness and ignorance of the populace, but this conception of government was a convenient excuse for despotism. Despotism being the de facto state of government for generations, it is instructive to observe the influence of Plato on political thought for over a thousand years. This demonstrates how powerful one idea, one metaphor, one person can be on our history. But thought did not remain completely stagnant. As Antiquity rotted and gave way to the Middle Ages, a scholarship of strict logic and theology dominated matters of intellectual discourse.

Fortune’s Wheel” provided by the British Library from its digital collections. Catalogue entry: Royal MS 18 D II- Illustrated catalogue

Medieval political and social thought was often concerned with divine order and the interplay between fate and random chance. All people were subject to the inevitability and inscrutability of Fortune’s Wheel. Fortune’s Wheel was an ancient trope, the idea being a man (or mankind) was strapped to a wheel which brought people to high stations or low stations randomly (or to a position fixed by fate).[3] Befitting the static society of Western Europe, the image is one of a world beyond control, where bad things and good things happen at chance. How much did this conception of the world, taught in religious and secular instruction, impact the thoughts of people then living? The institutions of Medieval Europe were rigid and punitively hierarchical and it is conceivable that these systems were partly sustained by the general Medieval belief in a society and life as fated and out of any individual’s control. Advances in technology and ideas were both necessary before society was unstuck.

Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” by Abraham Bosse

Sharing a sorrowful kinship with Plato’s “Republic” as a book which people only read excerpts from in college, is Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan.” But we don’t even have to go as far as reading an excerpt, this book we can judge from its cover (the sword-wielding giant in the image above). This metaphor of society and government as a single body, a single person composed of many people, perhaps mirrors the advances in medical science and new knowledge of human anatomy in the 17th Century. It also introduces a greater idea of reciprocity – a body cannot function without a head (executive authority), but it also can’t function without arms and legs (the citizenry). This idea of the social compact would help lead to an explosive reimagining of society in the Enlightenment that would end up severing quite a few heads. Other Revolutions were seeded during the Enlightenment as well though, ones that were technological in nature.

Influential metaphors are also used to describe other complicated, invisible networks, like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in his description of the economy. This metaphor is inescapable when reading or learning about financial markets and economics, or some flavors of politics – its imagery woven into our collective metaphorical vocabulary. Defenses of capitalism lean heavily on this unseen force, conjuring an image of each person, working selfishly, benefitting the whole of society.[4] Smith used the phrase in relating that counterintuitive insight that is foundational to the modes of modern prosperity:

“By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”[5]

This metaphor has helped bolster arguments of Laissez-Faire economics and his work was a weapon used to help free Europe from the oppressive Medieval tenets of Feudalism. Once written, such brilliant formulations won’t adhere to the original intent of their creator, and Smith’s metaphor is often used as a rhetorical hammer to justify behavior that is destructive to society. This metaphor has become overused and polemicized, and lost its initial boldness. Somewhat later than its publication in the late 18th Century, Smith’s incredible achievement in describing a superior method of economics and entrepreneurship was sometimes wielded to fetter the workers which he sought to free.

As the Industrial Revolution steamed forward, there were deep inequalities, social upheavals, and conflicts between different sectors of society and between man and machine. Intellectual forces were mustered against inequities of the invisible hands of Capitalism and found an insurgent champion to lead their rebellion in Karl Marx. In his monumentally lengthy writing in his major work, “Capital,” Marx discussed the power of the machine in the relationship of capital to labor, using a metaphor to codify that relation:

“The automaton, as capital, and because it is capital, is endowed, in the person of the capitalist, with intelligence and will; it is therefore animated by the longing to reduce to a minimum the resistance offered by that repellent yet elastic natural barrier, man.”

The machines themselves are mustered against the poor worker. And later in the same chapter, he writes about the laborer becoming an automaton under the influence of modern machinery:

“In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage.”

Man as a machine is powerful imagery – one that reinforces the idea of the inhumanity and cruelty of industrialized Capitalism. Well, what has happened here? The forward thrust of technology placed efficiency as the peak aim of industrialized Capitalism, bringing about the further devaluation of common labor just as Marx feared. It is reasonable to suggest that the more a worker thinks of themselves as a worker, or as the slave of a machine, the more likely they are to place themselves into the Marxist mindset. Here we have again an articulation and framing of thought leading to action.

In recent years, our metaphors have changed more rapidly as technology has changed, and fragmented as our social lives have fragmented. The same powers of self-persuasion in the self-fulfilling prophecy does not though.

Writing about these metaphors as self-fulfilling prophecies and misleading representations of reality is not an idle, academic exercise. They can have concrete, real consequences that impact us now. Take the concept of inflation, something much on the mind of economists, investors, and politicians these last few months (or few centuries depending on how closely you follow debates about monetary policy). The most recent period of sustained inflation in America is called the “Great Inflation” by economists, and it lasted from the mid 1960’s to the early 1980’s. Economic investigations focus on the causes of its rise and fall while looking for explanations and possible policy errors. One hypothesis is that tolerance of inflation led to inflation occurring. Perceiving an abstract phenomenon incorrectly by conceiving a complex process as a mechanical process can cause people to misjudge the world. In a piece of analysis from the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research):

“The willingness of policymakers to accept high inflation is also a feature of the monetary neglect hypothesis advanced in Hetzel (1998, 2008), Nelson and Nikolov (2004), and Nelson (2005a). In this story, monetary policymakers appear unwilling to push for a disinflation once inflation starts because they doubt the effectiveness of monetary policy to tackle inflation relative to alternative policies. The story emphasizes the role of nonmonetary explanations of inflation, such as the belief that inflation can be a purely cost-push phenomenon. The prevalence of such beliefs is thus identified as culprit for the neglect toward achieving price stability. Disinflation started once the dominance of such beliefs receded. Tolerance for inflation and an aversion to the monetary policy actions needed to end it is also at the heart of political explanations of the Great Inflation.”

That is not to say that this is the definitive or holistic interpretation of the Great Inflation, it is one of many potential explanations, but the idea is that reducing a complex process to a few set, mechanical inputs – the result of a misinterpretation born from a metaphor – will always guide us away from a clear picture of reality. Increasing complexity and recognition of complexity along with the age of computational power have moved people into realms of new metaphors.

Software and hardware metaphors are prevalent – especially popular is the idea that if we tweak regulations and incentives then we can define the contours, the operating systems, of society.[6] This is an apt metaphor because it acknowledges the complexity of the world of ideas, but it falls short in that it is still mechanical and linear.

In addition to these common “computer/software” metaphors, there is another metaphor coming into prevalence that is closer to an actual, direct scientific analysis. This is the idea of “emergence,” which is a property of complex systems. In scientific disciplines, emergence is the concept that collective behavior from a combination or group is different from the behavior of the constituent parts – the group can have different properties from the individual, even if all the individuals are the roughly the same. This metaphor and idea takes us back to nature, and, as if we were strapped onto Fortune’s Wheel, we have come full circle.

I think these metaphors and their impacts on our lives are the water in which we swim, we don’t notice them much, and we use them as a matter of ease and habit. If you start at the beginning and count, I believe every single paragraph in this post contains a metaphor, including the previous sentence. And if you pay attention, you’ll probably find that every conversation you have and every written communication you produce contains numerous metaphors. Metaphors are essential to describe and navigate the world, but they also can have their pitfalls. We should be careful not to let them constrict us or shape our actions to the ends we wished to avoid. We could end up like Macbeth, cursing:

“I pull in resolution and begin

To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend

That lies like truth.”[7]


[1] There is an interesting idea of metaphor as used in philosopher David Hume’s “problem of induction.” Basically, we take as proof of causation the mere association of two things, even though this doesn’t actually prove causality. One of the examples he uses is the insistence that we know the sun will rise tomorrow just because of the repeated observation that it will rise.

[2] Macbeth, Act II, Scene IV

[3] https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/about-money/fortunes-wheel – a fantastic article about the shifting meanings of Fortune over time.

[4] The opposite would be something that comes up every time there is a disaster: “the tragedy of the commons.” When people rush to buy gasoline or toilet paper, it is beneficial for each person to be early and to hoard, but it hurts society as this creates shortages.

[5] The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II, paragraph IX 

[6] I would cite something specific here, but type in the phrase “society as an operating system” into Google and look at the number of articles.

[7] Macbeth, Act V, Scene V

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