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Dimensions of Wholeness (from the PARABLE OF THE TRIBES)

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In one way or another, the subject of wholeness has been central to my work for my whole adult life. Here's a passage from my first book which, though it was not published until I was 38 years old, articulates a vision I had when I was 24. The first chapter of that book has been posted under the title "Why Civilization Has Developed in Such a Tormented and Destructive Way: THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES." (It can be found at

Here, now, is a passage from the second part of the book. This is the beginning of Chatper 6, which is entitled "Systems of Nature and of Civilization." It tries to begin in the laying down of a framework for understanding the dimensions of wholeness in living systems.


1. Synergy and Viability: Dimensions of Wholeness

The Search for Natural Law.-For other living creatures, questions of good and evil do not arise. They simply follow the law that evolution has inscribed upon their natures. Human life, by contrast, is full of moral uncertainties. Because of man's unfinished nature, the inborn voice speaks less distinctly about what it means to be human. Culture implies a degree of uncertainty. Then, in addition, human beings were swept along by the evolution of civilization, which has taken humankind still farther from its natural state. With civilization, not only "How should we live?" but also "How should the world be?" become open questions. Some believe that the answers are to be found ahead, further in the direction of our escape from the order of nature. The good person is he who overcomes and renounces his natural animality. The good system is one that nullifies the "law of the jungle." Nature, to them, is no moral guide.

One tradition in philosophy, however, looks to nature for moral wisdom. In the tradition of natural law, the good human life is one that fulfills our human nature. This work is in that tradition. The theory of natural value, developed in chapter 4, provided a basis for a critique of the unnaturalness of civilization: an unnatural environment is not good for us to the extent that what it offers and demands fails to correspond with the needs of our human nature. This chapter extends to a new level the search for moral principles to be derived from an understanding of nature. While the theory of natural value sought to prove that goodness is ultimately grounded in experiential fulfillment at the level of individual creatures, here I search for the essential properties of systems which best assure such fulfillment.

Two of these properties, I propose, are what can be called synergy and viability. These are dimensions of wholeness in living systems which far better characterize biologically evolved systems than those of civilization (see "Nature and Civilization Contrasted," below). Moreover, these concepts help identify what it is about the systems of civilization which makes them so problematic (see chap. 7).

Synergy and Viability.- A system can be defined as an aggregate the elements of which interact. Because of these interactions, no element of the system can be entirely understood in isolation. Each element is a part of a larger whole. For example, the movement of the earth can be understood not in terms of the earth alone but only in the light of the earth's place in the solar system. (Indeed, as the solar system itself moves in ways dictated by its place in the galaxy, even this whole is also a part, and a complete view of the earth's movement reflects this fact.) Another example is the psychotherapeutic concept of the "identified patient," that is, the member of a family system whose pathology dramatizes a problem of the whole family's interaction pattern.

With a system of living things, it is possible to speak of the welfare of the different parts. According to the way the interaction within such a system is organized, the welfare of the parts may be served well or ill. The optimal pattern of interaction is synergistic, that is, one in which each part functions in a way that enhances the welfare of the other parts as well as its own. The term for synergy we use in speaking of human affairs is "cooperation." When people cooperate well, each is better off than he would have been without the actions of others. The absence of synergy is exemplified by the zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, like poker, the total of winnings and losings of all players is zero: one player's gain implies another player's loss. In some interactions the sum is less than zero, as in the panic of people in a theater on fire, where the actions of each trying to serve his own needs add up to a disaster for all. The opposite of a synergistic system is a corrupt one. Corruption characterizes a system to the extent that parts of the system seek or serve their own interests at the expense of the overall well-being of the system.

In any living system, a degree of conflict of interests among the parts is inevitable. Perfect synergy is therefore impossible. It is nonetheless possible to differentiate between resolutions of these conflicts that are
more or less synergistic and therefore more or less advantageous to the whole.

A second dimension of wholeness-viability-characterizes a living system to the extent that it is able to maintain without diminution whatever it is upon which its continued existence depends. Viability requires,
therefore, a balance between input and output: a viable system must either replace an equal portion of what it uses or it must reuse indefinitely what is not replaced. In the earth's biosphere, for example, indefinite
reuse is exemplified by the continuous cycling of essential substances (such as oxygen and nitrogen) throughout the system. Only energy once "used" is dissipated, and thus the viability of the biosphere depends upon a continuous "income" of energy from the sun. In addition to having to maintain the availability of what it needs, a viable system must also not accumulate what is toxic to its well-being. In the case of our own bodies, death from thirst illustrates a failure of input and death from uremic poisoning a failure of output. The opposite of a viable system is a decadent one, one that lives beyond its means and destroys the conditions for its healthy continuation.

Synergy and viability are not identical, but they are related. One may say that synergy is cross-sectional whereas viability is longitudinal, that is, that synergy describes the health of a system at a given time, viability
over time. As the future is a function of the present, viability depends in part on synergy: a system where individual parts injure the whole will ultimately not remain viable. For example, when a corrupt ruler like Emperor Bokassa (late of the Central African Republic) lavishes many millions of dollars of his impoverished country's resources on his own coronation, he leaves that society in a sicker condition.

Both these analytic concepts have moral import. Both help describe what is healthy in a living system, what is conducive to the fulfillment of the living creatures within them. A system so structured that its parts serve each other in serving themselves is clearly a good system for its members. And since goodness depends upon life, the long-term fulfillment of all creatures requires that their systems be so structured as to perpetuate the conditions essential for life.

With these concepts of what is good in living systems, we can now compare those two different kinds of living systems the world has seen, the systems of biologically evolved nature and those of civilization, the
natural and the unnatural.

I go on to describe some of the ways in which the problem of power has made the systems of civilization destructive of wholeness in living systems.

In the next installment, I will publish here the passage in which I discuss "the antidote to power," that form of "Wholeness" to which we give the name "Justice."

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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