“It was no accident that kings and prophets styled themselves as shepherds and likened the way they and the gods cared for their people to a shepherd’s care for his flock,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
I don’t like bucolic narratives and I don’t like the way that we equate people we don’t like with sheep in modern American political discussions. Bucolic romanticism requires a reductionist way of looking at history, and equating people to sheep is reductionist way of viewing anyone we disagree with and dislike. As Harari’s quote to open this post shows, both styles of rhetoric are much older than their current usage in modern American politics.
What Harari is saying in the paragraph that the opening quote came from is that some agrarian societies and ancient (and not too ancient) human civilizations treated their domesticated animals very well. Sheep were well cared for, in order to get the most wool possible from them. War horses and workhorses were well cared for, again for the benefit of humans. And even today we pamper our pets as if they were our children. The narrative of the shepherd comes from the care with which humans are capable of treating animals under their protection. A shepherd is a benevolent god who directs his flock to greener pastures and protects them from wild beasts and the evils of nature. Bucolic imagery calls up a simplistic time when humans lived in nature, protected and shielded from the evils of modernity. Combining these two perspectives allows people to feel a child-like protection under the watchful eye of a benevolent leader while we live in a natural peace and harmony with the planet.
I think the narrative associated with both narratives is deeply troubling, and untrue. David Deutsch was recently on Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and argued that the belief that we are living in a simulation is no different than believing that Zeus is the supreme god who directs the course of the world. His argument is that if we live in a simulation, there is a barrier at which we can no longer gain more information about the universe. A Simulation, he argues, is the same as a religion where there is a barrier at which people cannot know more about their god, the course of the universe, and why things happen. Invoking the imagery of a shepherd, to me, seems to be exactly the same. A leader comes along, invokes such a message, and says to the people they wish to lead that only they know how to help them, that there is a barrier which normal people cannot cross in terms of knowledge for what is good for them and how to live their lives. The shepherd seems benevolent, kind, and praiseworthy, but really, they are dehumanizing people. They are making statements that there is knowledge and information that only they can know and appropriately utilize, and they are hiding that from the masses. The same process happens in reverse when we call people sheep. We deny their humanity and assume they are non-thinking morons without preferences who are easily misled.
Bucolic imagery can be just as pernicious as the ideas and narratives surrounding the shepherd or equating people to sheep. Just as the idea that there is some boundary on knowledge which normal people cannot surpass, the idea of a bucolic nature to which we should return or maintain is equally flawed and inaccurate. We romanticize a past and a ‘natural’ way of living that never existed. We don’t fully understand what life with nature has been like for the billions of humans that evolved before our modern times. We fail to see the diseases, the dangers, the struggles, and the deaths of humans living in pre-modern times. We call up this idea to put people in a romantic and child-like state of mind, reassuring them that someone else will take care of them and protect them. It is a narrative that combines well with the narrative of the shepherd to create a false view of reality that we can find comforting, and that we may find the motivated reasoning to believe. Ultimately, however, I think bucolic thinking and the narratives of sheep and the shepherd should be tossed aside and discounted if we want to think more accurately and rationally.