Order, Order, Order… Part Two

The ancient Romans, too, had a thing for order and marched around the world imposing it on others. Their competitive edge was technology or the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of existence. The Romans were an eminently practical people. They gave a polite nod to the abstract speculation and reasoning of the Greeks, but recognized that technology was what really transformed the world. In fact, Heidegger actually argued that the identity of Europe, philosophical and political, had its roots not in ancient Greek culture, as the Enlightenment would have us believe, but in the Roman colonization or technologization of Greek thought. They came; They saw; They mashed up.

Roman order was mostly hewed out of the physical and political world, and was the stuff of enduring empire. It was manifested in the introduction on a large scale of Sanitation, Aqueducts, Public Health, Roads, Bridges, Irrigation, Medicine, Education, Glass, Wine, and, for good governance, a deliberative Senate.  The Romans were predictably driven to invent cement based concrete. They consequently built countless concrete structures; and this included the still-standing Pantheon in Rome with its 42-meter-diameter dome made of poured concrete.

In his book ‘Antifragile’ Nassim Nicholas Taleb contrasts the respective evolutions of the Roman and Greek political systems. He notes ‘The Romans got their political system by tinkering, not by “reason.” Polybius in his Histories compares the Greek legislator, Lycurgus, who constructed his political system while “untaught by adversity,” to the more experiential Romans, who , a few centuries later, “have not reached it by any process of reasoning, but by the discipline of many struggles and troubles, and always choosing the best by the light of experience gained in disaster.”

For the Romans the struggle for mastery generates knowledge and that knowledge in turn is power.  This process was relentless in an imperious, ever expanding empire and the Romans were ultimately in a position to assert boldly through deed ‘we have the technology’.

So order was big in both Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome. And, of course, British Parliamentarians do order, order, order! Curious minds are well within their rights to inquire whether the striving for order also featured prominently in the lives of our traditional folk. For instruction, we must turn again to Dr. Danquah’s authoritative Akan Doctrine of God.

He writes in a lengthy passage:  ‘Now, what is a Court Crier? Rattray {A British historian} rightly translates the term Esen, Court Crier as “Herald.” English readers of ancient British history may recall that the herald was an officer who (1) made state proclamations, (2) bore messages between princes, (3) officiated in the tourney, (4) arranged various state ceremonials (5) regulated use of armorial bearings, (6) settled questions of precedence, and (7) recorded names and pedigrees of those entitles to armorial bearings. The Akan herald, in addition to performing all but the seventh of these duties, had to keep and maintain order, i.e., officiate in the assembly of an Akan King as an orderly…From time to time he utters the words: “Tia! Tia!” meaning “Hearken! Hearken!” or “Yentie, Yentie!” “Let us pay attention, Let us pay attention,” or “Berew! komm, komm” “Quietly, Orderly, Orderly. ”The quintessence of his function is therefore that of keeping order.” And keeping it down too, I should hasten to add.

The “Quietly” in the above paragraph shouts loudly from the page and calls to mind Nietzsche’s observation that “It is the stillest words that bring on the storm. Thoughts that come on doves’ feet guide the world.” Nietzsche had an awed reverence for quietude and railed against the “infernal racket”. He exhorted us to maintain an “internal sobriety”, which culminated in the highly prized Nietzschean value of “being-able-to-hold-silent.”  Words are precious currency, and should not be debased. No talking by heart!

Danquah continues: ‘Order, it is said is heaven’s first law and when the Esen’s name is mentioned first in the list of things God created, it is obviously an attempt by the Akan to symbolize in the Esen the primordial orderliness of Creation itself.

‘The duties of the Akan herald of Esen are indeed many but they all boil down to the underlying principle of giving or maintaining order… A Court Crier or Esen is sometimes also employed as a tax gatherer and he stands at the main cross-road to intercept commerce and gather tolls and duties. He also, as a herald functions as officer of the Court for proclaiming at the high places of the town the orders and decrees issued by the king

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‘All these senses are implied in the Akan use of the term Esen, when the Akan poet speaks of him metaphorically as the first in in the three “things “ created by God.  God, says the Akan poet first created Order, the Esen, the paragon or type of Order. Order, Heaven’s first law.’

Next, Danquah references the drummer or poet drummer of the Ntumpan or Talking Drum, the Kyerema: ‘The Ntumpan Drummer, called Kyerema, is both poet and historian. His mind is a storehouse of of the tribe’s traditional knowledge…The Kyerema is from childhood trained in the poetry and lore of the people, and there is not a knowledge of nature or of man which is beyond his comprehension as the language of the talking drum testifies. He is therefore the Akan symbol of knowledge, Heaven’s second creation.”

Finally, Danquah identifies Heaven’s third creation: ‘Then there is the Executioner. He

clearly symbolizes death, and he was created by Odomankoma {the Supreme Being} – third in the order.’

He goes on to explain the Akan name for ‘Executioner’ obrafo is closely connected with Obra (Obara) the Akan name for the moral ethos, and with mmara, the Akan name for the positive law of the community: ‘…Both words derive from the same root, ba, bara, come or “becoming.” To suggest a “becoming” is to imply its ceasing to be – emergence and submergence, life and death, “becoming” and “non-becoming” – Death.’

So for Danquah, Nature in its natural order is Esen. Kyerema, is the knowing principle, and Obrafo is alternately life, the living principle or death, the survival principle, and closely associated with Odomankoma. He further expanded on the difficult theme of life-affirming Death, which is captured in the saying: ‘Odomankoma created Death, and Death killed Him.’

To Danquah, ‘the maxim means that the mystery of life does not end in death but in life, the life that conquers and supersedes the dead.’

Order was therefore not another country for our forebears, and rolling with entropy was not alien to us. They intuitively and intellectually grasped the intertwined triad of Order, Knowledge, and Death were the scaffolding upon which meaningful, and productive lives could be constructed.

More narrowly, the striking conflation of the Herald  function or Esen with the Order principle strongly suggest that language and communication were understood in our traditional system to be  divinely acquired  tools, with which we trim excessive chaos, and purvey order.

All in all, our forebears could quite confidently claim to have had a plan, a strategy for change or perpetual becoming.

The transformational Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping described his radical reform efforts in the following way:  we need to “cross the river by feeling for the stones.”. Easier said than done because first these stones might be elusive and also frequently intangible. And try feeling out for the intangible. Secondly, in the context of national progress this is a never-ending river crossing where the final destination must necessarily continue to remain out of reach. Nonetheless, look where China is today by following Deng’s precept. African nations are the ones descending on China in droves to lobby for funds and assistance from this emerging superpower.

We might do well to learn from the ancient wisdom of the Chinese.

A maxim from the 2600 years old I Ching says:

“The ultimate frame for change is the unchanging.”  Perhaps, this was what Den Xiaoping was alluding to.

The challenge however is the stones under our feet do not always stay in place and shift from time to time because perspectives never remain constant. Useful stones such as historical self-awareness, institutional memory, cultural values, infrastructure, current and emergent technology, and human capital or talent are correctly objects of continual evaluation.

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In crossing the river the goal is clear, that is, to cross the river; it is rather the means that lack clarity.

A ‘never tried, never failed’ attitude is necessarily required to navigate the crossing, and leadership must promote a Culture and Educational system that values experimentation and learning over prudence, and the collective ability to ask what Heinz von Foerster termed ‘legitimate questions’, or questions to which the answer is not yet known.

Henri Bergson eloquently states: ‘Social progress… is really a leap forward which is only taken when the society has made up its mind to try an experiment, or at any rate allowed itself to be shaken; and the shake is always given by someone.’

In their distinctive ways Kofi Annan and J.H. Mensah each gave that shake.

As global forces continually assail us, it is in our interest as a society to remain open to becoming all shook up. (Thanks Elvis!) We have to take an existential punt that involves the collective embrace of disruptive technologies while retaining an authentic historical consciousness, which the Senegalese polymath Cheikh Anta Diop insisted distinguished a people from a mere population.

Professor Francis K Allotey, the renowned Mathematical Physicist gave the lead when he pronounced shortly before he passed away last year that:  ‘Africa missed out on the 18th Century industrialization because it did not know what was happening at the time but it would not be forgiven for missing out in the 21st century because there is enough information to propel development. Science and technology is the lynch-pin on which fortunes will rise and fall, and it is time to fully embrace it.’

In the past we could afford to dither because the future happened elsewhere. Now, we have no such luxury. As the cost of automation continues to drop and the pace of innovation in robotics accelerates, we must immediately learn to do the dance with DANCE, which entails recent major developments in five parallel, interdependent, and overlapping areas i.e. Data, Algorithms, Networks, the Cloud, and Exponentially improving hardware. The Singularity of artificial superintelligence looms closer, and Swarm Intelligence and the Hive mind promise to enable empowered networks of people to converge online and amplify their intelligence by thinking together as unified systems, driven by AI algorithms.

Nobody said it was easy, but it is only through struggle that humankind perceives what it actually wants and what it can actually achieve. We are in no way obliged to be the plaything of fate, and are free to act toward our desired future.
The historian Jacob Burckhardt fittingly espoused a vision of the past, which offers, he said,

“experience to make us, not shrewder (for the next time), but wiser (forever).” May wisdom continue to be our national goal.

While driving home from the office just over a fortnight ago, I came to a halt at a red light. After about ten seconds I heard a loud thud at the back of my vehicle, and I climbed out to determine what had happened. A trotro with passengers had rammed into my rear. The driver’s ‘mate’ jumped out of the minibus and straightaway prostrated himself on the ground in front of him. He began pleading with me.

I examined my vehicle and was relieved to find that my externally bracketed spare tyre had borne the brunt of the impact, so there was little discernable damage. The driver observed me impassively from behind the steering wheel, anticipating my next move. He saw no profit in alighting himself and left the groveling to his ‘mate’. I stared blankly back at the driver. We were both processing the scene.

The vehicles behind us began noisily honking their horns. I considered myself to be fortunate that the trotro had experienced a braking issue and not a ‘runaway engine’ such as the one that had  recently caused another minibus to over accelerate and career uncontrollably into a food stall in Accra killing a woman and injuring eight others.

Energy versus entropy. I did the maths. I waved off the ‘mate’, got back into my vehicle, and drove home.

Kofi Atta Annan. Busumuru.  Damirifa Due, Da Yie.

By Kofi Aboagye

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