Home Fiction Humor Essays Books

Meet the Third Thing...

by Greg Swann

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

The first thing to do is laugh, of course.

We stare tragedy right in the face, so close to it we can smell its stale breath, and it is reaching for us.

Everything we say should not, must not, cannot happen--every bit of it does happen. Teenage gang-bangers with AR-15s car-jack Sally Suburbanite and toss her baby out the window. Middle-aged speed freaks imprison their own mothers and force them to write bad checks. One-hundred-thirty-five years after emancipation, people are owned as slaves and the value of their labor is stolen from them. The falcon cannot hear the falconer and Vicky Weaver and 81 Branch Davidians lay slain.

Should not. Must not. Cannot. Does.

And there's plenty more, of course, and every bit of it is tragic. Except us, for we are tragic and ridiculous. We wag our fingers and deliver pithy little lectures on morality. Or we wag our fingers and deliver pithy little lectures on utility. And we argue amongst ourselves and hone and polish and perfect our pithy little arguments until they are fit to be inscribed on parchment. And we wag our fingers and deliver them from whatever soap-box we can find.

And until lately no one was listening. And even though we have contrived a nearly perfect roadmap to civilization, it is being incinerated in a conflagration of savagery.

So laugh, damnit. Laughter is what's left when every other precious thing is gone...

Our tragedy arises not from the precious things that have been taken from us, but from the precious things we have spurned. They have not beaten us yet, but they are winning. And they are winning not because of their strength, but because of our refusal to do battle from our strength. We have crippled ourselves, and in doing it we have given them an advantage they could never have gained on their own.

Without remorse--as a matter of pride even--we have conceded their most basic premise, and they are using our own power to destroy us. To destroy civilization, really, to raze in twenty years what is still unraised after twenty centuries. The worst specimens of humanity are full of passionate intensity, and they stand unopposed.

And who could oppose them, taking account that we are one among them? Indeed, I have seen the enemy and I'll be damned if it isn't us!

And I have a lot of nerve, haven't I? You were gracious enough to invite me into your mind, and I repay your hospitality by blaming you for everything on Earth that's wrong. There ought to be a law...


Which team are we on again...?

Which team do we think we're on?

Why, we're the people who fight naked savagery, of course. Right...? Yes, yes, of course. We fight that naked savagery tooth and claw, hammer and tong, sixes and sevens and nines. By god, we hate that naked savagery. Don't we...?


We hate it so much we clothe it in bright-striped tails and call it Uncle Sam. We stick a feather in its cap and call it blood pudding. Or something. But we can't bear that naked savagery, and we won't let it bare its head around us.

And when we go up against an AR-15 with a pen knife, it's just not right that our tail lights vanish in the distance.

Just not right!

There ought to be a law, damnit! Better yet, a bolt of lightning ought to shoot down out of the angry sky to smite the wicked. All of them, all at once. Today, if it can be arranged.

And yes, I am making fun of you. And of me. Of all of us, and all of our forebears. We sought to civilize savagery by inventing an inhibited form of savagery, and we deserve everything we're getting. It's right, it's just, and it's predictable to nine decimal places.

What did we do wrong?

Instead of renouncing savagery, we sought to rationalize it.

We are no less savages than the gang-bangers or the federal falcons, we're just not as good at savagery. We don't revel in our naked bloodlust, we hide it behind a fig leaf and argue to ourselves that we are not bloodthirsty, that our spasms of sadism are right and necessary and justified. We are inhibited, and where they can kill casually on a whim, we can kill only after beating our breasts for months or years. But kill we do, smiting the wicked in the name of the Greater Good.

Those naked savages are capricious, but we clothed savages are deliberate. They brutalize on impulse, but we have sound, detailed, carefully considered reasons for our brutality. Their crimes are random, but, by god, our crimes are justified!

How could they not be? Look at all those philosophy books. Look at that immense pile of law books. Listen to those orators, the finest minds of the West. After twenty centuries of civilization, how can what we do not be justified?

Because it's not. Because it's grounded in a savage premise. Because what we have dared to call civilization rejects caprice and replaces it with dementia. And, my gentle and long-suffering libertarian friends, you are not exempted from this charge.

In fact, I think I'm going to run you in. You look peaceful enough, but why should I take chances? I'm going to drive your wrist back up against your shoulder blades and frog-march you down to the station-house. How about a strip search? How about a cavity search?; can't buy that thrill, now can you? How about some sleep deprivation to give you the opportunity to reflect upon your right to remain silent? And while you're locked up for months, awaiting your speedy trial, I think I'll seize and sell your assets. Teach you a lesson. Let you know who's boss.

Should not. Must not. Cannot. Does.

And the question is: if I can do all that vicious stuff to you, why can't you do it all right back to me?

The savage answer is: because I have an AR-15 and you have a pen knife.

The allegedly civilized answer is: because I have a sanction and you do not.

Say what...?

Meet the Third Thing, gentle readers. A decidedly behind-the-scenes political operative. The man behind the curtain, so to speak.

When I come to arrest you, there is only you and only me. I am like you and you are like me. We are equal as things, as equal as two rocks or two cans of soup or two kittens. You can jump a little higher than me and I can run a little faster than you, but these are merely differences of degree. There is no power or potential that you have that I lack, nor do I have any special capacities that you do not have. We are equal. If I have the right or power or capacity to do something to you, then you have the right or power or capacity to do it right back to me.

So how is it that I have the right to use pain compliance on you and submit you to a cavity search, but you lack the right to do those same things right back to me?

For this brutality to be justified, there must be some Third Thing present with us. There is you and there is me, and if we are alone, then we are equal. If we are not equal, then there must be a Third Thing in the room that confers upon me super-human powers and consigns you to sub-human responses.

Before, there were two rocks, and they differed in color, weight, dimension, density and mineral content, but they were equally rocks. Neither rock was more rock than the other. They differed in measurement, but they were equal in their rockness. And then the Third Thing appeared on the scene and suddenly one rock was ultra-rock and the other became infra-rock.

And where the gang-banger steals and sells your car and justifies it by pointing his AR-15 at your surrender reflex, the statesman steals and sells your car and justifies it by reference to magic or mysticism or undiluted insanity. The gangster acts like a savage, like a two-legged animal. But the statesman attempts to act like a god, like Dionysus drunk on the nectar of his own imaginary righteousness.

This is important, perhaps the most important thing I have to say. We are not talking about what one can do; the gang-bangers are walking object lessons in what human beings are capable of doing. We are not talking about what one ought to do, not here. What we are talking about is what one can justify doing, the set of actions one can rationally defend taking with respect to other people. We are talking not just about human social interaction but about human social interaction that can be rigorously defended in persuasively valid terms.

In other words, we are talking not merely about politics but about political philosophy. We are ignoring the savages and the gang-bangers; their political philosophy is nothing more than "might makes right". We concern ourselves here with those political philosophies that presume to reject, to rise above "might makes right". We concern ourselves with you gentle libertarian, with the charming little bungalow you've made into your ideological home.

"Might makes right" is a crude attempt at a philosophical distinction. The argument runs, "I have martial prowess or superior weaponry, therefore I am different from you. My domination of you is justified, just as I am justified in the dominion I claim over my horse. Because I have the ability to inflict pain upon you, you are no more than a beast to me, without liberty, without rights, without autonomy. You are a thing, an extension of me, and I am fundamentally distinct from you."

We might wish that savages spoke and reasoned that well, but that's what they're saying, however incoherently. The distinction itself is idiotic; a human being is not changed into another thing by acquisition of a skill or possession of a chattel. And it's worth pointing out that the savage himself does not believe it. He wouldn't offer up his incoherent explanation if he did. We don't dominate horses in the same way we dominate non-living things, but we do dominate them to a degree, and we don't bother to rationalize our domination to them. The savage must declare that you are a beast because he knows you aren't.

And the statesman, although he is marginally more coherent, also makes philosophical distinctions that do not bear up to close scrutiny. For example, he may say, "My domination of you is justified because you have consented to it in every particular." He will hold up his empty hand and say, "See here? See this Social Contract? You're committed. You're obliged. I have your consent." Meet the Third Thing.

Or he might say, "My domination of you is justified because I have been selected by god himself to guard you from the exponents of evil who falsely claim to have been selected by god himself to protect you from me. It's the Divine Right of Kings." Meet the Third Thing.

Or he might say, "My domination of you is the will of the people, the little people, the common people. The weak. The halt. The lame. The children..." Meet the Third Thing.

The zeitgeist, the spirt of the times? Meet the Third Thing.

The practical benefit of uniform law? Meet the Third Thing.

The individual's natural right not to be injured? Meet the Third Thing.

The consent of the governed? Meet the Third Thing.

The purity of the race? Meet the Third Thing.

The inevitability of one-world Socialism? Meet the Third Thing.

And we can traverse our way down the tree of philosophy until we arrive at a pitiful little proto-statesman with a shaman by his side. He will tell us with a devout solemnity that he is justified in claiming domination over us because he alone possesses the sacred ceremonial amulet. Meet the Third Thing in its undiluted form...

For the Third Thing, ultimately, is insanity defended with devout solemnity. There is no Social Contract imagined by you but binding upon me. There is no Divine Right of Kings. Every person is possessed of free will, but there is no accumulation of that will, and the voluntary support of many or even most people does not justify anything. There is no zeitgeist. Neither your convenience nor mine justifies our domination of our neighbors, or each other. You have the capacity to act in self-defense, but it absurd to argue that this somehow prevents future injuries. "The consent of the governed" could only have meaning if the consent were explicit and unanimous. The "race" has no rights. Neither Socialism nor any other creation of the mind of man is inevitable. And, finally, the sacred ceremonial amulet is just a rock suspended from a rope.

These are all products of the imagination. They are wholly products of the imagination. They are all extremely elaborate, often very confusing, pantomimes of philosophy. They all concede that "might makes right" is not a philosophical argument; it is brutal, unsavory, and, as above, idiotic. And the question that each one of these creeds--and many others--is an answer to is this:

How can we dominate people without claiming that "might makes right"?

It's a good question. A noble question. And the people who have striven to answer it have been, for the most part, proud and noble people. The answers they've come up with have been demented, of course, but that's unavoidable: the question is demented.

When the gang-banger invites you to stand on the curb while he drives away in your car, "might makes right" is his only justification. And when the cop invites you to grab your ankles so he can search your rectum for contraband, "might makes right" is his only justification. No one volunteers to be pushed around against his will. "Volunteers against his will" is a meaningless construct. And "dominate without 'might makes right'" is also a meaningless construct.

The question the political philosophers don't ask is: how can we elicit the cooperation of people? They don't ask it because the answer is obvious; we all know how to elicit cooperation. The problem, they say, is: what about people who will not cooperate?

Well, what about them? We're not asking whether or not one has the right to retaliate--respond "like for like"--to injury. We're asking whether or not you have the right or power or capacity to dominate me, to break me like you'd break your horse to saddle. If you don't, then we must either find a way to cooperate or part company. But if you do, then we are not the same kind of thing, we are as unlike as you and your horse, and "might makes right" is the only philosophical justification for your actions.

This is vital: one person cannot dominate another without deploying superior martial prowess, superior weaponry, or both. To dominate means to rule by force. There is no other way to rule, and there is no justification for ruling by force except force, "might makes right". The Third Thing is the means by which philosophical proto-savages attempt to convince themselves that brutality-for-a-cause is in some meaningful way distinct from ordinary random brutality.

The Third Thing is the thing that stands between the political philosopher and his own recognition that he has not renounced savagery, he has merely rationalized it.

The Third Thing is the things that, you say, joins the two of us when you claim that you are right to do to me what you would insist would be wrong for me to do right back to you. If you can arrest me but I can't arrest you, there must be some distinction between us, something that makes us not equal, and that distinction is the Third Thing. If you can imprison me but I can't imprison you, there must be some distinction between us, something that makes us not equal, and that distinction is the Third Thing. If you can punish me--for my own good, to teach me a lesson--but I can't punish you, there must be some distinction between us, something that makes us not equal, and that distinction is the Third Thing.

In order for you to claim any justification for your domination of me, you must insist that there is some distinction between us, some right or power or capacity that makes you super-human and renders me sub-human. This distinguishing property, whatever it is, is the Third Thing.

And, whatever it is, it is imaginary. It does not exist. We are equal. You are what I am and I am what you are. We are equally human, the same kind of thing, and there is no basis in evidence for claiming that we are in some way distinct.

And where the savage says, "I am distinct from you because I have a weapon in my hand," the political philosopher insists, "I am distinct from you because I have nothing in my hand, nothing but an unreadable book and a sacred amulet."

The Third Thing does not exist. And because it does not exist, there is no defensible creed of the domination of one person by another. You can try to dominate me, but you cannot argue that you are justified in trying to dominate me. There can be no such thing as the just domination of one person by another.

And our charming little bungalow turns out to be a house of cards.

And our pithy little lectures turn out to be carefully crafted nonsense.

And we have taken on that naked savagery and fought it by wrapping it in the raiments of our impenetrable verbiage. And the emperor is not merely naked, the emperor is just another naked savage.

And I have seen the enemy and I'll be damned if it isn't us...

Ayn Rand said that libertarianism leads to anarchism, and this is correct. If we adopt her own admonition that one must never initiate violence, we must conclude that every form of government is invalid, since every form of government is a coercive monopoly on the dispute resolution business. If instead we argue that each person owns his own life, then we must conclude that every form of government is invalid, since every sort of domination of one person by another is an attempt to express ownership--rightful use or disposal--of the person being dominated. And if we wander into my corner of the universe, Planet Third Thing, we discover that every form of government is invalid, because every form of government is validated in imagination alone, in dementia.

Kind of a problem if, like Rand, like Nozick, you want a state at any price.

But Aristotle said we must follow the argument wherever it leads. Well, what if we do? We arrive at anarchism, of course. Not for any affirmative reason, but simply by the process of elimination. There are good, sound, well-reasoned arguments for affirming anarchism as a political philosophy, but they're beyond the scope of this essay. But we have kicked the stilts out from under two millennia of political philosophers, and their living exponents are probably not very happy about it. We have shown that their basic question--how can we dominate people without claiming that "might makes right"?--is nonsense. What can we say to them when they demand to know, as they will, "Well then, what does make sense?"

What does make sense...?

Rationality makes sense, of course. Claiming to have a different identity as a thing because you carry a weapon makes no sense, obviously, and there is no end of snickering to be had at the expense of those stupid, stupid savages. But claiming to have a different identity as a thing because you uphold a peculiar idea or carry a ceremonial totem also makes no sense, and we refrain from snickering only because the advocates of these sorts of positions are barely visible behind the fog of their rationalizations. But what makes sense, obviously, is acting upon things according to their own true, unchangeable identity.

Anything else is insanity, and it is a testament to the foggy facility of the political philosophers that it is necessary to say that it is insane to attempt to act toward human beings as if they were something else.

I am discrete, separate, detached. I am not a part of you and you are not a part of me and we are not together parts of something else. I am free. My actions are initiated and controlled solely from within my body, operating on the direction of my mind. There is no circumstance by which you or anyone else can assert control over my mind or my body. I am sovereign. My body is a dominion over which I alone am master--not as a matter of right, but as a matter of physiology. I have the capacity to defend my life from any peril that presents itself, and there is nothing you can do, short of killing me, to deny me the power of self-defense. To dominate me, you must use force, and your use of force is your admission that I am not your property to do with as you choose.

And you are just like me. We are alike as things, equal in our separateness, our freedom, our sovereignty. We are alike in our equal possession of the power to act in self-defense, and we are alike in our ability to comprehend that we have this power. Considered as things, we are the same thing, and there can be no rational basis for concluding otherwise. We can conclude differently, or pretend that we have, but we cannot justify such a conclusion in reason.

We cannot dominate people without claiming that "might makes right". And we cannot rationally claim that "might makes right". Ergo, we cannot in justice attempt to dominate each other. We can do it, if we want, but cannot justify it in reason.

Trying to justify domination, trying to rationalize it with the Third Thing, has unhappy consequences, as we can see all around us. Again it is absurd that we need to say this, but we do: operating from insane premises results in insane conclusions. It's not the gang-banger with the AR-15 who is crazy, it's the political philosopher who stands on the curb sputtering, "Should not! Must not! Cannot!"


What doesn't make sense is striving to contrive ever more absurd Rube Goldberg machines, senseless contraptions that enable you to drive away in my car but forbid the gang-banger to drive away in yours, all without anybody getting hurt. You can do this if you want, but it should surprise no one that the trousered, inhibited savages will lose every battle to the uninhibited, naked savages.

And what does make sense is to renounce savagery. This is what the political philosophers has been aiming at for 2,000 years, and it's no stain on them that they missed a target they couldn't see and could barely imagine. Civilization is the slow march to the recognition that each of us is separate from all the others, that each of us is free from all the others, and that each of us is sovereign to rule over our own lives. We have risen from the animals, and the animals have never tired of demanding that we rejoin them. But we are human--unique among creatures--as we leave the savagery of the animals behind us.

What makes sense is to acknowledge that we cannot actually dominate one another, that we stare tragedy right in the face whenever we try to dominate one another. What makes sense is to devote our incomparable minds to discovering ways to live together without attempts at domination. We can do this, of course. We already do it almost all of the time. And I can name dozens of simple and effective non-coercive ways of dealing with people who insist on attempting domination. That is also beyond the scope of this essay, but it is sufficient to say that it is possible for human beings to find ways to get along without pushing each other around at gunpoint. And again this is an absurdity that is necessary to state: we can live without killing each other. In peace, in harmony, in prosperity, in splendor...

The bay-trees in our country are all wither'd
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look'd prophets whisper fearful change;
Rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap,
The one in fear to lose what they enjoy,
The other to enjoy by rage and war:
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.

William Shakespeare, Richard II

We rub our eyes at the dawn of a new millennium, and for this reason if for no other, people are awake to the possibility of new and better ideas. We have them--a nearly perfect roadmap to civilization--and we are skilled at conveying our philosophy.

Our appeal as libertarians to the rest of the political spectrum is our immense consistency. They see us from a distance, and we appear to them to be monolithic in our advocacy of human liberty. Well we are, almost. But that little bit of corruption, that tiny little claim that force can sometimes be justified, will in due course destroy the rest. Just like the last time.

Savagery does not make sense. The proto-savagery called statesmanship does not make sense. What makes sense is the renunciation of savagery, the renunciation of "might makes right".

We can convince them of what is right. Probably we can't convert them by the busload, but they are listening to us, and they never were before. We can tell them about the Third Thing all day and all night, describe it in perfect and loving detail, and in short order they will stop listening; they've heard it all before, after all, and the competing brands of imaginary amulets are kinder, gentler and more forgiving. Or we can strive to convince them of what is really right. But first we have to discover it.

Home Fiction Humor Essays Books