When I was looking after my father, I read a lot of books, at night or in the afternoon while he was sleeping. One of them was Merchant, Soldier, Sage by the Oxford historian David Priestland. The paperback came out in 2014 and I’d picked it up fresh off the presses at the local Waterstones in Winchester. Then I’d forgotten all about it, until one day when Hoagy brought Jesperson down to my hut, and they were sitting on my verandah while I made coffee — and suddenly I burst out in inexplicable laughter, making them turn to look at me. I couldn’t explain at the time, and just waved it away and told them to ignore me. What had cracked me up was remembering Priestland’s book, and looking at the three of us, sitting on a bamboo platform in the middle of the jungle. The merchant and the soldier, and the sage rinsing out cups.
I’m writing this from memory, since my life-style has not exactly been conducive to hauling a lot of books around with me, so my account is probably going to be as much me as Priestland — don’t blame him for any imprecision. But Priestland’s theory of history is caste-based, as opposed to class-based. He identifies three groups which have vied with each other over the centuries, allying with and seeking to use each other in the search for domination. Once any of the three castes has achieved hegemony and held it for some time, invariably its ascendancy is destroyed from within by its own unipolar weakness, leading to collapse and revolution. The competition between these castes, he argues, is the ‘locomotive of history’.
The warrior caste dominated early societies, and comprised the feudal aristocracies in Europe — later becoming inbred and enfeebled, while continuing to use (but very much fearing) the actual warriors. The concept of nobility comes from them: honour, self-sacrifice, discipline, aggression. When this caste is in the ascendant for too long, it becomes dictatorial and hierarchical, and is eventually overthrown by those it oppresses.
The warrior caste originates in tribal chiefdoms, or even before that in the Big Man of the human band. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, describes how the chief of a tribe will gather around himself a group to share and apply his power, imposing tithes, resolving conflicts, distributing food in the winter, and so on. The chief and his bureaucracy claim a monopoly on violence, and on information. And so the sage caste is born, which in modern society diversifies into the professions: priests, clerics, lawyers, doctors, teachers, scientists, advertisers, propagandists, opinion-makers and perception-mangers, sociologists and psychologists, political theorists and commissars. This caste dominates through mind control and culture-creation, but its ascendancy will eventually ossify and suffocate, and blow away like dried up parchment. Meanwhile, I would add, renegades from this caste become artists-for-art’s-sake, outsider physicists and Bohemian philosophers, forming a perennial loser class to which I am proud to belong.
The last caste to arise is the merchants, who live by the market, men of trade and money. Despised by the other two castes, and lacking nobility or true creativity, wisdom or honour, it has an inferiority complex towards the warriors and the sages. It emerges in its modern form in England and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, but we all know it goes much further back than that, London and Amsterdam being the inheritors of Venice, and the Venetians and Byzantines the inheritors of Rome. The merchant caste has been able to tame and use the warriors and priests, and now holds absolute ascendancy in our world. Perhaps because it doesn’t have the deep roots of the other two castes, and lacks inhibiting codes of either ethics or honour, it has the most insatiable appetite of all to dominate, exploit and abuse. Bewitched by weights and measures, bloated by opulence, it eventually becomes monstrous, losing contact with reality, and is overwhelmed by the instability and inequality it creates.
Priestland’s theory is powerful, in my opinion, though the book received mixed reviews. Some reviewers found his historical narrative palled half-way through the book, becoming laboured and truistic. I think that was my experience, too — a brilliant opening, but not sustained; too few surprises in the development. Yes, 2001 saw a resurgence of the warriors, after the ascetic sage took down the towers. Yes, 2008 saw the merchants mired in their own corruption, but they still rule this nightmarish nest. And where do you go with it, this brilliant theory?
So anyway, there I was, making coffee in my hut for my two guests, and I looked at them, and couldn’t stop laughing. There was Hoagie, the golden-haired warrior-hermit, efficient soldier turned devoted Buddhist, his mind full of sunlight and moonshadow, leaves and snakes, love and pain… and Jesperson, twitching away next to him, the greatest contrast possible.
Jesperson made his money back in Denmark as a ‘brand-builder’, designing T-shirts and caps. He’d done so well that he’d become a bit of a TV personality — a ‘TV star’, according to him.
‘You want to see a clip of me on television?’ he said, taking out his mobile phone.
I hate it when people whip out their tracking device and try to make you look at things — pictures of themselves, their possessions, their girlfriend or family or where they work — on a tiny screen. I tend to take a quick glance and then look ostentatiously away when this happens, depending on how much I care about offending the person involved.
‘I don’t watch television,’ I said to Jesperson.
He looked at me, holding out his phone.
‘Ever,’ I said.
He was a relentless self-advertiser. When I told him I was a writer, he said, ‘I too am a very good writer. When I write a Facebook post I get two thousand likes.’
When I mentioned that Hoagy, according to the Thais, was very advanced in meditation, he said, ‘I too am very advanced.’
Yeah right. The kind of guy who’ll post a picture of himself on Facebook, sitting in what he thinks is the lotus position, his hands upturned and fingers joined as if holding tiny cymbals.
And so on. ‘I too am a very good boxer.’ But that hadn’t stopped him getting badly beaten up by local mafia, who raided his apartment and took all his cash, jewellery and electronics, and told him to leave Phuket. That was why he was hiding out at Lion Rock. Nueng had even got him a gun — he showed it to me within ten minutes of meeting him.
Who does that? Who shows a weapon to a complete stranger within minutes of meeting him?
A relentless self-promoter, that’s who. Someone who thinks having a gun makes him look cool.
I wasn’t happy about the situation. There are women and children at Lion Rock — and if he thought everyone was going to rally round to fight off local gangsters on his behalf, well, you could count me out. They probably beat him up and robbed him in the first place just because he was so annoying.
But there we were, three men on a bamboo platform in the jungle, and Priestland’s theory popped into my mind and I started cracking up about it. For some reason I just found it hilarious; a cartoon illustration, a stoner version of the historical theory — and the really funny thing is that it’s the Jespersons who rule the world.
And now that the idea was back in my mind, it occurred to me that it could be taken in a different direction. The different values of the three castes meant three different ways of looking at the world — in fact, couldn’t these castes be used to account for the three main theories of truth in philosophy?
The warrior, above all, must be aware of what’s around him, at all times. It’s all about the present moment. I thought of Hoagie, with this sniper’s eyes reading the landscape in Afghanistan or Timor, looking for human signs — shape, size, spacing, shading, silhouette… and having to try to fathom who is who, to read the human terrain as well. It’s all about observation — and that’s the correspondence theory of truth.
But about intuition, too. I thought about how this vital contact with the present moment could shift into meditative practice — the warrior, perhaps, more than the other two, had a natural path towards mysticism. After all, stilling the mind is an inseparable part of either training or combat. Egotism or overconfidence will kill you, and you’re a fool to fight for the wrong reasons. In Eastern traditions, spirituality and the warrior spirit combine in figures like Hanuman.
The sage, on the other hand, must study and know the past — must know what is known. He must always be cross-referencing observation and previous knowledge, looking for congruence and contradiction — and that is coherence theory of truth. So there’s me, listening to Hoagie’s account of his journeys in this world and the other one, and thinking about plasma cosmology and the electric universe, Tesla and Swami Vivekananda, the equation of prana with electromagnetism, akasha with the aether. And Hoagie saying to me, Stop trying to prove it with facts, man. And me thinking, Never going to happen, Hoagie. I am who I am.
And then there’s Johnnie Buffalo, certainly no sage and not quite a warrior, repeating Hoagy’s insights to impress dumb tourist chicks in the bar, the merchant to complete the triad.
Correspondence theory and coherence theory are the two main measures we have developed over the ages. Does the proposition correspond to what is observed? Is it coherent with what is already known? And where there is contradiction, where the contradictions mount up, then we come to the long, painful war of attrition that is a paradigm shift.
So what is left for the merchant? Is there a third theory? Well yes, kind of. They call it the pragmatic theory of truth, and it’s really a social theory rather than philosophical one, a theory of belief rather than of knowledge. If enough people believe something, it says, then it becomes true.
It hardly needs saying that the merchant’s relationship with truth is different — unlike the other two castes, the merchant has no interest in objective truth. Truth for the merchant is whatever the market says it is. Truth is whatever is popular, whatever has currency. If the merchant is posing as an intellectual, it is the marketplace of ideas he follows, as the price rises and falls. If the merchant is posing as a warrior, then war itself becomes a business model. The ascendancy of the merchant means that everything — everything — is now commodified, from the human mind to the human foetus, from medicine to cosmology to music to microbiology.
So the merchant caste will engineer perception to create markets, turning everything into a simulacrum. Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra is an economic not a philosophical or technological inevitability. Ultimately the merchant wants to destroy the notion of truth altogether. The ‘post-truth’ era that we are told we live in now is intended as the final triumph of the merchant mentality. And I and my kind, like Hoagy and his, are condemned forever to wander in the desert of the real, and that is what we choose. The merchants will always envy us, and will commodify our attitudes, even our clothing-styles and language, but they will never be us, however hard they might pretend.
The word ‘truth’, in the English language, has its origins in warrior values. What was ‘true’, originally, was not a fact, but an arrow or a blade; if the arrow was true, and the archer’s aim, the arrow hit the mark. And it was to do with faith, with loyalty; a true heart; a true friend. Only in the late sixteenth century is its usage to be found denoting accuracy of information. The overarching sense in these usages is fidelity, to reality and each other, not to social trends or engineered belief systems.
But for the merchant, it’s all about the deal, the exchange. An erstwhile friend of mine, who fancied himself a sage but was always merchant through and through, once said of me in jocular fashion: ‘I’ve known him for years, and in all that time I’ve never known him get a good deal.’
And that annoyed me, no doubt because it is true. I am not a negotiator; I do not drive a hard bargain. I have been too generous at times; I’ve been taken advantage of and cheated, no doubt.
But ultimately it doesn’t matter, and I let it go. I might be the worst negotiator in the world, but who cares? There are more important considerations. Because on the karmic level, you don’t make deals. There are no negotiations, no calculations. You do what you can. You do what is in your nature to do. And you accept what comes.
And that is what the merchant will never understand.