Myths and Legends

By February 26, 2020Other

The concept of ‘rights’ has interested me from the beginning, that is, when I first gave a set of lectures to an adult education class, in the early 1960s. I’ve written about rights, too — here, for example.

My position is a simple one. If someone has a “right” then it is embodied in legislation somewhere. If it is not so embodied, it is not a right, only an aspiration. I don’t want to rehash the matter in this essay. Rather, I want to extend it, following a line of argument I have drawn from a most enjoyable and interesting book, Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind (2011). Its author is Yuval Noah Harari, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Harari argues that while it is true that, at least from the evolutionary perspective, humans are not born with rights, it is important that we believe that they are so gifted. His general argument is that societies cannot function unless most people in them believe in the same things. He calls those things ‘myths’, and our consequent behaviour in believing in them, an ‘imagined order’. A natural order is different. Gravity continues to operate as it does whether or not we believe in it, as is the case with radioactivity. But myths vanish when people cease to believe in them, as does the imagined order. There was a time when people believed in the malign work of ‘witches’, and part of the imagined order that went along with that myth was the burning at the stake of women identified as witches. We no longer believe in witches; it is not part of any 21stcentury Western imagined order.

‘Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order’, he says. But ‘an imagined order can’t be sustained by violence alone’. It requires a lot of ‘true believers’. How do we come by them, you ask. First, he says, the imagined order becomes part of the material world. We in the West currently believe in ‘individualism’, that every person is of equal validity. So our houses have rooms for everyone, even the children, who are able to decorate their room as they wish, and even deny entrance to others of their family. It is theirs. Mediaeval castles did not have private rooms, and had few doors. The eldest son slept in in the hall along with other young men. He knew who he was, and you did too. You paid him proper respect, or else! You and he had your proper places in the social hierarchy — those places determined your true worth, not whether you had a private room.

Second, ‘the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries’. We are urged to see a holiday abroad as the true expression of our values. We will learn more about other people, their tastes and cultures, and in doing so we will extend our knowledge of ourselves. Our consumer-oriented society tells us we usually need some ‘retail therapy’, and that buying things and surrounding ourselves with objects will make us happy. ‘The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences.’ A wealthy Egyptian long ago would not thought of taking his wife to Babylon. Rather, he would have built her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted. Wealthy Australian graziers in the 1880s built grand homes to display their wealth and status. Why? That’s what the wealthy English did. We followed suit.

Harari calls this kind of imitation ‘inter-subjectivity’. We like to keep up with the Joneses. Not to do so is to admit that the Jones family is ahead of us, and therefore better. Now I can decide not to take trips overseas or build a better home than I can really afford, but what one person does hardly matters. If the great majority still do those things then our culture keeps these behaviours as central, and I am scorned.

Finally, there is money. Money is the universally accepted means of transacting business, not just between two of us in Canberra, but between one of us in Australia and another person in Japan. Barter did that job when we lived in tribes, and straightforward co-operation worked earlier still (I’ll help you now, because if I do then you’ll help me later). But as our settlements grew so did the need for something tangible that was widely accepted. Standard measures of barley did the job in the Sumerian civilisation, then came the silver shekel, and after it the coin, stamped with the name or face of the ruler, who thereby warranted that it was worth something. Amazingly, coins were accepted in other realms, so the Roman denarius was used as a coin in India, even though the nearest Roman legion was thousands of kilometres away.

In our society there are people who want to get back to nature, or to a sort of rural simplicity, where they grow their own food, and try to be self-sufficient. Of course, to do this they need to spend a lot of money first (as with solar energy) in the hope that in the long run they will be free of the rat-race. Money is really hard to escape, or to do without. Harari says that today the physical side of money is disappearing. The sum total of all the money in the world is about $60 trillion, but the sum total of all the banknotes and coins in the world is only (!) $6 trillion. The other 90 per cent simply exists in computer servers. I carry with me in my wallet a small amount of money in banknotes and in my pocket what cashiers describe as ‘metal’ — coins. Yet my bank summary on the computer says that I am worth more than that. If I want to buy something it is the credit side of my bank statement that everyone is interested in. And banks want me to have and want more money, too. Our whole society believes firmly in the value of money. My neighbours believe in our rather elegant Australian plastic money because I do, and I do because they do. The use of money like this is part of our imagined order.

So, back to rights. They don’t exist unless they are conferred by law, but the feeling that they are important is part of our imagined order. I hadn’t thought of it all like that, and I am glad that this book came my way (from a daughter, who said I would find it interesting, in which supposition she was quite right). Indeed, the notion of ‘an imagined order’ existing only in our minds but structuring our life in all its complexity is something I will continue to think about.

I was going to talk about Anzac Day and other legends, too, for these are also part of our imagined order, but this essay is already long enough. Legends can wait for a future essay.

Join the discussion 27 Comments

  • beththeserf says:

    Lovely essay, Don. Rights, nothing but what thinking makes it so. Should have posted my prior comment here.

  • Chris Warren says:


    “We in the West currently believe in ‘individualism’, that every person is of equal validity.”

    The Western political economy was constructed on the theory that every person was not of equal validity.

    Some could be property of others (and killed at will), some were serfs, and some could make laws but others could not.

    So called “savages” had no validity.

    Social democracy holds that every person has equal validity, but this concept has to struggle against many established precepts from earlier Western civilisation. The equal validity of women, negros, and gays is relatively recent in the USA. Modern efforts to attain equal validity today for all individuals is generlly opposed as “woke practice” by voices such as Andrew Bolt and Gerald Henderson.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Thanks Don – thought provoking stuff, with which I have no dispute.

    Few people I know realise that most of the rights they think they have are established by custom and habit, not written law, although customs and habits underpin so much that makes society work. A police officer once told me that if 95% or more of the population didn’t obey the law and otherwise do the right thing, the police could not keep order.

    Laws don’t matter if they are ignored. We still have killers and drunk drivers, but the personal values of individuals apparently deter far more people than the threat of punishment.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Don, your essay is fine as far as it goes, but I am more troubled by the concept of ‘human rights’, so beloved by the UN, and by any group that believes it has a ’cause’ to promote.

    • Chris Warren says:

      What are you scared of – causes have causes.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        It may be news to you, but a ’cause’ is not a ‘right’.

        • Chris Warren says:

          No one says “cause” is a “right”.

          However causes can lead to rights.

          Is that what is upsetting you – too many people seeking too many rights ????

          • Peter Black says:

            Or, in the case of GetUp, too few people seeking too many rights. And, being paid very handsomely to achieve that, if reports are correct.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Pity I didn’t read this earlier.

      “Economic rights are human rights”
      Bernie Sanders, presumptive nominee for POTUS

      • Chris Warren says:

        In general, economic injustice is human injustice, so I cannot see any issue. You cannot have human rights where there is any form of injustice – including economic injustice.

        Presumably you are taking fright at some misinterpretation of Sanders (unreferenced) statement.

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          I have not given you a (mis) interpretation of Sanders’ statement. It is a direct quote from a speech.

          “economic injustice is human injustice” … according to whom, and under which laws? That’s the trouble with ‘rights’. They’re easy to claim, but difficult, if not impossible, to justify.

          • Chris Warren says:

            You are confused – anyone can misinterpret a direct quote. Stating it is a direct quote has no relevance.

            I am not aware of any right that is near “impossible to justify” – provided it is based on science, agreement and does not conflict with other equal rights.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            Fatuous. Not even Jesus talked about the ‘right to life’, and it has been the subject of decades of disputation.

          • Chris Warren says:

            If you think the right to life is near impossible to justify, then you do not know what you are talking about.

            All humans have the right to life and this is easy to justify. Just ask them.

            This has nothing to do with religious fables.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            Just ask a foetus.

          • Chris Warren says:

            Are you an anti-abortionist zealot.

            If so then good bye.

            Your reference to Bernie Sander’s was therefore nothing but a trick to peddle stale crap from these nutters.

            If you have a real interest in rights, then enter the real world where real issues exist.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            “Just ask them”

            I point out the absurdity of your statement, and all you can do is make silly and irrelevant accusations. Give it up.

          • Chris Warren says:

            So you are as I suspected.

          • Boambee John says:


            As are you.

  • David B says:

    Australian attitude to rights can be found in Bentham, and, it can be argued, arise from his work. There is a lot to be said for the American approach to rights as it provides stronger protection against the erosion of some basic aspirations/principles of Western societies. There is also a lot to be said for Bentham’s approach as it ties democratic decision-making a little more closely to voters. The proof, ultimately, is in the outcome of the experiments. Note, though, different populations with different expectations will have different outcomes with the same system, so a success of one system in one jurisdiction is not proof of its applicability in another.

  • JMO says:

    Christ Chris, you have shown strong evidence of an argumentive characteristic. Quick to denigrate. Are you related to Elizabeth? You both share a similar trait.

  • Boambee John says:

    Chris often writes as if he is a junior academic running a first year, first semester seminar and trying excessively hard to impress the new students with his supposed abilities as a polymath.

    At first I thought it was an act, but he does it so often that I am starting to wonder if it actually might not be an act, but a reflection of reality.

  • MD says:


    Very interesting. ‘Imagined order’ is, it may be argued, what St Paul meant by ‘dominions, principalities and powers’. They are as real as rocks, and govern relationships between people, as self-conscious and accountable moral agents. Symbolically, you could say they form the ‘firmament’ that keeps the ‘waters of chaos’ at bay. So the adjective ‘imagined’, which may suggest ‘unreal’, could be questioned.

    As you move towards the edge of order, you encounter people, who may live according to some lesser orders, on the margin: artists and dropouts, hippies and hermits, the possessed and the mystics . (Symbolically represented as the ‘marginalia’ in mediaeval religious texts: fantastical creatures, as in a Bosch painting, living in the margins apart from Scripture in the main body of the text.) The Canadian artist, Jonathan Pageau, has a YouTube channel that explores these questions.

  • Peter S says:

    Thanks for the essay Don. An interesting piece of reasoning.

  • […] my last essay I used some ideas drawn from a book, now ten years old, by Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens. A […]

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