ON THE GREEK ORIGINS OF THE IDEA OF SPONTANEOUS ORDER VERSUS DELIBERATE ORDER
(Rodrigo Peñaloza, Aug. 3rd, 2015)

One of the main insights Hayek had about the nature of society was the idea of spontaneous order. He recognized to have taken the essence of this concept from Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, but here I want to claim that this idea is actually more ancient than it seems.

First, let me explain what spontaneous order is, according to Hayek. There are human institutions that arise out of an evolutionary process without any rationally thoroughly thought purposes. For example, when primitive hunters started to communicate their experiences by drawing pictorial symbols on the walls of caves, they didn’t have in mind the creation of any alphabet or written language. They hadn’t even thought that a written language would come out of their drawing symbols. This kind of spontaneous order is not under full control of Reason. There is no way a human mind can think over all the intricacies necessary for a cause to yield its effects and there is no need to even think about it in the first place. All we can do in these cases is to rely on general principles, if we ever start to think about it.

On the other hand, If we believe that human institutions were all designed by an omniscient mind for the sole purpose of achieving certain ends, this is deliberate order. The belief that the human mind is able to design the course of all events following certain action in the most complete way and that Reason has no limits whatsoever is what Hayek calls constructivist rationalism. Socialism is an obvious case in point. Free market, on the contrary, relies on the recognition that the world is much more complex than we think, but that nevertheless certain general principles can be known, such as, for instance, that by pursuing private ends, individuals contribute to social well being, which does not preclude adherence to social norms, because adherence to social norms, even if unconscious, is necessary condition for achieving private ends.

Hayek didn’t economize on examples about the tragic consequences from government’s intervention on the economy or, to put it in right terms, the tragic consequences to the deliberate intent to control the course of natural events. He also rightly credited the distinction between spontaneous order and deliberate order to ancient Greeks. When pre-Socratic thinkers thought of the first principles (ἀρχαί) of the Cosmos (κόσμος), they were recognizing that the world has an intrinsic order whose general principles can be known, though not its order in full. Indeed, the word κόσμος (Kósmos) means order (and beauty) in this quite general sense. It included not only perceptible Nature, it also included its “devenire”. Hayek emphasized how the Greeks, Aristotle in particular, differentiated this “natural” order from deliberate order by means of the word τάξις (táksis), used to describe the arrangement of soldiers in battle. This is a clear case of deliberate order.

What I want to add here is my perception that this distinction actually precedes the pre-Socratics. To contextualize, let us agree to call pre-philosophical Greece “Poetic Greece”, in the sense that human destiny were thought to be in the hands of Olympian Gods and their unstable moods, a kind of thought thoroughly manifested in the Greek poetry and theater. To me, it is clear that Homeric-Hesiodic gods were a poetical way to describe the spontaneous order of Nature and Life in general. Their only way to rationalize the unknown order of the world was to attribute it to the unpredictable will and mood of super-beings: the Olympian gods. Whenever a human being tried to overcome the will of gods and his destiny, as determined by gods, his Reason was insufficient to foresee all the course of events. His destiny would be fulfilled anyway. This was the whole essence of the Greek tragedy.

Two examples illustrate what I mean. Oedipus Rex (Οἰδίπους τύραννος, Oedípous Týrannos), son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta, tries to evade his destiny of killing his father and marrying his own mother. Even though he makes the rational decision to run away to avoid his destiny, he is thrown into it anyway. His being of royal descent is metaphor to the will of Reason to govern the world. The unintended consequences to his arrogance is what constitutes his tragedy.

Another example is the Bacchantes (Βάκχαι, by Euripides). Pentheus, king of Thebes, is a symbol of Reason as deliberative ordinator. Dionysus represents the violation of all rational norms, it represents the unknown order of the world (and the soul). When Bacchus wants to introduce Dionysian rites into the city, Pentheus tries to ban it, but he is then devoured by the bacchantes (his own mother included among them) in the same bacchanalian feast he wanted to ban.

To me, these are two clear examples that tragedy is what will certainly follow the human intent to make deliberate order ever superior to spontaneous order.

These pieces of evidence are corroborated by the fact that ancient Greeks made a sharp distinction between different kinds of wrong decision. I talk more about it in the text “On the notion of wrong decision in the Greek tragedy: the rôle of risk, uncertainty and ignorance”, to which I kindly refer the reader. So let me just make a brief summary of this here. The Greeks had different terms for different meanings of wrong decision. The general term was hamartía (ἁμαρτία), which meant the likely bad consequences of a rational decision based on knowledge of all the elements of causation. In Statistical terms, it is “risk”. Hamartía was not morally wrong, it was just a bad consequence of a thoroughly thought decision. The second term was atýchema (ἄτύχημα), which referred to an involuntary mistake driven by unknown external factors, that is, by ignorance or ágnoia (ἄγνοια). In statistical terms, atýchema is the wrong decision taken under an environment of Knightian uncertainty or nonprobabilizable uncertainty. In epistemological terms, atýchema referred to wrong decisions whose elements of causation the decision-taker was unware of and about whose unawareness he was also unware. This is exactly the kind of uncertainty that drives the upcoming of tragedy. The arrogance of the main character of the tragedy, usually someone of royal kind, and what brings him tragic consequences, consists in the superposition of deliberate order over the spontaneous order determined by gods, as I argued above. The last term, which I mention only for the sake of completeness, was adíkema (άδίκημα), which referred to a bad consequence brought about by a morally wrong decision. It was the consequence of a decision based on moral vices and against justice.

Therefore, the differentiation between deliberate and spontaneous order was something already very well alive in the Poetic Greece. The reference Hayek made to philosophical Greece was then of a secondary order. The idea was not born in the philosophical period, as he thinks, but well before.

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