Magical Machu Picchu and The Vexing ‘Human Condition’

by Saul Levine, M.D., Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at UCSD May 28, 2018
 

 

Machu Picchu, Peru. UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World

I recently visited remarkable Machu Picchu, the ancient and magically beautiful Andes mountain community constructed some 500 years ago for the leader of the then-thriving Incan Empire. Many exquisitely preserved walls of buildings still stand in this breath-taking setting atop the steep slopes of the Peruvian Andes. The entire site is ethereal, evoking feelings of awe and spirituality in the vast majority of visitors, including me.

Machu Picchu is a UNESCO “World Heritage Site” which has over the last century become a destination shrine for millions of tourists and trekkers, poets and photographers, historians and architects, artists and searchers.

Visitors are in wonderment, but there are inevitable questions: How did the Incans employ such advanced methods of farming at that time and altitude? How did they move huge boulders even a few feet, never mind considerable distances up dramatically steep gradients? How did they chisel and sculpt huge rocks to such perfection of smoothness and exactitude of measurement? How were food and building supplies brought in from far below the summit?

The Incans were obviously knowledgeable about architecture, agriculture, astronomy, sculpture, engineering, aesthetics, commerce and defense. They demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness, creativity, social organization, planning and spirituality. Visitors to Machu Picchu – or many other archeological treasures elsewhere in our world (Masada, Pyramids, Angkor Wat, Easter Island, The Great Wall, Stonehenge, etc.) – are moved and in awe.

But something else struck me:

In its prime, Machu Picchu was only reachable by an arduous journey on foot up the long, steep and perilous Incan Trail from Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire. Yet by all accounts, it was a thriving community, full of energetic, productive and creative people.

Now it is eerily quiet. There are no signs of the once-lively commerce, art, worshipping, teaching, farming or loving which filled its buildings and streets. It sits starkly abandoned, devoid of all signs of life, except perhaps the hauntingly exquisite stone structures which serve as funereal monuments to its citizens. The Incans have completely disappeared.

We know that serious illnesses like smallpox and influenza, introduced by European explorers and invaders, ravaged much of the Incan population. We also know from many historical accounts that foreign invaders, in this case from Spain, brutally exploited, subjugated, tortured and killed thousands of the Incan people in Peru and other parts of the empire which extended to other countries (Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina) in South America.

This is not meant to be an indictment of the Spanish explorers of centuries ago, who were merely utilizing the exact same “playbook” used by Christian Crusaders, Ottoman soldiers, Genghis Khan’s Mongol armies, Attila’s Huns, and just about every other invasive national or religious force. Their universal “game-plan” was crudely (and cruelly) simple: Invade, conquer, gather/steal resources and riches, rape and pillage, convert, enslave or kill the indigenous peoples.

It is heartening and inspiring that even hundreds of years ago, our species could create advanced civilizations, move enormous weights, build strong and aesthetically pleasing buildings, develop mathematical theorems and applications, evolve the study of astronomy using only the naked eye, create art, play music, grow agricultural products, and write and teach philosophical treatises.

It is decidedly not stirring or ennobling, however, to learn that some civilizations were wiped off the face of the earth at the hands of other more aggressive human beings. Our talented forebears were victimized by their fellow men who wanted to, felt entitled to, and perhaps “needed to,” exercise their intense aggressive urges and needs for power.

When I use the words the “Human Condition” in this context, I refer to the sad paradox inherent in our species to be capable of simultaneously producing lofty inspirational creations and degradingly brutal behavior. We humans can manifest tender loving and compassion, and yet we readily demonstrate anger, aggression and violence. It seems that an inherent part of humanity, even amidst inspiring benevolence and generativity, is bestial and brutal

For all our remarkable progress in science, the arts, technology, medicine and progressive ideas, we are still engaged in virulent hatreds, battles and wars. We may well be on the precipice of even greater conflagrations endangering our very existence.

Two eternal but pressingly urgent questions come to mind: The first, from hundreds of years ago, by Rabbi Hillel, “If Not Now, When?” and the second, from the sixties, by Peter, Paul and Mary, “When Will We Ever Learn?”

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