Updated: Jul 20
A graduate school lecturer once shared the idea (1) that every civilization is comprised of interlocking moral, political, and economic layers that build on each other.
Morals - Prophets, Poets, and Philosophers
The first, foundational layer is moral in nature, where a society's ideas of right and wrong come from. Prophets, poets, and philosophers come along and advocate for a particular ideal and articulate a corresponding moral system.
Homer, for example, was the 8th century BCE poet who authored the Iliad and the Odyssey which deeply influenced ancient Greek culture, religion, and politics. John Lennon, a modern poet, wrote, "Imagine", which described a particular hope for the world and had specific things to say about the role of religion, politics, property, and human needs and behavior. Musicians, artists, and playwrights have a profound impact on our sense of right, wrong, beauty, and purpose.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago and emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. John Locke, born 2,100 years later, expressed ideas on human rights, human motivation, and social contract that deeply impact us today.
Moses was a Hebrew prophet who lived some 3,300 years ago and claimed to receive a moral code of conduct from Jehovah. Jesus of Nazareth appeared hundreds of years later and amended or replaced the Mosaic law with a creed that millions follow today.
Politics - Statesmen and Politicians
All legislation is an effort to codify into law the moral beliefs of a people.
The political system of a given society is designed to enforce and perpetuate that society's values. If the moral and political systems are not in synch, the laws will be ignored and eventually replaced. Sometimes however, laws can be used to persuade people to change their values.
The founding fathers of the United States built new governmental forms based on Judeo-Christian moral principles and the writings of philosophers from England, France, and ancient Greece and Rome.
Iran's political framework combines the prophet Muhammad's Shia Islam with a presidential democracy.
The philosophies of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin led to enormous political changes in Cuba led by Fidel Castro, in China led by Mao Zedong, and many other countries.
Economics - Types, Entrepreneurs, and Employees
An economic system is the means by which a society organizes and distributes resources, goods, and services. These systems can be categorized into four main types: traditional, command, mixed, and market. Which type a given country has is deeply influenced by and reflects the moral and political layers it sits on.
Creative individuals who see economic opportunity have different rules to abide by depending on what type of economy their country has. Innovators in a command economy like North Korea or the former Soviet Union will have different opportunities and roadblocks than they might have in market economies like Japan or the United States. The social mores of a country will also impact the kinds of businesses an entrepreneur might venture to create or the products they can sell. Red Bull is banned in France and Denmark. Unpasteurized milk is banned in most of the US and Canada. Samosas, the little triangle-shaped pastries with spicy potato, chicken or lamb filling are banned in Somalia for being "too Christian."
Employees make up the majority of the labor force of any given country and have little control or influence over the tides their economic boats float upon.
Society - Schools, Communities, Families, Media, Arts
The kinds of schools we have, the communities we live in, the media we generate and consume, whether or when we marry, the number of children we have, the arts we create and patronize are all deeply influenced by the moral, political, and economic layers of our society.
Normally, we're very busy with our day to day lives and don't give much thought to these deep, often ancient moral, political and economic structures that create the conditions in which we live, just as we give little thought to the bridges we drive over or the planes we fly in.
Culture Stack - The Water We Swim In
The late David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College in which he opened with the now-famous story about an old fish who greets two young fish with, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" One of the young fish asks the other, "What the hell is water?"
Our culture is the water we swim in. Culture shock is the experience we have when we travel elsewhere and realize that the water isn't the same everywhere.
CultureStack is the name I've given to describe the package of ideological and practical building blocks that can be used to describe and understand every civilization ever - and diagnose their ills and opportunities - and foresee their rise or downfall.
Moreover, every individual, community, and region has its own stack. As we engage with others on topics of religion, morality, government, education, etc. understanding their stack and where it diverges from our own can help us understand and communicate with them better.
What's the culture stack of your country?
Do you engage with individuals or groups who have a different stack? If so, at what layer in the stack do you engage? Is that the layer where your ideas differ?
Is your stack coherent?
What life questions does your stack not (yet) answer?