Mankind
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The same laws apply in the human social order which is but a segment ofthe cosmic hierarchy. Because of his greater merit, a rich man is more effectivethan a poor man and freer from suffering. He commands his chauffeurto drive him to the government office, while the peasant must trampthrough the mud to his rice field. His dependent kinsmen and servants outnumberthe peasant’s small household. To this larger group the rich mangives more generously of his greater wealth; he must resist temptation to bemiserly; even his servants receive better care than the peasant’s children intheir thatched hut. The rich man marries off his children with more elaborateceremony and offers more alms at the temple. Contrary to the Christiangospel, a poor widow, giving her all to the priest, remains less blessedthan the rich man; both have performed meritorious acts, but the Thai observethat the effectiveness of ten thousand baht far outweighs the widow’sbattered coin.As with the cosmic hierarchy, the Thai social order roots individuals inno permanent rank. To be sure, depending on merit accumulated from pastexistences, one is born to the advantages or disadvantages of a given socialposition, but one need not remain a peasant until the end of his days. Peasantshave become ministers of state, just as powerful kings have becomeslaves. Social life is a continuous process of changing station by earning andvalidating a higher one, or falling to a lower one. At any moment the lowestman may catapult himself to a position effectively superior to the king; heneed only take the vows of a priest. As long as he submits to the disciplineof selflessness required by the rules of the order, he may remain in this loftyposition. On the other hand, there are limits to movement. Human beings have a lifespan of only a few decades, during which they must sleep, eat,and labor, always subject to corporeal limitations. Gaining in subsequentexistences a higher form through virtuous conduct is the only route to overcomehis suffering and gain greater effectiveness of action.Let us examine the constitution of a group, so as to clarify the social processof rising and falling in the hierarchy. Here we translate merit-based effectivenessin action and freedom from suffering into daily living. Groupsform only when a man has gathered resources and can distribute them asbenefits to others. In the household one distributes to the members food,clothing, and shelter. Employers give opportunities for earning money, oftenfood and shelter as well. A peasant may benefit his neighbor by lending abuffalo to help with the plowing. By accepting these benefits, one enters anexplicit or tacit agreement to reciprocate with some service. A young mandescribed going to Bangkok from the countryside and joining his father’syounger brother and his wife:When I first went to live there, my aunt didn’t have any children, but afterwardsshe did, but he’s still only a little boy. Also, my aunt wanted me totake my uncle’s place as the supervisor [of a small cutlery factory]. She hassome land outside of Bangkok, and sometimes my aunt and uncle go on businessto see this land, and I watch over the work instead of him. It seemed hereally entrusted the work to me. I think that my uncle and aunt wanted me tolive with them as their son until their death. That’s why they always talkedabout giving me a house and a job. And after they had their own child, myaunt said she would entrust me to take care of him, and would give me ahouse and some land. And she said she would divide the land. She wouldentrust me to take care of her son until the end of my life. This is what myaunt said; but my uncle didn’t say anything. (Phillips 1957)By accepting the wages, food, housing, and the promise of becoming afactory manager, the young man obligated himself to supervise the factory,to care for his aunt and uncle in their old age, and to look after their sonwhen they were dead. The aunt and uncle, by offering these benefits, establishedthemselves as the superiors over the young man who became theirclient. They would never have made an offer of this importance to a nonkinsman,though nonkinsmen did work in the factory at lesser jobs. Such atransaction with its connotation of inequality is the indispensable conditionfor group existence.1 Groups themselves are tiny hierarchies with a superiorshowering benefits on his nearest inferior, who in turn relays a portion tosomeone standing beneath him. Such a linear structure of groups does notmean that each member addresses himself exclusively to the person on astation immediately adjacent to him, though such an arrangement may beapproximated in circumstances like a large government bureau. The leadermust see that even the lowliest member is adequately cared for, yet the linear organization is evident. The peasant who feeds and shelters his childrengrants them attention in accordance with age, except for the often “spoiled”youngest. Among siblings, confidence and affection is most apt to developbetween those of adjacent age, and the hierarchic compulsion becomes clearestwhen twins, born a few minutes apart, are carefully instructed to addresseach other as older or younger. The king standing among his ministers,though regarding them all as ministers, recognizes an implicit hierarchybased on wealth and size of group that each commands. Without hierarchy,order cannot reign, though the equality of husband and wife forms a startlingexception to this rule.The coherence of Thai society rests largely on the value of becoming a clientof someone who has greater resources than one alone possesses; a personis ill-advised to try to fight one’s own battles independently. Security growswith affiliation, and the crowning moment of happiness lies in the knowledgeof dependable benefits distributed in turn to faithful inferiors. At thetop stands the gracious king meeting with his courtly officials. Below them,with mounting uncertainties and smaller benefits to distribute, follow theranks of deputies and assistants down to the clerks and sweepers. Some ofthe merchants and artisans may surpass the lower governmental positionsin wealth and power, but in the paddy fields, existence becomes more isolatedand precarious. At the bottom is the forest where some lone, uncouthhunter, deserted by his wife and children, stalks his prey. Because of unrulytemper and undisciplined manner, he can find no one who will longreciprocate his undependable services. From top to bottom groups dwindlein size and stability. The organization is like the leaves, twigs, branches, andboughs of a great oak. One may trace a linear path from the heart of the treeoutward to any leaf; each leaf, twig, and branch, standing at a unique distancefrom the heart, receives varying amounts of nourishment. In the frailtwigs at the ends of the branches is found the greatest fragility, while theheart and adjoining boughs safely stand through many storms.

 

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