Full disclosure: While the author has at times felt being “on top of the world”, he cannot claim any personal experience of “life at the top”. However, being a keen witness and a dogged student, the common idea of “top” fascinates him. After all, a crazed race to “the top” inevitably leads to injustice, crime and war. But anyone obsessed with “reaching the top” can provide only a self-serving report of his or her life. Therefore an objective if light-hearted study is attempted here.
To reach an imagined “top”, and to retain one’s position at such an imagined “top”, are fairly common human desires. Such desires – rooted deep in the human psyche – cause empires, fiefdoms, business conglomerates, cabals and other assorted gangs to form and to compete amongst each other.
Clearly, “top” in such contexts refers to wealth and power; specifically, “top” is usually taken to mean “top of the wealth and power heap”. We do not consider fame as a distinct ingredient of that heap, since fame is commonly arranged through a cunning application of wealth, power or both.
But do we not sense an obvious and delicious catch right away?
“Top of the heap” makes sense only as long as a “competing heap” does not tempt the person “at the top”. After all, a person would not be satisfied being on top of a heap of a modest size, if he or she spies another person on top of a bigger heap nearby! Fierce competition is thus an integral part of this game of “one-upmanship” – or “one-uppersonship”, avoiding gender specificity.
So we must conclude that “top of the heap” means “top of the biggest heap in the occupier’s sight”. This point is crucial, given the fact that the desire to be “top dog” exists in both localized and globalized societies. Among forest dwellers, a “wannabe top dog” has in view a single hamlet or possibly a cluster of hamlets. In a globalized society, the same urge involves dabbling at global politics.
In terms of the inner human urge, however, the “local” and “global” varieties of “wannabe top dog” are no different. To an unbiased observer, both are ridiculous, regrettable, dangerous – and also, sadly, inevitable.
Therefore, in this important aspect, there cannot be any credible claim of “more civilized behaviour” in one society as compared to another. Of course, the tokens of wealth and instruments of power would be different in the two societies. There would also be more lies and hypocrisy in the society with more highly developed intellects – since more cunning minds would there be busy obfuscating.
However, the “wannabe top dog” urge is the same across all societies, “local” or “global”. This point becomes clearer with two simple word pictures:
A “local wannabe top dog” sports a loin-cover and a necklace of beads and leather, and holds a spear, bow and arrows in his hands.
A “global wannabe top dog” is in dark suit and “shades”, has a smart-phone in hand, and is surrounded by bodyguards with automatic weapons.
Both these human beings – although they seem to be worlds apart – are under the heady effect of the same “wannabe top dog” urge.
We shall now see that there is much more to “the top” than is allowed to meet “the commoner’s eyes”!
To wish to be “on top of things” is a perfectly normal and natural human desire. Given that life is a struggle, from time to time everybody needs the recuperative feeling that he or she is not facing “insurmountable difficulties”. Fair enough.
But when “being on top” becomes an obsession or a mania – a fanatically held goal – then a serious problem is created!
“There is always room at the top” – is the advice commonly given to a young person considering a choice of career. The correct meaning of this sound advice is that the problem of livelihood is tackled best if the person excels at the chosen career. However, if the word “top” is taken to mean “top of the wealth and power heap”, then this sound advice is no longer valid!
A sad fact of life is that, in any profession, the jostling for advantage and position “at the top of the wealth and power heap” is intense, brutal and ceaseless. A young person setting out in life cannot be expected to know all this, but most people discover by and by the dirty politics of wealth and power.
Another assertion commonly made is: “It is lonely at the top”. This assertion also cannot be accepted at face value. The correct meaning of this assertion can only be this: “It is in fact quite crowded at and near the top, with non-stop elbowing, jostling, bad-mouthing – and worse. Therefore it does feel incredibly lonely”.
Since times immemorial, wealth and power have been closely intertwined. This is so because the exercise of power and the protection of wealth both require brute and “high maintenance” instruments of power – that is, instruments which must be “greased” with regular supply of money and other perks of power.
Technology has always been utilized heavily for the exercise of power and the protection of wealth. Since technology itself is expensive and “high maintenance”, it tightens even further the intertwining of wealth and power.
Thus we see that there is sound basis – grounded deep in human psychology – for relating the common meaning of “top” to the extremely closely intertwined social constructs of power and wealth.
In reality – that is, biologically – all human beings belong to the species Homo Sapiens. Human lives rely upon the same processes of physiology and psychology, and are inexorably subject to the same laws of karma.
As we have seen, “top” is an artificial social construct based on wealth and power. Depending on a person’s specific situation, wealth and power generate craving, aversion and/or illusion in the person’s mind. These in turn generate deep-seated bias in how the person views and reacts to any given situation.
For an unbiased student of life, it is necessary to deconstruct the common meaning of “top” to its psychological ingredients. Gautam Buddha has shown that these elementary ingredients are craving, aversion and/or illusion.
Thus a lack of true understanding underlies the common use of labels such as “top” and its converse “bottom”. But it is also true that the basic survival instinct causes people to worship at the altar of power and wealth – and to nurse disdain for those lacking in power and wealth. Only a mind which is not insecure about survival can make an honest effort to enhance its own understanding.
Must “true understanding” and “survival” necessarily be at odds with each other? Is this the dilemma which separates “idealists” from “realists”?
At this crucial point in the analysis, an amazing insight of Buddha helps us out.
We know that survival, or self-preservation, is a basic biological instinct – and therefore an essential instinct, given that a living organism must learn to sustain itself through all kinds of challenges thrown up by the environment.
But is it possible to conceive of “self-preservation” – the necessary biological instinct – as being but one component of a wider, more fundamental life instinct? In other words, is there more to life than the admittedly “non-negotiable” instinct of self-preservation?
We do not deny the absolute necessity and enormous value of self-preservation. Rather, we explore the possibility that human life has a far greater value than that which is implied – and circumscribed! – by the goal of self-preservation alone.
Gautam Buddha asserted confidently – some 2500 years before Charles Darwin and Adam Smith – that attaining durable happiness is the deepest instinctive goal of every human being. We may also call this goal “true fulfilment” – keeping in mind that it does not in any sense detract from the value of self-preservation.
So if Buddha was right – and the author does believe that he was – then both the “local” and the “global” varieties of “wannabe top dog” must harbour the illusion that they would attain durable happiness once they are on top of the wealth and power heap. In climbing frantically the wealth and power heap, in other words, what they are unconsciously seeking – and will not find – is “true fulfilment”!
Thus, if Buddha was right, then the illusion of finding “true fulfilment” through wealth and power necessarily accompanies any “wannabe top dog” urge!
Every human being has a natural need to attain from time to time a feeling that difficulties have been overcome – to feel at least a modest sense of fulfilment. Without having this feeling from time to time, it would be impossible for anyone to engage in the almost endless struggle of life.
Cultural festivals offer occasions to exhibit such fulfilment on a collective basis; and similarly individuals too need their moments of satisfaction.
But now suppose a mind becomes obsessed with the idea of total and unending fulfilment in life – with no threats or doubts anywhere in sight. Then there are two paths open to such a person to seek unending fulfilment:
(a) the path towards “total control over everything in sight”, and
(b) the path towards wisdom which overcomes the obsession, as suggested by Buddha and many other saints.
There is an interesting legend about the infant prince Siddharth Gautam. A sage is said to have predicted that the prince would grow up to be either a great emperor or a great saint. The prince’s father then took great care to shield him from all possible forms of suffering. Indeed, today’s “ruling clans” also take great care that their offspring cannot imagine anything other than “the prescribed life”.
Clearly, “prescribed clan behaviour” and individual search for truth cannot coexist. These two types of behaviour are in fundamental contradiction.
When choice (a) is taken – “control over everything in sight” – a person is compelled to seek successively bigger and bigger heaps of wealth and power, giving “life at the top” its common meaning. The wish to “control everything in sight” also gives rise to the wrong-headed notion of “conquest over nature”, which is today casting a dark shadow over mankind’s future.
Of course impermanence is a fact of life. Therefore the slippery illusion of “control over everything in sight” also waxes and wanes – in sync with the many inevitable vicissitudes in a local or global potentate’s life. After a setback, most “top dogs” see no alternative but to double down. Any legitimate doubt arising after a setback is cleverly and ruthlessly suppressed.
Hierarchy of wealth and power is sustained at its “higher levels” by selfish courtiers and lackeys – and at the “ground level” by an untold number of simple-minded and trusting persons who buy into the propaganda of wealth and power. Lavish “parties” amongst wealth- and power-mongers are occasions for badly needed reinforcement of illusion. The common implicit theme is always: “Don’t we deserve to be on top of the heap? Of course we do!” Anything less than wholehearted agreement to this theme leads to immediate exclusion.
Since wealth- and power-mongering is necessarily grounded in illusion, a “masked ball” is really nothing but a masquerade within a masquerade.
Such is “life at the top” – when stripped of its glitter, scams and evasions, and thereby reduced to its basic psychological ingredients.
“Top dogs” do not find in their life what they really need. But only two things keep them from trying, failing, covering up and doubling down: senility and death. As hangers-on watch them closely at their deadly games, they too are infected by the “wannabe top dog” disease. Sharp-eyed, they wait “in the wings” for a chance to grab power and pelf. There is no honour among this band of thieves.
Meanwhile, it helps others to be wise and to stay safe – even if it is unavoidable on occasion to have to deal with a “wannabe top dog” or a lackey.
The incomparable Bard wrote:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;
Thanks to Buddha, perhaps now we can add:
In an endless play of craving, aversion, illusion – some more than others.
[Published originally at transcend.org/tms]