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Quigley on Top: Necessary vs Important — Prologue to “Weapons Systems and Political Stability.” Part I.

January 2, 2016


Fifteen years or so before the Counter-Culture declared the word the mystical basis of everything worthwhile, Carroll Quigley described his approach to history as holistic. The following excerpt from his unfinished work, Weapons Systems and Political Stability sets out some of the initial concepts from which he builds his analysis of history.

Necessary vs important.

The inability of most of us to distinguish between what is necessary and what is important is another example of the way in which one’s immediate personal experience, and especially the narrow and limited character of most personal experience, distorts one’s vision of reality. For necessary things are only important when they are lacking, and are quickly forgotten when they are in adequate supply.

Certainly the most basic of human needs are those required for man’s continued physical survival and, of those, the most constantly needed is oxygen. Yet we almost never think of this, simply because it is almost never lacking. Yet cut off our supply of oxygen, even for a few seconds, and oxygen becomes the most important thing in the world. The same is true of the other parameters of our physical survival such as space and time. They are always necessary, but they become important only when we do not have them. This is true, for example, of food and water. It is equally true of security, for security is almost as closely related to mere physical survival as oxygen, food, or water.

The less concrete human needs, such as those for explanation or companionship are, on the other hand, less necessary (at least for mere survival) but are always important, whether we have them or lack them. In fact, the scale of human needs as we have hinted a moment ago, forms a hierarchy seven or eight levels high, ranging from the more concrete to the less concrete (and thus more abstract) aspects of reality.

Hierarchy of human needs

We cannot easily force the multi-dimensional complexities of reality and human experience into a single one-dimensional scale, but, if we are willing to excuse the inevitable distortion arising from an effort to do this, we might range human needs from the bottom to the top, on the levels of (1) physical survival; (2) security; (3).economic needs; (4) sex and reproduction; (5) gregarious needs for companionship and love; (6) the need for meaning and purpose; and (7) the need for explanation of the functioning of the universe. This hierarchy undoubtedly reflects the fact that man’s nature itself is a hierarchy, corresponding to his hierarchy of needs, although we usually conceal the hierarchical nature of man by polarizing it into some kind of dualistic system, such as mind and body, or, perhaps, by dividing it into the three levels of body, emotions, and intellect.

In general terms, we might say that the hierarchy of human needs, reflecting the hierarchy of human nature, is also a hierarchy ranging from necessary needs to important needs. The same range seems to reflect the evolutionary development of man, from a merely animal origin, through a gregarious ape-like creature, to the more rational and autonomous creature of human history. In his range of needs, reflecting thus both his past evolution and his complex nature, are a bundle of survivals from that evolutionary process.

The same range is also a kind of hierarchy from necessary things (associated more closely with his original animal nature) to important things (associated more closely with his more human nature). In this range the need for security, which is the one that concerns us now, is one of the more fundamental and is, thus, closer to the necessity end of the scale. This means that it is a constant need but is important only when we do not have it (or believe we do not have it).”
Carroll Quigley, WEAPONS SYSTEMS AND POLITICAL STABILITY, (1983) University Press of America,

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