Development of Hierarchical Structures: Chiefs to Emperors in History

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  • 0:06 Moses' Hierarchy
  • 1:28 Rules of a Hierarchy
  • 2:30 Aristocracy
  • 3:06 Theocracy
  • 4:40 Hierarchies Throughout History
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

This lesson will explore society's need for hierarchies, as well as kinship as a basis of hierarchical structures. Various forms of hierarchy will be briefly explored and...spoiler alert...they all come back to kinship.

Moses' Hierarchy

Meet Moses. Some of you may know him. Moses has a lot of responsibilities. He has to get about two million people from Egypt to the Promised Land. This is a daunting task. Moses must spend all day, sunup to sundown, telling people what to do - 'Set up your tents here, go look for water there, give him back his goat, no we're not there yet!'

The sons of Jacob were the patriarchs of the 12 Tribes of Israel
12 Tribes Family Tree

By trying to handle everything himself, Moses will quickly work himself into an early grave. Then who will lead the Israelites? Luckily for Moses, he has a clever father-in-law, Jethro. Jethro says, 'You're going to kill yourself this way, boy. These people need you alive. You need to delegate authority. Select capable men from all the people - men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain - and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.'

Moses takes Jethro's advice. Now the leaders of tens can take care of little problems, the leaders of fifties can resolve larger problems, and so on and so forth. Now, no one bothers Moses for anything short of a disaster, and he can focus on getting his people from point A to point B.

Rules of a Hierarchy

From Moses' story we can draw a pattern for hierarchies that holds true for most of human history:

  • Step 1: A person does something awesome or terrible to the people.
  • Step 2: Out of love for or fear of that person, the people decide to follow him.
  • Step 3: The leader realizes he cannot possibly handle everything himself.
  • Step 4: He divides his responsibilities and authority among subordinates.

That is the basic goal of all hierarchies - to break up the countless responsibilities of leadership into manageable parts and to assign capable individuals to oversee those responsibilities.

Yet, this raises some important questions. How should those responsibilities be divided? More importantly, what qualifies an individual for public office? Throughout history, human beings have come up with some very different answers to these questions. The results are different sorts of hierarchies.


Claudius inherited the title of Roman Emperor through kinship
Emperor Claudius

The most common form of hierarchy is an aristocracy. In this system, status is based on one's lineage. Important people have important children, important cousins and so on. Unimportant people have unimportant children. This may seem disgusting to our modern sensibilities, but kinship is the basis of all other hierarchies in the animal kingdom. It should not surprise us to learn that kinship played an incredibly important role throughout most of our history. In fact, there is no record of a civilization without an aristocracy before America's Declaration of Independence.

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