Tuesday 21 January 2014

Disappointed with modernity - we have wasted our opportunities, perverted our opportunities


I have this strong feeling, which goes way back into my early teen years - that I was very lucky to live in a period of peace, abundance, comfort; and that the existence of this 'safety net' this gave me great opportunities to strive to do the best work of which I was capable: to aim high, be idealistic, take the higher risk options.

As an atheist and an intellectual, I saw these opportunities in William Morrisite, or Emersonian terms of enhancement of the arts, architecture, natural beauty, the landscape; self-education; science and philosophy; dignity and creativity of labour; self-sufficiency; knowledge and participation in poetry and literature; establishing wholesome and free social arrangements - and the like.

And I have always been terribly disappointed that very few people even tried to do so.


Instead there was a societal obsession with material accumulation, with getting ever-more of what they already had in abundance.

Even worse, there was the whole world of 'fashion' - the mass willingness to be manipulated in pursuit of one manufactured triviality after another.


For example, when I first got a permanent job as a university lecturer, I recognized that I had one of the most secure positions in one of the most secure societies in history - and that this meant I had could embark on long term projects in scholarship, writing and research and scholarship ; that my secure position made it easy stand aside from trends; that I could be a model of teaching and scientific integrity and it was virtually impossible for my employer to sack me for it!

But in general colleagues refused to acknowledge the basic privilege and security of their position, and persisted in talking as if they could be thrown out into destitution and starvation at any moment - and therefore they had to go-along-with whatever fashion, trend and politically-driven lunacies and lies were floating around the university - and work at terribly unambitious scholarly and research projects that were neither useful nor radical - but merely aspired to be microscopic incremental increases in what were already trivial and irrelevant backwaters of tedium.


I remembered something similar from my medical student days. In general, university was a great opportunity - but we had to work hard, do exams and so on. Then, at the end of the academic year there was this wonderful period of about a week after the exams were over and we were supposed to hang about and await the results just in case we were required for an additional 'viva' examination (for distinction or to determine pass-fail).

To me this was a great opportunity to do all those things which I hadn't been able to do during term - one memorable time, three of us listened to Wagner's Ring opera cycle over four consecutive days.

But instead of making the most of college without work, most of the students went back home and took summer jobs the instant that exams were over - they didn't need the money, they certainly could afford to do what they were supposed to do (await the results) - but they simply could not cope with the void of not having classes and exams. They had nothing to do.


And the big picture of society at large was exactly the same. Prosperity came, Peace came, Comfort was established; but society had no idea what to do with it except deny that it had come or else dissipate it in utter triviality.

I noticed that people were mostly doing things to occupy their minds and have something to talk- (boast-, joke-, get angry-) about; that society was increasingly about filling-in-time.


For a long time I waited for this to change - and for people to acknowledge the possibilities and opportunities.

And after a while it became clear that this was not going to happen - but instead as the mass media developed and grew, society was developing truly transcendent capacities for passivity of will and dissipation of time.


I cannot think of a single modern society which used well the opportunities given by the establishment (for a few generations) of peace, prosperity and comfort.

In particular, all the modern societies used PP&C to reject religion - not to enhance it; and within religion, all the mainstream Western religions were corrupted by PP&C, became less spiritual, less devout, more worldly.

We did not use PP&C: IT USED US.


(The only exception that I know of is the Mormon church in the US; which used prosperity to become more devout and for the most prosperous members to grow the church by natural increase (large families) and missionary work. This was a rare, tremendous, yet un-recognized, achievement - actually to take advantage of PPP&C, rather than be corrupted and destroyed by it.) 


Well, it is now clear for those with eyes to see that PP&C are not the natural state of all right-thinking persons - but  an unearned privilege inherited from the genius and hard work past generations; and now we have become so far advanced in dissipation they cannot long continue.

But it is terribly disappointing to me that our civilization found nothing better to do with its vast opportunities than watch tv, participate in chit-chat, take foreign holidays, buy ever more new cars and clothes and gadgets; and occupy our minds with manufactured news, seduction and pornography, celebrity gossip, the pursuit and promotion of intoxication; cynically-contrived point-and-click sentimentality; and idle malice and hatred (aka politics).


So much did we desire these things - or so weakly did we reject them - that we have as a society eroded and all-but overthrown (to the best of our ability) the only things that might have compensated - marriage and family. These have been picked-at, disrespected and mocked, weakened, corrupted, inverted.

The direction that modernity has channelled its opportunities is utterly disgusting; compounded by the refusal to admit what we have done.


My interpretation?

With Man it is less important that he has nothing-to-stop-him doing something than that he is motivated to do it.  

And that Man without religion is a pitiful thing; en masse he is a despicable thing. 



SFG said...

Good points, all, but can't this be explained by evolution? We're animals, we want to eat and rut; Wagner and the rest are an evolutionary sideline. If there is a higher nature coming from somewhere else, it seems expressed infrequently.

Also take into account that your classmates who went back to work may have come from less affluent backgrounds and felt the bite of not earning money more keenly.

Bruce Charlton said...

SFG. You need to read the post more carefully.

Albrecht said...

You wrote:

"Well, it is now clear for those with eyes to see that PP&C are not the natural state of all right-thinking persons - but an unearned privilege inherited from the genius and hard work past generations; and now we have become so far advanced in dissipation they cannot long continue."

Agreed. I have long thought our generation (born > WWII) have lived on the inherited material and spiritual capital of past generations. It seems to me that this capital was still being banked through the 1950s, which would be through the end of the working life of my grandfather's generation. It was a generation profoundly cynical in some ways but which, in practical life, still embodied Christian virtues like faith, diligence, forthrightness and prudence. Sadly they passed on their cynicism but not their virtues.

Your point about the squandered opportunity is profound not only for what it says about the spiritual state of our generation but for what it says about humanity in general. In short, we are either working or we are dying.

George said...

What you discuss in this post profoundly underlies modern society's behavior. It wasn't defined in my mind until this post, but it's everywhere and so obvious yet strange.

A couple more examples:

1. Sex is apparently easier than ever to obtain. Yet in media, especially Hollywood, it is the raison d'ĂȘtre.

2. Similarly, sex is less meaningful than ever - not for children, not for familial love - but the obsession remains.

3. Life is safer, material goods easier to access, and access to great works easier than ever (music, literature, amazing natural sights, etc.) yet meaningless distraction dominates - video games, popular music, alcohol TV, etc. (restating your point, but my experience growing up was Video Games and it is one of the largest growing entertainment products).

4. We have managed to have a total materially comfortable society - total eliminating of want and crime - yet we purposefully import it as if we desire suffering. We unnecessarily subvert our cities and countries with current immigration policies.

Brett Stevens said...

From my earliest days I noticed the same thing, but for me, it took the form of a herding instinct. As I saw it, adults were afraid of the unproven, so they focused on new ways to make the proven. Even the "radical" ideas presented to us were always variations on the Revolutionary theme.

After years of thought, I've concluded it's not the PP&C but the nature of prole revolt. When the herd takes over, it operates mainly from fear, and thus seeks to drag down anyone who rises above its level. At that point, conformity becomes essential because non-conformists challenge that stability of others. People see the success or happiness of someone who didn't follow the herd as a refutation of their personal choices, and they retaliate. In a time where herd-mentality is the official political outlook (liberalism), their petty hatred is aided and abetted by others.

Just about the only way to succeed is to do something they don't recognize as important. That way, they let it slide past. If they see that what you're doing will be better than what they have, they will drag you down. The secondary effect of this is that most people also follow the herding instinct.

In this sense, I can't blame PP&C, but the stage of late civilization itself and its ideology (liberalism) for the utter lack of motivation to think of most people. Interestingly technology is somewhat exempt from this because it's linear, but the equivalent in technology is that its application is blockheaded. Any time you use a computer with enough processing power to do any task under the sun, and it stalls, crashes, flakes, etc. because of poorly-designed interfaces and software, that's what you're seeing there.

Great piece.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the comments.

This post links to an earlier one:


...which makes clear that - before we actually had them - the mainstream view among intellectuals was that it was lack of PP&C which was standing in the path of a higher development of the mass of people, and of society - and that when this barrier was removed then life would become a finer, more beautiful and more elevated thing.

Adam G. said...

Real efforts at achievement require knowing and acknowledging that something is lacking. But fear and pride both work to make us refuse to acknowledge it, unless circumstances force us to. When prosperous, circumstances do not force us to.

Steve Setzer said...

This essay, and the comment from Brett Stevens, recall to mind The Revolt of the Masses.

Karl said...

Sing we for love and idleness:
Naught else is worth the having.
Though I have been in many a land,
There is naught else in living.
And I would rather have my sweet,
Though rose-leaves die of grieving,
Than do high deeds in Hungary
To pass all men's believing.

Mike said...

I hope this doesn't sound too harsh, but your perspective is only possible if you take an anti-natural (i.e religious) view of life, which you do. This perspective eventually leads to nihilism; disgust at mankind and weariness of life because mankind doesn't measure up to your anti-natural ideal.

When you begin to think mankind 'should' be something other than what it is and always has been, you always end up with nihilism. Make no mistake, Bruce - you're on that path. Nietzsche went down the same road towards 'disgust' with man because they weren't superman. Neitsche was ultimately a deeply religious (transcendental) thinker.

Men are trivial and rather pointless beings, designed for no particular purpose; life is rather trivial and pointless; consciousness is an accident; that nearly everyone fritters their life away in trivialities is perfectly normal. It's only when you begin to believe in 'transcendent' (religious, anti-natural) values that this begins to seem problematic.

It's the same with ethics - if you believe in a benevolent God than evil becomes difficult to explain. But if you don't believe in that evil seems perfectly normal.

The transcendent perspective makes the world seem problematic and flawed, and humans as lacking and deficient, and ends in nihilism. The naturalistic perspective leads to acceptance, accommodation to reality, and ultimately peace; and if you're lucky, joy.

HofJude said...

As a student radical in the canonical years of radicalism, in the US + UK, I had Wilde's essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" brandished in my face by cadre leaders who felt that intellectual socialists needed to be gingered up and reminded what we were fighting for. What Wilde promised we would soon get from another source, but the source of gifts doesn't matter. His description of the socialist paradise, in my memory, is like your anticipation of university life. What matters is our our profound inability as creatures to feel gratitude, even a little, about anything, ever. Milton wrote a poem about it, mistitled Paradise Lost - the proper title would be Paradise Unable Ever to Begin to Grasp. Many thanks for this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mike - "When you begin to think mankind 'should' be something other than what it is and always has been, you always end up with nihilism."

No - nihilism is a modern, post religious phenomenon.

"Nietzsche went down the same road towards 'disgust' with man because they weren't superman. Neitsche was ultimately a deeply religious (transcendental) thinker."

No he wasn't - he was the opposite (*obviously*! Nietzsche was perhaps the greatest anti-Christian philosopher.)

"Men are trivial and rather pointless beings, designed for no particular purpose; life is rather trivial and pointless; consciousness is an accident; that nearly everyone fritters their life away in trivialities is perfectly normal."

THAT is nihilism, surely? Or almost so - since you retain the 'nearly'.

What you are saying doesn't cohere - and this is not me making a cheap debating point - it really does not make sense.

Bruce Charlton said...

@HoJ - "[Wilde's] description of the socialist paradise, in my memory, is like your anticipation of university life."

Yes, I was looking at it just a couple of weeks ago. Wilde describes things how he personally would like them to be, and calls it socialism. He describes an exact social arrangement, and also that zero compulsion is involved. It is a kind of wish-fulfilment daydream.

Luqman said...

Well said, I only have this (well known) quote from Solzhenitsyn to add:

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened." Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened."

The rest is noise and confusion, and some of your commentators in particular would do well to realize it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luq - Thanks for that - it is a great passage - profoundly true - and I never tire of re-considering it.

marly youmans said...

Your post made me think of Chaucer's "Ballade de bon conseyl," with its admonitions to fly the crowd and dwell with truthfulness, to look up to God and be no thrall or beast, but to live the larger life with "hevenlich mede." In all eras, surely, there are those who prefer to be thralls of something unworthy, but it does seem that our own time is particularly in subjection to a pack of golden but worthless idols.