Thursday, September 25, 2014

On the Ennui of Civilized Man

One of the great problems of our times is how to deal with the angst of civilization. We used to be happy to survive, back when food and shelter were our main concerns. Then, we invented ways of mass-producing necessities, and discovered "free time" (time that could be spent doing something other than looking for food, looking for shelter, or recovering from that search). Free time allowed us to play around more--to do things like build, trade, and make war.

The ancestral economy makes sense to us. Assuming you survive, it is not hard to live and be relatively happy while you are looking for food (that you expect to find), looking for shelter (that you expect to find), and recovering. Primitive, uncivilized people we can observe are often happier than their civilized counterparts, particularly as you look toward the bottom of civilized social hierarchies.

Civilized "free time" provides many benefits, of course, but these come at the expense of significant social and psychological turmoil. I don't know how to get my own food. I must rely on someone else to get it for me. I don't know how to get my own shelter. I need someone else to provide it for me. If I am living in a cultural backwater like the Middle East (or Africa or many parts of Eurasia and the Americas), then I am keenly aware that everyone really close to me lives subject to the whims of people we never meet. People with power. People who inherit a long tradition of free time, complete with awesome ways of making food, shelter, and war. I have three choices: abject worship ("please, god on earth, don't kill me! you want these shiny things? please, take them!"), avoidance ("better to avoid dealing with gods altogether: I think I will take up residence in a mountain cave and chant with some beads"), or revolt ("death to the evil gods who run my life without my consent!"). The choice between fight and flight is one that each person must make for herself, and we all make it differently. But some of us always choose to fight. Fighting is part of human nature.

For me, the really interesting question becomes one of finding ways to manage the fight-response to civilization. Can I take the urge to revolt, to burn civilization down for its crimes (which would be a crime, of course, but that did not stop the Mongols, and I am guessing that it will not stop the terrorists today), and turn it into something good? Can I build a cure for civilization into the death-wish that it spawns in certain people? We are always trying. (Politics and economics historically involve warfare: they struggle to contain and suppress and redirect it towards less destructive outlets, so that instead of burning your house down with fire I do it with bankruptcy in a court of law. It is easier to recover from bankruptcy than from war, on the one hand; on the other, going bankrupt too often will eventually drive people to war.)

The angst of civilization ultimately comes from lack of control over one's own life. The more you can convince people that they make decisions that really matter to their individual lives (and deaths), the less eager they are to blow themselves up (and seek another life beyond the grave, whether as glorified Homeric heroes or mujahideen copulating with crowds of virgins). The more invested people become in civilizations' games as active players, the less they want to burn every game to the ground (and start over, building new games--new ways of occupying people's "free time" that always resemble the old ways in time). When I hear people calling for more education (as a solution to problems of civilization), I think this is really what they are aiming to do: they want to show the desperadoes--the outlaws, rebels, and terrorists--that there is a productive place for them in existing civil games, that society has a nice place for them right here, if they would just put down their arms and play cool instead of fighting. Part of the problem with this idea, however, is that civilization is dynamic. People always lose its games; you have to lose (sometimes, something) in order to win. There is no such thing as a civilization that endures unchanging and perfect ("with liberty and justice for all," blah blah). If you play civil games (the market), you will get burned. Eventually, you will die. Confronting that reality is too hard for many of us (not just the poor or the outlaws), and some people cannot see it without going berserk. I don't have any easy answers for this problem. All I can do is observe it closely, and then take what measures are available to insulate myself maximally from its harmful effects (as I observe them in myself and the people around me).

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