We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.
Henry David Thoreau in Walden
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.
Henry David Thoreau in Walden
In Anarchism and Other Essays Emma Goldman addresses the common counterargument made to proponents of anarchism that anarchism is an unrealistic political goal because our flawed human nature cannot accommodate it:
But what about human nature? Can it be changed? And if not, will it endure under Anarchism?
…[H]ow can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?
John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?
For Goldman, the deforming cages we are trapped in are those of religion, the state, and private property. Only once we have abolished these fetters can we see “the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities”.
This is a compelling argument for optimism about human nature and a belief in progress. It is supported by observation of the substantial changes — in self-possession, confidence, compassion, and eloquence — that something as simple as education can spur in one’s consciousness and, therefore, one’s life. More broadly, most people have experienced personally or know someone who has experienced a dramatic change in character due to the right conditions for growth coalescing around them: the experience of being nurtured by a mentor, being productively challenged by difficult circumstances, or achieving economic security. It’s certainly debatable whether and to what degree organized religion, the modern state, and capitalism bar people’s access to or in fact facilitate the propagation of these conditions. I have mixed feelings about this. But it’s difficult to deny that, for whatever reason, many, if not most, of the world’s inhabitants lack the necessary conditions that would enable the full development of their potential. This being the case, it seems that the political question is what are these conditions and how can we create them for as many people as possible?
Goldman’s reference to the naturalist John Burroughs is interesting in this regard because it implies that, like for the animals held in captivity, there is some kind of natural human habitat, a native “soil in field and forest,” that we have been torn from, or perhaps have not yet lived in. But what does this habitat look like? When I pose this question a number of things come to mind. Among them are Alasdair MacIntyre’s defense of the forms of life found in small, local communities that share a conception of the good life. I think of Marx’s assertion, describing an as-yet-unrealized communism, that “only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible”. I also think of the forms of life that many indigenous communities have sustained, where a rootedness in local geography and ecology has been achieved that stands in stark relief to the ceaseless dislocations of modernity.
Macintyre closes his After Virtue, a ferocious critique of the moral philosophies associated with modernity, with this haunting passage that gestures towards his ideal of the small community as the proper habitat for the flourishing human being:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead-often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another-doubtless very different-St. Benedict.
MacIntyre wrote this in 1981, and the passage begs the question: where do these “neo-Benedictine” communities exist? Where is the flourishing human life still achievable, if not under the socio-political conditions under which most of the Western world currently lives? MacIntyre writes earlier in After Virtue that he considers these kinds of moral enclaves to include the everyday features of small, functioning communities: the practices “of making and sustaining families and households, schools, clinics, and local forms of political community”. I would add to this list the experiments in non-hierarchical, face-to-face living conducted by participants in the Occupy movement during its initial bloom in 2011 and 2012, as well as in its offshoot Occupy Sandy. These anarchistic Occupy projects evince the hunger that many activists (particularly young activists) on the radical left have for the kind of communal life advocated for by MacIntyre, but in an idiom more at home with the anarchism of of Goldman. What both approaches share, however, is a deep distrust in the ability of both the modern state and the market economy to foster the conditions necessary for human flourishing and social justice.
All the kids have always known / that the emperor wears no clothes / But they bow down to him anyway / It’s better than being alone
– Arcade Fire in “Ready to Start”
I remember a couple of years ago explaining to a friend my understanding of the notion of teleological development in Aristotle’s writings. I used the metaphor my philosophy professor had, that of an acorn developing into an oak tree. It went like this: the potential for becoming an oak tree is inborn in the acorn, and comprises it’s true nature. To be a “good” (or “thriving,” “flourishing,” etc.) acorn is to become an oak tree. This might also be applied to people: if one is a “good” human, one should embody the distinctive virtues that constitute the true nature the human being (whatever those might be).
The point then came up that a culture that embraces a teleological understanding of human nature would hold a privileged position, in terms of power and status, for its adults. Young people are by definition unable, on the whole, to be “good” in this particular sense. They have not existed long enough as creatures in this world to have become skilled in practicing the virtues which comprise the point and purpose of their existence. They’re greenhorns who must necessarily mess up on the road to their flourishing. In such a culture adults who have excelled in various field of endeavor – from religion and science to care-taking and the manual trades- would be revered and praised as exemplars of human flourishing. They would be objects of intense longing and aspiration on the part of young people.
After conveying this, in so many words, to my friend, she furrowed her brow and expressed how different this outlook was from her own. This friend had for a number of previous summers run a day camp for young kids with her friend for her small island community. She loved working with children and aspired to be a midwife. On her view, children embodied the virtues that older people ought to strive for: a sense of wonder, openness, and a refreshing, iconoclastic kind of naiveté.
I was struck by her words, partly because I shared this belief in the virtues of children. Her words reminded me of a passage in book of collected lectures by Rudolf Steiner, called The Spiritual Guidance of the Individual and Humanity, claiming that children possess a “higher wisdom [that] functions like a ‘telephone connection’ to the spiritual beings in whose world we find ourselves between death and rebirth. Something from this world still flows into our aura during childhood.” This being the case, “even the wisest person can learn from a child.” Although not everyone will accept Steiner’s entire spiritual cosmogony, it seems to me that most people agree with the general thrust of this passage: the child possesses a kind of wisdom that the adult does not.
Thinking about this now, however, it seems that this valorization of the young goes further than a recognition of the wisdom of children. Contemporary American culture, on the whole, is in many ways a youth culture. For one, it places great value on innovation and change (in technology, ideas, values, etc.). In the realm of capitalist economy, David Harvey memorably calls this institutionalization of continuous upheaval “creative destruction”. And who is better at creating the new (and destroying the old) than young people? Innovation is clearly a value that youth are more apt to live with than the aged.
America is also a culture that values physical beauty, particularly youthful physical beauty. While this is something that has been valued throughout history and cultures to varying extents, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that contemporary American culture, with it’s multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry and ubiquity of body dysphoria, has a particularly intense, and perhaps pathological, attachment to this ideal.
The some goes for the ideas that form our everyday understandings of the world. One of the dominant epistemological models in our culture is that of Nietzsche’s free “spirit who plays naively…with everything that has hitherto been called holy, good, inviolable, divine.” The once-dominant understandings of religion, knowledge, and political membership– and the concomitant embodiment of these understandings in the (adult) figures of the holy person, philosopher, and citizen — have lost their credibility in the eyes of much of the population. It’s not that there are no elements in these ideas and figures that are valuable for our contemporary culture — the Socratic self-questioning of the philosopher, perhaps, or the understanding of the importance of shared labor in medieval Benedictine monasticism — but that it’s just those elements as elements that are valuable, not the calcified and decaying structures of which they were once an integral part.
As a result, the teleological understandings of human nature that underwrote the authority of the holy person, the philosopher, and the citizen have been replaced by a new embrace of the place of flux, creativity, experimentation, and playfulness in a human life. Consequently it is the young and their characteristic qualities that are celebrated, rather than the older, more moderate, and sturdier (albeit dustier) qualities of the accomplished adult.
I scanned a copy of Mindful magazine while on my lunch break at work this weekend, and found an interview with sports psychologist George Mumford. In it, he recommended a book by Don Miguel Ruiz called The Four Agreements. The four agreements are:
I like the absolutism of these agreements, although it’s an absolutism I imagine is tempered by #4. They are like biblical commandments in their simplicity. They’re refreshingly naive. They appeal to my idealism rather than my realism.
“The easier that life has become in a consumers’…society, the more difficult it will be to remain aware of the urges of necessity by which it is driven, even when pain and effort, the outward manifestations of necessity, are hardly noticeable at all. The danger is that such a society, dazzled by the abundance of its growing fertility and caught in the smooth functioning of a neverending process, would no longer be able to recognize its own futility—the futility of a life which ‘does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject which endures after [its] labour is past.‘”
Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, pg. 135
New years call for new resolutions, and one of mine is to be more frugal. Part of my reasoning is plainly economic: I want to save more money in order to ensure an economically secure future for myself. But there is also ideological motivation. Learning how to live on less is a way to reject the prevailing capitalist ethos of Western society, along with what it represents: materialism, vanity, and consumerism.
Part of what this rejection entails is divesting myself from the treadmill of consumer psychology, namely, the cycle of desire (for self-fulfillment via commodity consumption), gratification (via commodity consumption), eventual boredom and subsequent relapse into unsatiated desire for commodity-induced self-fulfillment. Intellectually I know this cycle leads nowhere good, yet it’s striking how persistent it is in practice, how irresistible it feels to be drawn into, for example, thinking that the purchase of a new toothbrush will usher in a new “me”.
When I think about stepping out of this treadmill of consumer psychology I imagine what might fill its place in my everyday experience. Usually I imagine being able to connect to a level of reality that is more true, objective, and timeless. If I’m not distracted by the treadmill, my reasoning goes, I will have more mental space to devote to more important things like stewarding relationships, writing, and taking care of my body. And once I’m more intently focused on things like these, when my limited attention is invested in these kinds of goals that many individuals have strived for (in contrast with my highly individual desire for a new toothbrush/self), I will assume a firmer grounding in reality, in the things that matter.
What is the purpose of friendship?
What is or ought to be the relationship between writing and living?
What is the ideal balance between safeguarding my health and taking physical risks?
These and other questions will become more central and vital in my mind. They will challenge and provoke me in ways that buying a toothbrush, with its flimsy acquiescence to my vanity, never will be able to. But I will be better able to meet these challenges because I will know that there has been a long lineage of individuals, some more well-known than others, who have also lived with similar questions. Aristotle wrote at length about different kinds of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics. More recently, Michael Ventura has written about the relationship between writing and life in an essay called The Talent of the Room. There’s also the elderly woman who I sat next to on airplane who told me about her long, satisfying life, and her plans to write a memoir about it. If I’m engaged with these more longstanding human concerns, I become a fellow traveler with these individuals and am warmed and illuminated by their company.
Of course, this may not be the case. The practice of frugality is no spiritual panacea and can, after all, breed its own pathologies. The desire to save can be as consuming and treadmill-like as the desire to spend. Prudence can devolve into miserliness. Yet I tend to think that in a society such as the United States where, as David Brooks has written, the commercial-oriented “resume virtues” enjoy greater cultural prominence than the character-forming “eulogy virtues,” a reinvigorated practice of frugality could leave more space for something better.
Although the overall tone of the piece strikes me as needlessly impetuous and polemical, I agree with a central point in Brendan O’Neill’s essay on identity politics at the spiked review. He’s right in saying that subjective experience is one of the primary factors in the formation of identity and worldview among my generation. The internal world — a world of feeling, self-identification, and introspection — has displaced communal, external touchstones of identity formation, such as belonging to a particular nation, class, or religious community.
To use the example upon which O’Neill spends the most time grinding his axe, the old idea of two distinct genders — male and female — each with its own set of expectations and obligations rooted in the given, objective nature of one’s body, has been to a large degree delegitimized and replaced by a notion of gender rooted in interior experience: regardless of my given body, what gender do I feel that I am? Do the duties and modes of expression traditionally assigned to my biological sex resonate with or stifle my authentic self? The “authentic self” that is liberated in this development is one that can pick and choose fragments from the rubble of traditional gender roles, as well as create an array of new, more nuanced and particular genders (genderqueer, gender fluid, pangender, transmasculine, etc.) This free-floating, ambiguously gendered self resembles Nietzsche’s “ideal of a spirit who plays naively…with everything that has hitherto been called holy, good, inviolable, divine” (The Gay Science, Aphorism 382). And what is true with gender, O’Neill argues, is true in other arenas of our lives: the ethical, political, and religious realms once rooted in objective, communal forms of life have ceded ground to a fragmented multiplicity of of sub-sub-sub-cultures that hear no other voices but their own.
O’Neill is critical of this rise of subjectivity in modern life. Following Christopher Lasch, he credits this rise with the creation of a generation of “individuals whose sense of self [is] ‘weak, ungrounded, defensive, insecure’,” individuals who are essentially narcissistic.
There is something to this analysis. The loss of robust forms of local community in the modern world is a major impediment to the full development of the human potential inherent in each person. This impeding often takes the form of individuals wrapping themselves in cocoons — cultural, conceptual, spiritual — of their own making, hindering opportunities for connection.
Yet I also think this analysis misses something. The Gods of Nation, Class, Religion and Sex have indeed died and been replaced by a proliferation of self-made gods. This development can and does often lead to a form of narcissism, yet also carries in it the potential for something else. It enables us to become explorers of a new, uncharted world. The objective, shared world of nature having been exhaustively mapped, developed, and understood, we can now direct our energies towards what Mickey Foley calls “the unknown territories of the mind, body, and soul”. These inner worlds, the oceans of our unconscious selves, have been plumbed with increasing sophistication since the advent of modern psychology. One unusual and exciting discovery so far has been that of the kaleidoscopic nature of the way we experience and embody gender. The new, often confusing, vocabularies of the gender nonconforming community can be seen in this light as a new map of this new world, new terrain in which to engage and discover.
The mother, at the beginning, by an almost 100 per cent adaptation affords the infant the opportunity for the illusion that her breast is part of the infant. It is, as it were, under the baby’s magical control. The same can be said in terms of infant care in general, in the quiet times between the excitements. The mother’s eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion.
D.W. Winnicott, quoted in Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life
The idea of the necessity of healthy, developmental disillusion (“growing up”) being preceded by an adequate period of illusion (of mother-child “oneness”) makes sense. There must be a solid foundation for the experience of acclimating to reality, a foundation the nature of which is a negation of that reality. Like a fundamental bundle of strength and energy afford by the mother-child relationship, which enables the child to navigate an indifferent world.