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Saturday, October 09, 2004


selfishness and time

some time ago, in a comment thread at reason regarding cornel west, i got into a really gratifying (so rare!) discussion with another lucid poster regarding the nature of our society, and where and what it is.

what i said there has stuck with me, resonating in my head.

... i would agree with you when you say

"tradition" is... a code-word for slavery to the mores of others, deep down.
indeed, tradition is subservience to the decisions of a collective aggregate memory -- "slavery" of a kind.

what i'm trying (perhaps not well) to express is that such slavery may not be a bad thing -- and in fact may be desirable to what we have.

allow that to sink in for a sec... as antithetical as that is to much of what modern society stands for, it's hard for almost everyone i talk to about this to comprehend that i might consider being bound to tradition better than what we have now -- which is, actively annihilating any limitation on the ambition of the self.

i think traditional society got to be that way by being forged in prior incarnations of individualism run amok and is the result of the human search for peace and prosperity. i don't think it a coincidence that enduring institutions across all important risen civilizations -- perhaps most easily seen in religion -- make a point of discouraging pride and ambition and individual desire, and instead ennoble humility, service and obedience.

in our age of individualism, we typically view this cynically as a ploy to subjugate the masses for exploitation, part of some master conspiracy. but what if it wasn't? what if the experience and remembrance of eons cultivated a profound distrust of individualism precisely because its ultimate consequences have proved so painful and destructive?

i would submit that medieval society was the way it was because it emerged from the aftermath of the last great bout of individualism and ambition run wild -- the decline and fall of the roman empire. medieval society was the social solution to that problem, the repair of that trauma.

i should say here that i have no inclination to "fix" our current condition -- indeed, it can't be "fixed". i'm simply calling for a broader understanding of what our society is up to and where it might be going.
the difficulty with history is that it isn't a science. there are no experiments, no results, and certainly no verification (as popper taught, there never is). so i'll never really know if my view is right.

but the virtue of history is that, over time, the signal-to-noise ratio rises and the randomness of days and week fades in comparison to the arc of centuries. that is what i try to see, what i feel it is important to see -- the arc of centuries. and it seems to me that maybe i am witnessing firsthand another experiment in the death of a civilization, sacrificed on the altar of the Individual.

Much meat in what you say. However, one might take issue with your assumption that individualism has been present in past civilizations. I think that our modern conception of individualism probably come into being during the Enlightenment; i.e. with the French thinkers such as Rousseau. Certainly by the time of the American experiment at the end of the 18th Century it was well emplaced in the thought of people like Jefferson and Franklin. However, America was a frontier which encouraged this sort of thing.
In particular, I think the serfs of medieval Europe would take issue with you on their individuality. Not much there, I think.
There is an argument made that much of the civilization, for what it was worth, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance was based on property. The strange sexual mores of Europe compared to the rest of the world were pretty much to prevent bastards who would then claim the throne. Our obsession with property (and condemnation of Communism, something practiced by the Catholic Church for 1800+ years) also stems from this. Look at the eldest son rules for property inheiritance in England up until the present time.
Oh well, just rambling.

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i'd agree with you, doc. this individuality which, for better and worse, pervades our society is, i think, the cumulation of a long march that began with its antithesis -- in medieval europe. that society was one of communalism, imo, created possibly as a direct response to the spiraling chaos of the fall of rome and after but indeed stifling in many ways. now, i fear, over 500 years the pendulum has swung perhaps to its opposite apex -- and we now are to, in some inscrutible way, follow in imperial rome's footsteps of decline and turmoil.

re: "Our obsession with property" -- i've never heard that before, and maybe it's part of the truth (or maybe not) but it's surely interesting. where did you hear of it?

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Not sure where the property thing comes from. Could be John Hale in "The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance" or even Gibbs (?) in "A Short History of the Arab People" where he looks at the difference between the civilization in Baghdad (very high) vs Dark Age Europe. (Of course, Ghengis Khan's boyos did a bigger job on Baghdad than we have, but that is off the point). I've read some Marx and Lenin, but they are so into the 19th century factory scene it really doesn't apply.

Onward and upward with the Star Fleet.

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