I try to wear my archdruid’s hat lightly in these essays, but every so often I field questions that touch directly on the issues of ultimate meaning that our culture, however clumsily, classifies as “religious.” Two comments in response to the post here two weeks ago raised such issues, in a way that’s relevant enough to this series of posts and important enough to the broader project of this blog to demand a response.
One of them—tip of the aforementioned archdruid’s hat to Repent—asked, “As a Druid, what are your thoughts about divine purpose, reincarnation, and our purpose in the eyes of God? What do you think future ‘ecotechnic’ societies have yet to achieve that will be worthwhile to pursue, that our descendants should suffer through the dark age towards?” The other—tip of the hat to Yupped—asked, “What do you do if you see the big picture of what’s happening around you? How did those early adopters of decline in other collapsing societies maintain their sanity when they knew what was coming? I don’t think I have the mind or the temperament to tell myself stories about the transcendent meaning of suffering in an age of social collapse.”
Those are serious questions, and questions like them are being raised more and more often these days, on this blog and in a great many other places as well. People are beginning to come to grips with the fact that they can no longer count on faith in limitless technological progress to give them an easy answer to the enduring questions of human existence. As they do that, they’re also having to confront those questions all over again, and finding out in the process that the solution that modern industrial civilization claimed to offer for those same questions was never actually a solution at all.
Psychologists have a concept they call “provisional living.” That’s the insistence, so often heard from people whose lives are stuck on a dysfunctional merry-go-round of self-inflicted crisis, that everything they don’t like about their lives will change just as soon as something else happens: as soon as they lose twenty pounds, get a divorce, quit their lousy job, or what have you. Of course the weight never goes away, the divorce papers never get filed, and so on, because the point of the exercise is to allow daydreams of an imaginary life in which they get everything they think they want take the place of the hard work and hard choices inseparable from personal change in the real world. What provisional living offers the individual neurotic, in turn, faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress offers industrial society as a whole—or, more precisely, faith in progress used to offer that, back when the promises made in its name didn’t yet look quite so threadbare as they do today.
There was always a massive political subtext in those promises. The poor were encouraged to believe that technological progress will someday generate so much wealth that their children and grandchildren will be rich; the sick and dying, to dream about a future where medical progress will make every disease curable; the oppressed, to hope for a day when social progress will grant everyone the fair treatment they can’t reliably get here and now, and so on. Meanwhile, and crucially, members of the privileged classes who became uncomfortable the mismatch between industrial civilization’s glittering rhetoric and its tawdry reality were encouraged to see that mismatch as a passing phase that will be swept away by progress at some undefined point in the future, and thus to limit their efforts to change the system to the sort of well-meaning gestures that don’t seriously inconvenience the status quo.
As real as the political subtext was, it’s a mistake to see the myth of progress purely as a matter of propaganda. During the heyday of industrialism, that myth was devoutly believed by a great many people, at all points along the social spectrum, many of whom saw it as the best chance they had for positive change. Faith in progress was a social fact of vast importance, one that shaped the lives of individuals, communities, and nations. The hope of upward mobility that inspired the poor to tolerate the often grueling conditions of their lives, the dream of better living through technology that kept the middle classes laboring at the treadmill, the visions of human destiny that channeled creative minds into the service of existing institutions—these were real and powerful forces in their day, and drew on high hopes and noble ideals as well as less exalted motives.
The problem that we face now is precisely that those hopes and dreams and visions have passed their pull date. With each passing year, more people have noticed the widening gap between the future we were supposed to get and the one that’s actually been delivered to our doorstep; with each passing year, the voices raised in defense of the old rhetoric of perpetual progress get more defensive, and the once-sparkling imagery they offer for our contemplation looks more and more shopworn. One by one, we are waking up in a cold and unfamiliar place, and the gray light of morning does not bring us good news.
It would be hard enough to face the difficult future ahead of us if we came to the present moment out of an era of sober realism and close attention to the hard facts of the human condition. It’s far harder to find ourselves where we are when that forces us to own up to the hard fact that we’ve been lying to ourselves for three hundred years. Disillusionment is a bitter pill at the best of times. When the illusion that’s just been shattered has been telling us that the future is obliged to conform to our fondest fantasies, whatever those happen to be, it’s no wonder that it’s as unwelcome as it is.
Bitter though the pill may be, though, it’s got to be choked down, and like the bitter medicines of an earlier day, it has a tonic effect. Come to terms with the fact that faith in progress was always destined to be disappointed, that the law of diminishing returns and the hard limits of thermodynamics made the dream of endless guaranteed betterment a delusion—an appealing delusion, but a delusion all the same—and after the shock wears off, you’ll find yourself standing on common ground shared with the rest of your species, asking questions that they asked and answered in their time.
Most of the people who have ever lived, it bears remembering, had no expectation that the future would be any better than the world that they saw around them. The majority of them assumed as a matter of course that the future would be much like the present, while quite a few of them believed instead that it would be worse. Down through the generations, they faced the normal human condition of poverty, sickness, toil, grief, injustice, and the inevitability of their own deaths, and still found life sufficiently worth living to meet the challenges of making a living, raising families, and facing each day as it came.
That’s normal for our species. Buying into a fantasy that insists that the universe is under an obligation to fulfill your daydreams is not. Get past that fantasy, and past the shock of disillusionment that follows its departure, and it’s not actually that difficult to make sense of a world that doesn’t progress and shows no interest in remaking itself to fit an overdeveloped sense of human entitlement. The downside is that you have to give up any attempt to smuggle the same fantasy back into your mind under some other name or form, and when some such belief system has been central to the worldview of your culture for the last three centuries or so, it’s always tempting to find some way to retrieve the fantasy. Still, falling in with that temptation just lands you back where you were, waiting for a future the universe is serenely unwilling to provide.
It’s probably worth noting that you also have to give up the equal and opposite fantasy that claims that the universe is under an obligation to fulfill a different set of daydreams, the kind that involves the annihilation of everything you don’t like in the universe, whether or not that includes yourself. That’s simply another way of playing the game of provisional living: “I don’t have to do anything because X is supposed to happen (and it won’t)” amounts in practice to the same thing as “I won’t do anything until X happens (and it won’t)”—that is to say, it’s just one more comfortable evasion of responsibility.
There are more constructive ways to deal with the decidedly mixed bag that human existence hands us. If I may risk a significant oversimplification, there are broadly speaking three ways that work. It so happens that the ancient Greeks, who grappled just as incisively with these issues as they did with so much else, evolved three schools of philosophy, each of which took one of these three ways as its central theme. They weren’t the only ones to do that in a thoughtful fashion; those of my readers who know their way around the history of ideas will be able to name any number of examples from other societies and other ages. I propose to use Greek examples here simply because they’re the schools with which I’m most familiar. As Charles Fort said, one traces a circle beginning anywhere.
The first of the three approaches I have in mind starts with the realization that for most of us, all things considered, being alive beats the stuffing out of the alternative. While life contains plenty of sources of misery, it also contains no shortage of delights, even when today’s absurdly complex technostructure isn’t there to provide them; furthermore, the mind that pays close attention to its own experiences will soon notice that a fairly large percentage of its miseries are self-inflicted, born of pointless worrying about future troubles or vain brooding over past regrets. Unlearn those habits, stop insisting that life is horrible because it isn’t perfect, and it’s generally not too hard to learn to enjoy the very real pleasures that life has to offer and to tolerate its less pleasant features with reasonable grace.
That’s the approach taught by Epicurus, the founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy in ancient Greece. It’s also the foundation of what William James called the healthy-minded way of thinking, the sort of calm realism you so often see in people who’ve been through hard times and come out the other side in one piece. Just now, it’s a very difficult philosophy for many people in the world’s industrial nations to take up, precisely because most of us haven’t been through hard times; we’ve been through an age of extravagance and excess, and like most people in that position, we’re finding the letdown at the party’s end far more difficult to deal with than any actual suffering we might be facing. Get past that common reaction, and the Epicurean way has much to offer.
If it has a weakness, it’s that attending to the good things in life can be very hard work when those good things are in short supply. That’s when the second approach comes into its own. It starts from the realization that whether life is good or not, here we are, and we each have to choose how we’re going to respond to that stark fact. The same unlearning that shows the Epicurean to avoid self-inflicted misery is a first step, a clearing of the decks that makes room for the decisions that matter, but once this is taken care of, the next step is to face up to the fact that there are plenty of things in the world that could and should be changed, if only someone were willing to get up off the sofa and make the effort required. The second approach thus becomes a philosophy of action, and when action requires risking one’s life—and in really hard times, it very often does—those who embrace the second approach very often find themselves saying, “Well, what of it? I’m going to die sooner or later anyway.”
That’s the approach taught by Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy in ancient Greece. It’s among the most common ways of thought in dark ages, sometimes worked out as a philosophy, sometimes expressed in pure action: the ethos of the Spartans and the samurai. That way of thinking about life is taken to its logical extreme in the literature of the pagan Teutonic peoples: you will die, says the Elder Edda, the world will die, even the gods will die, and none of that matters. All that matters is doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing, and because you’ve learned to embrace the certainty of your death and so don’t have to worry about anything but doing the right thing.
Now of course the same choice can express itself in less stark forms. Every one of my readers who’s had the experience of doing something inconvenient or unpleasant just because it’s the right thing to do has some sense of how that works, and why. In a civilization on the downward arc, there are many inconvenient or unpleasant things that very badly need to be done, and choosing one of them and doing it is a remarkably effective response to the feelings of meaninglessness and helplessness that afflict so many people just now. Those who argue that you don’t know whether or not your actions will have any results in the long run are missing the point, because from the perspective I’ve just sketched out, the consequences don’t matter either. Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum, as the Roman Stoics liked to say: let justice be done, even if it brings the sky crashing down.
So those, broadly speaking, are the first two ways that people have dealt constructively with the human condition: in simplest terms, either learn to live with what life brings you, or decide to do something about it. The first choice may seem a little simplistic and the second one may seem a little stark, but both work—that is, both are psychologically healthy responses that often yield good results, which is more than can be said for habits of thought that require the universe to either cater to our fantasies of entitlement or destroy itself to satisfy our pique. Both also mesh fairly well with the habitual material-mindedness of contemporary culture, the assumption that the only things that really matter are those you can hit with a stick, which is common to most civilizations toward the end of their history.
The third option I have in mind also works, but it doesn’t mesh at all with the assumption just noted. Current confusions about the alternatives to that assumption run deep enough that some care will be needed in explaining just what I mean.
The third option starts with the sense that the world as we normally perceive it is not quite real—not illusory, strictly speaking, but derivative. It depends on something else, something that stands outside the world of our ordinary experience and differs from that world not just in detail but in kind. Since this “something else” is apart from the things we normally use language to describe, it’s remarkably difficult to define or describe in any straightforward way, though something of its nature can be shared with other people through the more roundabout means of metaphor and symbol. Elusive as it is, it can’t simply be ignored, because it shapes the world of our ordinary experience, not according to some human agenda but according to a pattern of its own.
I’d encourage my readers to notice with some care what’s not being said here. The reality that stands behind the world of our ordinary experience is not subject to human manipulation; it isn’t answerable to our fantasies or to our fears. The viewpoint I’m suggesting is just about as far as you can get from the fashionable notion that human beings create their own reality—which, by the way, is just one more way our overdeveloped sense of entitlement shapes our habits of thinking. As objects of our own and other’s perceptions, we belong to the world of the not quite real. Under certain circumstances, though, human beings can move into modes of nonordinary perception in which the presence of the underlying reality stops being a theory and becomes an experience, and when this happens a great many of the puzzles and perplexities of human existence suddenly start making sense.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that in ancient Greek culture, the philosophical movement that came to embody this approach to the world took its name from a man named Aristocles, whose very broad shoulders gave him the nickname Plato. That’s ironic because Plato was a transitional figure; behind him stood a long line of Orphic and Pythagorean mystics, whose insights he tried to put into rational form, not always successfully; after him came an even longer line of thinkers, the Neoplatonists, who completed the job he started and worked out a coherent philosophy that relates the world of reality to the world of appearance through the lens of human consciousness.
The Platonist answer isn’t limited to Platonism, of course, any more than the Stoic or Epicurean answer is found only in those two Greek philosophical schools. Implicitly or explicitly, it’s present in most religious traditions that grapple with philosophical issues and manage not to fall prey to the easy answers of apocalyptic fantasy. In the language of mainstream Western religion, we can say that there’s a divine reality, and then there’s a created world and created beings—for example, the author and readers of this blog—which depend for their existence on the divine reality, however this is described. Still, that’s far from the only language in which this way of thinking about the world can be framed.
The Epicurean and Stoic approaches to face an imperfect and challenging world, as already discussed, take that world as it is, and propose ways to deal with it. That’s a wholly reasonable approach from within the sort of worldview that those traditions generally embrace. The Platonic approach, by contrast, proposes that the imperfect and challenging world we encounter is only part of the picture, and that certain disciplines of consciousness allow us to take the rest of the picture into account, not as a policy of blind trust, but as an object of personal experience. As already suggested, it’s difficult to communicate in ordinary language just what that experience has to say about the reality behind such phrases as “divine purpose,” which is why those who pursue such experiences tend to focus on teaching other people how to do it, and let them make their own discoveries as they do the work.
Knowing the rest of the picture, for that matter, doesn’t make the imperfections and challenges go away. There are many situations in which either an Epicurean or a Stoic tactic is the best bet even from within a Platonic view of the cosmos—it’s a matter of historical fact that much of the best of the Epicurean and Stoic traditions were absorbed into the classical Neoplatonic synthesis for exactly this reason. The difference is simply that to glimpse something of the whole picture, and to pursue those disciplines that bring such glimpses within reach, provide a perspective that makes sense of the texture of everyday experience as it is, without expecting it to act out human fears and fantasies. That approach isn’t for everyone, but it’s an option, and it’s the one that I tend to trust.