April 27, 2015

Low But Solid Ground

"It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization [Kultur] is built up upon a renunciation of instinct.” ― Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

As I said last week, the awareness of the fact that the world consists of many diverse cultures is not a new insight and has been recognized for at least 2500+ years. Yet, oddly enough, the word “Culture" is of relatively recent vintage in the Western lexicon.

There is simply no ancient Greek word that can be translated as such—even despite the fact that the recognition of the disparity between Nature and Convention is the foundation of all Political Philosophy. Plato, in his Allegory of the Cave, even basically gives a perfect description of what Culture is: a collection of symbols and signs, virtues and heroes that unite a group of individuals into a united whole. This failure to specifically name it mainly arises from the fact that all pre-Modern societies were wholistic—i.e. there was no distinction between public life and private. Modern, pluralistic societies, though, have invented a way in which individuals and groups with differing conceptions of the “Good” can live together more or less peacefully: our Laws are not considered divinely inspired, instead, are based on calculation and Reason.

This fact of modern life is probably the biggest change to society that has ever occurred in human history—bigger than the switch from hunter/gatherer to agriculture, bigger than the discovery of metallurgy and domestication of animals, bigger than the Industrial Revolution even—yet one that goes completely unnoticed/unmentioned today. The reason that it is so momentous is because it radically changes the dynamics of power: Instead of society being ruled by priests, The People now control the levers of power. This was accomplished by relocating divine revelation from the category of unquestionable Truth to mere opinion, while reducing devotion to the “common good” to a contract between individuals, who promise nothing more than to simply follow the Golden Rule.

This unprecedented, world-historical change was the result of a discovery found in what was dubbed The State of Nature—the foundation of all Modern politics.

The State of Nature was a hypothetical thought experiment created by the Englishman Thomas Hobbes that, basically, pondered the question, What would a person be like if they had no Culture? If you were to strip away all conventions, all artificially constructed rules and regulations, beliefs and values, how would a person act—and more importantly what would their motivation for action be?

The point of this exercise was to attempt to finally end the age old debate of Nature vs. Convention; to once and for all get to the core of Human psychology. From it, Hobbes concluded that the two most basic motivating instincts are nothing more than Self-Interest [comfort] and Self-Preservation [health]—and that all other values are culturally relative and, thus, non-binding because they are, basically, illusory.

Written during a time of extreme social upheaval—The English Civil Wars—this discovery was political dynamite. It called in to question every basic mode of relationship and structure that held European society together in 1651: Divine Right of Kings, nobility/class structure, priestly authority, tradition, etc. It is also the source from which we get our Liberal formula that it is “self-evident” that by Nature we are “all created equal” and are imbued with “certain inalienable Rights.”

Basically, it shows that when you strip away all the artificial/irrational constructs that societies have built up throughout history, we are all exactly the same: all we want is to just live as long as possible as comfortably as possible. And in this desire, we are all equal. So why, he asked, do we have all these crazy, unsubstantiable rules that not only distract from these goals, but are also used to trick us into giving our lives to uphold and perpetuate?

The fact that every society differed on the particulars meant for him that there was no way that all of them could be correct—and more likely meant that none were correct. Hobbes gave an intellectual foundation to Machiavelli's injunction to love your fatherland more than your soul and tied it to a moral imperative that demanded action: Overthrow all specious modes of society and institute new ones based on the "Truth."

The result of this philosophically was the Enlightenment and the Social Contract; the result politically was the American and French Revolutions, the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Social Contract is an agreement between citizens and the government that states: everyone is equal before the law. This was a radical change from Hobbes’ time—and from every other period in Human history throughout all part of the world—where there were usually different laws for differing ranks, classes and positions. It also means that, by Nature,you are free to opt of society whenever you feel that this contract has been violated, or have the Natural Right to organize a revolution if offenses become especially egregious.

There is just one slight problem with all this, though. Despite us enjoying immensely all the new Rights that were granted by this discovery, it has undermined all foundations for Culture. By so narrowly defining what is "natural" to merely self-interest/self-preservation, all things that could possibly bind us together came to be seen as nothing more than specious tools of the oppressor used to blind and control us.

And into this moral/cultural vacuum stepped the “hero” of our story: Monsieur Jean Jacques Rousseau. But that will have to wait for next time.   

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