Monday, September 30, 2013

The Silence Of Progress

Philosopher John Gray has a fitting name, and this disquisition on some of the unsettling aspects of his ideas perhaps goes a long way to explain my long silence.

In his most recent book, The Silence of Animals, Gray reiterates much of what he has said before. We are in thrall to a delusion established by the Enlightenment that society marches in a straight line from barbarism to increasing civility, as each generation demands more and more equality from the state. This is a black and white generalization that greatly simplifies the arguments, but it is the gist.

I have long been a student of Gray's polar opposite, the American philosopher John Rawls. Rawls is most famous for rehabilitating political philosophy in his master work “A Theory of Justice”, in which he laid down a series of fascinating arguments for the creation of a just society. Rawls started out in this book with enormous hope, as the young often do, but with time and experience his faith seemed to waiver. His later books are more considered, more focused than the broad scope of the first and, we learn that with increasing ill health, his hope that a truly just society was possible began to decline. When the greatest thinker on the nature of justice since antiquity begins to doubt its very possibility, then one must pause.

For many months I have indeed taken a long pause at this thought and its implications. At first I, like many liberal minded writers, dismissed Gray's thinking out of hand. Have we not had continuous progress in the twentieth century? Are not the civil rights movement, and even the recent victory for gays to marry, vindications of the Enlightenment ideal? These were the first thoughts to come to mind, but then I began to clean my rose tinted glasses. People of color are still grossly over represented in our prisons, and under represented everywhere else. The recent Supreme Court repeal of The Voting Rights Act is indeed a major setback for civil rights. A half African-American male sits in the White House, but his biography is no mirror for the average black experience. Think again about abortion. This victory, though forty years on, is still just news for millions of women. Many clinics have been legislated out of existence with clever legal slight of hand, and what clinics are available are often too distant to be of use. I am certain gay marriage will face similar retribution in the years to come.

Then add to these an even greater revelation. According to some recent studies the average citizen is so blinded by personal bias as to be incapable of objectivity. Another suggests the impossibility of teaching critical thinking skills. At first glance this second discovery may not appear so devastating, until you consider that our entire democracy if predicated upon the ideal of the informed citizenry, the belief that an educated electorate will always be able to sniff out deceit and vote for the best candidate. Instead, what many have long suspected appears at last validated, that our republic is merely an illusion, the product of propaganda and skillful marketing campaigns.

And so, it seems that history is not a straight line to some imagined progress, but rather a circle which brings us back around from whence we started. True, it could be argued we are still better off with this cycle of the wheel but for how much longer? If all things have their time when will extinction have its day? It has been possible for well over fifty years now to annihilate every living thing on the planet, and baring nuclear death, our own misuse of our earthly resources surely cannot continue without consequence. It appears as though we are walking a delicate foot bridge above an abyss, the ground we tread may feel stable and solid, but the reality still sits just beneath our feet.

What is one to do? As I become older, and I feel the uselessness of idealism, the wisdom of individuals who chose not to interact becomes more appealing. Montaigne lived in an age of chaos, one in which the state was divided against itself by rival religious factions, each absolutely certain of their own righteousness. Instead of throwing himself into such a maelstrom, he absented himself from public life to manage his estate and read and write peacefully in his library. Today such action might be viewed as cowardice, as a desire to escape one's duty to society. But what was his duty? Would his action's have had any conceivable effect upon the outcome? Probably not. The historical forces of his time were too great for such an insignificant soul to have been of the slightest aid. He was right I think to mind his own business, and we have the glory of the Essays as a result.

Going even further back into time one might summon up the shade of Cicero who, forced to abandon politics for a time, occupied himself by writing philosophy in the country. Perhaps he would have been wiser to remain in retirement, for when he returned to the podium of public life he would literally lose his head fighting against a zeitgeist even his eloquence could not tame. This hunger, this unquenchable need to be of consequence in the world perhaps best explains Cicero's disdain for Epicurus. Although he chastised the Greek thinker for hypocrisy in putting his name upon his books, it was Epicurus who counseled a retreat from the fray, the rat race of competition, to live in retirement and devote one's self to friendship and contemplation.

At his death, Epicurus donated his home known as “The Garden”, as a gift to his follower's so that they might continue to spread his message and look inward. For me this seems the best path, but it is one that only the independently wealthy may follow. To function properly for a group of individuals it would require either a piece of land set aside for the purpose, like The Garden and privately funded through some endowment, or self-sustainable like a farm, or for a group of fellow asylum seekers to put their own money in a communal pot and sacrifice their ego's for a greater good. Knowing human nature the latter is more feasible than the former, but just as rare. The wealthy who might fund such an undertaking are very often too much apart of the world to desire leaving it, especially if the bulk of the financial burden would rest upon themselves.

It is just this disparity between ends and means which makes one cry utopia and abandon the vision before it has even begun. Regardless, such societies have indeed existed. As sighted already, Epicurus and his Garden continued for many centuries after its founder's death, perhaps only ending with the rise of Christianity. Christianity then in turn, seeing the value of a quiet life of contemplation, founded the first monastic orders many of which continue to function to this day.

Thus for those weary of the world and its madness the models for sustainable seclusion, at least in theory, are there for those souls hardy and serious enough to attempt them. What do you say, any takers?