Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Idea of a Better Society

An Atlas syndrome of citizens responsible for their own society cannot develop among fatalists. The Atlas syndrome is a modern feeling. It can grow only when we are convinced that we can engineer society, that we can develop and improve it, and that this is what we should do.
Fatalism - the idea that the state of our society is not our responsibility, but our fate - manifests in three attitudes. The first is that nothing can be done to improve society: there will always be the same problems; human nature is imperfect and cannot be changed. The second attitude is that this world simply is not meant to be improved or is not worth improving. This view contends that we should be satisfied with the world hereafter, that this life is only a test case, a training ground or banishment for some sin in the distant past. The third attitude is that the Lord, or people chosen by Him, will take care of the world.
In medieval times fatalism dominated, as it still does in many parts of the world. Cathedrals, the most beautiful products of the Middle Ages, are great and impressive pointers to the life hereafter. Still, many social and economic improvements were made in response to the immediate needs and practical ambitions of people.
The first important prelude to modern society was the projection of an ideal society. This ideal society would exist not in the hereafter, but in this world, be it in fairytale location: in the distant past, the distant future, or distant and unknown countries. This utopia became one of the most consequential social inventions ever made.
The Thomas Edison of this invention was Thomas More, who in the year 1516 wrote Utopia (6) and gave the genre its trade name. His ideal society appeared as a pinnacle of both Christian and classical virtues. Its obvious inspiration was Plato, who used the description of the ideal state to motivate and teach citizens of his time. Utopia is a product of humanism, a true renaissance of the classics. In the beginning of the 1600’s, writing utopias became fashionable, possibly in response to the fierce social and religious strife of the times.
The sting hidden in utopias is that we have to explain why this ideal state of affairs does not yet exist. This sting is even its raison d’ĂȘtre. Utopias are scorpional. Thus, designers will find reasons: lack of Christian virtues, irresponsible and incompetent leaders (then princes and priests, nowadays industrialists, bankers and politicians), illiteracy, exploitation.
A farewell to fatalism carries a high price in the form of guilt, blame and feelings of general insufficiency. The best way to deal with this cost is to pass the buck, which means scapegoating. Since scapegoats, be they circumstances or people, have the nasty habit of not dispelling themselves upon the sheer act of exposure, in the end the problem returns. We ourselves have to do something to dispel the countervailing powers that be. We have to change the world, and as long that world is not yet changing, we have to carry it.
Therefore, the return of utopia in 1516 gives us the first step toward today’s Atlas syndrome. The last and thus far the most powerful utopia, the classless society of Karl Marx, has long been a challenge of our time. But the end of communism is not the end of utopias. New ones will follow.
The second step toward the modern condition, and possibly the most important single root of modern Western society, is the rise of deism, a more benevolent variety of religion that emerged during the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. In the deistic view, God becomes less a terrible judge of the unfaithful and more the benign creator of the universe. With the emergence of deism, priests began preaching less about the ovens of hell and more about the beauty of nature. Deism offered a truly great step forward in civilization, although it has also led to extremes of sentimentality.
This change toward deism occurred both with the coming of modern science, and with the return of another return of another symbol of civilized society - the gentleman, or in the original expression of the French variety that preceded him, le gentilhomme. We refer to this symbol as returning because here also the classics had preceded us, as had the medieval ideal of chivalry, born from the 11th-century renaissance in the Languedoc area of France.
The most perfect description and manifestation of a gentleman, however, could be found in China. The original Confucianism is purely a gentleman’s religion. The Confucian idea of Kung-Tzu serves as the prototype of the gentleman, a true man of the world, being an attentive host to all other people who are not yet there where he is - in a state of civilization. Modern forms of humanistic creeds also relate to classic ideas such as humanitas, the Roman version of Confucianism.
The coming of the gentleman corresponds to a more gentlemanly version of God, and a vision of society that is both critical and benevolent. This vision holds that society should be improved toward more civilization, toward more humanity. It should and it could, and it would. The only things necessary are a more liberal, a more gentlemanly arrangement of society, and plenty of liberal education.
William Penn, after hearing a woman accused of witchcraft and of riding the night air on a broomstick, asked her if this accusation were true. When she acknowledged that it was, he ruled that there was no law against traveling on broomsticks and, as she had disturbed nobody’s night rest, he acquitted her. This is a good story, whether it is true or not, because it illustrates nicely the modern Confucian spirit of the Enlightenment, as we now call this spirit of that time.
An important theme of the Enlightenment, a theme famously exposed by Jean-Jaques Rousseau in Le contrat social, is that society is originally based on rational and humane grounds. We do not need to establish the kingdom of light against the forces of evil, but we need only to rediscover our own natural origins. The Enlightenment knew both revolutionary and easygoing, gradual representatives, France having more of the first kind and England more of the second.
Optimism and pessimism foster progressive and conservative political inclinations. These inclinations exist separately from those progressive and conservative tendencies that originate in judgment about the present state of society, and in personal positions and interests. The major result of the Enlightenment was to strengthen the utopian element, but to do so in a way that could be less absolutist, less theocratic and less prescribed; more benign, more defined in terms of humane conditions and relationships, more gentlemanly. Even if there is no ideal society, it is possible to create or recreate a much better society, one that is well-ordered, civilized, in accord with natural human dignity.

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