The Age of Discontent
– and the road to enchantment
Throughout recent history, in this privileged corner of the world, there have always been critics and questioners of our society and our values.
Yet until recently, despite real hardships and serious injustices, most people have given the benefit of the doubt to a social consensus.
Why was this? I would argue three reasons. First, most ordinary people were able to identify with their country, their tribe, despite personal and social woes. Didn’t ‘we’ win two world wars?
Second, for most of those very critical of existing society, its shortcomings and injustices, there was still the belief that change for the better was possible via social reform and created wealth. In short social and economic progress beckoned to a brighter future.
Third, the gathering storms of the wider World, even for other peoples let alone other creatures, had barely entered our collective consciousness.
It feels that things have changed now.
The optimism has largely gone. The sense of social cohesion is weaker, mutual social trust is more often patchy. There is growing anxiety about an insecure future – rising living costs, unaffordable homes, lack of secure and meaningful jobs, fragmenting services. It also feels that the woes of the World have come to our shores.
So is this the age of discontent? A growing minority can now see that ‘the environment’ that once we could take for granted now threatens to take revenge on us. ‘Gaia’s Revenge’ as James Lovelock1 puts it.
A decade ago the most discussed issue was peak oil. Now it is climate change. Notice that the big concern, in both cases, is for human welfare and survival. That is why networks like Planet Centred Forum, taking a broader view of all life on Earth, need your support. It is true that at some point our civilization will tip into a downward spiral – but not before much of the web of life on this planet has been decimated, possibly centimated. For most of our fellow creatures, species extinction, mainly due to habitat loss, is a bigger threat than climate change.
So how should or could those of us who can see this future coming respond? Well that is not really the first question. Before that we need to understand what the issues are; in particular how we got to this place.
Now the problem you see depends on who you are. A passing space ship from an enlightened civilisation would note a planet where one species is out of control – too clever by half, too populous for their resource base, consuming the Earth, delusional about their omnipotence, in denial about the situation.
Let us park that one for the moment and come down to Earth. For many observers the current mass consumption driven by our own open ended desires coupled with the need of mass production for ever expanding markets is a threat to social and ecological stability. For anarchists and libertarians the modern state, now invading all aspects of our lives, is a cause of our dis-empowerment. For religious believers mankind turning away from moral faith is at the root of our alienation. Others again can see that the worship of science and technology, in an age where most academic education has become a prostitute to business funding, makes us less rounded human beings. Others have pointed out that scale does matter: that social structures and moral frameworks evolved for modest and bonded human groups are bound to fail in modern mass societies. Some have gone beyond this to the ‘p’ word: that massive populations and high population density will render all our problem solving hopeless.
It is likely that all these concerns contain some measure of the truth.
How did it come to this?
I would like now to draw attention to Dr Patrick Curry, an independent thinker who offers us some framework for understanding our situation plus a guide to the values shift, the change of worldview that we would need to strike a new path.
Patrick Curry’s substantial work, Ecological Ethics2 is becoming a standard text book on ethics in the context of green and ecological debate. Although his overview covers many strands of green thought his own position is strongly planet centred.
Patrick argues that what we are up against is broader and deeper, more insidious, than just globalisation or neoliberal capitalism. His preferred term is ‘modernity’: defined as a toxic interaction of techno-science, capitalism and the state. Not just another ideology but an all embracing worldview. We are so immersed that we are hardly aware of it, just as deep water fish are said to be unaware of the existence of water. Daring to challenge modernism, including its denial of limits, can provoke hysterical reactions.
Now the critique of techno-science leads back directly to the enlightenment – a rational mechanistic outlook that has increasingly dominated the last few hundred years. The romantic reaction to it was led by artists and others but in an age when science was king this was easily brushed aside. More recently John Gray’s Enlightenment’s Wake3 and other thoughtful work has called the assumptions of the enlightenment into question.
So if modernity is to be challenged what tools do we have? J.R.R. Tolkien may be our unlikely answer. In his collection of essays on Tolkien Deep Roots in a Time of Frost4 Patrick Curry has identified a key notion in Tolkien, enchantment that captures a very different approach: humility, awe and respect for the natural world (as opposed to magic, attempts to manipulate the world; Tolkien’s code for modernity).
Here we see a conflict of values, of attitudes. If this understanding is right then the titanic struggle of our time, the tussle for the soul and future of our planet, is at root a clash of values.
Before going deeper into the origins of our problem a brief look at some features of the evolution of societies.
Ten thousand years ago the population of modern humans on our planet was about one million. As hunters and foragers they lived in small groups similar to indigenous peoples today. Already their clever technology made them a threat to some other creatures: the bow and arrow able to deal death at a distance; camouflaged pit traps and so on. But life was hard, numbers small and consumption modest.
Then the adoption of agriculture changed everything. Larger populations could now be supported. Slaves could now be kept. City states with class stratified societies and ruling political and religious elites could become empires. Warfare and conquests became endemic. The rest, as they say, is history.
Question. Could social evolution have taken a different path? Could we have sustained enchantment with and in our world?
In my essay Values for Our Time5 and in the closing section of its supplement Which Values?6 the point was made that just as we have an ‘outside’ as creatures with observable physical features and behaviour and also a feeling, willing, suffering ‘inside’ (how we experience ourselves) there is no reason to assume that we are unique in this, though there may be differences of degree, related to our complexity.
This led on to the hypothesis that our Universe – the most complex entity of all – also has an outside and an inside.
Our pre-human and human ancestors, evolving towards awareness, might reasonably have been enchanted with their world – in tune with both the outside and the inside as they engaged with it, hardly distinguishing the two aspects. With the rise of self-awareness and hence other-awareness the ‘other’ would be known emotionally and by empathy as a ‘thou’, to be sometimes feared yet also to be interacted with in appropriate ways; understood as another self-experiencing entity, another part of the enchanted world. Some indigenous peoples will pay homage to the spirit of a tree (say) before cutting it down to make their dwelling.
Now this is exactly the argument put forward in Before Philosophy7 a report by Henri Frankfort and colleagues into the beliefs and practices of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The authors argue that abstract thought and reasoning did not then exist. Engagement with the world was direct, concrete and emotive. The ‘other’ was indeed a ‘thou’ with its own will or spirit. (The ancients understood the world around them through myth. Today myth has taken on a meaning close to fantasy: this does not do justice to its purpose. The authors argue that myth is “a carefully chosen cloak for abstract thought” through which an inclusive emotional and imaginative, as well as intellectual, experience of the world is communicated as concrete stories. Hence the label ‘mythopoeic’ – myth-making – thought.)
Initially the whole world must have appeared alive with meaning and purpose.
Gradually there was an evolution from spirit in nature to nature spirits; then from nature spirits to nature gods. The trap lay in the core belief that if something happened then someone must have caused it (rather than something as science would later say). This was a big step away from the original primal understanding of a self-motivated and self-acting world.
There would have been two consequences. One was that certain places – say groves or lakes – associated with nature gods or with ancestors would come to be considered sacred. By implication other places in nature were now less than sacred. The other would be that human qualities, human frailties, would now be projected onto these nature gods, with a need to appease them: if something bad happens it must mean that the gods are angry. This road led in many cases to human sacrifice.
It is a feature of human social affairs that every need will generate a response that aims to supply that demand – usually at a price. Hence we see the emergence of shamans or priests offering to intercede with these spirit forces.
The social effects of the emergence of widespread agriculture have been noted above: city states with large populations, class divisions and hierarchies including priest castes. In reflection of this the nature gods morphed into great benefactor gods ruling earth and sky – lifted up into the heavens – though still in nature, not apart from it. The gods ruled/guided a world that mostly delivered sufficiency. The priest castes could justify their positions.
Now some nomadic tribes were excluded from the abundance of the fertile valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the desert there was only sand and a hard freedom. Their beliefs could come to reflect this with the rejection of organic nature and of the gods that embodied it. They had nothing to be enchanted about.
In the case of the Israelites their alleged forty years in the Sinai desert after escape from bondage in Egypt hardened their belief in an omnipotent god – their god – outside and beyond nature – above nature. This was a most revolutionary stance which “mocks the beliefs of the Egyptians and Babylonians”8 i.e. repudiated the great belief systems of the time.
This new religion completed the transition from a natural world where all was sacred, enchanted … through stages when only certain places and practices were holy and sacred … to the world of ‘the chosen people’ where nothing was sacred in its own right but existed as it pleased an absolute god who had created it and could choose to destroy it. In ‘Before Philosophy’ the authors identify the birth of a new myth: the myth of the will of god, acting in history. Moreover this all powerful god could be a judgemental and vengeful god. As Nietzsche would put it “all too human”.
In a further denial of nature this life here was now only a gateway to a ‘real world’ of eternal life and bliss. This promise of eternal life as a reward for virtue and obedience was bound to put great power into the hands of any priest caste able to claim to be guardians of the faith.
Thus not only could the hierarchy offer eternal life to the faithful, they could create the threat of eternal purgatory for transgression, for ‘sinners’.
Through some chances of history this belief system of an originally obscure nomadic tribe was to become the faith of not one but two great universal religions – the peoples of the book.
For many of the teeming millions on our disenchanted planet the situation can be summed up in the anarchist ditty: “Work and pray, live on hay: there will be pie in the sky by and by”. Unfortunately for many more millions the reality of existence is now far worse than that.
With the later development of ego-consciousness our natural awareness of, and bonding with, the inside of the Universe (by then understood in terms of these gods) began to fade. In the Natural World Story of Values for Our Time attention was drawn to The Origin of Consciousness in The Breakdown of The Bicameral Mind9 in which the author Julian Jaynes dates this loss of direct apprehension to the second millennium BCE. In fact this retreat from enchantment, from knowing the other as ‘thou’, was probably more gradual than this. In ‘Before Philosophy’, the emergence of abstract thinking from myth was identified with the early Greeks around 700 BCE.
Just as the desert nomads came to worship a god above nature so the Hellenes, demi-gods themselves, came to place man above nature. In this respect they are properly recognised as the precursors of the enlightenment.
Only among pagans was some measure of reverence for nature, some measure of enchantment, maintained in their rites and practices.
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Both the above datings pose problems. Is there an alternative way of understanding the loss of enchantment?
In a competitive world there would be evolutionary advantages for this change. It would be easier to act on ‘the other’ if they could be conceived of as only external objects rather than common sufferers, common strivers, common celebrants.
Now in the Social Story of Values for Our Time the ability of both individuals and groups to ‘flip’ from one mode of being to another was noted. So it could be that the modes of ‘knowing the other as thou’ and ‘knowing the other as it’ co-existed as emotional as well as intellectual stances among earlier peoples.
If so, in response to the pressures just noted, one could say that it became easier to flip into ‘it’ mode; conversely it became harder to flip into and retain ‘thou’ mode, to retain our enchanted connection with nature. This surely is what some of us experience and report today. Digging into our own self-experience, we know that even limited excursions into full enchantment mode (perhaps only for a few minutes) are likely to enhance our appreciation of, and empathy with, the natural world around us.
What we can note is that there would be evolutionary advantages for maintaining our bonding and empathy in some contexts. The classic case would be parent and infant (often Mother and child). Beyond this the bonding of the tribe or clan would be important, again for obvious reasons.
To digress somewhat, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion10 Jonathan Haidt distinguishes the psychological morality of conservatives and liberals as revealed by his research. He found that conservatives placed great value on loyalty to the group, among other traits, whereas liberals primarily only valued fairness and care. As a result conservatives are often able to enjoy broader social support even for ‘harsh’ policies. This is maybe not such a digression since focus on individuals is one aspect of our age of alienation.
The Age of Enlightenment
The Christian Church of Rome was dominant in Europe for a thousand years. Within clerical circles there was contentious debate containing the seeds of Western secular thought and enlightenment thinking. However this ferment of ideas was taking place within the church. Beyond that world people were expected to accept what the clergy told them. With the arrival of the printing press, enabling people to read the bible for themselves and form their own interpretations, this rigid control began to crumble. New ‘protesting’ churches flourished. Questioning was in the air.
The language of the pre-enlightenment period in the 1600s is instructive. Leveller and Digger texts in England pay homage to “The great creator Reason”. Reason was to be the new god.
Alongside great technological scientific and economic advances enlightenment man (it mostly was men) felt ever more confident and independent of the restraints of the natural world. The new enlightenment challenged all traditional social and cultural practices and values.
Now within the Scottish enlightenment Adam Smith played a pivotal role. A moral liberal, the core of his economic thesis was that if people were free to pursue their own self-interest in the market place then the ‘invisible hand’ of free market competition would advance the welfare of all. Needless to say this was just what the new masters of industry wanted to hear.
Smith did not foresee free movement of capital beyond nations, allowing mobile capital to seek out the cheapest labour. Unlike Thomas Malthus11 (according to Keynes a better economist than Adam Smith) he had no concept of natural restraints on exponential economic activity with “whole populations conjured out of the ground” – a quote from Karl Marx – nor therefore of the ecological disasters and new human misery being stored up for us all.
As for enchantment, for attunement with the natural World, for humility before the forces of nature, there was simply no comprehension. The warnings of indigenous peoples were totally ignored at the time. What did they know? These were voices from the dustbin of history.
The notion of progress is today deeply embedded in all modern human activity, almost regardless of the field under consideration. Perhaps most amazing is that the post-modern critique of modernity has been influential in art and some philosophy but has had no broader impact. Enlightenment’s Wake by philosopher John Gray was mentioned earlier.
For enlightenment science the virtue of progress has become an unquestioned and unquestionable backdrop to all endeavour: for most political, social and economic pundits today who argue the modernist case, progress and growth are sacred tenets of their beliefs. Yet progress is only another word for instability. As Norman O. Brown12, an early critic of modern society put it: “human history is not a process of becoming wiser but a process of becoming sicker”.
At the very least there need be a judgement of the benefits and penalties of social or economic change including the effects on cultural roots, social cohesion and bonds with nature. Failing that assessment ordinary people, most often on the receiving end of life, are frequently aware of the downsides of ‘progress’ before markets, politicians, academics and economists. Maybe those Luddites were right after all.
Where from here?
Is there a way forward? This is too big a subject to be covered in this brief look at how we lost touch with harsh yet enchanted nature and perhaps with our souls in the process. It has to be true that we – humanity – cannot go backwards: throw history into reverse.
What this contribution has attempted to show is the separation, by stages and by different paths, of the world of thought from the world of lived experience and action in nature.
For sure, there may be some branches that we can grasp at:
- Our belated awareness of (some of) the problems.
- Our limited but growing awareness of ourselves and perhaps of the triggers for behaviour flips.
- Seed beds of alternative practice linked to new respect for indigenous peoples.
- The silver linings of scarcity enforced consumption decline and catastrophe enforced population decline.
Yet in this age of alienation the tension between the world of modernity (control and manipulation of nature) and enchantment (humility as part of nature) is also the gap between thought and the direct lived experience of willing, suffering creatures.
Much vaunted reason is finally a tool. Like all tools it is very useful for some purposes, useless or even dangerous for others. The folly of enlightenment science was to enthrone reason as a god. One consequence of this was to separate ‘head stuff’ from life, from our own reality, from our deep drives and passions.
Compare the gap between thought and action; between what our beliefs say and what we actually do. Quite a good proportion of people in ‘Western Liberal Democracies’ believe that the enormous gaps in wealth and income all around us are morally wrong – they offend our purpose of attaining an equitable society.
Yet this situation could end tomorrow if we chose voluntarily to share, or at least partially equalise, our incomes. Instead, our clever minds can think up a hundred reasons why this couldn’t work; why “only governments could do that”.
A personal note. While still a social hypocrite in many ways, I have shared every penny of my income for forty years (and more recently pooled my capital savings).
I haven’t starved. The myth of exploitation by ‘takers’ has proved not to be true. At times the threat to the ego (including mine) of having to draw out from the pool has been the bigger problem.
This is no trailer for income sharing or any particular action. Rather the broader point here is the distance between belief and behaviour. In a future age of enchantment we will be in touch with nature through being in touch with ourselves.
Inadequate values warriors though we are, we need now to challenge modernity – defined here as a whole worldview encompassing capitalism, techno-science and the state. To set against it our vision of an enchanted World.
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1 James Lovelock: The Revenge of Gaia
………………………………………………………….Penguin, 2007 paperback ISBN 0141025972
2 Patrick Curry: Ecological Ethics
………………………………………………………….Polity Press, 2011 paperback ISBN 978 0745651262
3 John Gray: Enlightenment’s Wake
…………………………………………………………..Routledge, 1995 hardback ISBN 0145124751
4 Patrick Curry: Deep Roots in A Time of Frost
…………………………………………………………..Walking Tree Books, 2014 p/back ISBN 978 3905703337
5 Woody Wood: Values for Our Time
…………………………………………………………………..Devolve!, 2015 paperback ISBN 978 0993112607
6 Woody Wood: Which Values?
…………………………………………………………………..Devolve!, 2016 paperback ISBN 978 0993112614
7 Henri Frankfort, Mrs H.A. Frankfort, John A Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen: Before Philosophy
…………………………………………………………..1949 paperback ISBN 978 0140201987
8 Ditto, page 237
9 Julian Jaynes: The Origin of Consciousness in The Breakdown of The Bicameral Mind
…………………………………………………………..Mariner Books, 2000 paperback ISBN 0618057072
10 Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
…………………………………………………………..Penguin, 2013 paperback ISBN 978 0141039169
11 Thomas Robert Malthus: Essay on The Principle of Population
…………………………………………………………..Oxford Wards Classics, 2008 paperback ISBN 978 0199540457
12 Norman O. Brown: Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History
…………………………………………………………..Wesleyan U.P., 1986 paperback ISBN 0819561444
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