If We Don’t Know What’s Broke, How Can We Fix It? Could It Be Meaning?
Have History’s Political Solutions Tried to Fix What Can’t Be?
In our eighth post for Confronting the Constitution, we looked at Marxism as a doomed social order; doomed because Marx got the human definition wrong. However, Marx, like Rousseau, did see valid “threats to the soul” in modernity. Reading Marx, Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller, or any of Romanticism’s critics of Enlightenment, one gets the sense they were trying to fix something broken without knowing what it was or blaming the wrong cause. On the other hand, Enlightenment and America’s Founders didn’t so much try to fix whatever was broken as to keep it from shattering altogether. Fractures were instead accepted as permanent and irreparable. If only these fissures in the human psyche could be taped together in the form of a mostly stable state, people would have a greater opportunity to live their lives in peace, despite the cracks in their head.
But if Marx, Rousseau, Schiller, and the others since them keep submitting schemes to fix us, just as their opposition in Hobbes, Locke, and their ilk offer their own solutions, what exactly are they trying to fix?
Marx was explicit. Despite his sarcasm, he wrote, modernity “has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical calculation….” As Newell puts it, this “regret for the premodern community helps explain Marxism’s psychological appeal for those radically disenchanted with what they take to be the vulgarity, irreverence, and disarray of liberal democracy.” It’s community that Marx, Rousseau, Schiller and the rest were after, but on nation-state scales. Notice, by “community,” we’re not talking the NASCAR “community,” the Facebook “community,” or this afternoon’s mass murder “community.”
And yet, in Tocqueville’s estimation, Americans are “Cartesian selves who invented themselves every day in a cheerful bustle of innovation and enterprise.” By 1840 it was already clear that Americans were a purpose-driven people. As the old saying goes, Americans live to work; Europeans work to live. If we carry this notion a step further, Americans are high on purpose, low on meaning. No wonder there are no communities in America except the Amish, Mennonites, and Orthodox Jews.
But can’t purpose-driven people have real communities? And what do communities have to do with meaning?
To the first question, maybe we can, but we don’t. (See Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.) For both questions, I submit that purpose and meaning are different. While their separation is not absolute, and one can become the other, purpose is like a calculation that fosters action; meaning is like a feeling that nurtures connection. While purpose provides satisfaction, it does not provide meaning unless externalized as something “greater than oneself” — a calling. When calling was attached to belief, seen as human participation in a divine plan, purpose and meaning were united. Eighteenth-century Shakers considered woodworking an act of prayer. Once Enlightenment reason acted as a solvent on belief, work became a matter of the material world, not salvation in the next. No longer in tandem, meaning was released to descend, slowly losing its dominance in human perceptions, while purpose soared in the modern mind.
Purpose is well matched to rights-bearing individuals. Rights were invented for the purposes they serve, grounded in demands of our individual physical survival. Like the right to self-preservation, a concept for protection from strangers.
Meaning is found in those endearing looks we receive from the eyes of our animal companions, children, friends, spouses, or parents who have concern for us. It’s a signal of our worth from someone other than ourselves. We belong to them and them to us.
Unlike meaning, purpose is internally constructed. We make purpose ourselves, to clean the house, plan a vacation, meet a deadline. Purpose is largely under individual control, goal-directed, fashioned, or embraced by the beholder, and has a capacity to regenerate without end until we’re dead.
Meaning, however, is built externally; others shape it. It thus comes with a penalty. As a reflection from others, it dies when they do. They take part of our meaning with them.
It is community, that connectedness to others — family, friends, and tribes of old — that offers belonging and, more fundamentally, the meaning that comes with it.
Could it be that what we broke was meaning? Could it be we broke it with the Agricultural Revolution? In Humanity’s First Colossal Blunder, we looked at the connectedness of pre-civilized humanity and not just to people. Per University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute field director, Henri Frankfort, before civilization, the world was seen by “man as neither inanimate nor empty but redundant with life; life as individuality, in man, beast, plant, and in every phenomenon [from] the thunderclap, to the shadow, to the stone which suddenly hurt him when he stumbles.” The rock chose to hurt him on that fall. Just as often, the rock chose not to.
Farther back, beyond pre-civilized to pre-agriculture, as population geneticist Spencer Wells tells it in Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, one hundred centuries ago, “we made a conscious decision to change our relationship with nature.” We went from finding our food to creating it. “The first person to plant a seed in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago,” says Wells, “set in motion events that were beyond his or her wildest imagination.” What had been a medley of people and the natural world (driving prey species into extinction along the way) took its first step to becoming the factory floor of an agri-planet. If not the first, that act was one of the first disenchantments of the world.
With farming, humans did little but work: clearing fields, breaking ground, carrying water, weeding species, even lugging animal feces and its stink around to make wheat happy. “The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice, and potatoes,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “These plants domesticated Homo sapiens….” With increases in food supply, the population grew. Mothers could have a baby each year. Extra hands were needed in the fields. Babies fed on porridge while mom had more kids, which exhausted food surpluses, so more fields were cleared, planted, watered. All the while, feeding children porridge, not breast milk, depleted their immune system. The variety nature once provided became dominated by one food source, subject to drought, flood, insect infestation. Child mortality soared. Settlements grew with possessions to be possessed by, inviting warfare. And newly evolved pathogens that could find a way to leap from domesticated four-legged creatures to those on two did just that.
But if life got so lousy, why make the change? Besides incrementalism over centuries, “The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but copies of DNA,” writes Harari. “Just as the economic success of a company is measured by dollars in a bank, not how happy its employees are. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”
Human evolution was evolution under competition. But it was originally competition with nature, not with others in our tribe, nor, until later, with other tribes. Ag’s resulting overpopulation killed the tribe. It also changed the human outlook. As anthropologist James Suzman said on the BBC, “The Juhoansi bushmen of the Kalahari Desert were famous as having been the people who torpedoed the idea that hunter-gathers lived lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. [They] sustained themselves well on the basis of about fifteen hours effort in the food quest per week. Once those immediate needs for that day were met, people would take it easy and would hang out, tell jokes, tell stories and eat and relax. [With] farming, on the other hand, all work becomes future-focused. That means you have to focus on accumulating surpluses. So, you had these early agriculture religions where hard work becomes a virtue, idleness, and sloth a sin. Our obsession with wanting to do more comes from the risks of farming, and they’ve been baked into us ever since ten thousand years ago when people started experimenting with agriculture.”
It was also the birth of nascent individualism, today having evolved into what philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky calls hyper-individualism. Though Marx couldn’t know it, is this why he, Rousseau, and others Left, Right, and center so want — without knowing it — to reconstitute a true community of old again? To reestablish connections in a disconnected world and the meaning they provide.
Yes, Western modernity can be abused, excessive, and sterilizing, but could one reason it’s succeeded, so far, is because as one of the many patches to the Agricultural Catastrophe, it more closely matches human nature than other social orders? In the instance of capitalism, does it more closely mirror the competitive world of nature in which humans evolved? Notice “more closely mirrors” is not to say “matches.” And none of this intends to imply that capitalism is a match for the natural environment. One difference between human experience then and now is that our competition is now with strangers — billions of them — almost all of them smeared into the background as part of that external environment. So far as our mammalian and reptilian brain parts are concerned, all those strangers are either breeding opportunities, potential predators, or clutter. Marx wanted those strangers to be made part of the communal tribe again. Not possible, even in his day. Our very numbers deny the possibility of tribes, for which anthropologist Richard Leakey judged 25 people or less. As we now know, individualistic modernity breeds cults, not communities.
Enlightenment and the Founder’s use of Enlightenment philosophy were closer to right under our current circumstances: post-ag, overpopulated nation-states. But while Enlightenment more closely approximated the human definition under modernity, it doesn’t match human nature in its original state, one that lasted 300,000 years as thick communities of hunter-gatherers. Is that what human nature really is, still hardwired in our heads? Ever since agriculture, have we been trying to fix what we did to ourselves with one new political patch after another? “Because we are free from nature, Hegel argues, we have to be alienated. This feeling of Pascalian loneliness in an empty cosmos is modern man’s cross to bear….” Unless human numbers approach extinction levels and we return to Bambi in the forest, this can never be fixed.
Paragraph 3: “has drowned…” W.R. Newell, Reflections on Marxism and America, in Allan Bloom Ed., Confronting the Constitution, AEI Press, 1990, pg. 344. “regret for…” Ibid. pg. 344–345.
Paragraph 4: “Cartesian selves…” Ibid, pg. 348–349.
Paragraph 12: “man as neither inanimate…” Henri Frankfort, H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Man, Pelican Books, 1971, pg. 14.
Paragraph 13: “we made a conscious…” Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, Random House, 2010, pg. 16. “The first person…” Ibid. pg. 24.
Paragraph 14: “The culprits…” Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage, 2011, pg. 90.
Paragraph 15; “The currency…” Ibid. pg. 94.
Paragraph 16: Daniel Susskind, The Compass, BBC podcast, June 2021.
Paragraph 19: “Because we are…” Newell, pg. 349.