Over the past few days I have read two blog posts which have led me to think about contemporary Western culture, and those thoughts have not been particularly pleasing. The first related to the shameful lack of true investigative journalism by the American press, and the second to Ann Coulter’s childish diatribe over the American president-elect’s middle name.
At first, I was a bit embarrassed to be an American. After all, despite my usually positive outlook on the world I do remove those rose-tinted shades periodically and look around me. I don’t have to look far; there are manipulative, crude and inconsiderate people all around me.
But then I recalled the Italian reality television show, Perfect Bride, where a mother picks a wife for her son. I remember my trip in Europe last summer, where we encountered the requisite number of vapid, shallow people. No, it’s not America. It’s Western culture. Or worse, perhaps it is human nature.
Throughout history, we have been thrilled by bloody victories over our adversaries. We have been fascinated and enthralled by the failings of others; we have been the ambulance chasers, seeking the satisfaction of knowing the gory details of someone else’s misery. We toss people from islands, and we laugh when someone cries in pain. We engage in torture, and we feel a sense of injustice when we see another succeed.
Education is not respected, and hard work is not admired. If I use a big word I am branded as a snob rather than a person who is attempting to describe something succinctly. Those who put in good hours at work and accomplish a lot are branded as brown nosers or suck-ups who believe they are superior.
Throughout my life I have tried to avoid seeing the world in this way. I have read books, been involved in music, written poetry, and tried to build a perfect and serene life. This is not a simple task for many reasons, and inevitably, reality intrudes. It disrupts my balance; I trip and fall. And so the world is black and ruthless, and I’m tossed about like all the rest of the world’s restless souls.
This reality disturbs me greatly, simply because I know we are capable of better.
When I look at the UN, for example, I see great potential. The Food and Agriculture Organization in particular has a fantastic opportunity to influence the world in wonderful ways, by introducing sustainable techniques and site-appropriate crops and technologies. Sadly we see predators like Monsanto descend on developing countries promising riches and sustainable agriculture, while in reality killing the soil and devastating the genetic diversity of food crops nearly beyond repair.
The answers seem so simple, really: we take care of ourselves first, and when we create a system of plenty we are then in a position to help others.
Plato records Socrates speaking allegorically, in seeking the definition for justice. Despite the heavily-edited version of the translation, I believe I have managed to extract some of the concepts, which in turn remind me of a book I read 20 years ago, Habits of the Heart. Despite the odd description and reviews on Amazon, my recollection is that the study documented in this text explored the modern American’s concept of value. The authors undertook interviews, in which individuals were asked to explain their values, discuss how those values have changed over time, and define the word.
Although I do agree with some of the Amazon reviewers that the Habits… text is ultimately unsatisfying and, in itself, rather fuzzy, one of the interesting observations was that the interviewees considered their ethics as a matter of personal, not social, relevance. While this did not mean that the values espoused by individuals were necessarily anti-social, it did suggest why values changed over time as a response to the individuals’ situation in life.
As for Plato and Socrates, my understanding so far is that they believed that true values were fixed, concepts that did not change over time or at the whim of an individual. Unlike their contemporaries, and ours as well, they held that values are unchanging, intrinsic components of the essence of human. Of course, this is a terribly general explanation of what I am getting from my study thus far. More to come …
Having read an excerpt from Plato’s Republic for a history class assignment, I found myself very curious about the remaining text. My sister studied philosophy at university, and has kindly let me pilfer this very neglected section of her library. I snagged a copy of The Republic, a Locke text, some Camus, and a fun little book called The Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy (which actually belongs to her husband).
The other evening I settled in to begin reading, and was very surprised that I recognized some of the ideas. Yes, I had heard in school over many years and in many different courses that Western culture is replete with echoes of Socratic ideals. But to read the words on my own (albeit in translation), the enormity of this influence was truly astounding. I also found myself ruminating about universal themes, which is yet another reason for me to take yet another history course. Lovely thing it is, to have no end in sight to this wondrous journey.
So more (or rather, something) on The Republic will follow. In the meantime, I have learned a little something on the history of the paperback book from a fellow book lover. Given that all of the borrowed philosophy books are paperback, as are all of my school history texts, I was appreciative. Ciao for now, and enjoy.