Sunday, November 25, 2012

Was It Worth It?

I'm reading Alan Watts' book The Supreme Identity again. It's one of his older works, and one of the best books I've read on metaphysics, because it is a very reasoned argument he makes, building up on some pretty solid premises. It's a pretty hard read, therefore, for both that reason, and the fact that he takes a lot of time explaining things, to try to make clear a subject that is inherently hard to talk about. I will also note that he wrote this while still an Anglican priest, and he admits in the intro that, because he was still "in the system" as it were, trying to match Vedanta and Christian theology, it is, perhaps, "somewhat torturous." Still I find it illuminating. Not a good intro to his writing, though. 

I'm on the part where he's discussing the Problem of Evil. I won't get into the arguments here, I haven't the time and it'd be better if you just read it (the whole book, that is), for I'm sure to ruin the argument in trying to simplify it here. But briefly, he argues for a God that, rather than being absolutely good, is the source of both good and evil (in the finite, relative realm), while Himself transcending both. Towards the end of the chapter he says something like how, from our limited perspective, evil seems absolutely terrible, yet, from the standpoint of the infinite, it is an integral part of the finite duality, and even the most atrocious acts are worth it, for the overall beauty of the whole Creation. He likens it to standing with your face pressed to a painting; stepping back, you suddenly see that those ugly shadows are what give shape, form, balance, and identity to the light and color.

Now, I talk a good deal on here about civilization and it's pitfalls. I've long sympathized with the Daniel Quinn/Ishmael position that civilization has been the cause of many of the negatives we see in the world today: war, poverty, starvation, disease, environmental degradation. These may exist at a basic level in all humanity, true, but civilization grows them to a scale unimaginable at that level.

So, has it been worth it? Much as we hate war and genocide, crushing poverty and tyrannical rulers, plagues and pollution and things like high art, advanced medicine, the internet and global communications, justify it? I have a hard time here. Human history has been a bumpy road, full of inhumanity and horrors that we in the West can hardly imagine, given our plush lifestyles. No living American has had a war happen in their own backyard, we really have no idea. Though there are systemic problems, the vast majority of us don't know true poverty, true starvation. These things are everywhere in poorer places, a vast suffering of masses of people. They would still be living at peace if it weren't for civilization, close to the Earth, in communities where no one is left behind. If it weren't for agricultural surplus, expanding populations, and urbanization, there could never be slums and shantytowns.

But I must admit it hurts my very heart to imagine a world without Ode To Joy. Whenever it plays, I feel like I want to burst with happiness, and tears often come to my eyes. Or Starry Night, by Van Gogh; my favorite painting. A perfect case in point, actually; the man, like civilization, was tortured and half-insane, yet look what came of it! Or, appropriate to today's topic, Edvard Munch's The Scream; a creepy painting, yet it stirs the soul. What about all the poetry, the great novels and plays, the elegance of higher mathematics? What about telescopes revealing the heavens, microscopes showing us worlds within? What about the rush of foreign money and help when a disaster strikes a place like Haiti? Before such a thing would be impossible, if ever we learned about the disaster in the first place.

One can narrow it down to religion, as they did in one of the Intelligence Squared debates. We all know of the bigotry, the crusades and jihads, the suicide bombers on buses, the gay-bashing and abortion clinic bombings, the strife in South Asia, the Troubles in Ireland. They are terrible. But religion has also brought us the stained glass at St Denis Cathedral, in fact all of the great cathedrals, mosques, temples, and shrines. Most of the art down the long centuries has been religiously inspired, if not overt iconography. And what about the joy and giving at Christmas, the pillar of Islam that requires charity, the ideals of love and brotherhood, compassion and kindness? It hasn't been all bad, you know?

Tribal equality is a wonderful thing, and clearly mankind evolved to fit that lifestyle. We certainly have problems squaring a tribal mind to a globalized world. Yet, we have grown, stumbling, into something more. Tribes are isolated, closed within themselves, extremely conservative and narrow. Today, we have ideals of universal brotherly love, individual freedom and innovation. Such things would never occur to a hunter-gatherer, because it is born out of the long march of history, which has slowly built upon our awareness.

Is this all we've become?
I'm also reading Lord of the Rings (I usually have several books going at once), and think of the elves in this case. Immortal, they watched as evil first came down into the world, and watched as many great and lovely things died or faded. At one point, Merry, a hobbit, states that he has never until this quest been outside his country, and, had he known the perils that awaited, he should not have had the courage to do so. Haldir, an elf, says in his reply, "The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater."

It grows perhaps the greater. The play of duality in the world is inevitable, and is what gives us joy and love, even if it also requires we know sorrow and hate. And of course, civilization is, and all this discussion is rendered moot by that fact. We are here, and there's no going back. Even if we had the deepest, darkest collapse from modern society, we would have the memory of civilization, would still almost surely continue agriculture, metallurgy, the use of animal labor, and other such advanced things. I doubt we could ever slide all the way back to the sort of natural tribal state that the Cro Magnon lived within.

I'm not sure we should want to, either. I've never been too sure about "spiritual evolution" but in some sense, we have in fact matured as a species. Many things have been discovered within ourselves that likely would not have been under the simple tribal conditions. We needed a more complex substrate, that of civilization, to bring it out of us. Emergent properties. We often do a lousy job exhibiting these higher things, of course. But they are there, waiting for each one of us.

To those of you who have read this far, I beg you to reply. This is one post I'd be very interested to have a discussion on, to hear your opinions and thoughts on the topic: Has it been worth the pain, to walk this road of civilization? Would we have been better off remaining stone age adepts, wise in a simple way, in tune with Nature? Or is it a good thing, in spite of all the hurt and horror, to have come this way, and to have found the more refined aspects of heart and mind?


  1. To quote my friend Scott Bradley, all is good!

    For me, it's not a question of remaining "stone age adepts" vs. evolving into a modern technological society. One is not better nor worse than the other. Each individual and each civilization follows it's own path and who among us possesses the wisdom to deign one more enlightened than the other.


    From a dialectical sense, evil must exist to make goodness possible. I think that, even if each of us was an enlightened sage, evil would still exist in the world. Why? Because as each person follows their own path, these paths would still collide! Where paths collide, there will be conflict and conflict is the foundation for what we refer to as "evil."


    1. I like the way you sort of widen the perspective there, Trey. Very true. However, though I'm all for a relative understanding, I don't think you can completely escape value judgments. Even you would agree: an egalitarian culture would surely be more enlightened than a capitalist one.

      But overall I agree with you here, especially your second paragraph. Thanks for your input.

  2. I for one feel that, despite the hurt and horror, that our advances (particularly the mroe refined aspects of the heart and mind, as you put it) have been mor ethan worth it. Thought-provoking post sir!

    1. I figure most people will agree. Hell, ask someone my age or younger...they've all grown up with hi-tech, and can only assume that a) this is good and b) it will only get better. We are trained to think that way. But while we advance in some areas, perhaps we fall behind in others. This is little talked about in our culture.

      In the end, as Trey alluded to, progress is a myth; cultures just develop one way or another. At the least, I'd like to see our culture accept that progress is not only limited to the material world, nor is material progress automatically to be equated with a rise in overall value.

      I think my argument comes down to the line in Jurassic Park, when Malcolm says "Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

      Thanks for for adding your input, I appreciate it.

    2. I actually remember the Jurassic Park quote well :) one of my all-time favorite movies!

  3. Perhaps it would be better to pose this question to some of the non-human animals that civilized humans share planet Earth with and see what their take is: the passenger pigeon, tasmanian tiger, the dodo, the gray wolf and grizzly bear over much of their former range. Those guys are kind of quiet these days so maybe include the Plains Indians and all their contemporaries as well in the list. I would imagine that their opinion of the relative value of a system of thought that is sometimes able to produce refined works such as Ode to Joy and The Scream but mostly just thousands of miles of paved Interstate highways, strip malls, and cookie-cutter tract homes filled with indestructible plastic crap would be different than most humans.

    1. This is a good point. Of course, this is why I wrote the post in general. I did mention environmental destruction and extinction.

      I guess the question becomes: can civilization be sustainable, is it possible to reap the higher things, the finer things, without being at root a mechanism for consuming the world, causing injustice, etc? Is the dream of the sustainability movement, permaculturists and social justice activists, is that all a pipe dream? MUST civilization be part curse?

      I've long been inclined to say yes, it is. Civilization is fundamentally about cities, which are in themselves unsustainable: they require more resources than is present there, so they plunder the hinterland. Also, concentrated populations tend to facilitate inequality, heirarchies of power and wealth, and all the corruption and evil that goes along with it (c.f. the Monkeysphere on Though, I'm not sure growth is a fundamental requirement of a (healthy) civilization. It may be, but I'd like to see that fact demonstrated. Growth being, of course, what really makes the plundering cities a problem.

      Still, I feel there's hope. If not, if TRULY not, we might as well give up now, off ourselves, or just get while the gettin's good, eh?