The shallow revolution

Bread has been a staple of the human diet ever since the first societies formed in the neolithic. With the cultivation of wheat, people needed an easy way to process and consume it. Many different forms of bread were developed to meet this task. Its basic function has always remained the same.

Go to any store in North America and you will see an aisle devoted to bread. In it, you will see it in dozens of different brands and packaging. It will appear in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. The medium of baking has had a long time to develop its product. You will see some bread from local companies that cater to the customs of the region. You will also see bread from foreign lands. Bread that was unheard of in the general population only a few generations ago. Ask an American what roti or pita is back in the 1950s, and you would get an odd stare or two.

There will be one kind of bread that stands apart from all the others. Without doubt, it will be the most widespread, advertised, and prevalent bread in the aisle. It is simply known to many Americans by the characteristically generic term ‘white bread‘. While bread itself might be as ancient as agriculture, this incarnation is relatively modern. The first forms of white bread can only be traced back to less than a century ago.

Before the 1920s, most bread in North America was cooked either at home or at a bakery. When white bread hit the scene, it became an instant hit. The appeal was in how it was made. It was mass produced in a factory. Every loaf was the same- no matter when or where it was bought. It was cheap, easily made, and instantly recognizable. The bread was the ultimate product. Unlike bread before it, it was pure, uniform, and tasteless.

Needless to say, Americans ate it up. Soon it became synonymous with bread itself. Until the counter-culture of the mid-century, one would be hard pressed to find any negative attitudes about it at all. With the advent of hippies, suddenly eating whole-grain artisan bread became an easy act of rebellion against the corporate system.

Like all revolutions, it eventually died out due to the sheer impracticality of the change it advocates. Corporations can easily adapt when their bottom line is starting to be affected. Within a few short years, a multitude of new brands with old-world names started popping up on supermarket shelves. If you looked close enough to the label, you can still see the same huge, publicly traded, multinational corporation is making it. It tasted slightly different, came in more eco-friendly packaging, and cost a few dollars more.

This is the nature of change in modern society. It is only skin deep. The new bread that hippies gobbled up was essentially the same. It is still made in the same factory along side plain, old white bread. It still uses the same chemically bleached flour. It is still is about as nutritious as paper.

Unless the modern system of production becomes vastly different, this is about as much change as one can expect. Without understanding the past, future generations will be doomed to make the same futile mistakes. Modern rebellion is about as tame as it comes. It is only about appearing to be rebellious rather than actually making any sort of real change. Modernity offers any lifestyle you might want to live- so long as it is the same as everyone else.

Honor the unknown

Ulysses was pleased at being made thus welcome, and said “May Jove, sir, and the rest of the gods grant you your heart’s desire in return for the kind way in which you have received me.”

To this you answered, O swineherd Eumaeus, “Stranger, though a still poorer man should come here, it would not be right for me to insult him, for all strangers and beggars are from Jove.”
-The Odyssey, Book XIV

Imagine being stranded in any modern city. There is a chill in the air and nightfall is approaching fast. It is a city foreign to you. You have no acquaintances to call upon and no money to rent a room with. People are quickly emptying the streets and heading homewards. You can try to stop people to ask for their help or advice but most will simply move on and ignore you. What other option is there available to you but to find a sturdy park bench and hope you do not freeze to death in your sleep?

Every city is filled with thousands upon thousands of well heated rooms. Many of those are unoccupied, yet they are closed to you. You might as well be asking them to jump off a bridge with you. Most denizens of the modern city know what kind of person is not able to get shelter for himself. He is sure to be dangerous and insane if no one else will put up with him. The gated communities, doormen, and complex electronic security systems can be found at almost every well-to-do residence in the city; they exist simply to keep you, and others like you, out.

Hospitality seems to be a foreign concept in modernity. It was once one of the highest virtues. It stood side by side in the minds of the ancients with high morals such as truth, justice, and courage. Paganism in every corner of the world valued hospitality as a cardinal virtue. They are central themes in they’re most important and enduring art. Many parts of Homer’s epics, the sagas of the Norse, and the song of the Bhagavan make little sense without first understanding how they viewed the importance of hospitality.

At the core of the virtue is respect. It is readily apparent that the guest should be thankful and respect the host. He is providing the guest with shelter and warmth. Without his kindness, the guest would be deprived of basic comforts. He is imposing on another for the sake of himself.

Hospitality has another side to it. It also includes the respect the host shows the guest. The ancients knew this and saw it as equally as important. They often thought of this concept through the lense of paganism. In the terms of the gods, the hospitality of mortals often played a central part in myth. Odin and Zeus are the perpetual wanderers and traveled in disguise in many myths. The ancient perspective saw travelers as a possible an incarnation of one of their deities. If they turned them away, they could be risking the wrath of the gods. A wanderer could still be a dangerous mortal. He could still be maniac that could harm you, but the ancients understood that he could bring great fortune.

Modernity has no such respect for guests. It sees no use for anything out of the ordinary. No one, modern or ancient, can truly tell the character of a guest. The stranger always brings with him the unknown. A guest, especially the foreign, is often an inconvenience and unwanted. It is not easy to provide for another, even for a short while.

The difference between modern and ancient society lies in how they each address the unknown. Ancient societies rose to the occasion. They met the inconvenience with good nature and optimism. Most of modern society simply lacks the courage and endurance to deal with hospitality properly. Any time modernity is confronted with responsibility of any kind, it deals with it in the same way- an annoyed sigh and a vacant shrug.

People often bemoan modern society as being too distant and impersonal. Modernity increasingly deals with people from behind a computer screen or speaker phone. Barriers against the outside world are put up in the form locked doors and gated communities. Real connections between people are few and far between. Perhaps the first step to making the modern world a more livable place is to relearn the ancient value of hospitality.

Living backwards

The modern world is vastly different than all eras before it. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of history can it is very different than all that came before it. One only has to look at the past and look around at societies of today.

For thousands of years, the population grew at a stable and sustainable rate. It has since exploded at an exponential rate. The world has magnitudes of more people on it. Modernity has pushed the life span of the average person to near double what it was only a century ago. Where only the strong and prosperous lived into “old age”, it has now become the commonplace.

War used to mean meeting the enemy on the open field and killing each other in hand to hand combat. In modernity, war has many meanings.  It can now mean wiping out entire cities with intercontinental missiles carrying high yield nuclear warheads. It can mean controlling unmanned aerial vehicles behind a computer screen to wipe out dozens of people in a tactical yet indeterminate air strike.  All with the push of a button.

Buildings in modern cities are now taller than all eras before them. Each year that passes brings a new record holder for the tallest.  Bridges can now cover distances that unfathomable before. We can broadcast a thought to the entire world in an instant. It once took a single letter took years to reach the other side of the globe. Clearly, modernity has brought humanity to new heights of progress.

However, progress is not a given. Imagine an Italian peasant in the 9th century. Looking in his village, he could see ruins of an empire that came before him.  The architecture contained therein was clearly beyond anything his own society would be able to produce. The buildings were stronger, more beautiful, and more enduring. They were the product of a society long past.

These great ruins were built by his ancestors. The society that created them inhabited the very lands he now does. This society possessed something that his does not. This wisdom was lost long before he was ever born.  All he can do is look at the ruins.  He can do nothing that can replicate their past grandeur.

The peasant’s society has lost the technology that was used to create the ruins. The word technology comes from the Ancient Greek tekhnologia. It is comprised of the roots tekhne, meaning skill, and logia, meaning study or practical application. A literal translation of tekhnologia would be the practical application of skills.

This is what most people mean when they speak of progress.  They mean modern technology.  The skill to create new and ever more complex tools.  The ruins once held a significant purpose to the society that built them.  To the peasant, they only serve as a remind of what once was.

Modern man can look back to the accomplishment of his ancestors as well. The accomplishments of the ancients are many. While modern buildings might be taller, modern warfare more deadly, and modern travel faster, there are still many great things that modernity has ignored in pursuit of technology.

Modernity focuses on the tangible and the immediately recognizable.  In many cases, it has sacrificed much to achieve this.  When modern man looks at an impressionist painting, hears a romantic opera, or reads an ancient novel, he will experience something similar to what the Italian peasant felt looking at the Roman ruins.  He knows they are something that his society cannot reproduce.  For all of the progress of modernity, it still lacks the essence that made past societies great.  Until modernity learns this, all of its technology is doomed to triviality.  Technology is forever a means, not an end in itself.

Pull the plug

I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet in law ought any man use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death, if a man is willing to say or do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs deeper than death.

-Socrates, Apology of Socrates

I went jogging a few days ago. I do this every Sunday morning.  I’ve found that I am much like a dog; I need to be let out every so often to prevent me from becoming restless.

It was a cold morning, well below freezing and windy.  This made it a bit harder to motivate myself to get out.  I had to remind myself about it isn’t so bad once you start moving. Proper clothing helps a great deal.

On my way to the park I usually jog in, I pass underneath a freeway.  As I approached the overpass on this morning, I noticed something out of the ordinary.  I was able to see several makeshift beds at a distance.  They were mostly comprised of old rags for blankets, cardboard for mattresses, and random junk for pillows.  The “beds” all lined up in a row.  There must have been five of them on either side of the sidewalk. The makeshift hovels were crammed into whatever small shelter the overpass provided.

In a split second, my reptile brain alerted me.  I thought about changing course.  It told me it would be easy to find another route around this encampment.  I overrode this thought just as quickly; there has been little in my past experience these kinds of people that would justify fear.

Within seconds, I had passed them.  It is hard not to feel pity when faced with such destitution only a few feet from you.  The cold only exacerbated it.  They were barely recognizable as humans underneath the mountains of filth they piled on themselves to stave off the immense cold.  It was evident they had very little on their mind besides warmth.

Almost as suddenly as they came, these thoughts were pushed out of my mind.  It is hard to keep much focus when battling the elements with a pounding heart-rate.  It wasn’t until I was winding down and heading homewards did my thoughts return to the huddled masses underneath the overpass.

They clearly weren’t living a good life.  The essence of pity is empathy.  Empathy stems from being able feel what another feels.  Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I was certain I would never be in their situation.

They live a life beyond what I consider worthwhile.  Long before I ever reach that point, I would either force change upon my self or choose death.  I value living well too much to have it any other way.  Life for only for life’s sake is repulsive.

Modern society often takes the opposite view.  In almost every action modernity makes that deals with life and death, this is no distinction does not show itself.  Too often do people exist as former shells of themselves in nursing homes; they are simply waiting for death.  Universal healthcare is seen as a basic right; all must be taken care of at any cost.  Thousands of patients in hospitals around the world are dead to the world living in a vegetative state; they are only alive to the machines that give them a pulse.  The sole imperative of this mindset is just to keep life going at any cost.

The distinction between life and a good life is where difference between heaven and hell begins.  Societies with any sense at all instinctively know this difference.  Where absolutes rule, madness reigns.

Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind

Once, as I was botanizing under an oak, I found amongst a number of other plants of similar height one that was dark in color, with tightly closed leaves and a stalk that was very straight and stiff. When I touched it, it said to me in firm tones: Let me alone; I am not for your collection, like these plants to which Nature has given only a single year of life. I am a little oak.

So it is with a man whose influence is to last for hundreds of years. As a child, as a youth, often even as a full-grown man, nay, his whole life long, he goes about among his fellows, looking like them and seemingly as unimportant. But let him alone; he will not die. Time will come and bring those who know how to value him.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

There are many different kinds of people.  Some are rich and some are poor.  Some are powerful and some are weak.  Some are lasting and profound and others are only a flash in the pan.  We can all see these differences.  They are right in front of us and impossible to deny.

It is much harder to see the potential in people.  To be able to see what someone will become requires a great deal of insight and forethought.  It requires you to identify the character of the person, what drives their wants and desires, and their ability to transform that will into reality.

It is impossible to know these in total for anyone.  Very few people can see what the future holds for someone.  Most people even have a hard time knowing their own path.  These characteristics that determine the trajectory of a life manifest themselves differently for every person.

To really get to know someone requires time.  The longer you know someone, the more you can understand what really drives him.  A bit of their soul shows itself with every action he takes.  Each choice that is presented to him hints at that greater force that determines their potential.

If his ambitions are shallow, you will see him being controlled by his whims.  He will move from trend to trend as his fancy dictates.  He will sample everything but stick to nothing.  Since he is bound to none, his roots will never take hold long enough for him to grow anything beyond a weed.

Someone determined and in control of his own path will show his nature through his actions.  Every time the hard path is taken over the easy is a chance for him to grow stronger.  Whenever intelligence and foresight win out over the temporary and pleasurable, it is a glimpse at his future greatness.

Modernity does not value the great.  It values the common.  It values quantity over quality.  This predilection for the cheap and unlasting corrupts everything its roots seep into to.  We see it in our politics whenever a demagogue gains power through pandering.  We see it in the economy whenever we apply for a job that will be filled by the unskilled simply because they will work for less.  We see it in each landfill that gets filled with useless plastic junk made in overseas sweatshops.

Modernity makes no exception in how it values people.  Those that thrive in this environment are the parasites that thrive in the muck underneath rocks.  Those that are fruitful and multiply in such a world are merely a reflection of it.  They will continue to do so as long as the strong allow it.

Ultimately, this worldview will crumble.  It only promotes that which does not last.  It will not last either.  It can only reap that which it sows: destruction.

Society without sense

“Do the ends justify the means?” Throughout most of human history, there was no doubt to this question.  One simply has to look at how the actions of ancient societies to see that the ends always justified the means.  For most of their existence, humans were very similar to the rest of wildlife on earth: they were focused on survival above all else.

Another way to phrase this common question is simply to ask whether consequences of an action are more important than the reasoning behind it.  Anytime necessity of survival shows itself, there can be no doubt.  Morality becomes plain when it is a matter of life and death.  That which allows for continued survival is good, that which harms is bad.

Survival is no longer a hard task for anyone.  Even the most unfortunate amongst our societies can scrap together a meager living from the pity of others.  Abundance is the rule, not the exception.  What becomes of our morality then?  Our primary mandate from nature has disappeared.  Should not the morality that drove each decision disappear then as well?

This is clearly not the case.  If anything, modern society has become filled with more preachers of morality.  Nature abhors a vacuum.  We see people telling us how to we should act each time we leave our homes, turn on a TV, or go on a social network.  Yet, this sort of moralizing seems to fulfill another purpose entirely.  More and more, we are told to do the right thing rather than to be the right thing.  Modernity has taken away our purpose for survival and replaced it with the goal of appearing to have a purpose.

With each generation that passes, society continues to move farther away that which initially drove us.  Each new generation has its own causes and own morality.  In the United States, their are two prominent moral issues that appeal to the latest generation more than anything else.  If you ask almost any young adult their opinion on marijuana legalization or gay marriage, you will see almost complete consensus for both.

In each case, there is an almost complete reversal of opinion from prior generations.  Where once people saw gay marriage as against families, a basic building block of any society, the youth today see as an issue of allowing love and equality.  Pot was once seen as unproductive.  It was a drug that prevented any motivation.  Now, it is seen as simply another outlet for recreation.

Regardless of your opinion on these matters, the great shift in opinion is something to take note of.  In each case, the argument against the issue was based on the outcome that both of these behaviors caused.  The argument for each issue is now based on the intention behind each action.  The opinion has shifted away from judgement and towards personal freedom.

Judgement requires a purpose.  To deem an action as unwanted, it must first be understood as detrimental to some goal.  Societies require this goal to be shared amongst the populace for a consensus to arise towards any judgement.  Modern morality can be described as the complete lack of this shared consensus.  As each year passes by, consensus will continue to wear away until no one will be able to be judged for any action.

Ultimately, this is how societies perish.  Societies are formed as a way to encourage a set of behaviors beneficial to all members.  A society that is unable to judge is a powerless society.   Nature and her consequences no longer have any bearing or meaning.  This It is the ultimate form of collective hubris.  A society without any values is a society detached from reality. A society, like any living organism, that does not respond to reality will eventually be proven wrong.  There is only one outcome for those that choose not to heed nature’s rules: death.

No man’s land

The current turmoil in Ukraine seems to be a popular topic for discussion. Almost everyone has an opinion on it.  The spectacle of a country on the brink of descending into complete chaos is simply too much for people to avoid.  It doesn’t matter if it is Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, Libya, or some other far flung corner of the world.

As long as it isn’t in their backyard, most people will not try to gleam meaning from it.  It is nothing more than something they’ll hear on the news once a day for five minutes and then regurgitate it for small talk later.  The depth of their interest stops at tired platitudes about freedom, democracy, and the pointlessness of violence.

The central issue here is buried under a constant need to re-brand it.  These conflicts all share a common thread. They are simply fighting over who has the right to control a land.  It is a theme that has been repeated ever since history began.  It is the most basic question any nation can ask itself.  There are those who might try to shift the discussion away by discussing its implictions and effects.  They will do anything and everything to try to frame it as something more than a basic struggle for power.  They are simply trying to subvert others from getting any real meaning out of it.

Crimea is only the latest development in this.  Both Ukraine and Russia claim it as their own, and both have legitimate historical claims to the land.  Crimea has been peopled mostly by Russians throughout the majority of modern history.  It has also been politically part of Ukraine for the last 60-odd years, and Ukrainians have always been a sizable minority.

What is happening in Crimea today is something that happens to every borderland at some point in their history.  There are two valid claims by two distinct nations. There is only one land.  When tensions rise, land becomes a precious thing.  It can only belong to one people.  For this reason, no two people can ever inhabit the same land without eventually coming into conflict.  Sooner or later, it becomes a zero sum game. Either they win or you do, there can be no compromise.

What is most troubling about modern attitudes towards this sort of conflict is the selective memory everyone seems to have about it.  A casual stroll along the halls of history turns up example after example of these zero sum games.  Why does Tibet represent a great injustice done by China but the name Konigsberg evokes nothing?  Why does Israel belong to the Jews after thousands of years but Asia Minor belongs to the Turks after pushing out the Greeks only a few hundred years ago? Why are Kosovo and South Sudan propped up as independent nations where as Taiwan is left in national limbo?

The answer lies in knowing the power of a narrative.  It can determine the destiny of entire nations and billions of people in the present and future. Those that control  history of a land also control its future.  Look at who controls the narrative, and you will find who is in power.  Look at how the narrative is being told, and it becomes all to easy to see why it is being told that way.

When you look at these conflicts with this in mind, the question of who rightfully owns the land becomes trivial.  It belongs to the strong.  The land has no inherent owners.  Nature could care less about what flag is raised over any square inch of the earth.  Boundaries between countries are only lines on maps until we make them something more.  They can be shaped by anyone who has the will to do so and the power to back it up. As soon as a people lose reason to fight for a land, it is only a matter of time until it is no longer theirs.

Narratives and platitudes about justice and rightful ownership only exist as a tool for this purpose.  Most will blindly accept the official story pushed by those in power without any question.  It’s only further proof of powerlessness modernity produces.