Slaves of desire

Freedom is a meaningless word. It is cursed with such ambiguity in the modern era that it has lost all significance. It is without form because it it takes many shapes. Ask a thousand people what freedom means to them and you will get a thousand different answers. To the poor man it means being able to have enough money to quit a job he hates. To a rich man means being able to use his wealth however he pleases. It is bent by the whims of whoever interprets it.

Many take advantage of the sorry state of this word. It is a popular platitude for those who wish to been seen favorably in the eyes of others. Countless ideologies, movements, and politicians have hijacked ‘freedom’ as a rallying cry. Don’t like where you live? You simply haven’t been given enough freedom to escape it. Don’t like who rules over you? They are tyrants who have taken your freedom. Do you feel powerless to change your life? Don’t worry, it isn’t your fault, you’ve simply been oppressed.

Freedom is effective as a political tool simply because it shifts the blame away from the individual. It moves it on to shady cabals and devious oppressors who seek to destroy all of the good things in life. The problem is that these people simply do not exist. Every election and revolution starts out with the same premise: liberate the oppressed and crush the oppressors. The outcome is always the same. Not everyone can be “free”. Some men are born to rule and all others must follow.

In modern society, many see freedom as a synonym of permissiveness. It means the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want it. It does not matter how it effects the external world. This attitude can be seen every time nature is crushed to make way for a new freeway, every time a couple aborts a child to extend their prolonged adolescence, and every time politicians kick today’s problems further down the road for future generations to deal with. Let the good times never end. It’s not our problem. It will just go away if we sweep it under the rug and keep it there long enough.

To be free in this sense is a desire to live in a world without consequences. It is to be responsible for nothing except your own whims. This is a form of cowardice. Those who run away from responsibility do so because they are scared of it. It stems from a complete lack of self esteem. When you are responsible for something, it means you have the power to create or destroy it based on your actions. When one runs away from responsibility, he is essentially admitting he is not up to the task. He is afraid that by taking responsibility over something, he is more likely to hurt it than help it.

The tragedy of this mindset is that it destroys any possibility of having a meaningful life. If you look towards your ancestors and search for what gave their life a purpose, you will see that every great accomplishment required taking on a great responsibility. Whether that takes form in preserving a culture, defending their land from invaders, or making a home and raising a family in it. Modernity’s complete rejection of these values has created a vast wasteland without purpose. Reclaiming the world so it is full of meaning once more requires us to give up on the illusion of false freedom. Only then can we take responsibility for the things that matter most in life.

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The road to hell

August 9th, 1945.  A date as good as any to signify the start of the modern era.  It was the day the first nuclear weapon was used on a civilian population.  An entire city razed in the blink of an eye.  Thousands of lives snuffed out faster than it takes for someone to flip on a light switch.

The true tragedy of the atomic bomb does not lie in its potential for mass destruction.  Cities have been wiped off the face of the earth since time immemorial.  Women and children have  always been casualty of war.  The a-bomb is terrifying simply because of how efficient it is.

It once took legions of highly trained and motivated soldiers to destroy a city.  It would take days to spread the destruction with fire, put all those who opposed it to the sword, and round up everyone else in chains to be sold into slavery.  With the invention of nukes, a single man in a solitary plane became an unmatched killing machine.  He became a one man army who takes no prisoners and spares no wounded.

A nuke is the most modern of all weapons.  It’s the McDonald’s of bombs.  It brought the fast food mentality to warfare.  Grand in scale and deadly in its efficiency, it is simply the fastest way to fight a war. It removes human error and human weakness from war.  It does not matter whether he vaporizes a saint or a sinner.  Its only concern is that all is destroyed.

Since that day in 1945, the threat of global nuclear holocaust has loomed over the world.  Each and every person in modernity has it hanging over their head like a radioactive Sword of Damocles.  In an effort to ensure the safety of their own citizens, other nations started to acquire nuclear weapons. It had the opposite effect on the world at large.  The fear of annihilation only grew stronger.

Fear of global nuclear winter reached an all time high in the ensuing decades.  The two world super powers of the era constantly had to prepare for countless end-of-the-world scenarios.  Eventually, they both concluded the only sane policy for this new kind of warfare was one of mutually assured destruction.  It led both to stockpile a countless number of weapons that could incinerate the world many times over. All in the effort to deter the other side from ever using one.

In an act of supreme cosmological irony, not a single one of these weapons has ever been used.  The most sophisticated, powerful, and costly weapons ever made were created for peace.  They sit dormant in a missile silos and submarines all around the world.  Their only purpose is to rust away into obsolescence.

The psychology behind this farce is a symptom of the modern mind.  Nobody wants to live in a world that can spontaneously combust at the whim of a tyrant.  Yet, once nuclear technology was out of the bag, it could develop in no other way.

This mentality can be found in any undesirable development of the modern world.  Nobody likes living in a world were they have to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour.  It takes most people hours after a long day at work just to get home.  Any sane person would prefer to be able to walk to their job.  Before cars, almost everyone did.

Cars started out as a luxury item.  It was a fad for the rich alone.  It was merely a status symbol.  However, as the technology became cheaper and more reliable, the benefits of owning a car were plain to see.  Within the span of a generation, car ownership shot through the roof.  It transformed itself from a novelty into a necessity.

Cities changed to accommodate this new development.  As cars flooded the streets, the infrastructure need to be updated. Old buildings were demolished to make way for expansive freeways. As commuting by a car became the new normal, valued any other mode of transportation. It soon became impractical to walk, ride bicycles, or ride the train in many cities.

The voluntary of the past becomes mandatory of the future.  When the majority adapt a new technology, it becomes the path of least resistance for everyone else.  Each bit of progress seems beneficial to the individual but it ultimately backfires when it becomes adopted en masse. Modernity is the tragedy of commons on the grandest scale.

Modernity kills freedom

“If you could go back in time to any period in history, which would you live in?”  It is a common fantasy to imagine how one life would be different in a another time and place. Everyone has answered this question at one point or another.  Occasionally, someone will try to be smart with his answer.  He will object to the premise itself.  Why would anyone would want to go back? Living any time but now would be terrible.  Modernity is the only sensible time period to live in.  Progress has made all of our lives so much easier.

The core of the argument is that modernity offers all sorts of comforts and securities. The people of the past could only dream of what we have now.  Modern people lead longer and safer lives, just look at how much longer we live now.  Humans used to live short, harsh lives, struggling against the elements.

It was a matter of life and death for our ancestors just to find food, shelter, and clean water.  They had no rifles to defend themselves when dangerous predators attacked.  They had no restaurants to gorge themselves when on they were hungry.  There was no doctors to prescribe antibiotics to them when they got sick.  They must have been miserable.  It is no wonder that our ancestors only lived to middle age.

To any one with a cursory understanding of history, it is obvious this is an extremely narrow-minded perspective.  Even if one accepts his assumptions, the argument itself is flawed. It assumes that our ancestors lived shallow and unhappy lives.  It assumes that physical security and longevity are sole determinants in living a  fulfilling and meaningful life.  They are not.

This is plainly observable by noticing the amount of unhappiness still present in modern society. Progress has never brought about a utopia.  It has only brought security to the individual.  It has prevented much of the pain and suffering caused by hunger, pestilence, and the climate.  Instead, modern man must worry about problems on a global level.  He worries about pathogens and pesticides polluting his food and drink.  He worries about power mad politicians sparking a global thermo-nuclear holocaust.  He worries about overpopulation and pollution destroying the environment.

Modern man has just as much to fret about as his ancestors did.  The difference between the two is the scale of the issues.  Modernity has brought problems that are much harder to address.  No one person, tribe, or even nation can solve them any more.  For example, not even the richest billionaires on the planet have the power to solve world hunger.

As a consequence, the modern man has an overwhelming and deep rooted sense of powerlessness.  Compared to his ancestors, he can do little to influence the environment around him.  Where once a man could defend his family against raiders and thieves with his own weapons, modern man must rely on the police to protect them.  When a man grows his own food, he need not worry about what chemicals he was feeding to his family.  Whatever sense of pride and security man once got through self-reliance has disappeared with the introduction of modernity.

Any sane individual would want to live in a society where they can make a difference.  Powerlessness breeds depression and despair in everyone. Man gets a sense of purpose and contentment from setting attainable goals and solving them.  Modernity is the systematic concentration of the power of life and death to the hands of an increasingly smaller amount of people.  True freedom is known to less people today than any time in history.  The past wasn’t a horrible place to live and die, modernity is.

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.

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.