Life has gotten much too complicated, runs a common complaint. We have to make decisions about so many things that once seemed automatic. These endless bits and pieces include decisions about which phone company to use, which college to attend and which major to choose, how to handle our pensions, and whether or not to buy corn-oil margarine at the supermarket.
But no sooner are complaints like that out in the open air than we are tempted by a reverse point of view. Can you imagine all of the ways in which we were once bound hand-and-foot by what now look like dubious authorities? Less than a century ago, we idolized “The Doctor” – any doctor – because that sacred figure wore a stethoscope and had a medical degree on the wall of his or her office.
The nickname for the monopolistic phone company was “Ma Bell” – which of course betrayed our tendency to identify such huge controlling organizations with the parents of our early childhood. And when advertisements told us that “statistics” had proven this or that, we seldom replied: “Statistics from where? Interpreted by whom?”
In the world of 1998, therefore, we move easily from complaining about our complicated lives to complaining about how cynical and divided a nation we have become. We feel loaded up with “the need to interpret.” And we seem trapped by a cycle that keeps upping our levels of doubt, encourages advertisers and promoters to keep upping their sophistication and their special effects, and moves us ever closer to becoming so skeptical that we can easily become bitter.
But there is another way of interpreting our current condition – one that ties it to a much longer historical cycle. There are times in human history when, at least as seen in retrospect, consensus seems to be the rule within particular social orders. Such moments often occur in decentralized rural societies whose prevailing patterns extend across relatively short geographical distances.
And then, sooner or later, such narrow intellectual and spiritual boundaries begin to look not just intolerable but artificial. After all, people begin to ask, isn’t there a larger world out there? And shouldn’t we find ways of accounting for it, making contact with it, and adapting to it?
At that point we embark on a paradoxical form of behavior, whose strategy of integration requires a marked growth in specialization. To get a better hold on an enlarging reality, we appoint detail-hungry explorers as our guides. They nibble away at our previous mental borders, and by doing so they begin to fill our minds with detail. A few years or decades or centuries of this, and we find ourselves feeling hopelessly cluttered. Life, we find ourselves nostalgically lamenting, was once so much simpler.
Historical examples of this process can easily be found. Citizens of the Roman Empire never quite let go of their yearning for the pre-imperial Roman Republic, when even the most effective soldiers were supposedly ready, once victory had been achieved, to return to their farms and their plows.
Our own desperate nostalgia for “roots” and “a sense of belonging” sound very closely related to what the Romans of the Empire felt when they contemplated all of the separate realities, from the island of Britain to the borders of Persia, that now purported to represent part of “Rome.”
Feelings like that intensified when Romans turned their attention to matters of religion, which now included a host of cults and sects while showing less and less interest in the official religion of Jupiter, June, Minerva and Mercury. Though few believed it at the time, the rise of political and theological specialization within a more and more theoretical Roman unity almost guaranteed the future emergence of a pervasive new order – the one we now call Christianity, which took a millennium or so to begin experiencing its own crisis of disintegration.
Another parallel might be the succession, in the Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries, of periods marked by “Enlightenment” and nationalism. Even as a Europe consisting of global empires came to be taken for granted, the fascination with a multitude of American, African and Asian peoples just recently discovered by European adventurers became ubiquitous in Western civilization. Major authors like Voltaire and Samuel Johnson turned naturally to these “new worlds” in order to criticize or satirize their own world.
They were emulated, in various ways, by a host of lesser cultural figures. Captain Cook’s published accounts of what he found in the South Seas included beautifully rendered illustrations of a host of people who looked wonderfully different from the inhabitants of London and Paris.
Meanwhile, the rising interest in scientific discovery, shared on an international basis, saw to it that less and less of what once seemed “obvious” could any longer be taken for granted.
As the world grew ever more complicated, the simplifying force we call nationalism held forth a dramatic level of appeal. During the Enlightenment, medieval monuments were often dismissed as “Gothic” – products of the backward period known as the Middle Ages. When such monuments could be seen as seedbeds of a national consciousness, however, they became synonymous with youthful energy and enthusiasm. And in one of the most dangerous maneuvers ever executed by the history of ideas, “barbaric” became an adjective of praise rather than contempt.
As we struggle with our own feelings of “too-muchness,” and are bombarded with information by the electronic and print media, are we getting ready for some new revival of grand generalization? That is the concern, typically, of all the columnists and commentators and talk show participants who pump the media up to ever-larger proportions. Of all the phenomena cluttering up our minds, they typically ask, which is the one that tells us the most about who we actually are?
We can’t seem to find enough things to care about. But our addiction to multiplicity makes unity an ever more desired experience. Those who try to find it by choosing a new religion often find, however, that their sense of skepticism is only temporarily left behind. Meanwhile, nearly every organized belief-pattern from the established churches to the established political parties and the established newspapers complains about not being able to hang onto its one-time participants or clients or customers, who have either lost interest or gained disbelief.
Caught somewhere between our hunger for philosophical integration and our hunger for specialized knowledge, we soon learn to identify pleasure with resistance. To enjoy a steak or a cigar, we have to ignore the latest discoveries about human health. To believe what our national leader claims is the truth, we have to look past the barrages of derision stimulated by his or her every utterance. We’re perpetually apologizing about all the knowledge we haven’t yet had time to assimilate – which is why we absolutely have to read the latest best-seller or attend the current blockbuster art exhibit.
Meanwhile, how deeply we long for the feeling of life as a comfortable cocoon, whose embrace protects us from sentiments of doubt. And wouldn’t the history of that sentiment make possible an eye-opening blockbuster exhibit?
-The writer is president of the George Washington University and professor of public administration.