The insights in this entry are based on my readings of two 18th century thinkers of cultural pessimism: Jean Jacques Rousseau and Giacomo Leopardi.
Why things fall apart
Beyond the structures of knowledge, past the artifices of ideas, and beneath our concepts is a chaotic mass of change, where all is flux, nothing remains constant, including our affections or attachments to these inconstant things – for they also vanish and change as well. Our desires or dreams or wishes are elsewhere; tomorrow, yesterday, but not today. Dour pessimists credit the source of suffering with existence in time, for man is a time-bound species. Although it is possible to experience brief, fleeting glimpses into transcendence – timelessness – only animals experience constant timelessness, and perhaps the preconscious ancestors of the human race as well. While animals do experience age and death, they are blissfully ignorant of this. They do not change – and with much simpler lives, they are also much happier. Their ignorance of time wards off thoughts about the future or the past. The ability to compare ourselves to our memories or visualized future allows us to reflect and invent plans to improve ourselves. Being conscious of time, however, turns us into slaves in our dissatisfaction with ourselves, constantly comparing us with others, competing consciously or unconsciously. The majority of our pleasure is speculation in which we discuss and daydream about pleasure, but not experience it. Since our senses are already soaked with our speculations, once we arrive at the actual moment of the pleasure we’re already looking ahead/back to the next/previous instance, the sequel/prequel to what Just Happened. Being time bound prevents us from directly experiencing the present.
As the background condition of existence, flux constantly undermines the human desire for happiness. This condition is bemoaned or condemned, but undeniable and unalterable. More importantly, we actually expect different – that we are not wretched by necessity, only by accident. We presume that happiness is within reach, or that we are entitled to it. Yet the universe has no fundamentally rational structure, which means reason is futile in the search for a means to adapting to or even controlling some of the more destructive effects. There is no permanent structure to the universe – thus it cannot be the object of cognition. We are capable of great feats (engineering) when we reason from firm foundations but even they are impermanent. Just as much the person suffers from the instability of his or her attachments, the species suffer from the impermanent and aloof universe.
Irony of history
While human suffering might have emerged within our existential status in time it also has progressed through time, through history. Where Enlightenment thinkers celebrated the progress of human reason and its establishment as the dominant paradigm in society, this process also held a dark undercurrent of disenchantment, where disillusions built upon disillusions that left us wiser but sadder.
At first, time is the source of disillusion, where our childish hopes are disappointed and we consequently reason in order to help ourselves. But this is a slippery slope where each accomplishment we pull off postpones and intensifies our original desires.
Dissatisfaction increases within each step upward on the rung of the ladder of reason and we see more of (and further into) the ultimate emptiness. The first to fall are our hopes, then our ideals, and finally, the ideal of hope itself. We are in constant pursuit of Truth, which is also unwittingly our own destruction – much like Oedipus’ tragic fate.
Jean Jacques-Rousseau points at the development of the capacity for reflection, when the human mind can conceive of itself as its own object, the emergence of the “I,” as the catalyst that changed humanity from mythical children to modern individuals. He argues this catalyst was the fertile ground for language and the faculty of perfection, where language is the means for reflection and perfectibility was the result.
Reflection is “born of ideas compared, and it is their variety that leads to their comparison.” (Origin of Languages 92)
It is from our late perspective that we view our early form of discourse as mythology, in which fantastical tropes and poetry were employed. At that point language allowed us to become capable of representing ourselves as objects of our own cognition, and initiate the faculty of perfectibility. Both self-consciousness and time-consciousness are interrelated. Perfectibility requires a capacity of imagination where we imagine ourselves as other than what we currently are, and imagine a future or a past different from the present.
Language gave us the ability, an arena to conceptualize ourselves beyond the realm of the direct sensations of existence, but it remains subject to the vicissitudes of time.
The emergence of human reason is tied to the history of language:
“The study of philosophy and the progress of reasoning, having perfected grammar, deprived language of its vital and passionate tone that had originally made it so singable.”
Early language was poetic and much more dependent on vowels, tone, accent, rather than consonants or “articulation” to convey meaning, and much closer to music than chatter. This natural beauty of early language coexisted comfortably with the undeveloped state of reason, but once reason evolved, language changed too. Ideas became more standard, more socialized, and our thoughts became less individual. Our feelings, different from person to person, could be expressed by emphasis or pronunciation, but our ideas are common and expressed in uninflected language. This change heralded the birth of writing, where accent and speech patterns disappeared for the sake of clarity.
“Writing, which might be expected to fix language, is precisely what alters it… It substitutes exactitude for expressiveness. One renders one’s sentiments in speaking, and one’s ideas in writing. In writing, one is forced to use every word in conformity with common meaning.” (Origin of Languages 79)
As language becomes increasingly monotonous and objective, reason, with greater precision, in turn achieves greater degrees of distinction. This progress is brought about by perfectibility: the more we bring into focus for ourselves, the more we can identify and change those elements of ourselves we don’t approve of. The increasing objectification of man is coexistent with the increasing preoccupation with physical things (property, our bodies and others). Yet this only replaces the early man’s conditions equality and independence of property with modern conditions in alienation, inequality and unfreedom.
Thus, this perfectibility becomes ironic where the appearance of the perfection of the individual is the “decrepitude of the species.” Modern language has deemphasized authentic individuality for the sake of a precise and common means of communication and the idea of man becomes a tyrant that oppresses the original diversity of individuals. Here, we have exchanged reality for appearance where language has developed to the point that it prefers itself to the reality it represents.
Perfection, in the end, is alienation from our authentic individuality, and we continually attempt the futile effort to assimilate ourselves to the Idea of humanity enforced by our language.
Unable to value ourselves w/o having language reflect that value, our own self-assessments are replaced with common assessments that made public esteem valuable, and Rousseau claims this was the step towards inequality. We attempt to reinforce and justify our self-image with objects (property, physical adornment, public opinion) that themselves decline once they are acquired.
Modernity is the final stage where we have lost ourselves. We live in a society of golems in which we seek goals assigned by our masters, but these masters have vanished and we no longer remember our roles in this transformation.
Once simple and happy, we became educated and complicated, and profoundly unhappy. The capacity of reason, despite its promise for mastery over the conditions of existence, actually exacerbated the unpleasant effects of time-bound existence.
The ironic history has created a society that is riddled with more ironies. While society is apparently diverse, our existential condition is monotonous. Our lives appear pleasurable, but they’re full of self-inflicted destruction. We appear free but we’re actually shackled with illusions.
Illusion of freedom
Although happiness might not be within our grasp, a certain freedom might be, if and only if we could set aside the search for happiness aside. They are distinct, although we constantly mistake them for one another, and the faculty of reason is no golden brick road to either land.
Rousseau denigrated stagecraft as mere illusory artifice, an exercise in insincerity. Despite its aesthetic intentions, it proves the dominance of appearances in modern society. The perfect social person is capable of impersonating someone else. If there were no self-alienated people, modern society wouldn’t be able to produce skilled actors.
Moreover, the varieties of emotions stimulated by plays, movies, or television programming are only mere chimerical stand-ins of feelings that take place with events in the real world. The artificiality of theater/stimulated images on the screen in turn causes the audience less able to connect their emotions with the events of daily life. The colorful, complex, and intricate world of theater/film conceals the emotional emptiness of real life, and replace its authentic relationships with caricatures of characters and its parodies.
Our increasing obsession with fashion is evidence of decadence in modernity. Leopardi depicts fashion as the little sister of Death. That trends replace each other seem to imply diversity and change in modern society is only illusory, for it commands social power over individuals, forcing them to conform to popular modes of expressions, and its frequent change conceals a hollowing-out of human experience where we delude ourselves with self-mutilation, i.e. Too-small high heels, garter belts, not to mention tattoos and piercings.
Fashion, much like movies, is a deceptive device of society that appears to promote individuality, but in practice, it actually diminish the differences between people. It produces illusion of freedom and self determination, while subjecting everyone to social pressures. The need for the intense and altogether artificial joys signify the degeneration of man.
Just as the diversity in modern life is mere appearance, the ideal of happiness is also illusory, a will o’ wisp, the ignis fatuus of society. Neither philosophy nor science has delivered its promise for happiness. Early man had simple desires and easily satisfied by needs (shelter, food) whereas modern man’s desires became multiplied and made immaterial with language and reason, which are mistaken as tools for satisfaction of desire.
What of the Socratic knowledge as foundation of virtue and happiness? The universal acceptance has warped the modern approach to life. Philosophy has no power to reverse time, the sole cause that avoids the pernicious effects of philosophy itself. Even gods cannot reverse time. Therefore, the effects of knowledge are permanent.
The philosophers who claim that unhappiness is merely a byproduct of error and ignorance, that it can be remedied by knowledge and study, thereby freeing man from the yoke of nature, are the most deluded of all. Unhappiness is not based on the inherent evils of philosophy, because time is permanently linear. Reason is not the culprit, for it is subject to time, much like any other cognitive ability, which disguises unhappiness with the appearance of achievement. All modernity consists of a mass self-delusion, in which contemporary society consists of a parade of fantasies of self-authorship.
Is there no solution to the capricious whims of almighty fortune? Is Machiavelli right that the fate of the species lies no where else other than within the power of fortune? There is no mastery, no secret to changing the world?
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