Friday, July 23, 2010

The Modern Thesis: The World Continually Improves

This modern thesis is in contrast to the ancient thesis that I talked about a while ago.  In brief, this modern thesis is our own story that we have continually told ourselves - it can probably be traced back to the Enlightenment, which in itself is a very optimistic term to use to describe any time period.  The story is that, on balance, things keep getting better, and will continue to get better.

Now, one can hardly argue against the fact that the world has continually progressed, that is, it has become better and better, for the affluent.  My life as a middle class white guy is better than the lives of middle class white guys in the past.  I enjoy more comforts than previous emperors, and will on average expect to live longer, with greater access to information and entertainment.  And that's even with massive student loans to repay.

Even though one could say that as a middle-class white guy I have lost power and privilege in the last 100 years by way of liberation movements among non-white non-guys, I maintain that this loss of privilege makes my life better, not worse.  The more privilige I lose as a middle-class white guy, the more the facts of my white-ness and my guy-ness mean less difference between my life and other lives, the better.  All things being equal, I would like to be able to live my life and not benefit from evil.  In my position, that means I have to lose privilege and others have to gain it.  Cool, let's do it then.

Even supposedly losing privilege, I'm pretty well-off, especially compared to those in a similar position who came before me.  As long as I maintain this self-centered idea of "progress", the modern thesis makes perfect sense.


"Though in this case, as I know nothing about British or American imperialism in the Far East that does not fill me with regret and disgust, I am afraid I am not even supported by a glimmer of patriotism in this remaining war.  I would not subscribe a penny to it, let alone a son, were I a free man." -Tolkien in a letter to his son Christopher in 1945


During Tolkien's writing career, from the 1930s to the 1960s, he took many opportunities to point out the problems with this modern thesis, and certainly never seems to have bought into it.  He saw the world as a place with progressively less green and more noise.  People worked hard for useless things and were quickly forgetting what was of value.  Machines that were supposed to serve us instead enslaved us.  Life became a commodity and beauty became subject to convenience.

I haven't encountered much in his writing that said he was primarily thinking of what we now call the "third world" or "two-thirds world" or "global South" when he expressed his dismay and disgust with modernity.  He was speaking from his own experience - fighting in a World War and coming home to his beloved England to see the countryside bulldozed and replaced with ugly buildings and concrete and polluted air.

Tolkien was not an environmentalist in the modern sense, though his ideas and values overlap with some of theirs.  He was something far more rare - a person who valued nature for it's own sake, apart from it's utility to human beings.  He mourned the death of trees as much as he did the death of beauty and craftmanship.

The real question is - stand in the middle of a vast, suburban gated community, and look around.  Then stand in the midst of a great old-growth forest and do the same.

Are we really better off trading one for the other?


"Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.  (Too often the hate is irrational, a fear of anything large and alive, and not easily tamed or destroyed, though it may clothe itself in pseudo-rational terms.)" - Tolkien in a letter to Jane Neave, September 8-9 1962

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