This week’s missive by Nathan Gardels in Noema Magazine – about longstanding Eastern philosophical alternatives to Western Modernity – was thoughtful, informative and moving. “The Philosophy Of Co-Becoming: Ancient concepts of the relational interdependence of humans and nature are being revived.”
Indeed, without any doubt, Western notions of supreme individualism can exacerbate into toxic negligence toward the many ‘wholes’ of which each of us is a part.
Still – (and you knew that a ‘still’ would come from this contrarian!) – I am reminded that ‘by their fruits you shall know them.’
Sure, Western industrial civilization threatens to destroy all the Fruits of Nature… indeed, the planet we depend upon… unless that same civilization’s commitment to science, conscience, and relentless self-criticism – leading to the world’s first wave of major environmentalism – all prove adequate to mitigate those harms.
Above all – as I point out in Vivid Tomorrows – the West’s altered philosophy does not only have to do with individualism. It also transformed notions of TIME and of HISTORY.
During my time talking to students in China, I found that even those who loved science fiction also felt a profound ambivalence. Many of them fretted over admitting even the possibility that the future might be better. That people might learn from past mistakes and gradually improve. To them this seemed an implied insult to their ancestors! When I probed this reflex, each of them admitted wanting their own children to be ‘better’ and going to great pains and expense to make that so. I pointed out that – no doubt – their revered ancestors wanted that, as well. So how was it insulting to admit that they succeeded at their fondest goal? I number of the students stared back at me, wide-eyed, having clearly never thought of that.
What I came to realize: they were expressing the ‘Look Back’ zeitgeist that dominated almost all philosophies, across all of time! That there were Golden Ages in the past, when people were better and that things have declined since. And not just in the East, but almost all mythic systems across the globe, including the West. Even today, you can find it totally dominant among millennialists like those fervently praying for End Times.
But overall, there certainly has been a departure from standard reflexes, in the West. Indeed, other than individualism, the biggest philosophical change we’ve made – (though ignored by almost all philosophers) – has been to reverse the perceived Time Flow of Wisdom.
For example, we now know – from very clear archaeology, anthropology etc. – that there was never some grand, past golden age. Indeed, any Golden Age – if ever – will be something that we build… or our successors might… in the future. Hence the time reversal in perspective that some find daunting, even sacrilegious..
My second point has to do with history – that horrible litany of horrors across 6000 years (or much more), nearly all of it dominated by brutal males who repressed progress by crushing any possible hist of criticism or competition by bright sons and daughters of those below. Whereupon those lords hired priests and ‘philosophers’ to preach lessons of humility and acceptance to the masses.
Is individuality that much better? Not if it becomes the all-against-all insanity pursued by some… and that the West is denounced as promoting!
But it has never been so among a majority, even of Americans. Want evidence? Look in a mirror. Your own critical view toward excessively insatiable egotism and greedy hyper individualism is far more widely shared than you tend to (egotistically?) believe. Most of the pro-individualism messages carried by Western myths come accompanied by finger-wag lessons about “don’t be a jerk about it.”
And maybe seek a little wholeness with others… and serenity… while you are at it.
For more impudent challenges to assumptions we all suckled from movies…