April 20, 2010
Tonight I grabbed a book off my shelf which I hadn’t found time to read: Authority And The Individual by Bertrand Russell. I definitely wasn’t disappointed. He had fascinating things to say about uniting mankind. He points us to the startling conclusion that very often it’s our common hatreds that unite us, that mankind’s instincts demand tribal warfare and competition, and that without outlet to such things no unity can ever expect to be permanent. He also asserts that the unity which exists in the our modern nation-states is mostly rooted in fear. I’m simply going to quote some passages directly from the book, and bold things that I found particularly important.
“Modern loyalty to the vast groups of our time, in so far as it is strong and subjectively satisfying, makes use still of the old psychological mechanism evolved in the days of small tribes. Congenial human nature, as opposed to what is made of it by schools and religions, by propaganda and economic organizations, has not changed much since the time when men first began to have brains of the size to which we are accustomed. Instinctively we divide mankind into friends and foes — friends, toward whom we have the morality of co-operation; foes, towards whom we have that of competition. But this division is constantly changing; at one moment, a man hates his business competitor, at another, when bother are threatened by Socialism or by an external enemy, he suddenly begins to view him as a brother. Always when we pass beyond the limits of the family it is the external enemy which supplies the cohesive force. In times of safety we can afford to hate our neighbor, but in times of danger we must love him. People do not, at most itmes, love those whom they find sitting next to them in a bus, but during the blitz they did.
It is this that makes the difficulty of devising means of world-wide unity. A world state, if it were firmly established, would have no enemies to fear, and would therefore be in danger of breaking down through lack of cohesive force. Two great religions — Buddhism and Christianity — have sought to extend to the whole race the co-operative feeling that is spontaneous towards fellow tribesmen. They have preached the brotherhood of Man, showing by the use of the word “brotherhood” that they are attempted to extend beyond its natural bounds and emotional attitude which, in its origin, is biological. If we are all children of God, then we are all one family. But in practice those who in theory adopted this creed have always felt that those who did not adopt it were not children of God but children of Satan, and the old mechanism of hatred of those outside the tribe has returned, giving added vigor to the creed, but in a direction which diverted it from its original purpose. Religion, morality, economic self-interest, the mere pursuit of biological survival, all supply to our intelligence unanswerable arguments in favor of world-wide cooperation, but the old instincts that have come down to use from our tribal ancestors rise up in indignation, feeling that life would lose its savor if there were no one to hate, that anyone who could love such a scoundrel as So-and-so would be a worm, that struggle is the law of life, and that in a world where all loved one another there would be nothing to live for. If the unification of mankind is ever to be realized, it will be necessary to find ways of circumventing our largely unconscious primitive ferocity, partly by establishing a reign of law, and partly by finding innocent outlets for our competitive instincts.
. . . . We now know that a life which goes excessively against natural impulse is one which is likely to involve effects of strain that may be quite as bad as indulgence in forbidden impulses would have been. People who live a life which is unnatural beyond a point are likely to be filled with envy, malice and all uncharitableness. They may develop strains of cruelty, or, on the other hand, they may so completely lose all joy in life that they have no longer any capacity for effort. This latter result has been observed among savages brought suddenly in contact with modern civilization. Anthropologists have described how Papuan head hunters, deprived by white authority of their habitual sport, lose all zest, and are no longer able to be interested in anything. I do not wish infer that they should have been allowed to go on hunting heads, but I do mean that it would have been worth while if psychologists had taken some trouble to find some innocent substitute activity. Civilized Man everywhere is, to some degree, in the position of the Papuan victims of virtue. We have all kinds of aggressive impulses, and creative impulses, which society forbids us to indulge, and the alternative that it supplies in the shape of football matches and all-in wrestling are hardly adequate. Anyone who hopes that in time it may be possible to abolish war should give serious thought to the problem of satisfying harmlessly the instincts that we inherit from long generations of savages. For my part I find sufficient outlet in detective stories, where I alternatively identify myself with the murderer and the hunts-man-detective, but I know there are those who whom this vicarious outlet is too mild, and for them something stronger should be provided.
I do not think that ordinary human beings can be happy without competition, for competition has been, ever since the origin of Man, the spur to most serious activities. We should not, therefore, attempt to abolish competition, but only to see to it that it takes forms which are not too injurious. Primitive competition was a conflict as to which should murder the other man and his wife and children; modern competition in the shape of war still takes this form. But in sport, in literary and artistic rivalry, and in constitutional politics it takes forms which do very little harm and yet offer a fairly adequate outlet for our combative instincts. What is wrong in this respect is not that such forms of competition are bad, but that they form too small a part in the lives of ordinary men and women.
Apart from war, modern civilization has aimed increasingly at security, but I am not at all sure that the elimination of all danger makes for happiness. I should like at this point to quote a passage from Sir Arthur Keith’s New Theory Of Human Evolution:
‘Those who have visited the peoples living under a reign of ‘wild justice’ bring back accounts of happiness among natives living under such conditions. Freya Stark, for example, reported thus of South Arabia: ‘When I came to travel in that part of the country where security is non-existent, i found a people, though full of lament over their life of perpetual blackmail and robbery, yet just as cheerful and as full of the ordinary joy of living as anywhere on earth.’ Dr. H. K. Fry had a similar experience among the aborigines of Australia. ‘A native in his wild state,’ he reports, ‘lives in constant danger; hostile spirits are about him constantly. Yet he is light-hearted and cheerful . . . indulgent to his children and kind to his aged parents.’ My third illustration is taken from the Crow Indians of America, who have been living under the eye of Dr. R. Lowrie for many years. They are now living in security of a reserve. ‘Ask a Crow,’ reports Dr. Lowrie, ‘whether he would have security as now, or danger as of old, and his answer is — “danger as of old . . . there was glory in it.” ‘ I am assuming that the wild conditions of life I have been describing were those amid which mankind lived through the whole of the primal period of its evolution. It was amid such conditions that man’s nature and character were fashioned, one of the conditions being the practice of blood-revenge.”
Such effects of human psychology account for some things which, for me at least, were surprising when in 1914 I first became aware of them. Many people are happier during a war than they are in peace time, provided the direct suffering entailed by the fighting does not fall too heavily upon them personally. A quiet life may well be a boring life. The unadventurous existence of a well-behaved citizen, engaged in earning a moderate living in a humble capacity, leaves completely unsatisfied all that part of his nature which, if he had lived 400,000 years ago, would have found ample scope in the search for food, in cutting of the heads of enemies, and in escaping the attentions of tigers. When war comes the bank clerk may escape and become a commando, and then at last he feels that he is living as nature intended him to live. But, unfortunately, science has put into our hands such enormously powerful means of satisfying our destructive instincts, that to allow them free play no longer serves any evolutionary purpose, as it did while men were divided into petty tribes. The problem of making peace with our anarchic impulses is one which has been too little studied, but one which becomes more and more imperative as scientific technique advances. From the purely logical point of view it is unfortunate that the destructive side of technique has advanced so very much more rapidly than the creative side. In one moment a man may kill 500,000 people, but he cannot have children any quicker than in the days of our savage ancestors. If a many could have 500,000 children as quickly as by an atomic bomb he can destroy 500,000 enemies, we might, at the cost of enormous suffering, leave the biological problem to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. But in the modern world the old mechanism of evolution can no longer be relied upon.
The problem of the social reformer, therefore, is not merely to seek means of security, for if these means were found provide no deep satisfaction the security will be thrown away for the glory of adventure. The problem is rather to combine that degree of security which is essential to the species, with forms of adventure and danger and contest which are compatible with the civilized way of life. And in attempts to solve this problem we must remember always that, although our manner of life and our institutions and our knowledge have undergone profound changes, our instincts both for good and evil remain very much what they were when our ancestors’ brains first grew to their present size . . . . A life without adventure is likely to be unsatisfying, but a life in which adventure is allowed to take whatever form it will is sure to be short.
I think perhaps the essence of the matter was given by the Red Indian whom I quoted a moment ago, who regretted the old life because “there was glory in it.” Every energetic person wants something that can count as “glory.”
Though there’s a lot to consider, I know for a fact that everything he said is true. When I look around me it’s everywhere.
I have a very religious family, and the things he mentioned about Christianity are completely true. Brotherly love is soon abandoned, and vehement hatreds arise for others based on petty doctrinal issues and things which aren’t even relevant to life. They love the sinner, and plead them to come to the loving arms of Jesus, but can’t stand the Baptists, because they don’t believe in speaking in tongues. They can’t stand the Church of Christ, because they say there’s more to being saved than just confessing to Jesus, there’s also works! They can’t stand Catholics, because confessing your sins to a priest instead of directly to God is just wrong.
Tribal warfare is given outlet in politics. Go to the Huffington Post and read the comments and what they say about conservatives. They can’t stand them. Republicans are called every name in the book. Then turn on Fox News and its the same thing but from the other side. Left versus right. Both sides gnawing at each other, despising one another.
To most everyone it’s just taking some side and being part of a group. How many people do you think have honestly compared Keynesian monetary policies to supply-side economics, and have seriously considered the effects of policies, analyzing each alternative empirically and historically? One in a million! The rest just join some tribe and want to fit in with the crowd. But even though they’re all clueless, they’ll still fight and argue, and call the others stupid.
The reality of the situation is that neither simple tax cuts nor big stimulus programs have been proven to consistently bring the economy back in line. But that’s not what the argument is even about. People don’t long for truth in religion or politics – they long to be a member of some tribal affiliation.
We long for tribal warfare. The other day I was in Wal-Mart and went to the video game section. I looked at the games we play to entertain ourselves, myself included. I was with my older brother and he picked up a game called “Modern Warfare” and he said, “You know, they say this is the second best selling game ever created.” What do you do in that game? Suit up, grab your guns, and battle one another in modern warfare!
I also saw World of Warcraft and Aion. World of Warcraft might well be the most popular game ever created. There’s millions of players. And what do you do in that game?
They literally transport you back in time, give you a club, and you ruthlessly go around slaying beasts for experience points. Then you take the skins and other drops back to town and sell them for gold. You then use that money and buy better equipment and fight each other. You’re divided off into two major factions, who combat one another and you’re awarded points for killing them.
You also can do quests for various NPCs (I think that stands for non-player-characters). And what sort of quests are you asked to do? You go gather wood for someone, hunt some animals and bring back the skins, or go slay some evil criminal boss hiding in a cave.
It’s incredible when you think about it. Even if many of us deny it and push it into our unconscious, we secretly dream of being cave men again; the life of the savage appeals to us.
Even with all the security our modern world provides us, we’re bored out of our minds – and as society continues to “progress” is this what awaits us? More boredom, and more vivid virtual realities living as cavemen?