Experts as much as imbeciles are wondering how a society as advanced as the modern West could be repeating so many mistakes of the past.
How, after everything we’ve learned about both prosperity and collapse, could we allow this to happen? After so many advances that have lifted many people out of poverty and oppression, after so much education, after so much enlightenment, how could we so willingly fall back towards barbarism?
Or, looked at from another perspective, how could we have allowed the benefits of education, enlightenment, and prosperity, to overlook so many people that they preferred to veto Western modernity than go on living with its advances?
These questions have concrete answers, but they also represent a profound misunderstanding of what human progress actually is. People believe – understandably, but incorrectly – that advances in education, science and enlightenment are in fact movements away from darkness and barbarism. They are not. They are advancements in our capacity to be educated, to use science for the common good, and to engage in an enlightened self-interest that supports the whole world. But they do not move us any farther from darkness and barbarism than we were when we started, because we contain them within us. Darkness and barbarism are never more than two or three steps behind.
Our institutions can never be better than our capacity to live up to them, and our capacity to live up to institutions – even to submit to them – requires a minimum threshold of self-control, fellow feeling, attentiveness, and discernment, in some combination. Otherwise, adherence to ethical norms is based purely on conformity, and like all fads can vanish when the next new thing comes along.
But self-control, fellow feeling, attentiveness, and discernment are not qualities that can be inherited and taken for granted. They must be constantly re-learned, both generationally and individually. And thus, no matter how far we advance, we are always just a short distance away from barbarism and collapse.
No amount of education, science, law, or technology, can ever change this dynamic. The refugees, the concentration camp survivors, the descendants of slaves, who say “it could happen here” are always right.
The question then becomes not how to structure a just political order, but how to create one that is self-renewing, capable of best preparing the next generation to drive back the laziness, selfishness, alienation, and historical amnesia which are the four horsemen of cultural apocalypse, always lingering on the periphery.
This post is part of a series which first appeared on my Patreon.