Horizons

Human lives span on average seventy years. The content of those years – our values, pursuits and ideas – can have a much longer timespan. From the moment of our birth our mind is filled with human constructs that, in some cases, have originated thousands of years ago. We live in the present, but the ideas that began their life in the past form the ground upon which those lives operate.

For example, the Christian religion, which plays a vital role in many people’s lives (whether they know it or not), has its roots in the Jewish Exodus a thousand years before the birth of Christ. The values advocated by this religion, especially its later stages, now make up the foundation of Western liberal democracy – i.e. the idea of the equality of all men, an alien concept in a world of caste and rank. Our philosophy goes back to ancient Greece, to Aristotle, to Plato, to Socrates and to thinkers before them. Our politics goes back to a constitution created by Solon of Athens in 6th century BC, which laid the first foundations of democracy. While we interact with modern concepts, sometimes far evolved and remolded from their original forms, those forms nevertheless have their origins, just as the body of a tree owes its existence to the tiny seed.

While a human life may span only a few decades, its existence takes place on a much wider platform. In contrast to animals that carry their adaptive attributes in their genes, humans are able to store ideas externally, e.g. though stories, through writing, through other recorded media. In this way, patterns of thought are able to survive outside of our biological bodies, spreading to newborn as readily and constantly as the rays of sunrise flood our eyes come morn.

But while ideas can be replicated and shared outside our biological bodies, they can only live and evolve within our minds. The sum of the ideas we are exposed to and carry within us is our civilizational horizon, a horizon that does not remain static but rather shrinks and grows depending on the amount of effort we place into our learning and the state of society around us.

Politics, culture and technology all affect the size of the horizon of a society. Capitalism, under liberal democracies, allows individuals to realize their dreams and passions, resulting in rapid growth of production and technological innovation. At the same time, capitalism focuses its energies on promoting maximal consumption of its production, resulting in ever evolving forms of advertising that aim to shape the wants and desires of the populace. Additionally companies under capitalism tend to produce most of what the majority value most, resulting in a continuous degradation of value. The reason for this is simple. Taste and intelligence are acquired traits, and by this nature limited. To build for good taste and intelligence is thus to artificially limit your market. Catering to low taste and base intellect is more lucrative for the sort of people who wish to make more money than value. It need not be said that not all producers have this focus, but the presence of the incentive is enough to lead to a positive feedback loop in which the satisfaction of base desires leads to even baser desires. When the young person’s taste and intellect has no incentive to rise, it will remain where it is, or sink.

Does a different form of society remove the incentive that creates this feedback loop, the incentive to pander to base tastes? In a way, but it brings with it an equal or greater amount of trouble. Under aristocratic societies most of the people were so poor that consumer society simply could not exist. There was no mass market. Machine mass production did not exist, neither did the distribution network, advertising network, or a middle class with enough disposable income to be able to buy your goods. Things of worth were ordered by the higher classes, the aristocracy, which had developed tastes and intelligence. Certainly it is not the case that the aristocracy always had good taste or good intelligence, but this was an educated class and there was a desire for developed taste. Where a mass market good panders to the desires of the mass market, goods produced in the aristocracy were made to reflect and conform to the ideas of a school of art prominent at the time of their creation. Taste was thus not an impulse but rather an idea that took generations to develop.

I need not enumerate the problems of aristocracy here. My point is not about the political system, but rather, its effects on the cultural artifacts produced in it, and in turn, on the minds of the people who consume them. An artifact produced in time of a school of art has the effect of opening the eyes of the viewer upon a civilizational horizon. The viewer is put in relation to an idea, in relation to the history of a people, and sensing this relation they begin to feel their place in a larger whole. A Gothic arch, a Byzantine column, a Renaissance relief are all little shards of great intellectual and cultural forces that led to their creation, all tiny pieces of a civilizational horizon. Coming into contact with these works makes the horizon felt, at least subconsciously, and forces the viewer to elevate themselves to the level of the horizon, to expand the scope of their vision.

Today we have technologies of ever faster consumption, of ever smaller messages. People communicate using just 140 characters, and while such channels were originally meant as a supplement, they are now displacing other media. As people get used to the shorter messages, it becomes more difficult to construct and follow through longer thoughts. Following the path of least resistance they abandon long form media, preferring the ease of the short message. In turn the text messages themselves give way to pictures and short video clips. The problem is not that this medium is somehow inferior – it certainly has its uses – it is that continued use of this medium makes long form writing and reading too difficult and thus unattractive. What is originally a supplemental medium ends up replacing other forms where there is higher friction, i.e. where more effort is required to use them.

Thus, the blessing and curse of capitalism. If all you had around you to consume were books, you would either read them, or you would not. You would either learn and elevate yourself to the level of your civilization, or you would remain ignorant. Logistical limits imposed on society in earlier times and under different political regimes meant that the creative output of a society – its art and its ideas – was low in quantity and high in quality. The same creative output under modern liberal democracies is substantially larger in quantity and, on average, worse in quality. Works of exceptional talent and genius may still be produced, but they are simply drowned in the sea of the base. Consumer society has no civilizational horizon. Living in such a society has the effect of shrinking one’s civilizational horizon, for what fills one’s mind on a daily basis is not a perennial idea or ideal but a world of ephemeral fashions and trends wrapped around a utilitarian core. A life of distraction before death.

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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