Many great civilizations have collapsed. The Mongol Empire, the Roman Empire, Incas, Pharaohs and Sumerians – they all did not survive the times. The question therefore arises – what about us? Will Western civilization collapse as well and fall into oblivion and decorate museums?
Recently there has been more and more written about this question. There are book series and even at some universities centres for the study of existential risks. Goethe already remarked that ‘everything that comes into being is worth its perishing’. Of course we will not continue to exist as we do today. Much more important is hence the question of where we are going and what will become of us?
Here the question will be pursued to what extent our attitude to happiness could determine our future… and you will see that this question is essential. People direct their striving to be happy. But what is that, ‘happiness’?
The scientist Jane Loevinger has researched the social development of the human individual over many years and found that today, in the course of his aging process, humans are moving more and more away from the ideal of the hard-working, much performing and success-oriented human being, towards the self-realizing, less eager and thus ‘happier’ person. If one looks at the studies, however, one might think that what is called ‘becoming wiser’ could just as well be called ‘resignation’.
The first great fundamental works on the question of what makes people happy came from the Greek philosopher Epicurus (342 – 270 BC). Epicurus said that in order to be happy, humans should limit their desires, not keep running after new cravings and instead accept what is. Death would one day come for each of us, and with it everything would end. So it would be better to concentrate on being happy. Happiness as the meaning of life.
According to Epicurus, this also includes the fact of accepting that gods do not care about the humans and that there is no eternal soul. Moreover, Epicurus said that material possessions and social power did not make people happy. Happiness is not an achieved social ascent, but inner peace. This is achieved by renouncing desires, withdrawing from public life and cultivating friendships. Free from fear and pain.
As Loevinger hinted, more and more people today share this view of Epicure, even if they are not always aware of it. Many people talk about Buddhism, but if you do not believe in nirvana and transmigration, then you follow Epicurus and not Buddha. And this difference is essential. With Buddha you have to lead a good life, committed to society, so that the soul can progress on the way to nirvana. You do not have to do anything like that in Epicurus’ opinion. One lives, one dies and nirvana is reached.
The terms one hears about such approaches are many and they range from ‘individualism’ and ‘consume orientation’ to ‘self-realization’ and, in other words, ‘resignation’.
Fact is one thing: Epicurus’ philosophy has existed for 2,300 years … but it has not prevailed. While Pliny still worshipped him, Cicero already condemned him, the allegedly selfish newt. Dante even took him to hell in his ‘Divine Comedy’. The Epicureans died out.
Well, let’s ask the question differently. What if we were all to indulge in our epicurean contented future, accepting all differences and desiring? If everything were acceptable to us as Epicurean demands?
First of all, nation, religion and ideology become meaningless to us (and this trend is indeed increasingly present in the Western world).
- From now on we would think that we accept what is and are therefore all equal, so we no longer need nations.
- God does not care about us if he (or she) exists. So we don’t need any religions anymore.
- We all have different opinions, but only the withdrawal from public life and ideological discussions makes us happy according to Epicurus. So we don’t need ideologies anymore.
- We should desire less. So we don’t even need to work very much anymore, it’s enough if we can pay the rent.
That sounds good?
For the individual at the beginning, yes. For society, the peace of mind achieved by its individuals is however unfortunately destructive in the long term.
Throughout evolution humans have been able to assert themselves better than any other animal because they have been able to hold together in larger groups. This was possible for them through connecting, invented stories. These can be called religion, nation or ideology, however, they all have in common that they unite us in a common goal. If humans are no longer united, our society will fall apart. Unfortunately, everybody for himself also means above all, everybody for himself.
If a person is no longer committed to society, but only to himself, what will become of society? The first steps in this direction can already be seen today. Democracy is dying out. Not only because European politicians are making every effort to present every opposition as extremism and to undermine justice and the press. But also because no one is involved any more.
We are busy with being happy (or resigned, depending on what you call it) and have no obligation to society. Says Epicurus.
This may work as long as we have enough money for everyone and everyone has a job to take care of him/herself. But here comes a factor that we still cannot estimate. And this is called automation. There are experts, like Yuval Hariri, who believe that most human labor could be replaced by machines in the very near future. Self-propelled cars, drones as suppliers, automated supermarket checkouts. And so on.
What are we doing with a society where we want to realize ourselves, but where most people will soon no longer have a job?
And here a look back into the past is very instructive.
Already ancient Rome had the problem that the city was overcrowded with freed slaves from all over the world and with poor classes of the population that nobody ‘needed’. In order to ensure social peace, almost every second day was declared a holiday and grain distribution and games were organised. The famous ‘Panem and Circensis’ criticized by Juvenals. From then on the Plebs chose the politician who organized the best games.
Is that our future? Machines do our work, while we accept our destiny, rest and are ‘happy’…
Doesn’t this future seem a little threatening to us?
Not only because it is quite doubtful whether it will really make us happy to have no other purpose in life than to get free food. But also because the Roman Empire finally collapsed with a loud crash.
The money was no longer sufficient, social cohesion broke down, everyone could become Roman and everyone profited from something he didn’t really care about until everything went under.
Resignation is above all a response to social structures that make people dissatisfied and that cannot be changed. Epicure’s ‘happiness’ actually meant that the individual withdrew from society because it was not worth getting involved in it. Just like today, when democracy too often means choosing between two or three politicians, none of whom you want.
So question here. What holds our society together in the future when there is no longer any unifying ideology or religion? What binds the globalized society, which is becoming the same everywhere, in the struggle for survival? Certainly not the acceptance of everything that is and the withdrawal from public life.
Perhaps we ‘self-realizers’ will therefore quite simply fall victim to the laws of evolution, just like Epicurus’ teaching. Stronger ones will come who will wipe out the weaker ones, just as once in ancient Rome…
And then we didn’t even talk about the problem of climate change. Rome also perished because of crop failures…
This article is not negative. It is a kind reminder. Religions, nations and ideologies are not necessary, but something that moves and holds our society together is. Such as culture, morality and ethics. And this also includes the possibility of being able to change a society. Political parties should rejoice about any opposition instead of immediately condemning it as anarchists or extremists.
Better we throw political correctness overboard and start thinking. And always remember: the climate is changing, not the laws of nature …