Many great civilizations throughout history have met their demise, including the Mongol Empire, the Roman Empire, the Incas, the Pharaohs, and the Sumerians. The question then arises: What about our own civilization? Will Western civilization also collapse and fade into oblivion, becoming mere artifacts displayed in museums?
In recent times, there has been an increasing focus on this question. Book series and academic centers dedicated to the study of existential risks have emerged. Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked that “everything that comes into being is worth its perishing.” Of course, our existence will not continue as it is today. What matters more is the question of where we are headed and what will become of us.
In this regard, an exploration of our perception and pursuit of happiness becomes crucial. People strive for happiness, but what does “happiness” truly mean?
Researcher Jane Loevinger has extensively studied the social development of individuals over the years and found that, as humans age, they tend to move away from the ideal of being hardworking, achievement-oriented individuals towards becoming self-realized, less driven, and thus “happier” individuals. However, when examining the studies, one might argue that what is often called “becoming wiser” could just as easily be labeled as “resignation.”
The first profound works on the subject of human happiness emerged from the Greek philosopher Epicurus (342 – 270 BC). Epicurus believed that in order to attain happiness, individuals should limit their desires, refrain from constantly pursuing new cravings, and instead embrace contentment with what they have. He acknowledged that death would eventually come to each of us, marking the end of everything. Therefore, it was better to focus on finding happiness in the present. Happiness, according to Epicurus, was the purpose of life.
According to Epicurus, this also meant accepting that gods did not concern themselves with human affairs and that there was no eternal soul. Moreover, he argued that material possessions and social power did not bring true happiness. Instead, happiness was found in inner peace achieved through renouncing desires, disengaging from public life, and cultivating meaningful friendships. It was about being free from fear and pain.
As Loevinger suggested, more and more people today share Epicurus’ perspective, even if they may not always be consciously aware of it. Many people discuss Buddhism, but if they do not believe in nirvana and transmigration, then they are following Epicurus, not Buddha. And this distinction is significant. With Buddha, one must lead a virtuous life and contribute to society for the soul to progress towards nirvana. In Epicurus’ view, no such requirements exist. Life is lived, death arrives, and nirvana is attained.
There are many terms used to describe such approaches, ranging from “individualism” and “consumer orientation” to “self-realization” or, 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 …
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