These past few days, particularly when out walking Max around the neighborhood, I’ve found myself falling into a cycle of repeating thoughts, somewhat dark in nature, about the larger arc of the human journey. To be sure, this might be partly credited to absorbing the impact of the recent election, but some introspection – even of the bleakest sort – can often serve as a benison to those feeling under the gun. To sum up the general theme here, the idea I keep circling back to is the following:
Mankind has, for most of the course of recorded history, demonstrated a marked propensity toward entropy.
I’m fully aware of how depressing that sounds at first glance, but it’s an idea which has been simmering under my fedora long enough to flesh it out a bit. I should also point out right up front that I’m equally aware how some of you – and you know who you are – are going to read this as yet another case of froideur, intent on disparaging liberals and Democrats and spinning up the whole Takers vs. Makers, 47% meme. It’s not, but I understand how easily it could be interpreted that way if that’s what you’re looking for. If so, you are excused to skip this entirely and head out to your next Obama victory party, Rachael Maddow book reading, unicorn hoof polishing clinic, or whatever it is you do in your copious free time. But back to the matter at hand.
I’m sure I spend far too much time watching History Channel specials or being dragged into my wife’s endless fascination with medieval Europe, but it seems to me as if humans have been in an endless cycle of success leading to self-destruction for at least the past few thousand years. Some of the classic examples include the Romans – when their spectacular success bred a society of those dependant upon bread, circuses and the conquered doing their work for them. The Egyptians reached a point where their victories resulted in so many slaves that daily struggle and work were vastly reduced. (And then they met the Romans.) The ruling class surrounding the court of Henry VIII reached a point where there was nothing to do but feast and debauch, leading to well known results.
It’s as if we’ve been living a millennial cycle resembling an early version of Groundhog Day. Societies struggle to rise up, they achieve sweeping domination, and then fall rapidly into gout infested decay. This is strictly anecdotal – I’m neither an historian nor an anthropologist – but we seem to be pre-programmed to be victims of our own success. When times were hard, the wolves or barbarians were at the door and you knew that there wouldn’t be anyone there to bail you out aside from your own family, community or church. People understand there is nothing for it at a time such as that but to fight like hell, work like madmen and discover a way to feed themselves, protect their own and survive. But as a group, we work to build societies where everything is safer, easier, and – just perhaps – a bit less precious to us.
And when there is an easy path to comfort available, we seem to produce a series of generations more than willing to eschew the hard scrabble grind to advance and settle for whatever may be easily obtained, even if the resulting lifestyle is nothing to brag about. Humans do indeed seem to fall into the “Type A” and “Type B” personalities which Friedman and Rosenman postulated back in the fifties, but it extends deeply into our roots. Any given moment in time will produce some who are driven to succeed and others who are willing to do what is needed to get along, willing to be led as long as their baseline level of acceptable comfort is maintained. But on the longer scale, the analogy appears to carry forward, generating sufficient individuals willing to keep on keeping on to sap the drive which built the cornucopia feeding the crowds at the arena.
We don’t have to look back to ancient history for examples, and this may put the lie to the commonly held claim that “the good old days were never that good, actually.” My grandparents were both born around the turn of the last century and they came up through the depression. Life was hard and they always reminded us of that. There were people dropping dead in the streets of now controllable diseases, no real safety nets when the economy collapsed and modern technological advantages were still far in the future. They farmed. They worked. They kept themselves fed even when there was no cash money for long periods of time. Their brothers and sisters also ran different types of farms and they traded amongst each other. And every time the fiscal world or society at large came crashing down around everyone’s ears, they kept going. And yes… it was hard.
But they had no choice. It was that or die. And they – along with the millions of others like them – were the people who spawned and raised The Greatest Generation. But now we’ve built a nation envied across the world as the –former – sole superpower with the highest standard of living the species has ever known. Fear of survival is largely a thing of the past, except in the most violent and deprived enclaves. But it’s hard for me to escape the idea that somehow we are once again beginning to stall.
Perhaps that’s why some of the longer lasting and hardest to uproot societies have been run by brutal despots. (Several incarnations of China come to mind.) The people were miserable and knew little of freedom, but they kept on slugging away to bring in the rice crop, put an arrow in the stag, forage for the berries or gleanings of grain… whatever it took to make it through.
I’m not wishing for another great depression, the lash of a dictator or a collapse of society. Far from it. But it’s difficult to ignore the historical parallels. Comfort seems to breed complacence, and complacence seems to seed the roots of decline. Is it just us? Is that simply how we’re built? It’s as if there’s a governor installed in our engines, allowing us to only accelerate just so far before the flow of fuel begins to squeeze off. I just hope that’s not by design.