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Revisiting the Present

Let’s set the scene. Over the past few centuries, the productive capability of humanity, which we can call our power over nature, has increased dramatically. The traditions grasping the societies that led this advance, and which can (to a certain extent if not entirely) be credited with its emergence and continuation, have spread throughout the world like wildfire. For the sake of argument, let’s call these traditions, which contain liberalism, utilitarianism, objectivism, support for centralised government etc., the “modern tradition”. Generally secular, scientific and light on moral direction, the modern tradition nonetheless contains its own canon of orthodoxy, stretching from Mill, Kant, Darwin and Rousseau into modern day scientists and philosophers. To deny the modern tradition any accuracy would be ridiculous indeed, yet to ascribe its success to this would be a limited conception. The power backing these schools must be taken into consideration, and it must be understood that domination can be a replacement for accuracy in many cases. Let’s say you have limited cash and need to decide between buying a toaster and a gun. You actually just want toast; but if everyone around you is buying guns, the latter option is what you’ll go for. The spread of the modern tradition can to some extent be understood through such an analogy.

This is why it has sat uneasy in so many parts of the world, prompting revivalist movements not simply due to pig-headed traditionalism as some would have you believe, but due to issues of accuracy and incompatibility arising from its hasty adoption. Indeed, to see the reaction to the spread of the modern tradition as the calcified resistance of orthodoxy is to misunderstand the reactionary movements- Salafism, Wahhabism, Hindutva, New Confucianism and Fascism are all new- not only in that they were structured in reaction, but also in that they diverge from what may have been considered orthodoxy before the battle with the modern began. Certainly harbingers of orthodoxy remain as bastions of the old order, and in some cases effectively do battle with the modern tradition; however, this is not always the case, and it seems more often that elements of the orthodoxy are taken to generate updated systems capable of effectively confronting the modern tradition. It is in part due to this that one sees many of those mentioned as highly militaristic and non-individualistic- as when facing a power of much greater force, one must martial what they have and subsume the individual within a more powerful unity. Many of the societies that place great value on communities do so in part due to the vulnerability of those communities. This is something often misunderstood by Western critics who see “individualism” as an obvious tenet of any rational tradition.

Indeed, one must only look to areas of crisis to remind themselves of the fragility of human civilisation. Living in the warm centre of humanity, the megalopolises of affluent nations, one may forget how the constancy of their surroundings is only reinforced by their perspective. Those on the frontiers of society, whether literally far from the urban centres or engaged in the base levels of production, from where inanimate nature is moulded into animate civilisation, will likely be better acquainted with the work necessary to uphold it. As such, where more work is necessary, greater motivation and constancy are generated through belief in the community, and sacrifice of the self in service of it- whether through limitation of criticism, diminished self-gain or obedience to strict hierarchy. One must recognise that these exist in all societies, and it is a question not of category, but of degree that differentiates them; and that the matter of the degree of risk of societal collapse may be part of the answer.

Returning to our main topic at hand, then, we may ask what issues of accuracy the modern tradition brings with it, and how they may be addressed. Now, again we must narrow our focus here, as there is a myriad of cases where incompatibilities based off of location may be brought up and discussed in great detail. I will not go into these- partially because they would only concern a few, and partially because, despite my criticisms, I am to some extent a part of the modern tradition and am more interested in its overall application. So, in keeping with the grand-scale theme noted at the outset of this paper, we can reshuffle the question to ask about the overall effects of the modern tradition, and the issues it has given rise to in more or less all its applications (eventually).

Our tangent on individuality becomes relevant at this junction, as it is in understanding the questions of ought that I feel the greatest troubles of the modern tradition lie. In largely abstaining from positive imperatives in its moral system, the modern tradition has left a gap in its doctrines- purposefully, it must be noted, as the hope is that the diversity of humankind will fill this gap by its own accord. Although this tenet may seem impossible to argue against from a perspective of moral humility, nevertheless when brought into application the muddled debates it brings about become apparent. The question that most of it boils down to would be this: if the gap is part of the doctrine, should it be defended? In that, the gap is left there due to moral humility and allowance of diversity. However, filling the gap would of course obliterate it, and so one must ask themselves whether the modern tradition is a part of a whole, or whether its abstention from moral teachings is a teaching itself. In the former case, having theological law would be in no ways counter to the modern tradition, as it makes no claims on positive morality. However, as should be obvious, most following the modern tradition would not stand for such a synthesis, and so it is largely the latter interpretation that rules supreme.

Again, this is a stance that may seem noble at first, but in its application reveals deep flaws. The police and the military are capable of brutality and war crimes, and indeed must be held entirely accountable for these. However, in their absence, and in the absence of any overarching power, the status quo will instead be the clash of many smaller factions, which not only increases warfare between factions, but also, due to lack of effective enforcement, allows for chaotic exploitation and abuse of those with less power. The state of enforced moral anarchism is similar. With the disavowal of overarching systems, what kicks in instead are simple, base, unstructured desires. Materialism, pleasure, social competition and other petty worries take over.

Now, one may ask what the issue with this is, and for that all we need to do is remember: humanity’s power comes from rational organisation and collective action, and fractured morality disavows both of these. It disavows rational organisation in that we are unable to distinguish between prudent and imprudent pursuit of desires, and so may drag ourselves and others into ruin chasing after pleasure. This is not to argue for an ascetic stance, but it should be clear to anyone that some abstention from certain pleasures and delay of others can, if nothing else, lead to greater pleasure in the future, and a longer life through which to experience such pleasures. If endlessly barraged by images, ideas, ads, shows and music directed at our more instinctual selves, it will be harder and harder to resist these portions of our being, whether due to hormonal reactions or habit leading to addiction.

As such, individuals deep within the modern tradition may find themselves unable to articulate visions that amount to anything more than pleasure, falling into nihilism, despair, depression and suicide. This is dreadful on its own, but the collective result of this is a society that grows to consume and has no goal in mind other than this growth for consumption. This is extremely dangerous, as there is no limit to its expansion, and no reason for it to hold back. It can cannibalise parts of itself, crush others under its feet and destroy its environment towards its goal, as the only part of it that is clearly articulated is its own survival.

If this sounds overly dramatic, one only needs to look at the state of the environment to see that it is a real concern with visible repercussions. Despite its heavy scientific background, the productive and practical side of the modern tradition, having grown largely from urbanised and centralised societies, has taken nature to be an infinite resource in its calculations, and so has ravaged it to no end in its efforts to grow and expand itself. And due to the lack of collective direction, there is little precedent or foundation at present through which to move the mass to act in a corrective fashion concerning the environmental issues that threaten us all today. We have, largely, forgotten how we are in connection with nature, and so many of the modern tradition’s stories, myths, heroes and moralities centre on the social sphere. See, for example, Kant’s categorical imperative: It gives no commands to a single adherent, but always works under the assumption of sociability. Or the themes in stories: often they revolve around social evil, or the evil humans do to one another; “we are the true monsters” they say as they forget the wolves and blizzards and sandstorms that threatened the lives of our ancestors. Today, however, mother nature returns once again, personified once more as she can no longer be disrespected as a passive resource, but must be reckoned with face-to-face. The modern tradition has no answer to this challenge, and at most can invoke future loss of comfort to move people. Comfort and instincts are not rational, however, and so are scarce moved by warnings about decades in the future, choosing convenience over dour duty.

What, then, is the cure to this ill? I believe it is the kind of foundational reform discussed earlier in the essay, one that shakes the assumptions and frameworks we live by to their core. Not, again, one that discards them per se, but one that tests them, and introduces what is necessary.

Yet the type of cure is extremely important, and as of yet non-existent. The local incompatibilities which I found myself ill-situated to expound upon have served to bring about many a reactionary, local response to the modern tradition, with variants of Fascism common among them. Despite how awful this may sound, one must give some right to these movements, as the enforced modern programme has caused different kinds of pain to different communities, and their eagerness to cut themselves off from the global system that so enforces it should be understood as a genuine attempt at correction. However, such a response ignores the grand-scale problem at hand, and the new issues that will arise from its success.

Such systems look to maintain the extractive and productive capabilities brought by the modern tradition, but independently correct other ills. First, this is a difficult task- not one that the myriad genius minds around the world cannot solve, but one that requires at least some trial-and-error nevertheless. The global system, despite its issues, functions, and does so through practice and extraction of information. Any replacement will either have to make use of the tools of the usurped, thus risking no substantial change, or catch up at breakneck speeds. Second, in maintaining the force but severing the connection, one places the components of the old system at growing risk of war; war which, with every decade of new technology, becomes closer to auto-apocalypse.

Yet the problem that is most important, not due to its urgency as the previous but due to its inevitability, is that in having to maintain or expand the production of the modern system in order to survive, these new parochial systems will continue to place the environment at risk, but also decrease the unity of the overall global system. This decreases its ability to collectively respond to this issue, and thus increases the chances that it will come to an unsalvageable point in the not-so-distant future.

The solution that must instead be pursued is one of a global tradition, one that forms a baseline of agreement allaying environmental issues, and then allowing for further disagreement and variety beyond that. This new tradition must hold a thorough understanding of our interaction with nature- not just from a mechanical point of view, but from a moral point of view. By this I mean that it must be couched in an overarching understanding of the imperatives of people and the reality of the inanimate, and how these are connected to one another. We must understand our responsibilities not only as extending to other minds, but to inanimate beings and systems as well. In order to do this, there must be a new understanding of what makes our minds minds, what sets us apart from the inanimate, and how nevertheless there is a connection between our motivations (morality, desire, belief etc.) and the events within the world of the inanimate.

This is what the new tradition must accomplish after accepted. However, to be accepted it must accomplish a second task: the synthesis of world traditions so that it is made intelligible to nearly all who come into contact with it. This must not be misunderstood as it being spoon-fed to different cultures as the same as their present religions; the change will be understood, and it must. What I am saying here is that it must be made clear how the tradition extends from the cores of their beliefs, and how they can come to the same conclusions themselves. If we imagine different people as being situated in their beliefs, what the new tradition must do is chart the paths to itself from all these locations.

And this must all be done with sincerity. If done cynically, in that each portion is independently constructed and then combined to make a tool that works for the given function, not only will it be inapplicable elsewhere, it will be unconvincing to those asked to adopt it. If one is not entirely convinced of the tradition’s truth themselves, how can they expect to sway the whole world with it? This new tradition must come from a genuine set of questions, provide a genuine set of answers, and then accomplish the prior two tasks as a result of these.

Let’s use an analogy to wrap up. Imagine a group of people, riding an extremely long-distance bus, driving on a really long, straight road. They put a brick on the accelerator, and then work together on how to make their ride more pleasant. They cooperate, argue, fight, make peace, and whether they like it or not, end up with various end results. All great- but what if the road swerves ahead? However gripping a question whether Gerald or Ali gets the last bit of jam might be, those folk need to wake up- and change direction. Better yet- if they can together decide on some driver, they can keep having their arguments without any more worry.

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