Because of the strong secular faith instilled in us by education, most of us trust that science and technology, democracy, and capitalism, the three legs of Modernity, can bring about only good ends and fail to see that these three triumphs of humankind can diminish the human person…
With the publication of the book The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward Wilson, the preeminent entomologist and the founder of sociobiology, I learned that at least one person on the planet still believes in the possibility of a glorious future for humankind. Undaunted by the century of death, unshaken by Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and the Gulag, and perhaps mesmerized by the ever-rising arc of science and the abundant fruits of a market-driven technology, Dr. Wilson claims that we humans can “turn Earth into a paradise both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth.”
Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that Americans are attuned to “the ideas of progress and the indefinite perfectibility of the human race,” but more likely, Dr. Wilson voices the optimism that accompanied the philosophical foundation of modern science. Once upon a time, intellectuals believed that after the darkness and ignorance of the past were thrown off, a new era, the Age of Man, enlightened by reason and science, would result and the happiness of humankind established on earth. Francis Bacon, the principal architect of experimental science, prophesied in the New Organon (1620) that the “real business and fortunes of the human race” depend upon “those twin objects, human knowledge and human power;” genuine knowledge would give power to command nature “for the benefit and use of life.” For Bacon, the goal of science was to make humankind the master and possessor of nature, much as Adam was in the Garden of Eden, so men and women of goodwill could restore Homo sapiens to Paradise on Earth. Given Hiroshima and climate change, those happy days of living in that illusion are gone forever.
That we now know that every program to establish Paradise on Earth ends in disaster does not mean that the enthusiastic optimism of Enlightenment thinkers must be replaced by Nietzsche’s “pessimism of the future.” Instead, we can turn to the wisdom that Sophocles enunciated 2,500 years ago: “Nothing that is vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,” wisdom that implicitly recognizes that no perfect social order can be created.
Much as we recoil from the thought, some past great transformations of human living diminished the person; or as Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, concluded from his study of history, “When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects.” Until recently, anthropologists and historians extolled the cultivation of plants as the key element in the long tale of human progress; however, like all fundamental technological innovations, the introduction of agriculture initially had, and perhaps still has, detrimental effects on human life.
The Agricultural Revolution occurred about 10,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers were slowly replaced by farmers and herders. Before the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals, the Paleolithic diet consisted of uncultivated plants and wild game exclusively, a diet high in fiber, protein, and micronutrients, in contrast to the modern diet rich in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats. The “diseases of civilization”—cancer, atherosclerosis, and diabetes—“cause 75 percent of all death in Western nations, but… are rare among persons whose lifeways reflect those of our pre-agricultural ancestors.”
Jared Diamond, an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, has called the Agricultural Revolution “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” He cites one straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from ancient skeletons found in Greece and Turkey: “The average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’9” for men, 5’5” for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of only 5’3” for men, 5’ for women.”
Over the past 200 years, “improved housing, sanitation, and medical care have ameliorated the impact of infection and trauma, the chief causes of mortality from the Paleolithic era until 1900, with the result that the average life expectancy is now approximately double what it was for pre-agricultural humans.” But surprisingly, the doubling of life expectancy resulted mainly from the decrease in infant and childhood mortality. A study of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies in the twentieth century revealed the most frequent adult life span was 68-78 years, not the often cited forty years or less.
The major effect of the Agricultural Revolution was that the cultivation of wheat, rice, corn, and potatoes produced an abundance of calories that led to large populations; cultivated crops yielded far more tons of food per acre than wild roots and berries. Without agriculture, cities and empires would not exist. Historian Yuval Noah Harari argues, and Dr. Diamond concurs, that the cultivation of grains enhanced the collective power of humankind but worsened the life of the average individual. For example, the elites of ancient Egypt built pyramids, while the peasants dug canals, carried water buckets, harvested emmer wheat, and lived on a diet inferior to their Paleolithic ancestors. “In exchange for all this hard work,” Harari says, “most peasants got a far worse diet than hunter-gatherers, because hunter-gatherers relied on dozens of species of animals and plants and mushrooms and whatever, that provided them with all the nutrients and vitamins they needed, whereas peasants relied on usually just a single crop, like wheat or rice or potatoes. And on top of that, you had all the new social hierarchies and the beginning of mass exploitation, where you have small elites exploiting everybody else.”
Because of the strong secular faith instilled in us by education, most of us trust that science and technology, democracy, and capitalism, the three legs of Modernity, can bring about only good ends and fail to see that these three triumphs of humankind can diminish the human person.
The social hierarchy of Medieval Europe was founded upon the ownership of property. Peasants comprised eighty-five percent of the population. No doubt, if I had been born in Medieval Europe, I would have been a peasant legally tied to the land I worked, in effect owned by the Lord, the landowner.
In America, the landed gentry was left behind in Old Europe along with the social hierarchy. My parents, Romanian gypsies, born in a Transylvanian village and raised in thatched-roofed houses with dirt floors, heeded the inscription on the Statue of Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Like the millions of immigrants before them, my parents worked hard, scraped together a few dollars, started a business, failed, and started all over again. But they never gave up. Their hard work and dogged determination finally resulted in financial success.
Unlike my parents, I have never experienced the constraints of a landed gentry, an established church, or a class based on birth, nor the controlling hand of paterfamilias; consequently, I was free to choose any course in life I desired. At one colloquium at Los Alamos National Laboratory, I glanced around the room and tallied that at least ninety percent of my fellow theoretical physicists came from poor to modest economic and cultural backgrounds. In Medieval Europe most of us would have been peasants, maybe a few tradesmen, and perhaps one or two seminarians. The only intellectual path that would have been open to us was through the Church.
And now for the curse. The individualism of democracy gives us the freedom to pursue whatever we wish at the cost of isolation from our fellow citizens. No matter where we Americans are, even when in a familiar group, we always feel a vague sense of estrangement and loneliness, something unknown to Old World Europeans. Many popular songs express the aching pain and empty feeling of social isolation. You feel more alone with more people around, Bob Dylan agonizes. Where do all the lonely people come from? the Beatles ask. In 2008, with the financial markets near collapse, Dutch photographer Reinier Gerritsen went down in the New York City subway system to capture the mood of commuters. He found subjects often filled with sadness and despair. Almost no one was smiling, exhibiting Tocqueville’s prediction about the future citizen of America: “As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in himself and for himself.”
The most frequent callers to suicide hot lines are not the suicidal but the lonely who desperately want someone to talk to. The loneliness industry with its singles bars, dance clubs, and Web-dating services caters to those who feel isolated or abandoned. Suzanne Gordon, author of Lonely in America, observes, “When people are desperate for companionship they will do things they would not ordinarily do, go places they would not ordinarily go, and listen to promises that they would otherwise find ridiculous.”
The lonely often experience feelings of worthlessness and failure that they cannot publicly admit to in a success-oriented culture. Love, in such circumstances, is seen as a way to escape loneliness. One young executive complains, “I don’t think anybody in the world really cares about me or what happens to me. I get so goddamned lonely. I just want someone to care about me.” Another young man says, “You want to know what it’s like being single? After a while you get tired taking night school classes just to meet lonely people. I guess you get bummed out and kind of lonely. I’m getting married soon. It certainly will be a relief.” But using another person to escape from loneliness seldom works out. From years of counseling, psychologist Rollo May points to why many marriages founded on the desire to overcome loneliness spawn negative emotions: “Spouses expect the marriage partner to fill some lack, some vacancy within themselves; and they are anxious and angry because he or she doesn’t.”
One young woman explaining her divorce said, “I felt lonely but couldn’t identify it as loneliness. How could I be lonely married to the love of my life?” The romantic illusions of courtship often disappear after marriage: “By the time we got married, it was like there was no reason to try to impress, entertain or charm anymore.” Another divorced woman agreed that the thrill of courtship did not carry over into marriage: “When you’re dating, you put more effort into yourself and the other person. Then after you’re comfortable for a while, things start to slip; you’re not quite as nice. At least I’m not.” A recently divorced man confessed, “I was flat out the world’s worst husband. I was inconsiderate, I was selfish, I was utterly self-absorbed.”
Much promiscuity that on the surface appears to be hedonistic devotion to pleasure is driven by intense loneliness. For many people, sex is a way of making human contact, of breaking through the barriers of the isolated, autonomous self, if only for a night: “Hence the many heartaches on waking up the next morning. Two people in bed who would probably hate each other under any other circumstances,” confesses a thirty-two-year-old San Francisco lawyer.
Despite loneliness and failed marriages, Americans crave privacy and independence. In suburbia, for instance, houses are often designed to isolate persons. Homes are separated from each other by distances that guarantee privacy. My sister lived in an upscale development in Orange County, California, where every house was surrounded by a high wooden fence that sealed off the house and its inhabitants from the next-door neighbors. My sister did not know one of her “neighbors.” Because of their desire for privacy and independence, Americans are subject to a loneliness not possible in other cultures.
Much of contemporary American writing is almost wholly concerned with the question of loneliness. Think of the magnificent short stories of Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, where each person comes into the world alone, travels through life as a separate individual, and ultimately dies alone. Many, if not most, modern writers assume that aloneness is the human tragedy, the condition of all humankind. Novelist Thomas Wolfe understood the intense loneliness of his life as universal: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people… we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.”
As far as I know this is unique to modern Western literature. Certainly, the human tragedy in Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles is not aloneness. The Chinese scholars I consulted informed me that in Chinese literature the only kind of loneliness is that which arises when lovers or families are separated. Professor Francis Hsu said that in China “there is absolutely no expression of the idea that aloneness is the essential condition of man.” Thus, the widespread loneliness in America is a cultural phenomenon instilled by individualism.
In early America, before the Industrial Revolution, material desires were limited by nature and handcraft production. But the two elements of capitalism—free markets and the division of labor—changed everything. As Adam Smith emphasizes in his book The Wealth of Nations (1776), the division of labor greatly increased the productive power of the worker. Rather than defining the division of labor, Smith gives the example of a pin-maker. An unskilled workman could perhaps make twenty pins a day. With the advent of industrialism, the task of making a pin is broken into simple operations, with each workman skilled in performing one or two simple steps. “One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations.” In this way, ten semi-skilled workers “could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day.” If each worker completed all the tasks by himself, then the ten workers at best could make only two hundred pins. Thus, the division of labor increased production by 240-fold! No wonder Smith extols the division of labor as the greatest innovation in material production, ever.
Without the “great mass of inventions” that flowed from science and technology, capitalism would have ground to a halt once markets were saturated by an abundance of goods. To continue to exist, the capitalist economy must constantly produce new consumer goods, not unlike a shark that must keep swimming or die. New inventions and technologies continually produced new goods and thus previously unknown desires, and in this way, we were all placed on the treadmill of desiring more and more.[*] Two hundred years of capitalism in America created for the wealthy and the poor a superabundance of goods. The typical Walmart Supercenter carries 142,000 different items. A shopper at Kroger or Whole Foods can buy blueberries in December grown in Chile, fresh flowers flown in from Colombia, and organic lamb imported from New Zealand. Computers, TVs, and cell phones are everywhere, in the ghetto as well as aboard yachts.
And now for the curse of capitalism. The division of labor contracts the interior life of the worker. In his movie Modern Times (1936), Charlie Chaplin brilliantly portrays the effect of performing one repeated task in a manufacturing process upon a person. In an early scene, the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is an assembly-line worker who tightens bolts on machine parts as they pass by him with clock-like regularity on a conveyer belt. His tasks require mechanical, repetitive motions. During a short break, the Tramp cannot stop his arms from continuing the jerky, rhythmic movements of nut-tightening.
In the late afternoon, the boss orders an increase in production. The conveyer belt speeds up, and the Tramp makes a valiant attempt to keep up with the machinery, but it is impossible. He goes berserk and lies on the conveyer belt to tighten the nuts of the pieces he missed as they went by him. Dragged into the machinery, his body stops the gears and cogs of the monstrous machine. The production line reverses, and the Tramp emerges in a trance, still with his two wrenches, now raised high. Everywhere he sees nuts that need to be tightened. He even chases two women whose suit buttons resemble the nuts he had been tightening. The interior life of the Tramp collapsed to what served the machine.
Oddly, in the concluding part of The Wealth of Nations, Smith anticipates Chaplin’s devastating critique of industrialism. The founder of modern economic theory argues that an industrial worker through his labor does not acquire intellectual or social virtues. When a worker performs one or two simple operations, he “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.” Both Chaplin and Smith agree that industrialism produces an abundance of goods and a decline in the interior life; nothing great without a curse.
I can speak from experience about work on an assembly line. I grew up outside of Motown, and my sixth-grade class trip was to Pontiac Motors in order to learn how cars are made. As soon as my fellow students and I walked into the huge factory building containing the assembly line, we were frightened and disoriented by the noise; pounding and hisses came from all directions. Five minutes later, I saw Mr. Seifert, my neighbor who lived across the street. He was installing windshields using a bizarre apparatus with large suction cups that resembled a robot octopus. Mr. Seifert, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, wrapped his arms around the tentacles of the mechanical octopus and forced a windshield into place. The car left his workstation, and within thirty seconds another arrived. I was mesmerized: car, windshield; car, windshield; car, windshield. Right then and there, I vowed never to work on an assembly line, and I never did.
But that doesn’t mean that I never engaged in the division of labor, a virtual impossibility in modern life. Every university in the Western world follows the prescription given by Smith: as each individual scientist “becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased.” Philosopher Immanuel Kant, in 1789, envisaged a university organized by “mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor,” where knowledge is broken down into fields, each field into subfields, and so on, until the smallest domain of knowledge is reached. Today each researcher freely chooses her specialty and explores the tiny domain she has staked out for herself, ignoring everything outside her expertise, so that academic publication has become more and more about less and less. Money flows into the university; papers, reports, monographs, and patents flow out of the knowledge factory. A highly efficient, laudable system, provided one is blind to the major defect of industrialism: the division of labor ruins a person, whether material goods or knowledge is produced. The physical and the mental faculties of the worker are sacrificed to the perfection of a single activity. Not just the Pontiac Motors assembly-line worker is stunted by a life chained to the performance of a specialized activity.
Although I never worked on an assembly line, I experienced the division of labor in graduate school. At the University of Michigan, I learned Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s electrodynamics, and quantum physics free from any moral context. As a result, I never heard certain fundamental questions addressed: Is creating television advertising aimed at children, or manufacturing junk food, or developing thermonuclear weapons right livelihood? Keep in mind, no theoretical physicists, no nuclear weapons. My education prepared me to be a new barbarian, who sells the fruits of science to the highest bidder, no questions asked.
The Digital Age
Digital technology provides cheap ways for an ordinary person to greatly expand his world, especially in poor, remote areas. Yesterday afternoon, I drove through Truchas, a tiny Spanish village in the high mountains of Northern New Mexico. I parked my car in front of an adobe building, over a hundred-and-fifty years old, with a fallen-in roof and a collapsed wall. In my imagination, I compared the insularity of Truchas a hundred, even fifty years ago, to the satellite dishes for TV reception on every inhabited house I saw. A twelve-year-old girl in Truchas today, if interested in neuroscience from watching a PBS Nova program, could with a high-speed Internet connection go online and take free courses on neuroscience, biology, and mathematics from the Kahn Academy and Coursera. For this girl in one of the remotest areas of the United States, the whole world of science is available for free—what an exciting adventure this could be for many young aspiring scientists. If the girl I imagined has a brother who plays the guitar and loves to sing corridos, he and his buddies could use an Apple computer and two high quality microphones to produce professional quality CDs for only a modest expenditure of funds. Or, if her brother were interested in video production, he could edit his videos on a Mac and upload them to YouTube. I know a documentary filmmaker in Santa Fe, in his early thirties, who raised $35,000 through crowdsourcing in order to document the effect of global climate change on the poorest people on the planet. He is shooting the entire film on digital and using a Mac for editing. The technology is the cheapest part of the project; twenty years ago, an independent filmmaker was primarily a fantasy, not the reality it is today.
Last night, I ate at the upstairs Treehouse Lounge of Lambert’s Restaurant in Taos, New Mexico, a small place with seven tables surrounded by comfy chairs. Three-quarters of the patrons were staring at smartphones—the inescapable curse of the Digital Age. One woman in her late fifties was obviously bored with whom I took to be her husband and her two other companions, a man and a woman of her own age. She openly played a video game and only spoke to the three others at her table when she showed them photos on her smartphone. A young couple, maybe graduate students from the University of New Mexico, an Asian woman and an Anglo, each stared at their smartphones, drank Margaritas, and spoke only one or two words to each other. Oddly to me, they both seemed to be having a good time. For these people in Treehouse Lounge, digital technology connected them to a wide world of information and disconnected them from the concrete world surrounding them, which apparently was of no interest to them.
I recalled that Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of religion, observed in the mid-Fifties “the bewildering number of distractions invented by modern civilization.” For sheer distraction, the telephone, the transistor radio, and the TV set cannot compare with the smartphone, which is available 24/7, virtually any place, in airports, cars, coffee shops, and even in bathrooms. In ten years, the iPhone has gone from a dream of Steve Jobs to eighty-five percent of young adults possessing a smartphone, many of whom are digital addicts, checking for messages 150 times a day.
Digital addiction goes back only twenty years, to when Netscape introduced the first GUI (graphical user interface) for the Internet. Andrew Sullivan, one of the first bloggers, was an early adopter of living-in-the-Web. After fifteen years of continuously updating his blog with micro-thoughts, he had lost interest in books, landscapes, and friends, and lamented, “I used to be a human being.”
Observing the digital addicts in the Treehouse Lounge, I remembered a thirty-three-year-old man who said that two years on the Internet for ten-plus hours a day has been detrimental to his well-being: “My attention span for longer-form information consumption such as books, movies, long-form articles, and even vapid 30-minute TV shows has been diminished immensely. My interpersonal communication skills are suffering, and I find it difficult to have sustained complex thoughts.”
With the omnipresence of the digital world and the decline of the interior life, the voices of those who are immediately present are often not heard, and the three great teachers of humankind—the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus—run the risk of not being fully heard, or heard at all. A digital relationship between two persons can be eliminated with the click of a mouse, and the contrived emotion that resulted from posting on Facebook vanishes. For many, the Internet leads to an overload of information that causes confusion and mental pollution. True wisdom results from self-examination and dialogue with others, not from the accumulation of more and more information.
Every person can have the insight and the will to shake off the curse that comes with any great transformation of human living. Many middle-class, educated Americans have already shifted from a diet high in rapidly metabolized carbohydrates (white rice and potatoes), saturated fats, and refined sugars to whole grains (slow carbs), olive oil, and fresh fruit and vegetables. Fewer people have given up the division of labor because the workplace fits the majority of employees into narrow slots, unlike Google where researchers are expected to contribute twenty percent of their work time to projects outside their areas of expertise. But more and more people have substantial leisure time, where instead of spending those hours in the image-world of entertainment and social media, a person could carry out a self-appointed task that demands an engagement in a whole process, such as building a kitchen table, cultivating a garden, painting a portrait, or writing a novel, any enterprise that develops the interior life and overcomes the curses of science and technology, democracy, and capitalism.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
[*] The ethic of more and more, of course, is contrary to nature. Before we can consume an infinite amount of material goods, climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable for Homo sapiens, but perhaps not for cockroaches.
 A partial, conservative catalogue of the political murders of the twentieth century is mind-boggling, unbelievable, but sadly undeniable. Deaths: World War I (military only): 9,700,000; Russian Revolution and Civil War: 9,000,000; forced collectivization: 3,000,000 Ukrainian peasants; Russian gulag: 1,000,000 political prisoners; Spanish Civil War: 1,200,000; World War II (military and civilian): 51,000,000; Nazi camps: 6,000,000 Jews and 6,000,000 Slavs, Gypsies, and political prisoners; Japanese Rape of Nanking: 300,000 Chinese; Allied bombing of Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, and Dresden: 500,000 German civilians; Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 140,000 Japanese civilians; Vietnam War (military and civilian): 5,000,000; Chinese Great Leap Forward: 30,000,000. These numbers are low estimates. For the difficulty of estimating mass political murders see Lewis M. Simons, “Genocide and the Science of Proof,” National Geographic Magazine (January, 2006): 28-35 and Timothy Snyder, “Holocaust: The Ignored Reality,” The New York Review of Books (July 16, 2009).
 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 331.
 S. Boyd Eaton, Melvin Konner, and Marjorie Shostak, “Stone Agers in the Fast Lane: Chronic Degenerative Diseases in Evolutionary Perspective,” The American Journal of Medicine 84 (April 1988): 739.
 Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine (May 1987).
 Eaton, Konner, and Shostak, p. 740.
 Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan, “Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination,” Population and Development Review 33 (June 2007): 349.
 Yuval Noah Harari, “Death Is Optional: A Conversation: Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel Kahneman.”
 See Bob Dylan, “Marchin’ to the City,” on the album Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8.
 See The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby” on the album Revolver.
 See “Alone Together,” The New York Times Magazine (April 3, 2011), pp. 45-47.
 Tocqueville, p. 692.
 Quoted by Gordon, p. 84.
 Quoted by Gordon, p. 84.
 See the interviews of divorcées by Dana Adam Shapiro in Adam Sternbergh, “A Brutally Candid Oral History of Breaking Up,” The New York Times Magazine (March 13, 2011).
 Quoted by Gordon, p. 31.
 Smith, Wealth of Nations, (New York; Modern Library, 1994 ), pp. 4-5.
 Bacon, The New Organon, p. 103.
 Smith, p. 840.
 Smith, p. 11.
 Andrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being” (New York Magazine, September 19, 2016).
 See Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, Millennials Will Benefit and Suffer Due To Their Hyperconnected Lives (February, 2012), p. 29.