“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?”Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882
Individuality and civility are opposing forces. In one extreme, we serve individuality – be it expression or conquests. In the other extreme, we serve others. Where on this continuum do we sit, as individuals, nations, and as a species? What compass do we have to reflect upon, and guide ourselves?
For most of human history, *centuries*, we had varieties of tribal leaders, religions, shamans, and value traditions – showing us how to live a good life. They weren’t perfect, and we will never have them back, but they served a crucial role – reminding us how terribly stupid we can be – and how to defend against our worst instincts. Again, not perfect, but they put life into perspective, helped us relate to each other, forgive, hold gratitude, build communities, and cooperate – all bolstering some semblance of civility.
In the 1800s, science established itself and gradually cast these traditions aside – specifically the bits about deities, dogmas, and spooky mechanisms. Observing this hostile takeover, the philosopher Nietzsche shared his famous remark: “God is dead”.
How would global society fare in the wake of these wisdom traditions?
1882 – Present
Science and industrialization forged ahead. Individually, we would make sense of it all as best we could, living in so-called secular society. We would find community in work, leisure, and find new ways to share values. We would coalesce around a few major news publications, television, and political axes. Though countries have since warred, society within borders felt mostly unified.
Until it didn’t…
Now – here we are – screaming-at and canceling each other over triviality and conspiracy, giving birth to artificially intelligent gods, science shrugging its shoulders, consumerism and social media keeping us comfortably numb, and philosophers shaking their heads… digging through religion’s rubble, trying to salvage what once kept us sane.
Against what values can we assess these circumstances? The absence of a “something” has never been more felt.
One such rubble digger, Alain de Botton, is one of the world’s most well-known living philosophers. He and his organization, School of Life, compiled his findings in a book.
Although culture’s increasing schizophrenia is unsettling – it can feel consoling to understand it in the context of history. Merely to recognize, that beyond sensational myths, religion’s community, rituals, and values were actually accomplishing something important in our world. Noticing this vacant and open wound is sobering, and humbling. Almost comforting.
Most immediately and pragmatically, it might inspire us to stop taking cues from culture, and looking elsewhere. Stop indulging its most mindless aspects – instead seeking asylum in wisdom systems and community – tethering ourselves to timeless values and seeming truths.
The “Replacement for Religion” by de Botton is one such system. Below, it identifies society’s 8 most prominent philosophical and psychological pitfalls – ones religion used to defend against. And 8 counteracting ideas to continually ground ourselves in.
8 Essential Pitfalls
1. Perfectibility – how can we pursue and worship perfection, when we are so inescapably imperfect and fallible?
“Our many improvements have imbued us with an unparalleled confidence, resulting in a notion that progress is a preordained and general rule of existence. We know that we may, of course, right now, be facing considerable challenges and reversals, and that there is much evidence of our ongoing proclivity for stubbornness and stupidity”
2. Optimism – how can we act happily without acknowledging pervasive and certain suffering?
“Society implies our manner should be upbeat, and our spirits high and greetings enthusiastic. Expecting things to go well is presented as the best way to ensure they will. Presenting a cheerful front is assumed to get people to like us. But when sunny expectations meet obstacles, they turn to anger.”
3. Individualism – every person for themselves – deep identity with our autobiography and personal legacy.
“An individualistic philosophy centered on careers means that what we do outside of paid work comes to seem irrelevant. Our efforts with families, friendships, and our enthusiasms don’t count in the eyes of others as any real answer to the question of what we do.”
4. Exceptionalism – we strive to reach other planets, amass fortunes, fulfill conquests.
“The belief is generous but profoundly punitive – because we are destined to be very ordinary in most aspects of our lives. We end up despising ourselves.”
5. Meritocracy – those at the top deserve their success, those at the bottom deserve their failure.
“A society that thinks of itself as meritocratic converts poverty from a condition of honorable, if painful, bad luck into evidence of personal incompetence. The burden of failure rises exponentially.”
6. Anthropocentrism – humans are at the center of the universe – the world is here to be exploited by us.
“We place human beings and their experience and concerns at the center of the hierarchy – above the claims of nature, animals, gods or the universe more broadly. We have a viscous sense of our own lack – which has unleashed a torrent of envy and inadequacy.”
7. Romanticism – love is near synonymous with meaning of life.
“The point of relationships is to assure superlative contentment and fulfill spiritual communion. The consequence of this ideology has been the discovery of extensive new ways of feeling dissatisfied. It has made us a good deal more lonely – and notably less able to love.”
8. Novelty – New things and plans for the future are paramount. In service of what?
“Modern societies assign immense prestige to whatever happens to be new. ‘Progress’ and ‘Innovation’ are central terms of praise – old-fashioned is a little short of disaster. We are preoccupied with ‘news’ – our name for information we think of as most important. We conflate recent with significant”
8 Essential Consolations
To be continued in a follow-up essay.
Feel free to not subscribe.
On a personal note, I find these pitfalls incredibly consoling. Traces of identical concerns are littered, albeit more messily, throughout my past few years of writing. To see these acknowledged here gives me some company and peace. It lets me know I’m not alone in looking to unite around some transcendent values with other people – while bewildered by a culture that feels more and more alien.
Highly suggest reading pages 1-70, as a prompt for reflection.