Monday, June 30, 2014

The Forever of Our Discontent

What is it with the human species that we apparently cannot ever let things be as they are? As far as I know no other species acts as we do. They do not proselytize nor do they attempt to impose their particular beliefs or behaviors on others. It is true, no doubt, that in some cases one group takes over territory belonging to another group, or true that one animal takes over the harem of another, and so on, but these are acts of nature programmed in to the nature of animal societies. Humans, it seems, cannot let things be as they are, or at least so it seems. What would the world be like if humans had just let each other alone?

Over the course of human history and evolution there were developed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of unique human cultures. It is difficult to imagine that in any of these the members were living “lives of quiet desperation.” It is true that looking back at some of them we might think they were poor and squalid, but surely the members thought their customs and beliefs were basically fine as they would not have known any other life. Certainly they did not wait around for some other people to come and change their way of life, either by force or otherwise. One has to assume they lived their lives as they were, more or less content that that was what life was like.

It appears to me that individuals and human groups have seldom if ever been left alone to just enjoy life as they knew it. What might have been, for example, if the Pope, back in 1452, had resisted the King of Portugal and not authorized his request:

In the first Papal Bull on 18 June 1452, at the request of the Portuguese King, the Pope authorized the King of Portugal “…to attack, conquer and subdue Saracens, pagans and other unbelievers who were inimical to Christ; to capture their goods and territories; to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to transfer their lands and properties to the King of Portugal and his successors.” (Boxer 1969:21)

With this authorization we know what the Portuguese accomplished in Africa and all the way to India and South America, setting the stage for colonial enterprise and plunder all around the world. The quest for slaves, ivory, gold, silver, rubber and other loot followed, unleashing a flood of savagery the “savage world” had never before experienced.  Virtually all of Christianized Europe engaged in this massive and terrible onslaught, slaving, killing, torturing, and stealing wherever they went. Obviously they were not content with what they had. Their discontent was, I suppose, driven by greed and a lust for power, even as human behavior is now.

This is not to say that the “savages” themselves were not discontented. It seems no human individual or group has ever been completely content to just let thing be; they fought over territory, raided to capture cattle, horses, pigs, and other items of local value, and sometimes even human heads and women. There were times, of course, when they were momentarily content, but contentment seems not to be very characteristic of humans, always looking for new horizons, new conquests, new experiences, mountains to climb, oceans to cross, artistic expressions, and constant innovations.

I suppose one could argue that permanent discontent has something to do with our large brains and intelligence, in which case perhaps large brains are not entirely desirable. Humans have at times been distinguished from other creatures because of tool making (no longer a useful standard), or because of having fire, or “x” number of cubic centimeters of brain, or language (also no longer entirely useful standard). It seems to me that if there is one defining feature of humankind it may well be discontent. No one ever seems entirely happy or content with what they have, at least not in American culture, and if there ever were contented people they were soon converted to discontent when they discovered what others had that they did not have. For many “savages” (a ridiculous term that does not really separate one person or group from another) tin cans and glass beads became immediately desirable, along with metal knives, pots and pans, and other objects of worlds they had not previously known. And, of course, for humans one thing leads to another...and so here we are back in Iraq…
Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we're being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I'm liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That's what's insane about it.

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