0563 – modern civilization, pt 2

Let’s try to quickly summarise what the previous post was saying.
Pre-settled human life was brutish and short, but it was also simpler and relatively bullshit-free. In contrast, modern civilised life is bureaucratic, long, complex (byzantine, really) and full of bullshit.
A strange thing about being a young Singaporean is witnessing effectively zero violence and suffering, when so much of human history is so full of death and killing.
It would be very naive to imply that “people in the past had it better” – rose-tinted glasses are a thing, but it’s also probably true that our current state of affairs is suboptimal in ways that we do not even begin to realise– because we were born into this reality, and this reality is (usually) all we know.
Righto. That about sums it up. Let’s move on. What am I trying to say with all of this?
I appreciate that life is longer than before, but I don’t like that it’s bureaucratic and byzantine and full of bullshit.
I would like to be grateful for all of the gifts, privileges and opportunities that civilisation provides me (which are things I love), but I’d also like to inoculate myself against bureaucracy, needless complications and bullshit (which are things that I hate).
I guess to do that I need to understand why things are the way they are– and I have to strive to do this as objectively and neutrally as possible, without bias. I need to understand the cause-and-effect relationships that underly these things, and figure out the actions that I should take to build a better life for myself (however I choose to define that).
I’m scanning through a summary of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan now– I don’t know anything about either Hobbes or Leviathan, but the phrase “brutish and short” has stuck in my mind for a long time and it turns out that it was Hobbes who coined it, to describe the unfavourable situation of pre-civilisation– the “war of all against all”. I like what I’m seeing so far– Hobbes didn’t like that his predecessors appealed to the “greatest good” or “summum bonum”– the variability of human desires meant that there could be no such thing. I intuitively agree with this. He did however believe that there was a “summum malum” – a greatest evil, the fear of violent death. This I’m not so sure about. I’m inclined to agree that it’s probably legitimate – as I said in an earlier post, I come from a privileged, sheltered background where I’ve never had to fear my own violent death. So at best it’s still just a hypothetical thought experiment, rather than a real fear.
Hobbes argues– and I have to agree– that there can be no industry or productivity in an uncertain environment, where everyone fears that all might be lost at any instant. That sounds legitimate. We work and save money because we believe that the value of money will hold over time. History has shown that this isn’t always the case, and that hyperinflation and anarchy are real things that can descend upon a previously orderly community or context.
“In the state of nature nothing can be considered just or unjust” – this is true.
“One ought to be willing to renounce one’s right to all things where others are willing to do the same” – this is a prescriptive appeal to social contracts. It would be nice if everyone agreed to this, but in reality not everyone does. People like situations that are designed to favor them– heads I win, tails you lose.
Hobbes goes on to describe how a State should be like – how it should establish, enact and enforce laws, preside over disagreements. Interestingly, he favoured press censorship and restrictions on the right of free speech if they promoted order over chaos. In this regard it seems Singapore is more Hobbesian than the USA, which priorities the separation of powers.
Interesting. Hobbes lived from 1588 to 1679, and published Leviathan in 1651. Some historical context– Japan was under the Tokugawa shogunate at the time, and there was a failed uprising by a number of ronin. The Taj Mahal was completed 2 years later. China was under the Qing dynasty. Louis XIV was King of France, crowned in 1654, and Ferdinand III ruled the Holy Roman Empire. Oliver Cromwell is a significant dude. Saturn’s largest moon Titan is  discovered in 1655, by the same dude who’d then invent the pendulum clock.
History is so much more interesting that current affairs.
Okay wait, so why did Hobbes write Leviathan again? Apparently his mother went into labor prematurely upon learning that the Spanish Armada had set said to attack England, and Hobbes wrote “fear and I were born twins together”. So I suppose he wrote it in fear that people wouldn’t uphold a decent State? Yep– he wrote it partly as a response to the political turmoil of the English Civil Wars. He was a Royalist– a person who supported King Charles I. He had been developing his philosophy of political and natural science for a long time before – maybe a couple of decades. Which makes me wonder about what might be stewing in my mind that I’m not fully aware of, that I would write if I were triggered.
Anyway.
I’ve been dithering a lot. Can we summarise what’s going on here… I spent a bunch of time reading up about Thomas Hobbes and about 1650s history. I guess there were civil wars and stuff going on at the time. The French Revolution would probably happen not too much later– well it would be 130 years later, from 1789 to 1799. And then Napoleon showed up. Hm, and this was after America declared Independence. Interesting. Well I guess the big lesson for me here is that the history of States is far more complicated than I can ever fathom. But I think it’s necessary to figure out the big picture anyway, leaving allowances for inaccuracies and so on.
And now I’m in a rabbithole reading and learning about the French Revolution, which is actually pretty interesting. But let’s get back in focus on what I wanted to figure out– which is, what is the source of bureaucracy, unnecessary complication, bullshit? Why is it such a prominent feature of our modern times?
TBC

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