We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities.
Andrew Sullivan: The World Is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?
Sullivan’s point makes intuitive sense to me, but acknowledging that my prejudices may be motivating my agreement, I want to dive deeper.
Modern enlightened thinking suggests that blaming human nature for our alienation or other ills is bogus, not least because doing so denies our own agency in our own actions. I cannot completely disagree with that: a core tenet of my ethos is that part of our mission on earth is to elevate ourselves beyond our base nature and mere instinct, to act in ways that are subjectively right and good even when those actions are at odds with our own best interests.
At the same time, we would do well to recognize that in wishing to be angels we cannot shed our sheaths of clay. We should never excuse our choices or surrender our wills to our human nature, but neither should we ignore or paper over those aspects of our hard-wiring that vie against our virtues.
You do not defeat an enemy by wishing him away: you do so by recognizing his nature and either defeating him or coming to an acceptable accommodation. To Sullivan’s point, the satisfaction of our material needs and wants has failed to elevate us as a society or as a species. The nearer we get to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the deeper our disaffection.
And so, Sullivan suggests, we need to ask whether part of our problem is that we are forcing ourselves to adjust to an existence for which we are, at a deep sub-conscious level, utterly ill-equipped, whether therein lies a partial cause for social ills, and whether we can change this or whether we need to search for a mode of living that accommodates – but does not surrender to – our nature.