Loneliness in Post-Industrial Society

It is quite common to hear that there is an epidemic of loneliness within post-industrial societies. Yet, this seems odd as inhabitants of post-industrial societies seem to have a great deal of contact with others. However, on reflection this is not odd, because loneliness is a form of alienation that results from an unsatisfied general human desire, and a large amount and variety of social contact does not satiate this desire. Furthermore, while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies, it is unclear if it has been a problem for other societies, such that loneliness may be a part of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.

Post-industrial societies are overwhelmingly urban and thus it seems odd that people would be lonely as inhabitants of these societies typically are surrounded by other people. Unlike the subsistence farmer who would often only have contact with his family, the typical city dweller within a post-industrial society will have contact with neighbours, clients, colleagues, vendors, family, and friends on a regular basis. Furthermore, the development of technologies has made it far easier to contact others. The fact that nearly everyone has a cell phone and is on social media means that we can easily stay in contact with other people even if they live on the other side of the world. So, it seems that our loneliness is not an effect of not being in contact with others or not being able to easily contact others, as post-industrial societies far surpass other societies both in terms of the amount of contact that people have with one another, and the ease with which we can contact one another.

Loneliness is a species of alienation. The lonely, like the alienated, feel displaced; the particular variety of alienation that the lonely person encounters is that they feel isolated from those they should be connected with. This does not mean that the lonely know who in particular they should be connected with, but rather that they have a sense that they are not connected to the right people or connected to people in a proper way. What lies behind loneliness is a general human desire to connect with something beyond oneself in a substantial, meaningful way. This is not a desire for any particular social relationship, but rather to be engaged with something other than ourselves in a substantial way. This is why a vast network of social contact does not protect against loneliness, as the desire to connect meaningfully with something beyond oneself is not satiated by the fact that one has a large amount of social contact. Some might question the existence of such a desire, but if the desire did not exist then the sense of loneliness we feel would likely be nonexistent, but yet we feel or typically know someone who feels this sense of loneliness. Furthermore, it seems plausible to construe this desire as a general feature of humanity rather than something particular to post-industrial society, as many cultures that have developed independently seem to speak to the presence of this desire. The notion of connecting meaningfully with something beyond oneself is vague, but it is purposefully so, as this desire is meant to cover both our desire to develop friendships and find romantic love, as well as our desire to connect with something like God. I construed the desire in this way as I think loneliness can result both because of a sense of disconnection from God, and from a sense of lack of meaningful connections with other people. The believer who feels disconnected from God would surely feel lonely, as they have found themselves in a situation where they are disconnected from a being that deeply matters in their life.

I have assumed throughout this entry that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial societies and I have no intention of arguing against this thesis, as it fits with my own anecdotal experience, although I recognize that this thesis may be discredit by empirical evidence. But simply saying that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial society raises the question of whether loneliness has been a problem for other societies. The answer to this question is not something that I can answer as I do not have the historical knowledge to speak to it conclusively, but we do have reasons to think that loneliness was a problem in other societies. In the Symposium Plato has Aristophanes say that erotic desire is rooted in the general human desire to find the other half of their true nature, and this is surely related to the desire that underlies loneliness that has been elucidated above. There are surely other examples like this, so while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies this may also have been an issue within other societies as well. So, in the case that it turns out that loneliness is a problem for other societies we may need to accept that loneliness is a central aspect of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.

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The Place of Progressive Historicism in Modern Consciousness

Progressive historicism is the notion that historical forces have a direction, and this direction is towards the fullest development of humanity. In an academic context, this idea tends to be ridiculed as it is viewed as an archaic, western metanarrative that is not only false, but also pernicious in the way that it has been and is still used to justify colonialism and other evils. However, despite the fact that this idea is not taken particularly seriously among academics, it is still a large part of the popular consciousness of modern post-industrial societies. Furthermore, while progressive historicism provides an intelligible answer to the question of how we have arrived at this point in history, we should be suspicious of progressive historicism, because while there have been significant improvements in well-being throughout the development of human society, these improvements are not necessarily tied to a necessary process, and these improvements have also included historical losses in forms of value. Similarly, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it encourages a form of close-mindedness which discourages people from properly considering what the good is.

The tendency to write off progressive historicism as an antiquated theory is problematic, because even though its premises seem questionable and it has been used as a justification for problematic practises it has become a large part of the consciousness of post-industrial societies. For example, we often refer to people with ideas we disapprove of as backwards or medieval, and refer to those with ideas that we approve and admire as ahead of their time. Furthermore, I have heard seemingly intelligent people write off Plato and Aristotle, among others because the fact that they had lived an earlier era necessarily means that they are stupid and must be wrong about everything. This suggests that the way that individuals think about history fits in with the progressive historicist narrative as people tend to see the past as having been superseded by the present, and see humanity marching towards a bright new future.

The appeal of progressive historicism partially lies in the fact that we know that people in early ages have been subject to mass famine, disease, suffering and oppression, and at the very least, in post-industrial societies, it seems that we have begun to overcome famine and disease, and furthermore traditionally oppressed groups (women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals) have been able to gain legal, and perhaps social equality. In this sense, it seems that there has been progress in terms of justice as more and more people have their dignity respected, and progress in terms of technology as humanity becomes less endangered by the forces of nature and has more control over their destiny.

However, there are a few reasons why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism. Firstly, the idea of a necessary historical process while effective at explaining societal development is not necessary to explain such development. We can recognize that there has been a process of development, but consider it to be something that was contingent, and thus not inevitable, but rather one possibility among many. In this case we might consider history as something that is path dependent in that at one point there were certain events that could have led to a multiplicity of differing trajectories for the development of society, but particular choices that were made caused the current path of historical development to be much more likely. Unless we are already strongly committed to the idea of necessity determining societal change, it seems that the alternative that I have articulated is at least equally plausible to the progressive historicist story.

Secondly, the other issue with the progressive historicist story is that it pays keen attention to the gains that have occurred for humanity, but is troubling silent about the losses that have occurred throughout societal development. The development of society is partially a story of the gradual expansion of the recognition of dignity, but as a result of this development and particular technological changes certain forms of practise that constitute unique forms of value have been lost. For example, even if we are deeply disturbed by the brutality of the warrior way of life and the ethic of honor that goes along with it, we also admire the kind of courage that was necessary to live this life. And while this way of life had to be set aside to make way for egalitarian justice, certain forms of value were lost. Likewise, while finding certain elements of Ancient Athenian democracy particularly troubling (ie slavery), we can also see something deeply valuable in the solidarity that the citizenry of Athens achieved at particular points in its history. But this solidarity was probably made far more likely by the fact that the citizenry had slaves who could provide for their daily needs while they were active within the public sphere. Thus, the ending of slavery while necessary for the expansion of the recognition of all as equal, likely also lead to the loss of forms of value, such as the solidarity that could be achieved among the citizenry of Ancient Athens. Consequently, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it does not seem to tell an accurate story of the development of value throughout society’s history. Clearly, the equal dignity of all is more important than the courage of the warrior or the solidarity of Ancient Athens, but nonetheless these are still losses in value that must be taken account of.

Thirdly, the last reason why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism is the fact that the progressive historicist narrative encourages a kind of close-mindedness that sees the wisdom of the past as having been superseded by the wisdom of the modern era. This close-mindedness closes off people from deeply asking the question of what the good life is, as individuals under the grip of progressive historicism only seriously consider modern alternatives that share their own basic assumptions about what the good is, and do not deeply consider the wisdom of previous ages. If there is an inevitable process that is leading to the fullest development of humanity, then why would we need to learn from the wisdom of the past? Consequently, it seems that the progressive historicist narrative is problematic in its tendency to encourage close-mindedness. As a result while there seems to be a grain of truth within the progressive historicist notion that societal development has involved a long march towards equal respect for the dignity of all, this is only one element of the story of our history, and if we myopically focus on this one element we may fail to properly answer the question of what the good is.

The Preoccupation with Novelty in the Arts

Within the culture of industrialized liberal democratic societies people tend to be more interested and preoccupied with new music, new literature, rather than forms of art that have flourished  in earlier eras. For example, music aficionados tend to be driven to explore newly released music rather than exploring earlier forms of music. Likewise, connoisseurs of literature tend to be on the lookout for the next great book series, rather than being preoccupied with some earlier literary tradition. Of course I am not suggesting that there are no people who are enamored with older forms of the arts, but there is a general tendency towards the new and novel and against older forms. Now this is not something unique to modern liberal democratic societies, but it is peculiar in that unlike in many other previous societies it is fairly easy for a member of a modern liberal democratic society to experience arts that have flourished in previous eras because of the growth of technology and the ease with which art can be shared. A member of the learned class of Renaissance Florence may have been interested in the poetry of Ancient China, but it was relatively difficulty for him to access that poetry, whereas we today can access it through a simple search on the internet.

This excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts is problematic as it prevents us from learning from the vast intellectual wisdom of the past and prevents us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Now towards the end of this entry I will go into more detail as to why I think this excessive preoccupation with novelty is problematic, but in the meantime I want to try to give a basic sketch of why we have this excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts in our society.

One plausible cause of the preoccupation is the societal prejudice that dismisses the relevance of the wisdom of early ages. Any person who has studied the canonical texts of Western Philosophy knows that for many, most of these texts within this tradition can only be of antiquarian, academic interest.  For such people there is nothing we can learn from Aristotle, as his teachings are irrelevant to our present situation, and they represent a backwards past. In sum, this idea suggests that we should be more interested in newer art forms as they speak more to our present predicament whereas earlier art forms do not speak to the issues that arise within our live.  This idea tends to lead people to be dismissive of earlier art, as it does not relate to their particular experiences, and to be preoccupied with novelty in the arts. Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth within this idea in that while I may appreciate Moliere it is difficult for me to fully understand all the dimensions of his work, as it was developed against the background of an entirely different context than the one that I now inhabit. However, the problem is that art often speaks to what is shared across all human lives, rather than what is particular to a given time within a given society, so even if newer arts speak more to our current predicament, older art forms can speak equally well to the general human predicament as it is experienced across varying historical eras.  So we have little reason to be preoccupied with newer art, as there is no reason to think that we cannot learn something about the human predicament from older art forms.

 

The second cause reinforces the preceding cause. This second cause is our desire to share our appreciation of arts with others.  If others are preoccupied with novel forms of the arts we will tend to follow suit, because sharing our appreciation of the arts with others is much better than enjoying them on one’s own. I may love the works of Mahler, but I find myself less drawn to being preoccupied with his work then newer composers, as I have not found a friend yet who I can discuss and appreciate his music with. We don’t simply want to enjoy the art on our own we want to discuss the art with others and share our appreciation with others. This is a perfectly valid desire, and I have no criticism for it, but unfortunately it has the problematic consequence of reinforcing conformity as people are drawn to forms of art that are widely appreciated within a particular social context.

Earlier, I laid out a couple of reasons as to why the preoccupation with novel arts is problematic. The first was that is prevents us from learning from the wisdom of earlier ages. This is problematic, because novel arts tend to simply reinforce our existing prejudices, whereas earlier art forms often present us with wisdom which can supplement and critique our current beliefs. For example, after reading  Moliere’s the Misanthrope I may have a new appreciation of the importance of politeness and tact, and the danger of always being completely authentic and honest. Furthermore, this new appreciation would cut against the tendency of modern thought to extol the virtues of brutal honesty and authenticity.    Thus, earlier forms of art often provide us with unique resources to supplement and correct our understanding, by confronting us with alternative perspectives, which allow us to properly assess our own beliefs.  But if we are preoccupied with novel arts we do not encounter this wisdom and thus our growth is inhibited.

The second reason was that an occupation with novel arts can impoverish our lives by preventing us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms. No matter how many great pop songs one hears, one’s life is richer if one has also experienced a great classical symphony. The forms of beauty of the pop song and the classical symphony are distinct, and are lives are enriched as we are exposed to a wider variety of beautiful forms. A focus on novel arts tends to limit us to a more narrow selection of beautiful forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Furthermore, one additional benefit to experiencing earlier art forms is that we also begin to see certain flaws in novel arts as we are exposed to other earlier art forms and see what they do well, and what is missing from novel arts, and this helps us to develop a more refined appreciation of the arts.  Consequently,  our preoccupation with novel arts is something that we should try to overcome.