Schatten des Zeitgeists

The Dark Corners of the Age

People are not aware that they are living in a particular historical period, having particular qualities. This is how I remember the words of my professor on that blustery fall day. He was a historian, this was my free elective, and the subject was technology and war.

As I descended the stairwell of Victoria College, I reflected on this. The professor had intended to help students understand the mindset of people who lived in the past. At that moment, however, I was struck by the implications that it had for my actions in the present. Everything that I was experiencing would one day be recreated in writing, theatre and cinema. A university student, just after the turn of the millennium, descends a stairwell with books in hand. He wears blue jeans and a red sweater. He carries no electronic devices, which, even for his time, is strange.

When looking back on our time, we might speculate as to how future historians will view our technology (and our wars). I believe, however, that we do not ask ourselves often enough how they will view the Zeitgeist. We do not think of ourselves as westerners living just after the turn of the millennium, because the future is not available to us. Furthermore, we view the past as inferior to the present, imagining that things have only changed for the better. As a result, the Zeitgeist is largely unchallenged; the predilections and biases of the time reign supreme. The assumptions ingrained in our present-day thinking are the finest that have ever existed—we soon forget that they were ever assumed.

Throughout our lives, we challenge many ideas before we accept them. There are, however, times when we encounter an idea that is so universally accepted that we do not make a fuss. We presume that it must have been properly challenged at some point in the past. Some of these ideas are demonstrable and self-evident; others are simply universally accepted. These latter ideas are the assumptions of the age.

It is not impossible for a modern observer to notice the quirks of our culture. In example, many have identified the damaging and widespread trends of consumerism. I believe that this, however, is tied to an underlying attitude that is far more pervasive. It is the only attitude that I wish to write about at the moment—the belief that the individual has an inviolable right, even an obligation, to fulfill, and freely pursue, his or her personal desires.

Whether or not we individually accept this in private, it shows in our actions as a society. We have been destroying the environment, but we are not likely to change the public behaviour by asking them to voluntarily exercise restraint. Our best hope is to point out that we will soon be depriving ourselves. The divorce rate is extraordinarily high, with “irreconcilable differences” frequently cited. The cause, however, is often the possibility of somebody else who appears more reconcilable. The birth rate has plummeted, but it is not because we are concerned about overpopulation; it is because children do not always make a net positive contribution to the happiness (and freedom) of the individual. We make tongue-in-cheek movies about punching the boss or burning down the office, but we really would like to do some of these things, if they were not punished. Whether our satisfaction is commensurate with the long-term impact on the boss is irrelevant. If it feels good, do it, even if you shouldn’t—don’t let people mess you around.

Religion will fall out of fashion in any society in which the aforementioned assumption prevails. If it is already falling out of fashion, it will fall out of fashion more quickly. The Christian faith has nothing but bad news for an individual who lives this way, much less sees it as a moral obligation. Worse than requiring its adherents to abandon such attitudes, it asks that that they freely abandon it, as if the choice is theirs. How many of us, in this part of the world, and at this time in history, have retained any concept of sacrifice that has not been forced upon us? At best, we may be willing to make major sacrifices that accomplish something heroic (the kind you see in the movies). At worst, we may be willing to make insignificant sacrifices that we are properly recognized for.

I once learned of a simple paradox: in a place where there are two roads running between two places, it is theoretically possible to build a third road between these same two places, with the result that everyone goes slower. Of course, this is not really a paradox—it occurs because each individual person travels the quickest route, until all the routes have the same travel time (thus eliminating the need to switch routes). There is no guarantee that adding a road will reduce this universal travel time. In order for the entire system to run at peak efficiency, it would be necessary for some cars to travel suboptimal routes. Of course, this would work out in the long run, since the people traveling suboptimal routes would be regular users of the same system that they are optimizing. Yet in the absence of social pressure, who will willingly choose a disadvantaged route? In my view, selfishness is only one of many crimes committed on behalf of today’s Zeitgeist—but it is no small matter. Even our efforts to be unselfish have become self-centred. Their chief aim is the preservation of self-righteousness, rather than the benefit of others.

One might assume that I have written this in order to posit God as a solution to human selfishness. This would be oversimplified; I do not believe in God merely because it is a pragmatic thing to do. Indeed, it is hard to define pragmatics without first ascribing absolute value to something. Nonetheless, I have always been impressed by the apparent pragmatic value of the Christian faith, according to the values that many humans share, and the extent to which its principles are independent of the Zeitgeist. This is one of the reasons that I find faith compelling.


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