By Tim Horgan
If there is one word we have a slippery grip upon, it is the word, discipline. Sometimes we will dedicate our all to the pursuit of this. At other times, we’ll turn our backs on the idea completely, and we’ll put our all into the pursuit of pleasure.
So it is that things can change quickly. Once in Victorian times, it was considered improper to say the word, leg, in formal conversation. Now in our modern age, almost every thought is directed toward the optimisation of one’s own experience.
Such extreme shifts in the culture we share, such total madness. Not five decades ago, people concerned themselves with the observation of proper eating etiquette, of honouring the traditions of set recipes, of never over-eating, of keeping at the table with everyone else, of serving the ladies first, of saying prayer before a meal, of about a thousand other things. People neglected themselves the pleasure of easier gratification, the comfort they may have had if they were free to slouch in their chair, the rush of excitement they may have had if they were free to talk boisterously, the one less thing they would have had to worry about if they could have left their cutlery however they wanted. It were as if people consciously tried to make their lives harder, not only with all the discipline, but with a view toward total surrender, to putting their selves below their customs.
Today things are different. Today, people are free to eat whatever they want, to over-eat if they please, to leave a table before everyone else, to eat in their own rooms even, to get their mouths to a meal as quickly as possible, to bypass all tradition. Today people can gratify themselves. They can slouch; they can yell; they can crunch their meals away.
It would seem as though gratification is King in today’s world. People aren’t just free to entertain themselves as they please: it’s as though they’re actually pushed into doing so. Advertisements; media; consumer culture; pop music. Gratify your impulses! Find pleasure; find happiness; have a great time!
Weird, hey? You wonder what it all comes down to. It’s as if the whole culture just gears itself to pursue one or the other. And can I say, with vigour too: you’d think there were heavy, underhanded forces as play.
Well, you’d be right. There are forces. They crash against one another; they rage and spin; they’re locked in an endless duel. Moment by moment, you will find yourself in the mode of internal struggle. Life is one big fight, and no fight is closer to home than the one that rages within.
So it is that for anyone who calls themselves an organic member of life on Earth, any such person will find themselves at odds with their ego. The way life operates, it’s all quite simple.
Take a wild deer. On its day to day quest for nourishment, it will go for the first patch of grass it can find. If it wants a drink, it will get one from the first watering hole it sees. If it has worked itself to the point of total exhaustion, it will take a nap as soon as it can. If it finds itself isolated from the herd, it won’t hang around outside for no reason. The desire for safety pushes it to get back within as soon as possible.
What we see here is a pattern. In such instances, the deer gratifies its impulses as quickly as it can. When it’s hungry, and when grass is on offer, it doesn’t sit around twiddling its hooves. When it thirsts to the point of desperation, it drinks ASAP.
To satisfy its impulses in immediate time, in such instances the deer will compete better in the struggle for survival. So it is that in the primordial stages of life on Earth, a part of the psyche came to develop as a machine that gave pleasure when an impulse was gratified. In such a way, life forms found an incentive to gratify their needs. The incentive of pleasure, or of relief or happiness or any other good emotion, it wasn’t directly linked to the ultimate purpose of why they gratified themselves (i.e. in order to survive), but still this didn’t matter.
In human beings, Freud called a section of the psyche the ‘id’. This is the part that can be thought of as that instinctive unconscious, the chaotic mass of impulses in constant need of gratification.
Now, let’s go back to the deer. He is a particularly stupid deer, who never really learnt the point of discipline. One day he is eating grass on the plains. He is so consumed in what he is doing, so caught up in the sheer pleasure of this meal, that he neglects to keep his mind alert for predators. BANG! A lion knocks the deer out of his state of eternal bliss. It ravages him to oblivion.
We can see that though a deer must follow his drive for pleasure in order to satisfy his needs, he must do so with an air of discipline. He must keep alert; he must tune in to his environment. He must maintain a sense of fear, anxiety, paranoia. He must engage himself with the pains of life, those sharp and sour notes. Without such struggle, he will not survive.
Now, Freud calls another portion of the psyche the ‘super-ego’. This part is programmable: it absorbs the customs one will learn through the course of their lives, especially in their younger years. The super-ego polices temptation with the offer of discipline, and as such it is an opposing force that locks itself in combat with the id.
Between the two opposites comes the ‘ego’. The ego exists as the mediator, that part of the psyche which must decide upon the best course of action. It is influenced not only by the id and the super-ego, but also by the situation of the moment.
Looking to the deer again, we can see that if it had been a little more disciplined, its ego, indeed its central sense of self, would have kept it alert. In a situation with an oncoming lion, the ego would have danced between both the id and the super-ego as it interpreted things on a moment to moment basis. First, the deer would have maintained its state of alertness. Then, with the threat of a predator in its periphery, the deer would have gratified its impulse for safety. It would have sprinted. With the lion chasing, the deer would have found itself connecting back to its super-ego with vigour. It would have moved with an intensive focus, running as much away from the doom of death as it would have been toward the bliss of life. The id would come in again upon the deer’s escape, allowing it a moment of rest and relief as the adrenaline levels returned to normal. Then finally, with the stress gone, the deer would have slipped back into its normal state of being: eating, for sure, but alert as always to the threat of death.
In a wild environment, any animal that maintains with discipline the customs it has learnt, any such animal will be afforded the greatest chances of survival. In the example of the deer, we can imagine that its customs may alter in accordance with the predator it has. A herd of deer that exist as prey for lions may have a specialist ability to detect them in the thicket. Likewise, another herd may have been disciplined into tiger detection strategies, solely because it is the tiger which hunts them. One can imagine that if a deer was put into an environment where no predator existed at all, it would seriously question the need for any discipline-based custom. It may even have an existential crisis. But we won’t go there, at least not yet.
Now, we will return to the Victorians, and as we do so we see them maintaining a high degree of discipline at dinner. Their egos dance between two warring forces, as they take in from moment to moment the environment of the dinner party. The man is passed the bowl of salad, and he realises that the lady adjacent to him has not been served. On his right shoulder, an angel tells him, ‘Come on, it’s not right to neglect the lady’s interests: give her the bowl.’ On his left shoulder, however, is a particularly fiendish devil, ‘What? You’re even thinking of letting her go first? You’ve not eaten all day: you’re starved to the brink of tears. And really man, she’s not even attractive! Forget her!’ Luckily, the man had been raised to be very disciplined, and he chose to submit to the custom at hand.
At face value, one would ask why this custom is honoured, ‘What ultimate purpose does it serve?’
No doubt the Victorians would ask also. Their answer would be simple, ‘Because to go against it would be wrong, and to do something wrong would be to put a black mark against yourself, a mark that could see you go to Hell.’ Such a response, tied up as it was within the culture of the time, would have sufficed the question. Thus, the custom would have been maintained.
Today the same question could be posed, but, unlike the Victorians, the answer would be wholly different, ‘ . . . I don’t know.’ In the conflict between the angel and the devil on our shoulders, the hard programming of our super-ego would lose out to the pestering of our id, that relentless will to satisfy our impulses. Without some sort of short, sharp, and simple answer, the devil would win, and the lady would not get the bowl of salad first.
In Victorian culture, everything went back to God, to the bliss of Heaven or the doom of Hell. In using such justification, direct and simple as it was, the Victorians practiced an effective strategy to maintain their customs, to preserve their disciplined approach to life.
The Victorians submitted to their God, a God that didn’t necessarily hold a metaphysical importance. I should think they didn’t follow religion solely because they believed in God’s existence, nor even in the existence of some sort of higher intelligence in the Universe. Really, they followed religion to submit to God. In Islam, the word for God, Allah, is a representation of the all. It constitutes the first and last letters of the Arabic alphabet, and in this way it encapsulates everything between.
The thing about the concept of God is that it need not be appreciated in a metaphysical sense. The concept can be totally material in nature, totally physical. It can conform to the idea that the Universe is but a vortex of atoms in entropy. It can even embrace the idea, for it can be made to represent the fact that that swirling chaos is out to get us.
Let’s go back to the Victorian dinner party, and let’s say that the man refuses to serve the lady first. Let’s say the entire table drops their eating etiquette, in fact their way of life, their customs and their God. Now they decide to live for themselves, to serve their egos.
So here they are, pursuing eternal bliss on Earth. They booze; they take opiates; they romp like rabbits; they eat what they want, when they want. They distance themselves from the responsibilities of society, to spend their days making music and painting, to forego the hardy effort of keeping clean. They turn their backs upon the toil of work, and instead they scratch a living on the streets. They free themselves completely, away from the need to engage with the pain and the hardy effort of life. Without God and without customs, they no longer embrace those sharp and sour notes. There’s no more conscious effort, no more discipline.
In early 19th Century Paris, such people were known as Bohemians. So it was that not two centuries ago, the Bohemian could have been almost sure of the fact that he’d die somewhere within his thirties or forties. As recently as then, Western approaches to medicine were a lot more archaic, and social support didn’t exist. The need for discipline was quite virtually a crucial requirement for survival.
The whole idea of maintaining eating etiquette in the name of God, such discipline encouraged people to engage themselves with the pains of life. These folk would have maintained themselves in all sorts of situations. They would have had the capacity to tune themselves more sharply into social affairs, to be more effective at getting their message across and getting what they wanted. They would have been stronger, with the capacity to push themselves harder in the toil of work. With greater wit and greater strength, they’d be in a position to fight more effectively for a higher place within society. This held great meaning in the 19th Century, because to escape the poverty of the working classes was to better one’s chances of survival. To bring one’s family into a position of greater material wealth, this was to remove oneself from the horror of the slums.
To be ‘well bred’ in Victorian society was an important thing, not only for those at the lower echelons. Even for the middle and upper classes, a fall from grace would result in a pretty heavy landing. The safety nets lying below them, they weren’t quite like the nets lying below us today.
In submitting to the customs of the dinner table, you weren’t only afforded the chance to strengthen the muscle of your super-ego, you were also given the opportunity to demonstrate to your peers the extent of your inner strength. Not only at the dinner table, but in other areas too, a great deal of importance was put upon the qualities one possessed. Humility; politeness; honesty; wit; tirelessness; honour; bravery; integrity; selflessness; stoicism; et cetera.
Such qualities necessitated a stronger super-ego, a greater drive for discipline to go against the competing forces of the id. Humility above arrogance; politeness above boorishness; honesty above dishonesty; wit above stupidity; tirelessness above sluggishness; honour above reproach; bravery above cowardice; integrity above disgrace; selflessness above selfishness; stoicism above laziness; et cetera. You may ask which qualities are harder to achieve. You may ask which qualities are more desirable.
In a society founded upon the premise that its members take the easy way out, which qualities will flourish? Would such a society function well, with great strength and vigour? Would it stand the test of time, or would its inner glue deteriorate? Would respect among its members not wane? Would people not alienate themselves from one another? And then, what would happen to the health of their day to day operations? In an unbounded environment, where inner strength promises a better chance of survival for not only an individual but a society at large, would the quest for instant gratification not bring death knocking at the door?
The Bohemians, they may have spent their days in pursuit of eternal bliss on Earth, but unfortunately the lion of the wild got them. God is but a metaphor for the wild, that brooding force of nature which would cut down anyone that slips.
Upon being asked the question, ‘What ultimate purpose does the custom of serving the ladies first serve?’ a Victorian could have just as well responded with, ‘Because the custom fosters a culture of respect, a culture that keeps us individuals together in a sense of mutual optimism. What follows is that if we can maintain the custom, along with all the others, our social group and our society at large will function with a greater strength. We will keep things in a steady state and we will mitigate such chances of things going wrong, chances which would lead ourselves and/or our society to an untimely end.’
The Victorian could have just as well said that, but it would have been a lot easier to argue the point that God will judge badly. Of course the argument isn’t wrong, for if God is just a metaphor for the all, then it can just as well be said that nature will judge badly. Judgement can be talked about in terms of Heaven or Hell, or it can be talked about in terms of life or death. In short, the Victorians submitted to the wrath of God, but really they were submitting to the wrath of nature.
So then, now we come to the big question, ‘Why did God die in post-modern society?’ Quite in fact, we can think about it in light of what has just been explored in the essay, and we can ask ourselves, ‘Did God really die at all?’ If indeed, we choose to look at God as merely a metaphor for nature, we could explore some interesting ground.
What comes to mind is an important question, ‘In our day and age, what with our wealth and our technological prowess, are we really above nature?’ It seems as though the question can be explored from three separate perspectives.
First we can explore the prospect of tragedy at the hands of our own lacking discipline. In such a sense, we can see that there exists no ultimate need to really look after ourselves, to strengthen the muscles of our super-egos.
We can see that we can just as well eat McDonalds for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and get tremendously obese. Ultimately it’s not a problem, for if we bring ourselves to the point of total physical collapse, we can go and get lap band surgery. Like the deer without a predator, we can spend our years grazing mindlessly.
As for those who want the Bohemian life, today that’s not an issue. We have our hippies, and our hippies can get incredibly filthy. Still, there’s no ultimate need to be clean. Poor hygiene standards lead to a whole host of illnesses, but with today’s modern medicine that’s not an issue. It’s not like filthiness has the capacity to kill anymore.
Then there’s the issue of sex. Once controlled and moderated by the Victorians, today there exists a lot less necessity to discipline the practice of proper conduct. Unwanted pregnancies can be stopped with the pill; STDs can be managed with the condom.
Finally, we’ll touch upon one more important aspect: the need for social health. Where the Victorians obeyed customs such as serving the ladies first, we exist in a world that puts the individual above the collective. We don’t need to foster a culture of mutual respect, strong communal cohesion, and loyalty. No one need perform their duty for the part of the community because no one really lives within a proper society. Such is the machine society: as it functions solely upon the basis that each individual has the capacity to work, there exists no ultimate need to maintain its social health.
Think about how different the case would have been within a pre-industrialised village community. If the village members stopped putting conscious effort into maintaining a culture of mutual respect, what would have happened? The baker, the butcher, the fruit shop worker, healthy communication between these parties would have broken down. The relationships between themselves and their customers would have frayed. Indeed, many of those customers would have also been suppliers, engaged in the regular trade of the things they farmed. The trade of goods between not only these parties but the pharmacy, the carpenters, and the artisans too, such trade would have ceased. With each person alienated from the rest, families would have been made to fend for themselves. Even this though, even this would have been a struggle, for the community’s negative culture would have had an impact, and as such with all individuals embittered, relations between family members would have frayed too. Without access to decent healthcare nor any form of social support, the community would find itself upon a path of total destruction.
Today this is not the case. An individual can go and work his nine to five shift: punch on and punch off. His effort is directed into the economy of his society, like a one figure sum on an eight figure balance sheet. Then, from the machine society, from that grand collective of millions of people, support comes back to the individual. In an ultimate sense, everything is fine as long as he puts in his hours. He can go back home and let himself be driven by his impulses for quick gratification. He can disappear into his own world, and bypass the effort of having to maintain his social ties. All that difficulty, the maintenance of a culture of respect and communal cohesion, ultimately it’s not needed.
So, we can see that in a very ultimate sense, we have destroyed the need for God. At least that is, for now. If we continue to let our ids pull us under, that relentless force will degenerate our society to an ever worse level. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Will there come a point at which people get so ridiculously unhealthy with their lifestyles, our healthcare system will cripple under the workload?’
The collective gut of Australian society has slowly gotten fatter, pretty much from the onset of the 70s, right at the point when man stopped caring about issues of gluttony. Today about 30% of Australian society is overweight, and another 30% is obese. As there is not much evidence to suggest that things will get better anytime soon, we should wonder just how much fatter everyone is going to get. Mixed in with the whole myriad of issues that stem from lacking discipline, we have to ask whether this could lead to serious problems down the track. Could the healthy functioning of society break down to such a far degree as to necessitate the revival of God, merely so that post-modern man can avoid the wrath of nature?
Now we come to the point at which we will look at our question, ‘Are we really above nature?’ from a second perspective. Here we will explore things in a not-so-ultimate sense.
So, though we may be able to survive within a society that puts no conscious effort into discipline, still we won’t be able to survive well. If we allow our dominant culture to be defined by our impulse to satisfy our primal urges, we will reduce ourselves to a less-than-human state.
Of course this second perspective applies more for the present than it does for the future. I myself would argue that after almost seven decades, the consumer society has finally worked its magic.
The consumer society is a funny thing. It exists as the product of one of the greatest changes of environment man has ever had to deal with. Before Henry ford put to use the first modern-day assembly line in 1913, man reduced relatively little for the amount of effort he put in. Then all of a sudden, everything changed, and with that same amount of effort, the means of production boomed. Now it was possible to offer everyone wealth. The lower classes would be no more; poverty would be abolished.
Skip forward to the end point of the Second World War, and we can see that in three decades the automation of production had achieved its ends. The upper and lower classes had collapsed into the middle, but the modernist sentiment stayed on strong. That feeling of goodness, the idea that man had bettered himself by removing his society away from poverty, it could have subsided then and there. But instead, people came to obsess over the modernist ideal. They couldn’t leave it alone because they lost their basis of reality (see the essay, ‘An Inquiry into What Can Be Deemed, “The Proper Use of Logic”’). Quite naturally, the consumer society flourished.
In the first couple decades of the consumer society, both the modernist imperative and the influence of religion formed the dominant culture. On one hand, people submitted to God to control their egos. Meanwhile, people worked jobs to fulfil the dream of living an easy lifestyle, in which they spent their days accruing material wealth. The modernist imperative was all about the service of the ego.
Now, remember back to the deer. As it puts much hardy effort into evading the lion, much focus upon disciplining itself, you could say that there is a lot of meaning behind its ambition to gratify its needs: its own survival depends upon this. For the wild deer, the service of its own ego becomes something of prime importance, solely because its environment forces it to do this on a limited and unsure basis.
Coming back to the people of the consumer society, we can see that they became the deer without a predator, free to mindlessly graze all day. In their eyes, there was no more need to submit to the realities of nature, and God was more or less dead.
At this point things got a bit confused. Like for the deer without a predator, the whole point of discipline lost itself in the minds of the younger generations. All the while they found themselves within this bizarre system, forced by the hand of God to control their egos, but at the same time forced into a lifestyle that had been optimised to serve the ego. Something had to give.
So it was that in the consumer society of the late 60s, the influence of the Church was subverted against. From then on, the culture of discipline ebbed away. Man was free to graze mindlessly, and not feel bad at all.
The existential ideal was put to the test. Like never before, man had freed himself from the obligation of having to submit to God, or, in more material terms, nature. This came after the fact that he had already freed himself from the need to overcome nature, to essentially fight for his survival. According to Nietzsche, man now had the responsibility to overcome himself, so that he could rise up to become some sort of glorious statement to the individualistic meaning he’d found in his life.
Be that as it may, I think that now is the time to tally the results of the existential experiment. Did man get close to achieving the ideal? Or is the practice of discipline not the only way to overcome the self, such that the living entity can be afforded the chance to overcome its environment?
In the post-modern society of today, man is not his own God. His ego is God, and as such he submits to that most wild of elements inside him, the chaotic mass of instinctive impulses we call the id. Man’s ego is God and as such he is a victim of his own internal nature. Like the deer without a predator, he has lost his strength. He has lost those qualities of which would normally assist him in the struggle for survival.
We see today that in Australian society, the most dominant cultural pursuit is the drug and alcohol bingeing scene. We see fat slobs, tattooed bogans, and those in varying states of low enthusiasm, misery, and alienation. We have to put up with the dominant entertainment industry, with music that corrupts people’s minds, with the white noise of a media that lacks substance, and with a television set that feeds upon virtually all of man’s worst qualities. We get the general sense that people aren’t taking care of themselves. We feel as though all human effort is directed toward the service of the ego, and that virtually none is going toward the pursuit of a genuinely constructive lifestyle. We feel completely disempowered, miserable at the fact that we’ve been forced to submit to our society’s ambitions, forced to spend our days in pursuit of a way of life that is totally destructive. We basically just feel shit, all because we like to think that we’re above nature.
So, in considering the question, ‘Are we above nature?’ from the second perspective, I’d personally say no. In an ultimate sense, we may have killed God for the moment, but practically, I’d say that we never really killed God. And can I say, I’m hoping you might feel the same.
Finally we come to our third perspective. If God is but a metaphor for nature, and if the whole point of submitting to God is to avoid the wrath of nature, can we see that God may be alive for another important reason?
The sort of God I’m talking about now is not the sort we associate with Western religion. This is a more primal sort, that which developed in hunter-gatherer societies.
One of the hunter-gatherer’s greatest concerns was that which he held for his environment. To avoid the prospect of exhausting the resources of his adjacent environs, and thus the prospect of death, he went about his duties with discipline.
Through means of his system of faith, he was obliged to maintain a great degree of respect. Some animals were not to be hunted; others in limited quantity. A billabong could be fished, say, on only a yearly basis.
In submitting to his environment in such a sense, the hunter-gatherer guaranteed the best chances of survival for his descendents. Today I think, we’d do well to do the same, because our population is bad enough without having to live within a society that encourages over-consumption.
Of course we’ve made some effort to reduce consumption, but really much of this is trivial. We care a bit for the environment, but we could care a lot more. It’s not as if we don’t have good reason: global warming; resource exhaustion; peak oil; destruction of ecosystems and rainforests; land degradation; et cetera.
Really, if we want to push ourselves hard to consume less, we’re going to have to enforce a pretty strong culture of discipline. We’ll need to submit to some pretty strong customs, not only to keep our individual levels of consumption to a minimum, but to force ourselves into the pursuit of action.
To shift our society from a course of economic growth to a course of economic maintenance; to abolish planned obsolescence, the attitude that we should build to the sky, the culture of consumerism, the obsession with material gain, and the culture of serving the ego at large; we’re going to need a pretty strong will. People say that where there’s a will, there’s a way. And for sure, maybe the only way is through the will of God.