Nineteenth century Western Culture, generally speaking, was marked philosophically, at least in part, by the belief in man’s innate goodness. This belief had its roots in the eighteenth century when it appeared to many that man was born good and free, but all over the world was corrupted and enslaved by society’s institutions. Rousseau once said, “Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.”
During this period, what arose was a romanticism for nature (hence, perhaps, the popularity of evolutionary theory at that time), and the belief that, if only man could be freed of the corruption of society and its contrived conventions—of the state, of the clergy and, for some, of matrimony and of private property—then man, therefore, would be poised to achieve heights undreamed of hitherto.
It was these conditions which gave rise to the French Revolution, which, ironically, came to depend on the keystone mechanism of the State—violence—and gave way to a period during which France conquered swathes of Western Civilization. Still, from 1770 until 1914, many have argued that a culture of staunch self-reliance generally attitudinized Western Civilization, sometimes summarized by the concept of laissez-faire.
Much of this self-reliance held that, if society is evil, then the State—which is merely the organized vertical force of society—is doubly evil. If man is innately good, then he ought to be completely freed from this coercive power of the State. Indeed, nineteenth century Liberalism believed man should be freed from all coercive power, among which might be included the church, army and other institutions. Society, in this case, would have little power other than the power required to restrain the strong from oppressing the weak.
The idea of a “community of interests” was also very strong during this period. This “community of interests” was a realm in which what was good for one was good for all. Somewhere, according to this belief, there did exist a reality where everybody would be secure, free, and prosperous, and that this pattern could be achieved over time. In it, each person could fall into that place in society best suited to his abilities. Implicit in this belief was that human ability is innate and can only be suppressed or altered by social discipline and that each individual is the best judge of his own self-interest.
In 1880, the belief that the current generation, and indeed all generations, was the culmination of a long process of history. Oftentimes, this long process is referred to as progress, a phenomenon that had lasted millennia and would continue forevermore. This belief ran so deep that progress, by many, was seen as inevitable and automatic.
These nineteenth century epistemes have, in the twentieth century, been considerably modified—or so it would seem at first glance. Wherefore such a change? Four traumatic decades at the onset of the twentieth century, and five decades of intense militarism by two premier Empires, led to a perceivable sea change in the disposition of men. Included in these shattering experiences are the First World War, world depression, world financial crisis, and the Second World War. These were then followed by the Cold War.
On the byway of these traumas, major adjustments were made in the western brain. Men now had viable reason to doubt their entrenched belief in the innate goodness of man. Evil was no longer merely the absence of good.
In the course of these events, millions were killed and billions of dollars wasted. Impossible to comprehend for most, such a blow altered man’s disposition on their own species. The First World War was seen as an aberration—and one from which they must quickly move on and forget.
For ten years a façade was created, a lie. In 1929, the stock market crashed. World depression ensued, and was followed by financial crisis. In the late thirties, sabers rattled as rearmament and aggression.
After 1945, a new world was evident. Opposed with the nineteenth century view of man as innately good and society as corrupting, increasingly the belief that man had a seemingly infinite capacity for untold evil insinuated itself into the minds of men. Without a society—that is, large institutions designed to quell man’s beastly desires, to nudge them towards desired beliefs and behaviors—man would certainly destroy himself. Efforts hinting at such a belief can be seen in the attempted erection of the League of Nations after the First World War, and the establishment of the United Nations (UN) after the Second World War.
The former western belief that human philosophies and abilities are innate and should be free from social duress in order to display individuality was replaced by the idea that the personality is a result of social repetition and training and must be coerced to socially acceptable ends. The laissez-faire economics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were to be replaced by social discipline and central planning.
The “community of interests” of the free market would take backseat to the welfare community, which must be organized by wise-men. An intellectual environment would arise friendly to assertions of some sort of “de-evolution” or social retrogression or human extinction. Democracy would now be replaced by authoritarianism, and the laissez-faire Capitalism by State Enterprise or command-and-control.
Now, here in the twenty-first century, it has grown clearer that progress is not a steady force with inevitable outcomes. Rather, man’s social development can be seen as a more anarchic, spontaneous process, no matter how much rulers attempt to ensure things remain predictable. These same notions are increasingly amending Darwin’s theory of evolution, or progress, towards more perfect forms.
The eighteenth and nineteenth century were schizophrenic times, as has been so much of human history. Nationalistic tendencies undermined royal empires, and out of this flux came a vibrant forum of idea sharing. Thoughts of a laissez-faire lifestyle wherein individuals were freed from the European caste system led to the mythology of the New World, even if the New World only reflected such a lifestyle pre-Constitution, and scantily so.
A way of understanding that was promoted, if too often implicitly and not explicitly, by eighteenth and nineteenth century sentiments, holds that the natural ought to be esteemed before the political. Even today, too often do our philosophies on how life should be grow politicized, thereby undermining their original power. Humans are not political beings. They are natural beings. The questions of how we should live our lives are unanswerable by politics, for politics is merely a means of ordering life by way of the state or government. The questions of how we should live our lives are answerable only by naturalism; that is, by recognizing that which makes us humans.
Our consciousness blossoms as a beautiful aberration from other life in the natural world as we know it. The cognitive niche, inherited from nature, that we inhabit gives us an axiom from which our understanding of the world stems. This can be easily interrupted and distorted by the data and information we are fed. Whether it be outright war, depression or manipulative fiction on television or in the movies, we are all easily victimized by the campaigning of pathological behavior by the trendsetters; that is, the ruling class—and our peers who follow. They have adopted the cynicism passed down by a century marred by two Great Wars, a deep depression, and a long standoff between two nuclear powers.
The cynicism bequeathed unto us by a violent twentieth century has led us to the belief that we need centralized governments and rulers to keep us from doing violence to one another. But what we see are large institutions, instead of keeping people in-line, projecting violence down civilization’s ladder, and turning individuals against themselves, thus creating the precise environment people hoped they would prevent. Indeed, they were all along the impetuses of the bloodletting and carnage people were attempting to escape.