In 1949, Simone Weil published The Need for Roots. It was a response to the upending of the European world arising from World War II. Starting with World War I, the moral order fractured and politics became blood sport. The supposedly civilized world slide into mass murder on a never before seen scale.Weil understood that a just and compassionate moral order arises out of societies where the soul’s needs are met and not trampled upon. Weil, also being a religious mystic as well as a philosopher, listed fourteen needs that she believed were essential to the health of the soul: order, liberty, obedience, responsibility, equality, hierarchism, honor, punishment, freedom of opinion, security, risk, private property, collective property, and truth. Of these, truth was the most sacred of all needs. She also believed that up-rootedness was the cause of the breakdown of the systems that provide for the satisfaction of human needs.
In attempting to understand the evolution of a society, it is often a case of the blind men and the elephant. The political scientist sees the corruption and inefficiency of the political process. The sociologist sees changes in the quality of social relations, and the city planner looks at the social environment created by urbanization. Hundreds of books and many thousands of papers have been written to analyze each element of a polity and, based on the particular specialty of the author, solutions proposed which, if the author is to be believed, will solve the seemingly intractable problems of a modern society (crime, pollution, infrastructure decay, differences in group achievement, etc.). Weil did not (or could not) see how the expanding capabilities of technology would foster a profound acceleration of the uprootedness that lies at the root of the soul sickness infecting modern societies. Technology is centrifugal – it drives everything and everyone further apart from a common center. There has been no fundamental transformation of human nature in the last ten thousand years. We are still (mostly) Cro-Magnons with the core of our evolutionary biology intact. When our environment is contra naturam we suffer psychologically and spiritually.
Almost every aspect of art and literature from ancient times to the first half of the 20th century illuminated the essential elements needed for spiritual and psychological health: a close, protecting, and loving extended family, membership in a larger kinship grouping (clan / tribe), a sufficiently large, yet still small enough number of non-kin (but still genetically-related) to allow mutual recognition in order to create an organic community, a powerful relationship to a place in all of its aspects and elements, a meaning / purpose for life, a rooted identity, and finally, a shared spiritual relationship to the eternal in terms of a transcendent belief. If any one of those elements is missing, it is replaced by a diffuse feeling of anxiety or dissatisfaction. If most, or all of the elements are missing, the soul sickens, shrivels up, and leaves behind an empty shell that tries desperately to escape its torment by creating a false sense of security, well-being, and meaning using artificial means. And that is precisely the situation of the West today (and increasingly other technologically-advanced non-Western societies).
The powerful magic of modern technology continues to destroy extended families and organic communities, all in the name of social or economic progress. Every great invention has accelerated the trend to de-localizing and de-centering: the car, the airplane, television, and especially, the Internet. What has been provided instead are poor substitutes that do not, and cannot, satisfy the soul’s cravings. Unless we begin collectively to understand the needs of the soul and how to prioritize them, our civilization will continue to careen off the rails until it finally dies.
Understanding at Depth
The progress of mankind in creating the modern world depended on understanding reality at depth. Discovering the ultimate causation of observed phenomena is the goal of all scientific pursuits. In the ancient world, it was believed that gods stamping their feet on the ground caused earthquakes and that these same gods caused storms and hurled thunderbolts.
The pre-Copernican world saw the Earth as the center of the universe (with a giant sea turtle holding it up). Incorrectly understanding astronomical causality forced the Hipparchian and Ptolemaic systems to accrete inelegant complexity (as demonstrated by the need for epicycles) to explain the variations in the observed movements of planets and moons. However, when Newton discovered the law of gravity and the three related laws of motion, all the inelegant complexity was removed and the universe became comprehensible to anyone.
A similar transformation of thought happened when it was finally understood that it was the movement of tectonic plates that caused earthquakes.
In the human realm, the work of spirits, demons, unbalanced humours, miasmas and other malign forces were replaced by the discovery of how infectious agents and dysfunctional physiology cause disease. In the more etheric understanding of human psychology, it was the theory of the structuring of the mind (id, ego, superego) and the defense mechanisms of the ego (Freud et al), along with the later developmental theory of object-relations (Winnicott et al) that illuminated the functioning of the mind. With this foundation, seemingly inexplicable behavior could be now described in cause-effect terms.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the understanding of the material world pushed past the boundaries of classical physics to explain phenomena such as ‘black body radiation’ and the ‘photoelectric effect’ (quantum theory), finally moving to a explanation of the fundamental structure of ‘everything’ (string theory, loop quantum gravity).
Sociology and economics have tried to provide an understanding of collective behavior at depth, but they often fail because they do not take into account the fundamentals of human nature (including the contribution of genetics via evolutionary psychology).
Soma, Psyche, and Soul
Since the start of the industrial revolution, when families were no longer centered on a farm or a family-run trade and men (and women) had to travel to and work in factories, there has been a growing sense of disconnection that has led to the growth of various forms of pathological behavior. Attempts to explain this often focus on issues such as poverty, lack of education, pollution, and ‘capitalist oppression.’ As we entered into the post-industrial era in the 1990’s, people’s sense of well-being and satisfaction was not mirrored by the West’s growing affluence.
The arts reflect the unconscious ocean generated by the totality of individual and collective experience in a given time and place. The harmony and order of 18th and early 19th-century music was replaced by atonality, noise, and guttural sounds. Representational art was replaced by abstract and conceptual art. The ugly and ungainly replaced the beautiful in all forms of expression including architecture and poetry. Why?
To understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to understand human nature at depth. Human beings consist of three components: soma, psyche, and soul, each with its own set of needs. Soma consists of all the physiological functions of the body – eating and digestion, blood circulation, organ systems, etc. They operate without willful intervention.
Psyche is the component of ‘mind.’ It includes instincts, emotions, motivations, reason, and will.
The soul is distinct from psyche. It is the component of human nature that seeks connection, meaning, identity, beauty, and transcendence. It seeks these because they are its fundamental needs. A human body can survive without a functioning psyche and a psyche can survive without a vibrant soul, but the consequences of not having needs met either in full or at some level of satisfaction are far-ranging.
If soma does not have its needs met, the consequences are physical pain and/or distress, disease, and if, severe enough, death. If the psyche’s needs are denied, the results are personality disorders, neurosis, psychosis, dissociation, fulminating madness, and suicide.
What about the soul? Here, the consequences range from depression to joylessness to pathological acting out and ultimately, to fear-tinged torment and soul death. With the exception of in-born sociopathic personalities, almost every individual and collective social pathology observed today is the result of the increasing starvation of the soul. If the soul needs of an entire society or civilization are unmet, it eventually dies or is conquered.
Modernity, technology, and the organization of society that resulted inhibit the ability of the soul to find connection, identity, meaning, and transcendence. Because of this, the souls of people in the West are in torment. The soul of modern man is silently screaming but few can hear it.
In the hierarchy of the soul’s needs, the need for connection lies at the foundation. It takes many forms. At the beginning of life, it manifests as the need for the warmth, closeness, and mirroring of the mother. Without these, soma withers, the psyche retreats into a self-constructed defensive fortress and the soul is stillborn. No further growth or individuation takes place. If the deprivation is severe enough, the person’s soma will reject nurturance, and the body will wither and die.
The next level of the connection hierarchy is the need for a close, loving, extended family that either resides with the mother and father or is nearby. Until the Industrial Revolution, fathers worked in, or in close proximity to the family’s dwelling rather than in remote factories. This added to a child’s sense of connection and security. The role of the father has been denigrated in our feminist culture, but most studies show that children who do not have both parents in a home do not develop as successfully as those who do. Until the second half of the 20th century, multi-generational homes were a commonplace, as were families where each child had siblings. In addition, and especially in ethnic neighborhoods, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews living close by were once the norm.
For untold generations, the fundamental unit of human habitation was the tribe (or clan) where each member had common genetic roots with all the others. The tribe could be nomadic and relatively small or settled and larger. Our evolutionary psychology came to favor this configuration. Those individuals who evolved to cooperate with and find a useful role in the tribe advanced their genes to the next generation. What emerged over time was the shared guardianship of children where each member of the tribe was expected to look out for every child no matter if it was their own or another’s. Over many generations, the tribe became a settlement or village and the villages coalesced into larger units such as counties, cities, nations, and races. But until recently the common genetic heritage remained intact. The remnants of this social organization are found only in organic communities which themselves are rapidly disappearing as urbanization and mass immigration accelerates.
Set in the Hebrides, I Know Where I’m Going, a 1945 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger shows how life in an organic community is a continuity across generations and clans where the connection to place is more powerful than the siren song of wealth.
The recent British drama series, Call the Midwife, takes place in another organic community – Poplar, a part of the East End of London in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The series shows the near infinite web of connections among the people of this community and how it provides a powerful sense of belonging to each individual. Bicycles are left unlocked and unguarded in the street. Children play in the streets watched by an invisible network of adult and older sibling’s eyes. The tragedy of one family becomes the tragedy of the community and joy is shared almost universally. The cash nexus does not dominate the interchanges among the people of Poplar, rather it is the sense of being one extended family and the resultant acts of trust and kindness. The loss of being part of an organic community, such as Poplar (or Great Paxford in the WW2 British series, Home Fires) has been the single most damaging change to the soul of modern man. Disconnection runs deep in our age and its pain is covered up by a multiplicity of substitutes that run from food fetishism to drugs, to mindless television and video games, and to eschatological political movements.
There is another element that has also played a significant role in loss of satisfaction for the soul – deracination – the loss of connection to a place. In the past, with the exception of nomadic tribes, people spent almost all of their lives in a single place that had clear boundaries. In medieval Europe, to venture less than a mile past the boundaries of one’s village could mean that a person would not be able to find their way back. Over time, place and people merged into larger, but fundamentally integrated nations.
The automobile effectively ended the era of cohabiting extended families and organic communities. After World War II, faceless suburbs replaced genuine neighborhoods, as those neighborhoods themselves were destroyed by urban renewal. Much has been written about this phenomenon and its long-lasting effects on social comity. However, it is only part of the larger network of changes that blew apart the intricate tapestry of connections that had come to define human life and had satisfied the soul’s need for connection. The ultimate logical endpoint of these changes is globalization and the total loss of any sense of connection.
The last (and only truly) integrating technology was broadcast radio. It enabled the creation of large (virtual) communities across the nation. This sharing of cultural expression even lasted into the early days of television where a large percentage of the nation’s families might watch one particular show on a given night (e.g. Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights and Milton Berle on Tuesday evenings). This community-enhancing experience was destroyed by the appearance of cable television and its fragmentation of the national audience into hundreds of different channels. Marketing, instead of addressing the entire nation, sought to influence specific demographic segments that were drawn to a particular menu of programs. This fragmentation happened along multiple axes: age, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, political orientation, education, and class. The sense of an extended national family to which each citizen belonged was irrevocably shattered.
The Internet completed the job of fragmentation with utter finality. Highly sophisticated data analysis tools are applied to influence, manipulate, and propagandize. The walls of each interest or belief ghetto are gradually raised until there is virtually no communication among them.
To visit Los Angeles is to experience the Ultima Thule of disconnection. In LA, people are means, not ends. Each individual exists as an atom in a sea of unrelated atoms. A person who can thrive in this spiritual dessert has already cashiered their soul and is living on fumes. Hollywood is both a cause and effect of this soulless desolation. Here, truth is optional in every interaction and it is only one’s place in the power hierarchy that means anything. Thrill-seeking and ‘bling’ in all its forms (houses, jewelry, clothes, expensive toys, and sex partners) is the primary pursuit. If Dante could have stood on Wilshire Blvd. for a few hours, the Inferno would have had a whole collection of executive producers.
Identity / Meaning / Purpose
After connection, the most important needs of the soul are identity, meaning, and purpose. Every person needs to know who they are and to feel their life has meaning and a purpose other than the quotidian round of work, consumption, and pursuit of pleasure.
Before modernity, identity was a given. It was provided by the family and region one was born into and the work that one did. Family names reflected this. As the first industrial revolution took hold, identity became more fluid and uncertain. It gave birth to romanticism and nationalism where the former elements of identity were slowly replaced by myth, nature, and ethnicity (perfectly exemplified by the operas of Richard Wagner). The recent explosion of identity politics is a weak substitute for the more grounded forms of the pre-modern world. Race, sexual orientation, and gender are desperately clung to by people who have lost the more natural components of identity.
Evolution programmed in two gender-specific paths: for women, reproduction and the nurturance of children, and for men, the provisioning and protection of their families, both immediate and extended (up to and including clan, tribe, and nation). To carry out these tasks, women are psychologically best-suited to work collectively among an egalitarian circle of other women drawn from their extended families and the larger community, while men are designed to work and thrive in hierarchies of other men directed towards accomplishing a mission.
Until modernity, this ordering of roles was accepted and gave meaning to every individual life. Of course, there were both women and men who did not fit their gender roles, but for the overwhelming majority, they gave a deep sense of meaning to their lives. Feminism, especially in its later stages, attempted to delegitimize gender roles – all too successfully. This led to deep unhappiness and many unsatisfied women and men as they tried to fit themselves into roles that were unnatural. But the social pressure from the elites of society proved so powerful that even the widespread consequences of gender deformation and the consequent lack of deep meaning and purpose (loneliness, depression, drug use) were not enough to engender a re-embracing of the deeper and more satisfying gender roles. In this sense, men have had an easier time because men can still find quasi-satisfying missions in business or the military, while women who chose to not have children and families have no such recourse.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Peter Watson in his recent book, The Age of Nothing, describes the consequences of the Nietzschean declaration of the death of God. The ebbing away of Christianity (recounted in Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach quoted above) left a void in the souls of the West that has not been filled. It engendered a search for substitutes including political religions (such as progressivism and fascism), cults (such as Scientology), hedonism (hypersexuality), neo-Paganism (Burning Man Festival), New Ageism (Yoga) and a plethora of other desperate pursuits. However, without a profound relationship to a transcendent belief system, the soul is left naked in a cold, indifferent universe.
Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West describes the results of a civilization losing its motivating, foundational myth. It removes the confidence and resilience needed to overcome the challenges (internal and external) that it will inevitably face. A clear sign of this loss of confidence is when people no longer have enough children to maintain the population. It is also when unrestrained immigration is allowed from foreign/alien cultures that do not share the foundational myths and beliefs of the civilization. Just as the western Roman Empire’s overthrow by Germanic tribes was the result of a loss of meaning and identity by indigenous Romans, Europe’s demographic suicide and surrender to Islamic conquest in this century will be a direct consequence of its hollowed-out soul.
The two foundational myths of the West were salvation through Christian piety and unbridled progress achieved through the discoveries of science and the inventions of technology. The first myth was a victim of the second one. And the second one is a chimera because it does not recognize that the internal logic of technology is antithetical to the human soul.