Tuesday, 3 July 2007

an individual dealing with american culture

So I've been reading a lot about Seneca lately (you know, the old Roman philosopher dude) and the innovations he had made in the formulation of selfhood, behavioral modification, and happiness of Roman Stoic philosophy.

Prior to Seneca, a person who wanted to live a "virtuous" life would turn, inevitably, toward the opinion of the society. One would formulate their decisions, self-presentation, and attitude based on the reaction and expectations of the society. So a senator could know that he was living virtuously because he would gain the approval of the people around him. Even when alone, moreover, the guiding voice of virtue in his head would be the voice of public opinion - the expectations of the society were internalized as his model of behavior.

When Seneca began his theorizing, the Empire was in a sorry state: emperors with unlimited power (and often abusive of that power), aristocrats out for money or brown-nosing their way into power, afraid to criticize the emperor even for the most atrocious of deeds. In short, "public opinion" was fucked. Seneca therefore tweaked the guiding model of Stoic philosophy, encouraging people to turn inwards rather than outwards for their models of behavior. There were no living icons to follow - he had to create one and follow it, even when it encouraged his behavior to go against what had become the cultural norm.

Which brought me to think about American culture. I think American culture is very much screwed up, and (at least for those of us who are not blessed with kabillions of dollars in family wealth) moderating one's behavior by the cultural expectations of our day will likely result in depression, eating/exercise disorders (anorexia, bullimia, bingeing, or obesity), ill health, exhaustion, and happiness generated only by our children and our material goods. My initial thoughts focused on our obesity problem and restaurant portion sizes, but I suppose it applies to any one of our many cultural standards.

In simple terms, we have two levels of decision-making. The first level, a basic level, is our conditioned instinct. Freud called it an "id," it has been seen as our "bestial" or "appetitive" part, and it is our baseline for decision-making - what we want. There exists a second level of decision-making - as Bartsch terms it, "what we want ourselves to want." This level of thought is where we have a sense of right and wrong, what we ought to be doing, what we idealize for ourselves as the "correct" mode of behavior. Now, it is this second level of decision-making that often coincides with conditioned cultural norms - we know that a bright red dress will stand out at a cocktail party, so, however much we like the red dress, we choose the black one because it is more fitting to the social expectation.

So what can we do when our culture tells us that it is appropriate to gorge ourselves on unhealthy food, exploit others for the sake of personal gain, pimp out our giant rides (using up our savings), take up space, bomb other countries under false pretense, work overtime, rub antibacterial gel all over ourselves five times a day, etc.? The results of conforming to this, as I've said above, are not good for us individually or for the rest of our citizens. It could also be argued (but this is a topic for another time) that our conformity without questioning the norm only perpetuates these unhealthy and unethical cultural practices and beliefs.

We need, therefore, to divorce ourselves from public expectation. We need to reject the large restaurant portions, the giant cars, the antibacterial gel, popcorn at the movie theatre, guns in our houses, the pedestrian-bereft suburbs, and mom's apple pie. We need to sit and imagine actual ethical behavior and create our own interlocutor to guide us toward virtuous living. Wow, and maybe that's why evangelical Christianity has taken up so easily as of late - a set of guiding principles alternative to (and more ethical, in some senses, than) those capitalist and exploitative secularities that have gotten our country into its current state. I suppose Jesus is a better interlocutor than Colonel Sanders.

Of course, modern Christianity has its own problems (a huge topic, but for starters, the believers should think more about modelling their own decisions after Jesus; he seems to have been a pretty ethical individual), and for the non-believers, we need to do a little bit more legwork to come up with our own standards for ourselves, standards that will help us be happy and ethical people.

Which brings me back to Seneca. Aside from philosophy, he also wrote a bunch of tragic plays, in which (as Bartsch has argued in The Mirror of the Self) characters who have created their own set of guiding principles, against the expectations of their societies, commit horrible atrocities that make perfect logical sense in their own heads. By breaking ourselves from societal expectation, we also risk losing all sense of ethical behavior and guiding ourselves by a faulty set of beliefs (like those bloody misled Objectivists). Nevertheless, we must rethink our formation of self if we hope to save ourselves from the harm our culture currently inflicts on us.

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