Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sunday 11/6/16

Ours is an age of objectivity. But stripping away falsity is no guarantee of revealing essence. Ptolemy's problems were helped by Newton but not solved. Nor does Hegel's movement of history or Freud's maternal lust seem any better an explanation of some of life's mysteries than do storm gods. But one thing we do know: Vacuums need filled.

C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, tries to bridge the gap between what man can know and how he should act. He writes that the modern man "sees through" errors and preconceptions without visualizing a replacement for what has been lost. So the Enlightenment-inspired revelation of "what is not" does not necessarily reveal "what is." This leaves him in a world without moral or ethical rules, a subjective, individual world. Such a circumstance is new to mankind. There has always been an explanation, a reason,--even if fanciful--to explain our existence and the natural world around us. As brave as the humanist might sound, this has led to a new, unsettled, man. 

Anomie: noun
: 1. a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people. The "absence of accepted social values." This is a word from the literature of sociology.

This word originated in 1933, from Durkheim's book, Suicide (1897). He wrote that when a social system is in a state of anomie, common values and common meanings are no longer understood or accepted, and new values and meanings have not developed. According to Durkheim, such a society produces, in many of its members, psychological states characterized by a sense of futility, lack of purpose, and emotional emptiness and despair. Striving is considered useless, because there is no accepted definition of what is desirable.

The lack of a definition of what is desirable.

American sociologist Robert K. Merton turned around this "lack of the desirable." He argued that the desirable was well understood, it just was unachievable. He found anomie severest in people who lack an acceptable means of achieving their personal goals. Goals may become so important that if the institutionalized means—i.e., those means acceptable according to the standards of the society—fail, illegitimate means might be used. Greater emphasis on ends rather than means creates a stress that leads to a breakdown in the regulatory structure—i.e., anomie. If, for example, a society impelled its members to acquire wealth yet offered inadequate means for them to do so, the strain would cause many people to violate norms. The only regulating agencies would be the desire for personal advantage and the fear of punishment. Social behavior would thus become unpredictable.

Durkheim saw two elements in his "anomie:" Division of labor and rapid social change. Both of these led to "individualism," people making decisions outside of the usual guiding influences of the world and the society around them. Durkheim argued that while societal norms and regulations may appear to limit the behavior of individuals, a lack of norms, allowing individuals the freedom to do absolutely anything, actually traps them in a situation where success is impossible. When there is no agreed upon definition of desirable goals or acceptable ways in which to achieve those goals, there is also no way to achieve success.

This idea of the inability to measure success is an interesting one but the premise still has an obvious and unrewarding quality to it. He seems to be describing feral children. Not surprisingly, there was a literary movement that adopted this idea. In Albert Camus's existentialist novel The Stranger, the protagonist Meursault struggles to construct an individual system of values as he responds to the disappearance of the old. He exists largely in a state of anomie, as seen from the apathy evinced in the opening lines:  "Today Mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know." The problem with this genre is that it teaches no lesson; the story is almost over in the first sentence. Nor does the reader get much of a feel for struggle here. Meursault seems more defective than lost and the author is his reporter.

This is different from someone like Dostoevsky, whose characters often simply reject the norms. In The Brothers Karamazov, the character Dmitri Karamazov asks his atheist friend, "...without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?" Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, puts this philosophy into action when he kills an elderly pawnbroker and her sister, later rationalizing this act to himself with the words, " wasn't a human being I killed, it was a principle!" Here there is a real conflict as the character recognizes the norm--and rises above it. 
This is an authentic "individual," as dangerous as an idealistic revolutionary or an enthusiast. Such books should be kept out of the hands of children and sophomores.

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