November 26, 2016 by John Bruce Leonard
Complacency and Catastrophe
IT IS ONE of the pleasanter delusions fostered by times of general stability and prosperity, that the world as we know it—the world of peace and liberty, for example, in which we of the West have come of age and are by now thoroughly accustomed to existing—is imperishable. Such delusion takes the form of a popular, unsophisticated version of the doctrine that Fukuyama laid forth (and later himself emended) in The End of History and the Last Man.
This is all much less a question of philosophy than it is of attitude, of course, but it is an attitude which governs much of our actions nonetheless. It might be summed up as a kind of gut confidence that we really are living in the “end of history,” in the social order which has consummated all historical development, and which, one may presume, will last indefinitely. We have, it is generally felt (one should not dare to use the word thought in such a case), overcome at last those disturbances, wars, and revolutions which once wracked our Western countries with periodic regularity, and we need no longer dread those catastrophes of illness, weather, and nature, for we have instated the just social order and have harnessed the powers of nature sufficiently to stand against all but incidental difficulties. The Age of Plenty, we feel, shall protract itself across the face of the future.
I am aware, of course, of the periodic anxiety which seems now and then inexplicably to seize the heart of our public, in which the “end of the world” is said to be drawing nigh. There have been already two such episodes in our present young century alone—first, at its very birth, with the “Millennium Bug,” and again in 2012, with the ominous end of the Mayan Calendar. It may be we are even on the cusp of a third such wave of distress, with the election of Donald Trump to the office of presidency. We are already not distant from such proclamations.
Yet I wonder if these shrill fears of imminent cataclysm, genuine though they indubitably are, really run so deep as they sometimes seem. It appears rather to me that they are tempered finally by the more fundamental optimism of our well-fed, self-contented, pacific people. For truly, how many of those who claimed they were afraid of these disasters, actually did something in preparation of them? I mean to say—how many of them stockpiled food, medicine, or arms? How many of them cultivated survival tactics, or learned to live off the land, or prepared their houses for defense? Many, no doubt, awoke the morning of the presumably fatal day with flutterings of anticipation in their stomachs—but how many really lost sleep for it?
More yet: I spoke with a number of those who really did believe that at least 2012 would result in a world-historical upheaval. I met some who had stored food up against the disaster, and had readied their vegetable patches for all extremes. But what most struck me about such people was this: most of them were looking forward to what was coming. They believed, genuinely believed, that some undefined event—perhaps a volcano, a meteor, a devastating reversal of the gulf stream, an alien invasion, or the coming of the Antichrist—would uproot the very foundations of our corrupt and fatigued societies, hurling humanity into a chaos from which only disease, famine, and war general could result for many long decades, not to speak of the demise of the larger part of our race—and they were eager for it.
No surer sign could be given, I think, of the utterly naïve optimism in which most Westerners live their lives. And though there is something no doubt charming about such an attitude, and though it is disagreeable trying to wake people from such pleasant dreams, just as it is onerous to shatter a child’s illusions—yet atimes this ingenuity becomes really dangerous, to the point perhaps of preparing the very catastrophe whose possibility it so innocently and comfortably ignores.
For about a century now the Americans—and with them, all the Occident—have lived precisely in such a balmy adolescent dream. It shows in everything they do: their irresponsible consumption of all that is consumable; their personal economies, which can best be described with the term generally employed to absolve their government of similar irresponsibility, namely, deficit spending; their general support for international military practices which favor their lifestyles to the detriment and destruction of foreign lives; and the curious complacency with which they consider the newest technologies to be theirs by right.
None of this should surprise: we live in a world in which the most startling array of luxuries can simply be taken for granted, in which the larger part of diseases have their cure, in which the idea of war arriving at our shores—to say nothing of our front doors—is frankly absurd, the stuff of fiction or fairytale. We might be forgiven indeed for regarding the world in such an ingenuous light as we are prone to do—save that such a complacency makes us precarious, and threatens the very privileges we have learned so well to expect from and for our society.
But the world is turning, against all our inchoate notions of an “end of history,” and events of a most disagreeable countenance are indeed come to our threshold. Whether they shall pass over is another question: but the hour is well on us that we must ask ourselves—what, is it not time at last to grow up?
THOSE WHO NEVER DREAM of the hurricane, who doubt its existence at some deep level of their beings, may yet awake one day to find the storm tearing the roof from their homes. Simply because we do not perceive a danger does not mean it shall not fall upon our heads.
There are possibilities enough for just such a “storm” in our day. Whether it be the “environment” and the disturbing changes in global temperatures, or “state spending” run amok, or the “international situation” in which—as we know from experience of the last century, if only we care to remember—surprisingly little might suffice to conflagrate a war of unimaginable proportions, the possibilities do exist. Everywhere one looks today one sees conditions growing ready. The tree of catastrophe is overripe with heavy fruit, instability and uncertainty are insinuating themselves into public life, and the systems, the organizations, the very governments which stand between us all and the angry madness of anarchy have grown to such a point of tumescence and such an exaggerated largesse that they are hardly able any longer even to support their own bloated enormity.
It may be that nothing, in the end, comes of any of these bad possibilities: it may be that the perception of danger here is merely a misperception. And yet, it seems at least certain that there has never been such a potentiality for disaster in all the history of the world. We dwell as if in a house at the foot of many old dams, massive and aging over our heads, which in places have even begun to leak; and we bed down each night beneath their shadows, with the same doubt lingering over us: will they sunder, these old barriers and protectors, and bury us as we sleep?
Save that, far from knowing the answer to this question, we often enough do not even pose ourselves the problem. For we are convinced, in the very heart and bowels of us, that no harm of such a scale should ever befall our good societies, nor tear down all that we have built. Oh, would that conviction in this case sufficed for truth!
I, needless to say, am of a different persuasion. I fear—do not know, let this be clear, for whoever claims to know the future on any grand scale is naught better than a soothsayer—I fear that the next half century contains hard revelations for us all, disasters or disorders that will be most difficult for us in particular to cope with—we who are so spell-bound by our conditions of peace and plenty, and have never had even a little to develop the hard carapace of more martial virtues. We shall be, if my doubts do not mislay me, much as salamanders making our slow sure way unto a garden of spines.
And it would be well for us, if we awoke a little before arriving, to grow us a second skin.
IN THAT MOST ENTERTAINING tale by H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, we are presented with an insightful, even a quite eviscerating, analysis of human complacency. In that book, human beings come into contact with an alien race. Early attempts to approach the aliens peacefully result in death and destruction. The military is called upon, thus quelling the growing hysteria of the people. And even when the aliens begin to reek havoc on the English countryside, London remains relatively calm, for “there was still a fixed idea that these monsters must be sluggish.”
But shortly, when the reality of imminent danger finally becomes apparent to the English, a thriving colony of human organisms is reduced to “a boiling stream of people, a torrent of human beings…pressing and crowding one another.” The human race, so confident in its superiority, has been flung into utter pandemonium by merely fifty aliens. And these aliens themselves are not destroyed by our vast military potential (we succeed in eliminating only three of the fifty Martian machines): rather, they are killed, fortuitously, by bacteria.
The book ends apparently with a return to the status quo: society has evidently been preserved, and children play about the hollowed shells of the Martian invaders. Yet the civilization of the Martians themselves remains intact, and is spreading to other planets. The narrator himself nervously tells us, toward the finale, “I do not think that nearly enough attention is being paid to the matter [of a renewed Martian assault].” Notwithstanding the near destruction or enslavement of the entirety of our race, we have reduced the very symbols of the threat to a theme park for tourists, and we go pleasantly about our lives as though obliteration had not late stood upon our throats.
The parallels, I hope, are not lost on my readers. We stand, as it were, at the discovery of the Martians; we have only begun to draw out our white flags of peace to go before them seeking an embassy. This means, however, that we are still in time—
For what it is worth, I would like to present how I foresee our own near destinies shall unwind—though I preface this by saying that little enough qualifies me to be a prophet, and I have been dramatically mistaken regarding certain notable events of recent days. I do not believe it shall be as the Flood, nor as a Martian invasion: no cataclysm to rock our ship or strike us at a blow, no Vesuvius to rain cinders and flame upon our upturned and still startled faces. It shall sneak up on us at a tract, even though it has been perhaps forewarned for time already. We shall slide into it over the course of the years, probably even decades, and shall simply awake one day, finding ourselves in the midst of the trouble which has so long been coming, and now encircles us with the totality of the best planned ambush. And we shall look then at one another in wonder, asking—“What, now? How do we find ourselves here, when just yesterday the sun was up and the grass was cool beneath our feet, and our children were playing their games, and most of our worries were still lingering on the smallest matters imaginable?”
The form that it shall take, is not mine for the guessing—whether it will be the violence of the seasons that we have burdened to breaking with our excesses, or the gross lumbering enormity of the State which at last comes crashing down, bursting asunder on our heads, or the banshee of war which rises bloody and howling to claw at us with rending claws. This however I do know: in almost any case you please, almost any scenario one might suppose, if something of this magnitude does befall us, we ourselves shall have our feet in the blame of it; we, who have been living as if progress were a law of nature, as if we were owed every good thing beneath the sun and every innovation to come of our knowledge, as if we might live to the highest pitch of our hungers, and might swallow as much of the world as we could stomach, with nary a thought for the consequences. As if we could live merely private lives, divested of every thought toward civic or higher duty. If a disaster does come, it shall have been our own fingers that crafted it to its form.
And I say, no one who lives in times such as ours, before the cataclysm, sees with clarity what it shall be, or what form it shall take. But that does not excuse them: they first of all shall be held accountable for what they have wrought.
“WHAT, THEN? Are we to live in despair over hardships that may or may not arrive? And sleep uneasily in our beds, from fear of tomorrow, and become glum and sour, or even gloomy and bitter?”
Nay—on the contrary, my friends! It is even the opposite that I hope for. It is precisely that which I would spare you—for if we come, in our present attitudes, into any time of such sorrows, I promise that “glum and sour” and “gloomy and bitter” will appear to you a decided improvement over the despair which will conquer you. I would teach you good cheer—even in the face of adversity. Learn to live a little frugally; without the weight of all this materialism, one might become light enough to float on whatever flood may come. Take a little Stoical mirth into your hearts, of the kind that knows how to smile even when it is clad in rags, merely because the sun is shining. Look to that most American virtue of gratitude, which praises to the skies what it possesses, and knows to live well without what it does not. Drink of the font of seriousness to be found in laughter. Be a little moderate in your hopes, so that you may be moderate as well in your disappointments. Cease to pretend that pain is an objection to your existence, rather than the spice of it. I say—live a bit more as your forebears!
I ask of my contemporaries—without hoping anything from them, for in the end, I know them—I ask of them only this: namely, that they begin to live with an eye toward virtue, taking responsibility for what they sow now, and preparing themselves for the harvest they must make of it. It is a question, above all, of attitude. There is much that is moral in attitude, though we tend not to perceive it. We like to think of attitude as beyond the moral sphere: it is what comes upon us, and what we live in without necessarily wishing to. Our desires, our hopes, our wants and our needs—these are, after all, beyond our control, are they not? And so we cannot be held accountable for what they lead us to—is it not so? But I damn this as complacency. But I say, precisely these things are within our control, precisely they form the bedrock upon which we daily walk; and until we begin to hold ourselves accountable for them, nothing great can ever be hoped for from us.
And even if it should be that I am dead in the wrong, and things this coming century even improve for us, and prosperity, far from coming a cropper, begins to crop up the more thickly and thrivingly about or feet—even if all this should be so, my dear contemporaries, and an age is dawning to fulfill the most outrageous hopes of the most ingenuous meliorist among us—would you regret being the fitter of soul in fat times? And if you followed these prescriptions, and no crucible came to test you in your new qualities—would you begrudge possessing them? Would they do you harm, perchance, that you should shun them? Or would they not do you more good even in fortune than in despair?
I say, as much as these virtues would be serviceable in dark times, they should be brilliant in bright ones. We are paid well for improving ourselves—even, and especially, when the coin of our wages is invisible.
2. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which can be read as an allegory against the vice of complacency.
3. The Enchiridion of Epictetus and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus and Aurelius are two of the great Stoic writers of antiquity, whose extremely calming works and ideas could well be considered a most effective medic against complacency—one of those remedies, by which the ill is transformed into a boon.