Last week I blandly stated we are not living natural lives and gave a few examples. I have have decided to go a little deeper into this.
Daoism, the frame of reference adopted in these pieces, favours naturalness and not stress and artifice. The Sage, according to Chuang Zi, is to ‘mingle with the myriad things and become one with them’ (Chap 1). Elsewhere in the Chunagzi naturalness is figured in much less exalted terms: ‘Follow the middle; go by what is constant, and you can stay in one piece, keep yourself alive, look after your parents, and live out your years’ (Chap 3). And of course the Daodejing provides us with the test as to whether people, or societies, are following the Dao as they should: ‘What is not the Way will come to an early end’ (TTC 55).
There is a danger, in talking about naturalness, of people thinking that you are falling into Arts and Crafts type nostalgia. The Arts and Crafts movement began in the later C19 in England under the impetus of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and William Morris. It opposed industrialisation and everything associated with it. It stressed handicrafts, local production, traditional crafts and designs and rural living. All these things are goods in themselves of course, but the way they were figured by many in the movement condemned them, as it were, always to be located somewhere in the past and lost, (the preferred location was the English Middle Ages, or early modern period).
The point, of course, in discussing a better way of life, is not to identify a period to ‘return to’, but a suite of features from different societies which, taken together, could make us better than we are. There have been very many imperfect societies in the past, and many good ones. If we can imitate the good ones (especially the sustainable ones), then we can become better, our society can last longer and under better conditions than our current outlook promises.
To return for a moment to the Arts and Crafts movement; although this movement had no practical influence on the development of English society, it has shaped many attitudes both in England, the US, Australia and elsewhere. I personally don’t like William Morris’s poetry, or his wallpapers, but I do like the music of Gerald Finzi, and the poetry of Edward Thomas, both arguably influenced by the movement, and I am glad that under its influence Vaughan Williams and others began collecting English folk-song and Arnold Dolmetsch starting making lutes, viols and other neglected instruments again (thus beginning the Early Music revival). I can also recognise the influence of this movement on the later C20 Green movement and I celebrate this.
The point is not to say ‘here is an ideology that is ahistoric, mistaken in part and wrong in its emphases’, it is to say, ‘here are these influences, let us weave these into our beliefs where they serve, (and seek out other influences that can add to our world-view, like Daoism).’ We cannot escape being part of an ideology that is blind to certain aspects of the world (‘The way that can be expressed is not the true Way’), but we can instead accept this and always be working on our ideology to make it better suit the times.
In fact, as chronicled through these blog posts, lack of a good ideology is the principal reason why we have unnatural lives; we need an ideology that helps us with living, not with what our lives might be in some impossible future.
To deal with some aspects of unnaturalness:
People in today’s society do not sleep enough, which is a danger to health, and do not follow the natural pattern of the day, by rising early with the sun and going to bed soon after it sets. It is also natural for people to sleep a little in the afternoon (the siesta). Alas the Anglo-Saxon culture of busyness has decreed that people have to work long hours pointlessly, so naturally many people in our society try to fit in everything they have to or want to do on top this and end up sleep deprived. The northern European cold-climate non-siesta culture is also infecting the world, making even people in warmer climates conform to this foolish frenzy of activity.
Similarly people do not eat well. Humans are highly adaptable omnivores and human society can show a vast range of diets from vegetarianism to almost total carnivory. Nevertheless in modernity people’s diet have become detached from all reason: the food industry that we have evolved in the C19 to supply the industrial workers with cheap and dependable slop. This is in contrast to earlier less dependable food provision which could sometimes dry up leading to famines. After this age of low quality abundance began people were no better off except for escaping the chance of inconveniently starving some times. Their diet did not supply all the nutrients required for good health, but people died of infectious diseases or accidents long before they died from the chronic ones produced by their diet.
However, now in the C21 century people are increasingly suffering from chronic diseases brought on by this poor diet and are being kept artificially alive by modern medicine.
Specifically our diet is mostly composed of low-quality carbohydrates and fats, with most foods being processed with these ingredients and stored far longer than they should be. Our food is same all year round, with none of the variety of seasonal foods that our ancestors ate (vegetables, for example, are often available year round, but in order for this to happen they have to be stored too long in cold storage, or (insanely) transported around the world).
Thirdly, people do not have the right types of activity to keep healthy. People used to keep healthy by their day to day activity, but people now have to find time to fit in ‘exercise’, which is frequently the wrong type of exercise at the wrong time of day (evening, when energy levels are naturally low). People think that exercise that tires you out and leaves you aching is good exercise. Contrast this to exercise that actually conserves your energy (such as Tai Chi and other traditional Chinese exercises). These exercises increase a person’s energy and strengthen the joints, instead of sapping one’s energy and straining the joints and muscles.
Many people, of course, do no exercise at all.
The net effect of these three types of unnaturalness is a population which has a long lifespan, but which passes it in a state of artificially-maintained life; a sickly population full of aches and pains and prone increasingly to auto-immune conditions, and with no vitality.
Next week: To be continued