Why The World Is Sick
My wife is a psychotherapist, and so one of the most fascinating discussions we have (among many!) is whether the world is sick because of politics, or philosophy – or because of the family.
Her belief, of course, is that everything starts with the family. Politicians are mentally sick because they were treated badly as children. Raise the standard of parenting, she believes, and the world will be well.
I find her theory (and not just her theory!) extremely seductive. It is so important to understand what is making the world sick, so that whatever it is can be opposed. You don’t want to fight for cleaner air if the pollution is in the water.
And there is no doubt that she is right. Parenting is universally abysmal. Children are ordered and managed, not listened to and understood. Even liberal parents shut out their children’s unpopular questions and opinions. ‘Politeness’ is a great scourge, of course, since it enslaves the child to the shallow opinions of vain people. ‘Culture’ is another great child-killer, since it inflicts false pride and empty conformity. ‘Religion’ replaces clear reality with bullying language and hellish intimidation. Parental authority is a pure lie, since most parents are little more than empty incompetents, more than half-children themselves.
The only problem with my wife’s excellent formulation is that it tends to be a little circular, like much psychological causality. Why are people sick? Their parents are sick! There remains no First Cause.
One of the greatest problems that parents face is that they base their authority on the logic of universal morality, without being themselves logical to the slightest degree. ‘Respect your parents’ is an obvious example of this kind of illogic; there are countless others. No wisdom is objectively granted to people through the mindless act of giving birth. Rather, it would seem that parents are far more corrupt than children, since children themselves don’t have dependents, and so have little power to abuse the helpless.
It is very important to understand what sorts of ideas the parent is compelled to bully the child about. Very few parents bully their children about the fact that it gets dark at night, or that a mattress is softer than a rock, or that chocolate tastes good, or that food is kept in the fridge. In other words, no parent needs to bully a child about what that child experiences directly. No parent yells at a child about the fact that objects are subject to gravity, or that a bike has round wheels.
In other words, what is true does not need to be inculcated. Valid and verifiable ideas do not need to be inflicted through emotional pressure. If a child wonders whether a cat is in a closed box, no mother must manipulate the child into believing either way: she just opens the box, and they see. It is all very simple.
However, the parent faces a great challenge when he desires to get a child to believe something that is false, or self-contradictory – for which there is no evidence, either rational or sensual.
For my wife, one of these was that ‘Greeks are best’. This was played out a number of ways ‘Be proud of your culture’. ‘Our religion is the best’. It was a short step to another chestnut: ‘Not only are Greeks the best, but we are the best Greeks.’
Now of course this is all nonsense. There are only two possibilities for Greek virtue: either Greeks are best because they possess specific virtues – such as honesty – or Greeks are best because they come from a specific geographical location. If honesty is what makes Greeks the best, then anyone who is honest is equally good – and any dishonest Greek person is not the best. In other words, being Greek has nothing to do with being the best. If geography is the key, then there is no reason to suppose that being from Greece is better than being from any other place. Also, is a Muslim born in Greece better than a Greek person raised in Saudi Arabia?
Finally, ‘Greece’ doesn’t even exist. Land and trees and water exist. ‘Greece’ does not. Greece is a fiction with passports – which are also a fiction. ‘Culture’ also does not exist. Even ‘beliefs’ do not exist in any verifiable manner, since they can change minute by minute, and only the person who is reporting that he holds those beliefs knows if he in fact does or not. If you ask me: ‘are you thinking of the colour blue?’ is there any way to verify whether my response is accurate or not? There is no truth-value to subjective statements. They are absolutely immaterial, ethereal opinions without substance. They exist as a category, as the category ‘clouds’ exist, but they have no more reality than the specific shape of an invisible, shifting individual cloud in deep space behind the moon.
In short, who cares?
Now parents have a great problem on their hands when they have children.
There are so many things that parents believe that are not true, and here they have coming into their lives inquisitive, rational, empirical and honest creatures. How are they to establish their authority in the face of their own falsehoods – especially given the natural rationality of children?
Well, either they must give up their own illusions, or they must bludgeon their children’s fresh minds with the ghostly clubs of their own fantasies.
The first fantasy, of course, is authority. ‘Authority’ is a singularly silly concept, since reality is the only real ‘authority’ in human existence. If I cannot breathe, I will die – no human ‘authority’ can deem otherwise. A knowledgeable scientist may be deemed an authority, but his authority is based only on his knowledge of the facts of reality. Knowledge of reality is all that counts. But of course parents have almost no knowledge of reality – they prefer mad fantasies such as patriotism or religion or social conformity. And it is for that reason that they must compel and bully and humiliate their children into surrendering their integrity, honesty, morality and mental health to the sick fantasies of the vast majority.
And it is for this reason that families are so unutterably lonely. I can only relate to you through tangible reality – we cannot merge minds, and we cannot meet in dreams. Only through our physical senses can we meet, through speech, vision and touch. Yet most human sicknesses arises from the direct rejection of reality – and those who deny reality deny contact, comfort, intimacy and all the sweet solace of love. Yet people remain addicted to all their alienating fantasies about the supremacy of concepts, rather than accept the simple facts of the senses.
My wife and I almost never misunderstand each other. If she says that she is hungry, I don’t imagine that she is secretly rebuking me for not feeding her. If she feels sad, I do not fantasize that she is going to leave me. And why would I? She has given me no evidence to! Yet most relationships lurk in this murky world of imagined slights and intentions. And how could they do otherwise? Children, forced to comply with the lies of their parents, learn to read people, not reality. They strive to divine the impossible – the secret mind of another.
Many years ago, I was on a beach in Mexico. I was reading Nietzsche, because I am a relentless philosophy geek, and I was watching a bird peck at grains of bread buried in the sand. And the thought came to me: my primary relationship is with the sand, not the bird! It is physical reality that I must relate to and understand – not the motives and thoughts of others. If others want to share their thoughts, good. I may be happy to listen. But I will not attempt to divine their motives, since that is impossible. Even if, after hours of thought, I was able to perform such a miracle, those motives would have likely changed. It is like trying to paint the ocean, with each wave simultaneous and correct.
So – my wife is right, and I am right. The world is sick because of the family, and the family is sick because fantasies have taken the place of philosophy. To save the world, we need better parenting – and to save parents, we need true philosophy.
One last thought, or perspective perhaps. The question which always seems to arise, to me anyway, is: why do people believe so much nonsense?
Ah, that is simple – and perhaps already understood by those who have read a number of these essays. People believe nonsense because they are taught nonsense. And people teach nonsense because they are well paid to do so, and would not be well paid otherwise. To understand this at its most elemental level, imagine how successful a sadist is in a slave-owning society – and imagine how unsuccessful a sadist is in a free market. By beating and terrorizing the slaves, he breaks their will to escape – and so reduces the cost of ownership. However, in a free market, a boss who beats his employees will go to jail.
It is far from likely that the sadist will be able to change his nature – and so, knowing that the difference between slavery and freedom is, for him, the difference between wealth and jail – he will do everything possible to ensure that slavery remains the law of the land.
Think of a priest. How would he receive his money if his lies were not believed? Think of the Vatican, or the synagogue? How would Catholic or Jewish leaders reap their millions without poisoning the minds of the children?
For parents the ‘virtue of the family’ is a highly profitable fiction since they get to be taken care of in their old age. We are all constantly told that blood relations are the most important, and that obedience and forgiveness are the highest virtues. There are almost no parental misdeeds which we are not supposed to forgive. We can divorce our spouses for mere differences, but never our parents, with whom we have even less in common as the years pass. When our parents finally get old and frail, they need our time, money and attention – and what do they have to offer us in return? The pleasure of their company? Not likely. At least when we were children we received, food and shelter for putting up with them – what is our benefit when they get old?
Like all bad people, the only thing that parents have to offer their children is: relief from a pain that the parents themselves are inflicting. In other words, like priests, parents provoke guilt, and then offer relief from that guilt in return for slavish obedience. And because children know nothing of philosophy – and very little of reality – their behaviour is ruled by the needs and desires of those around them, rather than the objective reality of the situation. As mentally-crippled emotional dependents, adult children fear nothing more than disapproval, regardless of its source. Thus aging parents get taken care of – reaping all the rewards of virtue – simply by repeating and cashing in on the prevailing social views that only bad people don’t care of aging parents.
It is impossible to imagine that people who are benefiting from a scam will act to change it. Thus it is up to the adult children to refrain from supporting parents who are not good people – and this includes parents who did not promote individuality and rationality in their children. (Most parents, in fact.) If we do not stop rewarding sickness, we cannot ever expect the world to be healthy.
Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a “Top 10” Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.