The Degenerate Age

Have you noticed that philosophers, stoics, hermits, religious folks, true artists and so on always decry their own society as being a degenerate one? There is always this claim that some societies of yore were ideal, superior, and their cultures were richer. If you look into the philosophical canon, you’ll see this tendency starts with Plato (or Socrates) and Confucius–whom point to the courts of the philosopher kings of antiquity as the ideal societies of humanity. This grim critique continues on through to folks like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger–all of whom lament the impending industrial and capitalist drive thinning their European cultures and exponentially increasing the world population.

The spiritual movements of the late 19th century also saw this as important; the Blavatskys, Yeats and Crowleys of the world all used the gravitas and ethos of impending cultural, spiritual and environmental death to promote their works or groups. And even today, Buddhist lineages tell us we are living in the degenerate age, Christian fundamentalists insist the end of days are coming, and martial arts masters like Ueshiba and Hatsumi tell us we are living in “an era of blatancy” in which martial arts are more necessary than ever.

And honestly, you have to admit, that if you’re a remotely contemplative person, you have doubts about a positive future for mankind.

But why is that? Isn’t that really just some kind of personal spin? Some attachment that comes from a jaded search for purpose in one’s life, which relegates one to solitude? Because it seems to me, that in every single generation, there are a handful of individuals who lament the direction of the future; and instead of trying to harness its direction (a task which would take up all of one’s time for serious contemplation) they scorn the movement of mainstream culture and society.

To doubt society as a whole is easy; doubt is a potent altar to pray at. And even more so for anyone who studies liberal arts in colleges and so on. Those folks will find the main skills they’re learning are writing and how to critically analyze literature to form an argument. In other words, critical thinking. And critical thinking is certainly a helpful tool.

But a lot of people overdo it. A lot of people get attached to critical thought, or unknowingly enjoy it, hoard it, engross themselves in it. But it’s just a tool like anything else, and can easily overpower a person’s psyche. I’m not saying it’s bad to critically think things over, but it isn’t a recipe for any kind of happiness. And happiness isn’t a matter of being ignorant and blissful. It’s a matter of knowing what is worth critically analyzing, taming the mind and knowing when to stop analyzing things.

I think this is part of what makes people so damning of the society around them. Don’t get me wrong, I do think pop culture sucks and I actually think most new culture is boring or I can’t relate to it. And this is largely because everything is now a product being aimed at the lowest common denominator. But this is the direction of things. The blatancy society has built within its culture is due to humanity’s ignorant desires–the desperate search for power, stability and self-deification, the result of which is a rapidly approaching evolution into transhumanism. Everybody helped create and shared in this ignorance. After all, we’re all human too (for better or for worse).

Although society disappoints me, and I have trouble putting a whole lot of faith in other people, I am much more bothered by conditioned phenomena. Conditioned phenomena inherently sucks, and that’s why every modern era seems to be poor and shallow in comparison to some old zeitgeist; some past time and place which seems so romantic in the present.

Just for fun, here’s a little Kierkegaard (from Either/Or) on the subject:

Of all ridiculous things in the world what strikes me as the most ridiculous of all is being busy in the world, to be a man quick to his meals and quick to his work. So when, at the crucial moment, I see a fly settle on such a business man’s nose, or he is bespattered by a carriage which passes him by in even greater haste, or the drawbridge is raised, or a tile falls from the roof and strikes him dead, I laugh from the bottom of my heart. And who could help laughing? For what do they achieve, these busy botchers? Are they not like the housewife who, in confusion at the fire in her house, saved the fire-tongs? What else do they salvage from the great fire of life?

It’s not like I disagree with him: he’s right on the money. But I’m pretty convinced that unconditioned reality is where it’s at. So I don’t spend a whole lot of free time dwelling on how lousy conditioned reality is. It is a given, after all…


4 Responses to “The Degenerate Age”

  1. I think too much. I think about things that don’t even matter; I always have, and I knowingly enjoy it. When these types of thoughts multiply, I gain nothing but distraction, a sense of peace (boredom), and a cycle of depression. Whenever I have an abstract thought that leads to another, which eventually leads to a nihlistic view-point, then spntaneously after, a pessimistic view-point, I feel as if I have some strange, captivating, intriguing secret. However, a secret without a purpose is useless.

    Thinking “critically” about things that will not impact anyone ever, except for the person who dwells on the thought, is a waste of time and life. Yeah, I can write interesting poetry when I think this way, but poetry is only the reresentation of how life is to the writer. Life is what matters most. Poetry is about life and life is about happiness. One cannot find happiness by simply writing.
    Psychiatrists used to tell me, “Write it down” so I could “Let it out”, but writing about depressing stuff comes from thinking about depressing stuff, which just augments depression.

    Nay-sayers suck, and are a huge contribution to things not being acheived.
    Pessimists don’t solve people-problems, either, and neither do nihlists. Since everyone is a hedonist by nature, everyone should be acting on their hedonism. In other words, I spent good time feeling down when I should have been thinking something useful, or just hanging out with friends and meeting new people. Afterall, I’m only 16. So, now I basically I now know have to do; thanks for the article.

  2. parallelsidewalk Says:

    I’ve noticed this myself. Orthodox Sunni Islam (the predominant variety) tells us that Islam was this pure, wonderful thing for three generations after the prophet and then slowly degenerated til one of 73 sects would be the only correct Islam left (needless to say, everyone thinks they’re in the 73rd sect). When I was still orthodox I believed all this, then read perspectives on Islamic history by the Shia and secular writers and realized that Muhammad’s corpse hadn’t been cold when the various factions, people we’re supposed to revere and base our lives and legal framework on, started intriguing, oppressing, and killing each other. This golden age never existed. Hindus and (some) Sikhs talk about the Kali Yuga and how we’re there or close, but if you read the actual way Kali Yug is described, it’s pretty nuts and probably more metaphorical than anything. I’m guilty of it, I like to bemoan living in the US and talk about how badly Americans have drifted from the nobility of the founding fathers, etc etc, but realistically they weren’t a bunch of saints either. There was never and will never be an enlightened age; we’re just HERE. Gotta make the best of that, right after we figure out what ‘the best’ is.

  3. wizardsmoke Says:

    Hey folks, good thoughts!

    Trystan – I feel the same way about channeling emotions into writing or art. It certainly is therapeutic, but can also be a vessel or prayer for negative emotions. So it’s not the only way of dealing with those things. By the way, you sound a lot more optimistic than I did when I was 16!

    parallelsidewalk – I’m only minutely familiar with Kali Yuga and the Sikh tradition, and I’m poorly read up on Islamic prophecy and polemicism. So I’m always intrigued to know more about these traditions, or get a different perspective on them.

  4. parallelsidewalk Says:

    Basically, Kali Yuga is a fairly universal concept in many South Asian teachings, despite the Hindu name (even Muslim Sufi teacher Bawa Muhayadeen used it in reference to the modern world). It’s also mentioned in the Sikh holy book, the Adi Granth, even though Sikhs do not believe in Kali, being strict monotheists, although they use stories of Hindu gods as parables sometimes.

    Islamic prophecy that supposedly was spoken by Muhammad (nothing was put to paper within his lifetime or, with the exception of the Qu’ran itself, within the next 80 years) defines the end times and is often pointed to as pertaining to the present; it includes such marks as women being nearly naked in everyday life and people walking by graves and saying “would that I were in his place”. I’m skeptical both because I’m not sure they’re authentic anyway, and even if they were, it doesn’t sound that different from many places and times over the centuries.

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