Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Enlightened Society versus Enlightening Society

A while back I went on a Buddhist meditation retreat. Admittedly, I didn't go with the most open mind—or, rather, my mind was too open and it frightened me. Either way, I left early and with a long list of complaints about the Buddhist doctrine. In the end, the crux of it lies in the title of this essay. Tibetan Buddhism is an effort to create an enlightening society. That is, a society that uplifts all its members to a state of enlightenment through years of meditation and dedication. In the end, they will all have a perfect understanding of their own nature, and through this understanding they'll be able to overcome those impulses which degrade society, such as jealousy and lust. Although this vision is beautiful, there's a potentially insurmountable obstacle in its way. In order for an enlightening society to fulfill its goal, all its citizens must willingly participate. Not only will many be too busy farming, building, and otherwise running society to meditate, otherwise will simply refuse. Because of this, an enlightening society can achieve part of its goal, but it will likely never get completely there. Workers and rebels will remain unenlightened.

In contrast, an enlightened society does not attempt to bring each of its citizens to a state of self-knowledge. Rather, the society itself has a perfect understanding of human nature and is structured in such a way as to account for it. In this way, it doesn't matter if a farmer understands his desire for sex. Rather, within an enlightened society, he'll be able to pursue this desire without it harming those around him. How exactly this would work is still unclear, because we have yet to attain a perfect understanding of human nature. Perhaps what some psychologists say is true, and it is not in our nature to couple for more than five years at a time. If this is the case, than the institution of marriage would have to be reworked. Perhaps, instead, life-long love does exist but its nature changes over the course of years. If that's the case, then once again marriage would have to be reworked to account for these stages.

The way I'm describing an enlightened society, it sounds like the kind of place that would engineered by psychologists. Perhaps, now that we've distanced ourselves so much from our roots, that exactly what it will take. What I'm proposing isn't inherently unnatural, though. In fact, it is the very essence of human nature. All of our instincts and impulses, though they might be out of place in a modern setting, were once essential survival skills. Anger, greed, gluttony, pride. All these things we so vehemently suppress today did once before help our ancestors survive. For over 100,000 years, people lived in small hunter-gatherer societies. Over those 100,000 years, our social instincts evolved. For that kind of society, human nature is perfectly adapted, just as thousands of years of evolution have perfectly adapted a fennec fox to its Saharan environment. Modern man is a species taken out of its environment, and this is causing both dissatisfaction and conflict with our own nature. An enlightened society acknowledges that we're better suited to another way of life and it attempts to recreate the setting in which we evolved, so that we can once again be natural.

This is not to say that an enlightened society must be a society of small hunter-gatherer tribes. Rather, it's a society that—through a comprehensive understanding of human nature—can satisfy and account for our instincts as effectively as possible without reducing the scope of today's civilization.

1 comment:

  1. the concept you're describing sounds like permaculture for people.

    hey timothy, it's susannah. i've been reading and enjoying your blog, but i don't see a way to email you anywhere-- will you shoot me an email so we can be in touch? its (my first and last name) at gmail. hope you're well, talk to you soon.