November 19, 2017

A society that lost its Way

This short article outlining key elements of Goldsmith’s philosophy was published in the Weekend Financial Times, 1 July 1989.

I am a traditionalist. By that I mean that I see traditional society as the best we can achieve, and traditional man’s view of the world – or of the biosphere, or world of living things of which such a society is largely the product – as embodying the only wisdom.

It follows that, for me, the only acceptable way of seeing the biosphere is as it was always seen by our ancestors and is still seen by members of remaining traditional societies; those that have survived, however precariously, the holocaust of modernisation.

Traditional man has always known that the living world is one. As Father Placide Tempels wrote in his book Bantu Philosophy:

“For primitive man, the supreme wisdom consists in seeing the Cosmos as reflecting the unity of the order of living things.”

Traditional man also realises that it is from the living world that man, like all other forms of life, derives those benefits on which his welfare must inevitably depend and without which he cannot survive. I refer to such essential benefits as a stable climate, fertile soil and pure water. In contrast, modern man sees the technosphere, or man-made world – the produce of economic development or ‘progress’ – as the source of all benefits.

Traditional man also realises that Nature’s indispensable gifts are not provided unconditionally, as we naively assume them to be. The natural world only dispenses them if we religiously respect its critical structure. That is why the natural world has always been regarded by traditional man as sacred.

Thus, when the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu asks:

“Do you think you can take the world and improve it?”

he is asking a rhetorical question.

“I do not think it can be done”

is the implicit answer, for:

“The world is sacred. You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to help it, you will lose it.”

Significantly, modern science and hence modern scientific ecology (as opposed to the ecology of the Ecological or Green movement) rejects the very notion of the natural world’s critical structure or the ‘balance of Nature’. For science, the world is but a largely random arrangement of bits and pieces that we can rearrange to suit our short-term political and economic purposes with total impunity. For the economist, these bits and pieces are exclusively seen as resources crying out to be developed or, more precisely, cashed in and transformed into man-made commodities.

For modern man the technosphere or man-made world is the sole source of benefits. It is only in terms of the availability of man-made commodities such as cars, refrigerators, plastic buckets and processed foods that his standard of living is measured. Real biospheric benefits are simply taken for granted and are not even taken into account in that preposterous accounting system called modern economics.

For traditional man, there is a specific cultural behaviour pattern that assures the maintenance of this critical cosmic order. The Greeks referred to it as dike, which also meant justice and righteousness. It was only by observing the dike that man’s needs could be satisfied.

Thus the Greek poet Hesiod tells us that,

“when men do justice and do not go aside from the straight path of righteousness, their city flourishes and they are free from wars and famine . . . For them the earth brings forth food in plenty, and on the hill the oak tree bears acorns at the top and bees in the middle; their sheep have heavy fleeces, their wives bear children that are like their parents.”

The Taoists in China referred to very much the same concept as the Tao. The Buddhists called it Dharma, the Indians of Vedic times R’ta, while the ancient Persians knew it as Asha. We can best refer to it as ‘the Way’.

Among all these peoples the Way was identified with their traditional social law – the nomos of the Greeks. This is consistent with the fact that traditional society was an essential part of the biosphere. Our modern, atomised society, on the other hand, has become parasitic to it.

Modern man, of course, is committed to precisely that path that will most disrupt the critical order of the Cosmos; since economic development means systematically replacing the biosphere or natural world with the technosphere or man-made world. This explains why the destruction wrought to the natural world in the last 40 years, during which economic development has really got under way on a global scale, is greater than all the destruction done to it since the beginning of man’s tenancy of this planet.

Finally, traditional man interprets any disaster – whether it be drought, flood, earthquake, famine or epidemic – as a sign that he and the other members of his society have diverted from the Way, and that the only conceivable way of remedying the situation is to correct that diversion and return to the Way. Though it is difficult for those imbued with the crude and simplistic world view of modern reductionistic and mechanistic science to accept this, that interpretation is unquestionably correct – as indeed we are beginning to find out.

Indeed, the terrible social, ecological and climatic problems that we face today – and which must cause impoverishment, famine, and death on a scale unprecedented in the human experience – are but the symptoms of the serious disruption of natural systems (families, communities, ecosystems, the biosphere itself) under the impact of our evermore disruptive economic activities, i.e. of the extent to which we have diverted from the Way.

Unfortunately we tend to interpret them as the symptoms of ‘underdevelopment’, i.e. of our failure to have diverted sufficiently from the Way, an interpretation which justifies more economic development, still further increasing the seriousness of our problems.

I am afraid to say that if man is to survive the next few decades – which is by no means certain – he will have to learn very quickly to interpret his problems correctly, as our ancestors did for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. It will then become apparent that there is no alternative but to correct that gross diversion from the Way that was triggered off by the industrial revolution, and to re-adopt a cultural behaviour pattern that seeks once more to preserve the critical structure of the living world.


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