Does prosperity make us too soft to survive?

A non-British reader writes from Britain:

I sometimes wonder if I am also another comfortable, soft bourgeoisie man. I try to fight the tendency every day.

I had my shoes shined today—I never do that but today I felt like getting my shoes, which were looking a bit worn out, a nice shine. I went to the shoe shine guy who turned out to be an immigrant from the Philippines. he smiled and asked me to be seated on the chair and then while doing the shoe shine there was a general chit chat. I asked him how many customers he got in a day given that he had to pay Euro 50 a day to the mall to keep running his little shoe shine corner. He said he usually got over 20—I did a rough calculation and I felt some sympathy for the poor fellow.

I asked him how long he had been here. He said two years. I thought about how hard his life must be—working away all day polishing shoes, living in some tiny room in a corner of this city, enduring all this so he could send a pittance back home to his family. I was even tempted to pay him twice his usual charge but desisted not out of miserliness but out of a feeling that I did not want him to think I was pitying him.

I really felt bad for him. If a man like me who has seen and understood the harshness of man’s existence, wars and conflict can be so easily seduced by some human misery, what effect would this have on softer men and on the female?

I realised then that immigration control won’t happen in this country or anywhere else where people live in great comfort and prosperity.

LA replies:

This sounds like material determinism. If people’s views are as thoroughly determined by their economic situation as the reader suggests, then what’s the point of discussing politics, ideas, culture, at all? If any prosperous society must become so soft that it commits suicide via open borders, then human history and progress are rendered absurd. I assume that human history and human civilization are not absurd. Therefore I reject the reader’s determinism.

- end of initial entry -

Charles M. writes:

“… then human history and progress are rendered absurd.”

Would you buy “tragic”?

LA replies:

Your point is well taken.

Philosophers starting with Plato have been pointing to such a tragic cycle in history. But tragedy, in its most frequently used meanings (it has several), implies a human actor with the ability to make moral choices. It seems to me that if the ruinous outcome outlined by the original poster is absolutely determined, if there is no ability on the part of men to resist or change the general trend of success leading to prosperity leading to decadence leading to society’s destruction, if prosperity must destroy society, then all human accomplishment seems not just tragic but absurd.

Charles M. replies:
And so it may be. Fortunately nobody that I know of has ever drawn the logical conclusion that he might as well lie in bed all day. Or: Since you and I must die, therefore it is absurd to learn how to read. We do our duty to our forebears, ourselves and our posterity to humbly enjoy what we have built so far and then to pass it on intact and if possible increased. When we forget this, we are in a state of decadence, and the rest follows. To me this sense of obligation to our past as well as the future keeps us from growing fat, dumb and extinct. It’s a conservative thing.

LA replies:

Again, Charles’s point is well taken, but I don’t think the analogy between an individual and a society entirely works. An individual is part of a people and a civilization. Speaking from a this-worldly point of view, the death of one person is endurable, because his family, the people he knew, the society that he was shaped by and was a part of and contributed to, continue on. But the death of an entire people and civilization is something else. It means the complete end of everything as far as that people and civilization are concerned. It is a horror without comfort or mitigation. If a people and civilization must without any possible escape be destroyed by their very success, that suggests an absurdity at the heart of things. And, since I make the (rebuttable) assumption that civilization is not absurd, I reject the idea that a society’s success must lead to its self-annihilation.

Laura W. writes:

Charles M. is wrong. People have often followed absurdity to its logical conclusions. It just doesn’t entail lying in bed all day or foregoing the ability to read. If I conceded to the absurdity he says may exist, I wouldn’t pass anything remotely lofty to my heirs or throw a passing glance to the past. I’d have some fun instead. I would not “humbly enjoy;” I would excessively enjoy. The day wouldn’t be long enough to take absurdity to its wonderfully logical conclusions.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 15, 2007 09:20 AM | Send

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