The way that people view premodern existence seems a bit off… People seem to view and accept every invention and contraption in modern life as saving them from some hopelessly unpleasant reality that previously existed. They like to view the amish and other communities that remain untouched by technology as a community of weirdos… People are horrified at the idea of giving up television, computers, cell phones and… Heaven forbid… Electricity.And, God knows, the idea of performing manual labor on a farm is laughable.
Who in their right mind would choose such a life?
My friend Greg Sandford once pointed out such an obvious truth to me: by making any choice at all, you are giving up all the benefits of making the other choice. People are so set on looking at solely the most apparent and easy to see benefits of televisions & cell phones and they have not bothered to critically examine the other life…
Of course, before I paint such a rosy image of premodern existence, it goes without saying that there are some major benefits of modern existence… namely, not dying from a bad fever, being able to travel and visit places far away more easily, having access to a wealth of knowledge (because that is what all the kids use the internet for, right?)… But, alas, let me paint you a picture of social existence before the modern times…
I once heard a very, very old woman tell me about what life was like ‘before television.’
When they completed their work for the day and they had eaten their dinner, conversing with one another the whole time, their family would all gather up and walk over to their neighbor’s house (or vice versa). In these days, everyone had 5+ brothers and sisters and their grandparents often lived with them… And you’d have on any given night at nearly twenty people gathered around in the yard when the weather was permitting and they’d do what people did…
They talked. They had fun out there with classic instruments, making music and singing. Other folks would be dancing to the sound. They had a repertoire of literally hundreds of games — now all nearly extinct. Guessing games; rhyming games; games they played with sticks, balls, blindfolds, buckets, ropes. Many of the card games that we play now are literally hundreds of years old. ‘Hearts’ wasn’t created by some bored dudes at summer camp… The modern variation is based off of a whole series of trump-games developed over hundreds of years in Europe. Many of the card games we play are simple compared to theirs.
It is said that on some occasions one entire village would play another entire village in an organized game or sport. In Korea, they used to even construct ships that the men would put on their backs and have children ride around on them simulating a battle against another village. We have famously heard that at some festivals in Russia they would have the young men from one village have a group fight against the young men of another village — and afterwards they would ceremoniously slap backs and get drunk.
People took playing their instruments seriously — they were some of the most expensive items people could own. They were passed down. It was a big deal to have your dad teach you how to play the fiddle — when he was dead and gone, who else would make music for the family? It was a big deal to learn how to sing and how to entertain…
From the day you were born and until the day that you died nearly the only entertainment you could expect would be from your family, your neighbors and yourself.
People would literally put on plays and they would practice the now nearly dead arts of oratory & story telling… Believe me, they were skilled & smart people and this was their artistic release. Epic poetry was not written to simply be read while lounging — it was written for people to memorize and recite dramatically. In those days, illiterate people were known to memorize things and recite them.
Some of the original Muslims were entirely illiterate… No big deal, they will just memorize the entirety of the Koran so thy don’t have to worry about reading it. It was not uncommon for illiterate Arabs to be able to recite literally hundreds of names of their ancestors. There is the legend of the former slave Wahshi ibn Harb was able to recognize a baby he had seen 40-50 years earlier, who was now a man, by the markings the man had on his feet. It is amazing to think of how the mind can function when it is not cluttered, stressed or strained but rather focuses on interpersonal relationships.
And when they were working, most people worked in the fields. They worked in nature. They plowed, they sowed, they reaped; they took care of animals that were their livelihood and would often only be slaughtered for special meals and otherwise be maintained. They saw their fields grow and come to life. They ate their labor.
Still others worked as artistans — they created difficult things with their hands. They would spend all day patiently dedicated to creating practical things… And when they were done they held something in their hands. They could look at it and know that someone was going to use this item to improve their life in some way. They also knew that the item they made could very well exist for decades after they were dead and serve a purpose. People did not make things to break in a year… things were built to last.
They didn’t just make items for money… They made items that bettered the entire community. They wanted to make great things, as artisans, because their customers were their neighbors. Their customers were their friends, their family, their community as a whole, and they could see all these people at Friday prayers at the Mosque or Sunday mass, or at the shrine to the ancestors atop the hill where they would leave out food and pray.
It was said that when one man’s crops failed his neighbors would always give them food. It wasn’t even a question — they were friends and in all likelihood this meant they would one day become family as their children may very well marry. And what if next year it was your crops that were hit particularly hard in the storm — if you didn’t help your neighbor, he wouldn’t help you.
You tried to be a good person because the rest of the community was not just your only source of entertainment, they were your insurance policy.
You tried to be a good person because these were the people who helped build the house and barn for your parents when they get married, and one day they would come together and build a house and a barn for you.
There is this idea that life was so terrible… Of course, when war came or there was a disease or famine life could be utterly miserable. Certainly people didn’t have many freedoms — rather, they had more responsibilities and obligations towards one another.
Many people think our ancestors were somehow infinitely inferior to us… They were poor wretches, no more than slaves to the land; theirs was a joyless and somber existence and people were dropping dead as flies. They were illiterate and thus fools…
But these illiterate fools memorized stories and put on plays, played complex games & were musical. They knew how to tend wounds and they knew how to do arts and crafts. They knew how to make the land prosper…
And I’d theorize they were polite, kind and honest with one another and profoundly aware of each other’s emotions. I imagined they took great pains to please each other. I imagine they fell madly in love with one another when the time came, and would blossom with the hardships over the years. Their husbands and wives were their coworkers. They lived and died by each other’s efforts.
The idea of husbands and wives ignoring each other and ignoring their children would be ludicrous in an age where, when the day was done, there was no TV to plop down in front of.
I imagine that while there are some shortcomings to such a time, it would be a great honor to have met these people. I think we would all learn a lot about what it means to be human and to be a social creature, and we would learn a lot about our own potential…
Our potential as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends. Our potential to work the land. Our potential to create things with our hands. Our potential to raise animals and keep them healthy. Our potential to sing, to dance, to perform in front of other people. Our potential to create new games and to excel at old ones. Our potential to memorize great stories and retell them.
While we believe that we are the most privileged people, the most gifted; the people with the best opportunities and the best resources, we have forgotten many things that are not just practical but are very human.
Modern life is atrophying much of our potential…
Our minds do not memorize things because the answers to our questions are in our devices. Our minds do not try to create new games or excel at classic, simple ones… They just sit in front of a TV or a computer. Our minds are not actively engaged in creating music or objects… they are contemplating what garbage to buy.
Our spirits no longer intermingle each evening, coming together to make music and tell stories, to make the nights come alive, but they isolate themselves in small rooms. Our spirits are not concerned with how others may feel… we do not need them so much. Our spirits grow callous — they only see a handful of people in their peer group and they often ignore everyone else.
Suicide, melancholy and sadness are the most modern of phenomena. According to the book Restraining Rage, the struggle in the classic Roman & Greek societies was never to stave off sadness and depression but to restrain oneself from being anger.
Neither the ancient Romans or Greeks had a word for ‘depression.’ They had a word for sadness, certainly, as any person would have sad events, but there was no word to describe the sapping of the soul and the crippling depression that strikes out at so many.
I heard a story from a missionary that when he told the natives he was preaching to that he knew a man who killed himself, the natives looked on in utter disbelief. They even laughed for a moment, baffled. When the gravity of the situation sank in they shook their heads in confusion and said, “No one here would ever kill themselves.”
Suicide, depression and social isolation are the gifts of the modern world.
Nowadays it seems, more often than not, we are isolated and lethargic creatures.
If you were to take pause long enough… maybe you could even feel your mind & spirit atrophying.