Monday 5 January 2009

"The world wasn't made to be bettered..." Discuss.

Whenever I catch myself pronouncing in self-important tones on the state of the world - in other words, about three times a week - I should really go back and re-read this passage from one of Herman Hesse's pamphlets:

Friends, we must learn to desist from judging whether the world is good or bad, and we must forgo the strange pretension that it is up to us to better it.

The world has often been denounced as bad, because the denouncer had slept badly or had too much to eat. The world has often been praised as a paradise, because the praiser had just kissed a girl.

The world wasn't made to be bettered. Nor were you made to be bettered. You were made to be yourselves.

That's from Zarathustra's Return, first published anonymously in 1919, when "world betterment" was apparently something of a buzzword. I found it in a collection of his anti-war writings, 'If This War Goes On', picked up from a bookswap in a backpackers hostel years ago. Since then, two copies of the book have slipped through my fingers, but I just discovered that you can download the full text via this site - together with those of thirteen of Hesse's other works.

What's struck me lately is how difficult and/or irrelevant it seems to talk about the changes currently going on in terms of things getting better or worse. Today, for example, Ran Prieur reposted an article suggesting "the only way to save the economy is to stop printing money and allow defaults on all the bad debts. Of course the owners of debt will never agree to that, and the big money economy will crash and burn. I'm not sure that's a bad thing."

Meanwhile, my colleague Paul had a nice piece on the Guardian's PDA blog, talking about how the internet industry is changing:

My prediction for 2009 is that startups that matter will matter more. By 'matter', I mean the ones which have an explicit goal to improve the world whether that's socially or environmentally... The outlook for 2009 if you're trying to change the world is pretty good. If you're trying to get people to throw virtual sheep at each other, it's going to be a lot tougher than 2008.

I'm closer to Hesse when it comes to talk of "improving the world", but I do think that we're living in a time that is full of possibilities, and where precisely the events which are presented as the end of the world as we know it can open up a space for hope.


Tom Critchlow said...

Ooh excellent - thanks for this. I love Herman Hesse - the glass bead game is a wonderful book (as is steppenwolf). I think there are a lot of parallels between social media and the glass bead game. I haven't read the book you refer to (though I'll be sure to download it) but I did just pick up a copy of journey to the east over the weekend :-)

Dougald Hine said...

Thanks, Tom! I have to confess, I've not actually read that much Hesse, besides that collection. I have a copy of the Glass Bead Game on my shelves and have been meaning to get round to it for about five years - and you've just bumped it towards the top of my reading pile.

On a totally different note, I'll be in touch soon about some poker lessons!

Mark said...

I think there's a lot of wisdom there, Dougald. There is a lot of panic around, but it seems largely because Big Interests can't carry on doing things the way they have done before.

I heard a good Today Programme interview with Rowan Williams before Christmas where he talked about looking at the real value in things, and in working to build things of real value. Of course, individuals and small businesses are the most flexible, and the most able to jump at the new opportunities. But it will be no bad thing if/when the Big Players catch up.

Dougald Hine said...

Thanks, Mark!

I'm sure both you and Rowan Williams are right about the current financial crisis. Where it gets trickier is that I suspect there's a much more drastic crisis on the way - one which may well shake our society to its foundations, not just at the level of values but in terms of the infrastructure that keeps us alive. If that happens, it's anybody's guess how things will play out - but I'm convinced that our myths, beliefs and stories will be far more central to what happens next than most of what generally goes under the banner of "sustainability". So that's where most of my energy will be going over the next few years...

On a less weighty note, I think you might appreciate the outbreak of morris dancing across School of Everything at the moment -

It's made for the most fun week I've had since we started the company, I think! I'm really keen to think about how we can support other traditional skills of all kinds.

Mark said...

I think there's life in the old beast yet, Dougald. Sustainability is certainly about the whole cultural aspect of being human, but I'm not surprised that the predominant western "culture" has left it's roots behind somewhat, so fast has been the pace of change.

When I think about how far humanity has come in 200 years, I'm not surprised it's been so difficult, and that we have so many problems. But I'm also amazed that we've got so far. Never before has humanity faced such awful problems and such awe-inspiring opportunities.

There are some rather nihilist thinkers (and I don't believe you are one of them, Dougald) who would like nothing better than to see western civilisation slide into anarchy. But I think we can make it work. Or rather, I think we can make it work well enough. And I think it will take a double effort. On one hand, industry, economics and technology. And on the other, true cultural awareness, identity and memory.

Anonymous said...

seems like a more succint way of saying it is ... what is "there", is not there to be judged as good or bad... it's just there... change, or no change, may, or may not be part of that "thereness"...

Dougald Hine said...

@Mark - you're right, there are some people out there who think the answer is for it all to come tumbling down. (Derrick Jensen comes to mind.) I find it hard to reduce all the ways in which things change to a measure of "how far we have come", as if history was a mountain we're climbing. But I'm certainly not a nihilist! :-)

@Zazi - that's a lot more succinct! Thanks.

Mark said...

Lol, I *wish* I knew how to write succinctly :)

When I talk about how far we've come, I'm kind of pointing to the proliferation of good things that counter the barbaric.

If we talk about climbing a mountain, that implies we might get to the top, which was the foolishness of modernism. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't view a world with international human rights legislation as being further progressed than one without, for example.

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