The open society and its predicament

It is difficult for us today to grasp how determined most human existence has been.  Since our species evolved around 200,000 years ago, the bulk of individual lives have been tightly scripted by accidents of family, tribe, sex, or class.  What we consider to be personal choices – who one married, how one earned a living, even the clothes one wore – were imposed by unforgiving social and political authorities.

This isn’t about ancient history.  In Spain in the 1930s, country girls had to wear shawls – only city women were allowed hats.  Violations were swiftly punished by other country girls.  When I visited France as a young man, I could easily tell working class from middle class kids:  they dressed and acted differently.

Here in the US a generation ago, black people in the South were expected to act, look, and sound a specified way – and so where white people with respect to blacks.  In India, the social power of the caste system over the minds of people has made a mockery of the merely political power of a government which is attempting to dismantle it.

The record of human prehistory and history presents a chronicle of foreordained lives.  Hunter gatherers were determined by totemic ideals.  Cave art depicted animals in a vividly realistic manner, but showed people as vestigial figures or weird human-animal hybrids.

Lascaux birdman

Pharaohs and divine emperors determined the lives of all around them, but – like whites in the Jim Crow South – were themselves determined by the need to appear superior, and worthy of the mandate of heaven.

The Greeks of the classical age believed in the supreme power of destiny, which ruled even the gods.  Athenian tragedy dealt with predestined lives, not subjective moral conflict.  Ancient Greek art, until Alexander, was iconic rather than expressive:  it favored types over individuality.

Parthenon frieze: youth

At all times and in all places, of course, grinding poverty determined the majority of human lives.

Karl Popper, the great philosopher of the open society, argued that the chains of determination were forged in the assumptions of a primeval closed society:

It is one of the characteristics of the magical attitude of a primitive tribal or “closed” society that it lives in a charmed circle of unchanging taboos, of laws and customs which are felt to be as inevitable as the rising of the sun, or the cycle of the season, or similar obvious regularities of nature.

The open society – “which sets free the critical powers of man” – became possible only after Alexander smashed the classical republics, and rationalist philosophers criticized unto death conventional ideals of morality.  Thereafter, among the Greek elites, the drama of life was no longer seen to be a given ordained by the community, but a personal search for universal formulas.

Christianity, with its emphasis on personal salvation, democratized the search to embrace  the humblest and most wretched members of the community, while setting strict boundaries to where it might legitimately lead.

It took liberal democracy, with its premise that every man should seek salvation after his own lights, and the unparalleled wealth engendered by free markets, to break the shackles of determination for millions.

Despite Popper’s idealization, the open society is less about criticism than choices, which begin in personal need but become immediately enmeshed in larger pressures and considerations.  The individual, relatively free from the past, must now perceive a future – and everywhere the view is blocked by the need to exist in a community.

This is the grand theme of the most successful literary form of the open society, the novel.  From Pamela to Madame Bovary to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the storyline has pitted an individual’s desire for fulfillment against the heartless demands of polite society.

In twenty-first century America, we are not only free to choose:  we are compelled to do so.  From the college we attend, to the job we accept, to the spouse we wed, to the town we live in, all the way to the books we read and sports in which we participate, the decision is never given, always chosen, and the consequences are uncertain.  Because we are no longer determined, the future has turned opaque.

Sometimes we confuse this future-blindness with infinite possibilities, and imagine our condition in the open society to be that of absolute freedom.  In the movies and on TV, we observe fantastic events and lives of perfect heroism and villainy.  We know these events and lives are fictional:  but in an undetermined existence, are they impossible?  I suspect each of us must wonder, sometimes, whether he will be revealed as a superhero or mass murderer in the impenetrable future.

The individual’s wrestling against the coils of community life has been declared, in our day, to be a struggle for self-expression.  It was J. S. Mill, father of this way of thinking, who first urged “experiments in living.”  I’m not sure what Mill meant by the phrase, but its implications can be observed in the final products of modern experimental art:  works so utterly private and subjective that only the artist and his best friends can decipher their intent.

Pompidou Center: art

The glorification of subjectivity appalls the traditional moralist, and with good reason.  After all, the Marquis de Sade was an experiment in living.  Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and the Columbine killers were experiments in living.

The undetermined life, as Popper noted, is an opening, not a get out of jail free card.  In a functional community, every private desire will encounter a barrier against excess.  Every self seeking expression will have to deal with other selves doing the same.  Community life will chafe individual lives:  this is inevitable and irrevocable.

Thus the triumph of the open society is also its predicament.  In generating and demanding choices, it creates the illusion among infirm minds that the human condition is wholly up for grabs.  Anyone can be anything.  This faith in Protean Man is only deepened by the zeal for self-expression, which raises personal depravity to the level of divine revelation.

The cause of freedom here degenerates into a war against the community:  against  morality.

Intellectuals and artists, unsurprisingly, have fallen prey to the Protean illusion in disproportionate numbers.  Shelley drove a lover to suicide by his abuse.  Norman Mailer stabbed his wife to enjoy the experience.  Neither man ever felt less than perfectly justified by his genius.

Politicians have also been infected by what Thomas Sowell calls “the unconstrained vision.”  President Obama, who chided those questioning “the scale of our ambitions,” may well be counted in that number.

It isn’t an accident that the President’s “big plans” have led him into a political swamp.  The scale of his ambitions chafed against the lives and expectations of the American people – and ambition was forced to yield.  In a liberal democracy, which protects the individual rights of all citizens, the Protean ideal will inevitably end in frustration, anger, and failure.

The undetermined life, it turns out, is a relative condition.  We are far freer, and enjoy vastly more choices, than our cave-dwelling forebears, but our freedom is nowhere close to absolute.  Even in the most open society, individual claims must bump against the physical world, our biological nature, and the claims of others.

Alas, we are not gods.  Unlike Zeus in the old myths, we can’t turn into any creature we wish.  Reality is too hard, too unyielding, to be shaped by the Protean dream.

Nor is the past abolished, except in a relative sense.  We aren’t slaves to custom, but we can only escape one habit by embracing another.  Human nature is in the saddle, not our intellectual or political ambitions.  History is a form of memory.  Tradition forges morality.  Morality structures successful behavior.

We dispense with these attributes of our nature only at the cost of mayhem and tyranny – of closing down the open society, the undetermined life, for the majority.

The predicament of a free people is that it must forever constrain its own freedom in order to remain free.

Jonestown, 1978


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