(Host) Commentator Nick Boke has discovered that the roots of Americans’ acquisitive propensities go back a lot farther than he thought they did.
(Boke) The traffic on Interstate 91 isn’t bumper to bumper, but it’s a far cry from years ago, when I’d sometimes not see another car for miles. Then I get to West Lebanon’s shopping strip where the cars are bumper to bumper. And in the stores, it’s bumper to bumper people. These pale by comparison, of course, with other parts of this country. My wife and I just returned from the San Francisco Bay Area, where the freeways are jammed, and there’s a line at every cash register.
What have we done, I find myself asking. Everybody seems in a mad rush to get and to go. Whatever happened to quieter times, more human-scale times, less dependent on technology, speed and acquisition?
Writers from the past, however, remind us we’ve been on this road for a long time. Consider Matthew Arnold, in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy. He bemoans the “every man for himself ethos” that dominates his England. He laments an increasingly mechanized and thing-oriented world, in which technology is almost deified. Half a century earlier, the poet William Wordsworth penned the famous lines, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours.” He wrote this a quarter century before the first railroad train went twelve miles in 53 minutes.
But to really understand how long Western civilization’s been on this path, let’s go back to the mid-seventeenth century writings of French scientist, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Arnold and Wordsworth describe the behaviors that dominate our shopping malls and highways. Pascal explains them.
In several of his Pensees, he examines the human propensity to seek meaning through activity, rather than through contemplation. This causes people, as he puts it, to enjoy the chase more than the quarry. People love what he calls “noise and stir,” causing us to risk, to gamble, to seek wealth and fame.
Pascal accepts this love of action, motion and pursuit as part of the human condition. But he issues a stern warning, one that we would do well to heed as we speed up the interstate to buy a new DVD player.
He writes that seeking excitement is fine, if we seek it only as a diversion. The problems arise when we behave as though possessing the object of our quest would really make us happy.
This is what Wordsworth and Arnold lament – the coming into being of a society premised on the idea that “getting and spending” and technology for technology’s sake will bring happiness.
Again, Pascal offers insight. He writes, “I have discovered that the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their own chamber.” We might do well to give sitting quietly a try. If nothing else, there’d be less traffic on the way to the mall.
This is Nick Boke in Weathersfield.
Nick Boke is a reading consultant and freelance writer who lives in Weathersfield. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.