The Atrophy Of Good
- My mother when she was already very old the year before she died told me for the thousandth time I should write about my family.
- You haven't much.
- No. The problem is I don't know what I am looking at. Was this strange tribe I was born into mere ordinary people making ordinary compromises but retaining ordinary good nature at other times and places? Were they monsters, or was I, for not being able to accept them?
- And I've got this idea...
- Tell me about it.
- A rock, or a machine, protected from the effects of the world around will last. But the opposite is true of us human beings, of animals in general. We can't without drastic consequences isolate ourselves. If we don't move through the world, our muscles atrophy, our memory fades. Have you ever thought how strange this is?
- No. Why is it strange?
- Because muscle atrophy and memory loss is an active process: there is a balance in which using muscles inhibits the setting in motion in the muscle itself of a muscle decaying process; when we stop moving, the inhibition ends and the process of "self-eating" begins. The same goes on with memory, though we know nothing of how this works, unlike with muscles where some of the mechanisms are becoming known.
- We are made to keep moving.
- Yes. Our minds and bodies have a homeostasis mechanism that works to maintain a balance. But the results of the process is setting us out into the world where new things happen. We both move, and we remember. Together movement through the world, and memory, provide the conditions of knowledge: is this new place like that old place or not? Even nematodes, the million species little worms from .1mm to 2.5mm long accounting for 80% of all animals, with a scant couple hundred neurons are known to learn.
- Our need to keep moving and exercise our memory sets us out on a path of knowledge. Eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and be expelled from the garden of Eden and set to work, and learn too, when we're not killing each other.
- Yes! Is there an equivalent process at work in our social life? Is there a mechanism in our social arrangements which makes them decay if they don't keep moving towards knowledge?
- Is there?
- I think there is. Our old friend ritual seems to play the role of the "self-eating" process that is triggered in the decline of movement.
- And what is social movement? Culture?
- Learning how to best live with each other.
- So when we stop looking into the question we rely on rules, roles, ritually repeat the same moves. And you say this destroys - what? - the social body?
- The rule following and role play involves the "self-eating" process of violence against any deviation of practice.
- How is this connected with your family? Did you think they were trying to eat you up?
- I did. But what I'm interested in now is the question of judgement: when we say of the Nazis that in their spare time when not killing they loved their children like everyone else, or say the same of our corrupt politicians and government bribing business leaders, is this even possible to be true? Or is the good we seem to see in them really the vanity of their saying to themselves, "I'm the kind of person who loves family and appreciates high art"?
- What about with your family? What did you experience?
- Demand for ritual conformity. Complete incomprehension of me. But lets go back to the question of judgement. It's something that has been bothering me for a long time. Despite all the corruption and compromise of everyday life, we are told the world is getting safer and richer. More democracies, more income, better health, less killing, at least percentage wise (there are a lot more people these days). But if we look to test the theory that a society not moving forward is moving backward, we see a new world of huge numbers of people living in freedom-destroying, role assigning, rule enforcing hierarchies, wage slaves of one kind or another.*
- Which you interpret as meaning billions are now forced participants in the "self-eating" process, the atrophy of the social body.
- Yes. The atrophy of good. What do you think?
- What has this to do with your mother?
- My question has always been whether I was right to rebel. What did I know about the balance of factors that went into the choice to compromise? What did I know about these people, father, mother, brothers?
- And this new bit of culture you've made up provides your justification. Do you believe it? Your family was going down and trying to take you with them?
- I acted on that belief.
- You kept moving.
* "Hence arose the national wars, battles, murders, and reprisals which make nature tremble and shock reason, and all those horrible prejudices which rank the honor of shedding human blood among the virtues. The most decent men learned to consider it one of their duties to murder their fellowmen; at length men were seen to massacre each other by the thousands without knowing why; more murders were committed on a single day of fighting and more horrors in the capture of a single city than were committed in the state of nature during whole centuries over the entire face of the earth." (J. J. Rousseau)