The famous quote by Virginia Woolf nags in my mind: "...on or about December 1910, human character changed ... The change was not sudden or definite ... but a change there was, nonetheless"
Looking back on the 20th century, we have much evidence that she was correct. The 20th century followed the 19th century - that gilded age and the era of Romanticism in art, literature and music. Relative peace existed worldwide: the principal post-Napoleonic conflict was the U. S. Civil war, but it brought forth freedom for millions of human beings from slavery.
The 20th century brought forth mass murder on an industrial scale by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, and militarist Japan, and in the bloodlands in Eastern Europe. Human beings ceased to be seen as individual people, but as a number, a part of a class, and a bit of a nation. The passport system imposed regulations on free travel. "Your papers, please" became the stock bureaucratic and police greeting nearly worldwide. Even supposedly free America, a government ID is now required for much previously free activity.
In a now famous literary critical essay on the Metaphysical Poets of the 17th century, T. S. Eliot wrote: "In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we never recovered ..." [Note 1; today's word of the day is "sensibility"]. He was postulating that sometime in the mid 17th century, "life [was] no longer felt to be a moral struggle and morality itself became abstract." [Note 2]
This seems to have happened again. Beyond the historical facts of the 20th century, consider today. Commonplace dialog now examines almost every public statement as that of the rich or the poor, or the blacks or whites, or Hispanics or whatever class. People are viewed as numbers or members of a class. Jobs and school admissions are assigned by racial/ethnic groups. Public debate has degraded to sloganeering and propaganda sound bites. Realpolitik is pervasive. Simple efforts for human rights receive snickers. Efforts to bring some moral (or religious) feelings into arguments are met with screeches about "inclusiveness", when such actions are meant to exclude morality from legitimate debate.
We need to have a debate on where we want to go as a nation and a world; morality and human (meaning individual) happiness must again become part of the debate. We cannot fix our short and long term problems without knowing the end point - the eschaton - of our efforts. The path must be chosen to go to the right place. Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan said, we want to go to the Shining City on the Hill where cumulative individual happiness is optimal, not to the Dark City in the Swamp where we all are numbered parts of a cruel machine.
Note 1: Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, The Metaphysical Poets, page 64.
Note 2: Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, page 54 mid.
Word of the Day
"Sensibility" - noun [$10]
Sensibility means 1. a. openness to emotional impressions, susceptibility, sensitiveness (sensibility to kindness); 1. b. (archaic) an exceptional or excessive degree of this (sense and sensibility); 2. a. (in plural) emotional capacities or feelings (was limited in his sensibilities); 2. b. (in sing. or pl.) a person's moral, emotional, or aesthetic ideas or standards; 3. sensitivity to sensory stimuli [USAGE: Sensibility should not be used in standard English as a noun corresponding to "sense" or "sensible"; it does not mean possession of common sense. Use sensibleness for that meaning.]
Sentence: On or about December 1910, much of humanity underwent a dissociation of sensibility, as it began to lose its moral compass for seeing each person as an individual person. Can we regain our sensibility?