The advent of industrial capitalism in the late 1700s transformed rural, agrarian societies of Europe and America into urban, industrialized nations. Goods went from being handmade by artisans to being mass-produced by machines in factories, populations in developed nations gravitated toward urban centers, and output soared.
This process, referred to as the Industrial Revolution, occurred over the course of roughly three centuries. In this sense it was more of a gradual evolution than a revolution. Regardless, the shift in mindset that occurred during this age transformed economic, social, and cultural patterns across the globe and laid the foundations for the way in which we think and act today.
The late 20th century ushered in another dramatic shift that we now call the Information Age. While the driving force behind this new era was an invention popularly known as “the internet,” the Information Age was brought on in large measure by developments in transistor technology. Advances in microminiaturization in computers changed the way we relate to information and the way we communicate with one another.
Whereas in the Industrial Age, we found ourselves swamped with access to goods that were previously reserved to a fortunate few, in the Information Age we gained access to information that had only been available to a privileged few.
All of this is called progress, steps forward in the great march of civilization. The rate of invention during the last three centuries has been impressive, hasn’t it? Even hearing stories from elderly locals in my community tell of a very different world, just 40, 50 or 60 years ago. From children racing horses on the main street in town to joining up with another car – the only car you might see! – on a long road trip from Maryland to Alabama for safety and company to five lines of bumper-to-bumper traffic not just during rush hour but throughout the day. Times have changed, and quickly.
If you take a step back from all of this, as many have been able to do during the 2020 COVID-19 global pandemic, we see that stillness, or inner peace is not directly correlated to material progress. We may feel slightly more physically comfortable as a species due to the hard work of our forefathers, but are we more content? I think it is safe to say that wealth and possessions are a cushion, a padding in the nest which buffers us from the outside world, but wealth and an abundance of outer possessions do not guaranty fulfillment.
We – at least those of us “privileged” enough to have been born into families in developed nations – live in a time of superabundance. Anything and everything in the world is at our fingertips. Every little bit of knowledge can appear on our screen in milliseconds; every good or service the world has to offer can be delivered to our doorstep in days, if not hours. Why then are people still disturbed? Why are Americans, for instance, the leading consumers of anti-depressants worldwide?
You would think with everything at their command they would be deeply fulfilled, but they are not. They experience the same upset, grief, lust, and anger that a peasant might have in the Dark Ages. The disquiet may by caused by different things, but the common denominator seems to be something outside of themselves. “I’d be fine if it wasn’t for this thing, or that person,” they say.
Some 2,000 years ago a thoughtful man named Epictetus noted:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.
There are enough things on earth now to satisfy every desire of every person. If things were the answer, I think we would’ve found nirvana by now. My wealthy friends grumble about “things” and the things other people have, do or think just as much as my poor friends. You see, discontent is not caused by outer factors – people, material goods, etc. – it is caused by our principles and notions about those things.
People are very quick to defend their principles and notions, even if they do not understand them fully. This defensiveness comes from the fact that many people self-identify with their principles and notions, that is, they regard their opinions as something they are, not as something they have. Challenging beliefs can have the effect of threatening the person himself, which is why encouraging people to think is risky business.
But you, you’re different. If you made it this far in my post you are either extremely bored during this quarantine or you, like me, cannot turn your back on reflection. You are willing to challenge your assumptions, change the way you have thought or acted in the name of progress, so that others may live more abundantly, or more importantly, more happily.
Take some time today to consider those things which tend to cause upset in your world. Once identified, consecrate yourself to discovering what principles and notions you have held that have hindered, disturbed or grieved you. The hindrance, disturbance, grievance will have a face – likely that of another person or thing – but the truth of the matter is that the discomfort upset you feel is from your principle or notion, not from that which is outside of you.
As Epictetus mentioned, laying the fault of your own bad conditions on others is a fool’s errand. Likewise, laying it on yourself will get you nowhere. The heart of the matter can be found in your beliefs and opinions.