A response to a lost and isolated reader
A reader writes in response to “The Reality War”:
I've realized that I read (blogs on the Internet) compulsively in an attempt to acquire enough framing knowledge and wisdom to know how to conduct my life that is direly affected by the evolving overlay reality you describe--one that is so flooded with swirling data chaff and screaming that truth and reality itself are swamped. I will keep trying to read my way to the answer, I imagine. But how will I ever get there? This search is likely an asymptote on the graph of my finite earthly life. I fear it is simply another gnostic detour or maybe even a trap, an invitation to insanity. Searching the Internet or even my own flimsy mind for a rule of life or the exact right stones to step on is inherently isolating; it denies immanence and steps back from physical reality.
I assume that your Substack (and Kingsnorth's) is the written record of your own similar, more informed and vigorous quest. When will you have arrived at your destination? And then what? Will you be staring into the Ark of the Covenant?
Maybe I would do better to just make my bed, pat my cat, deadlift like Taleb, and use that searching mental energy to pray for my children rather than inquire into wherefores that are well above my station.
What do you say?
First let me offer my apologies for the long delay in replying to your email. One thing I’d like to do here for subscribers is to offer some thoughts on not just the nature of our world’s upheaval but some principles to consider on how one might best go about living through such times. This, however, is quite a step up from the writer’s relative safety of casual observation, snark, and prognostication. So I appreciated how much your question made me think on this, and wanted to share my response with other readers who, I imagine, may wrestle with similar questions.
Let me start by saying that I certainly understand the feeling of being swamped by information, of reading more and more to try to keep your head above water, but finding yourself drowning from your own thirst for new data. You are right that this is partly why I started The Upheaval: as a way to try to contain and clarify my own thoughts in writing and keep from going a bit mad amid the chaos and absurdities of our era.
But to go to the core of your question: what is the point of this intellectual exercise, for both of us? Is it a waste of time? Or, worse, a trap: a path to isolation, paranoia, and insanity? Is the only real solution at the moment to reject the quest for rational understanding and “touch grass” – or barbell, or cat, as may be?
Let me indeed affirm the great value of a properly executed deadlift. Or of making your bed with crisp lines and a satisfying precision. Or of putting down the device and spending quality time with your children. All this can provide a vital grounding in the reality of life. More specifically, it can remind you that you necessarily live life as an embodied being in direct relationships with other embodied beings and things – and therefore help you retain an authentic connection with what it means to be a human immanently alive in the world as it is. So by all means, do not let yourself dwell overlong in the land of the Extremely Online. Even try for a while, if you please, to live only in the world of the here and now, taking nothing else in at all.
But I suspect it will not be long until you find you are no longer entirely satisfied with the immediate, even the very pleasurable. Ignorance isn’t always bliss, and that fact goes beyond boredom and addiction to the novelty of the news (or even much more excellent Substack essays). There is, I believe, a reason we are driven to seek to understand the shape of that which occurs beyond the imminent, and even discover some broader truths of the world that exist beyond our own direct experience.
With only one life to live, is it any surprise that we turn to the experience of others to gain a leg up, and a broader view? For ultimately are we not seeking a higher and deeper knowledge of how to live a true and meaningful life? To distill from others who have gone before, or who walk with us now, the location of those stones on which the footing is most sure?
Is this not also part of being human? To avoid it is to hope to live the more elegantly simple life of an animal. Like the perfect, day-in and day-out, totally present immanence of a cat – those Buddha-like little shits. But while that seems to work great for them, at least for many of us the human life demands more, whether we welcome this or not. The result is a restlessness; we seek something higher and greater. And so we read, and we drown.
I will make an exhortation: this too is necessary!
What are you doing, compulsively reading for answers on how to live? Are you merely some kind of sad, late-stage internet creature?
No. there is a word for this restless seeking, and its lineage is long and noble: philosophy. Yes, philosophy – philo (love of) sophia (wisdom). Because this is what philosophy is: not abstract arguments and logic games, but the agonized pursuit of the True and the Good, what it means to be human, and, above all, how to live a good life in the short span of time allotted to us. And then how to die well.
Socrates and Aristotle, Confucius and Laozi, Epicurus and Seneca, Montaigne and Pascal: all sought the same thing. So, arguably, have the great Theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas. And the great novelists, like Dostoevsky or Lu Xun, who, sensing as Faulkner did that really “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself,” pierced straight to the core of the permanent human condition and drew forth truths that transcend any one life.
Are such transcendent truths of the human heart not as real as moving iron?
But let’s take a step back: I certainly make no claim that my scribblings are any great works of philosophy or literature. I’m just trying to figure out, like, what the heck is going on. Can I ever get there? I’m sure I can get at least closer. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, if I ever did make it near to arriving at my destination, then at root the answers I’m looking for, beyond the latest creepy ideologies and techno-gadgets and geopolitical trends, might have a lot to do with that old nag, the human condition.
Of course neither of us may even get close. But as Pascal once lamented, “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” So, let me argue again: the expenditure of mental energy on this quest of inquiry is itself just as important to finding true sanity and full human flourishing as the physical and even relational side of life.
You say this search is inherently isolating. NO! I say you can take comfort that you are not alone in this, now or ever. And I don’t just mean the budding community here at The Upheaval (subscribe today!). Indeed, knowingly or not, you are part of something much larger than yourself, a dialogue between minds alive and long-dead that rings through the ages: the Great Conversation. All those mentioned here have contributed to this conversation, each in intimate dialogue with and building on top of all those who have gone before, adding their own contribution in the pursuit of wisdom.
And no, this conversation is not well above your station. Listen in and you may find that, like W.E.B. DuBois, “From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars,” you too can “summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” That you also can “move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls.” And perhaps even, “so, wed with Truth,” “dwell above the Veil.”
If then I can give you some advice: by all means read blogs online if this is helpful, but consider turning first to those great voices of the past that have endured through epoch after epoch, and upheaval after upheaval. You will, I suspect, find more clarity here – even a thousand years removed – about the events of today and how to live through them than from the hottest content on the interwebs.
You may find you even discover a vital sanctuary in troubled times, as once did Machiavelli:
“When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely.”
This is after all your ancestral and cultural inheritance. And, unlike so much today, this conversation across time is in no way off limits to us, as so many assume. Nor does it have to be engaged only in solitude with the dead and gone. If you can’t find anyone quite based enough to read with you in person, there are some excellent programs that are bringing normal people together virtually to pursue the great ideas without ever stepping foot in a wildly overpriced and radically closed-minded university.
Finally, I encourage you too to write, even if only for yourself – it really does help bring the mind to order.
So in synopsis: by all means, inquire! Read your way to an answer. But please, for the love of God: if you only have a single $55 to spare, at least consider buying a solid volume of the complete works of Plato, or nice set of the immeasurable Plutarch’s Lives, before a subscription to my internet blog.
But also don’t forget to give your cat a scratch behind the ears too. They really like that.
Hope that helps,
What a great post and reply. I hope you don't mind me offering my own answer, since my name was mentioned.
I certainly identify with the inquirer. I also dance between these two poles: simply being here, and trying to 'figure it all out.' A few years ago I wrote a book called 'Savage Gods' which was about precisely this. I concluded that writing was getting in the way of reality for me. I stopped writing after that for nearly two years. I thought I might never start again.
But I did start again, on here, and the reason was not so much that I wanted to explain everything, or develop a grand theory of the world - which is indeed a path to madness. It was more than my head was buzzing with the madness of the times, and I needed to figure out, to my own satisfaction, at least some of the shape of things, so that I knew how to live through it. We can only ever see a small part of this shape: grand theories of everything are extremely dangerous. We have to be humble seekers.
But, as NS says, I reluctantly concluded that, though I would like to be a Buddha, I was never going to be. And things are moving so fast out there, I had to write it out of me - which is how I work things out. And I do know that this proves useful to at least some people. We are, in the end, all working it out together, and that can provide us with guidance as things crumble. From the reading I do, including here, I come across ideas and perspectives I hadn't considered, and they deepen mine. That makes me, at least, feel less and not more alone. And it gives me a sense of what I should and should not do in the world.
Having said all that, I am not on social media, and I try to balance online with real. There are a lot of landmines on the internet. It is almost designed to drive us mad. We have to be careful. But this is how it seems to me.
May I add a practical remark on what gives me peace of mind?
Classics only, mostly before 1900. Bible to Nietzsche, Sophocles to Shakespeare. Trying to live in the true, the good, and the beautiful, which are everywhere.
No TV, mobile phone only as a phone, no mainstream media.
Internet access only from PC in my study. Reading or writing a serious text by smartphone is virtually impossible for me: "The medium is the message," therefore large screen and books only.
Deep background reads and videos on current issues, few news.
Internet newsletters on current info with anything from NYT to Breitbart: Scanning headlines is sufficient to know issues and perspectives, most of the time, and to stay out of echo chambers.
Bach instead of modern music, almost no art and architecture after 1900.
I cheat by using internet synopses of texts: I can not read all I want, but we have V.D. Hanson videos on war, Hillsdale for C.S. Lewis, etc.).
Lots of nature, cooking for friends, my own essay writing (of course not at the level of N.S. Lyons, but helpful to clarify thoughts).
Since I do that, I feel up to almost any discussion on any topic.
I must admit that access to American sources (Peterson, Hoover, Prager, Mises, etc. as starting points) has helped my enormously to focus my life in a classical way and avoid unproductive distraction. I envy America because the (free of charge) sources on anything from neurobiology to cosmology are overwhelming and gratifying.
Hope I don´t sound like a smart-ass but I have friends who spend lots of time on info-gathering with shady sources like social and mainstream media, without ever getting anywhere.