“You know what keeps me up at nights?” asked the Capitalist.
“Watching the Nikkei 225?” replied the Cynic.
“Anomie,” said the Capitalist.
“Even you feel anomie?” asked the Stoic. “I’d never have guessed.”
“Oh no,” said the Capitalist. “I don’t feel anomie. Or maybe when I do, it doesn’t bother me.”
“So you’re worried… that you’re not worried?” asked the Stoic. The Capitalist winced sheepishly.
“You’ve always been a demigod after my own heart,” said the Epicurean. “The fourfold cure has seldom been so perfectly realized: ‘Do not fear God. Do not fear death. What is good is easily had. And what is horrible is easily endured.’ Frankly, you scare me a bit. Even I never took that advice quite so literally.”
“I do think you owe us an explanation,” said the Academic. “You see, everyone thinks that anomie is the modern condition. Or the postmodern condition. Or whatever. Hell, even the word ‘whatever’ is tinged with anomie nowadays. A sad fate for a pronoun! And capitalism seems deeply implicated. How is it you sit, unperturbed, at the eye of the storm?”
“I wish I knew,” said the Capitalist. “Here’s what it looks like to me. So many people seem to find that market liberalism leads to material abundance… plus this horrible sense of rootlessness. The battles are all won. The problems, all solved. From the well-fed comfort of their easy chairs, after a couple of beers — usually premiums — they start pining after traditional society, or communism, or even fascism. Modern life is so isolating, so quietly stifling, they say. What we need is vigor, danger, discipline! That’s how to have an authentic spirit, an authentic society. I just want to tell them all… I don’t know… ‘Buck up, lil’ campers, it’ll be alright,’ or some other hopeless inadequacy. I don’t know what to say.”
“If I don’t get to oppress someone, pretty soon I’m going to be very, very lonely!” said the Skeptic.
“Seriously though, many people feel that they aren’t living in the right kind of society,” said the Epicurean. “One that really is satisfying. Like, objectively satisfying.”
“Is there any such thing as an ‘objectively’ satisfying society?” asked the Skeptic. “Don’t tastes vary from person to person? I mean, I could let you make whatever social rules you liked, and I bet I could populate your objectively satisfying society with folks who would be plenty unhappy.”
“So is anomie really all in your head?” asked the Stoic. “Turning anomie into a merely psychological problem neuters it. What’s meant is a form of political radicalism. Even if it is sort of a feckless one. It’s definitely not psychology alone.”
“It’s not so much that these critiques of the West have been turned to psychology,” said the Capitalist. “I suspect rather that they have been turned back to psychology. Like all demons, they resent the ‘get thee hence’ business. We should ask the radicals, though — are you confident enough in the rightness of your soul that you’d go to work on the souls of your fellows, and on the whole edifice of society too?”
“Wouldn’t that be rather prideful?” asked the Stoic. “Funny to see so many Christians in such a pose.”
The Academic opened a book. “As a great man once said of Plato, ‘I do not believe that human lives may be made the means for satisfying an artist’s desire for self-expression… Much as I may sympathize with the aesthetic impulse, I suggest that the artist might seek expression in another material.’ Artists are many, great artists are few, and the material in question is expensive. And as to great artists, we can’t recognize them by the depth or sincerity of their feelings. Still less by their claims about the depth or sincerity of their feelings. I’m pretty sure Plato would have agreed.”
“But my feelings tell me that I am great,” said the Cynic. “Who here has not felt the same? Surely we are a company of geniuses!”
“Delusions of grandeur are the most democratic impulses in the world,” said the Stoic. “They are virtually the whole reason why democracy even works in the first place.”
“I don’t feel delusions of grandeur either,” said the Capitalist.
“You don’t?” said the Stoic.
“I don’t. I know what I’m good at, sure. And what I’m good at is mass production. I make stuff — as long as it’s all basically the same. Wheat. Steel. T-shirts. Priuses. It can be simple or complicated, but as long as it’s repeatable, I can do it really well. Things that are non-repeatable or individualized, I can’t do so well, and that’s why those goods become more expensive in a capitalist society — things like original artwork or college education. Relative to other goods, they become scarcer. Not because I’ve destroyed anything, but because in these areas, I’m just not that much better at creating. And human souls? Those are the most individualized things of all. I wouldn’t dare create those. Or if I did, it would be a disaster,” said the Capitalist.
“A fine example of knowing one’s limits,” said the Stoic. “No delusions of grandeur here. And I’m afraid you’re right — no anomie, either.” The Capitalist frowned.
“Here,” said the Cynic. “Let me try to afflict you.”
“Do your worst,” said the Capitalist. “It might make me feel better.”
“So you have material comforts. Big deal. Everyone has material comforts now. And yet no one has a happy soul. The world serves up three square meals a day, puts a roof over your head, and even gives you free coffee at work. Work, insofar as it remains worthy of the name, is decreasingly arduous in many places. But your soul is empty.”
“Is it?” asked the Capitalist.
“It’s an especially bad problem when you don’t even know that you have it,” said the Cynic. “But any temptation toward happiness that you may have is just proof of the opposite.”
“I shall resolve to be unhappy, then,” said the Capitalist. “Because that way lies happiness.”
“I’m only getting warmed up, and you know it,” said the Cynic. “If you let me continue, I will tell you what you’re missing.”
The Capitalist nodded gravely.
“What you lack is consequence,” said the Cynic. “You are free to pick any religion you want, but none of them bind you to the transcendent anymore. Each has all the meaning of a choice on a Chinese menu.”
“How precisely does a religion bind you to the transcendent?” asked the Skeptic.
“It makes you part of a community of practice, and of a meaning greater than little mortal self. And if it turns out to be the one true religion, you get to go to heaven,” said the Cynic.
“Oh come off it, even you don’t believe that,” said the Skeptic. “And I remember quite well, thanks, just how the old time religions ‘bound.’ It wasn’t pretty, not unless your idea of the transcendent involves thumbscrews.”
“I remember one group that was especially bound to the transcendent,” said the Malthusian. “Women. They were bound to their fathers, bound to their husbands, bound to their bodies, and bound to the grotesque restrictions placed upon them. Women were bound in every way short of actual fetters. And even those could usually be arranged.”
“I did sort of free the women, you know,” said the Capitalist. “Once muscular labor wasn’t needed to work so many occupations, women had a lot more options. The idea of equality among men arose from commercial society, and the idea of equality among men and women was an inference that people made almost immediately.”
“But the transcendent!” said the Cynic. “You’re forgetting about the timeless cycles of traditional life. The rootedness. The grand story that you’re a part of. The feeling of being a link on the great chain of being.”
“We have that in modern society too,” said the Capitalist. “If you want it. There’s the Salvation Army, the Boy Scouts, any number of activist or community service groups. Even Little League. They’d all fit the bill.”
“Not really,” said the Cynic.
“Why not?” said the Capitalist.
“Because each of them is… is…”
And the Cynic was silent. But only for a moment. “Traditional society imposed problems on people,” he continued. “Struggles they had to overcome. Yes, yes — some of them were fetters, if you insist. But still, isn’t there something great in that?” he asked. “Something ennobling about the experience of onerousness?”
“I don’t see the greatness,” said the Capitalist. “I just, you know, feed people. And clothe them. And give them books and houses and… stuff.”
“Here is your problem,” said the Stoic. “And I do mean both of you. I think I’ve figured it out. In traditional society, it’s the same goddamn problems, over and over again, from one generation to the next, all throughout your life. The wheel of fortune spins, and you take your place when your number comes up. Everywhere, though, the problems of society are the same. Dearth. And bigotry. Everywhere you look. And both are pretty awful.
“Modern society is different. Nearly all of the material problems have been solved, or at least they’ve been thrown back to the very end of life. And even the ‘end’ of life — well… I suspect we’ll soon do something about that, too. All that remains, across the vast expanse that opens before the youth, are the problems of justice and the soul. We don’t have dearth, but it’s damn well possible we still have — ”
“You wouldn’t dare,” said the Cynic.
“It’s damn well possible we still have… other problems. Other oppressions. Other ways we fall short. The problems are subtle. Their solutions are rare — because mass production can’t help with them. What’s worse, we can always sweep them aside. There’s always another show on TV, always another article on Wikipedia, always another bottle of gin. There’s always the status quo. Because we do not personally suffer, we do not always see the problems.”
“The modern world requires, then, a keener sense of empathy?” asked the Capitalist. “So that we may be dissatisfied enough to be truly happy?”
“Oh please,” replied the Cynic. “Who wants a keener sense of empathy?” And he poured himself another drink.