If you have been following the comment thread on my recent “Girls’ World” post, you are aware that one person has suggested an alternative reading of history, namely that our lives now are better and happier and healthier than were those of people who lived before the Industrial Revolution. Gmart’s comments have given me pause and helped me to realize that I am making an assumption about those people, namely that they lived lives that were more truly human and, therefore, more fulfilling. I’d like to delve more into this assumption.
For this post, I am going to refrain from using the word “happy.” That term is very relative, as Gmart rightly points out, and mostly tied to one’s perspective and one’s feelings; emotions can be awfully subjective. Rather, I am going to talk about the necessary conditions for full human flourishing, since I think that is a much better indicator of overall health and happiness.
So, do I think that people who lived before the Industrial Revolution enjoyed more fully than we the conditions for human flourishing? Yes. I think this because of what I think the human person is, namely a social and political animal–here I’m borrowing the phrase from St. Thomas Aquinas, who borrowed it from Aristotle, who got it from Plato. So, if the conditions for my flourishing are met when I am able to exercise my social and political nature, I think my foremothers had a better shot at it than I.
For example, if my name is Margot and I live in 12th century Christendom, I am forced to have a very social day. I need water to make the morning porridge–I have to walk to the village well, where I see the other village women and where we are forced to interact socially. I need to wash my clothes for the week–I walk down to the river, where I see the other village women. I need to have my grain milled so I can make bread–I walk to the mill, where I wait in line with the other villagers and then haggle with Bruno, the miller, for my flour. You get the idea. Are all these social interactions enjoyable? Not necessarily, but they all help fulfill my social needs. I saw this sort of social living often in Honduras and India during my travels there; these women seemed to have a certain fulfillment and camaraderie that I envy.
The question about the fulfillment of Margot’s political needs is a little more sticky, because, frankly, I don’t know very much about pre-democracy and pre-women’s suffrage politics. The history I’ve learned sounds pretty negative (feudalism, oppression of women, etc), but I am inclined to doubt some of it since I learned it from the textbooks written by those post-Enlightment thinkers I mentioned previously, the ones who are so biased. What I do know is that countries that were traditionally Catholic–Italy, France, Mexico, etc–were much slower and milder in jumping on the Marxist feminist bandwagon. There are two interpretations of this. One might claim that these Catholic women responded less enthusiastically to the feminist siren call because they were repressed by the Church. I doubt that; anyone who does any serious investigation into Church authority realizes that it is terribly lenient and slow–Paraguayan president who is an ex-bishop is a good example–another is the recent counsel of the US bishops against the practice of reiki, after it has been used liberally in certain retreat centers for 40 years. The other interpretation is that those Catholic women already felt that their social and political needs were largely met and didn’t feel the need to burn bras, etc.
The final reason that I think our pre-Industrial ancestors lived lives that were more suited for their flourishing is because they lived in a world that flowed at the pace of humans and creation, not that of machines. It seems to me that the Industrial Revolution took work away from humans and gave it to machines that humans invented, thus speeding life up to the pace of machines. Did those machines make life much easier? Yes. Did they make work more efficient? Yes. Yet, how often I wish that I could enjoy the beautiful day by walking to the market and walking to church, chatting along the way with my neighbors; but, I cannot do this because my city was built with automobiles in mind, and the nearest grocery store is a mile away, across a highway and very busy overpass. A quote from Wendell Berry here would be fitting, but I can’t think of one, so suffice it to say that he agrees. I know there are tremendous benefits of cars and washing machines and computers–goodness knows I use them all the time–but I sometimes wonder if we have lessened ourselves as human by handing over these works to machines. We created them and now they manage us. I know this sentiment has been voiced by recent movies, think “WallE” and “The Matrix” and “I Robot”, as well as authors like Wendell Berry, so I think it suffices to merely raise the question.
Gmart’s comments, while they were insightful regarding my assumptions, also demonstrate an assumption of their own, namely, that life is better when it is easier. Makes sense, right? I am able to obtain food more easily (not sure of its quality), I am able to take antibiotics easily (not sure how good they actually are for me), I am able to obtain wealth more easily (not sure if its real wealth), therefore, I must be happier. I think this assumption is a modern one and I don’t think it’s very true. It seems to me that, when life is easier, virtue and character aren’t forced to grow; we are not challenged to delve more deeply into the human heart and bring forth nobility and heroic courage when life is roses.
With that said, there is one reason that I would be loathe to give up my Post-Modern freedom. All the amenities of my technological life give me time for leisure, which Josef Pieper reminds us is the basis for culture. I would not be able to read and write and think and plant flowers if I were a serf working to earn my daily bread. The luxury of time was probably never more accessible than it is now, and I would miss it dearly.
Those are my thoughts regarding assumptions about Pre-Industrial life. I still intend to follow up my original post, “Girls’ World” with a post detailing the ways that the Industrial Revolution has harmed family life. And, I know that I have made more bold assertions than is legal in this blog post, so I am aware that I don’t back up my ideas very well and that there are holes to be found in them. Happy hunting!