Thursday, October 8, 2015

Now, the World Really is too Much with Us

Wordsworth's poem The World is too Much with Us is I think an admirable one.  I'm afraid that I can't normally think of Wordsworth without envisioning Bullwinkle reciting "I wandered lonely as a cloud"; but I think this Romantic English poet did a good job in the case of this one poem, at least.

The poem has been construed as being a condemnation by Wordsworth of a materialistic culture resulting from the Industrial Revolution, and the resulting disconnection of people, and civilization, from nature.  I can't complain about love of nature; as a Stoic, or struggling Stoic, I seek to live "in accordance with nature."  But I suspect most Romantics of having aristocratic, even elitist, leanings, and so tend to believe that their disgust with industry and "trade" was combined with a contempt of the "common folk."  Those folk were no longer content to be the simple, jolly peasants the Romantics dreamt they were, dancing around the Maypole when not tending the grounds and flocks of their betters through hard and uncompensated labor.  They were becoming men of business, and business was an abomination to those wandering lonely as clouds, swooning over daffodils.

What exactly Wordsworth meant by "with us" is unclear to me.  However, I feel the world is much more "with us" than it was in his day, when the world intruded upon him and others via printed word, or through trains and the telegraph.  By the world being "with us" I refer, even if Wordsworth did not, not merely to our access to information about people, places, things, events, acts, opinions, beliefs, but that such information is foisted on us by others regardless of our desires.

No doubt the ubiquity of newspapers and journals, travel and communication by train and telegraph, was remarkable to many living in the first half of the 19th century.  It may well have felt to them that the world was growing too small as a consequence compared to how it felt when travel and communication was by horseback, or perhaps by semaphore.  Perhaps they also felt that something more was lost to them than their relative isolation.

If so, they would be horrified by the accelerating reduction of the world we experience in our time.  I'm not sure they could even imagine a world in which people can obtain whatever information they seek in a matter of seconds and communicate whatever thoughts, desires, opinions, feelings they have to everyone else in the world in roughly the same period of time and in the same manner.

The world is there, with us, at all times unless we make the effort to disengage from it.  All of the world, good and bad, but most especially the bad because of the media, our politicians and the pundits who are professionally outraged and have the means to tell us so.  They seem to delight in telling us what is bad, why it is bad, and what it is they think someone else should do about it.

There certainly is bad in the world, but is there more bad than there has been in the past?  More people, more bad; this seems an unobjectionable inference, at least to a cynic.  But if one accepts such a conclusion, is there proportionately more bad now?  I don't think we can make that assumption (which is what I think it must be, absent evidence).  Because we can learn, or are told, of bad people, bad things, all over the world, constantly, and because bad people can make themselves known to others with great ease, and this was not the case not all that long ago, there may have been just as many bad people and things in the past.

 In the past, however, we did not know of them as we didn't have the means to know of them.  We knew of some, but had neither the capacity nor the desire to know of others, nor were we as vulnerable--exposed--to them as we are now.  They can appear before us at any time.  We need only participate in a social network, or expose ourselves, as it were, via Twitter, or read or make comments on some media post or blog post, to be subjected to people at their worst.

We humans seem to be unable to improve ourselves to any significant extent except in extraordinary circumstances, or indeed to change ourselves at all for good or ill, so I doubt we are any better or worse now than we have been in our relatively long and bloody history.  The difference is that when we are bad now, as we are all too frequently, it is nearly impossible for people throughout the world to be ignorant of our evil thoughts and deeds.  We, or someone else, will intrude upon their blissful ignorance and tell them all about it.

Knowledge may be good.  It may even be power, sometimes.  But knowledge of everything done or thought by other people, everywhere, is oppressive, and can lead to despair, which can in turn lead to danger.  Philosophical considerations aside, I think Stoicism as a way of life provides a means by which we can avoid being overwhelmed and unduly influenced by the world which is constantly with us.  There are so many things beyond our control which should not disturb us.  We must do the best we can with what we have and take the rest as it happens.

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