In 1951 Lewis Mumford published a book about what is lacking in modern life. He titled it The Conduct of Life and it was considered a major contribution at the time. I am rereading it now and it seems based on a false premise—that life in the past, before the machine age, was much more fulfilling and happier because people were connected to each other. He saw people at the time as bored with life and chained to meaningless work. In particular he deplored the loss of religious faith and the lack of a "master narrative" for life.

Unable to create a meaningful life for itself, the personality takes its own revenge: from the lower depths comes a regressive form of spontaneity: raw animality forms a counterpoise to the meaningless stimuli and the vicarious life to which the ordinary man is conditioned. Getting spiritual nourishment from this chaos of events, sensations, and devious interpretations is the equivalent of trying to pick through a garbage pile for food.—Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life

This seems to me now the kind of argument that is both hard to justify and hard to refute. Making claims of a general malaise in modern civilization is easy—we all have things to be unhappy about in our lives—but it may not have been any better for most people a century or two ago. The majority of people probably have always had a hard time of it and their effort has been concentrated on getting enough food and keeping safe and warm.

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The problems are complexity of life and the simplicity of life. Of course, simple is better. It's hard to enjoy your food when the war is in your living room. On the other hand, talking about the lovely day that god has made is extremely naive.

It seems that expectations about quality of life have risen over my lifetime. As one of my mathematician friends put it: our parents generation did not expect much from life and they didn't get much; our generation expected more and we got more; our children's generation expects a great deal and won't get much.

That may be true, but also the expectations on quality of life have changed. Now people expect to be happy in their work and their lovelife. That seems to me to be a good thing—people no longer stay in jobs or marriages or religions that they find meaningless. They look for something better. When times are hard, fewer will find satisfaction, but at least the notion that life should be fulfilling is accepted more widely.




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