One of the things that would puzzle any time traveler about our time — arguably more than our gadgets, our extraordinary ease of life, or how discontented we are — is the word “natural” in everything, as an unalloyed good.
Well it might not have surprised certain dippy (though only proto-hippie) philosophers of the eighteenth century, but it would surprise anyone else with half a brain or the capacity to reason.
It should take even us by surprise, if we thought about it for two minutes, and weren’t simply translating the word as “good” in our back brains with no rational thought.
Of course “Natural” is the “improved” and “atomic” of our age.
One of the really fun things of living in a time capsule, with books, as I sometimes think I do, is to stumble on these keywords for the past, now and then and go “uh.” And yeah, in the fifties atomic was it, even when it made no sense whatsoever. “The new, improved, atomic shoes.” Yeah.
That “Natural” yogurt you just bought is no such thing. Which is a good thing, since natural yogurt is basically milk that has gone off, and no, it isn’t particularly good for you, and certainly doesn’t stay good on a shelf in “winter temperatures” for a couple of weeks.
Also natural man, in his natural environment grows to maybe 3 1/2 feet, is toothless by twenty and dead by thirty.
The idea we have that it would be best to be “natural” is all part of the romantic movement and its philosophers.
(BTW this has nothing to do with the natural rights in the Constitution. Or rather it does, but more on the basis that it prompted a lot of thinking back to that which exists without interference. Our natural rights are negative rights. The ones any human has if they’re not taken away. The bizarre, novel and highly UNNATURAL idea in the Constitution is that government exists to secure these rights. As opposed to you know, to any type of government or leadership among humans being the first instrument of taking those rights away.)
The whole “Natural Man movement” of which Jean Jacques Rosseau (though not only him) was a prophet, was something different. I don’t remember if it was Rosseau or another of the deranged people of the era who penned this DELUSIONAL thing where “Natural man” basically lay under a tree and eat the fruit that fell from it, and copulated at will, etc. without care. Until evil civilization.
I know that recently on twitter there was a twit expounding on how NATURALLY toddlers want to share everything they have. So communism is natural and greed/capitalism has to be learned. This led to a bunch of parents asking her if she’d ever had a kid or, you know, seen one up close and personal, ever. Because like dogs and cats, kids will play with/eat something they don’t want just to keep a rival from having it. Grown people will share, at least with those they’re closely related to, because there seems to be an inherent sense of fairness in great apes, as well as a sense of “band or tribe.” Beyond that, sharing or living in communitary societies is an act that it is profoundly unnatural and will only happen when some overriding imperative (often religious or doctrinary) pushes it. And even then, it only works in relatively small groups.
Let’s face it, what the “natural” pushing movement of the eighteenth century was was a bunch of over-civilized twits, dissatisfied with their lives, trying to blame someone or something else — in this case all their ancestors, and the slow climb of civilization — for their troubles or their Weltschmerz. Which is a highly civilized thing to do.
Unfortunately it hooked up with the idea of fallen humanity and the Judeo-Christian idea of paradise, only removing the supernatural element. Which means removing the one thing that might make it work. Because a state of Edenic happiness is highly unnatural to man, this ape who was born to survive and endure.
The problem is however not how ridiculous the whole idea is. It’s how far out on a limb (a natural limb, with a tiger creeping along from the other end, and a bear waiting below) humanity has gone on this “natural” thing without its making the slightest bit of sense.
The Freudian idea, for instance, that humans are born with all these impulses and needs which, if thwarted lead to neurosis and “repression” — at least the Freudian idea as interpreted by pop science. The man itself was more nuanced — has led us down a limb of “all of us should sleep with whomever we fancy all the time, to avoid being crazy.” and “If a responsibility makes me unhappy or thwarts my desires at the moment, it is bad and should be ditched.”
This is not just insanity, it’s complete insanity. The only way complex society works is that we hold on to a highly artificial set of values. For instance, we don’t kill infants for disturbing our sleep, no matter how much they do it, day after day and night after night for no other reason than that they prefer to be carried than lying in their bassinet like normal human spawn. (He’s twenty seven, so chill. I obviously didn’t kill him.) For instance, we get up in the morning, even though we don’t feel like it, to go and do work we don’t particularly feel like doing, because at the end of the month this gives us money to continue living (and maybe do a few things we want to do?) For instance, we don’t eat whatever crosses our sight without regard for whether it’s a pet, belongs to someone else, or is unsanitary. Other things: we write angry songs/blogs/stories rather than bash a rival over the head. We wash regularly, even on days we don’t feel like getting out of bed, much less washing. Etc.
The entire vast edifice of civilization is built in fact on humans repressing themselves, or sublimating their non-constructive impulses.
If you want to see people acting “naturally” with very few repressions or any act of will to prevent them doing whatever they wish, read some true crime books (I fell into a streak of some of those last week.) These are people who act on their “natural” desires in the middle of our highly unnatural society. Only idiots or malicious ideologues would consider them examples of how one should live.
When a few years back I went on a streak of reading about the indo-Europeans, I came across several digs, in the steppes of Russia, where they would find a man living with several women (well, their skeletons) and if you analyze them, you find that the women are his daughters, and so are the babies they bore. That too is natural. When that lunatic in Germany kept his daughter in the basement and sired seven children on her? Perfectly natural. Go back far enough, and I suspect most — if not all — of us are descended from such unions. It is only the voice of civilization, the understanding that to hold together above an animal level we must restrain such impulses that makes it unusual and repugnant.
In the same way Cain and Abel and Romulus and Remus are natural brothers. Trust me, raising two boys, I saw plenty of struggles for supremacy and dominance. I’m very grateful the boys are civilized and one of them didn’t bash the other’s skull in, so we skimmed through it with a few bruises and sulks, and now they’ve hit the portion where they’re becoming friends or at least buddies.
But there is in our society that impulse, the same that considers “natural” high praise to “return to nature” in the idea that in nature they will find all the dreams that civilization has denied them.
This doesn’t consist of studying real humans and seeing the immutable characteristics — like a tendency to band together and display. All part of being social apes — but an airy-fairy Rosseaunean dream, that goes something like “Society doesn’t share with me, or coddle me, and I have to work and I can’t sleep with my friend’s boyfriend/girlfriend, and I’m expected to look after my own kids, and–” and then imagining that because the desire exists — feelings are REAL! — for something different, it must mean that something is “natural.”
This is the force unmaking society and pulling it apart. Because when each individual — naturally — completely fails to repress him or herself, when there’s no sense of deferred gratification, no sense of “yeah, I want this, but I want this other thing more” there is no civilization and no future.
Without the ability to have our mind suppress natural impulses in the search for other, better desires and dreams, we’d all still be following mammoth herds and living in feast and famine. And there would be about 2 million of us across the world.
Of course a lot of the “natural” pushing people of our time think that would be fine and dandy. But they imagine that they somehow would hold on to jets and the benefits of civilization while the peasants starved to a “sustainable” level.
Never happen, of course. The Natural Humans would have them roasting on a spit in no time. But never mind that.
I’m now going to take a very unnatural shower, and wear unnatural clothes and go about doing some unnatural work.
To keep civilization going, and spite the would be “natural” tyrants.