Ronald Wright in his book A Short History of Progress explores how the progress that allows civilizations to grow often leads them into addictive traps that end in their collapse.
His definition of progress comes from Sidney Pollard who, back in 1968, described it as “the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind … that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is toward improvement.”
This default assumption, so deeply ingrained in people’s thinking and ability to visualize futures, is an idea that’s only about 300 years old. Despite that, it holds us tight.
Origins of Debt
At the outset of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber explains that “this book is a history of debt.” Simple enough and, considering the title, quite obvious, but he continues by writing that it:
“uses that history as a way to ask fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like — what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question.”
In a wide-ranging analysis that weaves together anthropology, history and economics, Graeber looks at the origins of money, the origins of debt, deconstructs some of the myths surrounding both, and provides a 5,000+ year historical framework.
Childhood has been around forever, right?
That de-facto assumption was dismantled in the early 1980s by Neil Postman in his book The Disappearance of Childhood. “Childhood is a social artifact, not a biological category” Postman writes:
“In fact, if we take the word children to mean a special class of people somewhere between the ages of seven and, say, seventeen, requiring special forms of nurturing and protection, and believed to be qualitatively different from adults, then there is ample evidence that children have existed for less than four hundred years.”
Concentrated practice over time cannot fail but produce results
THEORY OF MASTERY
The Theory of Mastery presented in the book that the quote above is taken is best understood as a rejection of the “Romantic Genius” ideal.
It’s a harmful ideal really, one that divides the world in two: the creative geniuses with natural talent are all over THERE while I (who is, naturally, assumed to have no natural talent) am forever stuck HERE.
This is not only destructive, but false.
Past masters and those still living, as Greene shows, were obsessive practitioners of their craft (often exceeding 10,000 hours) and practiced that craft with an intense focus. Repeat this over time and that’s how you become masterful.
In Medieval Europe the social world reflected the natural world in a grand yet rigid hierarchy. The psychological benefit of this was a deep sense of security and belonging. One had a fixed place inside a closed world, a world with closure where freedom as we know it didn’t really exist.
Neither did anxiety. Or at least it was kept to a minimum because, as Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
This was starting to change in Europe by the 14th century as the old-guard structure started to break up and the Commercial Revolution started to, well, start. This provides the economic groundwork for the emergence of Capitalism and a whole new psychological atmosphere.
The sense-of-closure that knit together the Medieval world unravels and all the loose strands swarm around the mind-of-the-land and the land-of-the-mind. “Freeeeeeedom…” reigns and it feels kind of constricting.
There are some books that you read and some books that read you.
The latter kind come with demands. They say “listen listen…sit down, shut up, and pay attention”. After you check your punch to make sure it wasn’t spiked, you interrogate the book —“why are you talking to me?!” — and then, inevitably, end up sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention. Continue reading
The act of thinking and walking are essential to the experience of being human.
Unfortunately though, it’s all-too-common to be deprived of physical and intellectual movement once childhood curiosity wanes. Thought-walks wither into regurgitated-sits.
This doesn’t have to be so. Continue reading