The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures
ON THE HUMAN CONDITION
A Simple Idea
When we are wounded and suffer pain, no matter the cause of the wound or the profile of the pain, we can do something about it. The range of situations that can cause human suffering includes not only physical wounds but the sorts of hurts that result from losing someone we love or being humiliated. The abundant recall of related memories sustains and amplifies suffering. Memory helps project the situation into the imagined future and lets us envision the consequences.
Humans would have been able to respond to suffering by attempting to understand their plight and by inventing compensations, corrections, or radically effective solutions. Along with suffering pain, humans were able to experience its very opposites, pleasure and enthusiasm, in a wide variety of situations, ranging from the simple and trivial to the sublime, from the pleasures that constitute responses to tastes and smells, food, wine, sex, and physical comforts, to the wonder of play, the awe and flourishing that arise from the contemplation of a landscape or the admiration and deep affection for another person. Humans also discovered that exerting power, dominating and even destroying others, and causing pure mayhem and pillage could produce not only strategically valuable results but also pleasure. Here, too, humans would have been able to use the existence of such feelings for a practical purpose: as a motive for questioning why pain exists in the first place and perhaps to puzzle at the bizarre fact that under certain circumstances the suffering of others could be rewarding. Perhaps they would have used the related feelings—among them fear, surprise, anger, sadness, and compassion—as a guide to imagining ways of countering suffering and its sources. They would have realized that among the variety of social behaviors available to them, some—fellowship, friendship, care, love—were the very opposite of aggression and violence and were transparently associated with the well-being of not only others but their own.
Why would feelings succeed in moving the mind to act in such an advantageous manner? One reason comes from what feelings accomplish in the mind and do to the mind. In standard circumstances, feelings tell the mind, without any word being spoken, of the good or bad direction of the life process, at any moment, within its respective body. By doing so, feelings naturally qualify the life process as conducive or not to well-being and flourishing.1
Another reason why feelings would succeed where plain ideas fail has to do with the unique nature of feelings. Feelings are not an independent fabrication of the brain. They are the result of a cooperative partnership of body and brain, interacting by way of free-ranging chemical molecules and nerve pathways. This particular and overlooked arrangement guarantees that feelings disturb what might otherwise be an indifferent mental flow. The source of feeling is life on the wire, balancing its act between flourishing and death. As a result, feelings are mental stirrings, troubling or glorious, gentle or intense. They can stir us subtly, in an intellectualized sort of way, or intensely and noticeably, grabbing the owner’s attention firmly. Even at their most positive, they tend to disturb the peace and break the quiet.2
The simple idea, then, is that feelings of pain and feelings of pleasure, from degrees of well-being to malaise and sickness, would have been the catalysts for the processes of questioning, understanding, and problem solving that most profoundly distinguish human minds from the minds of other living species. By questioning, understanding, and problem solving, humans would have been able to develop intriguing solutions for the predicaments of their lives and to construct the means to promote their flourishing. They would have perfected ways of nourishing, clothing, and sheltering themselves, nursing their physical wounds, and beginning the invention of what became medicine. When the pain and the suffering were caused by others—by how they felt about others, by how they perceived others to feel about them—or when the pain was caused by considering their own conditions, such as confronting the inevitability of death, humans would have drawn on their expanding individual and collective resources and invented a variety of responses that ranged from moral prescriptions and principles of justice to modes of social organization and governance, artistic manifestations, and religious beliefs.
|June 13, 2018
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