Innovate / Endure

Innovate              -                 Endure
Novel                  -                 Traditional
Achievement       -                 Limits
Aspire                 -                 Accept
Dynamic             -                 Static

‘Ambition’ and ‘stagnation’ are peculiarly modern, Faustian concepts.

The son of a 14th century blacksmith does not have ‘ambitions’ to become a blacksmith - he understands that to become a blacksmith is his lot in life, and so has no uncertainty in this regard. He does not need to aspire to the role - he needs merely to show the requisite level of application and industry, and his destiny will be secured.

Ambition is only relevant within a dynamic system, in which individuals are ‘mobile’ and free to choose their lot; and in which there are few limits on the size of your chosen lot.

From the perspective of modern man, the 14th century blacksmith is ‘unambitious’ - he has no desire to improve or change his lot, and so appears to be content to ‘stagnate’ - which is really just a modern way of saying ‘staying the same over time.’

We can, then, see the celebration of aspiration and ambition as a sign of a wider dissolution, encapsulated by the ubiquitous pattern of runaway growth - all of which is driven by the Faustian bio-spirit and its incessant push towards infinity.

In every field, economic, political, and cultural, Athens welcomed the new and was ready for any adventure.

After the defeat of Persia at Salamis, Athens could not return to the old ways. Taking immediate advantage of the fleet which had been built up for the war, she went on to establish her commercial empire in the eastern Mediterranean. When the tribute from the alliance was no longer needed for war, it was used to build the wonderful temples and statues. Philosophers and poets were honored for attacking the old, traditional ways of life.

But her glories were comparatively short-lived. She was always weakened from within by the numerous Class I individuals who were constantly forming factions, plotting with internal or external enemies, and organizing rebellions […]

Sparta, in extreme contrast, was a nation where Class II residues were wholly predominant both in the general population and in the élite.

Innovation in Sparta was a crime; everything was regulated by ancient custom and religion and time-sanctified tradition. The individual counted for nothing, the group for all. Adventure was always to be distrusted. From these roots Sparta derived a tremendous power of endurance when faced with adversity.

But she always stopped short of anything spectacular. She produced no philosophy, no liquid wealth, and little art. She never tried to establish a great empire. Her own armies went home after the Persians were defeated.

In spite of defeats and crushing hardships, she finally conquered in the Peloponnesian Wars; but in the 4th century, when the conditions of life and warfare greatly changed, she too was lost. Because of her lack of Class I residues, Sparta could not adapt herself to new ways; so, defending the old, she perished.

The social combination that is strongest against external enemies, and at the same time able to bring about a fairly high internal level of culture and material prosperity, is that wherein (1) Class II residues are widespread and active among the masses (the non-élite); (2) the individuals with a high level of Class I residues are concentrated in the élite; (3) a fair percentage of Class II residues nevertheless still remains within the élite; (4) the élite is comparatively open, so that at least a comparatively free circulation can take place.

The meaning of this optimum combination can be translated as follows into more usual terms: (1) The masses have faith in an integrating myth or ideology, a strong sense of group solidarity, a willingness to endure physical hardship and sacrifice. (2) The best and most active brains of the community are concentrated in the élite, and ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities the historical situation presents.

[James Burnham]
The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, p.192-3

[…] in the second volume of Democracy in America, he presents the energy of democratic society as fueled, in large part, by a certain kind of unhappiness. This unhappiness did not have the character of misery or despair; rather, Tocqueville observed a pervasive unease. The name he gave to this unease was restlessness (inquiétude).

For Pascal, restlessness is an expression of the human need for God. It derives from man’s desire to be immortal. Since man cannot be immortal, “he has decided to prevent himself from thinking about it.” All men have a “secret instinct to seek external diversion and occupation, coming from their feeling of constant wretchedness.”

[...] Tocqueville identifies two main sources of modern restlessness: the democratic preoccupation with material well-being and democratic envy.

Tocqueville argues that, in places untouched by progress, in which one finds a poor and uneducated populace, one finds hardship but also tranquility and resilience amid difficult circumstances. In America, where there is great material prosperity, relatively speaking, and great hopefulness of achieving still more prosperity, one finds widespread discontent.

He describes Americans moving, changing, and shifting from one place to another, from one occupation to another, from one life to another. He describes people buying land and houses only to sell them quickly and changing professions multiple times in their careers.

The phenomena he describes here overlap quite extensively with the universal change and motion that he praised in volume 1. What had been described as expressions of dynamic energy now become expressions of dissatisfaction and discontent.

[Dana Jalbert Stauffer]
‘“The Most Common Sickness of Our Time”: Tocqueville on Democratic Restlessness’, The Review of Politics 80 (2018), p.441-2, 447

[...] it is an essential characteristic of the personal and modifiable technics of Man, in contrast to the genus technics of animals, that every discovery contains the possibility and necessity of new discoveries, every fulfilled wish awakens a thousand more, every triumph over Nature incites to yet others.

The soul of this beast of prey is ever hungry, his will never satisfied - that is the curse that lies upon this kind of life, but also the greatness inherent in its destiny.

It is precisely its best specimens that know the least quiet, happiness, or enjoyment.

[Oswald Spengler]
Man and Technics, p. 58

To rise in the social scale, even in calm and normal times, the prime requisite, beyond any question, is a capacity for hard work, but the requisite next in importance is ambition, a firm resolve to get on in the world, to outstrip one's fellows.

Now those traits hardly go with extreme sensitiveness or, to be quite frank, with ‘goodness' either. For 'goodness' cannot remain indifferent to the hurts of those who must be thrust behind if one is to step ahead of them [….] If one is to govern men, more useful than a sense of justice and much more useful than altruism, or even than extent of knowledge or broadness of view—are perspicacity, a ready intuition of individual and mass psychology, strength of will and, especially, confidence in oneself.

With good reason did Machiavelli put into the mouth of Cosimo dei Medici the much quoted remark, that states are not ruled with prayer-books.

[Gaetano Mosca]
The Ruling Class, p. 449-50

Lucretius and Epicurus did not promise this kind of complete knowledge at all and took no interest in the technology that might grow from it. Their belief in chance went deeper, making them much more radically sceptical.

They had no confidence in any practical attempt to improve human life. Epicurus himself actually despised the pursuit of theoretical knowledge for its own sake as one more distraction from the pursuit of inner peace and warned his followers against it. 'Set your sail, O happy youth,' he cried, ‘and flee from every form of education.'

Lucretius is indeed more interested in details about atoms, but for him too knowledge itself is not the aim. Knowledge is a means not an end, a means to inward peace, not to improved outward activity. Primarily it is a cure for anxiety, a path to ataraxia, peace of mind.

What the Epicureans were preaching was essentially a fatalistic quietism. They did not think that human happiness could be increased at all either by political activity or by the satisfactions of love, or indeed by knowledge either.

Instead, they put their faith in a stern limitation of human ambition, a concentration on what little is possible to us here and now.

They thought that people who had once fully grasped that they could not change the world at all, either by sacrificing to the gods or by any other kind of effort, would cease their anxious striving, would compose their minds, would be able to enjoy the satisfactions that life actually gave them in the present, and would console themselves for their sorrows by admiring the cosmos.

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p.37-8

Contrasting free societies with those that are not free, Tocqueville writes that the former are “all bustle and activity,” while the latter are static and self-satisfied. In the former, “improvement and progress are on everyone’s mind.”

He thus seems to have judged that the constant change to which Americans were exposed made them adventurous and innovative, and this drove them to success in commercial pursuits. Even Lawler, whose book The Restless Mind greatly illuminated the influence of Pascal’s profoundly negative view of restlessness on Tocqueville, acknowledged that “Tocqueville sees greatness in the restlessness of the Americans.”

While Tocqueville spoke admiringly of the energy he observed in Americans, and of the lively, vibrant pace of their economic and political life, his praise for the spiritual effects of the “universal movement” occurring in America culminates in the suggestion that it gives rise to excellence in commercial pursuits. 

That is certainly noteworthy, but Tocqueville himself did not regard excellence in commercial pursuits as the highest kind of human excellence.

[Dana Jalbert Stauffer]
‘“The Most Common Sickness of Our Time”: Tocqueville on Democratic Restlessness’, The Review of Politics 80 (2018), p.446

Lower-middle-class culture, now as in the past, is organized around the family, church, and neighborhood. It values the community's continuity more highly than individual advancement, solidarity more highly than social mobility.

Conventional ideals of success play a less important part in lower-middle-class life than the maintenance of existing ways. Parents want their children to get ahead, but they also want them to respect their elders, resist the temptation to lie and cheat, willingly shoulder the responsibilities that fall to them, and bear adversity with fortitude. More concerned with honor than with worldly ambition, they have less interest in the future than do upper-middle-class parents, who try to equip their children with the qualities required for competitive achievement. They do not subscribe to the notion that parents ought to provide children with every possible advantage.

The desire to preserve their way of life," as E. E. LeMasters writes in a study of construction workers, takes precedence over the desire to climb the social ladder.

In his historical studies of nineteenth-century Massachusetts, Stephan Thernstrom found that neither the Irish nor the Italians thought of schooling primarily as a means for their children to climb into a higher social class and to leave their old neighborhoods behind. In Newburyport, Irish parents sometimes sacrificed their children to their passion for home ownership, forcing them into the workplace instead of sending them to school. Irrational by upper-middle-class standards, this choice made sense to people bent on holding their communities together and on assuring the continuation of their own way of life in the next generation.

Social workers and educators, however, condemned child labor and sought to create a system of universal education, which would make it possible for children to surpass their parents, break the old ties, and make their own way in the larger world beyond the ethnic ghetto. In the same way, civil service reformers tried to replace the tribal politics of the Irish-American machine with a system more consistent with the principles of meritocracy and administrative efficiency.

Sociologists observed, usually with a suggestion of disapproval, that working people seemed to have no ambition.

According to Lloyd Warner, who studied Newburyport in the 1930s, working-class housewives set the dominant tone of cultural conservatism. They adhered to a "rigid" and "conventional" code of morality and seldom dared to "attempt anything new." They took no interest in long-range goals. “Their hopes are basically centered around carrying on [and] take the form of not wanting their present routine disturbed - they want to continue as they are, but, while doing so, better their circumstances and gain more freedom."

Anthony Lukas, a journalist, made the same point in his account of the Boston school conflicts of the mid-seventies. Lukas contrasted the "Charlestown ethic of getting by” with the "American imperative to get ahead." The people of Charlestown, deserted by the migration of more ambitious neighbors to the suburbs, had renounced "opportunity, advancement, adventure” for the “reassurance of community, solidarity, and camaraderie."

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.487-8

By shifting attention from unionization to the study of working-class culture, the new labor historians have shown that a whole way of life was at stake in the struggle against industrialism. Workers were defending not just their economic interests but their crafts, families, and neighborhoods.

The recognition that economic interests are not enough to inspire radical or revolutionary agitation or to make people accept its risks suggests a more sweeping conclusion. 

Resistance to innovation, it appears, is an important, perhaps indispensable ingredient in revolutionary action, along with a tendency to identify innovation with the disruption of older communities by invasive forces from outside.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.215

While Native science respects the wisdom of its Elders, Western science seeks to overthrow the ideas of the previous generation, although this is generally done in limited ways so that the major paradigms of science persist from generation to generation.

Nevertheless, the battle between father and son continues with every generation.


A belief in the need for constant progress and change, along with the accumulation of wealth and material resources, is generally absent from Indigenous societies, which place more emphasis upon balance, harmony, and the circular passage of time.

Social value and personal prestige are gained in other ways, and people sometimes appear conservative about adopting new technologies. In addition, those technologies that have been developed, or adopted, generally tend to be used in ways that do not disrupt the particular environment and way of life.

Systems of farming, the working of artifacts, the design and building of great earthworks in the southeastern United States, as well as the temples and cities of Central America all imply considerable technological support. But these changes have generally come about within an environment of balance and do not represent "advances" in the sense of being a forward movement and a split and separation from tradition.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.261-2, 271

Which are the possible coping mechanisms open to a system faced with changing external conditions?

Two extreme positions can be identified. At the one extreme, the structure of the system is fully defined a priori. This would mean that the system is 'hard-wired', and that all possible eventualities will have to be catered for in the fixed, internal structure of the system.

Apart from the loss in adaptivity, such systems may become too cumbersome in complex situations. Under less complex conditions, 'hard-wired' systems, operating on simple control principles, may be an adequate solution, but this is not a plausible option for the kind of complex systems we are interested in.

At the other extreme we may have systems with no independent internal structure at all, but where the structure is fully determined by the conditions in the environment. A system which merely mimics the environment directly will not be capable of acting in that environment since it will be fully at its mercy.

To be able to interpret its environment, the system must have at least the following two attributes: some form of resistance to change, and some mechanism for comparing different conditions in order to determine whether there has been enough change to warrant some response.

Both these attributes merely translate into the need for a form of memory - without resistance to change, memory is impossible. If the self-organising capabilities of such a system are adequate, it will then learn to cope with a changing environment.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.99

The model can be made more complex networks by imposing certain 'biases' on the nodes.

These will suppress signals below a certain threshold - another example of non-linear interaction. The size of the bias has an important effect: if it is too high, the network will be too stable, if it is too low, the network will be chaotic.

The bias therefore provides a mechanism through which the system can adjust itself to remain at the critical level even when the complexity of the external world fluctuates.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.98

Complex systems operate under conditions far from equilibrium [and] need a constant flow of energy to change, evolve and survive as complex entities. Equilibrium, symmetry and complete stability mean death.

Just as the flow of energy is necessary to fight entropy and maintain the complex structure of the system, society can only survive as a process. It is defined not by its origins or its goals, but by what it is doing.

In postmodern society this constant activity, this lack of equilibrium, is pushed to ever higher levels, particularly through the role of the mass media. This has an unsettling effect on many, and undeniably one has to develop certain skills to cope with these conditions, but to yearn for a state of complete equilibrium is to yearn for a sarcophagus.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.122

If you had a million dollars in a bank at 5%, your income would be $50,000 a year. Now if you chose to live on 50,000 a year, you could live in perpetuity. This is what we would call sustainable income because you haven't touched your capital.

Well, ecosystems, the soils, the fisheries, forests, grasslands, are capable each year of producing an annual output. If human beings were content to live on that annual output, we could live in perpetuity without destroying the capital base, as it were. But instead, we've continued to grow and grow and grow under the illusion that there are no limits, because trade flows abolish the illusion of limits, for example. It's only one of many things. Technology helps to do that as well.

So what we've done is managed to grow the human economy beyond the biocapacity of the planet. But that's why fisheries are being depleted. That's why we've eliminated 94% of the mammalian biomass on the planet and replaced it with humans and our domestic livestock and so on.

So we are living literally by liquidating the basic natural capital base that we are utterly dependent upon. Growth is destructive once you're beyond carrying capacity.

[William Rees]
‘William E. Rees: "The Fundamental Issue - Overshoot" | The Great Simplification #53’, Nate Hagens, YouTube

If you look into the historical record, a very simple little society called Tikopia - an island in the South Pacific, just a few square kilometers - for some 3000 years, it seems, managed to control its population in the vicinity of 1200 people. 1200 people over 3000 years.

But they did it using seven forms of birth control, including by the way, when things got tough in the lean years, the old guys like me would set themselves out into the ocean and disappear. The Inuit in Northern Canada and the US did the same thing, departed on ice flow so that there'd be more resources for young people.

[William Rees]
‘William E. Rees: "The Fundamental Issue - Overshoot" | The Great Simplification #53’, Nate Hagens, YouTube

Rituals stabilize life.

To paraphrase Antoine Saint-Exupéry, we may say: rituals are in life what things are in space. For Hannah Arendt it is the durability of things that gives them their 'relative independence from men'. They 'have the function of stabilizing human life'. Their 'objectivity lies in the fact that ... men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table'.

In life, things serve as stabilizing resting points. Rituals serve the same purpose. Through their self-sameness, their repetitiveness, they stabilize life. They make life last [haltbar].

The contemporary compulsion to produce robs things of their endurance [Haltbarkeit]: it intentionally erodes duration in order to increase production, to force more consumption. Lingering, however, presupposes things that endure. If things are merely used and consumed, there can be no lingering. And the same compulsion of production destabilizes life by undermining what is enduring in life.

[Byung-Chul Han]
The Disappearance of Rituals, p.3

As the middle classes and their commercialization of all human relationships spread through Western society in the centuries from the twelfth to the twentieth, they largely modified and, to some extent, reversed the values of Western society earlier. In some cases, the old values, such as future preference or self-discipline, remained, but were redirected.

Future preference ceased to be transcendental in its aim, and became secularized. Self-discipline ceased to seek spirituality by restraining sensuality, and instead sought material acquisition. In general, the new middle-class outlook had a considerable religious basis, but it was the religion of the medieval heresies and of puritanism rather than the religion of Roman Christianity.

This complex outlook that we call middle class or bourgeois is, of course, the chief basis of our world today. Western society is the richest and most powerful society that has ever existed largely because it has been impelled forward along these lines, beyond the rational degree necessary to satisfy human needs, by the irrational drive for achievement in terms of material ambitions.

To be sure, Western society always had other kinds of people, and the majority of the people in Western society probably had other outlooks and values, but it was middle-class urgency that pushed modern developments in the direction they took.

There were always in our society dreamers and truth-seekers and tinkerers. They, as poets, scientists, and engineers, thought up innovations which the middle classes adopted and exploited if they seemed likely to be profit-producing. Middle-class self-discipline and future preference provided the savings and investment without which any innovation—no matter how appealing in theory— would be set aside and neglected.

But the innovations that could attract middle-class approval (and exploitation) were the ones that made our world today so different from the world of our grandparents and ancestors.

[Carroll Quigley]
Tragedy and Hope, ‘The Future in Perspective,’ p.784

Sovereign states today act in an environment so transformed by market forces that no institution - not even the largest transnational corporation or sovereign state - can master it.

In this environment the most unimaginable forces spring from a torrent of technological innovations, unfettered market competition and weak or fractured social institutions that produces the global economy of our times.

As management gurus never cease reminding us, nation-states and multinational corporations can survive and prosper today only by using new technologies to achieve a competitive edge over their rivals. What most of them fail to note is that competitive advantage is inherently fleeting in the anarchic environment of disorganised global capitalism.

In the late twentieth century there is no shelter - for corporations or for governments - from the global gale of creative destruction.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.76

Paine also who saw that in the constitutional debates of the 18th century "the Nation was always left out of the question".

By bringing the nation into the question, he was bound to set in motion forces which he could neither control nor foresee. That is what democracy is about.

[E.P. Thompson]
The Making of the English Working Class, p.110

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