Former Agrarian Paradise & Urban Decadence

Former Agrarian Paradise & Urban Decadence

Modern humanity tends to look back at the past and see it as better than it used to be. We remember a time in the past where things were simpler, where people were nicer, and where people lived better than they do today. There are several cognitive illusions which play into this misperception of the past, and it can lead us to make bad judgments about the present and poor decisions about how we and others should live. This misperception of the past is partly due to the fact that as children and  teenagers we lived in a world where someone else was responsible for providing for our needs. It is partly due to the fact that our brains don’t remember the negative aspects of past experiences as much as the positive aspects of the past. The reality of childhood combined with cognitive errors is what gives us political movements that denounce modernity in favor of a past that never truly existed.
Steven Pinker references historian Ben Kiernan when he writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He writes, “time and again [utopian ideologies] hark back to a vanished agrarian paradise, which they seek to restore as a healthful substitute for prevailing urban decadence.” When we think about utopian human societies, we don’t always project forward as much as we project backwards. We picture a semi nomadic and agrarian life, but with much better tools and technology. Urban living is decadent, as in declining and decaying. We don’t see humanity flourishing in modern urban environments, which could be a problem for how we approach modern living.
Tyler Cowen often argues that we should be leaning into big business, technological development, and economic prosperity more than we do. Advances in living standards, improved vaccines and pharmaceuticals, and better technology are what allow us to live longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives, Cowen often argues. We should be projecting utopian views that enhance economic and commercial activities, not utopian views that shun them. Unfortunately, however, when we think about human urban living and economics, we see something negative in ourselves and our futures. Pinker continues, “commercial activities, which tend to be concentrated in cities, can themselves be triggers of moralistic hatred.”
Transactional capitalism is somehow seen as one of the negative elements of our urban decadence. Most people don’t seem to view it as Pinker does, as a pacifying force that unites people unlike any other force in the world. People don’t see economic and commercial activities the way Cowen sees them either, as forces that drive the flourishing of humanity and humanity’s potential. We look back with longing on agrarian paradises that no longer exist, without recognizing the cognitive errors which give rise to the false views of our former societies. We remember the past as being better than it was, and only see decadence around us when we should be seeing the improved living standards, the protection from diseases, and the more exciting and entertaining lives that urban living and economic advancement have given us.

The Torment of the Past and Future

Our brains and the way we think about the world are basically our real world super power. We are able to predict what is going to happen five minutes from now, five hours from now, and five days from now. We can remember loads of information from our past and synthesize that information in new situations to draw new conclusions. We are able to intuitively recognize what other people are thinking and to deduce how they felt in past situations or how they will feel in future situations. Our brains do incredible work to help us move through the universe and our species would not be here today without our brains’ super powers.


But as great as these super powers are, they can also lead us astray and cause real problems in our lives. Ruminating on things we do not like from our past or on our fears for theĀ  future can be life ruining. We can become embarrassed, scarred, and find ourselves in so much pain from our past that we cannot enjoy our present. Similarly, we can become paralyzed with fear, disillusioned with possibilities, and stuck thinking about negative things may happen in the future, causing us to forget our present moment. In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “But the chief cause of both of these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessings of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves of that which is to come as well as over that which is past.”


To a much greater extent than many of us do, we should probably seek out psychological services to help us better order our thoughts. Stoicism has helped me with remembering the present and has given me tools to use to avoid ruminating on the future or past. Combining psychological services with a stoic toolkit can be very helpful in a world where happiness is presented in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the things that will make us happy. We want to plan ahead and strive for a healthy life where our needs are provided for, but if we become so focused on needing out life to have a particular type of car, or so focused on what might happen if we are not able to pay certain bills, then we can ruin our health and our current lives. And if we cannot let go of the past, if we cannot look at what has happened in our life and say, “that sucked, but here is what I can learn moving forward,” then we will constantly be haunted by ghosts. Learning to be present is not just about breathing exercises and comfortable pillows. Being present is about recognizing when our minds have jumped ahead or when our minds are stuck in the past and learning to refocus the mind on the current moment, the only time where we can take any action to improve things.