Self Sufficient

Ever since Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain came out I have been seeing the world, especially the world of politics, through a Hansonian framework. Our big evolutionary drive is to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation and for a social species that evolved in groups and communities, that means that we try to obtain ever greater status to ensure that we can pass more of our genes to future generations and then ensure that our progeny are successful, have supportive allies, and can further pass along their genes.

 

This mental framework has made me particularly sensitive to people’s attempts to improve their status in the eyes of others. I am in my late 20’s and I have a lot of friends on social media who seem concerned with telling people that they are self-sufficient. Many of my friends seem to want everyone to know that they have worked hard for the thing that they have, and have not had to rely on hand-outs from either government or from their parents. There seems to be this urge to let everyone know how capable we can be, and I suspect that what my friends are really doing is signaling their skills and abilities and attempting to increase their social status by suggesting that they have good judgment, an industrious nature, and have achieved their level of wealth through their own abilities.

 

Self-sufficiency in this view is all about how valuable one appears. Politically it is expedient to say that everyone should be self-sufficient, that we should all be able to provide for ourselves without relying on the assistance of others. My fear, however, is that self-sufficiency is really just acting on the central themes identified by Hanson and Simler. If we have achieved a certain level of success, we will look even better if we can tell other people that we became successful on our own, without help from others. We will look impressive if we have achieved something difficult that other people can’t seem to do without lots of help and advantages from birth. The typical idea of self-sufficiency, it appears, is really not about being self-sufficient, but about making ourselves look good to boost our social status.

 

Seneca offers us an alternative idea regarding self-sufficiency in Letters from a Stoic. In one of his letters he writes, “The wise man is self-sufficient. This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps toward mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises fortune.”

 

My social media friends, talking about their own self-sufficiency in purchasing a home, landscaping a yard, or getting through college are not thinking of self-sufficiency in terms of happiness. Nor are they recognizing just what they need from others in order to be able to do something sufficiently on their own. None of my friends are subsistence farmers, cultivating all the food that they consume. None of my friends walked out of a box into the world to discover how to act and succeed in our society – they all had good luck in the form of parents or teachers or friends or mentors to give them advice and serve as models for success. And all of my friends relied on public infrastructure, roads, water systems, telecommunications networks to build their own success. There was a certain amount of hard work, good decision making, and avoiding harmful vices or wasteful uses of resources that undoubtedly contributed to the success of my self-sufficient friends, but every one of them benefited enormously from a huge number of factors that came before them and that they had no part of.

 

As Seneca writes, our happiness and our responses to the world are the only things where we can expect to find true self-sufficiency. For the rest of the world, unless we want to survive by subsistence farming with no help from others, we will never be entirely self-sufficient, at least, not in the way we seem to imply on social media.

Creating the Idea of the American Nation

The Civil War in the United States changed a lot of things. It brought about the administrative state in the United States and gave absolute sovereignty in our country to the national government, wrestling that sovereignty away from the individual states. Our Civil War occur nearly 100 years after our battle for independence, and it was the Civil War which cemented the idea of American nationhood throughout the world.

 

When our founding fathers created our Constitution they introduced a new idea to our continent, that ever was a citizen of one nation, and not just a citizen of an individual state. Today this is obvious, but at the time of the revolution, at the time of our Constitution’s adoption, and even at the time of the Civil War, this was not clear. American’s thought of themselves first as Virginians or New Yorkers, not as collective citizens across the nation. In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis explains this shift in ideology from the actions of Lincoln during the war:

 

“In 1863 Lincoln had some compelling reasons for bending the arc of American history in a national direction, since he was then waging a civil war on behalf of a union that he claimed predated the existence of the states. This was a fundamental distortion of how history happened, though we may wish to forgive Lincoln, since it was the only way for him to claim the political authority to end slavery.”

 

Ellis shows that the idea that each state was part of a larger union, and that the union to which they belonged had ultimate authority over each state was anathema even in the 1860’s. We fought the revolution as a group of united states, but we were not a united nation as much as a collective group of independent governments with aligned self-interests. Thinking back on the decisions made during the Constitutional Convention and at our nations founding requires that we remember that our Founding Fathers did not see our government and our associations as a unified whole, but often as a group of sovereign entities forming a compact. Some of our founding fathers did see the importance of American nationhood, and in his book, Ellis sheds light on the actions of Washington, Madison, Hamilton, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert Morris to turn the nation into a cohesive sovereign entity, a concept that was not fully cemented until after the Civil War.

Growing Together

Marcus Aurelius believed in the power of mankind to unite and band together to build a better world and become more than we ever could be on our own.  In this spirit he placed acting in the common good above acting in our own interest, and valued unity over individuality.  “A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community,” Aurelius wrote in the second century.

 

His metaphor is looking at the complex way that society exists and the importance understanding the ways in which we are connected. We may feel disjointed and independent of other individuals and groups, but the reality is that we are united in a way where everything flows through all of us to create the society we live in today.  He explains that separating ourselves from even one individual is an action that separates us from the entire community. Once we turn one person away from our life, we are insulating ourselves in a more narrowly defined group and building an identity that blocks other people from interacting with us. This limits not just our growth, but the growth of all.

 

On a societal level this means that anyone who is forgotten and pushed out becomes dead weight on our tree of life, holding down the branches around them.  We can look at this metaphor from multiple perspectives and use it to adjust the ways we think about those who are often outcasts within our society. Creating systems that isolate the poor, minorities, and people with criminal backgrounds places an undue burden on those who are still trying to flourish in the community, for they must not only bear their own weight as they grow, but they must also hold up the branches that were cut.  Aurelius would argue that society will not grow to its fullest if it were constantly cutting out members on whom it depends. The true test of our society is to find ways to incorporate all without the need for pruning. Leaving out individuals forces them to be carried by others, and it forces others to shoulder more of the burden that could be evened out with greater participation from all.

Cooperating With Others

Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of accepting others and working with others in his collection of thoughts, Meditations. In his writing he addresses the importance of accepting the shortcomings of others and being willing to cooperate with them in part of a functioning society. No matter how much we strive to be great, we will always be around those who do not share the same goals as us, and do not try to live up to the same principles that we do.  Aurelius writes that we should understand this and be willing to meet with them and work with them even though it can be a challenge for us. He writes,

 

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil…I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.  For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.  To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting agains one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

 

In this passage Aurelius is accepting that people will approach and see the world differently than he does, and he attributes their shortcomings to their ignorance.  It is important that we read this and do not think that we can place ourselves above others by criticizing them for being ignorant.  Aurelius would argue that we must treat them with the same respect with which we treat ourselves, because we are oftentimes guilty of the same type of ignorance and misunderstanding in our own life. I think it is also important to say that we should not go about life trying to educate others and show them of their ignorance. The best way to combat the misunderstandings of others is to build relationships with them, gain their trust, and engage with them to better understand their points of view while sharing your understanding of the world.

 

Aurelius is arguing that we must accept others because we need to cooperate with them in all that we do in society.  We cannot hate others or try to avoid interactions with them as our society depends on our participation as a unit.  We must find a way to mesh with others and adept to those who are ignorant of their actions and behaviors. If we do not, then we shut out those with whom we happen to be working with.  By overcoming the pitfalls of our own personalities and the behaviors and actions of others, we can better align to improve the lives of all in society.

I had originally written this post prior to reading Corey Booker’s book United in which he retells his life story and explains his perspectives of the world. Booker’s thoughts go hand in hand with Aurelius’ quote above. He sees us as a united people despite how different we may look and behave, and despite how different our country has treated people throughout our history.  As a senator from New Jersey, Booker is striving to better our country from a platform of togetherness in which we must find ways to cherish the power of our connectedness and lift each other up. In Booker’s mindset, despite our differences in thought, appearance, culture, and beliefs, we all share our common humanity, and when we work to improve the experiences and lives of one, we improve the universe for all.

Power

Howard Zinn wrote a letter to James Harmon for him to publish in his book Take My Advice, and in his letter he wrote about the incredible connections between people and the power that unified people can generate. He encourages the reader to find their own truths in life, and to seek an independence built through mindfulness. Zinn writes, “Understand that money and weapons are fragile forms of power.” He is criticizing institutions and their leaders in this statement.  To me, this sentence builds the idea that the most powerful people are the people who are connected with others through real and meaningful relationships.  These people are not powerful in the way that the winner of Shark Tank or high profile attorney’s are powerful. Their power is not built by influence, but rather empathy and a true concern for the people around them.  While money can dwindle and is not a true representation of the value of an individual, and weapons can be used by government to coerce and intimidate people, Zinn writes that people, when united, become more powerful through relationships than weapons and money (the use of both weapons and money against a united people will only strengthen the bond which empowers those people).
A book I plan to read is called, Generation Me, and it focuses on the psychological differences between generations.  The author was recently on a political podcast that I listen to frequently, and she stated that as our society becomes more individualistic our attitudes towards institutions, government, and other people begin to become more negative.  We loose trust in each other and in institutions, adopting an every man for himself attitude where we focus on obtaining our own wealth regardless of the state of others.  This is interesting to me because it seems to slightly contrast Zinn’s message while at the same time supporting it.  Zinn is advocating that we try to connect with more people to build powerful and lasting relationships, yet he is decidedly anti-institutional.  The author of Generation Me would certainly advocate for greater social connections and interactions which would strengthen our sense of community through relationships, yet she would not implore people to hold such a rebellious attitude towards government and other institutions.