We Are All Barbarians Now (Almost)

My generation is blessed with more material wealth than any before it. The phones we carry in our pockets are more powerful than the computer that powered NASA’s Apollo missions. We live longer, experience less violence, and enjoy instant free access to libraries full of mankind’s collected knowledge. Yet we seem more lost than ever before. We have no faith in institutions and values that once defined us. Truth is presumed nonexistent, the West is accused of being an oppressor rather than credited with the development of human rights and political freedom, and we have become materialists who believe everything has a scientifically-identifiable cause. That the human mind has concrete and natural limitations is overlooked or, in cases of extreme (but hardly uncommon) naive audacity, denied. That some things might be beyond our comprehension—or at least beyond the purview of science—is, ironically, antithetical to our supposedly hyperaware postmodern sensibility. We would understand this, no doubt, if we still understood irony. Nietzsche predicted this loss of faith and understanding. Freud, who admitted to not reading Nietzsche for fear of being accused of plagiarism, addressed it in somewhat more modern and rhetorically-satisfying terms, stating the observation as a general historical claim: We are never more than a generation away from barbarism. Living amidst all this confusion and loss of perspective, it is hard not to suspect that we may be much closer than that.


  1. Giambattista Vico

    “Living amidst all this confusion and loss of perspective . . . ” has been, generally, the experience of mankind in historical time. It is only rarely that we can document a few centuries passing, in some small part of the world, without major political, social, environmental, technological and/or religious change (though sometimes we have the illusion of historical stasis because of a lack of sources-e.g., the ancient Near East in the second millennium). Indeed, ongoing large scale change is almost part of the definition of history, for without it, what would there be to record?

    • Harry Zieve Cohen (author)

      Your observation is well-taken. But my article isn’t about overwhelming change being uniformly bad. It is rather about the nature of the current changes civilization is undergoing. Has society experienced great changes in the past? Certainly. Never before, however, has society experienced such extensive material change. My thesis is that this material change has coincided with, or (likely) caused the deterioration of our thought and intellectual foundations. Science is succeeding. The humanities are retreating. Science gives us more stuff, longer lives, and better understanding of our physical selves. The humanities give us meaning and purpose. Well, we have plenty of stuff. But we seem to have forgotten not only our purpose, but that there is value in seeking one at all.

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