Sunday, March 16, 2008

Arcadias and Utopia

The ancient province of Arcady lies in the heart of the Peloponnesus, all but isolated from the rest of Greece by mountains. In the legend it was the domain of Pan, who played the syrinx on Mount Maenalus, and of rustic people celebrated for their musical accomplishments and their rustic hospitality, but also notorious for their ignorance and low standards of living. Yet it was this unfavored land, poor, rocky, chilly, devoid of all the amenities of life, affording adequate food only to goats, which was transformed through the alchemy of art into the myth of Arcadia. From Vergil to Nicolas Poussin, "I, too, dwelt in Arcady" has symbolized the golden ages of plenty and innocence, of unsurpassable happiness enjoyed in the past and enduringly alive in memory.

While the Greco-Roman civilization placed its land of dreams in a remote and not easily accessible Arcadia, Chinese Taoism found it in any place where man could achieve identification with nature-in romantic mountain paths, isolated fishing villages, or mist-bathed landscapes. According to Lao-tzu and his Taoist followers, joy and bliss were possible only in a world of primitive simplicity. Men could achieve health and happiness only by merging themselves with their environment and living in accord with the laws of the four seasons, by participating with other living creatures "in the mysterious equality and thus forget themselves in the Tao."

The Taoist's withdrawal from conflict and his attempt to identify himself with the physical and social environment constituted a philosophy of health. Avoidance of travel minimized the transfer of new pathogens from one community to another. Life without aggressive behavior and in accordance with the rhythms of the seasons made it possible to reach a state of harmony with the environment. This way of life was not designed to solve the difficulties arising from social contacts and conflicts. Rather, it attempted to prevent or at least to minimize the emergence of new problems by creating a stable world in which new stresses, but also new experiences, were ruled out.

While the Arcadian bliss and the contented intimacy of the Chinese Tao are rarely attainable in real life, they constitute eternally the stuff of human dreams. As a substitute for the Arcadias of the past, men never tire of imagining for the future new types of social order free of the defects and vices found in all actual societies. But utopias differ profoundly one from the other despite their common basis of illusion, because each is colored by the value judgments of its originator. Utopian ideals vary all the way from a desire for nirvana to the longing for exciting experience; from the passivity, indolence, and tolerance of Goncharov's oblomovism to the ceaseless activity and creative endeavor of the Faustian universe.

Propounders of utopias have not even been able to agree on the value that they attach to life. Plato considered that life without health was not worth preserving for the sake of either the individual or the community. He saw no virtue in encouraging the survival of a fellow man threatened by continuous sickness. The state physicians of his Republic were to watch with care over "the citizens of goodly conditions, both in mind and body," but persons who were defective either mentally or physically were "to be suffered to die." This attitude is a far cry from the ethics of modern utopias. Life, it is now taught, must be preserved at all cost, whatever the burden that its preservation imposes on the community and on the individual concerned. Whether this lofty ethical concept will retain acceptance if put to the acid test of social pressure still has to be proved. Western man may rediscover wisdom in Platos social philosophy when the world becomes crowded with aged, invalid, and defective people. He may once more rationalize himself into the belief that happiness is not possible in the absence of usefulness to the social group and that survival under these conditions is therefore not worth having.

Designers of utopias must also formulate judgments of value regarding the type of human beings they want to foster. The society best suited for producing athletes, warriors, and men of action is not necessarily the best breeding ground for artists, scholars, philosophers, and mystics. In addition, many trivial factors, conscious or unconscious, influence the community in determining the defects that it will tolerate and the level of physical and intellectual adequacy to which it aspires. Most Western societies today regard as unacceptable certain smells or skin blemishes which were a matter of course a few generations ago and are still accepted as the normal state by many primitive or semicivilized peoples. Modern man looks with dismay on the fact that syphilis, malaria, yaws, intestinal disorders, etc., are so common in some areas of the world as not to be regarded as diseases. Yet he accepts as part and parcel of a normal life baldness, poor eyesight, chronic sinusitis, and other bodily defects which might be regarded as handicaps or even as repulsive traits in other cultural contexts.

Clearly, health and disease cannot be defined merely in terms of anatomical, physiological, or mental attributes. Their real measure is the ability of the individual to function in a manner acceptable to himself and to the group of which he is a part. If the medical services of the armed forces seem more successful than their civilian counterparts in formulating useful criteria of health, this is due not to their greater wisdom but rather to the fact that their criteria are more clearly defined. On the whole, effective military performance required attributes less varied and less complex than the multifarious activities of civilian life. But criteria of adequacy change even in the military world. The soldier of past wars who marched or rode his way to victory through physical and mental stamina might not be the most effective warrior in the push-button operations of future conflicts.

For several centuries the Western world has pretended to find a unifying concept of health in the Greek ideal of a proper balance between body and mind. But in reality this ideal is more and more difficult to convert into practice. Poets, philosophers, and creative scientists are rarely found among Olympic laureates. It is not easy to discover a formula of health broad enough to fit Voltaire and Jack Dempsey, to encompass the requirements of a stevedore, a New York City bus driver, and a contemplative monk.

One of the criteria of health most widely accepted at the present time is that children should grow as large and as fast as possible. But is size such a desirable attribute? Is the bigger child happier? will he live longer? does he perceive with greater acuity the loveliness or the grandeur of the world? will he contribute more to man's cultural heritage? or does his larger size merely mean that he will need a larger motorcar, become a larger soldier, and in his turn beget still larger children? The criteria of growth developed for the production of market pigs would hardly be adequate for animals feeding on acorns in the forests and fending for themselves as free individuals. Nor are they for man. Size and weight are not desirable in themselves, and their relation to health and happiness is at most obscure. In his essay On the Sizes of Things or the Advantages of Being Rather Small, Boycott concluded, in fact, that an animal about as big as a medium dog has the best possible size for our world!

Curiously enough, the assumption that human beings should grow fast and large has never been examined closely as to its validity and ultimate consequences. Its only certain merit is that weight, size, and a few other physical traits can be measured readily, provide objective and convenient characteristics on which to agree, and can be on the whole readily achieved. There is no evidence, however, that these criteria have much bearing on happiness, on the development of civilization, or even on the individual's ability to adapt to the complex demands of modern technology. While high humidity usually enhances the development of orchid plants, it is not particularly favorable to the development of the flowers; Grevillea robusta, which provides valuable timber under the relative drought conditions of Australia, yields but valueless wood when caused to grow rapidly as a shading plant on the coffee plantations of the tropical Guatemalan highlands. For man, similarly, mere size has never been the determinant factor of his survival and success, either as an individual or as a species. Large size is likely to prove even less of an asset in the world of the future, and may even become a handicap. The specifications for man's body and mind may have to be reformulated in order to meet with greater effectiveness the exigencies of the mechanized world.

Arcadias are dreams of an imaginary past, and utopias the intellectual concepts of an idealized society. Different as they appear to be, both imply a static view of the world which is incompatible with reality, for the human condition has always been to move on. "Man has never sought tranquility alone," wrote Sir Winston Churchill. "His nature drives him forward to fortunes which, for better or for worse, are different from those which it is in his power to pause and enjoy." Prehistory and ancient history show that men have never been able to forget their nomadic past and to rest quietly in the comer of the earth they had made their own for a while. Not satisfied with changing their geographical environment, men also crave for changes in their social atmosphere.

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