لحظات تاریخی را تصاحب کنکتاب: قوانین طبیعت انسان / درس 18
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17 Seize the Historical Moment
The Law of Generational Myopia
You are born into a generation that defines who you are more than you can imagine. Your generation wants to separate itself from the previous one and set a new tone for the world. In the process, it forms certain tastes, values, and ways of thinking that you as an individual internalize. As you get older, these generational values and ideas tend to close you off from other points of view, constraining your mind. Your task is to understand as deeply as possible this powerful influence on who you are and how you see the world. Knowing in depth the spirit of your generation and the times you live in, you will be better able to exploit the zeitgeist. You will be the one to anticipate and set the trends that your generation hungers for. You will free your mind from the mental constraints placed on you by your generation, and you will become more of the individual you imagine yourself to be, with all the power that freedom will bring you.
The Rising Tide
On May 10, 1774, sixty-four-year-old King Louis XV of France died, and though the country went into the requisite mourning for its king, many French people felt a sense of relief. He had ruled France for over fifty years. He left a country that was prosperous, the preeminent power in Europe, but things were changing—the expanding middle class craved power, the peasantry was restless, and people in general yearned for a new direction. And so it was with great hope and affection that the French people turned to their new ruler, King Louis XVI, the grandson of the deceased king, who was a mere twenty years old at the time. He and his young wife, Marie Antoinette, represented a new generation that would certainly revitalize the country and the monarchy itself.
The young king, however, did not share the optimism of his subjects. In fact, at moments he was on the verge of panic. Ever since he was a boy, he had dreaded the possibility that he might become king. Compared with his affable grandfather, Louis was quite shy around people; he was an awkward young man, always uncertain and fearful of making mistakes. He felt the august role of French king to be beyond his capacities. Now, having ascended the throne, he could no longer disguise his insecurities from the court and from the French people. But as he prepared for his coronation, to take place in the spring of 1775, Louis began to feel differently. He had decided to study the coronation ritual itself so that he could be prepared and not make mistakes; and what he learned actually filled him with the confidence that he desperately needed.
According to legend, a dove sent from the Holy Spirit had deposited some sacred oil that was kept at a church in the town of Reims and was used to anoint all kings of France from the ninth century on. Once anointed with this oil, the king was suddenly elevated above the ranks of mere mortals and imbued with a divine nature, becoming God’s lieutenant on earth. The ritual represented the marriage of the new king with the church and the French people. In his body and spirit, the king would now embody the entire populace, their two fates intertwined. And, sanctified by God, the king could depend on the Lord’s guidance and protection.
By the 1770s, many French people and progressive clergymen had come to see this ritual as a relic of a superstitious past. But Louis felt the opposite. To him, the ancientness of the rite was comforting. Believing in its significance would be the means to overcome his fears and doubts. He would be buoyed by a profound sense of mission, his divine nature made real by the anointment.
Louis decided to reenact this sacred ritual in its more original form. And he would go even further. At the palace of Versailles he noticed that many of the paintings and statues of Louis XIV associated him with Roman gods, a way to symbolically strengthen the image of the French monarchy as something ancient and unshakable. The new king decided he would surround himself with similar imagery for the public part of the coronation, overwhelming his subjects with the spectacle and the symbols he had chosen.
Louis XVI’s coronation took place on June 11, 1775, and in the crowd outside the cathedral that warm day was a most unlikely tourist—a fifteen-year-old youth named Georges-Jacques Danton. He was a student at a boarding school in the town of Troyes. His family had come from the peasantry, but his father had managed to become a lawyer, raising the family up into the expanding French middle class. His father had died when Danton was three, and his mother had raised him with the hope that Danton would continue in his father’s footsteps, securing a solid career.
Danton was quite strange-looking, if not downright ugly. He was unusually large for his age, with an enormous head and a rather monstrous face. Growing up on the family farm, he had twice been attacked by bulls, their horns splitting his upper lip and cracking his nose. Some people found him frightening, but many were charmed by his youthful exuberance and could ignore the face. The boy was simply fearless, always in search of adventure, and it was his bold spirit that attracted people to him, particularly among his classmates.
At the school he was attending, the liberal priests who ran it had decided to award a prize to the student who wrote an essay that best described the upcoming coronation, its necessity and meaning at a time when France was trying to modernize itself. Danton was not the intellectual type. He preferred swimming in the nearby river and any other kind of physical activity. The one subject that excited him was history, particularly ancient Rome. His favorite historical figure was the great Roman lawyer and orator Cicero. He identified with Cicero, who also came from the middle class. He memorized Cicero’s speeches and developed a love for oratory. With his powerful speaking voice, he was a natural at the art. But he was not very good at writing.
He desperately wanted to win the essay prize—it would instantly elevate him among the ranks of fellow students. He had reasoned, however, that the only way he could compensate for his less-than-stellar literary skills was to witness the coronation firsthand and give a vivid description of it. He also felt a strange affinity with the young king: they were not far apart in age, and both were large and considered decidedly unhandsome.
Playing hooky to get to Reims, only eighty miles away, was just the kind of adventure that had always attracted him. He had told his friends, “I want to see how a king is made.” And so he had snuck off to Reims the day before the coronation and had arrived just in time. He moved through the throng of French people congregating outside the cathedral. Guards brandishing tall pikes held them back. Only the nobility was allowed inside. Danton pushed as far forward as he could, and then he spotted the king, wearing the most spectacular ceremonial robe encrusted with diamonds and gold, making his way up the steps. There was the pretty queen following him in a splendid gown, her hair piled impossibly high, followed by other members of her entourage. From a distance, they were all like figures from another era, so different from anybody he had ever seen before.
He waited patiently outside for the end of the ritual, at which point the king reemerged, now sporting a crown. For a brief moment he got a closer look at Louis’s face as he passed by, and he was surprised to find that the king seemed quite ordinary, despite the robes and jewels. The king then got into the most elaborate carriage imaginable, named the Sacre. It was like something out of a fairy tale. It was built for the coronation and designed to represent the chariot of Apollo, glistening like the sun (the sun being the symbol of the French king), and it was enormous. On all sides it featured gold statuettes of Roman gods. On the door panel facing Danton, he could see an elaborate painting of Louis XVI as a Roman emperor atop a cloud, beckoning the French people below him. Strangest of all, the carriage itself sported a large bronze crown.
The Sacre was meant to serve as the very symbol of the monarchy, dazzling and mythical. It was quite a sight, but for some reason it seemed oddly out of place—too large, too bright, and when the king got in, it seemed to swallow him up. Was it magnificent or was it grotesque? Danton could not decide.
Danton returned to school later that same day, his head spinning with all of these strange images. Inspired by what he had witnessed, he wrote his best essay yet and won the prize.
In the years after graduating from the school in Troyes, Danton would make his mother proud. In 1780 he moved to Paris to clerk in the law courts. Within a few years, he passed the bar exam and became a practicing lawyer. In court, with his booming voice and oratorical skills, he naturally commanded attention and quickly rose through the ranks. And as he mingled with his fellow lawyers and read the newspapers, he detected something strange going on in France: a growing discontent with the king, the profligate queen, and the arrogant upper classes, whom the great thinkers of the day were ridiculing in their plays and books.
The main problem was the country’s finances—France seemed perpetually on the brink of running out of money. At the root of this was France’s vastly antiquated financial structure. The French people were subject to all kinds of onerous taxes that dated back to feudal times, but the clergy and the nobility were largely exempt from any such burdens. Taxes on the French lower and middle classes could never bring in enough revenue, especially considering the lavish expenditures of the French court, which had only gotten worse with Queen Marie Antoinette’s elaborate parties and love of finery.
As the money supply ran short and the price of bread kept rising, and with millions of people facing starvation, riots began to break out throughout the countryside and even in Paris. And amid all of this turmoil, the young king was proving to be too indecisive to handle the pressure.
In 1787, as the financial situation worsened, the opportunity of a lifetime came to Danton—a position as a lawyer on the King’s Council, with a rather nice bump in salary. Wanting to marry a young woman named Gabrielle, whose father opposed the marriage because Danton did not earn enough, he accepted the position on the council, despite his fears that he was joining a sinking ship. Two days later he married Gabrielle.
Danton did his job well but found himself increasingly absorbed by the turmoil in Paris. He joined a club called the Cordeliers. Its members were an odd mix of bohemian artists and political agitators. It was located near his apartment, so he began to spend a great part of his day there, and soon he was participating in the raucous debates about the future of France that took place at the club. He felt a strange new spirit in the air, a boldness that made people suddenly say things they could never have said a few years before about the monarchy. He found it exciting and irresistible. He began to give his own fiery speeches, focusing on the brutality of the upper classes, and he basked in the attention he received.
In 1788 he was offered a higher position on the King’s Council, and he turned it down. He told the king’s minister who presented the offer that the monarchy was doomed: “This is no longer about modest reforms,” he said. “We are more than ever on the brink of revolution. . . . Can’t you see the avalanche coming?”
In the spring of 1789, Louis was forced to call a national assembly to deal with the looming bankruptcy. The assembly was known as the Estates General. It was an institution meant to deal with a national crisis, but always as a measure of last resort, the previous one having been held in 1614, after the death of King Henry IV. It brought together representatives of the three estates of France—the nobility, the clergy, and the tax-paying commoners. Although the vast majority of French people were to be represented by members of the Third Estate, the power of the assembly was heavily tilted in favor of the nobility and clergy. Nevertheless, the French people held great hopes for the Estates General, and Louis had been extremely reluctant to call for it.
Only a month before the convening of the Estates General, riots in Paris had broken out over the price of bread, and royal troops had shot into the crowds, killing dozens. Danton had witnessed the bloodshed and he felt a turning point in the mood of the people, particularly the lower classes, and in himself. He shared their desperation and anger; they could no longer be placated with the usual rhetoric. He began to address the angry crowds on street corners, attracting followers and making a name for himself. To a friend who was surprised at this new direction in his life, he responded that it was like seeing a strong tide in the river, jumping in, and letting it carry him where it might.
As he prepared for the convening of the Estates General, King Louis could barely contain his resentment and anger. In the years since he had become king, various finance ministers had warned him of an impending crisis if France did not reform its tax system. He had understood this and had tried to initiate reforms, but the nobility and clergy, fearing where this might lead, had become so hostile to such ideas that the king had been forced to back down. And now, with the state’s coffers nearly empty, the nobility and the Third Estate were holding him hostage, making him convene the Estates General and putting him in the position of begging for funds from his people.
The Estates General was not a traditional part of French government; it was an anomaly, a challenge to the divine right of the king, a recipe for anarchy. Who knew what was best for France—his subjects, with their million different opinions? The nobility, with their own narrow interests and hunger to grab more power? No, only the king could navigate the nation through this crisis. He had to regain the upper hand over these rowdy children.
The king decided upon a plan: he would impress upon them all the majesty of the monarchy and its absolute necessity as the supreme power in France. To do so, he would hold the Estates General at Versailles, something his advisers warned him not to do, considering Versailles’s closeness to Paris and all its agitators. Louis reasoned that most of the delegates of the Third Estate came from the middle classes and were relatively moderate. Amid the grandeur and all the symbols of the French monarchy, the members of the Third Estate could not help but think of what Louis XIV, the builder of Versailles, had created and how much they owed the monarchy for transforming France into a great power. He would hold an opening ceremony that would rival his coronation and remind all of the estates of the divine origin of his kingship.
Having impressed them with the weight of the past, he would then agree to some reforms of the tax system, which the Third Estate would certainly be grateful for. At the same time, however, he would make it clear that under no circumstances would the monarchy or the first two estates relinquish any of their other powers or privileges. In this way, the government would get its necessary funds through taxes, and the traditions he was meant to uphold would remain unchanged.
The opening ceremonies went just as he had planned, but to his dismay the deputies of the Third Estate seemed rather uninterested in the splendors of the palace and all of the pomp. They were barely respectful during the religious ceremonies. They did not applaud very warmly during his opening speech. The tax reforms he proposed were not enough, in their eyes. And as the weeks went by, the members of the Third Estate became increasingly demanding, its members now insisting that the three estates have equal power.
When the king refused to accept their demands, they did the unthinkable—they declared themselves the true representatives of the French people, equal to the king, and they called their body the National Assembly. They proposed the formation of a constitutional monarchy, and they claimed to have the overwhelming support of the country. If they did not get their way, they would make sure the government would be unable to raise the necessary taxes. At one point, as the king grew furious at this form of blackmail, he ordered the Third Estate to disband from their meeting place, and they refused, disobeying a royal decree. Never had any French king witnessed such insubordination from the lower classes.
As he faced a growing uprising throughout the country, Louis sensed the urgency of nipping the problem in the bud. He decided to forget any attempts at conciliation and instead resort to force. He called in the army to establish order in Paris and elsewhere. But on July 13 messengers from Paris relayed some disturbing news: the Parisians, anticipating Louis’s use of the military, were quickly arming themselves, looting military stockades. The French troops that had moved in to quell the rebellion were unreliable, many of them refusing to fire on their compatriots. The following day, a vast contingent of Parisians marched on the Bastille, the royal prison in Paris that was a symbol of the most oppressive practices of the monarchy, and they took control of it.
Paris was in the hands of the people now, and there was nothing Louis could do. He watched with horror as the National Assembly, still meeting in Versailles, quickly voted to eliminate the various privileges enjoyed by the nobility and clergy. In the name of the people, they voted to take over the Catholic Church and auction off to the public the vast lands that it owned. They went even further, proclaiming that henceforth all French citizens were equal. The monarchy would be allowed to survive, but the people and the king were to share power.
In the following weeks, as the courtiers, shocked and terrified by these events, quickly fled Versailles to safe regions or to other countries, the king could now feel the full brunt of what had happened in the past few months. He wandered the halls of the palace, virtually alone. The paintings and august symbols of Louis XIV stared back at him in mockery of all that he had allowed under his rule.
Somehow he had to retake control of France, and the only way to do so was to lean even more on the military, finding those regiments that had remained loyal to him. In mid-September he recalled the Flanders Regiment—containing some of the best soldiers in the country and renowned for its royalist sympathies—to Versailles. On the evening of October 1, the king’s personal guard decided to host a banquet in honor of the Flanders Regiment. All of the courtiers who had remained in the palace, along with the king and the queen, attended the banquet.
The soldiers became drunk. They shouted cheers to the king and oaths to the monarchy. They sang ballads ridiculing the French people in the raunchiest terms. They grabbed handfuls of the tricolor badges and ribbons that symbolized the revolution and trampled them with their boots. The king and the queen, so despondent of late, took this all in with undisguised delight—it was a taste of years gone by, when the very sight of the royal couple inspired such displays of affection. But news of what had transpired at this banquet quickly spread to Paris, and it caused outrage and panic. Parisians of all classes suspected that the king was planning some sort of countercoup. They imagined the nobility returning under Louis’s command and exacting revenge on the French people.
Within days, the king learned that thousands of Parisians were now marching on Versailles. They were armed and dragging cannons. He thought of escaping with his family but hesitated. Soon it was too late, as the mob arrived. On the morning of October 6, a group of citizens penetrated into the palace, killing everyone in their path. They demanded that Louis and his family be escorted back to Paris, so that the French citizens could keep an eye on him and ensure his loyalty to the new order.
Louis had no choice: he and his traumatized family piled into a single carriage. As they made their way to Paris, surrounded by the crowd, Louis could see the heads of the king’s personal guard paraded on long pikes. What shocked him even more was the sight of so many men and women surrounding the carriage, dressed in rags, thinned by hunger, pressing their faces to the window and swearing at him and the queen in the vilest language. He could not recognize his own subjects. These were not the French people he had known. They must be outside agitators, brought in by enemies to destroy the monarchy. Somehow the world had gone mad.
In Paris the king, his family, and the few courtiers who had remained with them were housed in the Tuileries, a royal residence that had been uninhabited for over a hundred years.
Within a week of his arrival in Paris, the king received a visit from a strange man whose face and manner frightened him. It was Georges-Jacques Danton, now one of the leaders of the French Revolution. On behalf of the French people, he had come to welcome the king to Paris. He explained that he had been a member of the King’s Council, and he reassured the king that the people were grateful for his submission to their will and that there was still an important part for him to play as a monarch who swore allegiance to a new constitution.
Louis could barely listen. He was transfixed by the man’s enormous head, by the strange outfit he wore (black satin breeches over white silk stockings, and buckled shoes, a mix of fashion styles Louis had never seen before), and by his whole manner, his fast way of talking, the lack of awe and respect in the king’s presence. He bowed graciously before the king, but he refused to kiss his hand, quite a breach of protocol. So this was a revolutionary, a man of the people? Louis had never met such a fellow, and he found the experience decidedly unpleasant.
During the summer months of 1789, Danton had largely supported the decisions of the National Assembly, but he had remained wary of the aristocracy and wanted to make sure they had permanently lost their privileges. The nobility was the source of the country’s misery, and the French must never forget this. He had become one of the principal fomenters against the upper classes, and as such he had earned the mistrust of the more moderate and bourgeois leaders of the revolution, who wanted to go slowly. To them, Danton was like a ranting, monstrous ogre, and they had excluded him from their social circles and any official position in the new government under formation.
Feeling ostracized and perhaps recalling his own peasant roots, Danton had come to increasingly identify with the sans-culottes (“without breeches”), members of the lowest classes in France and the most revolutionary in spirit. As the news of the scandalous behavior of the Flanders Regiment on October 1 had reached Paris, Danton had been one of the key agitators for the march on Versailles, and with its success he had become the leader of the Cordeliers. And it was in that capacity that he had paid a visit to the Tuileries, as much to discern the king’s degree of support for the new constitution as to welcome him.
Danton could not help but recall the coronation he had attended over fourteen years earlier, with all of its pomp, for despite everything that had happened in the last few months, the king seemed bent on re-creating the protocol and ceremony of Versailles. He wore his royal outfit, with its sash and various medals attached to his coat. He insisted on the old formalities, and he kept his attendants in their elaborate uniforms. It was all so empty, so disconnected from what was going on. Danton was polite. He still felt a strange sympathy for the king, but now, as he scrutinized him, all he could see was a relic of the past. He doubted the king’s allegiance to the new order. He left the meeting more certain than ever that the French monarchy had become obsolete.
In the months that followed, the king professed his loyalty to the new constitution, but Danton suspected that Louis was playing a double game, still plotting to bring the monarchy and nobility back to power. A coalition of armies from other countries in Europe was now waging open war against the revolution, determined to rescue the king and restore the old order. And Danton felt certain that the king was in communication with them.
Then in June of 1791 came the most startling news of all: the king and his family had somehow escaped from Paris in a carriage. A few days later they were caught. It would all have been rather comical if it hadn’t been so alarming. The family members had been dressed like everyday members of the bourgeoisie out on holiday, but they had ridden in a splendid carriage that did not match their outfits and that called attention to itself. They had been recognized, captured, and returned to the capital.
Now Danton sensed that his moment had arrived. The liberals and moderates in the revolution were trying to maintain that the king was innocent, that he had been duped into escaping or even abducted. They feared what would happen to France if the monarchy was abolished and how the foreign armies, now within the country’s borders, would react if anything happened to the king. But to Danton this was absurd. They were merely postponing the inevitable. The monarchy had lost its meaning and purpose; the king had revealed himself to be a traitor, and they must not be afraid to say so. It was time, he proclaimed, for France to declare itself a republic and get rid of the monarchy once and for all.
His call for a republic began to resonate, particularly among the sans-culottes. As a sign of his growing influence, Danton was elected to his first official position—deputy prosecutor for the commune in charge of Paris—and he began to fill the commune with his sympathizers, preparing for something large.
The following summer a large contingent of sans-culottes from Marseilles was in Paris to celebrate the third anniversary of the revolution. The men from Marseilles, enthused by Danton’s calls for a republic, placed themselves under his charge, and throughout June and July they marched through Paris singing hymns to the revolution and spreading Danton’s demand for the formation of a republic. Each day more and more people joined the men from Marseilles. Quietly planning his coup, Danton gained control of the commune. Its members now voted to lift the blockade on the various bridges of Paris leading to the Tuileries from the Left Bank, effectively ending any protection for the royal family, as crowds could now march straight to the palace.
On the morning of August 10, alarm bells rang out throughout the city, and accompanied by a steady drumbeat, an enormous contingent of Parisians marched across several bridges to invade the Tuileries. Most of the guards protecting the palace scattered, and soon the royal family was forced to flee for their lives, taking refuge in the nearby hall where the National Assembly met. The crowd quickly massacred the remaining soldiers guarding the palace and took it over.
Danton’s gambit had worked—the people had spoken and the National Assembly voted to end the monarchy, stripping the king and his family of any powers and protections that had remained. In one blow, Danton had put an end to the longest-lasting and most powerful monarchy in Europe. The king and his family were shuttled to the Temple, a medieval priory that would serve as their private prison as the new government decided their fate. Danton was now named minister of justice, and he was the de facto leader of the new Republic of France.
At the Temple, Louis found himself separated from his family, awaiting trial for treason in December. He was now to be known as Louis Capet (the family name of the founder of the French tenth-century kingship that would end with Louis), a commoner with no privileges. Mostly alone, he had time to reflect on the traumas of the past three and a half years. If only the French people had kept their faith in him, he would have found a way to solve all of the problems. He was still certain that godless demagogues and outside agitators had spoiled the people’s natural love for him.
The revolutionaries had recently discovered a stash of papers that Louis had hidden in a safe in a wall in the Tuileries, and among them were letters that revealed how deeply he had conspired with foreign powers to overturn the revolution. He was certain now to be sentenced to death, and he prepared himself for this.
For his trial in front of the assembly, Louis Capet wore a simple coat, the kind any middle-class citizen would sport. He now had a beard. He looked sad and exhausted, and hardly like a king. But whatever sympathy his judges had had for him quickly vanished as prosecutors read out the many charges against him, including how he had conspired to overturn the revolution. A month later the private citizen Capet was sentenced to die at the guillotine, Danton himself casting one of the deciding votes.
Louis was determined to show a brave face. On the morning of January 21, a cold and windy day, he was transported to the Place de la Révolution, where an enormous crowd had gathered to witness the execution. They watched in stunned amazement as the former king had his hands tied and his hair cut like any ordinary criminal. He climbed the stairs to the guillotine, and before kneeling at the block, he cried out, “People, I die innocent! I pardon those who sentenced me. I pray God my blood does not fall again over France.” As the blade fell, he emitted a horrifying cry. The executioner held up the king’s head for all to see. After a few cries of “Vive la nation,” a deathly silence fell over the crowd. Minutes later they rushed to the scaffold to dip their hands in Louis’s blood and buy locks of his hair.
As the leader of the French Revolution, Danton now faced two rather daunting forces: the invading armies that kept pressing closer to Paris and the restiveness of the French citizens, many of whom clamored for revenge on the aristocracy and all counterrevolutionaries. To meet the enemy armies, Danton unleashed an enormous citizen army of millions that he had created, and in the first few months of battle these new French forces turned the tide of the war.
To channel the people’s taste for revenge, he set up a revolutionary tribunal to bring quick justice to those suspected of trying to restore the monarchy. The tribunal initiated what would become known as the Terror, as it sent thousands of suspects to the guillotine, often on the flimsiest of charges.
Shortly after the execution of the king, Danton traveled to Belgium to help oversee the war effort on that front. While there, he received the news that his beloved wife, Gabrielle, had died in premature childbirth. He felt horribly guilty for not being by her side in that moment, and the thought that he had no chance to say good-bye to her and that he would never see her face again was unbearable. Without thinking of the consequences, he abandoned his mission in Belgium and hurried back to France.
By the time he arrived, his wife had been dead for a week and buried in the public cemetery. Overwhelmed with grief and the desire to see her one more time, he hurried to the cemetery, bringing along with him a friend and some shovels. On a moonless, rainy night, they managed to find the grave. He dug and he dug, and with his friend’s help, he lifted the casket out of the ground and, with much effort, finally pried the lid off. He gasped at the sight of her bloodless face. He pulled her out, hugging her tightly to his body, begging her to forgive him. He kissed her again and again on her cold lips. After several hours, he finally returned her to the ground.
In the months to come, something seemed to have changed in Danton. Had it been the loss of his wife, or was it the guilt he now felt for having unleashed the Terror within France? He had ridden the wave of the revolution to the pinnacle of power, but now he wanted it to go in another direction. He became less engaged in affairs of state and was no longer in favor of the Terror. Maximilien Robespierre, his main rival for power, noticed the change and began to spread the rumor that Danton had lost his revolutionary fervor and could no longer be trusted. Robespierre’s campaign had effect: when it came time to elect members to the highest governing body, the Committee of Public Safety, Danton did not receive enough votes and Robespierre packed it with his sympathizers.
Danton now openly worked to put an end to the Terror, through speeches and pamphlets, but this only played into the hands of his rival. On March 30, 1794, Danton was arrested for treason and brought before the revolutionary tribunal. It seemed ironic that the tribunal he had formed now held his fate in its hands. The charges against him were based on pure innuendo, but Robespierre made certain he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Upon hearing the sentence, he yelled at his judges, “My name is engraved on every institution of the revolution—the army, the committees, the tribunal. I have killed myself!” That same afternoon he and other condemned men were put in carts and led to the Place de la Révolution. Along the way, Danton passed the residence where Robespierre lived. “You’re next,” Danton shouted in his booming voice, pointing his finger at Robespierre’s apartment. “You will follow me!”
Danton was the last one to be executed that day. An enormous crowd had followed the cart, and now they were quiet as he was led up the stairs. He could not help but think of Louis, whom he had reluctantly sent to the guillotine, and the many former friends who had died during the Terror. It had taken a few months, but he had grown sick of all the bloodshed, and he could sense the crowd before him was feeling the same way. As he laid his neck on the block, he shouted to the executioner, “Make sure you show my head to the people. It is worth a look!” After the execution of Danton, Robespierre unleashed what became known as the Great Terror. During four tumultuous months, the tribunal sent close to twenty thousand French men and women to the guillotine. But Danton had anticipated the shift in mood: the French public had had enough of the executions, and they turned against Robespierre with remarkable speed. In late July, in a heated meeting at the assembly, its members voted to arrest Robespierre. He tried to defend himself, but the words came out haltingly. One member shouted, “It is the blood of Danton that chokes you!” The following morning, without a trial, Robespierre was guillotined, and days later the assembly abolished the revolutionary tribunal.
At around the time of Robespierre’s execution, the new leaders of the revolution were looking for ways to drum up funds for the various emergencies France was facing, and someone mentioned the recent rediscovery of Louis’s magnificent coronation carriage, the Sacre. Perhaps they could sell it. A few of them went to inspect it, and they were aghast at what they perceived as its sheer hideousness. One deputy described it as “a monstrous assemblage built of the people’s gold and an excess of flattery.” All agreed that no one would buy such a grotesquerie. They had all of the gold from the coach removed and melted, sending it to the treasury. They dispatched the salvaged bronze to the republic’s foundries to help forge some much-needed cannons. When it came to the painted panels on the doors, with all of their mythological symbols, they found them too weird for anyone’s tastes and promptly had them burned.
• • •
Interpretation: Let us look momentarily at the prerevolutionary world in France through the eyes of King Louis XVI. Much of what he saw seemed to be the same reality that previous kings had faced. The king was still considered the absolute ruler of France, divinely appointed to lead the nation. The various classes and estates in France remained quite stable; the distinctions among the nobility, the clergy, and the rest of the French people were still largely respected. The commoners enjoyed the relative prosperity that Louis himself had inherited from his grandfather.
Yes, there were financial problems, but the great Louis XIV himself had faced such crises, and they had passed. Versailles was still the glittering jewel of Europe, the center of everything civilized. Louis’s beloved queen, Marie Antoinette, hosted the most spectacular parties, which were the envy of all European aristocrats. Louis himself did not care for such amusements, but he had his hunting parties and his other rather pedestrian hobbies that obsessed him.
Life at the palace was rather sweet and relatively tranquil. Most important to Louis, the glory and the majesty of France, as embodied in its ceremonies and visual symbols, still carried the same weight as before. Who could help but be impressed by the splendors of Versailles itself, or by the rituals of the Catholic Church? He was the ruler of a great nation, and there was no reason to believe that the monarchy would not continue for as many centuries as it had already lasted.
Below the surface of what he saw, however, there were some troubling signs of discontent. Beginning during the reign of Louis XV, writers such as Voltaire and Diderot began to ridicule the church and the monarchy for all of their backward, superstitious beliefs. They reflected a new scientific spirit spreading throughout Europe, and it was hard to reconcile this with many of the practices of the church and the nobility. Their ideas became known as the Enlightenment, and they began to gain influence among the expanding middle class, which had felt excluded from power and was not so immersed in all of the symbolism of the monarchy.
Below the seemingly tranquil façade of the nobility, there were quite a few cracks. Many aristocrats had come to loathe the absolute power of the king, whom they saw as weak and not worthy of their respect. They hungered for more power for themselves.
Secret societies were sprouting up everywhere, promoting a whole new way of socializing, far from the stuffy environment of the court. Supreme among them were the Freemasons and their lodges, with their own secret rituals. Danton himself was a member. The Freemasons’ lodges were hotbeds of discontent with the monarchy, their members highly sympathetic to the ideas of the Enlightenment. They craved a new order in France. In Paris, the theater had suddenly become the most popular place to frequent and to be seen at, much more popular than the church. And plays were now being performed that mocked the monarchy in the most brazen manner.
And all of those majestic symbols and ceremonies of the monarchy that had remained relatively unchanged were beginning to seem rather empty, masks with nothing behind them. Courtiers no longer really understood what they were doing, or why, when they engaged in their elaborate rituals in company with the king. The paintings, statues, and fountains ornamented with mythological figures were as beautiful as ever, but they were simply seen as surface pieces of art, not as indications of a deep connection to France’s glorious past.
All of these signs were subtle and disparate. It was hard to connect them all to any kind of trend, let alone a revolution. They could pass as novelties, new pastimes for a bored nation, without any underlying meaning. But then came the worsening crisis in the late 1780s, and suddenly these separate examples of disenchantment began to combine into an undeniable force. The price of bread had risen, as well as the cost of living, for all French subjects. As the discontent spread, the nobility and the bourgeoisie smelled weakness in the king and demanded more power.
Now the king could not ignore what was happening, and at the Estates General the loss of respect and the disenchantment were all too visible to him in the behavior of the Third Estate. Louis, however, could only view these events through the lens of the divine monarchy that he had inherited and clung to so desperately. These French subjects who were disrespecting and disobeying his absolute rule must be godless individuals, and only a noisy minority. To disobey his word was tantamount to sacrilege.
If such people could not be persuaded by the symbols of the glorious past, he would have to use force to make the past and the traditions prevail. But once something has lost its spell and no longer enchants, no amount of force can bring it back to life. And as he rode in that carriage in October of 1789 that carried him away forever from Versailles and the past, all he could see were people who were not his subjects but aliens of some sort. He had to include Danton in such a group. At his execution, he addressed the crowd as if he were still the king, forgiving them their sins. The crowd instead saw just a human, stripped of all his previous glory, no better than they were.
When Georges-Jacques Danton looked out at the same world as the king, he saw something quite different. Unlike the king, he was not timid or insecure but the opposite. He had no inner need to rely upon the past to prop him up. He had been educated by liberal priests who had instilled in him Enlightenment ideas. And at the age of fifteen, at the coronation he caught a fleeting glimpse of the future, intuiting for a moment how empty the monarchy and its symbols had become, and that the king was just an ordinary man.
In the 1780s he began to pick up the disparate signs of change—from within the King’s Council and the growing disrespect among the lawyer class, to the clubs and street life, where a new spirit could be detected. He could feel the pain of the lower classes and empathize with their sense of exclusion. And this new spirit was not simply political but also cultural. The youth of Danton’s generation had grown tired of all of the empty formality in French culture. They yearned for something freer and more spontaneous. They wanted to express their emotions openly and naturally. They wanted to get rid of all the elaborate outfits and hairstyles and wear looser clothing with less ostentation. They wanted more open socializing, the open mingling of all the classes, as occurred in the clubs in Paris.
We could call this cultural movement the first real explosion of Romanticism, valuing emotions and sensations above the intellect and formalities. Danton both exemplified this Romantic spirit and understood it. He was a man who always wore his heart on his sleeve and whose speeches had the feel of spontaneous outpourings of ideas and emotions. His disinterment of his wife was like something out of Romantic literature, an expression of emotion unimaginable some ten years before. This side of Danton was what made him so relatable and compelling to the public.
In a way that made him quite unique, Danton was able before anyone else to connect the meaning behind all of these signs and foresee a mass revolution on its way. An avid swimmer, he compared all of this to the tide in a river. Nothing in human life is ever static. There is always discontent below the surface, and hunger for change. Sometimes this is rather subtle, and the river seems somewhat placid but still moving. At other times it is like a rush, a rising tide that no one, not even a king with absolute power, can hold back.
Where was this tide carrying the French? That was the key question. To Danton it soon became clear it was heading toward the formation of a republic. The monarchy was now just a façade. Its show of majesty no longer stirred the masses. They now saw that the actions of the king were all about holding on to power; they saw the aristocracy as a bunch of thieves, doing little work and sucking up the wealth of France. With such levels of disenchantment, there could be no turning back, no middle ground, no constitutional monarchy.
As part of his unusual perspicacity and sensitivity to the spirit of the times, before any of the other revolutionary leaders, Danton understood that the Terror he had unleashed was a mistake and that it was time to stop it. In this one instance, his sense of timing was off, as he moved on this intuition at least several months in advance of the public, giving his enemies and rivals an opening to get rid of him.
Understand: You might see King Louis XVI as an extreme example of someone out of tune with the times, not particularly relevant to your own life, but in fact he is much closer to you than you think. Like him, you are probably looking at the present through the lens of the past. When you look at the world around you, it seems pretty much as it appeared a day or a week or a month or even a year ago. People act more or less the same. The institutions that hold power remain in place and are not going anywhere. People’s ways of thinking have not really changed; the conventions that govern behavior in your field are still followed religiously. Yes, there might be some new styles and trends in culture, but they are not critical factors or signs of deep change. Lulled by these appearances, it seems to you that life simply goes on as it always has.
Below the surface, however, the tide is moving; nothing in human culture stands still. Those who are younger than you no longer have the same level of respect for certain values or institutions that you have. Power dynamics—among classes, regions, industries—are in a state of flux. People are beginning to socialize and interact in new ways. New symbols and myths are being formed, and old ones are fading. All of these things can seem rather disconnected until there is some crisis or clash and people must confront what was once seemingly invisible or separate, in the form of some sort of revolution or cry for change.
When this occurs, some people will feel, like the king, profoundly uncomfortable and will hold on even more fervently to the past. They will band together to try to stop the tide from advancing, a futile task. Leaders will feel threatened and cling more tightly to their conventional ideas. Others will be carried along without really understanding where it is all headed or why things are changing.
What you want and need is the power that Danton possessed to make sense of it all and act accordingly. And this power is a function of vision, of looking at events from a different angle, through a fresh framework. You ignore the clichéd interpretations that others will inevitably spout when facing changes. You drop the mental habits and past ways of looking at things that can cloud your vision. You stop the tendency to moralize, to judge what is happening. You simply want to see things as they are. You look for the undercurrents of discontent and disharmony with the status quo, which are always there below the surface. You see commonalities and connections among all these signs. Slowly the flow, the tide itself, comes into focus, indicating a course, a direction that is hidden to so many others.
Do not think of this as some intellectual exercise. Intellectuals are often the last to really discern the spirit of the times, because they are so grounded in theories and conventional frameworks. First and foremost, you must be able to feel the change in the collective mood, to sense how people are diverging from the past. Once you feel the spirit, you can begin to analyze what is behind it. Why are people dissatisfied, and what are they really craving? Why are they gravitating toward these new styles? Look at those idols from the past that no longer cast a spell, that seem ridiculous, that are the subject of mockery, particularly among the young. They are like Louis’s carriage. When you detect enough such disenchantment, you can be sure something strong is cresting.
Once you have an adequate feel for what is really going on, you must be bold in how you respond, giving voice to what other people are feeling but not understanding. Be careful to not get too far out ahead and be misunderstood. Ever alert, always letting go of your prior interpretations, you can seize the opportunities in the moment that others cannot even begin to detect. Think of yourself as an enemy of the status quo, whose proponents must view you in turn as dangerous. See this task as absolutely necessary for the revitalization of the human spirit and the culture at large, and master it.
Our era is a birth-time, and a period of transition. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things . . . and with the old ways of thinking, and is of the mind to let them all sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation. . . . The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change.
—G. W. F. Hegel
Keys to Human Nature
In human culture, we can see a phenomenon—changes in fashions and styles—that at first glance might appear trivial, but that in fact is quite profound, revealing a deep and fascinating part of human nature. Look at clothing styles, for instance. In the stores or in fashion shows we can perhaps detect some trends and changes from a few months before, but they are usually subtle. Go back to styles ten years ago and, compared with the present, the differences are quite apparent. Go back twenty years and it is even clearer. With such a distance in time, we can even notice a particular style of twenty years ago that now probably looks a bit amusing and passé.
These changes in fashion styles that are so detectable in increments of decades can be characterized as creating something looser and more romantic than the previous style, or more overtly sexual and body conscious, or more classic and elegant, or gaudier and with more frills. We could name several other categories of changes in style, but in the end they are limited in number, and they seem to come in waves or patterns that are detectable over the course of several decades or centuries. For example, the interest in sparser and more classic clothing will recur at various intervals of time, not at precisely the same intervals, but with a degree of regularity.
This phenomenon raises some interesting questions: Do these shifts relate to something more than just the desire for what is new and different? Do they reflect deeper changes in people’s psychology and moods? And how do these changes occur, so that over enough time we can detect them? Do they come from a top-down dynamic in which certain individuals and tastemakers initiate a change, which is then slowly picked up by the masses and spread virally? Or are these tastemakers themselves responding to signs of change from within the society as a whole, from that social force described in chapter 14, giving it a bottom-up dynamic?
We can ask these questions about styles in music or any other cultural form. But we can also ask them about changing styles in thinking and theorizing, in how arguments in books are constructed. Fifty years ago, many arguments were rooted in psychoanalysis and sociology, writers often seeing the environment as the primary influence on human behavior. The style was loose, literary, and given to much speculation.
Now arguments tend to revolve around genetics and the human brain, with everything having to be backed up by studies and statistics. The mere appearance of numbers on a page can lend a certain air of credibility to the argument. Speculation is frowned upon. Sentences are shorter, designed to communicate information. But this change in theorizing style is not anything new. We can notice a similar back-and-forth—from the literary and speculative to the sober and data driven—beginning in the eighteenth century and up to the present.
What is fascinating in these shifts in style is the limited range of changes, their recurrence, and the increasing speed we now see in the shifts, as if we are witnessing a quickening in human restlessness and nervous energy. And if we examine this phenomenon closely enough, we can see quite clearly that these seemingly superficial changes do in fact reflect deeper alterations in people’s mood and values, emerging from the bottom up. Something as simple as a desire for looser styles of clothing, as happened in the 1780s, reflects an overall psychological shift. Nothing is innocent in this realm. An interest in brighter colors, or a harder sound in music, have something else to say about what is stirring in the collective minds of the people of that time.
And in examining this phenomenon even more deeply, we can also make the following discovery: what drives these changes is the continual succession of new generations of young people, who are trying to create something more relevant to their experience of the world, something that reflects more their values and spirit and that goes in a different direction from that of the previous generation. (We can generally describe a generation as comprising around twenty-two years, with those born at the earliest and latest parts of that period often identifying more with the previous or succeeding generation.) And this pattern of change from one generation to the next is itself part of a larger pattern in history, going back thousands of years, in which particular reactions and shifts in values recur rather regularly, all of which suggests something about human nature that transcends us as individuals, that has programmed us to repeat these patterns for some reason.
Many of us intuit the truth about generations—how they tend to have a kind of personality and how the younger generation initiates so many changes. Some of us are in denial about the phenomenon because we like to imagine that we as individuals shape what we think and believe, or that other forces such as class, gender, and race play a greater role. Certainly the study of generations can be imprecise; it is a subtle and elusive subject. And other factors play a role as well. But looking in depth at the phenomenon reveals that in fact it is more of an influence than we generally imagine, and is in many ways the great generator of so much that happens in history.
And understanding this generational phenomenon can yield several other benefits: We can see what forces shaped our parents’ mind-set, and then ours in turn, as we have tried to go in a different direction. We can make better sense of the underlying changes going on in all areas of society and begin to surmise where the world is headed, to anticipate future trends, and to understand the role we can play in shaping events. This can not only bring us great social power but can also have a therapeutic, calming effect on us as we view events in the world with some distance and equanimity, elevated above the chaotic changes of the moment.
We shall call this knowledge generational awareness. To attain it, first we must understand the actual profound effect that our generation has on how we view the world, and second we must understand the larger generational patterns that shape history and recognize where our time period fits into the overall scheme.
The Generational Phenomenon
In our first years of life we are sponges, absorbing deeply the energy, style, and ideas of our parents and teachers. We learn language, certain essential values, ways of thinking, and how to function among people. We are slowly inculcated with the culture of the time. Our minds are supremely open at this moment, and because of this our experiences are more intense and bound with strong emotions. As we become a few years older, we become aware of our peers, those more or less of the same age, going through the same process of assimilating this strange new world we were cast into at birth.
Although we are encountering the same reality as everyone else alive at the time, we are doing so from a peculiar angle—that of being a child, physically smaller, more helpless, and dependent on adults. From this point of view, the world of the adults can seem rather alien, as we do not understand so well what motivates them, or their adult cares or concerns. What our parents might take as serious we can often see as comical or odd. We may watch the same forms of entertainment as they do, but we see them from the angle of a child, with little life experience. We don’t have the power yet to affect this world, but we start to interpret it in our own way, and we share this with our peers.
Then, when we reach our teen years or perhaps earlier, we become aware that we are part of a generation of young people (focusing more on those around our age) with whom we can identify. We bond over our particular way of seeing things and the similar sense of humor we have developed; we also tend to form common ideals about success and coolness, among other values. In these years, we inevitably go through a period of rebellion, struggling to find our own identity, separate from our parents. This makes us deeply attuned to appearances—to styles and fashions. We want to show that we belong to our generational tribe, with its own look and manner.
Often a decisive event or trend will occur during these youthful years—this could be a major war, a political scandal, a financial crisis or economic boom. It could also be the invention of some new form of technology that has a profound impact on social relations. Because we are so young and impressionable, such events have a decisive influence on the generational personality that is forming, making us cautious (if it is a war or crash in the economy) or hungry for adventure (if it is something that sparks prosperity or stability). Naturally, we view such decisive events very differently from our parents and are affected more deeply.
As we become more aware of what is going on in the world, we often come to see the ideas and values of our parents as not fitting very well our own experience of reality. What they have told or taught us does not seem so relevant, and we hunger for ideas that are more related to our youthful experience.
In this first phase of life, we shape a generational perspective. It is a kind of collective mind-set, as we absorb the prevailing culture at the same time as our peers, from the point of view of childhood and youth. And because we are too young to understand or analyze this perspective, we are generally ignorant of its formation and how it influences what we see and how we interpret events.
Then, when we reach our twenties and into our thirties, we enter a new phase of life and experience a shift. Now we are in a position to assume some power, to actually alter this world according to our own values and ideals. As we progress in our work, we begin to influence the culture and its politics. We inevitably clash with the older generation that has held power for some time, as they insist on their own way of acting and evaluating events. Many of them often view us as immature, unsophisticated, soft, undisciplined, pampered, unenlightened, and certainly not ready to assume power.
In some periods, the youth culture that is generated is so strong that it comes to dominate the culture at large—in the 1920s and the 1960s, for instance. In other periods, the older generation in positions of leadership is much more dominant, and the influence of the emerging adults in their twenties is less noticeable. In any event, to a greater or lesser degree, a struggle and clash occurs between these two generations and their perspectives.
Then, as we enter our forties and midlife and assume many of the leadership positions in society, we begin to take notice of a younger generation that is fighting for its own power and position. Its members are now judging us and finding our own style and ideas rather irrelevant. We begin to judge them in return, describing them as immature, unsophisticated, soft, et cetera. We might begin to entertain the notion that the world is heading downhill fast, the values we found so important no longer mattering to this youthful set.
When we judge in this way, we are not aware that we are reacting according to a pattern that has existed for at least three thousand years. (There is an inscription on a Babylonian clay tablet that dates from around 1000 BC that reads, “Today’s youth is rotten, evil, godless and lazy. It will never be what youth used to be, and it will never be able to preserve our culture.” We find similar complaints in all cultures and in all time periods.) We think we are judging the younger generation in an objective manner, but we are merely succumbing to an illusion of perspective. It is also true that we are probably experiencing some hidden envy of their youth and mourning the loss of our own.
When it comes to the changes generated by the tensions between two generations, we can say that the greater part of them will come from the young. They are more restless, in search of their own identity, and more attuned to the group and how they fit in. By the time such a younger generation emerges into their thirties and forties, they will have shaped the world with their changes and given it a look and feel that is distinct from their parents.
When looking at any generation, we naturally see variations within it. We find individuals who are more aggressive than others—they tend to be leaders, the ones who sense the styles and trends of the time and express them first. They have less fear about breaking with the past and defying the older generation. Danton exemplifies this type. We also find a much larger group of followers who are not so aggressive, who find it more exciting to keep up with trends, helping to shape and promote them. And finally, we also find the rebels, those types who defy their own generation and define themselves by going against the grain. This could include the beatniks of the 1950s or those young people in the 1960s who gravitated toward conservative politics.
We can say of these rebel types that they are just as marked by their generation as anyone, but in reverse. And in fact, much of the same spirit of the generation can be detected underneath this reverse version—for instance, those younger people in the 1780s who rallied around the aristocracy and in defense of the monarchy often felt a very romanticized love of the old order; the young conservatives of the 1960s were just as preachy, fanatic, and idealistic in their reverse values as the majority. The generational mind-set inevitably dominates everyone from within, no matter how they personally try to react against it. We cannot step outside the historical moment that we are born into.
In considering this mind-set, we must try to think in terms of a collective personality, or what we shall call spirit. Our generation has inherited from our parents and the past certain key values and ways of looking at the world that remain unquestioned. But at any moment, people of a new generation are searching for something more alive and relevant, something that expresses what is different, what is altering in the present. This sense of what is moving and evolving in the present, as opposed to what is inherited from the past, is the collective spirit itself, its restless and searching nature. It is not something we can easily put into words. It is more a mood, an emotional tone, a way that people relate to one another.
That is why we can often best associate the generational spirit with its dominant musical style, or an artistic trend for a certain type of imagery, or a mood captured in the literature or films of that generation. For instance, nothing better captures the wild spirit and frenetic pace of the 1920s than the jazz of the period and the brassy sound of the saxophone, which was the new rage.
This spirit will tend to alter as our generation passes through the various phases of life. How we collectively relate to the world will not be the same in our fifties as it was in our twenties. Circumstances, historical events, and the aging process will modify this spirit. But, as with any individual, there is something in the generational personality that remains intact and transcends the passing years.
The famous lost generation of the 1920s, with its flappers and wild jazz, had certain noticeable obsessions and traits during this decade—wild parties, alcohol, sex, money, and success, as well as a hard-boiled, cynical attitude toward life. As it aged, its members tended to drop the pursuit of some of these pleasures and manias, but in their later years, they remained rather tough, cynical, materialistic, and brazen in expressing their opinions. The baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s displayed an intense idealism and a propensity to judge and moralize. They tend to retain such qualities, but their ideals and what they moralize about have shifted.
If our generation has a particular spirit to it, we could say the same for the time period that we are living through, which generally comprises four generations alive at the same time. The blending of these generations, the tension among them, and the clashing that often occurs create what we shall call the overall spirit of the times or what is commonly known as the zeitgeist. For instance, when it comes to the 1960s, we cannot separate the mood of the powerful youth culture of that period from the antagonism and dismay it stirred among those who were older. The dynamic and spirit of those times came from the dramatic interaction of two clashing perspectives.
To see this in your own experience, look back at periods in the past in which you were alive and conscious, at least some twenty years ago, if you are old enough. With some distance, you can reflect upon how different those times felt, what was in the air, how people interacted, the degree of tension. The spirit of that period is not only in the styles and clothes that are different from those of the present, but also in something social and collective, an overall mood or feeling in the air. Even the differences in fashions and architecture, the colors that became popular, the look of the cars speaks of a spirit behind them that is animating these changes and choices.
That spirit can be characterized as wild and open, with people hungry for all kinds of social interaction; or it can be rather tight and cautious, with people prone to conforming and being hypercorrect; it can be cynical or hopeful, stale or creative. What you want to do is to be able to gauge the spirit of the present moment, with a similar sense of distance, and to see where your generation fits into the overall scheme of history, giving you a sense of where things might be headed.
Since the beginning of recorded time, certain writers and thinkers have intuited a pattern to human history. It was perhaps the great fourteenth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun who first formulated this idea into the theory that history seems to move in four acts, corresponding to four generations.
The first generation is that of the revolutionaries who make a radical break with the past, establishing new values but also creating some chaos in the struggle to do so. Often in this generation there are some great leaders or prophets who influence the direction of the revolution and leave their stamp on it. Then along comes a second generation that craves some order. They are still feeling the heat of the revolution itself, having lived through it at a very early age, but they want to stabilize the world, establish some conventions and dogma.
Those of the third generation—having little direct connection to the founders of the revolution—feel less passionate about it. They are pragmatists. They want to solve problems and make life as comfortable as possible. They are not so interested in ideas but rather in building things. In the process, they tend to drain out the spirit of the original revolution. Material concerns predominate, and people can become quite individualistic.
Along comes the fourth generation, which feels that society has lost its vitality, but they are not sure what should replace it. They begin to question the values they have inherited, some becoming quite cynical. Nobody knows what to believe in anymore. A crisis of sorts emerges. Then comes the revolutionary generation, which, unified around some new belief, finally tears down the old order, and the cycle continues. This revolution can be extreme and violent, or it can be less intense, with simply the emergence of new and different values.
Although this pattern certainly has variations and is not a science, we tend to see a lot of the overall sequencing in history. Most notable of all is the emergence of the fourth generation and the crisis in values that comes with it. This period is often the most painful to live through—we humans feel a deep need to believe in something, and when we begin to doubt and question the old order and sense a vacuum in our values, we can go a little mad. We tend to latch onto the latest belief systems peddled by the charlatans and demagogues who thrive in such periods. We look for scapegoats for all the problems that now arise and the spreading dissatisfaction. Without a unifying belief to anchor and calm us, we become tribal, relying on some small affinity group to give us a feeling of belonging.
Often, in a crisis period, we will notice the forming of a subgroup among those who feel particularly anxious and resentful at the breakdown of order. They are often people who felt somewhat privileged in the past, and the chaos and coming change threatens what they have taken for granted. They want to hold on to the past, return to some golden age they can vaguely remember, and prevent any coming revolution. They are doomed, because the cycle cannot be stopped, and the past cannot be magically brought back to life. But as this crisis period fades and begins to merge into the revolutionary period, we often detect rising levels of excitement, as those who are young and particularly hungry for something new can sense the changes coming that they have set up in their own way.
It seems that we are living through such a crisis period, with a generation that is experiencing it in its key phase in life. Although we cannot see how close we might be to the end of this period, such times never last too long, because the human spirit will not tolerate them. Some unifying belief system is in gestation, and some new values are being generated that we cannot yet see.
At the core of this pattern is a continual back-and-forth rhythm that comes from emerging generations reacting against the imbalances and mistakes of the previous generation. If we go back four generations in our own time we can clearly see this. We start with the silent generation. As children experiencing the Great Depression and as adults coming of age during World War II and the postwar period, they became rather cautious and conservative, valuing stability, material comforts, and fitting tightly into the group. The next generation, the baby boomers, found the conformity of their parents rather stifling. Emerging in the 1960s, and not haunted by the harsh financial realities of their parents, this generation valued personal expression, having adventures, and being idealistic.
This was followed by Generation X, which was marked by the chaos of the 1960s and the ensuing social and political scandals. Coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, it was pragmatic and confrontational, valuing individualism and self-reliance. This generation reacted against the hypocrisies and impracticalities in their parents’ idealism. This was followed by the millennial generation. Traumatized by terrorism and a financial crisis, they reacted against the individualism of the last generation, craving security and teamwork, with a noted dislike of conflict and confrontation.
We can deduce two important lessons from this: First, our values will often depend upon where we fall in this pattern and how our generation reacts against the particular imbalances of the previous generation. We would simply not be the same person we are now, with the same attitude and ideals, if we had emerged during the 1920s or the 1950s instead of later periods. We are not aware of this critical influence because it is too close to us to observe. Certainly we bring our own individual spirit into play in this drama, and to the degree that we can cultivate our uniqueness, we will gain power and the ability to direct the zeitgeist. But it is critical that we recognize first the dominant role that our generation plays in our formation, and where this generation falls in the pattern.
Second, we notice that generations seem capable only of reacting and moving in an opposing direction to the previous generation. Perhaps this is because a generational perspective is formed in youth, when we are more insecure and prone to thinking in black-and-white terms. A middle way, a balanced form of choosing what might be good or bad in the values and trends of the previous generation, seems contrary to our collective nature.
On the other hand, this back-and-forth pattern has a salutary effect. If one generation simply carried forward the tendencies of the previous one, we would probably have destroyed ourselves long ago. Imagine generations that succeeded the wildness of the 1920s or the 1960s by continuing with this spirit, and going further with it; or a generation that succeeded the 1950s by remaining equally conservative and conformist. We would suffocate ourselves with too much self-expression or stagnation. The pattern may lead to imbalances, but it also ensures that we revitalize ourselves.
Sometimes the changes that are generated in a revolutionary period are rather trivial and do not last past the cycle. But sometimes, from a strong crisis, a revolution forges something new that lasts for centuries and represents progress toward values that are more rational and empathetic. In seeing this historical pattern, we must recognize what seems to be an overall human spirit that transcends any particular time and that keeps us evolving. If for any reason the cycle stopped, we would be doomed.
Your task as a student of human nature is threefold: First and foremost, you must alter your attitude toward your own generation. We like to imagine that we are autonomous and that our values and ideas come from within, not without, but this is in fact not the case. Your goal is to understand as deeply as possible how profoundly the spirit of your generation, and the times that you live in, have influenced how you perceive the world.
We are usually hypersensitive when it comes to our own generation. The perspective was formed in our childhood, when we were most vulnerable, and our emotional bond to our peers was established early on. We often hear an older or younger generation criticizing us, and we naturally become defensive. When it comes to the flaws or imbalances in our generation, our tendency is to see them as virtues. For instance, if we grew up in a generation that was more fearful and cautious, we might shy away from major responsibilities, such as owning a house or a car. We will interpret this as a desire for freedom or a desire to help the environment, unwilling to confront the fears that are really underneath it all.
We cannot understand our generation in the same way that we understand a scientific fact, such as the characteristics of an organism. It is something alive within us, and our understanding of it is tainted by our own emotions and biases. What you must do is to try to attack the problem free from judgments and moralizing, and to become as objective as humanly possible. The personality of your generation is neither positive nor negative; it is simply an outgrowth of the organic process described above.
Consider yourself a kind of archaeologist digging into your own past and that of your generation, looking for artifacts, for observations that you can piece together to form a picture of the underlying spirit. When you examine your memories, try to do so with some distance, even when you recall the emotions you felt at the time. Catch yourself in the inevitable process of making judgments of good and bad about your generation or the next one, and let go of them. You can develop such a skill through practice. Forging such an attitude will play a key role in your development. With some distance and awareness, you can become much more than a follower of or a rebel against your generation; you can mold your own relationship to the zeitgeist and become a formidable trendsetter.
Your second task is to create a kind of personality profile of your generation, so that you can understand its spirit in the present and exploit it. Keep in mind that there are always nuances and exceptions. What you are looking for is common traits that signal an overall spirit.
You can begin this by looking at the decisive events that occurred in the years before you entered the work world and that played a large role in shaping this personality. If this period comprises more or less twenty-two years, there is often more than just one decisive event for that period. For instance, for those who came of age during the 1930s, there was the Depression and then the advent of World War II. For the baby boomers, there was the Vietnam War, and later Watergate and the political scandals of the early 1970s.
Generation X were children during the sexual revolution and adolescents in the era of latchkey kids. For millennials there was 9/11 and then the financial meltdown of 2008. Depending on where you fall, both will influence you, but one more than the other, as it occurs closer to those formative years between ten and eighteen, when you were gaining awareness of the wider world and developing core values.
Some times, such as the 1950s, can be periods of relative stability bordering on stagnation. This will have a powerful effect as well, considering the restlessness of the human mind, particularly among the young, who will come to yearn for adventure and to stir things up. You must also factor into this equation any major technological advances or inventions that alter how people interact.
Try to map out the ramifications of these decisive events. Pay particular attention to the effect they may have had on the pattern of socialization that will characterize your generation. If the event was a major crisis of some sort, that will tend to make those of your generation band together for comfort and security, valuing the team and feelings of love, and allergic to confrontation. A period of stability and nonevents will make you gravitate toward others for adventure, for group experimentation, sometimes bordering on the reckless. In general, you will tend to notice a socializing style of your peers, most evident in your twenties. Search for the roots of this.
These larger events will have an effect on how you view success and money and whether you value status and wealth or less material values such as creativity and personal expression. How those of your generation view failure in a venture or career will be quite telling—is it a badge of shame or considered part of the entrepreneurial process, even a positive experience? You can gauge this as well by those years when you entered the work world—did you feel the pressure to start making money right away, or was it a time to explore the world and have adventures, then settle on something in your thirties?
In filling out this profile, look at the parenting styles of those who raised you—permissive, overcontrolling, neglectful, or empathetic. The famously permissive style of those who raised children in the 1890s helped create the wild, carefree attitude of the lost generation of the 1920s. Those parents who were deeply affected by the 1960s often ended up being quite self-absorbed and somewhat neglectful toward their children, who could not help but feel a bit alienated and even angry because of this. Parents who are overprotective will shape a generation that fears going outside its comfort zones. These parenting styles come in waves. The children who were overprotected do not generally become helicopter parents. Your own parents might have been an exception to the prevailing style, but you will notice a personality stamp on your peers that will become very evident in the teen years and early twenties.
Pay close attention to the heroes and icons of a generation, those who act out the qualities that others secretly wish they had as well. They are often the types who gain celebrity in youth culture—the rebels, the successful entrepreneurs, the gurus, the activists. These indicate emerging new values. Similarly, look at the trends and fads that suddenly sweep through your generation, for instance the sudden popularity of digital currencies. Do not take these trends at face value, but look for the underlying spirit, the unconscious attraction toward certain values or ideals that they reveal. Nothing is too trivial for this analysis.
Like an individual, any generation will tend to have an unconscious, shadow side to its personality. A good sign of this can be found in the particular style of humor that each generation tends to forge. In humor people release their frustrations and express their inhibitions. Such humor could tend toward the irrational, or something edgier and even aggressive. A generation might seem rather prudish and correct, but its humor is raunchy and irreverent. This is the shadow side leaking out.
As part of this, you will want to look at the relationship of the genders in your generation. In the 1920s and 1930s, men and women were trying to bridge their differences, to socialize in mixed groups as much as possible. The male icons were often quite feminine, such as Rudolph Valentino; and the female icons had a pronounced masculine or androgynous edge, such as Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. Contrast this with the 1950s and the sudden and rather strong split between the genders, revealing an unconscious discomfort with and split from the cross-gender tendencies we all feel (see chapter 12).
In looking at this shadow side of your generation, keep in mind that its tendency toward one extreme—materialism, spirituality, adventure, safety—conceals a hidden attraction to the opposite. A generation like the one that came of age in the 1960s seemed disinterested in material things. Its main values were spiritual and inward, being spontaneous and what was thought of as authentic, all of this in reaction to their materialistic parents. But underneath this spirit, we could detect a secret attraction to the material side of life, in the desire to always have the best of something—the latest sound systems, the highest-quality drugs, the hippest clothes. This attraction was revealed in all its truth during the yuppie years of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
With all of this accumulated knowledge you can begin to form an overall profile of your generation, one that is as complex and organic as the phenomenon itself.
Your third task, then, is to expand this knowledge to something broader, first trying to piece together what could be considered the zeitgeist. In this sense, you are looking particularly at the relationship between the two dominant generations, early adults (ages twenty-two to forty-four) and those in midlife (forty-five to sixty-six). No matter how close the parents and children of these generations might seem, there is always an underlying tension, along with some resentment and envy. There are natural differences between their values and how they look at the world. You want to examine this tension and determine which generation tends to dominate and how this power dynamic might be shifting in the present. You will also want to see which part of the larger historical pattern your generation might fit into.
This overall awareness will yield several important benefits. For instance, your generational perspective tends to create a particular kind of myopia. Each generation tends toward some imbalance as it reacts against the previous one. It views and judges everything according to certain values that it holds over others and this closes the mind to other possibilities. We can be both idealistic and pragmatic, value teamwork and our own individual spirit, et cetera. There is much to be gained by looking at the world from the perspective of your parents or your children, and even adopting some of their values. Feeling that your generation is superior is simply an illusion. Your awareness will free you from these mental blocks and illusions, making your mind more fluid and creative. You will be able to shape your own values and ideas and not be such a product of the times.
With your awareness of the overall zeitgeist, you will also understand the historical context. You will have a sense of where the world is headed. You can anticipate what is around the corner. With such knowledge, you can bring your own individual spirit into play and help shape this future that is gestating in the present.
And feeling deeply connected to the unbroken chain of history, and your role in this grand historical drama, will infuse you with a calmness that will make everything in life more bearable. You do not overreact at the outrage of the day. You do not go gaga over the latest trend. You are aware of the pattern that will tend to swing things in a different direction within a period of time. If you feel out of harmony with the times, you know that the bad days will end and you can play your part in making the next wave happen.
Keep in mind that this knowledge is more critical to posses now than ever, for two reasons. First, despite any antiglobal sentiments sweeping the world, technology and social media have unified us in inalterable ways. This means that people of one generation will often have more in common with those of the same generation in other cultures than with older generations in their own country. This unprecedented state of affairs means that the zeitgeist is more directly globalized than ever before, making knowledge of it that much more essential and powerful.
And second, because of these sharp changes initiated by technological innovations, the pace has quickened, creating a self-fulfilling dynamic. Young people feel almost addicted to this pace and crave more shifts, even if of a trivial nature. With the quickening pace there are more crises, which only speeds up the process. This pace will tend to make you get dizzy and lose your perspective. You might imagine some trivial shift as groundbreaking and will thus ignore the real groundbreaking change under way. You will not be able to keep up, let alone anticipate what might come next. Only your generational awareness, your calm historical perspective, will allow you to master such times.
Strategies for Exploiting the Spirit of the Times
To make the most of the zeitgeist, you must begin with a simple premise: you are a product of the times as much as anyone; the generation you were born into has shaped your thoughts and values, whether you are aware of this or not. And so, if you feel from deep within some frustration with the way things are in the world or with the older generation, or if you sense there is something that is missing in the culture, you can be almost certain that other people of your generation are feeling the same way. And if you are the one to act on this feeling, your work will resonate with your generation and help shape the zeitgeist. With this in mind, you must put into practice some or all of the following strategies.
Push against the past. You may feel a deep need to create something new and more relevant to your generation, but the past will almost always exercise a strong pull on you, in the form of the values of your parents that you internalized at a young age. Inevitably you are a bit fearful and conflicted. And because of this, you might hesitate to go full throttle with whatever you do or express, and your defiance of the past ways of doing things will tend to be rather tepid.
Instead you must force yourself in the opposite direction. Use the past and its values or ideas as something to push against with great force, using any anger you might feel to help in this. Make your break with the past as sharp and clear as possible. Express what is taboo; shatter the conventions that the older generation adheres to. All of this will excite and attract the attention of people of your generation, many of whom will want to follow your lead.
It was by being so audacious and defiant of the older generation that the Earl of Essex epitomized the new, confident spirit of post-armada England and became the darling of his generation (see chapter 15 for more on this). Danton gained power by how far he went in defying the monarchy and fomenting for the republic. In the 1920s, the African American dancer Josephine Baker came to exemplify the new spirit of spontaneity among the lost generation by making her performances as unfettered and shocking as possible. By breaking so deeply with the past images of previous first ladies and their usual demure manner, Jacqueline Kennedy became the icon for the new spirit of the early 1960s. In going further in this direction, you create a shock of the new and spark desires among others that are waiting to come out.
Adapt the past to the present spirit. Once you identify the essence of the zeitgeist, it is often a wise strategy to find some analogous moment or period in history. The frustrations and rebellions of your generation were certainly felt to some degree by some previous generation and were expressed in dramatic fashion. The leaders of such past generations resonate through history and take on a kind of mythic hue the more time passes. By associating yourself with those figures or times, you can give added weight to whatever movement or innovation you are promoting. You take some of the emotionally loaded symbols and styles of that historical period and adapt them, giving the impression that what you are attempting in the present is a more perfect and progressive version of what happened in the past.
In doing this, think in grand, mythic terms. Danton associated himself with Cicero, whose speeches and actions in favor of the Roman Republic and against tyranny naturally resonated with many French people and gave Danton’s mission the added weight of the ancient past. The filmmaker Akira Kurosawa brought back to life the world of the samurai warrior, so celebrated in Japanese culture, but re-created it in such a way as to make judicious comments on the issues and moods of postwar Japan. When running for president, John F. Kennedy wanted to herald a new American spirit that was moving past the staleness of the 1950s. He called the programs he would initiate the New Frontier, associating his ideas with the pioneer spirit so reverentially ingrained in the American psyche. Such imagery became a powerful part of his appeal.
Resurrect the spirit of childhood. By bringing to life the spirit of your early years—its humor, its decisive historical events, the styles and products of the period, the feeling in the air as it affected you—you will reach a vast audience of all those who experienced those years in a similar way. It was a time of life of great emotional intensity, and by re-creating it in some form, but reflected through the eyes of an adult, your work will resonate with your peers. You must use this strategy only if you feel a particularly powerful connection to your childhood. Otherwise your attempt to re-create the spirit will seem flat and contrived.
Keep in mind that you are not aiming for a literal re-creation of the past but capturing its spirit. To have real power, it should connect to some issue or problem in the present and not simply be some mindless bit of nostalgia. If you are inventing something, try to update and incorporate the styles of that childhood period in a subtle manner, exploiting the unconscious attraction we all feel to that early period in life.
Create the new social configuration. It is human nature for people to crave more social interaction with those with whom they feel an affinity. You will always gain great power by forging some new way of interacting that appeals to your generation. You organize a group around new ideas or values that are in the air or the latest technology that allows you to bring people together of a like mind in a novel way. You eliminate the middlemen who used to set up barriers that prevented freer associations of people. In this new form of a group, it is always wise to introduce some rituals that bond the members together and some symbols to identify with.
We see many examples of this in the past—the salons of seventeenth-century France, where men and women could talk freely and openly; the lodges of the Freemasons in eighteenth-century Europe, with their secret rituals and air of subversion; the speakeasies and jazz clubs of the 1920s, where the mood was “anything goes”; or more recently, online platforms and groups, or flash mobs. In using this strategy, think of the repressive elements of the past that people are yearning to shake free of. This could be a period of stultifying correctness or prudery, or rampant conformity, or the overvaluing of individualism and all the selfishness that breeds. The group you establish will let flourish a new spirit and even offer the thrill of breaking past taboos on correctness.
Subvert the spirit. You might find yourself at odds with some part of the spirit of your generation or the times you live in. Perhaps you identify with some tradition in the past that has been superseded, or your values differ in some way because of your own individual temperament. Whatever the reason, it is never wise to preach or moralize or condemn the spirit of the times. You will only marginalize yourself. If the spirit of the times is like a tide or a stream, better to find a way to gently redirect it, instead of fighting its direction. You will have more power and effect by working within the zeitgeist and subverting it.
For instance, you make something—a book, a film, any product—that has the look and feel of the times, even to an exaggerated degree. However, through the content of what you produce, you insert ideas and a spirit that is somewhat different, that points to the value of the past you prefer or depicts another possible way of relating to events or interpreting them, helping to loosen up the tight generational framework through which people view their world.
After World War II, the great European fashion designers felt a great deal of disdain for the American market that now dominated the world. They disliked the emerging popular culture and its vulgarity. The fashion designer Coco Chanel had always emphasized elegance in her designs and certainly shared some of this antipathy. But she went in the opposite direction of other designers of the time: she embraced the new power of American women and catered to their desire for clothing that was less fussy and more athletic. Gaining their trust and using their language, Chanel now had great power to subtly alter American tastes, bringing in more of her true sensibility and imparting some elegance to the streamlined designs American women loved. In this way she helped redirect the zeitgeist in fashion, anticipating the changes of the early 1960s. That is the power that comes from working with the spirit rather than against it.
Keep adapting. It was in your youth that your generation forged its particular spirit, a period of emotional intensity that we often remember fondly. The problem that you face is that as you get older, you tend to remain locked in the values, ideas, and styles that marked this period. You become a kind of caricature of the past to those who are younger. You stop evolving with your thinking. The times leave you behind, which only makes you hold on more tightly to the past as your only anchor. And as you age, and more and more young people occupy the public stage, you narrow your audience.
It is not that you should abandon the spirit that marked you, a rather impossible task anyway. Trying to ape the styles of the younger generation will only make you seem ludicrous and inauthentic. What you want is to modernize your spirit, to possibly adopt some of the values and ideas of the younger generation that appeal to you, gaining a new and wider audience by blending your experience and perspective with the changes going on, making yourself into an unusual and appealing hybrid.
For the film director Alfred Hitchcock, the decade that shaped him and his work was the 1920s, when he entered the industry and became a director. What mattered most in these silent films was perfecting a visual language for telling a story. Hitchcock mastered the art of using camera angles and movement to make the audience feel as if it were in the middle of the story.
He never abandoned this obsession with visual language throughout the six decades he worked as a director, but he continually adapted his style—to the color spectacles so much in vogue in the 1950s and to the popular thrillers and horror films of the sixties and seventies. Unlike other aging film directors, who either fell completely out of fashion or simply tried to mimic the current style, Hitchcock created a hybrid of the past and the present. This gave his later films tremendous depth, as he had incorporated all of the adaptations from earlier in his career. His films could have mass appeal, but they were made unique by these layers of innovations embedded in the film. Such depth will always have an uncanny effect on any audience, as your work seems beyond time itself.
The Human Beyond Time and Death
We humans are masters of transforming whatever we get our hands on. We have completely transformed the environment of the planet Earth to suit our purposes. We have transformed ourselves from a physically weak species into the preeminent and most powerful social animal, effectively enlarging and rewiring our brains as we did so. We are restless and endlessly inventive. But one area seems to defy our transformational powers—time itself. We are born and enter the stream of life, and each day it carries us closer to death. Time is linear, always advancing, and there is nothing we can do to stop its course.
We move through the various phases of life, which mark us according to patterns beyond our control. Our bodies and minds slow down and lose their youthful elasticity. We watch helplessly as more and more young people fill the stage of life, pushing us to the side. We are born into a period of history and into a generation that are not of our choice and that seem to determine so much of who we are and what happens to us. In relation to time, our active nature is neutralized, and although we do not consciously register this, our helplessness here is the source of much of our anxiety and bouts of depression.
If we look more closely, however, at our personal experience of time, we can notice something peculiar—the passage of the hours or days can alter depending on our mood and circumstances. A child and an adult experience time very differently—for the former it moves rather slowly, and all too quickly for the latter. When we are bored, time feels empty and grinds to a crawl; when we are excited and enjoying ourselves, we wish it would slow down. When we are calm and meditative, the time might pass slowly, but it seems full and satisfying.
What this means in general is that time is a human creation, a way for us to measure its passage for our own purposes, and our experience of this artificial creation is quite subjective and changeable. We have the power to consciously slow it down or speed it up. Our relationship to time is more malleable than we think. Although we cannot stop the aging process or defy the ultimate reality of death, we can alter the experience of them, transforming what is painful and depressing into something much different. We can make time feel more cyclical than linear; we can even step outside the stream and experience forms of timelessness. We do not have to remain locked in the hold of our generation and its perspective.
Although this might seem like wishful thinking, we can point to various historical figures—Leonardo da Vinci and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to name two—who consciously transcended their era and described their transformed experience of time. It is an ideal, one that our active nature allows for, and one well worth aiming to realize to some degree.
Here’s how we could apply this active approach to four elemental aspects of time.
The phases of life: As we pass through the phases of life—youth, emerging adult, middle age, and old age—we notice certain common changes in us. In our youth we experience life more intensely. We are more emotional and vulnerable. Most of us tend to be outwardly focused, concerned with what people might think of us and with how we fit in. We are more gregarious but prone to foolish behavior and self-righteousness.
As we get older, the intensity diminishes, our minds tend to tighten up around certain conventional ideas and beliefs. We slowly become less concerned with what people think of us, and thus more inwardly directed. What we sometimes gain in these later phases is some distance from life, some self-control, and perhaps the wisdom that comes from accumulating experiences.
We have the power, however, to drop or mitigate the negative qualities that often go with certain phases of life, in a way defying the aging process itself. For instance, when we are young, we can make a point of lessening the influence of the group on us and not being so fixated on what others are thinking and doing. We can make ourselves more inwardly directed, more in harmony with our uniqueness (see chapter 13 for more on this). We can consciously develop more of that inner distance that comes naturally with the years, think more deeply about our experiences, learn the lessons from them, and develop a premature wisdom.
As we age, we can strive to retain the positive youthful qualities that often fade with the years. For instance, we can regain some of the natural curiosity we had as children by dropping some of the smugness and know-it-all attitude that often come over us as we get older. We keep looking at the world through a fresh framework, questioning our own values and preconceptions, making our minds more fluid and creative in the process. As part of this, we can learn a new skill or study a new field to return us to the joy we once had in learning something new. We can also meditate on some of the more intense experiences in our youth, putting ourselves back in those moments through our imagination, connecting more deeply to who we were. We can feel that youthful intensity return to some degree in our present experiences.
Part of the reason we become less gregarious with the years is that we become judgmental and intolerant of people’s quirks, all of which does not enhance our experience of life. We can alter that as well by coming to understand human nature more deeply and accepting people as they are.
Aging has a psychological component and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy—we tell ourselves we are slowing down and cannot do or attempt as much as we did in past, and as we act on these thoughts, we intensify the aging process, which makes us depressed and prone to slow down even more. We can see icons in the past like Benjamin Franklin, who went in the opposite direction, continually challenging his mind and body as he aged, and who by all accounts retained the most delightfully childlike and jovial disposition well into his seventies and eighties.
Present generations: Your goal here is to be less a product of the times and to gain the ability to transform your relationship to your generation. A key way of doing this is through active associations with people of different generations. If you are younger, you try to interact more with those of older generations. Some of them, who seem to have a spirit you can identify with, you can try to cultivate as mentors and role models. Others you relate to as you would your peers—not feeling superior or inferior but paying deep attention to their values, ideas, and perspectives, helping to widen your own.
If you are older, you reverse this by actively interacting with those of a younger generation, not as a parent or authority figure but as a peer. You allow yourself to absorb their spirit, their different way of thinking, and their enthusiasm. You approach them with the idea that they have something to teach you.
In interacting on a more authentic level with those of different generations, you are creating a unique bond—that of people alive at the same time in history. This will only enhance your grasp of the zeitgeist.
Past generations: When we think about history, we tend to render the past into a kind of dead and spiritless caricature. Perhaps we feel smug and superior to past eras, and so we focus on those aspects of history that indicate backward ideas and values (not realizing that future generations will do the same to us), seeing what we want to see. Or we project onto the past the ideas and values of the present, which have little relation to how those of the past experienced the world. We drain away their own generational perspective, something we see most obviously in filmed versions of history, where people talk and act just like us, only in costumes. Or we simply ignore history, imagining it has no relevance to our present experience.
We must rid ourselves of such absurd notions and habits. We are not as superior to those in the past as we like to imagine (see previous chapters on irrationality, shortsightedness, envy, grandiosity, conformity, and aggression). There are cultural moments in history that were superior to our own when it comes to participatory democracy, or creative thinking, or cultural liveliness. There are periods in the past in which people had a deeper grasp of human psychology and a bracing realism that would make us look quite deluded by comparison. Although human nature remains a constant, those in the past faced different circumstances with different levels of technology and had values and beliefs quite different from our own, and not necessarily inferior. They had the values that reflected their different circumstances, and we would have shared them as well.
Most important of all, however, we must understand that the past is by no means dead. We do not emerge in life as blank slates, divorced from millions of years of evolution. All that we think and experience, our most intimate thoughts and beliefs, are shaped by the struggles of past generations. So many ways we relate to the world now came from changes in thinking long ago.
Whenever we see people who completely sacrifice everything for some cause, they are reliving a shift in values initiated by the early Christians of the first century, who revolutionized our way of thinking by devoting all aspects of life to some ideal. Whenever we fall in love and idealize the beloved, we are reliving the emotions that the troubadours of the twelfth century introduced into the Western world, a sentiment that had never existed before.
Whenever we extol emotions and spontaneity over the intellect and effort, we are reexperiencing what the Romantic movements of the eighteenth century first introduced into our psychology. We are not aware of all this, but we in the present are motley products of all the accumulated changes in human thinking and psychology. By making the past into something dead, we are merely denying who we are. We become rootless and barbaric, disconnected from our nature.
You must radically alter your own relationship to history, bringing it back to life within you. Begin by taking some era in the past, one that particularly excites you for whatever reason. Try to re-create the spirit of those times, to get inside the subjective experience of the actors you are reading about, using your active imagination. See the world through their eyes. Make use of the excellent books written in the last hundred years to help you gain a feel for daily life in particular periods (for example, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome by Lionel Casson or The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga). In the literature of the time you can detect the prevailing spirit. The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald will give you a much livelier connection to the Jazz Age than any scholarly book on the subject. Drop any tendencies to judge or moralize. People were experiencing their present moment within a context that made sense to them. You want to understand that from the inside out.
In this way you will feel differently about yourself. Your concept of time will expand and you will realize that if the past lives on in you, what you are doing today, the world you live in, will live on and affect the future, connecting you to the larger human spirit that moves through us all. You in this moment are a part of that unbroken chain. And this can be an intoxicating experience, a strange intimation of immortality.
The future: We can understand our effect on the future most clearly in our relationship to our children, or to those young people we influence in some way as teachers or mentors. This influence will last years after we are gone. But our work, what we create and contribute to society, can exert even greater power and can become part of a conscious strategy to communicate with those of the future and influence them. Thinking in this way can actually alter what we say or what we do.
Certainly Leonardo da Vinci followed such a strategy. He continually tried to envision what the future might be like, to live in it through his imagination. We can see the evidence of this in his drawings of possible inventions that might exist in the future, some of which, like flying machines, he actually attempted to create. He also thought deeply about the values people might hold in the future that did not yet exist in the times that he lived through. For instance, he felt a deep affinity for animals and saw them as possessing souls, a belief that was virtually unheard of at the time. This impelled him to become a vegetarian and to go around freeing caged birds in the marketplace. He saw all nature as one, including humans, and he imagined a future in which that belief would be shared.
The great feminist, philosopher, and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) believed that we humans can actually create the future by how we imagine it in the present. For her, in her short life, much of this came in her imagining a future in which the rights of women and, most important, their reasoning powers were given equal weight to men. Her thinking in these terms in fact did have a profound influence on the future.
Perhaps one of the most uncanny examples of this is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), a scientist, novelist, and philosopher. He aspired to a kind of universal knowledge, similar to Leonardo’s, in which he tried to master all forms of human intelligence, steep himself in all periods of history, and through this be able to not only see the future but commune with its inhabitants. He was able to anticipate a theory of evolution decades before Darwin. He foresaw many of the great political trends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the eventual unification of Europe after World War II. He imagined many of the advances of technology and the effects these would have on our spirit. He was someone who actively attempted to live outside his time, and his prophetic powers were legendary among his friends.
Finally, sometimes we may feel like we are born into the wrong period in history, out of harmony with the times. And yet we are locked into this moment and must live through it. If such is the case, this strategy of immortality can bring us some relief. We are aware of the cycles of history and how the pendulum will swing and the times will change, perhaps after we are gone. In this way, we can look to the future and feel some connection to those who are living well beyond this terrible moment. We can reach out to them, make them part of our audience. Some day they will read about us or read our words, and the connection will go in both directions, indicating this supreme human ability to surmount one’s time and the finality of death itself.
A man’s shortcomings are taken from his epoch; his virtues and greatness belong to himself.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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