What are health and happiness worth?

I’ve written about chronological snobbery before. Here’s the definition from the fellow who coined the term, Owen Barfield:

Chronological snobbery is the presumption, fueled by the modern conception of progress, that all thinking, all art, and all science of an earlier time are inherently inferior, indeed childlike or even imbecilic, compared to that of the present. Under the rule of chronological snobbery, the West has convinced itself that “intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century” (Barfield, History in English Words, p. 164). It has become to believe that “anything more than a hundred years old is ancient” and “in the world of books, or opinions about books, the age at which senility sets in has now been reduced to about ten” (Barfield, Worlds Apart, p. 148).

I’ve said that we not only need to beware such an attitude, but we need to come to grips with the fact that it was quite possible for people to live happy, fulfilled lives under what seem to us benighted circumstances. This is one reason I keep looking to history, trying to figure out not only which changes to traditional patterns are improvements, but which ones might be steps backwards. I don’t expect to discover some ideal time period, but I do expect to learn more about what makes for a good life.

Such snobbery does not have to be chronological. We can take the same wrong attitude towards cultures existing today that are somewhere behind us on the path to modernity. Here’s an account worth considering, sent by a correspondent to Dmitri Orlov who posted it on his blog (emphasis mine):

The Philippines, like a number of other countries, is living in a paradox of different proportions. Outside of the biggest cities here, food is growing everywhere, in the villages themselves, as well as the agricultural lands around them. Most people here can tell you how to grow a list of useful plants and to raise chickens.

They are also very much used to sharing. There is virtually no government safety net here. To become eligible for social welfare payments, one must have held the same job for ten years; this almost never happens. Yet even in the moderate-sized cities, nobody starves. Interdependence is local and regional rather than national and international. Of course, there is a degree of modernization contributing to the welfare of people. Some people work in the cities or overseas and send money home to support the extended family. But even without this money life would go on.

Most people here are very fit compared to developed nation’s. I have seen hardly any overweight people, let alone obese. Washing is done by hand in water pumped by hand from the ground. "Sounds horrible," I hear the average reader murmur: but it works and it means the people are physically fit. The main diet is locally grown rice with similarly grown meats and vegetables. Fruit can be expensive because a lot of it is exported, yet whatever is in season is abundant. The fishing trade here is mostly very small boats with small crews using small nets and lines; there are very few industrial scale fishing boats. I live near a fishing village where 95% of the income is derived from fishing in these small boats; the population of over 2,000 people is the healthiest, happiest bunch I have ever met.

Transport here is a world away from that in developed nations, yet there is no problem getting anywhere. Locally, there are tricycles and jeepneys going past all the time in all directions; these and the buses are very affordable for most people. Only about 2% of households have a car, and maybe half have a private 125cc motorcycle or tricycle. These vehicles get about 100 miles to a gallon of fuel.

The paradox is this: the Philippines greatest asset in the future may be its lack of assets now. Less debt, less dependence on expensive gadgets, less laziness and complacency. More communalism, more integration.

The lesson Orlov takes from this is as follows:

Chris writes of a paradox: lack of assets may be the greatest asset of all. I don’t believe that this is a paradox: the higher you climb, the harder you fall. A place that is used to an artificially high standard of living inevitably develops artificially high standards. These standards cannot be undone overnight, as soon as the standard of living collapses, delaying commonsense adaptations until it is too late. Prosperous places have expensive infrastructure, and, once it can no longer be maintained, it becomes much worse than no infrastructure at all. Lastly, poverty takes practice, and a sudden lapse into poverty is far more traumatic than the habit of a stable but constrained existence.

Fair enough, but what struck me is something simpler, namely that the correspondent found a small village of low-tech fishermen to be “the healthiest, happiest bunch” he had ever met.

To folks who are considering living a simpler life for its own sake, as well as those who are concerned that the future might force simplicity upon them, I’d recommend some extended reflection on how much happiness is actually found in the trappings of modern life. Looking at cultures that don’t have them can help. Do we really think that modernity is the means by which God has finally delivered us from the miseries of life—a few of us, anyway, and only very recently?

One thought on “What are health and happiness worth?

  1. Do we really think that modernity is the means by which God has finally delivered us from the miseries of life

    I used to think this way, probably mostly because it is the mantra of public school. I (like to think that I) got wiser as I got older and began to perceive the trap of modernity, but the facade melted to a puddle after reading John Taylor Gatto. Modernity is not God’s deliverance from misery. It is the means by which God has judged our culture.

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