One aspect of the subject—I’m once more talking about collectives—is the widespread feeling that large collectives share a system of values and that our public ills are the consequence of the loss or decay of this “system.” A diagnosis then usually follows—a search for some specific group or broad development that has caused this decay. A while back I published a personal note from Daughter Michelle on LaMarotte under the title Dilution of Culture. That letter of hers has become surprisingly popular on that site. A lot of people seem to be pondering the subject.
A “value system” is a curious sort of concept. Is it simply a modern phrase for morality? Yes, modern. System is a modern word suggesting more than ordinary day-to-day behavior; and value is also neatly neutral; it can be used without a glance toward the Sky where, in other times, people thought values came from. The phrase also suggests something quite different than a word like habit does. It suggests something of greater coherence than is usually present in the public mind. How many people have actually worked out their own value system? A few have, of course. But the great majority today—and however far back we might wish to look—engage instead in something that Arnold Toynbee, the historian, called mimesis, imitation. People “pick up” a value system any which way, through contact with others. They rub shoulders. They hear people they admire talk. They expend very little thought of their own on the matter. They’ll register reactions, pro and con, to be sure. But such reactions aren’t thought. And (diverse as we are as a species) if some aspect of the “system” happens not to please them, there will always be others who feel the same way they do and will thus confirm the doubters’ misgivings.
The way that a value system takes hold in large collectives is an extremely complex process. Toynbee singled out elites as the source of such systems, although he would have preferred to use the term “culture,” instead. To be sure. Any system worthy of the name has to have a certain coherence and consistency; it requires thought and action in the development; it must have tangible results that are visibly desirable by the great mass of humanity that just lives life and gets its values catch-as-catch-can. The elites must be seen to practice what they preach. In every generation, a minority of people do engage in the labors of maintaining a value system or a culture. But these systems are not born equal. Some adhere closer to the truth than others, are genuinely comprehensive; others are based on a limited subset of human experience—thus the experience of an expanding economy, for instance. Value systems, therefore, obviously, are also engaged in a kind of competition. But only very few individuals within the great collective can even trace a particular value to its cultural roots. In changing times (and the times are always changing) most members of a society will indifferently hew to contradictory concepts of value, some taken from this and some from that tradition. Don’t let’s get philosophical, people will say. It works for me.
Genuinely comprehensive value systems are born of pain. None of us wants to experience pain. It must be present in us—or we’ll gladly look the other way. The paradox is that as collective wealth rises, simple and weak systems of value can win a greater following than the difficult and the demanding. At the cultural level, nothing fails quite so tangibly as great success. Sounds like a paradox—unless your own value system is comprehensive enough to teach you what the game is all about. And it isn’t about grabbing all that gusto because we only go round once. The darker note here is that as times worsen—and sooner or later they always do—the value system will also tighten, will become much more demanding. The elites that lead this change will become more admirable, suddenly, because the collective will feel the pain more than the elites. And therefore morality will see a rebirth. The dark note here? It isn’t that times will worsen but that the great majority will still only engage in a mimesis. Reality is a steep mountain.