At many times in history, those capable of observing trends have, perhaps, looked around and bemoaned the fast pace of change. It is often possible to feel a sense of loss, even as our civilization develops.
In The Malaise of Modernity, Charles Taylor proposes that the source of our malaise can be largely summed up under two headings: individualism and instrumental reason. Individualism has resulted in the growth of human rights that many consider to be the finest achievement of modern civilisation. Still, in debased forms, individualism comes with a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning and less concerned with others or with society. Instrumental reason—the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical means to a given end, the maximum efficiency and the best cost-output ratio, for example—causes widespread unease when it seems so enlarged in its scope that it threatens to take over our lives. We fear that things that ought to be determined by other criteria will be decided in terms of efficiency or cost-benefit analysis.
This ‘malaise,’ perhaps dating from the early days of the enlightenment, continues today and reflects a society reacting to a sweeping away of old orders. Society is no longer bound by a sacred structure; its social arrangements and modes of action are no longer grounded in an unquestionable ‘order of things.’ In such a society the ‘arrangements and modes of action’ (how we live together in cities, communities and countries, how cultures connect and cross-fertilize, what is deemed important knowledge, how we educate our children, what gives life meaning in a liberal, secular world) are, in a sense, up for grabs.
When people feel a lack of meaning in their lives, a certain emptiness, they may fill it in inappropriate ways. Simply consuming or becoming materialistic does not provide satisfaction. Alexis de Tocqueville describes a society where people prefer to stay at home and enjoy the satisfactions of private life, one where few want to participate in self-government and civic affairs. The idea that everything in modern society is moving so fast now, and everyone is ‘stressed,’ spins out to a rationalization that the average citizen is accomplishing a great deal simply by coping with or even surviving in this modern milieu, never mind being expected to assume responsibility for civic engagement and concern.
Perhaps this is where the arts come in. Perhaps this is where an evening of ideas and cultural offerings come in. Perhaps this is how we can share perspectives and reduce strife. We believe that cultural and artistic understanding, knowledge and literacy are essential to creative and inspiring societies in which to live. A cultural perspective—one involving the arts—should be central to decision-making in any sphere, whether this be economics, politics, or social affairs.
Each of us brings our own experiences—and a set of questions—to his community conversation. We are pleased to support this effort and to have the opportunity to join with other members of our community to explore these and other related issues.