Monday, January 31, 2011

There is No Such Thing as Independence

Many years ago Leonard Read wrote a famous essay called “I, Pencil.” He pointed out no one knows how to make something as simple as a pencil. The rubber eraser, for example, comes from Indonesia. Then there were the ships to bring the rubber here. Who built the ships? Who mined the steel? Who refined the fuel? And on and on and on. It was so complicated that no one knew how many people it took to make one pencil.

Read didn’t come out and specifically write it, but there is no such thing as independence. No one is independent; everyone is dependent on everyone else. If someone tried to be completely independent he’d have to grow or hunt his own food, sew his own clothes, and everything else involved in surviving.

Yet even then they still couldn’t be independent. Who raised them? Who educated them? Who taught them to talk? They’re dependent on everyone else who came before them.

They’re also dependent on the animals they would hunt, on the earth to grow food, on the sun, on the air….and so on. Independence does not exist.

If anything does exist, it is a web of relationships. All of us are involved in an infinite web of dependent relationships, ones that cannot be completely analyzed because of their infinity.

In a sense, ‘I’ don’t even exist, not in the sense of a single unitary self. I have an infinity of selves based on each one’s relationships with someone else. A man can have a father self based on his relationships with his child, a husband self, a friend self, a work self…and so on. There is something in us, however, that makes us think we are one unified self. But we’re not.

One Western philosopher who did understand the interdependence of people was Spinoza. Antonio Damasio, in his Looking for Spinoza, interprets Spinoza thus: “…the biological reality of self-preservation leads to virtue because in our inalienable need to maintain ourselves we must, of necessity, help preserve other selves.”

This is, as Damasio noticed, the foundation of a generous ethical system, because it understands we are interdependent, all dependent on each other, all enmeshed in an infinite web of dependent relationships. Demasio notes we are literally “in a bind,” and not surprisingly, the word “religion” means “to bind together.”

This understanding that all are involved in an infinite web of dependent relationships leads to humility, in the true sense of the word: clearly understanding your limitations. When you see everything as a dependent web, you realize just how dependent you are on your garbage man, the plumber, the carpenter, the coal miner, the steel worker…

Any modern society could survive without doctors, but it could not survive without miners. So who, ultimately, is more important?

The opposite of true humility is hubris or what the Bible calls Pride: the belief you are better than everyone else. In other words, you ignore the fact you are a web of dependencies, you do things to destroy it, and doing so, destroy yourself.

That’s what hubris followed by nemesis is, or pride leading to destruction. It’s why in the West, prides is the worst of all sins, and in fact the mother of all others.

Or, as Russell Kirk observed, “The monstrous self is the source of all evil.” That is, the self that believes it is independent of others.

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