"A stable social system is necessary, but every stable system hitherto devised has hampered the development of exceptional artistic or intellectual merit. How much murder and anarchy are we prepared to endure for the sake of great achievements such as those of the Renaissance? In the past, a great deal; in our own time, much less. No solution of this problem has hitherto been found…." —Bertrand Russell (who overlooked exceptional spiritual merit, although it is equally applicable here, perhaps even more applicable)
"I say, let's evolve and let the chips fall where they may." —Tyler Durden, in the movie Fight Club
They say that history repeats itself. As far as I can tell, computers and cell phones didn't exist in any of the classical civilizations of antiquity, or internal combustion engines or machine guns either, but still, certain human themes tend to be repeated over and over; and it appears to be human nature not to learn very much from these repeated themes.
One theme is that a nation becomes strong through love of freedom, even through a fierce insistence upon it. Its citizens value freedom more than they value their own lives. This resulted in a few Greek towns, led by Athens, miraculously defeating Persia, the most powerful military superpower in the world at that time. It resulted in the ancient Romans growing from a village of shepherds and farmers into a much greater superpower than Persia ever was, struggling against hardships and enemies again and again, and repeatedly avoiding destruction by sheer refusal to give up. It resulted in England, a relatively small country without a great many natural resources, developing into the largest empire the world has ever seen. America also began as a nation of tough pioneers who valued freedom much more highly than they valued security, comfort, or wealth.
But the Romans, for instance, became fabulously rich and powerful after winning the Punic Wars, and the seeds of their destruction were planted. They eventually reached the point where desire for comfort and security outweighed desire for freedom, and they traded in their Republic for a thinly veiled totalitarian state. Their decline took several centuries to reach its end, and sometimes it seemed outwardly that they were even more prosperous and powerful than before, in general, but they lost their free spirit and became demoralized slaves—the masses enslaved to a corrupt, oppressive government, and the aristocracy enslaved to luxury, status, privilege, and myopic greed. Eventually they became too weak and selfish even to defend themselves; and whereas their ancestors would not have seriously considered surrendering to the likes of the Goths and Vandals, the degenerate Romans of late antiquity fled before them like sheep. It wasn't so much barbarian invasions that caused the collapse of Rome; it was more a matter of internal moral decay, a loss of backbone.
Similarly, America became a world superpower, militarily, economically, diplomatically, and culturally, after being on the winning side of both World Wars, and the seeds of American decline were planted with this very success. We Americans became the richest, most powerful, most privileged people in the world (with possibly a few exceptions), so we began having more desire for security in order not to lose the comforts and conveniences that we had won. As the seeds of decline sprouted and took root, we outwardly became even more powerful and successful. But the spirit of freedom was becoming maimed, possibly mortally wounded. Imperial Rome came very near to destruction a time or two long before it finally collapsed (for example during the reign of the emperor Gallienus in the third century), and America may still pull through the impending troubles it is heading into; but the historical theme of material prosperity leading to luxury, weakness, demoralization, and internal decay is repeated. And ironically, increased peacefulness, civilization, and feminization tends to hasten collapse, since these righteous principles are too often used as an excuse for weakness, and for increased anxiety for safety leading to increased law and order, and thus to decreased liberty. The more laws there are, the more crimes there are, and the more crimes, the more criminals. With increased law and order for the sake of security, the country becomes more polarized with "free" criminals on the one side and good citizens enslaved to the system on the other. It is no coincidence that "The Land of the Free" has, or so I have read, by far more prisons and more imprisoned criminals than any other nation in the world.
But the purpose of all this ranting is not political commentary or even historical reflection. I'm leading up to a phenomenon that I noticed during my return to America recently, and which has really struck me from time to time. It appears to me that most Americans are not only less free than they were twenty years ago, they're also more opposed to the very existence of genuine freedom, generally without realizing this fact.
The situation arises largely due to a very human character trait that I've already mentioned, i.e. a dread of losing what one has. This is called macchariya in Pali, and in Buddhist philosophy it is considered to be an unskillful mental state, or "bad karma." (Incidentally, macchariya does not signify only stinginess, or a "dog in the manger" attitude, as is often taught; it represents an aversion for any kind of perceived loss, including grief at the loss of a loved one.) So from this angle increased wealth almost necessarily leads to decreased freedom, as people try to protect what they consider valuable, putting up stone walls and restrictive laws to protect it and themselves. Thus freedom automatically becomes less valued. Freedom becomes practically the enemy.
One little example of this involves the new mandatory health insurance in America, which may easily result in lesser freedom for US citizens to do anything dangerous, since other people paying for (mandatory) health insurance don't want to pay for the mistakes of daredevils that they've never even met. "Why should I have to pay for other people's lung cancer, when they were foolish to smoke cigarettes in the first place? Better to outlaw tobacco, so people won't have to spend their hard-earned money unnecessarily helping reckless strangers." (This is a rather alienated attitude, but perhaps not so alienated as that of political conservatives opposed, as a matter of principle, to any mandatory charity at all—which implies that contributing a fair share to help the poor is more than they are willing to contribute.)
However, another cause for loss of freedom is even more universal, common to practically all conscious members of the animal kingdom, yet no less unskillful; and this is, in its broadest sense, xenophobia, or fear of the unknown. Even if we humans aren't satisfied with what we've got (and few of us are), we still tend to fear letting go of it in order to reach out for something else…mainly because we're afraid that what we get may be even worse than what we already have. So we're not content with what we have, yet we're afraid of what we might have instead, and of what might not even exist. This kind of fear seems to be growing in the USA. After being out of American culture for almost twenty years, upon my return it occurred to me that Americans in general are more conformist now, including young Americans. Young people may conform to a politically correct counterculture like New Age, and they may have pink hair, tattoos, and pierced nipples, but still, on average, they seem to rebel less, to be more "clean-cut," and to be more conservative in their approach to life. My guess is that the world they live in has become so out of their control and so potentially dangerous that they feel they have little choice but to go along with what they're told, even though, deep down, they know that it isn't really working. The lives of modern humans are largely governed by herd instinct reinforced by anxiety. This results in more demoralization, which contributes to the overall decline. Fear of the unknown becomes a kind of moral paralysis.
The trouble is, though, that Ultimate Reality is unknown. Nirvana is unknown. Any wisdom that we don't have yet is unknown. "God" is unknown. The future is unpredictable, not predictable with any certainty anyhow. Thus all of these things, including true wisdom, are potentially very scary.
Which leads to an interesting point that I've been considering lately. A truly free person is unpredictable, and therefore unknowable and scary. Freedom is, almost by definition, unpredictable; and what is unpredictable may easily be seen as a threat to security. An actively free person, who to the extent that he or she is free is also a wise person, does not conform to a confining system; and thus free people and wise people may be seen by the masses as threatening. A person who follows his or her conscience in preference to the established system is distrusted, because people, particularly those in the modern West, seem to trust the artificial system more than they trust individual conscience, human nature, or human wisdom; and this same confining system is what is causing human conscience, compassion, generosity, and wisdom to grow flabbier and more mediocre. It's no wonder that so many spiritual innovators in history have wound up being persecuted or martyred. People are more inclined to trust Joe Schmoe, the alcoholic grocery store manager who cheats on his income tax and is unfaithful to his wife, yet is predictable, than to trust a strange, unpredictable saint or sage.
Common people distrust a really free person, especially when they are unfamiliar with that person, largely because of that person's unpredictability—even if that person is obviously spiritually oriented and has harmed nobody. This is probably the case, to some degree, in all cultures, including the freest ones, because it is simply human nature. People may fear their own insecurity so much that any really free person who doesn't properly play by the rules may be seen as a threat. (This may be a valid interpretation of Kafka's The Trial: Society, "the system," turns against Joseph K. because he has begun to grow skeptical of it and to exhibit some independent thought and behavior.)
In a sense, anyone who refuses to play by the rules of society, even if it is an insane society, is viewed as a criminal, or as insane, or both. Thus society regulates and maintains its own anxious mediocrity. Radical non-conformists are arrested and jailed, with lesser cases at least belittled or ostracized. To some degree this is necessary, since no rules at all leads to completely unstable chaos, unless everyone were wise, of course, and everyone obviously isn't. So a wise, free citizen who sees higher than the status quo of society is poised between the horns of a dilemma: Which do you choose, enforced mediocrity for the sake of getting along, or liberated ostracism? Or, if your spirit shines too brightly, maybe even liberated martyrdom? If your understanding is mediocre, or below mediocrity, then by all means follow along with the majority. Follow their fashion trends, take their political correctness standards seriously, base your life on their principles, or lack of principles, use the correct fork for your salad. Pay your dues. But if you are more evolved than regulated mass mediocrity, then you would be better off following your own heart, even if it results in you being lynched by a howling mob, or simply being left alone and ignored.
Another no wonder is that enlightened spiritual teachers tend to encourage the most serious seekers to drop out of society, for their own good. It's no wonder that the Buddha and Jesus advised their most dedicated disciples to renounce worldliness and live in vagrant poverty. In addition to the worries and distractions of lay life, there is also the plain fact that excess of liberty simply is not tolerated in that world. Even completely harmless, spiritual liberation may be seen as potentially dangerous, largely because it is not understood—it represents the Scary Unknown.
So what America needs right now, and no doubt what the whole world needs, is more freedom; and since freedom requires deep courage, more courage also. Plus sufficient wisdom and vigilance to bear that freedom and its resultant unpredictability without devolving into the law of the jungle. What we need is more faith in truth and spirit—and in each other—than in material gadgets and laws and insurance companies that don't give a damn about us. The only way to be truly happy is through conscious freedom, not through security. Maximum security is found in prisons. Or, if you prefer some paradox, the highest security is in absolute freedom, which is no security at all. The greatest security against poverty and misfortune is a willingness to accept them. The greatest security against death is not to fear it, even when it comes. Fearlessness is the highest security, and it comes from a willingness to face the unknown, not from hiding from it, or outlawing it. Freedom, especially freedom of mind, with danger—danger to one's body, that is, not one's spirit—is far, far more beneficial than enslaved safety. So go out and break a stupid, unjust law. Share what you have, and don't worry about being rich. Be a radical heretic. Follow your inmost heart. Wake up.