In this and in subsequent posts, I explore what I call the Great Muddle. I’m not yet clear how to characterize the Great Muddle despite my sense that it is the right poetic description of how we’re actually living.
About five years ago in 2011, it occurred to me that we are living in Unsettled Time. A time is unsettled just in case the current way of life is untenable, even is passing out of existence, while a new way of life is not yet on the horizon. I believe this to be true of our time, hence ours being Unsettled Time. One can read “signs” of Unsettled Time in the following ecological, economic, political, and social phenomena:
- The Anthropocene
- Ecological degradation more generally
- Evident and widening global economic inequality
- Increasing precarity
- The profoundly large, chiefly unspoken-about number of people living with massive amounts of doubt
- Geo-political uncertainty to the point at which liberal and social forms of democracy are being brought into question
- The rise and power of fanaticism
- The pervasiveness of social alienation
- The pervasiveness of nihilism
What is thrown up by Unsettled Time is what I will call an enigma. The enigma is: given that our current way of life is impossible, how shall we live? To call this question an enigma is assert the following:
- The question concerning how to live is not always and in all times a question period but now it most surely and forcefully is;
- The question concerning how to live is not always and in all times a question for everyone but more and more now it surely and very forcefully is;
- The question concerning how we shall live is not yet answerable but, posed as an enigma, presupposes that there is some answer.
- The question seems to come now before all other questions we could ask. In other words, there is no question more important than this one during our Unsettled Time.
The Great Muddle
How are we actually living in Unsettled Time? We are actually living in the Great Muddle. What makes the way we’re actually living a Great Muddle?
- A pervasive sense of cluelessness about how to find our way.
- The preponderance of words associated with “figuring things out,” “sorting things out,” “finding out,” and “making sense.”
- The preponderance of words associated with confusion, “feeling lost,” and “feeling stuck.”
- A sense that most people are just “slogging by” or “muddling through” without knowing why or how or for what.
- The predominant mood, oddly, manifestly not tragic, comi-tragic, farcical, satirical, or cynical but rather “muddly,” an inchoate, pre-reflective sense of continuing to do more of the same despite knowing that the same doesn’t work.
- The Rise of Sophistry: many sophists (consultants, business leaders, politicians, the coterie of experts and advisers) claim, without any reasonable basis, to know how we all should or must live yet, upon further examination, it becomes clear that they haven’t the foggiest.
- The Rise of Pretense (or “bluff”): the various ways in which most people make themselves look as if they’ve got things figured out but, upon being acquainted with them, it becomes clear that they haven’t got any more clues than you do.
We’re in the Great Muddle to the extent that how we actually live does not, not even in the slightest, measure up to the magnitude of the enigma concerning how we should live. One feels underwhelmed and even shocked every time someone proposes something or shows you how he or she actually lives and the immediate thought is, “Given the enormity of Unsettled Time, is that it? Is that all you’ve got?”
Our Socratic Moment
I have this eery, uncanny sense that the Great Muddle has not yet but is about to become apparent to us as the Great Muddle. And when this awareness occurs, it could be called our Socratic Moment. What makes it deeply Socratic is that what should strike us with the force of exceptional and indubitable clarity is that nobody knows what he or she is talking about when it comes to how we should live. Recall Socrates’s surprise in The Apology when he relates to his fellow Athenians how he went around and examined representatives of all social classes then in Athens (the poets, the craftspersons, the statesmen, the sophists, those of noble birth), only to discover that none of them, not one, was wise. Likewise, could it be that nobody actually knows how to not just muddle through Unsettled Time? Could it be that nobody has yet answered the enigma? Have we faced the enigma, as enigma, yet? What if we were to realize that we don’t know what we’re doing?