“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.”
- Edward O. Wilson
Human ingenuity has generated tremendous prosperity but our collective endeavor has reached a scale where individuals are left unable to grasp the enormity of knowledge that we have generated. In the face of this scale we resort to the formulas embedded in our culture, institutions, and upbringing to unconsciously manage large parts of our lives, as indeed we must do while building our own niches of competency from which to add value to the human endeavor (and pay the bills). Yet at the same time that some of these formulae (also known as mental models or heuristics) have enabled the development of “godlike technology” and prosperity for broad swaths of humanity, others are being left behind by the increasing pace of change and the antiquated mental models that do not allow them to grow and thrive in the modern world. We live in an age of anxiety, constantly scanning social media and the news for the next tragedy, leaning on ineffective institutions and culture full of expired formulae to provide answers and safety.
What should we do in the face of this?
The authoritarian within us would seek strength through submission to/participation in authority, uncritically accepting the answers and dogma provided by the many authorities of culture, government, religion, etc. This part of us would seek to impose the formulae upon others and judge those who decline to submit to the chosen ideology. The rebel in us would do the exact opposite, engaging in wholesale rejection of any formulae provided by authority, regardless of their individual merit, replacing the authority’s ideology with that of their own upon leading a successful rebellion. A fanatic would choose to act with missionary zeal, finding strength in the conversion of others to their own ideology based on silver-bullet solutions they have found to their problems without considering the broader applicability to the context of others.
All of these figures are charlatans, either uncritically accepting their own formulae, or cynically foisting them on others for the sake of monetary or other gain. The modern weaponization of formulae via social media, preying on our innate mimetic susceptibility, presents us with innumerable panacea to all that ails us and society: buy my 10 step course to become a millionaire! Buy my supplements to magically lose weight and gain lean muscle mass! Follow these 7 steps to find the love of your life! Subscribe to my ideology and we will achieve world peace and live in utopia!
Here we propose a different model, based on “Revolutionary Character” as proposed in a 1961 speech by Erich Fromm:
“The revolutionary character is the one who is identified with humanity (rather than his individual society or culture) and therefore transcends the narrow limits of his own society, and who is able, because of this, to criticize his or any other society from the standpoint of reason and humanity. He is not caught in the parochial worship of that culture which he happens to be born in, which is nothing but an accident of time and geography. He is able to look at his environment with the open eyes of a man who is awake and who finds his criteria of judging the accidental in that which is not accidental, in the norms which exist in and for the human race.”
The ideal of Revolutionary Character neither uncritically rejects nor accepts formulae - it seeks to develop and act on effective formulae regardless of their provenance, understanding that some wisdom is timeless, while other wisdom is being used well past its expiration date. The Revolutionary Character does not seek a final destination but rather walks an iterative path towards growth as they seek to live, love, and work better: