In the 16th Century reports on the mysterious, native Indian population of North America made their way back to Europe. They detailed a society that whilst materially simple, was psychologically rewarding. Communities took the form of small, tight knit groups, egalitarian, with a distinct level of content amidst the simplicity. However, within only a few decades of the European’s arrival, Indian society had been revolutionised through contact with technology and industry. What mattered now was no longer one’s wisdom, understanding of nature, or the harmony of community, but one’s ownership of luxury items. Rates of suicide and alcoholism rose, and communities fractured amidst a longing for mirrors, guns and venetian glass.
However these reports quickly faded into the background of 16th Century Paris, and its highly competitive social scene. One where much like today, influence and opulence were critically desirable to one’s sense of self. Unfolding amidst this backdrop was the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His celebrated Discourse on the Arts and Sciences argued that as we marched away as a society from rural simplicity towards cities, we had begun to look to others in order to glean our sense of self. We had awakened a form of ‘self-love' amour-propre entering into ruinous competitions for status and money through an endless cycle of imitation. Civilised people stopped looking to one’s self to identify self-worth and started looking to other people.
For the last 10 years social media has catalysed Rousseau’s idea of self-love. We are individual influencers, creating and consuming content in isolation as a form of connective currency. Yet these attitudes contrast strongly with an idea that flourished for very long periods in many parts of the world and continues to teach us about our real longings for community. That people can actually lead the most fruitful, productive and happy lives when they get together into organised groups.
It was this idea that a Roman nobleman named Benedict had in AD 500 that became the foundation of monasticism and played a central role in European civilisation for over a thousand years. His insights into communities tapped into something fundamental about human nature; that we all seek safety in the feeling that one is part of a larger, dependable and stable structure. Whilst modern society appears to develop community around interest rather than locality, it still consists of the same four elements: Membership, Influence, Integrated Fulfilment of Needs, and Shared Emotional Connection. Similarly, the ideal of monastic community is that collectively, people accomplish more than would be possible by an individual effort, and it was that ideal that led Benedict to the wilderness in search of a better way of living.
Weary of the wastefulness and superficiality of his wealthy fellow students in Rome, Benedict went off to live in the mountains. Other people soon joined him, and he found his way to starting a few small communities. It was a natural step then for him to write an instruction manual with a simple and emphatic title: RULE. His rules included instructions on how survive and thrive together. These rules were rooted in the ideal of monastic community, in that living collectively enables people to accomplish more than would be possible by an individual effort.
There are periods in life and history when it seems as if gaining freedom is the key to a great time. But rules about how to participate in a community or say a Zyper brand community, discord channel or tiktok house, look more important even wise, when we realise how prone we are to distraction, weakness of will, late-night binging and streaming. Rules far from being interruptions, are really the restraints that safeguard our best possibilities.
The fiercely individualistic spirt of our age tends to take a dim view of two big ideas: having any sort of rules governing everyday life and pooling resources to live together and support each other in a communal way. We’ve come to see ourselves as needing to invent our own unique way of life governed by our instincts and what we most feel like doing in the moment. Yet in these unprecedented and isolated times, where we can no longer act on spontaneity, we begin to realise that under the surface, we are all nostalgic for human connection and a sense of community. That's not to say we shouldn't have the kind of social system that demands and rewards the best from every woman and man, but perhaps we would release some of that pressure we all feel to be a contributing member of society, if we considered that happiness does not need to only lie in becoming something extraordinary ourselves, but rather by joining lots of other very ordinary people to make something superlative. We’d generally be so much better off in supporting or joining a community. We’d achieve things on a grander scale and mentally feel supported, useful and part of a positive environment.
By Amber Atherton, CEO [[zyper.com] ](zyper.com)29 April 2020 • 20:40pm, San Francisco.