The name of this post comes from C.S. Lewis' book, The Abolition of Man, which you really should read. Really. It's short and pithy. Go and read it right now... I'll wait.
Okay. Now that you've read the book, the phrase I highlight is taken from a longer paragraph, wherein Lewis, speaking on modern education, rejects the program which says that all values and sentiments are subjective and therefore meaningless;
The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.
It is the reality of "famished nature" that I have been thinking about, lately, the idea that we were created by our Maker for a life of experience and relationship and freedom, and all the risk that entails. We were made to comprehend beauty, to drink it in, to acknowledge it and give thanks. We were made to find out things, to thirst for knowledge and truth.
As G.K. Chesterton put it in his beautiful book Orthodoxy;
The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing.
It strikes me that the culture we have created for ourselves, by accident or design, has become un-poetic to a degree that is positively anti-human, effectively satisfying our animal appetites, but denying our deepest longings.
We are very concerned with having plenty of everything, and to spare, but we have also grown averse to hard physical work or discomfort, and so in making nearly every kind of thing we now opt for the easiest, most efficient and soul-less method of production possible; that is, the factory. As a result, we have individually forgotten how to do and make a myriad of simple things that virtually all our ancestors did and made. We instead pay slaves to make things for us, and if you think that is an overstatement, you might want to find out a bit more about production methods and labor practices in China.
In addition, we have become so obsessed with safety as a social value that we now hover around our children with antiseptic wipes and prohibit home-made snacks for classroom parties (got to bring everything in a factory-sealed cellophane pouch!). We have worried the old, fun tradition of Trick-or-Treat practically out of existence, on the mythical ground that it is dangerous.
We all crave Life, Truth, Beauty and Unity, but we are apparently willing enough to trade in all of those intangibles, if we can have certain guarantees in return.
We long for meaning and beauty, and yet we design our common culture to be soul-crushingly drab and prosaic, predictable and safe and inoffensive in every respect. That's what we now pay our leaders (political and otherwise) to do for us, and we get mad when they don't deliver. Hang the intangibles... we want everything now, and we want it cheap, we want it safe, and we want plenty of it so we don't have to worry about running out, even if we are a bit careless and wasteful with it.
But "famished nature will be avenged".
If, because we find beauty too much trouble, we starve ourselves of beauty in our surroundings, we will seek it out in other ways... like on the internet.
If we cut ourselves off from risk and adventure (or even much discomfort), we will find ways to vicariously experience these through the lives of others... sports stars or movie stars or reality TV stars... this is what made the Jackass franchise such a (literally) smashing success. We will watch others take our risks for us. Because we are essentially numb, we will pay to see meaningless and sadistic torture depicted in ever more realistic ways at the movies, so we can squirm for a few minutes.
Where I'm Going With All This
There are times, on this blog, when I have forgotten why I post on certain things. I'll be working up a little blurb about cheese or beer or pipe smoking and begin to wonder why my interests should be more worthy of discussion than anyone's. So, I like this cheese, but someone else likes plain, old American cheese, and who am I to be cheese snob? Or a beer snob? Why should drinking one beer be better than drinking another?
Because. All these things are tied to a pursuit (such as it is) of the most fully-rounded human experiences possible. If I buy cheese, I want a cheese with a history, one that grew out a particular culture and geography. I'd prefer even local cheese from a local dairy. I'd like to shake the hand of the guy or lady who made it.
"But," you may say, "...American cheese grew out of American culture. Why isn't our culture as good as any other?". American cheese, like a lot of American things, is not about culture, it is about the negation of all cultures. It is about mixing all cheeses together and then pouring in enough filler to make it so bland that, while no one will long remember it, no one will be offended, either. And it melts easily on burgers.
The problem with American culture is that it is built on relativism that says any culture is as good as the next, and all the cultures have been banged around together for so long in the relativistic Melting Pot that they are hardly distinguishable from one another. They have been ground to bits, and the distinct edges worn off. Rather than inheriting a coherent and organic culture, each individual makes his or her own culture by picking and choosing whatever broken bits of other cultures they find appealing at the moment.
But "famished nature will be avenged".
If we deny the ultimate meaning of our actions, and opt instead for simply satisfying our felt desires at any given moment, we will seek out that deeper meaning in other ways. It will be sublimated into a disproportionate and irrational devotion to a particular leader, or a certain kind of art, or a political ideology, or a movement, or a party. We were made for meaningful action, just as we were made to eat or to breathe.
In our pursuit of anything - what we drink, what we sit on, how we get to work, what and where and with whom we eat - from this day forward we ought to forget what is easiest and cheapest and quickest and instead think of what tends most toward Life, Truth, Beauty and Unity.
When you sit down to a dinner of home made pot roast with your family, you not only get fed physically, but you establish these intangible human connections that are associated with the experience... the family, there is Life... choosing and knowing just what went into the dish (maybe some from the garden), and how it was prepared and seasoned, there is Truth (honesty in materials)... The smell of the kitchen as the roast cooks all day, the steam rising as the platter is placed on the table, the familiarity of the table and the dishes, the sound of conversation, there's Beauty... sharing such a dinner with family or friends, sharing recipes, sharing leftovers, giving thanks for the cook as well as the dinner... there's Unity.
The good Lord knows, I'm not condemning grabbing a burger at the drive-through, but let's not kid ourselves. Such an experience can't sustain us in our full humanity. It is an altogether isolating experience, feeding the stomach and satisfying the tongue for a few minutes, but nothing more. The more we treat our pleasures, our relationships or our work in that isolated way, the more vulnerable we make ourselves to the vengeful wrath of our famished nature.
And that is behind almost all the small and seemingly meaningless lifestyle choices I have made in the last several years (or since coming under the active influence of the thought of G.K. Chesterton). It is not just a matter of taste, but of philosophy. I support small, local businesses, at times even at my expense. I buy less mass-produced stuff and opt for, say, the products of smaller breweries (heh). I try to cook more often, hopefully with help from the family. I try to make art that people will want to pass on to their children. I (occasionally) try to brew my own beer, and I still hope to make my own cheese. I much prefer antiques to new, mass-produced furniture. I smoke a pipe partly because my father did, and partly because of the camaraderie of pipe smokers. In everything, I hope to open my whole life and all my experiences to the most fully human expression possible.
Failing all that, I know I will end up stuffing my face with half a bag of potato chips instead, and that's no good. This process of working toward fully-orbed, human experiences in even the smallest and simplest things serves as an inoculation against the tendency to settle for cheap and easy substitutes on any level.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." - Henry David Thoreau