Living in the Shallows: The Decline of Thought
As I look upon the desolate landscape of sound bites, tweets and other social media, I cannot help but lament what has happened to our culture.
Almost all Americans have a high school education. And today more people than ever have college degrees. One would expect reading levels to be increasing. Real culture should be flourishing. Yet it’s no secret that people are connecting in ever more primitive ways. Everything must be quick and impulsive. It must be short and abbreviated. We prefer many short bursts back and forth. The message is: Let nothing be profound. Let everything be forgettable.
The message is: Let nothing be profound. Let everything be forgettable.
I blame this trend on the decline of thought.There’s plenty to blame for the downward trend. We’ve dumbed down education. The media have sped up. The culture suffers from the frenetic intemperance of promising everything instantly and easily. It all ends up creating a childish society that tries to avoid effort and depth.
Thought involves the calm observation of reality. A person ponders the surroundings and comes to conclusions that reflect a truth about the nature of things. Thought is profound. It requires an ability to look deeply at things and synthesize what one has seen with clarity and precision. Thought is logically built upon an edifice of premises and conclusions that allow us to take things to their final consequences.
Thought has declined because our habits have declined. We rarely ponder things in our fast-paced world. Everyone wants things now, without thought. The motto of so many virtual platforms today is: Don’t make me think. There’s no time to read, no time to write, no time to organize thoughts.
Thought orders the mind and disciplines our ways. Stripped of thought, life takes a course without depth or direction.
This has resulted in childish behavior. It reflects the infantilization of American society by an all-encompassing government predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century. That’s why we live in a society in which college students use coloring books, grown men play video games, and many simply don’t read beyond short texts and headlines. A snowflake generation has developed without the adult social skills needed to confront reality.
When you’re not in the habit of thinking, your primary focus of life becomes childish and impulsive. You fixate on the idea of having fun. Everything revolves around sentiments, emotions and feelings. We rely on government for entitlements and benefits to support lifestyles detached from reality.
The Absence of Order
The decline of thought is further due to the fact that we live in a world of disorder and distraction. We’re exposed to more chaotic information than we can handle. The average American adult spends over twelve hours a day consuming media that overwhelm and confuse the mind.
Thus, life becomes a fast and distracted jumble of clicks, likes and amusements that fill an exhaustive day. There’s little to no time for deep thought, for concentration.
Thought orders the mind and disciplines our ways. Stripped of thought, life takes a course without depth or direction. Disorder becomes the norm, taking on the nature of an addiction that people crave.
An Unintelligible Universe
There’s one final, and most important, reason why thought has declined. We live in a more and ore materialistic world that does not officially consider God. It’s a random vision of things, in which there are no objective moral standards based on eternal and unchanging truths. If we don’t recognize the order God established in the universe, everything becomes unintelligible.
In an unintelligible universe, all certainties, narratives and purposes are subject to doubt and cynicism. The moral order that Christian civilization and the Church have built up over the ages is dismissed. This affects even the most basic notions of being and identity.
When people don’t recognize the Creator, they take this role upon themselves and self-identify as whatever they wish to be. When there is no faith in a benevolent God, they cannot discern purpose in Creation. When there is no acknowledgment of the fruits of Redemption, our fallen nature weighs heavily upon us.
Such an atmosphere scrambles thought and certitude. Things must then be expressed in the simplest of terms. People lose the ability to deal with abstract thought and its complexities. It inevitably leads to simplistic manners of expression.
Living in the Shallows
The result of all this is that it forces us to live in a virtual zone that author Nicholas Carr ominously calls “the shallows.” Aided by online networks, nothing is received profoundly and consequentially. It is a frustrating world, contrary to our nature. We were created to know and love God. That’s why it must eventually fail. I’m convinced it will fail, because this sad world was foreseen by Our Lady at Fatima in 1917. She also prophesied a return to God and order.
Thus, I believe there will be a day when people will start thinking again. And when that day comes, the practical result will be the ordering of society according to the wisdom of the Church. The world will become intelligible — bristling with meaning and purpose. It will be blessed with ordered leisure. People will recover the sense of wonder, the longing for knowledge and the search for God for which we were created.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker and author of the book Return to Order, as well as the author of hundreds of published articles. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.