From the notebook of Friedrich Nietzsche, autumn 1887:
‘Modernity‘, using the metaphor of feeding and digestion.
Sensibility unutterably more excitable ( – the increase in excitability dressed in moralistic finery as the increase of compassion – ), the abundance of disparate impressions greater than ever before – the cosmopolitanism of dishes, of literatures, newspapers, forms, tastes, even landscapes, etc.
The tempo of this influx is prestissimo [extremely fast]; the impressions efface each other; one instinctively resists taking something in, taking something deeply, ‘digesting’ something. This results in a weakening of the digestive power. A kind of adaptation to this overload of impressions occurs: man forgets how to act and now only re-acts to stimuli from outside. He spends his force partly in appropriation, partly in defense, partly in responding.
Nietzsche was the diagnostician of modernity par excellence, and here he foresees the condition of 21st century humanity with remarkable prescience. To better understand the metaphor he employs, we can refer to the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff.
Gurdjieff taught that man takes in three different types of ‘food’, ranging from gross to subtle. The grossest form is food and water, taken in through the mouth. A subtler form of ‘food’ is air, taken in through the nose. The most subtle form of ‘food’ is sensory impressions, taken in through the senses. In each case, the organism must ‘digest’ what is taken in, such that it can separate what it can use from what it cannot, transmute the usable into energy, and excrete the unusable. In each case, if this process is hindered in some way, the organism will become ill. The basic forms of illness are: constipation, diarrhea, malabsorption, or poisoning.
Applying this understanding to an examination of the modern world, we can see that all three forms of ‘food’ have become polluted in the present age. Our water supplies are increasingly scarce and impure. Our food is increasingly tainted with chemicals and preservatives, and traditional wisdom on the subtle properties of foods is lost not only to modern people in general, but even to modern doctors, most of whom are scandalously ignorant of even basic nutritional knowledge. Our air is likewise polluted by factories, automobiles, and other industrial by-products.
While much has been written of the pollution of the earth, water, and air, not much attention has been given to the pollution of space – the space of our minds – by a bombardment of mostly useless information and stimuli. Consider that two hundred years ago, there was no television, no computers, no radio, and no electricity; and this is how ALL of our ancestors lived until the very recent development of these technologies, which have increased the quantity but lowered the quality of the sensory impressions we take in. So many sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes … most of it just so much junk food.
We can also include the faculty of the mind which processes ideas and concepts, and consider the sheer enormity of garbage it must wade through in search of real knowledge and wisdom. On the one hand, once-secret teachings of Tradition are now available free to all on the internet, in the library and in bookstores. On the other hand, these teachings are surrounded by propaganda, errors, distractions, and outright lies, all claiming equal validity. Thus, the seeker looks for gold not amidst dirt and dust, but amidst countless pieces of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) shining deceptively.
Because of these radical changes brought about by modernity, human beings suffer an epidemic of digestive ailments. On the grossest level, we suffer from obesity, ulcers, IBS, and a plague of other diseases. On a subtler level, there is asthma, emphysema, and lung cancer. And on the still subtler level, there is the zombie-like confused stupor of a populace so numbed by meaningless bits of sense data that it can no longer think clearly even about commonplace things, let alone contemplate finer and higher aspects of existence. And as Nietzsche notes, it can no longer act, but only re-act, because it has lost touch with the deep center from which true action originates.
To begin to combat this sorry state of affairs, to ‘revolt against the modern world,’ one can begin by regulating one’s intake of food, on all three levels, and thereby strengthening one’s digestive ability, by learning to distinguish between that which is nourishing and that which is harmful and indigestible. One can pay attention to quality: of food and water, of air, and of information and sensation.
What, then, is the difference between the modern world and the world of Tradition? In the world of Tradition, the food was much better.