Facebook, Airplanes, and the Fully Human Life

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with a friend—via Facebook message, of course—about the pros and cons of social media. We have all of the basic conservative, intellectually inclined, Christian, rooted-in-Western-civilization stuff in common, so in general the conversation proceeded along fairly predictable lines.

Social media are problematic because they tend to replace genuine human relationships, which grow out of common experiences and life lived together, with virtual ones, maintained through wall posts and status updates. On the other hand, networking websites like Facebook and Twitter can foster already existing relationships, helping friends and family separated by geography communicate with each other in real time. So social media can be helpful tools, but they need to be used properly; it’s okay to be friends with your mom on Facebook, but it’s not okay if that’s your only interaction with her, et cetera et cetera and so forth. It was an interesting intellectual exercise, but for the most part, we’ve heard this all before.

In the course of the conversation, however, my friend made an almost offhand observation that made me think about the whole problem in a new context. The best reason for using platforms like Facebook, he pointed out, is to buttress the communal and familial bonds that have been weakened, not by neglect, but by the novel but now universally accepted fact of geographical separation.

How completely right is that? Sure, people have always traveled (cf. Marco Polo and that Odysseus guy), and at times entire populations have moved from one place to another. All the same, the practice of spending one’s entire adult life at a significant distance from one’s birthplace has certainly not been the norm for most of human history. I’m not sure whether to blame the train, the automobile, or the airplane, but somewhere along the line, modernity brought Facebook upon itself.

So the unavoidable maxim of philosophy—the one about going back to first principles—strikes again. The problem isn’t that social media corrodes human relationships; the problem is that humans live so far away from one another. I am as guilty of this as the next person, and probably more so. After living for eighteen years in the same town—in the same house, actually—I chose a college 1500 miles away from home, went abroad for a semester, and will move, in a couple of weeks, for the third time since graduation. I fly home to visit as often as possible, but doesn’t that just emphasize my point? I have to get on a plane to see my family. I don’t live there anymore.

Before you stone me, tell me this: what else was I supposed to do? I love my roots; it’s not like I was trying to run from them. But I could not possibly have obtained the kind of education I did if I had stayed close to my parents, and now that I’ve got it, I couldn’t possibly use my education if I were to go back there. Actually, since they live in southeast Michigan, I might not be able to get a job at all.

At the risk of balancing an entire argument on extrapolations from my personal experience, I think it’s fair to say that a decent chunk of my generation finds itself in circumstances not very different from mine. We move—across the state, across the country, around the world—not because we hate our roots, but because we need something that our birthplaces can’t provide. I’m trying to think of a truly educated twenty-something who has never had to leave his hometown to pursue that education. I’m sure such people exist, but at the moment I’m not sure I know any of them.

Aristotle says that the best human life requires the city: a complete association of associations, in which men share life together for the sake of their common good. As long as the city can provide everything each citizen needs for the fulfillment of his telos, it’s doing its job. The problem with this in the twenty-first century is that very often a man’s birthplace cannot even afford him employment, much less the education required to live a life of intellectual and moral virtue. At some level, the city is failing us.

So here’s the dilemma: The existence of the city entails life lived together, which implies some limit on the geographical size of the city; slapping a label on the continental United States that says “The City” won’t wash. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be a way for an Aristotle-sized human settlement to provide its residents with all the elements of a fully human life—education, for example, or even employment.

I might be missing something, but as far as I can see, there are only two possibilities from here. Option one: human progress has brought us to a point the kind of city envisioned by Aristotle is impossible in contemporary circumstances. Life is too complex and the world is too large for us to live in communities, and advances in communications and transportation technology are the only means by which we can cling to our roots. Option two: we’re wrong, at least partially, about what is really required for a fully human life. Cultural consensus to the contrary notwithstanding, perhaps some parts of the great body of change we have embraced as progress are in fact not progress, and instead of moving us closer to our end they have led us off the right track completely. At which point, as Lewis so sensibly points out, the shortest and best way to the real goal is to turn around and go back until we are once again on the path to true human fulfillment.

I can’t be sure which alternative is closer to the truth, but I’ve got my money—and my hope—pinned on the second.


  • January 14, 2010

    Brian Brown

    “I’m trying to think of a truly educated twenty-something who has never had to leave his hometown to pursue that education.”

    I think this need transcends our era–history is full of stories of great men who left home to study at some great place of learning, from Plato’s Academy to Renaissance artists going to study under a master, or for that matter even monks going to (among other things) study at a monastery. This has come partly because the Western liberal arts education is inherently universal, thus requiring a collection of great masters, arguably ideally from different cultures (such as the group Charlemagne put together). The city has never had a problem providing this–but small towns and suburbs are, of course, ill-equipped to do so, forcing ambitious young people who want such an education to leave home to obtain it.

    Of course, such people throughout Western history have found that once they get that education, they don’t soon want to leave places that are populated by other people who have it (such as universities and major cities). They’d rather be a small fish in a big pond, partly for the company and partly because their Western universal educations have taught them to look down on their backwards or sleepy little hometowns. So towns that sent their prize young mind off to the university so that he could come back and help them are often disappointed, probably more frequently now than in the past.

    Perhaps part of the difference is that in the past, only the fortunate few pursued higher-level educations, whereas today it is a prerequisite for society’s respect. So while maybe the problem is a tradition of overly Platonic educations that fail to tie the universal back to the local and particular, maybe the problem (going back to your broader thesis) is that we are failing to adjust to increased prosperity and opportunity. If the problem is not a specific flaw in the Western theory of education, I wonder how we should have adapted the Western liberal arts education to these conditions–because at least with regard to this issue, clearly a more German-style, even more universal mass education was not the answer.

  • January 14, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    A semi-contrarian argument for the first option:
    Aristotle did not envision an abstract community, so much as explain truths he could figure out, extrapolate, and dichotomize from his own city. And he universalized this. Something about the nature of conservatism allows us to reap truths from new situations as they come up, and our experience accumulates so as to furnish better material for theoria.
    Is there something to be learned from modern portability? Something not purely negative? Something deep in me, somewhere past Russell Kirk and nearer Peter Viereck, says yes. What that could be, is less clear.
    Do humans need community to be fully human? Of course. But just as contemplation complements discourse, as solitary prayer enlivens communal worship, as the ineffable profundity of the self is as divinely writ as the bustling articulations of the community – so discovery and self-assertion must have a place at the great feast of human nature along with Place and shared experience.
    But actually, conservatism itself may tell us something about the desire to move around, to search. As I have talked about elsewhere on this blog, part of the conservative insistence is that people need to apprehend the world around them. This is why community, and life, ought to be intelligible, and why the modern city is barely like the much smaller Aristotelian polis. We must apprehend, because we must perceive the human-ness of our interactions with the world.
    But one difficulty with the isolated town is that people do not apprehend even the town they are in. They may take ownership … but the closed system will likely cut out various aspects of human nature, and their traditionalism will lead them to protect many bad things along with the good things. They will also reject the bad along with the good, as long as it is exogenous. Discernment of our own communities requires some fluidity between them, and apprehension of the maximum of our nature is going to require some admission of the scarier, because less constrained by community norms, desires.
    There are bad reasons for leaving home. But there are also good ones.

  • January 18, 2010

    Facebook Friend

    Very interesting post. With regard to the question of facebook and communication, I think there may be more going on than either facebook replacing (bad) or facebook supplementing (good) real friendships. I think it’s possible that things like facebook (and the telephone, email, etc.) can actually change the nature of friendships themselves. This could be for better or worse. So I think the typical explanation of technology as a “tool” which supports static human relationships misses a crucial aspect of (at least modern) technology. The modes through which we communicate themselves determine the landscape and possibilities of the relationship being mediated. Aristotle recognized this when he argued that the best friendships are had by those who actually live and share life together. The “mode” of actually living together allows for the full telos of a relationship to be achieved. What does the mode of facebook allow (and preclude)?

    Also, I think you hit on a crucial question: at what level of modern human association does the polity truly reside? The city? State? Nation? As you pointed out, the answer to this question must be bound up with what constitutes the fully human life. If the good life requires advanced degrees for all, well then it looks like local living is impractical and we will have to embrace the fact of separated families. As you suggested, though, perhaps what we moderns take to be essentials of the good life (things like advanced education, the freedom to choose among almost limitless job possibilities, obligations to “make a difference in the world,” etc.) are actually accidental to the good life (or perhaps even downright corrosive of it). If this were true, then the city (or local community) starts to look more viable as the locus of the polity. Though at significant cost.

    Of course, there’s much more to the problem of city-state vs. nation-state. Given modern warfare and the nature of defense, will the city ever again be viable as a defensible political unit (one necessary characteristic of a true polity)? Given the nature of modern economies, will the city ever again be self-sufficient (another essential characteristic)? Also, given that we moderns generally no longer see our goods as inextricably bound up with the common good of the community, even if the modern hurdles to a city-state could be overcome, would this kind of polity be possible when the majority of its citizens fail to understand and embrace the importance of a political common good?

    These kind of difficulties make the viability of a modern “city/community-state” very questionable. However, this doesn’t mean the nation-state is any more viable. Certainly the nation-state has what it takes with regard to defense and self-sufficiency (though even these are less sure these days). But given that the vast majority if its citizens are strangers, and given the incredible, seemingly intractable differences among them, what could the common good of a nation-state possibly look like? And how on earth would we work toward it? Especially when the founding principles of modern nation-states almost explicitly preclude the possibility of a common good (settling instead for the protection of basic rights to be and do whatever we want, finding our fulfillment in ourselves and our own actualized freedom). As difficult as it is to conceive of how the modern nation-state could have a common good (and thus be a viable candidate for the locus of the modern polity), it seems that we are stuck with the nation-state. We’d better make do. Somehow.