“Traditional society” covers a lot of ground, of course – say, any culture that existed before our modern one. Basically, I’m defining it as life before we began using energy at the breakneck pace we are today, before roads became jammed with cars travelling at high speeds, before modern Hollywood media took over and replaced popular culture, and before people in the modernised West spent their lives sitting in cars or staring at screens. Those things didn’t all happen at the same time – again, 1950s America presents a well-studied intermediate case of a somewhat modernised country whose traditional culture was still vibrant and functioning. Most of the USA, however, was modernised over the first two-thirds of the 20th century, and Ireland modernised only recently.
Dividing human societies into the traditional and the modern means making sweeping statements; obviously cavemen lived differently than Ancient Greeks, who lived differently than American pioneers, who lived differently than 20th century Irish. Of course I’m not saying that all traditional peoples lived the same way, or that any of them were wonderful and without tragedy – and of course some were horrific. I am saying that many of the strange maladies that afflict our modern era were unknown until recently, and that we can learn some things from the generations that came before.
We can make a general list of the ways that our modern society is different than any other that came before – different from the ones humans were made to live in, that we evolved for, that our religions and cultures were designed for. Despite all the superficial differences in language and dress, the world that my elderly neighbours grew up held some things in common with all the generations who came before them. Despite the similarity in accents and dress, there are ways that my elderly neighbours are now separated from their grandchildren in the same village, products of the modern world.
Until recently, for example, few humans spent their lives travelling long distances, except for the occasional sailor or nomad. Even most foraging tribes generally travelled over a limited area, and farming people not at all. Like most traditional people, my Irish neighbours grew up tied to a place, knowing it as they knew themselves, and having a responsibility to keep it healthy, for their grandchildren would be using it. Of course archaeology shows evidence of times and places when humans destroyed the land, often out of ignorance of what they were doing, but more often people lived in the same places for centuries or millennia, which they could not have done if they had not practiced a sustainable kind of management.
Until the last few generations, few people were rootless – even nomadic tribes circulated around a certain area during the year, and were tied to their family. Most modern people tell only the songs and stories manufactured for them by a faraway industry, but traditional people belonged to a landscape and a way of life, to a clan and larger people with their own stories and songs that told of their history. They were part of something, in a way that most people today are not. Even if they were poor, most people did not feel poverty as we might today, for their lives were not spend drifting idly on a sea of strangers.
When my neighbours told me of the history of their place, they described all the local families and their histories, stories of local lords and landowners, rebellions and tragedies, going back to the Middle Ages – and this despite the land being devastated so often by famine and exodus. Memories don’t reach back so far in the USA, but in small towns here, you can see the same pride in the place where they belong.
The children in Ireland today have some of these relationships, but you can see it fading as they relate more to Youtube or the latest global teen fad than they do to elders in the same town. In the USA, where this process has been going on the longest, we think of it as normal – we expect that teenagers will relate to global media fads and not with their families. Most Americans don’t realise that most humans in history did not make the same assumptions about young people, or that across most of the world, where this process is still underway, you can see the local pride and culture disappearing.
Until recently no humans spent their lives staring at glowing rectangles. Many Americans or Europeans today start their day by looking at a hand-held rectangle, spend their work hours moving electrons around a screen, and spend their leisure hours staring at another screen for entertainment. Most of my friends take part in a social circle that consists entirely of icons on a screen, some of whom they’ve never met in person.
Until our era people rarely used money, or needed to. Of course money did not exist in prehistoric days, the first 99.9 per cent of human existence, yet those humans traded with other tribes all the same. Even after the ancient Sumerians invented the first coins, though, few people used or even saw a coin even there, and of course most people on Earth were not in Sumeria. A medieval peasant might never have seen money or needed to use it either, they worked, of course, but to grow food and raise animals, like most humans in any time and place. The giant detour that our work makes – to work for someone else, to get pay, to put in a bank, to withdraw, to spend at stores, with governments and companies taking a cut out of every transaction – didn’t exist.
If it sounds like I’m describing medieval life as idyllic compared to ours, of course they had diseases that we don’t get anymore, and experienced tragedies that we do not. Keep in mind, though, that they worked far fewer hours every week than we do. Also, keep in mind that their work was necessary and meaningful, and often done together as a family – it was time spent with the family, not away from it.
Also, I’m not just comparing our modern world with prehistoric or medieval life, with no spectrum in between. My elderly neighbours here, growing up in Ireland in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, would have had money and used it, and even started their own business enterprises at young ages to get pocket money to spend. Those gave them treats, though; most of what they needed they knew how to produce for themselves. Some tell me they didn’t need to use money more than once a week, and that was small amounts from a hiding place.
To give you an idea of how little they needed money, Ireland in the 1970s saw a bank strike that lasted over a year – across the country, no one could withdraw money for more than a year. Of course, some people used a village credit union, or used the post office as a bank, as Irish people do today. Nonetheless, most people’s money was in banks, no one could withdraw for months, and yet life carried on as normal.
You can even see this to some extent in America in the 1950s and 60s – again, a world further along the spectrum to ours, but still less dependent than we are on a constant money stream. Banks then had tellers, not automatic cash machines, and most people visited them once or twice a week. People went shopping less, and instead of the dizzying number of products our stores carry, shops had staples that people used for cooking, or simple clothes that were more durable. ATMs didn’t exist, but people didn’t need them.
In every society that I know of – except our modern one -- children learned from parents and older relatives, and stayed close to their families until they came of age. In most of those children accompanied their parents as they hunted, ploughed, washed clothes, cooked food and all the other necessities of life, and learned the skills they needed to be adults. Children in more recent centuries went to schools, as my elderly neighbours did, but most countries children could walk to school, were taught by local people who were also part of the community. Most did not do what parents often do today, to send their children away to giant cement compounds to be raised by strangers.
In early America, for that matter, school took fewer hours and often lasted only a third of the year. They did not experience what modern children do, of being warehoused at a desk for 20,000 hours of their formative years. Yet many of those schools taught students far more, at earlier ages, than under our giant bureaucracies.
Until our modern society came along, no people shut their elders away in nursing homes, rarely seen by children and grandchildren and with only the dying for company. In most traditional cultures elderly members of a family lived with their children or relatives, and most religions had some variation of the fourth commandment to honour one’s father and mother. Elders, though weakened in body, had a lifetime of experience that younger generations needed, whether in raising children, dealing with neighbours or handling emergencies. From a position of respect they could pass on the songs and stories of their people, giving children an umbilical link to the generations who came before.
We see the same pattern in other animals with some intelligence and family life; elephants, for example, need the elder members of the herd to keep the younger ones in line and show them how to deal with threats. When park rangers in South Africa introduced young elephants to a new preserve, after the older members of the herd had been killed, they found the young animals made unwise decisions for decades, only slowly learning, through trial and error, the right way to live. For generations many people in America today have grown up in the same situation, without elders to guide them through their lives, until we now have a population of children in adult bodies.
My elderly neighbours grew up raising animals and growing food on homesteads, creating or fixing most of what they needed themselves. Other humans lived in history extracted a living from the earth in other ways, in the Arctic or the Amazon, fishing or farming, hunting or herding. Sometimes people had specific skills in forging metal or working wood, the result of years of training, and had a special place in the community. You might think of an agrarian life as brutal and short – and of course it could be, depending on the circumstances. Remember, though, that medieval peasants worked fewer hours per week than most of us today, and that most of that work was vital and meaningful, with direct consequences for their lives. Moreover, since so many chores were done together as a family, work did not necessarily mean time spent away from loved ones, as it does for us.
Just as most traditional peoples did not spend their work hours staring at a glowing rectangle, so they did not spend their leisure the same way. Children had games that were passed down for centuries – blind-man’s bluff and Johnny jump-up – that are only now disappearing in an age of video-games.
Elders sang songs that told people who they were as a people, told stories of love and loss, of heroes and maidens, tragedy and humour and the human condition. My neighbours grew up with families visiting each other at night, gathering with the local storytellers and musicians, listening to the tales and singing along to folk songs they all knew, which had been passed down through the generations.
The particular songs and stories could be very different from one culture or era to the next, or even one village to the next – those told in rural Ireland in the 1950s could be very different from those told in Mongolia or Namibia or Saskatchewan. All humans in every time and place, however, told stories, sang and danced, told jokes and played games. Until the modern era, no one spent their leisure hours as we do, listening to recordings of other people singing or staring at electronic images of people dancing. Until recently our stories or jokes were made or adapted by people we knew, as part of their relationship with us; now, most of the stories and jokes that you know are manufactured by an industry, commissioned by elites far away, people who do not care about you.
The modern era has changed our friendships as well; almost any humans in history, whether prehistoric tribes or medieval farmers, Hebrew herdsmen or American pioneers, dealt with a community of people outside their family who lived nearby, and had to maintain good relations with them. Small-town people, whether here or in the USA, retain some of this attitude even today; they have to know their neighbours and help out occasionally, as they might need help themselves.
You see the difference in the way my neighbours treat death with the way modern urban people do. When I lived in the modern city and a neighbour died, we found out when an ambulance parked outside, or a new couple moved in where the old lady used to live. Out here in rural Ireland, a neighbour’s death meant girls at the local school without a father, an empty chair at the pub, a voice missing from the hymns at church, a hole in people’s lives.
Such relationships soften our reactions to conflict; the person waiting in line ahead of us might have taken First Communion with us, and might have scored the winning goal in the school’s football match long ago, and might have a tractor we need in case a tree falls over the only road. Again, the details would change from one culture to the next, but every human society would have a web of debt and obligation like this, to temper our reactions to conflict and force us to see other people’s views. Out of enough threads like that, woven together, form a civilised society.
Only in the modern era, for most Westerners today, do “friends” largely mean icons on a screen, whose relationship with you consists of moving electrons around. Today we can “meet,” have “conversations,” “share” news, and even “date,” all without ever having to deal with the inhibiting presence of other humans. We can do these things under fake names and pictures, talking to people we will never meet in person, and say or do whatever we want without fear of consequences. People can appear and disappear from our lives, all without leaving any tangible presence, fading like ghosts when bored.
The modern world has many advantages; until the last century food could be scarce, and even in good years it cost labour and sacrifice. We can thank the Lord that most of us in the West will never know hunger, and that obesity diseases are our main cause of death. At the same time, until the last century no humans ate food that had been flown across the world, packaged in chemical gases to preserve it and simulate a healthy colour. No humans ate food injected with other chemicals to make it more addictive.
Instead, traditional people ate foods they knew, and had picked out of the ground or off a tree. Foods belonged to certain seasons, and tasted like a time and place. Meat came from an animal, hunted or herded, that had just been killed, unless it was salted and smoked. People recognised their food as precious and its sharing as sacred, the stuff of religious ritual.
Until ours came along, all human societies had different roles for men and women, observing that they were not interchangeable beings. Most had rules that bade men to protect women, and demanded that they sacrifice their lives to protect their women’s honour. All had rites of passage to mark when a girl became a woman, and when a boy had proven himself a man. Becoming a young man or maiden – what we today call a “teen” -- did not mean that they would spend even more hours a day warehoused in an institution, or spend their time with gangs of other teenagers in places of maximum temptation; rather, it meant taking on more of the responsibilities of adulthood, preferably with older family and mentors to guide them.
Again, a childhood among the Bushmen or the Vikings would be very different from each other, and both would be very different than American pioneer children or mid-20th-century Irish. Each of these eras had injustice, disease and starvation, just as ours does. My point is that our modern word -- diving, sitting in an office and staring at screens -- is not normal, and not good for you.
Normal people have gardens, and ate from it. Normal people sang with families and friends. Normal people knew their neighbours, told stories, sang hymns, birthed their children and buried their dead. All your ancestors lived very different lives, and not necessarily worse ones. The modernised Western World is taking over Ireland -- of fast-food and billboards, smart phones and highways -- and the people who remember anything else are vanishing with their memories, their world an utterly foreign country to us.