On sanity

Mens sana in corpore sano.
(A healthy mind in a healthy body.)

Juvenal, Satires, X

You need to be quite careful when quoting Roman satirists. My old school, for instance, had a motto taken from the poet Martial: “Quas dederis solas semper habebis opes” – “Only those riches you have given [to others] will be yours forever” – which sounds terrific until you learn that Martial wrote it in the hope of getting money out of someone. Context is everything.

In the context of Juvenal’s poem, mens sana in corpore sano is just one of a list of things he claims are not good in themselves; they may be desirable, other things being equal, but his point is that other things generally aren’t equal. This was a philosophical commonplace of his time, in the Stoic tradition. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Stoicism is making something of a comeback these days.

After all, healthy minds and bodies are in short supply these days in the industrialised world. Let’s look at bodily health first.

Most of us mostly eat the fruits of industrial agriculture, often after further industrial processing – what Michael Pollan has elegantly characterised as “edible food-like substances.” These products are absurdly deficient in nutrients, addictive, and in many cases actively productive of disease. Many years ago, the Canadian dentist Weston Price looked into the relationship between diet and health – initially with a focus on dental health, as you might expect, but then more broadly. He compared people eating a wide variety of indigenous diets with those consuming the products of industrial civilisation, His conclusions can be summarised as follows: there is a wide range of diets that people can eat and be healthy on, but the industrial diet isn’t one of them. He would not have been remotely surprised to see the epidemic levels of obesity and related illnesses such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes that we see today; indeed he observed this in his own researches back in the 1930s.

On top of that, we swim in a sea of bizarre chemicals that human bodies never evolved to cope with (not to mention electromagnetic radiation, which is a whole other conversation). It may be pure chance that this has coincided with massive increases in cancers of various kinds, but I’m not inclined to think so. People will tell you that increases in cancer are merely the effect of people living longer; well, bowel cancer used to be considered a disease of older people, and is now increasingly affecting much younger people than it used to. Contrary to what you may believe, people in the Bad Old Days used to live into their twenties and thirties; they weren’t going down with bowel cancer at that age, so how come we are?

But these things are perhaps less of an imminent peril than the mental health emergency.

I’m not talking here about depression, although that is what is normally meant by this. It’s said, for instance, that 10% of Americans are on anti-depressants of one sort or another. But there is a lot to be depressed about these days, and I’m reluctant to conclude that feeling sad about the ongoing collapse of our way of life is somehow illegitimate; that’s the sort of thing that got psychiatry a bad name in the Soviet Union.

What concerns me more is the apparent inability of so many people to connect with, let alone grapple with, the reality of our situation. I understand their reluctance, up to a point, but only up to a point. When the USS Indianapolis went down in 1945, nobody aboard was in denial about sharks. By contrast, at the moment almost everyone seems to be in denial about the fragility of the physical basis of our civilisation.

There is the odd exception. Take this recent article about the possible effects a shortage of gas might have on the operation of the vast BASF chemical plant at Ludwigshafen. I had never heard of the place before I read the article, but I was in no way surprised at its existence, because it is the kind of thing our civilisation produces: massive in scale, tightly-coupled, and completely lacking in resilience. This place depends on gas both as an energy source and as feedstock, and its products are many and varied, including several we will struggle to do without, including fertilizer, AdBlue, and (hilariously) carbon dioxide.

The Ludwigshafen complex has been running 24/7 since the 1960s, and nobody is quite sure what will happen if BASF are obliged to shut it down, which they will be if gas supplies fall below a certain level. It is entirely possible that parts of it may not start up again. Certainly it is the case that things like glass-making furnaces are designed to run continuously, and are likely to break if the power is shut off and they therefore cool down.

The very fact that we do things this way is evidence for a kind of collective insanity. On an individual level, however, we don’t seem to be doing much better. Part of this may just be down to failures in the educational system, which no longer seems to be even trying to inculcate critical thinking about, well, anything. Certainly it seems to be turning out people who, if not technically illiterate, are unable to scale a “wall of text” with any confidence.

There’s no quick fix for any of this. We are all just going to have to muddle through as best we can. Will we be fit enough in mind and body to deal with what is coming down the road? Only time will tell, but for many of us – myself included – the omens aren’t looking too good.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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