State of Nature, State of Mind Pt III — A guest-post by Barry Zellen

Concluding thoughts from our March featured author, Barry Zellen.

During the last few years, I published what started out as a trilogy on how the Arctic has transformed and modernized, as the two worlds collided: the modern, globalizing world, and the traditional, indigenous world. Along the Arctic coastal plain, and Canada’s high northern archipelago, this collision of modernity and tradition has been one of the final chapters in the expansion of the modern state, a half-millennium journey of which we get a front row seat to the final chapter. The expansion started out brutal, a conquest by war and later treaty, an imposition of alien values, and the oppression of memory and language. But as time flowed, the conquest shifted in style and tone, as culture, language, and identity began to mix into something new. What was once European became Americanized, and what was now American began to modernize and mature, growing confident in itself and becoming more sensitive to its many distinct voices, past and present. While the journey is ongoing, and my trilogy completed, I realized I left one piece of the puzzle unexamined.

That piece is really a story of philosophy: that commonly referred to as the “state of nature.” When philosophy re-emerged during the Renaissance amidst a fractious but increasingly secular chaos, and medievalism surrendered to the rise of the modern state, many grappled with the fundamental question of humanity: what is our fundamental nature? Men like Hobbes feared the worst, while Locke and Rousseau hoped for the best. Even now, echoes of their ideas play out in the TV show Lost, where characters named for history’s greatest state of nature theorists are thrust onto a tropical island not unlike that explored by Huxley in his final novel, or more darkly by Wells on his lost island where Dr. Moreau darkly reversed evolution in order to unmask the human soul. Which island are we on? One of darkness and despair, or one of light – or a bittersweet mix of the two?

We of the North, newcomers and oldtimers alike, have a special insight into these essential questions of humanity’s essence. We are closer to nature, inspired by its presence, humbled by its power, and blessed by a remarkable mixture of peoples, some whose roots to this land date back millennia, others like myself still newcomers, still in awe that so special a place can exist. So in my newest book project, I’m revisiting these classic works that address the riddle of the state of nature, wondering if a mix of philosophy, and fiction, and traditional myth and legend, might shed some light on who we are, and where we’re from – and more importantly, where we might be going.

Thanks to Barry for joining us here at 49writers. He’ll be stopping by again with a post in mid-April.

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