A Hundred Years To Arras

By Jason Cobley

From a Somerset farm to the trenches of France: one man's coming of age through land, love and blood

Monday, 1 June 2020

What makes life meaningful...

I’m not a prolific writer. My main focus at the moment is getting ‘A Hundred Years to Arras’ ready. As I type, we’re at 65% with 176 supporters. Welcome and thank you to those new backers who have joined us since my last update.

The lockdown situation we’re all in has obviously affected the timing of Unbound’s releases, but I don’t want A Hundred Years to carry on funding for a hundred years, so I’m hoping we will reach target very soon. I launched the campaign on my birthday on 7th June last year; I’d like us to reach target as close to this year’s birthday as possible, if only because I like symmetry.

As a key worker, I’ve still been working throughout, mostly from home, but I have been able to find some extra time for reading. One book that has set me thinking is ‘Humankind’ by Rutger Bregman. I was impressed with his ‘Utopia for Realists’ that I read poolside in Barcelona last year, so I was looking forward to this one. Basically, his hypothesis is that we’re wrong about human nature.

Bregman reminds us of two opposing views, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, that have influenced much political and philosophical discourse ever since, giving rise at their extremes to what we think of as capitalism and communism.

Summarised, it’s this: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed in the wickedness of human nature. His view was that we are motivated by fear and the pursuit of power or wealth. This anarchy can only be tamed if we agree to give up our liberty through civil society saving us from our baser instincts. Corporations harness our greed and the result is civilisation. On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) believed that, in our heart of hearts, we are good. He believed that ‘civilisation’ is what ruins us. It is the institutions that we have created that make us wicked. Like the Romantic poets after him, he thought that we were naturally compassionate beings when we were still close to nature, but we have become cynical and self-interested.

Most debates and most literature come down to the opposition between Hobbes and Rousseau.

Bregman also raises a few other questions that I find fascinating:

What is the purpose of education?

If everything comes decided for us, can we still cultivate our own curiosity?

Why do we fight?

The last question is what concerns me the most. Why did soldiers fight in The Great War? Was it for King and Country? Was it to destroy the enemy? Or was it, as so many accounts have shown us, out of friendship?

Thousands of men, thrown together in the mud and cold of the trenches, living and even laughing alongside each other, were fighting for each other. Not for notions of protecting power and wealth. Not for ensuring shared ownership of the means of production. They were motivated by something far more intrinsic than we might have thought.

We are now at a point, over a century later, where many of us are re-evaluating the world we live in. Bregman quotes the American psychologist Edward Deci, who thought “the question should no longer be how to motivate others, but how we shape a society so that people motivate themselves”. Lacking that “intrinsic motivation” is what psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith said is “fuelling and epidemic of depression… a shortage of what makes life meaningful”.

The Tommies in our story don’t find their meaning in fighting over a piece of ground or some high-flown cause. They find their meaning in each other.

Please remind everyone you know about the book so that we can get to 100% and get our story told. With your help, we can get there sooner. I’m finding my meaning in you!

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