Madness and the Demise of Common Sense

painting by untitled blue on flickr – Acrylic on 4 Canvas: 125x90cm

On a recent errand to acquire a bottle of aspirin from the neighborhood drug store, (never actually having set foot in the place previously,) as I walked through the door, I was immediately seized by an overwhelming desire to check the sign out front again to make sure I entered the right building! What I assumed was a place to buy medicine and health care products now appeared to be a Wal-Mart. Looking around briefly, I was tempted to ask directions to the pharmacy. Refusing to be intimidated, I walked past the lawn chairs, gift wrapping, housewares, videos, toys, and food, eventually ending up in the part of the store where one could find over-the-counter medicine. After a minute or two of further searching, I ended up in the aisle containing aspirin.

Easily forty feet long, what looked like a row in an aspirin warehouse contained hundreds of boxes of analgesics, with innumerable varieties of additives designed for every contingency of illness, except perhaps for the anxiety produced by too many choices.


Mike Kemp/Getty Images

Finding a particular brand, if you knew which one you wanted, was only marginally easier than deciding on a brand if you didn’t know. Cost-conscious consumers would have it a little easier, only having to choose amongst the generic versions of every brand name, knocking the search down by half. At that point you need only narrow your selection to small, medium, or large bottle; liquid or gel-tabs; chewable or time-release capsules; coated or plain. If you read labels you may have to spend the night! Of course, this is possible since the store is open twenty-four hours a day. What led to this madness? How did we get diverted from the relative simplicity of life a hundred years ago, to the virtually limitless chaos of modern life?

Common sense, long ago revered as the most important form of everyday reasoning, seems to have all but vanished from modern life in the 21st century. So diverse are we that finding something in common with even most of us may be unreachable. Ask people what is meant by common sense, and you will inevitably get no consensus. In a very unscientific survey of a dozen diverse men and women in different departments of my own workplace produced twelve remarkably different responses. Here are the results of my short survey:

1. What ought to be obvious and sensible to a majority of individuals.
2. The innate ability to reason and find the easiest and most efficient way.
3. What you know instinctively to be the right way to do something.
4. Going along with the norms of society.
5. The ability to think without external guidelines.
6. Knowing right from wrong.
7. The golden rule. Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t do to yourself.
8. Popular opinion
9. The ability to handle life situations and react in a logical, thoughtful process.
10. Native intelligence.
11. Levelheadedness.
12. The understanding of logic.

Unable to find agreement among my contemporaries, I sought out some definitions from established sources. Webster’s dictionary defined it as “sound practical judgment not based on reasoning or special knowledge.” Ralph Waldo Emerson described it as “Genius dressed in its working clothes,” and “the shortest line between two points.” In an essay for the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly in 1857, Oliver Wendell Holmes related a criticism of an old gentleman, responding to a statement Holmes had made, which the gentleman said made him sound, “like a transcendentalist,” and proclaimed that “for his part, common sense was good enough for him.” Holmes then replied, “Precisely so, my dear sir, common sense as you understand it.”

Perhaps the most famous pamphlet in American history was the one entitled, “Common Sense,” published in January of 1776 and written by Thomas Paine advocating a “Declaration for Independence,” by the American colonies. In it, Paine asserted that “the more formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason.” He summed up his view on common sense in this way:

“Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.”

It was a very different world in which Mr. Paine announced his essential description of common sense, and who actually qualified as”wise and able men” is unknown. However, even a brief examination of life in the colonial era shows how the word “common” applied. Life in colonial America was difficult. Many people lost their lives while attempting to adapt to frontier conditions. Compared to our modern standards of scheduled working hours, vacations, and leisure time, the colonist’s lives were bleak and tedious. They worked from dawn to dusk and could not restrict their work to any set number of hours. The needs of simply existing required constant effort. The family unit was paramount, spending time with each other in a way that is virtually unknown today. Most people had so much in common, that “sensible” almost always translated into “self-evident.” These days, we appear to have so little in common that what could be called common before, not longer seems possible.

Recent quantum leaps in the availability of information technology have resulted in an overwhelming volume of possible avenues to explore, presenting an entirely new problem to challenge the survival skills of modern humans. With this landslide of technology, we seem find ourselves slowly being buried under the weight of every new development, and its accompanying library of information. Take a look at any computer or science magazine these days and you will notice a great deal of shouting going on about the latest technological leap. Wizardry that makes Merlin’s magic pale by comparison is now routine. Our mass media is replete with spectacular showcases of special effects and futuristic fanfares designed to dazzle and delight, and anything that does not contain these elements, regardless of its significance, seems to end up somewhere between invisible and absent.

State-of-the-art technologies in the real world, such as those responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle, satellite communications, and the many breakthroughs of modern medical science have long term, permanent, and profound consequences for all of humanity. Already, in the short time it has taken to develop these bodies of knowledge, we have been faced with serious moral and ethical questions. As the pace accelerates, so too does the necessity to search deeper within ourselves for the wisdom to create appropriate responses to them. As we expand our horizons, we expand our understanding, and acquire the raw materials for enlightened social change. We will not be defined so much by the new technologies of the future as we will by our thoughtful and intelligent use of them. Before we plunge headlong into the new and spectacular, we need to be better prepared for the challenges they will present.

Before the greatest ballerina gives her greatest performance, she hones her skills, relentlessly practices her routines, and labors endlessly to be the best she can be. Buying a bottle of aspirin, by comparison, should not require quite as much work. We must find a way to shift our concentration from consumerism and razzle-dazzle, to the urgency to prepare like the great ballerina, for the most important performance in history–our future survival as human beings.