The Big Question: what's the opium of the people? The MP Rory Stewart believes we have gone from ancestor worship to descendant worship
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2013
If a Roman senator’s opium was his public life, a Viking’s was battle. Our ancestors have been addicted to honour, craved virtue and wealth, been hooked on conquest, on adventure, and on God. But ours is the first civilisation to find its deepest fulfilment in its descendants. Our opium is our children.
We’re all familiar with the results. There is the greater dismay we seem to feel at youth unemployment than at the poverty of pensioners, although some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve witnessed have been in the homes of the elderly. There is the way that older people are expected to give far more to voluntary organisations. We assume that the over-65s will take on almost the entire burden of supporting political parties, for which the young occasionally vote, and of maintaining the churches in which the young like to marry. We accept too easily that the young should not be called upon to carry the burden of sustaining communities because "their lives are too busy".
People who might once have been public figures, deeply invested in their work, are instead busy serving their children. Ours is a culture not of ancestor worship but of descendant worship. Children must sense that nothing an adult does is more important than their own desires. All political questions seem to come down to the interests of "the next generation".
I am reminded of the philosopher who was informed by a lady that the world rested on a turtle. When asked what the turtle rested on, she replied it was "turtles all the way down". Our purpose is our children, whose purpose is their children. And so on. Each generation more important than the one before. Generation after generation, all the way down.
This seems a self-defeating, infinite regression. I’d prefer our opium to be the struggle to create a living civilisation, which might daunt even our descendants. We should seek to emulate previous generations. Our obligation cannot be uniquely to the young, and those yet to be born. It is also to the living, and to the dead.
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Rory Stewart is a British MP and a former soldier who spent two years walking across Asia. He is the co-author of "Can Intervention Work?"