Lord of the Flies

by Thomas Stiegler

Our generation seems to have forgotten what its most important task is – to preserve and pass on the foundations of our culture so that the next generation has a foundation on which to build its own sky-high dreams.

For centuries, we were aware of this task and did everything we could to fulfil it. For we knew: only when young people understand the world into which they are thrown will they also be able to find their way in it and build a self-determined and happy life for themselves.

Today we believe we can forget this simple truth.

For instead of educating our children as comprehensively as possible, we propagate ever new teaching concepts and pay homage to an abstract concept of competence that understands the child’s mind as a hard drive that we have to label. But in doing so, we negate everything that once enabled us to build cathedrals, explore space or develop an advanced democracy.

We forget that our culture is a fine web of diverse influences that have evolved throughout our history and cannot be acquired through a few skills. Rather, each generation has to set out anew on the path of dedicating itself to it with love and devotion in order to integrate it into its life.

Far wiser people than I realised this a long time ago. One of them, William Golding, addressed the question in the mid-20th century of what happens when young people grow up without the supports of a culture.

Whether they become “noble savages”, in the spirit of Rousseau, or whether this attempt ends tragically.

In his novel “Lord of the Flies”, he tries to give what he considers a coherent answer to this. Today, this story is known almost exclusively through film, as a superficial tale of the eternal struggle between good and evil.

But the screen only shows us the slick exterior of this parable. Which is perhaps just as well, because deep beneath the surface lie things that, if we were to engage with them, would shake us, shake the very foundations of our beliefs.

I can by no means go into all the levels of this wonderful work here, so I will focus on just one question. And that is what happens, in Golding’s opinion, when an old society is no longer willing to pass on its accumulated knowledge and the lessons of its history to the next generation.

Or rather, when young people are forced to create their own culture on their own because we are no longer willing to go through the pain and effort of defending our values even against ourselves.

Perhaps a brief reminder of the plot of the book.

A plane crash lands a group of children on a deserted island and they are forced to develop a functioning form of living together without the help of adults.

At first, this seems to work, because due to their socialisation within Western civilisation, they refer to the rules and values we are familiar with. But without a higher authority, the thin veneer of culture soon breaks and the law of the strongest prevails.

With all its consequences.

In the book, it is the adult who is missing as a controlling authority for ethical behaviour and who could give the children a framework for their lives. In our society, meanwhile, it is culture and its values themselves that have slipped between our fingers and are therefore missing.

For a culture is not an abstract object that has only antiquarian value. Rather, it is an organic structure that lives and grows and must be filled with meaning anew by each generation so that society does not implode.

However, this cannot happen through a few competencies and a superficial engagement with the works of the past. Rather, it is an intensive engagement with the culturally most important works and a productive preoccupation with our history that enables us to keep our culture and society alive and lead it into the future.

In our highly technological civilisation, it would be above all the book and a mind sharpened by the book that lay a foundation stone we cannot do without. For it is they on which our entire culture is based.

But that is exactly what is no longer happening today. Because without thinking, we have exchanged the entire classical culture (and especially literature) for a few colourful pictures from the internet and some mindless entertainment from television.

Today, at this late hour, many people realise that this was a mistake. They notice the brutalisation of people, the aimlessness of youth and above all the crumbling cohesion in our society.

Because like the children in Golding’s story, we only live in the empty shell of an adopted culture, but no longer fill it with life. And this is precisely the reason, too often concealed, why the signs of disintegration we are all familiar with are becoming more and more apparent.

We should not be surprised that these problems occur especially among the youngest. After all, our generation was still socialised in a way that enabled us to preserve our traditional way of living together and being human. But young people are denied this chance.

For how are they supposed to adopt our values and integrate them into their lives at a time when education, culture, a cultivated language or social togetherness no longer seem desirable to ourselves? Aren’t we virtually forcing them to take their standards from television and the internet and create their own, more humanly reduced culture?

In his book, W. Golding shows us in a vivid way what this development can lead to.

For in his eyes, man is not inherently good, but a being shaped by society that can adapt to all circumstances. And therefore, without a return to the core of what makes us human, we will also create a more humanly reduced world.

Of course, Golding is not saying that humanity as a whole or any kind of culture will disappear. But our Western book culture, with all its wonderful works, philosophies and spiritual concepts, will perish, leaving behind only the ruins of a civilisation in which no one knows how to read any more.

The picture Golding paints of the last “humans” and the role he assigns to the culturally educated in a barbaric world is frightening.

On the one hand, there is Piggy, the precocious “intellectual” who represents the voice of reason. He is the one who has already appropriated the ideas of our culture and is capable of developing them on his own. But in an increasingly barbaric world, he is the first victim upon whom all ridicule and hatred is poured and who must eventually die.

And then there is Ralph, the main character of the book.

He is the one who cannot express what culture and civilisation mean, who does not know what he is actually fighting for and standing up for, but who does it anyway because he burns for certain values with all his soul.

In a world undergoing a cultural upswing, he would be one of the people driving and fuelling this development, whether as a writer, a philosopher or a wise statesman. But in a declining culture, he is the worst enemy. It is better to set fire to an island, better to let the whole world burn, than to understand it as the most important part of life.

In this book, William Golding vividly shows how important culture and education are for any kind of society. For we too live on an island in space and are in the process of burning it down. Albeit in a different way than most people believe today.

But unlike the book, no one will come to save us.

As a final word, I can only add what Golding himself said about his book, which also seems to me to fit the state of our world: “The theme of Lord of the Flies is grief. Nothing but sheer grief, grief, grief.”

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