By Roland Watson

At the beginning of this series, I described the rise of the modern world. In this article, I will explore more deeply some of the differences that exist between traditional societies and modern.


There are of course many differences here. For one thing, traditional culture experienced only a slow rate of change. Even with the harsh conditions of life on the planet, it worked. It was a system in equilibrium. This is a quote from the author Michael Crighton.

"Thirty thousand years ago, when men were doing cave paintings at Lascoux, they worked twenty hours a week to provide themselves with food and shelter and clothing. The rest of the time, they could play, or sleep, or do whatever they wanted. And they lived in a natural world, with clean air, clean water, beautiful trees and sunsets."

To a modern ear, that sounds idyllic. And, since I personally have lived in a traditional community, I also know that it is. It really is. Life is regularly demanding, of course, but many times, certainly much more than in a modern lifestyle, it is relaxed and peaceful.

A traditional life was - it is, for the traditional communities that remain - lived outside, not in buildings. You are only inside, under a shelter, to sleep. And, there is continuous social contact. People work together in the fields - farming is a common occupation, and when they get home, they keep their houses open. Everyone regularly visits their neighbors. Meals are often a communal affair.

Husbands and wives also spend a lot of time - most of the day - together, and with their children. And, during the long periods when the crops are growing, the people devote themselves to leisure, or crafts, or collectively to accomplishing communal goals.


Now, thanks to the industrial revolution, we have created a world that is characterized by a great rate of change, a world that is, at the moment, out of equilibrium. There is also much evidence that we have created a world that is too complex for our nature and abilities. We appear to be inadequate in the face of its demands, given our current state of evolution.

Ours is a technological world, and this has effectively divorced us from our traditional circumstances: from nature, and from each other. Many people live in cities, more and more every year, and work in offices and factories. They are not involved in making their own dwellings, or in producing their own food and clothing. Social contact with others is intermittent and shallow.

The pattern of death

There are other differences between the traditional and the modern world as well, one of which relates to death. The flow of death, or of one's exposure to it - to other people and living things dying - is far different in a traditional village than it is in a developed society. I can also add that even cities in traditional societies are not like modern cities. They are more like collections of small villages. As you move from one neighborhood to the next, it is like traveling from one self-contained village to another.

In traditional villages, you regularly witness the killing of animals for food, or even kill them yourself. In addition, even though the average life expectancy in a village now approaches that of modern society, many more people die young.

This is because traditional lifestyles are somewhat more dangerous - there are greater chances of having an accident, but also because many traditional communities still have poor education, and good education itself provides a safeguard against accidents.

There is also a different system for dealing with death, meaning of people. When someone approaches death, or actually dies, everyone in the village hears about it and gets involved, first by visiting the person if they are gravely ill - if they did not die in an accident - and then by attending their wake, and cremation or burial.

This pattern shapes one's views, subtly but strongly. Death in such an environment is more accepted as a part of life, and as inevitable, since it is confronted more frequently. Of course, this doesn't make it any easier. Death is still death.

The provision of care

A related difference between traditional and modern is in the caring functions of society: the ways in which people in need of assistance, including the elderly and the unwell, are helped.

In traditional societies, these services are given by your family, by other members of the local community, by local clinics, and if need be by regional hospitals. Indeed, in such communities many people are often willing to help, if only in small ways.

In the modern world, though, such care is provided by large and impersonal institutions, albeit with the latest technology.

Other differences

Another significant difference between traditional and modern is that in the former people appear more willing to share, beginning with their labor. For example, if someone wants to harvest their fields, their friends join in to help. The field owner in turn provides dinner for the workers, and perhaps a share of the harvest.

What these and similar practices do is create an environment that somewhat de-emphasizes the idea of private ownership, compared to the modern world. Many more things are effectively viewed as commons. Indeed, the shift from traditional to modern, and the related development from communal to private, meant that in many cases sharing, where you could take what you needed, became theft.

A final aspect of our traditional lifestyle was that we regularly saw the night sky, the vast expanse of the universe and its stars. This is what led us to speculate about the mystery of creation, and it actually tempered our chauvinism. We were only a small and quite possibly insignificant part of the universe.

But, with the formation of towns and cities through urban migration, coupled with electricity generation and the invention of the light bulb, we lost this view, and perspective.

And, coupled with another outcome of technology, the idea that we could control nature - which was also our first step away from the view that we were part of it - this led to a great increase in our chauvinism, that the only thing that mattered was us.

However, the picture is of course not completely one-sided. Many modern toys are fun, and modern life is in some ways easier and more convenient. Moreover, and more importantly, modern culture has shifted the emphasis to the individual. It requires that we make our own choices - although I would add that this occurs in the context of heavy social promotion of a particular set of choices.

Next, the modern world also rewards originality, creativity and excellence, but again, this is only sometimes, such as when they do not get in the way of nepotism.

Traditional culture, on the other hand, has its own problems. As an article by Sujit Wongthes that I once read said, in its focus on community, traditional cultures have less room for the individual. In some cases they even reward mediocrity, the idea that no one should shine.

So, and in conclusion, which is best? Personally, I haven't a clue. I like both. But, for you, you can be modern, or traditional, and you don't even have to leave your home to do it. The world is becoming so diverse. You can pursue either style of life in many if not most places.

I just wanted to show that both types of lives have benefits, and costs. You have to decide which is right for you.

In the next article, I will explore the idea of culture.

© Roland Watson 2014