Can we share even today the same vision of modernity which Durkheim left us by its suicide analysis? or can society ‘surprise us’? The answer to these questions can be inspired by several studies which found that beginning the second half of the twentieth century suicides in western countries more industrialized and modernized do not increase in a constant, linear way as modernization and social fragmentation process increases, as well as Durkheim’s theory seems to lead us to predict. Despite continued modernizing process, they found stabilizing or falling overall suicide rate trends. Therefore, a gradual process of adaptation to the stress of modernization associated to low social integration levels seems to be activated in modern society. Assuming this perspective, the paper highlights as this tendency may be understood in the light of the new concept of social systems as complex adaptive systems, systems which are able to adapt to environmental perturbations and generate as a whole surprising, emergent effects due to nonlinear interactions among their components. So, in the frame of Nonlinear Dynamical System Modeling, we formalize the logic of suicide decision-making process responsible for changes at aggregate level in suicide growth rates by a nonlinear differential equation structured in a logistic way, and in so doing we attempt to capture the mechanism underlying the change process in suicide growth rate and to test the hypothesis that system’s dynamics exhibits a restrained increase process as expression of an adaptation process to the liquidity of social ties in modern society. In particular, a Nonlinear Logistic Map is applied to suicide data in a modern society such as the Italian one from 1875 to 2010. The analytic results, seeming to confirm the idea of the activation of an adaptation process to the liquidity of social ties, constitutes an opportunity for a more general reflection on the current configuration of modern society, by relating the Durkheimian Theory with the Halbwachs’ Theory and most current visions of modernity such as the Baumanian one. Complexity completes the interpretative framework by rooting the generating mechanism of adaptation process in the precondition of a new General Theory of Systems making the non linearity property of social system’s interactions and surprise the functioning and evolution rule of social systems.
Keywords: Modernization and suicide, Social adaptation process, Dissipative structures, Complex adaptive social systems, Social emergence, Nonlinear social interaction system, Emergentist social change process
Current sociological research supports the idea according to which Egoistic suicide is the distinctive product of modernity, showing Durkheim’s acquisitions still valid today. Suicide proves to be the tangible sign of that modernization process that, on one hand, while it contracts the sphere of existence under the authority of traditions and leads toward autonomy, toward personal responsibility and individualism which in itself is desirable, on the other hand, it simultaneously nurses the germs of social malaise identifying its most dangerous manifestations in group disintegration, weakening of primary ties and social isolation. The peculiar aspect of Durkheim lies in having depicted with efficaciousness the dark side of freedom. If it is true that the relentless progress of individualism frees man from tradition’s shackles, it is likewise true that freedom comes at a price, and the price is isolation and even more: paradoxically, it is the loss of one’s identity, the loss of life’s meaning itself or of every reason of existing. Durkheim wrote vivid pages on this aspect of modernity, on the existential void which represents the so called crises of modern man. More specifically, life no longer has any sense because it has no purpose and it has no purpose simply because society—the family, the Church, the Fatherland—have become more and more extraneous to the individual. On one hand, man can no longer do without living according to himself and to his dictates, but, on the other hand, he cannot avoid the thought that efforts of every his activity will end in nothingness since there is no longer anything to which they are directed. In short, for Durkheim the conquest of individualism coincides with the revelation of an illusive ‘happiness’.1
Even if the above is true, however Durkheim Theory raises a question. The question here does not refer to causal impact of social group cohesion degree which is considered an established acquisition in the study of suicide aetiology due to various existing empirical supports available. The question, instead, involves the intensity with which modernization and its disruptive effects on social ties influences suicidal behaviour, consequently explaining suicide rates and their evolution in time. In this regard, the theory seems to suggest a constant, proportional, linear increase of suicides as modernization and social fragmentation progresses. The more modernization levels and therefore weakening of social ties and social isolation increase, the more the individual depends only on himself and recognizes no other rules of conduct than what founded on his private interest. The more egoism increases, the more social isolation, loss of identity and loss of the sense of life itself increase, and the more people commit suicide. Consequently, Durkheimian Theory seems to suggest an interpretation of suicide growth process as susceptible of an progressive, potentially unlimited, increase as modernization increases. Durkheim, of course, never rigorously “formalized” such an idea, but the sense which transpires from his numerous statements seems to leave little doubt. According to Durkheim suicide is a “pathological phenomenon that takes on, day by day, an ever threatening aspect” and it is the Sociologist’s pressing duty to find the means to prevent it (1969 , p. 437).
However, beginning to Halbwachs (1930), more recent studies reveal other different scenarios. In the long run, despite continued modernizing process, several studies, investigating the modernization impact on suicide during a long time frame (from 50 to 100 years and over), found a certain tendency to suicide rates stabilizing (the so called leveling-outeffect) or even falling in the more industrialized Western world, in particular beginning with the second half of the twentieth century.
How, then, can we interpret these findings? We can hypothesize that a gradual process of adaptation to the stresses of modernization associated to low social integration levels seems to be activated in modern society.
This being stated, first this essays assess the impact of Durkheim’s theory regarding the aetiology and epidemiology of suicide in contemporary society. Secondly, it reviews research founding some evidence for a trend toward suicide rates stabilizing or falling in the western countries more industrialized beginning in the second half of the twentieth century and in some countries even in the first half of the 20th. Assuming a long run perspective, the paper highlights as this tendency may be better understood in the light of the new concept of social systems as Complex Adaptive Systems. From this perspective, we hypothesize that the social system, as a whole, is able to self-organizing and adapt spontaneously to modernization increase by exhibiting restrained (non-linear) suicide growth processes, and we root the generating mechanism of this adaptation process in modern society in the non-linearity of social system’s interactions. In the Section titled Anatomy of Suicide we expose the theoretical reasons justifying the modeling suicide decision-making process and, therefore, suicide growth process in a nonlinear way, and in particular in a logistic way. Consequently, we use the Nonlinear Logistic Map in order to model suicide data in a western modern society such as the modern Italian society from 1875 to 2010. According to May, this nonlinear model, expressing a restrained growth process, is the ruleand not the exception in the Social Science field (May 1976, p. 467). We point out that our analysis is complementary to research that ever since Durkheim has attempted to identify the suitable indicators of modernization for measuring the degree of social integration and anomy (i. urbanization rates, divorce rates, unemployment rates, religious commitment) and to correlate these indicators with suicide rate, concluding that domestic/religious individualism has positive effects on suicide. Although we share this concern, our interest is focused on another very basic point. Assuming the Durkheimian perspective according to which modernization/individualization process impacts on suicide curve and the suicide curve constitutes a tangible sign to make inferences about quality of its effects, in the frame of Nonlinear Dynamical System Modeling we study how the state of suicide population (St) changes in time by formalizing the logic of suicide decision-making process responsible at aggregate level for changes of suicide growth rate by a nonlinear differential equation structured in a logistic way, and in so doing we attempt to capture the mechanism underlying the change process in suicide growth rates (derivatives) and to test the hypothesis that system’s dynamics exhibits on the whole an restrained increase process both in suicide growth rates and, consequently, in integrative suicide population as expression of an adaptation process to the liquidity of social ties in modern society. From this perspective, the suicide dynamical analysis becomes an opportunity for a more general reflection on the current configuration of modern society, by relating the Durkheimian Theory with most current visions of modernity such as the Baumanian one.
Etiology and epidemiology of suicide in modern contemporary society: Macro Durkheimian Suicidology and its social implications
What is more intimately personal and unique than suicide act? The study of suicide as an act of individual volition investigates single subjective motivations and reconstructs the psychological framework within which extreme suicide decision matures. The motivational study of the suicide act attributes to the general category of loss (accidents in private life such as loss of a dear one, of a beloved, loss of financial stability, of work, and so on) and to the corresponding feelings of hopelessness, of failure and self inadequacy, the direct underlying causes which explain the individual choice of self-destruction. Yet, how can we answer questions such as the following ones: How and why do suicide rates vary over time (increasing after industrialization process) and space? Why do people commit more suicides in certain social environments than in others? How and why do suicides vary among different social categories? Evidently, the answers to these queries cannot be found in the analysis of single individual suicide motivations, too fragmented to account for suicide rate trends alternating pattern of stability and variability for the same society over time and between different societies. Explaining suicide as collective phenomenon (suicide rates vs suicide acts) means therefore to give up an approach oriented to finding simply in the human free will the origin of social phenomena and to recognize the constrictive nature of cultural models in orienting our perceptions and actions, in patterning individual choices and behaviours. So, personal histories and motivations are framed into axiological orientations, that is, into moral states of the collectivity whose reference allows us to account for the variability of suicide over time and space, among social contexts and social categories. These acquisitions, that Sociology takes for granted today, are the most significant and most enduring of the Durkheimian Theory. The causes of suicide are identified in structural social forces operating in terms of the logic of egoism, altruism and anomie. Egoism, altruism and anomie are moral states of a society, collective ways of “feeling, thinking and acting” able to influence the individual and push him to behaviors which are the result of moral pressures rather than a mere and free choice of self-determination.2
In this regard Durkheim’s acquired data induced him to come to a conclusion which is generally shared by everyone today. In modern society suicide is part of a largest process of social change, being the most tangible signal of modernization process. The weakening of social cohesion secreted by the cultural revolution and by modern individualization processes deriving from the development of industrialization explains the rise in suicides rates in modern societies. Differentiation of functions and interests, pluralism of values, weakening of strong shared traditions and transcendent foundations of the social solidarity reflect on the sense of belonging to social groups and individual identity, hindering strong and stable forms of identification and breaking down up social ties such as the familial and religious bonds which in themselves are for Durkheim able to provide a prophylactic effect on suicide. On the hand, the weaker the ties to groups of belonging are, the less the subject “depends on them, becoming the lone head of himself” and following “only those rules of conduct that are based on his own private interests” (Durkheim 1969 , p. 258). On the other hand, however, the cultural emphasis on personal self-fulfillment even to the detriment of the collective interest generates its own suicidal current in so far as it isolates the individual. In Durkheim’s interpretation, the individual is “freer” but “more alone” and pays for his autonomy of evaluation and action that society indirectly concedes him at a very high price. In this interpretation of modern society we can just find the original inspiration of many actual interpretations of contemporary society. From Fromm to Bauman, the paradox of modern man is the dilemmatic relationship between freedom and security. First Durkheim introduces us to paradoxes of modernity by a theory of modern society in which, without any long a sense of moral obligation whatsoever towards the groups of belonging, life becomes meaningless, the individual grabs the reins of his existence in such a way that he becomes master of his destiny and such a master of himself that he can terminate his life if he wants. So suicides increase, while, on the contrary, solidarity with groups that one “loves”, protects from suicide attempts by constituting strong bonds of moral obligation, and a worthy end for every efforts of individual activity. The durkheimian idea that the modern process of individualization affects suicide rates by weakening ties to groups of belonging and that “suicide varies inversely to the degree of integration of social groups of which the individual forms a part” or, more specifically, of religious, domestic and political groups, is now an established idea in sociology (Wray et al. 2011). Current sociological analysis has, in fact, empirically supported general formulations of Durkheim’s Theory, concluding that modern domestic and religious individualism (secularization processes, diffusion of a faith lived out of institutionalized dimensions, progressive decreases in marriage and birth rates and increases in divorce rates) has positive effects on suicide (e.g., Agerbo et al. 2011; Breault 1986; Breault and Kposowa 2000; Cutright et al. 2007; Kposowa 2003; Pescosolido 1990; Rendall et al. 2011; Simpson and Conklin 1989; Stack 1983, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 2000, 2013; Stack and Kposowa 2011).3
From this perspective, EgoisticSuicide, being characterized by a prevalence of individual interest on collective interest, appears the typical suicide of modern individualistic society.4 This concept comes to Durkheim from his analysis of the correlation between suicide rates and the so called social integrator frameworks, such as religion and family, the latter treated under the double aspects of marital status and parental status. This analysis suggested to Durkheim the idea that the family and religion are able to exert a prophylactic action as far as they constitutes “a society” and therefore a value in itself and for itself: values and collective feelings, shared memories, customs and traditions are its foundations, so that the more intense “the collective life” to which one belongs, the stronger is the bond that unites the individual to his domestic and religious community and the preventing effect on suicide. This explained why in modern society a greater religious and domestic individualism determined a suicide increase (Protestants vs Catholics, singles and unmarried vs married, married without children vs married with children, divorcees vs married…).5
As was mentioned above, Durkheim’s acquisitions have been confirmed in various studies throughout time. In this regard, from an epidemiological point of view, the same regularities observed by Durkheim over one hundred years ago still exist today. Statistics today present greatest suicide rates for the same religious groups and marital status that were treated by Durkheim in his sociology study: protestants, singles, childless married couples, widowers, separated and divorced people compared to married couples, divorced males. On the one hand, research has showed that Catholic countries have lower suicide rates than Protestant countries (i.e. Pescosolido and Georgianna 1989; Hood-Williams 1996), marriage is a preserving factor regardless of age and socio-economic status and suicide trends decrease within fertile families (Lorent et al. 2005, in a comparative european study; Rendall et al. 2011). Children play a protective role for the male and the female as well. In fact, married women without offspring have a higher suicide rate than married women with offspring. Therefore, as Durkheim believed, it is the familysociety and not the conjugal society that has a protective role against suicide, and this capacity is greater the more numerous and united the family actually is.6
On the other hand, there is yet another acknowledgement in favor of Durkheim’s theory which is being frequently confirmed today. Much of the discussion of social integration and suicide uses divorce rates as a key indicator of degree of social integration. Even after Stack’s last systematic review (Stack 2000), research has continued to document a strong association between divorce/separation and suicide (Wyder et al. 2009). Investigations based on individual level data showed that divorced people tend to have a higher risk of suicide than married people. For example, divorced Americans tend to have a suicide risk double that of their married counterparts (e.g., Kposowa 2003; Stack and Scourfielf 2013). Investigations based on aggregate-level data found a robust relationship between divorce rates and suicide rates. Confirming the results of preceding investigations (for reviews see Stack 2000), a very recent study conducted on suicide rates in Denmark from 1906 to 2006 offered the strongest support to date in support of a social integration model based on long time seriesdata on suicide and divorce (Agerbo et al. 2011). It found, in fact, that marriages decreased suicide (men seemed to benefit more from marriage than women: a 1 % increase in marriages reduced suicide by 0.77 % for men and by 0.63 % for women) and the trend in divorce, in particular, offered accurate predictions of suicide (total, male and female) throughout the century. In addition to Durkheimian Egoistic suicide conceptualization, data, today as in the past, seem therefore to recall the conceptualization of Anomic suicide and the idea that the different protection that marriage itself ensures to the two genders would then depend on their correspondingly diverse moral constitution.
Anomic Suicide, also typical of modern societies, stems from a loss of society’s moral regulation power. Here, interpretation is influenced by Durkheim’s convictions regarding human nature, a nature capable of unlimited passions which only strict obligatory social rules are able to control, safeguarding life in society. As we know, it refers to the structuring of the collective state on the basis of dominant principles that encourage the individual to transcend and challenge culturally ends and means. Clearly, this does not mean that “ends” and “means” are left to the moral autonomy of the individual rather than to the community, but that they are simply of no regulatory significance. This peculiar axiological configuration produces suicide effects insofar as the weakening of the power of rules, creates a discrepancy between the individual’s aspirations and their satisfaction.7 According to Durkheim, this would explain the increase in suicide rates produced not only by economic downturns but also by “crisis of prosperity” that alter the collective order.8 In this sense, anomic suicide is the most typical suicide of our times, marked by rapid, unregulated and unchecked economic shifts. From this Durkheimian perspective, also conjugal anomie is substantially explained in the same terms as economic anomie because of deregulation between aspirations and satisfactions produced from divorce in the human passionate life. In particular, as far as the two genders are concerned, divorced men are more likely to self-destruct than divorced women because they are more subject to the mentalism of sexual love and therefore more needful of passion regulation.9
As regards economic anomie, economic indicators such as unemployment rates, pro-capita income and gross national product were widely used to test Durkheim’s hypothesis. Some studies found an inverse relationship between suicide rates and economic growth rates (Gross domestic product (GDP per capite) and a positive relationship with unemployment rates (Blakely et al. 2003; Granados 2005; Ying and Chang 2009; Luo et al. 2011; Blasco-Fontesilla 2012; Reeves et al. 2012; De Vogli et al. 2012, 2013). However, divorce, used—we repeat—as indicator both of integration degree of domestic society and of conjugal anomie, and religious affiliation have been found to be the strongest determinants of suicide rates, even while controlling the incidence of a great many economical and modernization factors, such as unemployment rates, income levels, urbanization rates, female worker quotients and population growth rates. According to researchers, this confirms the protective effect of domestic and religious integration (Islamic religion as well, Lester 2006; Stack and Kposowa 2011).
Durkheimian Theory has not been only supported in its direct original formulation. Interestingly, current sociological research has also supported one of the main theories of strong Durkheimian inspiration, the Gibbs and Martin’s Status Integration Theory (1964). Here suicide is correlated to role conflict, to poor status integration and to stress associated with having to face mutually conflicting behavior expectations ending up by compromising stable and long lasting social relationships. Current sociological research on conflicting and statistically infrequent status/role sets (i.e. being a female in the labor force or wife-mother in the labor force) largely confirmed the positive impact of low status integration degree on suicide (i.e. Cutright et al. 2007; Fernquist 2009).
In conclusion, after more than a century, we can still be agree with Breault and Barkey (1982) in stating that Durkheim’s study on causes of suicide as collective phenomenon stands very well over the years. Insofar as a lack of social integration entails at the same time a lack of social regulation as well, Egoisticsuicide appears—we repeat—the typical suicide of modern society. So, sociological analysis of suicide becomes an opportunity for a more general discussion on the relationship between individual and community, individual identity and collective identity, human nature and social normativity. These are relationships addressed by Durkheim, becoming a touchstone for contemporary sociological studies on social integration and social implications of moral individualism. Durkheim masterfully captures the perverse aspects of modern cultural emphasis on individualism, on personal self-fulfillment even to the detriment of collective interests, and attempts to persuade us that social groups cohesion and a strong sense of social belonging are able to offer to each individual an indispensable human environment more than it denies and limits his freedom. For him there is no doubt that strong ties between the individual and society strengthenes the reasons for living, whereas their loss is equivalent to losing the sense of life and identity. Today, a well as for Durkheim, the empirical findings of current research on suicide lead us to the dilemmatic structure of relationship between individual and community. As sociologists, looking at suicide as collective phenomenon means, in fact, looking at the darkest side of freedom, at the unintended consequence of a structuring of society which in itself and for itself possesses however an undeniable ethical value.
Suicide: an emergentist versus a linear approach to social change processes
As was stated above, causal impact of social group cohesion degree on suicide is an established acquisition in the study of suicide aetiology, due to various existing empirical supports available.
However, if it is true that industrial development inflates suicide rates by facilitating social disintegration, nevertheless, the modernization process has been shown to produce with utmost intensity certain pernicious consequences, weakening traditional life systems and sacrificing always more victims on the altar of modernity, especially in the first phase of its development. Beginning to Halbwachs, despite continued modernizing process (i.e. increase of urbanization and divorce rates), several studies investigating the modernization impact on suicide during a long time frame (from 50 to 100 years and over) actually found some evidence for a trend toward a suicide rate stabilizing (leveling-outeffect) or even falling in the western countries more industrialized beginning in the second half of the 20th century and in some countries even in the first half of the 20th. In other words, suicide growth rates seemed not to increase in a constant, linear, proportional way to modernization and social fragmentation process increases.10
Often ignored by current literature, Halbwachs’ Theory (1930) is highly relevant today in interpreting suicides in the our post-modern era. Transcendent in relation to single individual volitions, suicide with Halbwachs remains arguably the distinctive product of modernity. Therefore, his most original contribution to the interpretation of suicide consists in having theorized first an adaptation and suicide rate stabilization process in response to modernization progress in the long run. That is, he sees the growth in sucides as a not unlimited process. In fact, working over a quarter of a century after Durkheim, he found that suicide rates, which had increased in the latter half of XIX° century, tended to stabilize and even decrease in some more idustrialized countries (including England, Belgium, Norway) in the early twentieth century, whereas they tended to increase in countries in initial industrial development, involved in progressive depopulation and weakening of traditions. This process led Halbwachs to assume that, as high levels of economic and social development were reached, each nation would lend itself to a maximum suicide rate (whose variability was cultural and social) which once attained would not be exceeded (1930, pp. 100–104). His Law of Convergence among suicide rates in more industrialized nations (tending to stabilization) and suicide rates in developing nations (tending to increasing) allowed Halbwachs a broader commentary on the effects of industrialization in what we would call the “long term”.11 In the long term the initial shocks of modernization would gradually overcome, and social actors would adapt to the stress deriving from industrial urban society (1930: 484–490). The benefits of industrial-machine production would offset social isolation effects induced by low levels of domestic and religious integration.
Similarly, Krujits (1977) found that the figures for suicide in the centrally located countries of Western Europe and in many countries within Anglo-Saxon culture sphere (i.e. United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) showed a stabilization or decline in the suicide rate after the turn of the nineteenth century where industrialization process was already at its culminating point. According to the author, this was “an indication that industrialized Western World was growing towards a new equilibrium in the first half of the twentieth century” (1977, pp. 55–56).
Thomas and Gunnell (2010) confirmed Kruijt’s finding by analyzing age standardized suicide rates (for age ≥15 years) in England and Wales. They steadily increased from 1861 to reach a peak of about 36.0 in 1905. Rates then decreased in 1917 (during World War I), increasing to reach a second peak in 1934, coinciding with the Great Depression. Subsequently they declined (although these declines were interrupted by small increases in the 1950s and 1980s). The lowest recorded rates were in the 21st century: the lowest male suicide rate (11.6 per 100,000) and the lowest female rate (3.2 per 100,000) was seen in 2007.
In his study on suicide rates in Finland from 1800 to 1984 Stack (1993) found that a 1 % increase in urbanization was associated to a 0.22 % increase in suicide rates when considering nineteenth century rates only and to a 0.12 % increase when considering data from the first half of the 20th. The slope of the modernization and social fragmentation thusly decreased. According to the author, therefore, although a positive impact of modernization on suicide was still observed (the slope was not zero), at the same time there was “some evidence for a trend toward a leveling-out effect” (Stack 1993, p. 145). By using a log-linear Poisson regression model on suicide rates in Denmark from 1906 to 2006, Agerbo et al. (2011) found the parameter associated with the time-trend was negative for both genders (φt = −0.14), which “primarily reflected the declining number of suicides in the later part of the period” (p. 634). Furthermore, the analyses suggested that the impact of divorce on suicide, although found, was declining.
By analyzing suicide rates in 105 countries of the World from 1950 to 2009, Värnik (2012) found generally the suicide trend was downward in Europe and there was no Western European more industrialized states in the world top ten for suicide rate. Suicide mortality has shifted from Western Europe to Eastern Europe and to developing countries of Asia (China and India). Similarly, several studies, by analyzing suicide rates in more industrialized, new and early members of the EU, found overall suicides were stabilizing or falling before the economic crisis in 2008 (i.e. Innamorati et al. 2010).
For our part, by using the modern Bayesian Change-Point Analysis on Italian suicides rates from 1864 to 2005, we found this general trend in Italy before 2008 (Condorelli 2013a). The analysis suggested a Model with 5 change-points: mode at r1, r2, r3, r4, r5 = 13–31–98–121–133 corresponding to 1876–1893–1961–1984–1996. These results showed a very complex scenario. The first change-point (and therefore the ‘first wave’ of suicides) was found just after the feverish triennium, that is the period from 1871 to 1873 in which great industrialization in Italy originates (De Rosa 1980). From the Durkheimian perspective, therefore, this transformation explained the wave of suicides after 1876, 1889, etc. Furthermore, always in accordance with the Durkheim’s theory, suicides reached the lowest values during the World War II and soon afterwards began increasing again until 1961 with the contemporary rise of the industrial production index. However, if until 1961 suicides rates increased as industrial development increased, after 1961 and the economic boom, they declined, and when they began increasing again, after 1984, they did not reach the maximum levels attained formerly, before World War II (suicides steadily increased from 1876 to reach a peak of about 10.5 in 1927 and 10.03 in 1930; rates then decreased and particularly from 1961 to 1984 suicides exhibited a maximum rate of about 5; subsequently from 1984 to 1996 they increased coinciding with Italian monetary and financial crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, and however the maximum peak was of about 7,2 in 1993; from 1996 to 2010 suicides exhibited once again a maximum rate of about 5). From our perspective, the observable change of suicide trend since 1961 showed a dissonance with Durkheim’s theoretical prediction. Increases in economic prosperity and consumption styles seemed to be a deterring factor on suicides. Interestingly, although in Italy from 1995 to 2010 overall suicide mortality rates per 100,000 inhabitants appears on the whole to be decreased (the data, presently available until 2010, allows us to draw only preliminary indications on suicide trend after economic crisis in 2007: from 2005 to 2010 suicide rate seems to remain constant with about 5 suicides on 100,000 inhabitants, ISTAT 2012), there is a trend significantly different if only suicides due to economic reasons are considered. Upon the onset of the financial crisis in 2007, De Vogli et al. (2012, 2013) found suicides due to non economic reasons remained stable, while suicides due to economic reasons increased12. Compared to downward trends in the pre-crisis years, rises in suicides was found in European economies as Greece and Spain after crisis economic from 2007 to 2010 (De Vogli et al. 2013).
In summary, these long-run findings impose an interpretation. From this point of view, we believe that they seem to credit what Halbwachs maintained. In other words, they seem to legitimate the hypothesis of a restrained suicide growth process and therefore to cast in doubt the possibility to find an explanation within the classical conception of social change which assumes all systems, and social system too, as systems being characterized by interactions based on linear proportionality between cause and effect. Instead, from our perspective they may be better understood in the light of the new concept of complex adaptive systems, systems which are composed of several elements interacting in a nonlinear way and, consequentially, subjected to a nonlinear, emergentist process of social change. This new approach had many implications for Social Sciences.
Society as Complex Adaptive System or far from equilibrium system the rejection of linearism and reductionism of Newtonian–Laplacian epistemological paradigm
The concept of social system as complex system is relatively new in Sociology, but it has been from its outset sufficient to reconsidered some aspects of Parsons’ functionalism to which the success of system concept in Sociology is nevertheless due. From this new theoretical perspective, the critical point has been identified in the equilibrium concept considered from Parsons the foundational property of social system such as ordered,stabilized or in equilibrium interweaving of interactions embedded in social structures. Equilibrium as order system state or system stability (steady state), emphasizing the tendency to self-maintaining and returning to a particular state if disturbed, showed in fact to be still influenced by epistemological deterministiclinear Newtonian–Laplacian paradigm of classical science, a paradigm that the New General System Theory (Complexity and Chaos Theory) has today questioned encouraging its critical review in all sciences including Sociology. The more Classical science looked at systems as governed by a linear causality, by proportional relationships of cause and effect, and maintained in stable order by control mechanisms such as negative feedback, liable to ensure prediction and control over events, the more contemporary scientific reflection, matured in the field of Natural Sciences (Physics and Biology), has gradually revealed the limits of the mechanistic and reductionist paradigm imposed by Newtonian Physics. Consequently, the macro-sociological analysis of the social system has proceeded to revise inside the linearity option involved in the structure of social interaction processes, and especially to cancel the claim constituted by the equilibrium concept (Bailey 1984). On the one hand, the revision was needed because the equilibrium concept seemed misleading as it was used by Parsonsian functionalism, alluding inappropriately to a state of order or stability of the system rather than to a state of maximum entropy, maximum disorder or system death according to its more correct scientific meaning established by Thermodynamics. On the other hand, even starting from the consideration that Parsons, as Bailey pointed out (1984), uses the concept of stable or in equilibrium system in the meaning of homeostatic and not static system, the revision was needed because this conception is associated to the idea of a ordered change process, “following a determinate pattern rather than random variability relative to the starting point (moving equilibrium, which is exemplified by growth)” (Parsons and Shils 1951, p. 107), endorsing linear social interaction and change processes. Because of its implications, in neither of the two senses (stability/homeostasis or maximum entropy) equilibrium did it appear however appropriate in describing social systems as far as they are open systems.
After von Bertalanffy (1969), Prigogine and Nicolis (1977), Prigogine and Stengers (1979, 1984), Maturana and Varela (1984) the qualification of real systems as open systems, which exchange information and energy with external environment, has in fact fixed the foundational system properties in an instability condition rather than in the tendency to asymptotic stability or in the tendency to the state of maximum entropy, of maximum disorder with minimal internal differentiation/organization (equilibrium in a thermodynamic sense, which is appropriate in describing closed system but not open systems such as social systems are and we ourselves are, from a biological standpoint and in our cognitive processes as well). This acknowledgement, which in Sociology meant going beyond Parsons’ functionalism (Bailey 1984) without renouncing to a macrosociological analysis of society as a whole, is the central acquisition of the current scientific-epistemological approach to the study of systems as complex systems.
As was said above, the notion of complex systems is relatively new in the Social Sciences, but not in the Natural Sciences. Complexity epistemological paradigm reflects on the structure of the relationship among elements constituting a system. The novelty lies in a dual acknowledgement: the properties of non linearity of interactions among system components (non proportional relationship between cause and effect whereby “small” initial variations in cause may produce “big”, unexpected effects), and the properties of self-organization, adaptive evolution and especially unpredictability of systems in their self-organizing process due to interactional nonlinearity and positive feedback. In brief, looking at systems as complex systems means that they are open systems, made up of many interacting elements in a non-linear way, and far from equilibrium systems (in a thermodynamic sense, namely maximum entropy) or dissipative structures, that is, instable structures, at the edge of chaos (Kauffman 1995; Langton 1990; Waldrop 1992), in an intermediate state between complete order and complete disorder, able, in this intermediate state, to self-organize and evolve for adaptation in response to environmental perturbations, producing emergence, unexpected and unpredictable changes as result of nonlinearity of interactions and positive feedback. So, self-organization refers to the spontaneous emergence of order in complex systems, an order of non-equilibrium but also a non-static, unstable and unpredictable order, different from the state of asymptotic stability assumed from classical science. In a system governed by a linear causality and negative feedback the whole dynamic of evolution tends to go off in a stable order and there is no place for surprise, for unexpected and surprising changes of internal system structures. Instead, in an anti-reductionist perspective, nonlinear interaction among system’s constituent parts creates spontaneously self-organization, new patterns of relationship, a continuously new order, an emergent effect being unexpected, surprising, unpredictable as its properties are properties of the “whole” and not reducible to the sum of individual component behaviours or rather to the sum of individual interactions among components, considered one by one.13
This paradigm, today, enjoys wide diffusion in the Social Sciences as well, due to its ability to describe traits which appear peculiar to social systems as well as physical ones (self-organization, emergence, evolution for adaptation, irregularity and change unpredictability) (Ball 2012), unable, in this case as well, to be comprehended by traditional approaches based on the deterministic linear Newtonian-Laplacian paradigm (Condorelli 2013b). As we said, the macro-sociological analysis of social systems has today no problem in going beyond Parsons’ functionalism and recognizing social systems’ assignment of dissipative structures or adaptive (Miller and Page 2007) and autopoietic complex systems, identifying their properties in being, as open systems, far from equilibrium systems, intermediate between order and disorder (neither too regular and predictable such as crystal molecules nor too random and chaotic such as the molecules of a gas tending toward entropy). They are unstable systems too, but able to adapt to stresses coming from environment by generating spontaneously (from inner guidelines rather than the imposition of form from the outside) self-organization and evolving to a new interaction structure, to a new pattern of social expectations, in a relentless and unpredictable production process of new structures, new communication through communication (Luhmann 1984, 1986).
In the current approach to social system nothing remains of the mechanistic and reductionist epistemological paradigm engendered by Newtonian physics, with its linear determinism (able to ensure instances of predictability and control over events). The new approach to Society as a complex system rejects reductionism and mechanicism, addressing the classic Sociology questions of micro–macro relations (the relationship between system and its parts) from the perspective of systemic connectionism. From this perspective, the interactive relationship does not simply unite the parts like in an aggregate but mixes them up in a super ordered whole. In other words, they become a system in which and through which components are connected to each other and are considered a totality rather than separate entities. The rapport between the parts and the whole, at this point, implies a new determination of causal relationships. The whole influences the parts/components of the system, and every element can act upon the whole and can modify it (bottom-up process), pushing it into a new order, which will be maintained until a new disturbance pushes it to a new and unpredictable evolutionary direction, in a new pattern of social expectations which in turn connects the parts in a new form (up-down process). On one hand, therefore, the self-organization process is a deterministicbottom-up process, on the other hand local interactions, extending to the whole system, generate, as result of nonlinear social interactions and positive feedback, emergent patterns, unpredictable and unexpected global effects which are beyond the intentions of each agent and which can not be explained reducing them at the properties of individual interactions since they constitute an “effect of the system” as a whole, as an organized and dynamic collective entity. In short, this perspective leads to re-specify the classic concept of inherent indeterminacy of human behavior. Complexity approach acknowledges this inherent indeterminacy. However, here this concept is far from meaning that any order or any structural explanation of social life can not be found and that a dice toss is the fundamental engine driving social processes. According to Huckfeldt, for example, this is a epistemological naivety associated with an earlier era (1990, p. 431). “It is mistake”, Huckfeldt noted, “to argue that seemingly infinite complexity is necessarily a repudiation either of deterministic argumentation or of a structural interpretation of social and political life” (Huckfeldt 1990, p. 429). Rather, from complexity perspective, this concept means acknowledging that complex and even seemingly stochastic behaviour can be fully generated by a determinate structure underlying the logic of human behaviour and, therefore, its indeterminacy is just inherent to a particular structural mechanism underlying social interaction processes (cit., p. 429), whose logic revealed now a nonlinear structure. These new idea was synthesized in the deterministicchaos concept. As a result, the goal of social sciences was re-specified as well. From this point of view, Social Sciences have to identify the deterministic structure and logic underlying human behaviour “including the logic and structure of indeterminacy” (cit., p. 431), which therefore should not be longer an metaphysical element but a valuable conceptual tool in the analysis of social life. In other words, today Complexity epistemological paradigm emphasizes the awareness that, although we can not predict social phenomena, we must to attempt to understand underlying mechanisms governing social phenomena by modeling nonlinear social interactions (see also Bak and Chen 1991).
In conclusion, to apply the concept of dissipative structure or complex adaptive system to the study of society means looking at social systems as “inherently historical entities” whose evolution “is driven as much by internal instability as by external perturbation”(Harvey and Reed 1997, p. 306), using environmental feedback for learning and adaptation. And the same conditions of nonlinear interactions or sensitive dependence on initial conditions observed for natural systems is the foundation for their historicity. This realization introduces us to an emergentist conception of social change which celebrates discontinuity and unpredictability and uncertainty of the process (Prigogine 1997) in as much as it is governed by non-linearity underpinning the deterministic mechanism of evolution. Compared to linearism, the directional shift is, therefore, substantial. The more linearism describes social systems implying a process of change where constant proportionality relations between cause and effect (linearity logic, the more… the more, the more… the less) turn out in the conceptualization of a regular and predictable process with linear trend patterns (constant growth/decline parameters) excluding the possibility of irregularities or temporal discontinuity, the more social sciences had to disavow the pervading existence of these social change processes. It was this conceptual model with its consequential use of linear equations which led Malthus to predict the exponential population growth concluding that it would be unsustainable when compared to the arithmetic growth of resources. On the contrary, today, several studies show the validity of the new conceptual model. They present, rather, the effectiveness of nonlinear models in formalizing and describing discontinuous processes of social change beginning with the population’s evolution itself and market instability, to go on to phenomena such as political revolutions, voting and electoral shifts, crime dynamics, urban growth, spread of innovations, adolescent childbearing, marital instability, authoritarian attitudes (on these issues, see: Saperstein 1984; Tsebelis and Sprague 1989, 2010; Brown 1991; Huckfeldt 1989; Priesmeyer 1995; Condorelli 2013c; Dendrinos 1992; Dooley et al. 1997; Gottman et al. 2002; Guastello and Guastello 2008). Many of these studies found, in particular, that social systems, with reference to their movements over time, fluctuate between different critical points (bifurcation points) rather than follow a direct path, presenting a bounded development process. In this process, human interdependences are structured according to a non linear logic of the logistics type where the interplay among factors that promote growth and factors that act as restraints (such as in a game competition) contrasts the idea of a regular linear or exponential trend, which is the expression of cause and effect constant proportionality logic, and is able to result in unpredictable outcomes of social interaction relationships and irregular and instable trends of social change process (even chaotic processes).
In closing, although some criticisms were advanced [for example, some researchers doubted that science can achieve an unified theory of complex systems able to go beyond some general principles, as complexity researchers such as Bak, Holland and Kauffman suggested, considering that it implies a reductio ad absurdum (Anderson 1972); and some found themselves uncomfortable with the romantic Prigoginian idea that the vision of a complex, unpredictable, without certainty world but able to emphasizes the re-enchantment of nature is more comforting than the scientific vision of a predictable, timeless, deterministic world; for a review see Horgan 1996)], nevertheless Complexity point of view seems to lead to a more realistic awareness of working and evolution mechanisms of the Natural and Social Systems compared to traditional science. By detecting the rule in discontinuity,surprise and uncertainty, it allowed us to bring out of the limbo of the brain teaser (Gleick 1987) observed social discontinuity (market and international political competitions instability, electoral volatility, social control processes, spread of social epidemic), just like Natural Sciences have brought out of the limbo of the brain teaser observed natural discontinuity such as atmospheric and fluid turbulence. A last thought goes, therefore, to a potential unification of the Sciences implicit in the complexity approach. What has been traditionally considered separate objects of study—on one hand, free human acts, with their uncertainty and unpredictability, and on the other hand, nature, with its inner order—has created a gap between the Social and the Natural Sciences. The Complexity Theory (or Nonlinear Dynamical Systems Theory) shows this gap to be largely artificial, redeeming the Social Sciences from being a minority science, in Kant’s terminology, or in Kiel and Elliott’s modern terminology, a “scientific stepchild” compared to the so-called “hard” sciences (Elliott and Kiel 1997, p. 3).
Social complexity and suicide: the research hypothesis and its theoretical justification
As we said, we believe that the empirical long-run findings above mentioned can be better understood in the light of the new concept of social systems as complex adaptive systems. From the perspective of suicide, social systems seem to confirm essential traits of complex systems. Suicide trends seem to lead us to think that the criterion leading to actions in an interaction system based on weak ties is not necessarily characterized by the proportional increase of identity loss and meaninglessness of existence as modernization and social isolation condition increases, and that, instead, individualism and liquidity of social ties characterizing our contemporary or post-modern society (Bauman 2000) has “strengthened” up to the point of neutralising, to a certain degree, that disintegrating valence regarding identity and sense of life which, according to Durkheim, is the first propeller toward self destruction. As well as Halbwachs, we can be led to hypothesize that after the initial shocks of modernization, a gradual process of adaptation to the stress of modernization associated to low social integration levels is activated in contemporary modern society. That is, many people get used to living with the progress, with the perverse consequences of organic solidarity which become gradually liable to be assimilated and absorbed as parts of a ‘normal’ everyday life. Durkheim said: “our sensitivity” is a bottomless abyss which nothing can fill. However, if Durkheim modern man lives suffering the tragedy of his freedom, here the hypothesis is that in our post-modern society, being characterized by a increasingly fragmentary and uncertain sociality (frailty of human bonds continues increasingly to undermine all social institutions since their own constitution, beginning with the family and the more intimate matrimonial or couple relationships, as to be itself become an institution; Bauman 2000), this sensitivity seems to have increased to such a point that it can eventually enable a sort of immunization against the weakening of social ties and the emergence of a new pattern of social expectations which restrains the impact of the factors that lead to suicide and promote its growth. In other words, individualism does not destroy identity and the sense of life with the intensity which Durkheim had originally expected because, by applying conceptual categories of dissipative structures or complex adaptive systems, the social system as a whole seem to able to self-organizing and adapt spontaneously to modernization increase. Likely, adaptation to weakening of social ties processes in more industrialized western countries may be encouraged from benefits of industrial and economic progress. They may to offset modernization stress: improvements in living conditions, changes in istitutions as welfare and health services (social services for the aged, working mothers…) may help to accommodate the modern person and, in so doing, create a less suicidogenic environment. However, we agree with Krujits (1977) in thinking that changes in welfare and prosperity can not be the sole explanation for adaptation. One essential condition is the emergence of a materialistic culture, an explicit change in mentality, geared more towards consuming than towards family and working, traditional values and standards. Economic prosperity can be able to encourage this mentality, so that the fragility of social bonds may no longer be lived in a desperate form. From this perspective, as we said, at the bottom of the explanation there is still that same human sensitivity leading Durkheim to say that we are a bottomless “pit” that nothing can fill and ending to make normal social fragmentation too. So, new cultural models, new models of social expectations may emerge, and people may adapt and become less inclined to suicide. In other words, we are saying nothing but suicide growth may be characterized by a sensitive dependence on initial condition. For this same reason, if a materialistic mentality may be able to limit the suicide growth, a suicide increase may be expected when materialistic need are not satisfied, namely in crisis economic conditions (as suicide increases after economic crisis in 2007 show).
To sum up, in the framework of complex social systems approach where uncertainty is the “rule of the game” of social interactions process dynamics, we hypothesize that immunization and adaptation to the individualization process as emergence of a new pattern of social expectations, absorbing in ‘normality’ the liquidity of social ties, and consequently a nonlinear, non constant and non-proportional suicide growth rate, may to represent the spontaneous self-organization of social systems, the unpredictable, surprising, emergent effect produced from the system as a whole by effect of nonlinear interactions among its components/agents.
On the one hand, this perspective lead us to revaluate Halbwachs’ Theory (1930). From our point of view, just for this insight of adaptation process Halbwachs could be considered a forerunner of the dissipative structure concept, the same way as Prigogine considered Durkheim, interpreting particularly the labor division process as a prove of spontaneous self-organization process of social system in response to society’s moral and material density increase.
On the other hand, although Halbwachs had guessed there was an adaptation to individualism effects, the mechanism of social interaction which justifies this process remained still undetermined. In this regard, we think that the current complex systems paradigm can help us to take a step ahead. The step ahead is the fact that today we can be able to better understand the underlying generating mechanisms of this process insofar we can root it in the conception of a new General Theory of Systems such as dissipative structures and, therefore, in the non-linearity of social system’s interactions.
In order to support this interpretation we propose to modeling the logic of suicide decision making process responsible for longitudinal change in suicide growth rates by a differential nonlinear equation able to model restrained population growth processes, that is, by a nonlinear equation which is structured in a logistic way. Consequently, we attempt to apply the Logistic map to an empirical suicide growth process in modern society, namely to suicide trend in modern Italian society from 1875 to 2010.
Dynamical System Analysis and nonlinear Logistic Model
Dynamical System Analysis is interested in how the system’s state changes in time. From a sociological perspective, the dynamics of a social phenomenon at aggregate level (i.e. marriage, divorce, suicide, politics voting…) expresses the result of individual decision making processes and therefore of social interaction processes. Collectively they produce an aggregate configuration of social phenomena. Insofar these decision-making processes can be affected by broad social and cultural factors (as well as in the passage from pre-modern to modern society), dynamics of social phenomena at aggregate level expresses in a tangible way the onset of possible changes in the structure of social interactions and allows us to make inferences about cultural changes which can have influenced these possible changes in individual and social decision-making processes. Therefore, making a dynamical analysis of social systems expresses the attempt to model the structure and the logic of human behavior and underlying mechanisms governing social interactions, which are responsible for changes in social phenomena at aggregate level in time.
This being stated, the simplest process of change at the level of a natural or social phenomenon is constant growth or decay. Constant growth indicates that some population, say an ecological population or a social group—i.e. political party, deviant group, suicide group, consumers, married and divorced people, etc.…—increases its membership at a constant over time rate. In such a case a certain number of new elements adds to the group each time period. Constant decay expresses the reverse concept, that is, the group loses the same number of elements each time period.
To represent change in the membership of some group (in our case, suicide group) the term dy/dt is used to refer the rate of change or growth rate for that population group. As an example, y is the level of some population group Y in time period t. The term dy/dt is a derivative and it is a function that describes longitudinal change in the levels of Y within the population. If Y neither gains new members nor loses old members, then the derivative is equal zero. If, on the other hand, it gains (or loses) a set number of members each time period (a net gain or net loss), then the rate of change would be constant. A constant rate of change is described mathematically as
or in discrete terms
where a is a constant and a parameter of the model. The graph of the function (placing xt values in abscissa and the derivates of function in ordinate) is a flat line. For this simple model, the over time behaviour of equation or the sequence (trajectory) of solutions generated by the constant growth or decay model forms an up or down straight line (as a plot of the integrated population versus time t shows). As we know, solutions of a differential or difference equation can be approximated by Euler’s method and they are much more accurate as smaller h integration interval is. In some cases, exact solutions can be obtained using algebra and obtaining mathematical general law. In this linear case, exact solution is the following general law:
or, using the discrete notation,
There is no other possible variations in the structure of this type of dynamic as long as parameter a is constant (Brown 1991). However, the substantive application of constant gain or loss as a model may be quite limiting with regard to most natural and social processes. A more interesting model is the Malthus model including a description of the growth rate as dependent of the number of people in the population in each previous time period t. This model is herein interesting for us, because Logistics is just the result of an opportune adjustment by Verhulst of the Malthus’ law for population growth. It is a simple differential equation able to model population changes from t time to t + 1 time by a mechanism expressing a ‘free’, unlimited, growth process (May 1976; Braun 1993; Kostelich and Armbruster 1996). Indeed in the Malthusian Growth Model the growth population mechanism equals ayt, and the growth rate a is constant, that is, it does not change with either time or population. Therefore the following differential equation governs the population growth mechanism:
dy/dt = ayt, a = constant
In discrete terms, adapting the difference equation notation, we have the following equation:
Δyt(or yt+1 - yt) = ayt (Δt = 1)
where Δyt is the change in y population between two adjacent time period (yt+1 − yt) and yt is the population at the beginning of the i-th interval of length 1 (Δt = 1). Population at time t + 1 depends solely on population at time t. It is linear function of yt because it is proportional to yt by a constant fraction or relationship of proportionality (a). The graph of the derivative function is an upward or downward straight line. Consequently, any population satisfying the Malthus’s population growth law grows exponentially with time (trajectory of solutions is an up or down curve line). Indeed, its exact solution is the following equation:
where yt is the variable indicating the value of population at time t, y0 is the initial value of population, and a is the constant growth rate of population. The exponentials equation “represent the solution of a linear one-dimensional differential equation and as such arise in a variety of circumstances in which the rate of change of a variable is proportional to the value of the variable” (Kaplan and Glass 1995, p. 157). As it is known, the exact solution of Malthusian model can be written as
where b is the Anti-logarithm of ea (if a > 1, b = 1 + growth rate a)
Adapting the discrete notation, the Eq. (7) is equivalent to
yt+1 = byt where b is yt+1/yt
if a > 1, b is 1 + a (1 + growth rate a), if a < 1, b is inferior to 1 l. In turn, the equation yt+1 = byt is equal to
yt+1 = y0bt (b=1+a)n.
As we said, the Malthus model structures an unrestrained growth process. However, when the population gets too large, Malthus model it can not be very accurate, since the environment cannot support unlimited growth due to limited environmental resources. Several factors discourage a further growth (limited living space and resources, competition among individual members for limited resources). The Verhulst’s correction to Malthus model avoids this problem, since it reflects the fact that the population growth is the result of opposing forces: the forces ecouraging growth and the forces acting as a restraint. Therefore, it includes a restraint preventing an unlimited growth mechanism. This is obtained by adding to second part of Eq. (5) and its discrete version (6) a negative term, the—by2 term:
or in discrete form
This model is called Logistic growth model and is a quadratic equation. The graph of the function (placing xt values in abscissa and derivates of the function in ordinate) is a parabola. As we said, it excludes an exponential, ad infinitum growth rate and describes a bounded system in its development implying a limit value (carrying capacity) beyond which the system no longer grows. In other terms, it reasonably expresses a limited growth process within the framework of a limited resource environment. So, the y2 term assures the self-regulation of the population if it gets too big. The restraint parameter b is a limiting rate expressing the set of factors that discourage the population growth. Generally, b will be very small compared to a, so that if y is not too large then the term—by2 will be negligible compared to ay and the population will growth exponentially. If y is very large, the term by2 is no longer negligible, and thus serves to slow down the rapid rate of increase of the population. In this way, a feedback is introduced in system: population growth is now governed not only by a free growth mechanism but also by an adjustment mechanism competing with a free growth, whose action depends on the interaction between system state (population at a given time) and environmental resources. In other words, this interaction determines system’s carrying capacity (the maximum value that population can reach compatibly with available environmental resources). The presence of this second term end up destroying the linearity of growth law (Bertuglia and Vaio 2003, p. 128).
The nonlinear differential Logistic Eq. (10) (differential Logistic model in continuous times) has exact solutions whose trajectory or time trend is a S-shaped curve. The population asymptotically (that is, in the limit) approaches the straight line (the carrying capacity), either increasing or decreasing toward it depending on the initial population y0. The period of time before the population reaches half its limiting value is a period of accelerated growth and the solution curve rapidly increases. After this point, the rate of growth decreases and in the long time reaches zero. This is a period of diminishing growth and the solution curve gradually decelerates until it stabilizes (derivative set at zero). As it is known, analytically the exact solution is obtained by the following equation:
In the discrete case, if in Eq. (11) we divide by —maximum level of sustainability—and, therefore, if we let xt = or xt = yt, the y variable is transformed in the x variable (x values from 0 to 1), and we obtain the following difference logistic equation
and consequently its solution is
Trough several complex mathematical steps, it assumes the simplified structure of the Logistic map (discrete Logistic equation) (Bertuglia and Vaio 2003, p. 215). Indeed, if we let and , we obtain
xt+1 = xt + axt(k - xt)
If we indicate the maximum limit k as Lk, the (17) it can be rewritten as
xt + 1 = xt + axt(Lk - xt)
whose derivative equation
xt + 1 - xt = axt(Lk - xt)
is equivalent to (14).
By (18), if we let xt =
This essay appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
“Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet,” C. S. Lewis concluded his inaugural address at Cambridge University, “I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.” Cambridge had plucked Lewis away from Oxford by offering him a chair in medieval and renaissance literature, and Lewis’s title for his first address was “De Descriptione Temporum,” a description of the times. Lewis turned his observant eye to a watershed difference between a previous age, that of Austen, Milton, and Shakespeare, and the modern age of machines, Darwin, and progress. The default view of the previous era was that age and tradition were to be respected; the modern view is that the old and ancient must be surpassed and then discarded. As one steeped in the ancients but living among the moderns, Lewis offered himself as a specimen of the Old Western Man, someone who could speak to both sides of the divide between modernity and the ancients.
Although he gave this address in 1955, and died on November 22, 1963, Lewis still speaks, retaining a devoted following that shows no sign of diminishing. Described by Time in 1947 as “one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English-speaking world,” Lewis was first thrust into the public eye by the publication of TheScrewtape Letters in 1943. Four years later, Lewis had sold more than one million copies of his books and spoken on twenty-nine radio broadcasts to audiences averaging 600,000 listeners. The interest in Lewis has never abated. Mere Christianity ranks among the top ten religious books sold each year.
Lewis’s Narnia chronicles and his Christian apologetics are well known. Less well known is his approach to culture and politics. Despite an occasional mention from conservative outlets—National Review ranked Lewis’s Abolition of Man number seven of the top hundred books of the twentieth century—Lewis’s political thought has been relatively unexplored in the fifty-four years since his death. The conventional wisdom suggests that Lewis was at best apathetic about politics and at worst actively hostile to it. His earliest biographers, his brother, and even Lewis himself testified to his indifference to political matters. In the early 1950s Lewis declined an invitation from Winston Churchill to become a Commander of the British Empire. He once wrote to his brother, Warnie, than he “loathed great issues” and would prefer to see a “Stagnation party—which at General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place.” Lewis claimed to avoid newspapers, and to the end of his life he expressed skepticism, and even despair, about politics.
Lewis held many politicians in disdain and was indeed pessimistic about the potential for political solutions to live up to their advertising. Nevertheless, conventional claims about the apolitical Lewis are overstated. We know from Lewis’s personal letters, his education and teaching, and his published works that he was both very interested in and knowledgeable about politics and political thought. Lewis had much to say about the foundations of a just political order.
As a student and a teacher, Lewis read, wrote, and taught about many of the great political philosophers in the Western canon. Lewis scholar Adam Barkman points out in a note about Lewis’s early essay “On Bolshevism” that we know Lewis was teaching his political science students about Lenin as late as 1939, and even as a literary scholar Lewis continued to teach his students Western political thought beginning with Plato. “While teaching English literature at Magdalen,” A. J. P. Taylor observed, “Lewis helped in the history school by teaching political theory. He took the history students. His lectures covered Rousseau and Aristotle, et al. He loved doing this.”
Lewis was steeped in the classics of the Western tradition and could appreciate the intellectual and philosophical transitions that had taken place from Plato to Locke to the theorists of his own day. His interests in world mythologies also gave him a breadth of perspective that transcended a purely Western focus. With his background in the ancient Greeks as well as the Scholastics and early modern thinkers, Lewis was well versed in ethics and political thought, including natural law theory, virtue ethics, and consequentialism.
It is true that Lewis was not actively involved in partisan politics, and he was uninterested in most policy questions. But politics in the fullest sense means more than parliamentary intrigue and debates about taxes and tariffs. Politics is more than the merely instrumental hurly-burly of self-interest and cynicism we see on the news. In the Aristotelian sense, politics refers to the business of the polis, the almost untranslatable Greek word describing a comprehensive community, combining spheres and identities we moderns tend to separate: religion, government, family, school, and business. The polis, Aristotle tells us, is established and maintained with a view to some good. Thus political life raises perennial questions that pertain to human beings as human beings: What is the good life? How should we live together? What things are so good as to be required, by force if necessary, and what things are so evil as to be prohibited, by force if necessary? Do human beings have a deeper purpose than mere survival or pleasure? Conceived of in this way, politics is inextricably tied to the most fundamental questions about human nature.
Lewis spent his life wrestling with those questions and drew upon his considerable gifts and his Christian faith in attempting to provide answers to them. In this sense, Lewis’s writings brim with political themes. Screwtape delivers an address on politics and democratic education. The Chronicles of Narnia describe an original state of nature and the founding of a new polity, not to mention the adventures and misadventures of several monarchs and tyrants, all of whom exercise power for good or ill. Lewis’s favorite of his own books, Till We Have Faces, is told entirely from the first-person perspective of Orual, a queen responsible for the well-being of her people. Mere Christianity, first as a radio address over the BBC and then later as the bestselling book, includes a chapter on social morality. Lewis’s The Four Loves opens with a discussion of patriotism, and his massive volume on English literature in the sixteenth century includes several passages offering sophisticated treatments of various political thinkers and themes. Lewis’s Abolition of Man deals explicitly with education and natural law. Abolition’s themes are then presented in fictional form in the third book of Lewis’s science-fiction space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. This short and incomplete listing does not include the scores of essays and newspaper articles that Lewis wrote addressing such topics as equality, criminal justice, capital punishment, pacifism, nuclear war, unalienable rights, social-
contract theory, Christian political parties, and the welfare state. The conventional wisdom about Lewis’s interest in and aptitude for politics and political thinking is, in a broad sense, simply mistaken.
The student of politics and of society generally should be interested in Lewis if for no other reason than that he has had an enormous impact on the thinking of hundreds of thousands of people in several countries and across the several decades since his death. Moreover, Lewis is worth studying because he incisively identified and winsomely addressed enduring realities and lasting political concerns. While there are a great many aspects of Lewis’s political thought that could be highlighted, two merit special focus here: his commitment to natural law and limited government, and his rather critical assessment of modernity.
Natural law and limited government
Lewis insisted that a belief in a moral law known through the exercise of reason is one of the pillars of “all clear thinking about the universe we live in.” The other pillar was an awareness that we each fail to keep the known moral law. While Lewis believed that the natural law—he often referred to it as the Tao—was a necessary precursor for evangelism as well as an explanation for how human beings are to live, he also thought it was necessary for the relatively successful functioning of a pluralistic society.
Lewis asserted two things that put him squarely in the natural law camp: (1) the foundational principles of morality are obligatory rational principles, i.e., they are known through reason and morally obligatory for us to follow; and (2) the highest aspect of human nature, our reason, ought to rule our appetites and passions. To these broad Platonic claims, Lewis connected the core Christian doctrines of creation and fall and men and women being made in God’s image. In addition to moral objectivity, Lewis’s approach includes a strong teleology or built-in purpose to human nature and an epistemology that allows for objective knowledge of the moral law by human beings as such. This last feature of natural law provides a common foundation upon which to ground enforceable moral duties in a pluralistic and democratic society.
Because God made everyone in His image, and people retain some vestige of that image whether they recognize their Creator or not, natural law provides moral standards for the Christian and non-Christian alike. This makes possible for Lewis his commitment to classical-liberal political theory, which provides a common framework of politics and ethics for Christians and non-Christians who share the same political community. Unlike the more spiritual applications of the natural law, which are positive, much of Lewis’s work regarding the political aspects of natural law is negative. That is, he often points to how bad things will be without a recognition of and commitment to the natural law rather than showing how natural law actively promotes and preserves positive aspects of society.
While Lewis was a determined advocate for a practical renaissance of natural law philosophy in contemporary culture and education, he did not see himself as an innovative, or even classical, natural law theorist. Indeed, Lewis adamantly insisted that he was not “trying to reintroduce in its full Stoical or medieval rigour the doctrine of Natural Law.” Lewis did not advocate a return to an ancient or medieval doctrine of natural law; nor did he favor a return to monarchy or aristocracy or, even worse, any attempt to reintegrate church and state. What political doctrine, then, did Lewis subscribe to?
Although Lewis never systematically described his political philosophy, he did have a political system of choice, and it was heavily influenced by a strong belief in the fallen nature of humanity. Lewis was a partisan of classical liberal democracy not because it allowed for maximum political participation for all of a nation’s citizens but because it curtailed the likelihood of political tyranny. He was a democrat because he believed human nature had been corrupted, which contrasted sharply with the claims of other democrats such as Rousseau, who believed humanity to be “so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government.” “The real reason for democracy is just the reverse,” Lewis noted in an essay about equality, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.”
One of Lewis’s political principles was government’s duty to restrain wrongdoing as understood given the law of nature. And it is in describing this restraining and punitive duty that Lewis most closely identified with that early proponent of classical liberal thought and fellow Oxford scholar John Locke.
Contrary to the premodern tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, but in line with social contract theory, Lewis held that men enter into a social contract for the “mutual preservation” of their property. Because the law of nature remains in force whether people are in the state of nature or political society, citizens have the right to revolt and produce a new government if the existing one consistently violates their natural rights. Lewis worried about just this possibility in England. In his short essay “Delinquents in the Snow,” Lewis complained about how the legal process failed to deal properly with hooligans who had been caught stealing and vandalizing his home. In his view, the presiding judge was far too lenient on the young criminals, and Lewis worried what such laxity might mean for England’s political future. Describing how the social contract should work in theory, he warned of the consequences that would occur if the system broke down in practice. “According to the classical political theory of this country,” Lewis summarized, “we surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on the condition that the State would protect us.”
But a dilemma arises when the state does not live up to its end of the contract. The state’s promise of protection is what morally grounds our obligation to civil obedience, according to Lewis. On the classical Lockean theory, the government’s protection of natural rights, including the right to property, is what explains why it is right to pay taxes and wrong to exercise vigilante justice. Lewis’s assessment of the England of his day might strike some as still applicable there and elsewhere:
The State protects us less because it is unwilling to protect us against criminals at home and manifestly grows less and less able to protect us against foreign enemies. At the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.
Lewis drew the same conclusion from this state of affairs that Locke did. Those citizens who have entered into the social contract have the right to revolt and will revolt when the state breaches their trust and no longer carries out its function. “When the State cannot or will not protect,” Lewis warned, “ ‘nature’ is come again and the right of self-protection reverts to the individual.”
Lewis was obviously concerned about the abuses of an overly ambitious government. But what positive role did he envision for government? After all, human depravity gives the rationale for government as well as reason to fear its excesses. As James Madison famously claimed in Federalist No. 51, no government would be necessary if men were angels and no limitations on government power would be necessary if angels governed men. The reality, however, is that government is necessary; yet there are clear dangers with trusting it with untrammeled power. Although Lewis strongly preferred a very limited government, he wrestled with the tension between his desire for a limited government (which both protects and respects a robust private sphere) and his acknowledgment that we have massive social needs that it seems only government can address. This tension reveals a difference between Lewis’s normative view of what politics should be and his realistic view of what politics is, given infinite need and finite resources. Government must exist, Lewis acknowledged, but he always insisted that government exists for the good of individuals, a modern and Lockean element in Lewis’s political thought. Consider two quotes by Lewis about the ultimate purpose of government, the first from his essay “Membership” and the second from Mere Christianity:
As long as we are thinking of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of the spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary. . . .
It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.
In each formulation, Lewis insists that the state exists for individuals. The way Lewis chooses to represent the relationship between the individual and the state in these passages represents a break from the classical Aristotelian and Thomistic natural law tradition. The latter sees political activity—voting, organizing, advocating—as an intrinsic part of what it means to flourish as a human being. Lewis, in contrast, sees governmental matters as an instrumental means to provide for the real goods that we enjoy far from the gaze of legislators and policy wonks.
Lewis does acknowledge that collective activities are necessary, and at times he recognizes the appeal of developing technocratic government solutions to address our collective social problems. The temptation to invest government with more power, he noted, always works on a real need that has been neglected. Lewis’s constant fear was that legitimate human problems that require social coordination and collective activity will give rise to solutions that are far worse than the original crisis. “We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war,” Lewis noted, and “we have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy.”
The temptation to use a real need as a pretext to accumulate and concentrate power is not new, but the difference in the mid-twentieth century, Lewis warned, was that “success” looked more and more like a realistic possibility. Lewis contrasted the dilemmas of past societies with the unprecedented opportunities offered by science and extensive government bureaucracy:
In the ancient world individuals have sold themselves as slaves, in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers—a war-lord who can save us from the barbarians—a Church that can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will. Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should.
The question about progress has become the question whether we can discover any way of submitting to the worldwide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State’s honey and avoiding the sting?
Whether we can get the welfare state’s honey without the sting was perhaps the most pressing practical political question for Lewis, and the stakes were (and are) enormous. While acknowledging the great needs for which technology and a powerful government promise answers, Lewis endorsed simple values that he feared were endangered by a know-it-all state: “To live one’s life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death.” He was skeptical that the modern state can deliver painless cures. Repeating his argument in Abolition of Man, Lewis predicted soberly that “some men will take charge of the destiny of others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest.” He then asked rhetorically, and with an allusion to Lord Acton’s famous aphorism that absolute power corrupts absolutely, whether “we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?”
Lewis’s political thought is so imbued with concerns about governmental overreach that even his account of government’s legitimate purposes soon slips back to warnings about the dangers of abuse. His ideal government was meant to protect negative rather than positive freedoms. Given this, it is no surprise to find he was very concerned about the developments of the twentieth century: thinking about how to promote the virtues of limited government and a healthy civil society requires an incisive analysis of the modern mind.
The radical altering of the public mind
Lewis’s most straightforward account of the modern mind is found in his essay “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” Though primarily concerned with implications for Christian apologetics, Lewis’s observations pertain to the culture broadly speaking, and thus to political thinking as well. We see in his description a conservative analysis of how Western society has changed, and not for the good. “In the last hundred years,” Lewis wrote, “the public mind has been radically altered.” Lewis proposed that six changes have contributed to this radical break: (1) an educational revolution; (2) the emancipation of women; (3) the advance of historical developmentalism or what he called “Evolutionism”; (4) the rise of Proletarianism or democratic egalitarianism; (5) an emphasis on practical knowledge over wisdom; (6) and an increasing skepticism toward reason. With the exception of Lewis’s thoughts on the emancipation of women, which arguably changed by the end of his life, these descriptions provide a good synopsis of Lewis’s views on modernity.
Lewis described the educational revolution for the upper classes as a shift away from the “ancients.” No longer schooled in the thought of Plato or Aristotle, or even Virgil or Horace, the educated classes had a diminished set of values with which to compete with the values of “modern industrial civilization.” This development results in an isolated “Provincialism,” which cuts off each succeeding generation from the wisdom and folly of its forebears, leading to a myopic intellectual vision and a dearth of standards by which to judge contemporary thought. What follows is what Lewis referred to as chronological snobbery. Such a development bodes ill for moral education, as it breeds contempt among the young for the wisdom of their elders, and thus undercuts their ability to distinguish genuine and time-tested wisdom from passing fads and trivialities.
The second and related change in how the modern man thinks is what Lewis called “Developmentalism” or “Historicism.” This idea, related to Lewis’s treatment of epochal change in his inaugural Cambridge address, pertains to the modern faith in progress. Modern men and women are influenced by their experience with ever-improving machines and an evolutionary account of ever-increasing human intelligence and accomplishment. The modern default expectation is that “almost nothing can be turned into almost anything”: order from chaos, life from nonlife, reason from instinct, civilization out of savagery, and virtue from animalism. The problem with this way of looking at the world is not the judgment that some types of progress are good but rather that there is a natural and inevitable stream of progress that we must discern and join. History with a capital H is now the source of wisdom and value, and prophecy about its future direction reveals humanity’s sacred duty. We see evidence of this mindset when people act surprised that this or that terrible act or attitude is “still with us” in 2017, as if chronological moral progress is a given.
Lewis sharply contrasted this modern faith in progress with traditional Christian teaching, for Developmentalism rejects both the goodness of God’s original creation and the Fall, which has corrupted it. The differences between the two approaches as applied to politics are profound. For the Christian natural law theorist, the very standards of what counts as progress are inextricably bound up in the natural law, which itself is rooted in God’s character, proclaimed by divine revelation, and discoverable by natural reason. Contrary to the progressive view, Lewis noted that Christianity holds that “the Best creates the good and the good is corrupted by sin, [but that] for Developmentalism the very standard of good is itself in a state of flux.”
“Proletarianism” was Lewis’s term for a particular form of democratic thinking that flatters the “people” without reservation. Having accepted the Lockean principle that government legitimacy requires the consent of the governed, democratic citizens have conflated their authority with political infallibility. As a result the Proletariat “are self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy. They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the world it cannot be themselves.” Lewis noted that this shift in class self-satisfaction puts God “in the dock,” or under indictment. Whereas early Christians, Jews, and pagans alike took it for granted that there was something inherently wrong with people, modern men and women do not share a sense of sin and therefore do not recognize their need for salvation. How to proclaim the good news changes when the target audience does not believe in the bad news. Moreover, the test God now needs to pass—what gets Him out of the dock—is not whether Christian revelation about Him is true but whether belief in God is helpful or therapeutic for the individual.
The political implications of this shift follow the religious implications. Democratic societies unwilling to entertain the possibility that the people may be badly mistaken about particular policies or moral views will foster a politics of flattery and obfuscation, encouraging politicians to avoid unpopular but necessary stands in order to stay in office. In addition, like the modern view of religion, politics becomes primarily about what the government can do for me or my particular interest group. Ascertaining the truth about whether a particular tax policy promotes the common good for the nation becomes wholly secondary to whether I personally benefit from the policy.
This shift in religious and political thinking from “Is it true and good in itself?” to “What’s in it for me?” illustrates another change: an emphasis on practicality. Whereas a pragmatic approach to religion downplays the question of truth, a purely pragmatic approach to politics leads to a political conversation almost exclusively concerned with technocratic means rather than principled ends for human beings individually and in community. “Ends” are assumed to be common but in fact are expressed with elastic words or phrases that obscure rough edges: national interest, economic growth, or making America (or Britain) “great.” The difficulty and controversy that accompany conflicting political ends are precisely what the American political theorist John Rawls famously tried to avoid by making his political theory “political” rather than “metaphysical.” If Lewis is right about the reality of the natural law, however, burying our deep disagreements about the ends of politics is quixotic.
Finally, Lewis anticipated the advent of modern skepticism by observing that modern man has a general and unalarmed belief that reason cannot be trusted. Irrational causes, rooted in subconscious desires or economic interests (or, we would now add, race and gender), are the real origin of thoughts and grounding for personal identity. Lewis wrote of modern man, exaggerating only a bit, that “he accepts without dismay the conclusion that all our thoughts are invalid.” In a talk to the Oxford Socratic Club, republished in a 1944 issue of the Socratic Digest, Lewis insisted that the ad hominem fallacy is the intellectual error of the twentieth century. He dubbed the fallacy “Bulverism,” after a fictional character named Ezekiel Bulver who would only explain why people are wrong without bothering to demonstrate that they are wrong. The fallout of this development for political discourse is significant. If we believe the positions held by our fellow citizens are grounded entirely in subrational and often intractable characteristics, then attempting to persuade them with reason and evidence is hopeless. Lewis believed the particularities of modernity had significant ramifications for Christian apologetics, but it is clear that the changes he identified have had severe political and cultural consequences as well. The combination of these developments led Lewis almost to despair of any hope of a political or cultural renewal.
Yet ultimately Lewis’s hope was not in a this-worldly politics. Politics has its place, but Lewis was first and foremost a Christian thinker, and it is only by “aiming at heaven” that one can get “earth thrown in.” Not everyone will harken to that core aspect of Lewis’s thinking, but if he was right about the importance of the natural law, there are truths about the goods of our enduring human nature we can all understand and pursue irrespective of whether we acknowledge the divine author of that same nature. ♦
Justin Dyer is professor of political science and director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri. Micah Watson teaches political science at Calvin College. This essay derives in part from their book C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law.