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The purpose of Philip Slater’s book The Pursuit of Loneliness is to “reach some understanding of the forces which are unraveling our society” for his readers (xxii). It is a common conception that America is the best country, an idea which is substantiated by economic figures. However, Americans are not happy. According to Slater, “all societies frustrate certain human needs and satiate others (because) humanity and any particular society’s idea of what humanity should be is never very exact” (2). In America, the gap between reality and perception is growing farther and farther apart, at human expense. Americans work their entire lives for the future, in the pursuit of economic security, which ultimately leads to continued unhappiness in the present. American culture “struggles more and more violently to maintain itself, (but) is less and less able to hide its fundamental antipathy towards human life and human satisfaction” (122). Slater’s book teaches people about the existence of the “wide gap between the fantasies Americans live by and the realities they live in,” in the hopes that this will inspire people to react in positive ways (xxiii).
Cooperation played a major role in the development of homo sapiens as the dominant species on earth. Americans do not understand its importance. It is understandable to place an extremely high level of importance upon self reliance in a dog eat dog society, but individualism has become fear and loathing of others. This motivates people to develop ways they can spend less time with each other. The ultimate expression of individualism, driving a car, illustrates the problem of denying “the reality of human interdependence” (30). “Some people can’t afford to heat their homes because we all want to ride expensive vehicles on crowded roads at high speeds, killing one another and polluting the atmosphere” (2). This situation cannot be repaired until we accept the inherent power in cooperation. “The more we try to solve our problems by increasing personal autonomy, the more we find ourselves at the mercy of these mysterious, impersonal, and remote mechanisms that we have ourselves created” (48).
A large part of this problem is that many Americans buy into the ploys of capitalism, sacrificing happiness for material gain. “Americans have voluntarily created, and voluntarily maintained, a society which increasingly frustrates and aggravates” them (8). Society’s uncontrolled development results in an artificial sense of scarcity which ensures “a steady flow of output” (78).
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We should create a new society, a beautiful society, and Slater feels this can be done. We should examine American history to determine where we went wrong, and how we should change. Slater sees America’s mistakes in this light: “not to discredit our past, but to help us make sensible choices now (154). In our self evaluation we should hold ourselves to the highest standard because “there is no reason outside human perversity for peace not to reign, and for life not to be spent in joy and the cultivation of beauty” (99).
Slater is optimistic in our chance as Americans, to have the motivation and will power to create change. The point of his book is to show us that we suffer undue punishment inflicted upon ourselves. Social mechanisms and societal constraints are the product of humans. It is entirely in our power to change them, to throw them out entirely if we feel so inclined. However, more people must be made to understand the problems to which we are subjected before the reformation of society takes place. The purpose of this book is exactly that: to enlighten the masses about humans beings’ self inflicted ills. As a result, Slater hopes to inspire his readers to question their surroundings, “as if large numbers of Americans were beginning to scrutinize their own society with the doubtful eyes of a traveler” (xxiii).