Western Civilization at the Crossroads - I

What will future historians and cultural anthropologists have to say about Western Civilization at the turn of the new millennium? If history has already ended, as Fukuyama continues to assert, they will of course have precious little to say. However, given the fact that, for better or for worse, we are still living within time and space, “the end of history” remains a dubious proposition and I dare say that it will remain such even a thousand years from now. Future historians will indeed attempt to define our era in some fashion.

The Neapolitan philosopher of history Giambattista Vico would have had no hesitation in situating it within the third of his recurring cycles of history and civilizations (the cycles of gods, heroes and men): that is to say, an era of extreme rationalism in tandem with relativism vis-‡-vis the concept of Truth, what he dubs “the barbarism of the intellect.” But more specifically, we may ask: which will be the outstanding symptomatic phenomena that future historians will identify as characteristic of our age? I would venture two: 1) the speed of communication coupled with its banality, 2) thinking in the closet and herd thinking. Let us explore them briefly.

The first one is the more visible and pervasive. It is the kind of phenomenon that would have a great novelist begin his recounting of our times with “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We now possess a near miraculous ability to communicate instantaneously across oceans and continents; to forward entire texts in seconds and have them published within days. But there is a snake in this utopia come of age and it is this: there seems to be an inverse proportion within this phenomenon, the faster the means of communication, the more trivial and banal the communication seems to get and the less authentic the dialogue. That applies to at least 90% of what passes for dialogue.

It has become increasingly difficult to discern the authentic from the bogus. Whether the exoterism of what is published on-line will compensate the former esoterism of wonderful insightful articles languishing in academic libraries, remains to be seen. But of course this is a symptom of a deeper malaise (that a Kierkegaard might even call “the sickness unto death”) which has to do with the inability of people to really dialogue and commune (different from merely communicating) with each other, and which may point to the real underlying problem: the loss of meaning in life; what philosophers define as nihilism.

The second above mentioned phenomenon is less visible and therefore, like radiation, much more dangerous. It is in the very cultural air we breathe and goes by the name of extreme rationalism. It is an attempt to reduce the whole of experience to purely abstract rational categories to the exclusion of imagination, the mystical and transcendent, the emotive and the intuitive within reality; in short, to the near exclusion of the poetical. The poetical is reduced to frosting on the cake, to mere poetry to delight oneself or others at a wedding party. In ancient times this mind-set begins with Plato banishing the poets from his Republic. In modern times it begins philosophically with Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum,” continues with Hegel historicism declaring that the synthesis of the thesis and the anti-thesis at the end of a process is always necessarily the best of all possible outcomes, and is underpinned by scientific positivism, the industrial revolution and the advent of Machiavellian real politik in the relations between nations wherein the end always justifies the means.

It is in short a mindset that believes itself “enlightened”, and therefore doubts everything except one thing: that it itself may need enlightenment. It begins with the so called “age of reason,” which believes that it can easily dispense with what is childish: the fables and myths spun by poets and visionaries, the whole of the humanistic world based on the poetic. It believes that adults endowed with reason must preoccupy themselves primarily with issues relating to the economic and the political and leave the rest to the Don Quixotes of this world, i.e., the losers.

It is a mind-set unable to conceive that the poetical may well be complementary to the rational; that one does not have to choose between one or the other; that both are indeed desirable and possible within a holistic view of Man. And so we get to the point that each individual that perceives itself thinking is convinced that he/she possesses the truth or can arrive at it individually beginning with the tabula rasa that is Descartes’ “cogito.” The slogan “everyone is entitled to his/her opinion” really means “to each his/her truth as he/she sees it.” Paradoxically, rather than the Cartesian “clear and distinct” ideas we have ended with the tower of Babel and herd thinking. To each his own version of the truth. Everyone has an opinion in this regard, and the sum of all opinions is the truth. One cannot but wonder on how we arrived at this sad state of affairs in the age of full-fledged rationality and science.

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