Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why the World Is Not Going to Hell in a Basket

One of the unfortunate diseases of older age is the tendency to pessimism or even cynicism. Nostalgia for the good old days is rampant, with complaints about how the young don’t know what we knew at their age and how they are so ill-mannered and unworldly. When generalized to the political and cultural arenas, Armageddon is said to be imminent. For advocates of capitalism and admirers of Ayn Rand, it sometimes becomes a prediction of a new Dark Age.

I wish to take exception to these dire prophecies and venture an alternative scenario. One argument for the coming Dark Age is the analogy that is drawn between the twentieth and third centuries. The third century AD in the Roman Empire was a century of inflation (1, 2, 3); so was the twentieth century in the modern world, including the United States. In the Roman Empire, it was a century of war, chaotic leadership by ineffective emperors, and collapse of cultural institutions. Similar statements are made about the twentieth century of wars, chaos, weak leadership, and cultural collapse. The third century AD paved the way for the barbarians and ultimate collapse of ancient civilization. Obviously, the cynics conclude, we are headed in the same direction.

The decline of ancient Rome is a fascinating topic. I see the beginning of its end occurring about 150 BC, when Greek slaves were brought to Rome to educate the children of aristocrats. These Greek slaves were influenced mostly by the philosophy of Stoicism, the notion of turning away from the material world, and the Romans fell in love with the view. With Stoicism tapping into what apparently was an existing sense of life among Romans, the path was then prepared for Christianity and its turning-away view. By the fourth century AD, Paulinus of Nola, a Roman senator of great wealth and property simply renounced the material world and retreated to an austere, monastic life. In symbolic, if not actual, form ancient civilization sought refuge in the monastery. Turning away from material civilization is not a characteristic of contemporary culture or philosophy.

In the title essay of her book For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand said that Descartes reintroduced the Witch Doctor into modern philosophy, thus setting up an opposition between the material and spiritual that exists to this day. This opposition gave rise to Kant’s subjectivism and the resurgence of mysticism, which, Rand says, will lead to a new Dark Age.

I disagree with this interpretation. Based on conversations with my wife, philosopher Linda Reardan, I would say that Descartes made a valiant effort to bring consciousness down to earth—God being the metaphor of consciousness—and the entire modern and contemporary periods in philosophy have been an attempt to integrate consciousness into the material world and to naturalize it. There has not been a complete success, but this notion is at the root of my interpretation of John Dewey’s epistemology and the comment in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism (p. 70) that the rejection of intrinsicism in philosophy began “if only as a glimmer” in the late nineteenth century. Philosophy, I conclude, has been progressing, albeit not always in a straight line.

And viewing historical progress as requiring a straight line is surely a prescription for pessimism and cynicism. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215, but it was another six centuries before the Age of Enlightenment and the American Bill of Rights came into existence. In between there was the Black Death that wiped out as much as half of Europe’s population and the Hundred Years’ War, among other atrocities, yet the spirit to live and better ideas survived throughout that period to give us the world we have today. My notion of optimism derives from taking a very long view of civilization—centuries long. I do not expect life to improve much, if at all, in the next four years of the current presidential administration. I do not expect the current (or previous) administration to be the indicator of the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. I see the twentieth and maybe even the twenty-first centuries to be a blip in the progress of civilization. My optimism in no small part is also aided by a commitment to avoid condemning someone merely for espousing ideas with which I disagree.

Good—meaning rational—ideas win out in the long run. The ancient Greeks suffered a Dark Age from about 1200 to 800 BC. When they obtained the Phoenician alphabet and learned to write, they immediately recorded their entire oral tradition, paving the way for the golden age of Greco-Roman civilization. When moveable type was invented in the fifteenth century, every extant written work that could be found was, within a hundred years, published in permanent form, making education of the masses possible. The current century is proving to be the age of digitization, the aim of which is to make every written work in existence available in electronic form. The advantages of this cannot begin to be imagined.

The twentieth century produced two enormously destructive wars, but they did not silence either Ludwig von Mises or Ayn Rand. Their ideas now flourish—not on the front pages of leading newspapers or on nightly newscasts, but they are making their way through our culture. As I frequently tell my daughter, patience is a virtue. I may not in my lifetime see any significant intellectual change in our culture, and my daughter may not see much of a change either. But barring a meteor strike that wipes out ninety-five percent of all living species—and that assumes the destruction of all paper and electronic literature—the will to live will win out and civilization will continue.

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