Our modern western culture has lost its connection to the past, the rapid development of technology, and the global conflict during the world wars has drawn a bright line between ‘before’ and ‘now’. Since time immemorial, individuals and cultures felt a direct connection -or a line of succession, to history and historical personalities.
The extremely rapid acceleration of knowledge during the 100 years between 1880 and 1980 caused this break. Humanity went from the infancy of technology, that was Steam and the Telegraph, to an insanity that was global computer communication, Television, Space Travel, and Nuclear War. Punctuating that century like great drum beats were the intensely destructive World Wars, which ripped apart the societies of Europe and shook the foundations of western culture to its core. While Europe was reeling from those double shocks, a country that was barely into its adolescence was pushing forward with youthful strength and vigor.
Our culture changed while no one was looking, events were too large to be understood at the time, and even now: some 30 years from the close of that century the dust is still settling, and it isn’t yet apparent just how much has really changed. Like a rubber-band that has been stretched too fast and too far, western culture has broken and the link between the ancient world and current has irrevocably snapped.
We lose more than we realize by divorcing our current ideals and motives from the words of the past. Instead of maintaining the anchor to those writers of wisdom that stretch back into dim mists of time, we choose to throw off that link as if it were a chain to useless ideas. Far from useless those ideas and ideals have been a stabilizing connection to a store of built-up concepts and philosophy that shaped the world, built up brick by brick by mortals into a foundation of wisdom and reserve.
Before the century of destruction and change, it was not uncommon for any reasonably educated person to have read Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Solomon, Plato, Socrates and have an understanding that history was a continuum. That civilization was a line that stretched back into time, and that they were still walking on that same road of thought as had their philosophical ancestors stretching back to the beginnings of what would eventually become western culture.
This isn’t unique to western culture, other societies and cultures get their identities from their own founders and traditions, these links have also suffered from the rapid advances and the pressure to be more ‘American’ or just modern ‘Consumer’. I think of a song called ‘Amerika’ by the German band Rammstein. It depicts people from all over the world and from every culture eating pizza from a delivery box and watching the moon landings on a TV, all while wearing american t-shirts and sneakers. Are we destined to all become mindless consumers and destroyers?
We have lost our connection to a common past and have jumped the divide and abandoned historical ideas as dusty, old, and not relevant to the modern world, while we are driven to distraction by small screens and short text messages. We have forgotten who we are, and why we are here.
It’s time to realize that we are just little pups who have run away from mother into the wild woods and are unprepared and so very young.
Minerva or Athena (Depictions of Wisdom) were said to have a small pet Owl, also symbolizing wisdom. Owls can see in the night, they have large unblinking eyes and seem to stare into your soul. They are also quiet and grave looking, which makes them a perfect symbol for wisdom. I propose that we desire to be small owls, not yet ready to fly from the nest, but eager to be wise. Wisdom is its own reward, and can be equally bestowed on kings and servants alike. Be an owl and not a serpent, for both are intelligent, but the owl is wise, yet the serpent is cunning. The aged owl devours the cunning snake.
“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” -Hegel
Life is always full of things to do, places to go, and people to avoid. I never seem to have a moment to stop and to think, to pause and to reflect on the passage of time. I am constantly finding myself transported forward in time, as the days and weeks slip from my fingers while I am not looking. Someone wise once said: “Life is yours to waste”.
How much more time will go by before I next realize how much I have missed? When my life is over, and my breath is nearly gone; will I then understand the whole story? Will I look back upon my past -my life that I chose to live one small insignificant decision at a time, and understand that I did something meaningful? Did I raise good kids who became wise adults? Help my fellow man? Live my life well? Did I have a goal and a purpose? As the small grains of sand that are moments slip through my fingers; I wonder if they will add up to anything of value, or merely fall onto the dust pile of the ages?
A year ago, I lost my brother in a car crash, he was younger than I, and I have had the thought many times since: as my memories of him fade, and time crawls by that life and memory and time are temporary; that the powerful play goes on, and that I may contribute a verse.
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer. That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
― Walt Whitman – Leaves Of Grass
I know that no matter what happens, I too will one day die as well…
I don’t fear death, I am indifferent to life and death, I was not consulted at the beginning of life, and I won’t be at the end, so I don’t feel particularly attached to either state, but I do not want to live so that I have regrets when it comes time to die. In all estimations of average lifespan, I have about half of my life left, so I wish to life like Marcus Aurelius.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
― Marcus Aurelius
I recently read the biography of Albert Einstein by Walter Isaacson for the second time, Einstein has fascinated me ever since I went through a course on physics: his ideas captivated me then, and have stayed with me ever since. Einstein was more apt to use descriptions and visual imagery to show his ideas rather than just dumping his formulas bare and cold onto the world. He was a visual thinker and an amazing mind, someone who worked hard to solve problems but confronting them from many different angles, and worrying them to death until they gave up their secrets. He once said:
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
In the first 2/3rds of his life, he revolutionaized our concepts of time, gravity, and the very fabric of space and time. He was a simple patent examiner trying to knock Newton off his throne, and was at first ridiculed and ignored, then finally as fame and recognition came, he was lauded, and made into a reluctant public figure. He was unafraid to dabble in areas outside science where his opinions weren’t always welcomed, but over time many of his predictions and proclamations came true. Especially as WWI and WWII were brewing.
Einstein was a man of peace, he held radical pacifist views early in life, and though he was often accused of naiveté, he persisted in his desire to avoid military conflicts throughout his life. No doubt his views were heavily influenced by his experiences in Germany during the first World War, and the resignation of his professorship in the Prussian Academy as the Nazi Party took power in 1933.
When I first read the biography, I was interested most in the early part of his life, and the ideas that drove him to formulate his Special Theory Of Relativity, and the later the more broad General Theory, and his futile attempts to find a Universal Field Theory to unify the troubling randomness of Quantum Mechanics, and Relativity into one set of equations that could explain the sub-atomic level interactions of matter, all the way up to stars and whole galaxies. In the end Einstein never found his grand unifying theory, but equations found in the notebook beside his death bed show that he was still trying to figure it out right up to the end.
This time reading through the book though, I was most struck by his thoughts and ideas late in life, as the youthful fire of brilliance burned perhaps less hotly and mellowed down into great red burning coals of wisdom and pondering. Many of his more profound ideas don’t have anything specific to do with science at all, but with the condition of humanity. He was a pacifist, and yet his relationship with weaponry was complex: as he was instrumental in seeing that the US was the first to develop Atomic Weapons. This troubled him greatly in the ten years that he lived after the first atomic bomb was used against Japan in 1945. He wrote this explaining his motivations for the letter to Rosevelt, but throughout the rest of his life he was bothered by the idea that mankind now had the power to destroy itself. He said:
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Where do we go from here?
Anticlimax is the word I would use to describe the state of the world at the moment. As humanity as a whole we no longer really have a goal. The world has shrunken and become less interesting as more and more exploration and discovery have lessened the mystery around us, replacing full questions with half-answers.
In the time of the Reformation and the Renaissance: the intellectual pursuits were knowledge and discovery for their own sakes. In the industrial revolution that came after; thinkers were replaced with consumers, and nation-states with alliances of nations that span the globe. What used to be petty wars between small entities became global conflicts that pushed humanity to the edge of destruction, and spawned the construction of weapons that for the first time in history have the power to destroy completely their own creators.
Tell me, where do we go from here?
To the stars? Or do we turn inwards and lose ourselves in the process?
I would be happy to say we will someday have colonies on Mars and perhaps in the high cloud-tops of Venus, but I fear that we are so close to a tipping point, that a mere breath will push us over the brink into destruction. The ‘modern world’ has been saved from the edge of destruction before, can we save it from ourselves again?
Years ago I took the Myer-Briggs Personality Type test, which is based on Carl Jung’s Personality Types, and I got an INTP result.
I took the test again today, and voila! got INTP-A again, so I used another site with slightly different question wording, and got INTP-A once more… so I would say that at-least as far as this test is concerned, the results are pretty consistent.
I read the generic description of the INTP type: http://www.16personalities.com/intp-personality and found it to be fairly accurate, a little like looking into a personality mirror. I don’t really put a lot of stock in psychology in general, since so much of it is subjective and based on the flexible opinion of whoever is writing the book, and very little concrete logical analysis, but I have found the Myers-Briggs test fascinating, and I do have respect for Jung -much more than for Freud at-least. Jung seems more down-to-earth and more fascinating than his more well known colleague: Freud.
My heart goes out to the beautiful people of Paris, and the whole of France during this time of senseless violence and brutality. May the spirit of France remain undaunted.