On Balance

One of the most difficult things to do when determining the strengths and weaknesses of Western Civilization — which has come under fire of late by many who see it as the cause of nothing but years of persecution and misery for millions of human beings — is to balance the pros against the cons. We might begin with the cons, as they are most interesting. At the top of my list would be the Spanish Inquisition about which the always reliable Wikipedia has this to say:

The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Spanish: Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición), commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition (Inquisición española), was established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and to replace the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control. It became the most substantive of the three different manifestations of the wider Catholic Inquisition along with the Roman Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition. The “Spanish Inquisition” may be defined broadly, operating in Spain and in all Spanish colonies and territories, which included the Canary Islands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and all Spanish possessions in North, Central, and South America. According to modern estimates, around 150,000 were prosecuted for various offenses during the three centuries of duration of the Spanish Inquisition, out of which between 3,000 and 5,000 were executed.

Gruesome, to say the least — even if the numbers of those burned alive in public auto-da-fes in the name of Christ are exaggerated. But one might add to this list the Protestant persecutions and execution of witches and heretics as well as the many wars fought by various factions of a Church which was founded on love.

And while we must realize that the history of the Christian Church is not the whole of the history of Western Civilization which began with the pre-Socratics, we must wonder why such a civilization that could have produced such horrors — not ignoring the Holocaust that took the lives of millions of Jews, the murder of millions of Russians during the Second World War by the Nazis, and the dropping of bombs on civilians in Germany and Japan by the Allies — should be preserved and allowed to survive. And we mustn’t forget the slave trade and the genocide that accompanied the take-over of the North American continent.

Arnold Toynbee tells us that civilizations come and go; they have a lifetime and the expire just as do those who comprise the members of those civilizations. Ours is clearly enduring what Toynbee called a “time of troubles” and seems to be gasping for breath — especially as growing numbers of those historically devoted to preserving Western Civilization in the colleges and universities have turned against it. But why should we be concerned, given the many atrocities that have been committed in the name of civilization when we know that many people who we have always regarded as “uncivilized” seem now to be in many ways superior to those who regard themselves as “civilized” people?

Ignoring for the moment that fact that many of the images of the delights of “uncivilized” people are romantic nonsense with little or no basis in historical fact, there are a number of reasons to fight to save Western Civilization. If we simply regard the benefits that have come to humankind as a result of Western Civilization the list would be impressive indeed. It must start with Roman law, civil discourse, a growing awareness of universal human rights together with the extraordinary works of art, music, literature, sculpture, philosophy and science all of which owe their origins to the brilliant people who have lived during that period we associate with Western Civilization, many of the art works centering around the passion of Christ. Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film-making genius put it well when he noted that:

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.”

Thus we do wander around bleating like sheep about nothing more important than ourselves. Our art shrinks to the level of the merely personal. We strive to eliminate all suffering because we fail to see that through suffering we might grow as human beings.  And this is a sure sign of the “time of troubles” that Toynbee notes is associated with the demise of civilizations. We live shallow lives, and in the process seem to have lost our creative abilities as we worry not about others and about the future but about ourselves now. This suggests that the present civilization may well be replaced by another that will almost certainly have as many atrocities — given the nature of human beings — and fewer of the great works noted above. The best we can hope for, I strongly suspect, is something very closely resembling Huxley’s Brave New World peopled by citizens who find their narrow pleasure-seeking lives worth the price of greatness that we must, like it or not, associate with Western Civilization at its height.

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The Self As God

I resubmit here for your consideration some ideas I expressed a few years ago when I first started writing my posts and had even fewer readers than I do now. I have updated and altered it a bit as the ideas seem to be worth a few moment’s thought.

A former student some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created an abyss into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound. Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that has passed since his return from England with his father in 1868:

“Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman, on the other hand, is speaking about art, but we must remember that art creates culture; where the artist goes culture follows:

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.”

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel):

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore. We are capable of love but only “have feelings” for a very few. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. Physicists might call this “entropy.” If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we learned not too long ago in Japan and are learning anew each day as we read about the latest gun death.

Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the love between people, friendship, the glorious sunset, or the bird soaring high above us against the bright blue sky. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.

Dumbing Down America II

In light of the “Trump phenomenon,” which has even Stephen Hawking bewildered, I thought I would reblog a post from 2011 that tries to figure out what went wrong. A large part of our problem is the fact that Trump gets headlines every time he farts and Bernie Sanders gathers thousands to his rallies and gets no notice whatever. Other than the fact that the corporations pretty much own the media these days — and they do NOT want Sanders to be the nominee of the Democratic Party — the media have fumbled the ball. But, as planned, Hillary has recovered the fumble and is running with it. 

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment. He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products. And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news has become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies. [And has recently occurred in the political arena.]

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who are surrounded by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused.

This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America.

Lost Piety

A former student and good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created a vacuum into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound.  Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that has passed since his return from England with his father in 1868: “Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman is speaking about art, but we must remember that art creates culture; where the artist goes culture follows.“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel): “All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore. We are capable of love but feel only animus toward all but a few. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we recently learned in Japan. Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the glorious sunset, or the bird soaring high above us. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.