This post is recycled from a lengthy comment made on Morris Berman’s blog Dark Ages America (after the book of the same name). I have edited it slightly since it no longer has the context of that comment thread and I included two of Prof. Berman’s objections from his response to my comment.
In a blog post about the purpose of a humanities education, Prof. Berman provides two numbered lists of facts and factors regarding the deplorable state of education in America. It has become almost a fetish among the cognoscenti to iterate examples of plebeian ignorance and misapplied sense of value, which provides an odd psychological satisfaction. Similarly, prophesying the imminent collapse of social, governmental, and economic structures and institutions imparts a bizarre nihilistic thrill for many able to peer a little bit over the horizon. Frankly, they’re both well-established postures. Of course, in the long run, societies, governments, and economies do eventually collapse, so such prophets are proved correct, though usually not in the timeframes they foresee. Current conditions make it very seductive to assert that we really are on the brink of collapse, that it’s different this time. That’s hard to dispute, so I won’t try. What’s interesting is the number of intelligent, educated people who now think of themselves as “doomers” — modern-day Cassandras reporting our demise but who are largely ignored by the masses, who are busy getting on with life (perhaps in the very fashion that will seal our doom). I fall somewhere between the extremes of ignoring what’s occurring and relishing reports of ruin.
Nonetheless, I feel a deep sadness that we’re quickly abandoning the Enlightenment legacy that has served us for some 400 years. Perhaps it deserves to be left behind, considering how it’s built on a lust for power and dominance over all of nature and indeed each other. Science has by now bequeathed to us the technical power to wreck the environment, which we’ve accomplished handily in a modest 150 years. I can’t imagine a worse injustice. Jim Kunstler writes that people can be divided into two groups: “those who believe we will ‘high-tech’ our way out of this predicament; and those who believe we’ll organize our way out.” He refers to economic collapse, but I suspect collapse of the biosphere may be the trump card — the bigger problem from which we cannot escape.
Abandonment of the questions posed by the humanities and revaluation of human life on mostly financial terms was discussed by Karl Marx in The 1844 Manuscripts, where he states that money is the “visible divinity” in a capitalist world. This is further described by Daniel Pinchbeck:
By possessing the property of buying everything, by possessing the property of appropriating all objects, money is thus the object of eminent possession. The universality of its property is the omnipotence of its being. It therefore functions as almighty being. Money is the pimp between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life. But that which mediates my life for me, also mediates the existence of other people for me. For me it is the other person.
The establishment of money as the ultimate measure of value has lured us into a trap. Our orientation is no longer as participants in communities or as a humble part of nature. We’re now free (condemned, really) to exploit nature and compete against each other in a Darwinian fight for survival, or more properly, struggle for personal wealth. The inevitable perversion of this new orientation is greed, loss of empathy, and narcissistic concern solely with ourselves. The best of Enlightenment thought was a projection of the human mind out into the world and the universe. That’s mostly gone now, replaced by inwardness, radical egotism, and sybaritism. For example, recent news of the discovery of a solar system like our own is disdained as irrelevant and a waste of time to think about now that computers and virtual life technology have created a program called Spore that allows people to evolve their own virtual life forms. Discovery of actual extraterrestrial life no longer holds so much interest because now we have very cool video games.
The extraordinary incuriosity of the masses toward learning may be a harbinger of the completion of a cycle away from the Cartesian mind toward what Rousseau called the “sleep of reason,” where a utopian minimalist state is characterized by “abandonment of books and other accouterments of intellect in order to cultivate enjoyment of the senses and good health” [borrowing here from E.O. Wilson]. Oddly, this cultural drift may be the very thing described in Berman’s final chapter of The Reenchantment of the World and recommended in Coming to Our Senses (though as Prof. Berman protested, without discarding the intellect). The upbeat descriptions contained there are an apparent obligation of cultural critics — the sugar-coated cures for our ailments. What we actually have instead is characterized by loss. Reason won’t be merely dormant, it will be forgotten. We are very likely in the midst of a paradigm shift, a restyling of human consciousness. In the process, we have jettisoned the ideals of the Enlightenment and failed to truly answer or even address the central question of the humanities: “What is the meaning of human life?” That failure may be out of laziness or misdirection, but probably not. Rather, it’s in our nature, perhaps best put by John Gray in Straw Dogs (in a quote I’ve used in the past and with which Prof. Berman disagrees):
The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction … Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mold. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.