Many of the great problems we face today, as far as I understand them, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is no more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness, if I may put it that way. This civilization is immensely fresh, young, new, and fragile, and the human spirit has accepted it with dizzying alacrity, without itself changing in any essential way. Humanity has gradually, and in very diverse ways, shaped our habits of mind, our relationship to the world, our models of behavior and the values we accept and recognize. In essence, this new, single epidermis of world civilization merely covers or conceals the immense variety of cultures, of peoples, of religious worlds, of historical traditions and historically formed attitudes, all of which in a sense lie “beneath” it. At the same time, even as the veneer of world civilization expands, this “underside” of humanity, this hidden dimension of it, demands more and more clearly to be heard and to be granted a right to life.You read them? You re-read them?
Aren't they profound ideas that have been so easily conveyed in such elegant sentences?
Now, think about the content in the following:
Life a century ago, to say nothing of life two millennia ago, was very different. And growing up in East Asia or sub-Saharan Africa is a very different experience from growing up in Western Europe or in the United States. Yet, the human brain and the human mind have not changed during these periods--scarcely blips in the history of our species, let alone the history of life. As human beings, we do not differ fundamentally from the humans portrayed in the Bible or in Greek drama. The most remarkable achievements of the past--the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; the literary achievements of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides--reflect minds of the highest order; and note that I refer only to representatives of a tiny post in the world: Athens, a few centuries before the birth of Christ.You read them? You re-read them?
As human beings, despite the remarkable changes of recent times, we remain cognitive and emotional siblings of those who lived in Stone Age caves, those who settled the Fertile Crescent, and those who built the first cities in the Middle East, on the Indian subcontinent, and along the rivers and coasts of South America. We can understand many of their pains, disappointments, fears, aspirations, desires, and dreams. It would perhaps be more difficult for them to empathize with us, because the superficial appearance of our world is so alien from anything that they would have imagined.
Both were written at about the same time. The first excerpt is from Vaclav Havel's speech at the commencement event at Harvard, in 1995. The second is from Howard Gardner's The Disciplined Mind, which was published in 1999.
Those excerpts are valid, valuable, even today. After all, their concerns are about humanity. Havel says elsewhere in that address:
In our era, it would seem that one part of the human brain, the rational part which has made all these morally neutral discoveries, has undergone exceptional development, while the other part, which should be alert to ensure that these discoveries really serve humanity and will not destroy it, has lagged behind catastrophically.
Yes, regardless of where I begin my thinking about the problems facing our civilization, I always return to the theme of human responsibility, which seems incapable of keeping pace with civilization and preventing it from turning against the human race. It’s as though the world has simply become too much for us to deal with.
I tell ya, it is always a pleasure to read such great thinkers. I will end this post with a few more sentences from Havel:
The main task in the coming era is something else: a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility. Our conscience must catch up to our reason, otherwise we are lost.
It is my profound belief that there is only one way to achieve this: we must divest ourselves of our egotistical anthroponcentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being, where it is judged.
Whether our world is to be saved from everything that threatens it today depends above all on whether human beings come to their senses, whether they understand the degree of their responsibility and discover a new relationship to the very miracle of being. The world is in the hands of us all.
So, what are you going to do?