You don’t have to go into the dark, but if you want to see the stars in all their glory you have to dare to go deep into the desert, away from the light pollution of civilisation. Only then, when your eyes become acclimatised to real darkness, can you begin to appreciate the sheer brilliance of the starts. Then, and only then, will you see which way to go1.
The last few Theses have not made for comfortable reading. They force us to confront the denial of recent years that while things seem to be going well, it’s probably at a cost we simply can’t sustain. To eat one’s seed corn is the final despair of a starving, or greedy people. It’s time to pause. We have come a long way together. Now with ninety-four Theses behind us there are only four more to go. It’s been a tough climb, but we can now see the summit. A wise mountain guide would insist that we now take a lengthy rest, not just to conserve energy, but so as to appreciate the view which is about to unfold. He would also remind us to look back to get a sense of where we have come from.
So, pause. Take time out. However worried you may be at the hole which modern society seems to be digging for itself, we humans do have phenomenal brain power. The future is always open, nothing is ultimately foretold. Free will can triumph over predestination; scientific determinism doesn’t always work. We are all in the same boat. Shortly those who guzzle gas in their hummers in middle America will come face-to-face with the citizens of that tiny island state of Kiribati in the Pacific, which by a geographical quirk, was the first country to enter the twenty-first century, but could soon be the first to leave it as rising sea levels swamp its low-lying atolls2.
There is a well-proven military dictum that says that “he with the best intelligence wins”. We who have come through all the foothills of this mountain whose peak we are about to reach, have just that intelligence. It may not yet be complete; but we have an advantage that others don’t have. We can see it all as a joined-up story. Ponder this for a few minutes more, for the last climb to the summit is going to be hard. Some of the people you met earlier in the climb, and some of the conversations you had with them, you will never forget. Those ancient Greek philosophers and Babylonian mathematicians helped you to ask the questions that now seem to daunt you, and gave you the means whereby to define time and space. Then there was the Roman schoolboy who became St. Augustine, the Saxon nobleman pondering the significance of a sparrow flying in from the cold, and King Alfred striving to create libraries so that his people could read. Then there was Roger Ascham, two-parts gloriously right and one-part appallingly wrong. John Milton seemed to say it all. Adding to our knowledge of how we “tick” were, amongst many others, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, John Dewey, Lady Plowden and Richard Livingstone. Now, crowding in amongst us, are cognitive scientists, neurobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, theologians and philosophers. There have been some well-meaning but foolish people and, unfortunately, there have been charlatans as well, some of whom have done great damage.
And over all these there is an ever pressing “presence”; the ghosts of our largely forgotten ancestors, men and women of hundreds of thousands of years ago whose life experiences so influenced the genetic structures of our own bodies, that they are shaping us in just the same way as they did Aristotle and Martin Luther. All this we now know in ways which neither our parents nor our grandparents could ever have appreciated. We now knew about the proper relationship of Nature and Nurture. Unlike the ostrich we have no excuse for burying our heads in the sand. It really is true, there are none so blind than those who will not see.
Remember again that military dictum, “He who has the best intelligence wins”. You know all about the threat of global warming; of the threat posed by the over exploitation of raw materials, and you know of the biological reality that when a species gets too big for its habitat it seeks to kill its neighbours. You know, too, how easy it is for modern man, imagining himself living in some philosophical “post-modernist” world, to get terribly depressed with the loneliness of it all. And you will know that one form of escape from depression is the solace of eating and drinking still more, so that with one-third of Englishmen now estimated to be obese by the year 2010, there will be ever fewer people able to climb the mountain that you are now perched on.
Soon you will be excited, for the view you will see will be breath-taking. Suffering perhaps just a little from vertigo you will be relieved that others are around you. Nervous as to what the next four Theses will contain, you will be carried along by the others who are your companions.
Another traveller like you, forty years before, was that splendid man Kenneth Clark (“Lord Civilisation”) who, concluding his massive treatise on Civilisation in 1969, wrote “It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation, and went on to quote W. B. Yeats;
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
We have, let us hope only temporarily, lost that centre. We have to regain it, or perish in the attempt. That’s what the next four Theses will be all about.
Thesis 95: 28th August 2006