We live in an age of ephemera and digital myopia that befuddle our wits and have thrown up the possibility of a Trump Presidency. Britain departs the European, stage right, after a campaign marred by cynicism and misinformation. The Siren sounds of advertising impel us to consume beyond what we need and corporations and their despots exercise unaccountable power over vast, and growing, fortunes. In an effort to understand this cultural drift I turn to philosophy, evolution and the effect of changes in technology, for answers.
In philosophy I attempt to harmonise two seemingly contradictory notions that inform my understanding. The first is a notion expressed by the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus (d 475 BCE) that “no man ever steps into the same river twice, for he’s not the same man and the river is not the same”. This phenomenological view rests on observation of a constantly evolving reality. It is a process similar to the gathering of scientific data.
The second approach is ideological but might be seen as analogous to over-arching scientific laws. This is the idea of prior knowledge, an objective belief in identifiable forms of justice or beauty. In Western philosophy this is identified with Plato (d 347 BCE) and his successors who trained their ears to the strains of an elusive harmony.
Inferring truth solely from observation of phenomena is problematic, especially where life is reduced to competition between individual genes for expression as expounded by Richard Dawkins in his formative, ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976).
These competing ideas may be resolved by allowing for an evolving objectivity: a fleeting truth. That is to say that answers to questions posed in Ancient Greece are quite distinct from those we seek today. It is dangerous talk, no doubt, to assume that humans have a capacity to discern principles arising from observation of a shifting reality, but without that assumption there is little hope for us.
We can reject that idea and see homo sapiens as no more than a primate with a powerful brain that has successfully stored knowledge over millennia, beginning with farming and proceeding through literacy into the Internet. But then there is a temptation to retreat into relativist angst and dismiss our thoughts as idle.
Most political ideologies, Marxism not least, eschew nihilism and posit a Utopia that we should drive towards, the best acknowledging the word’s origins in Greek as ‘no place’, but an aspiration. For example Village magazine promotes equality and sustainability as substantial ideals necessarily shifting with the flow of events.
Agreeing on principles is a treacherous business, not least in crooked Ireland. It requires serious engagement over time with a great range of information and disciplines. Moreover, we must also leave a space for mystery as most Ancient Greek philosophers assuredly did.
It was in that Greece of Antiquity that it seems that ideal and reality – form and content – came into closest balance. Fifth-century Athens was not human perfection incarnate: slavery was commonplace and women were not seen as equal to men, but still their achievements are unparallelled in a host of domains, including architecture, where an accommodation with Nature appears to have been reached.
In his ‘History of Western Philosophy’ (1945), Bertrand Russell wrote that: “nothing is so surprising or so difficult to account for as the sudden rise of civilisation in Greece … What they achieved in art and literature is familiar to everybody, but what they achieved in the purely intellectual realm is even more exceptional”. How to comprehend the virtually simultaneous arrival of science, history and mathematics, the very fundaments of a dominant Western civilisation?
The psychiatrist and literary scholar, Iain McGilchrist, in his ‘The Master and his Emissary’ (2009), proposes that a steep evolution occurred in Ancient Greece when an abrupt collective separation in function between the two hemispheres of the brain – broadly a creative right and rational left – occurred.
To begin with the hemispheres achieved a beatific balance. But he argues that, since our Hellenic heights, left-brained rationality has emerged dominant over the creative right hemisphere. Thus we have developed extraordinary technologies but failed to use them wisely, bringing us to the brink of auto-destruction, a process that continues apace in the age of the Internet.
McGilchrist writes that: “The Greeks began the process of standing back; and the beginnings of analytical philosophy, of theorising about the political state, of the development of maps, of the observation of the stars and the ‘objective’ natural world, all may be mediated by the left hemisphere; though the urge to do it at all comes from the right”. He also sees the origins of the individual “as distinct from, as well as bonded to, the community”.
He wrote of this evolution in our minds: “My thesis is that the separation of the hemispheres brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. It made possible a standing outside of the ‘natural’ frame of reference, the common-sense everyday way in which we see the world. In doing so it enabled us to build up that ‘necessary distance’ from the world and from ourselves, achieved originally by the frontal lobes, and gave us insight into things that otherwise we could not have seen, even making it possible for us to form deeper empathic connections with one another and with the world at large. The best example of this is the fascinating rise of drama in the Greek world, in which the thoughts and feelings of ourselves and of others are apparently objectified, and yet returned as our own. A special sort of seeing arises, in which both distance and empathy are crucial”.
However: “Separation also sowed the seeds of left-hemisphere isolationism … At this stage in cultural history, the two hemispheres were still working largely together, and so the benefits outweighed by a long way the disadvantages, but the disadvantages became more apparent over time”.
A technological development that McGilchrist associates with the shift was the emergence of money currencies, reigning ascendant by the fourth century BCE. This replaced the reciprocal exchange of gifts which are “not precise, not calculated, not instantaneously enacted or automatically received, not required; the gifts are not themselves substitutable, but unique; and the emphasis is on the value of creating or maintaining a relationship, which is also unique”. Money creates a distance between people that has been growing ever since, especially with the sophistication of modern usury.
McGilchrist argues that metaphor, imagination and reason rather than a remote rationality, which he identifies with René Descartes (d 1650) in particular, should inform our understanding of the world in a powerful thesis that combines scientific insight with acute analysis of the history of Western thought. In my view it only comes a cropper when he advocates preserving vestiges of monarchy over republican government. Assuming the descendants of a warrior caste are suited to being heads of states, symbolically or otherwise, seems abhorrent to reason. However, as I will explore, the democratic alternative is threatened by the decline in concentration, in the era of the Internet; linked to a decline in the reading of serious books.
While acknowledging Plato’s ideas as more poetic than is often assumed, McGilchrist sets him in opposition to the phenomenological view identified with Heraclitus. But I propose that we need to continue to strive for eternal truths, however fleeting the encounters may be. Otherwise we drown.
Can Plato’s ‘Republic’ which divides mankind into castes of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Copper be recovered from racism and totalitarianism? The literary critic Northrop Frye (d 1991) argued that the state he imagines should be treated allegorically and that the real location of the ‘Republic’ is in the mind: “The wise man’s mind is a ruthless dictatorship of reason over appetite achieved by the control of will … the real Utopia is an individual goal, of which the disciplined society is an allegory”.
WB Yeats argued “that much of the confusion of modern philosophy … comes from our renouncing the ancient hierarchy of beings from man up to the One”. In part this is based on Yeats’ idea of the revolt of soul against intellect, accessing the creativity of our unconscious thoughts which McGilchrist would identify with right-hemisphere function. Out of this duality we might shape a confrontation with the challenges of our time.
It is those who ascend a chain of both intellect and imagination rather than the purely technocratic that should chart our society’s course.
Yeats and other poets, beginning with William Blake, have emphasised the vital force of imagination as a guarantee of freedom in the scientific age.
Paradoxically we live in an age of increasing ignorance, when digital ephemera cloud deep awareness. Most human beings blithely ignore warnings of impending doom and the horrendous loss of the natural world and even threats to human survival. We’re in a muddle that may originate in defective thinking. So much of what we consume is unnecessary and vacuous. Advertising charms us into mindless consumption. Appetite dominates will.
Technology was supposed to free us from the constraints of work but the opposite has occurred as new fetters crystallise. The sector concentrates vast financial resources in a few hands. It is left to chance whether the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are suited to shaping the future of humanity. Our liberties in this plutocracy converge on those under the enlightened despots of the eighteenth century in Europe: with preferences and tastes guided as never before by cunning algorithms.
Before the Internet the greatest breakthrough in communication was Johannes Gutenberg’s development of moveable type in about 1450 (for the first time in Europe) which was a necessary precursor to the Renaissance, and perhaps to democracy. The Canadian critic Northrop Frye identified the book, mass-produced through printing presses, as the “by-product of the art of writing, and the technological instrument that makes democracy a working possibility – avoiding all rhetorical tricks designed to induce hypnosis in an audience, relying on nothing but the inner force and continuity of the argument…Behind the book is the larger social context of a body of written documents to which there is public access, the guarantee of the fairness of that internal debate on which democracy rests”.
The book he says “is not linear: we follow a line while we are reading but the book itself is a stationary visual focus of a community”. This he distinguishes from “the electronic media that increase the amount of linear experience, of things seen and heard that are quickly forgotten. One sees the effects on students: a superficial alertness combined with increased difficulty preserving the intellectual continuity that is the chief characteristic of education”.
Frye wrote this in the 1970s, at a time when electronic media meant the television. He would surely despair at attention-spans today which see most media reduced to pornographic click-bait and dull chatter about sport and celebrities that are “quickly forgotten about”. The crucial distinction between the e-book and the real book is that the former does not provide a “stationary visual focus”. The tangible book offers an ease of access and permits non-linear reading. The Heraclitean torrent of the Internet makes it difficult for us to fix on the kinds of principles that books adumbrate.
Frye also identifies a rejection of history and tradition, an iconoclastic tendency to dismiss the past rather than learn from it, especially in America: “A society with a revolutionary basis, like American society, is often inclined to be impatient of history and tradition. “History is bunk” said Henry Ford, at one end of the social scale: “I don’t take no stock in dead people”, said Huckleberry Finn, at the other.
The future, in such a view, cannot be the outcome of the past: it is a brand-new future, which may be implicit in the present but is to be built out of the materials of the present by an act of will, which cannot operate until it has been released from the past. The strongly negative mood in today’s radicalism, the tendency to be against rather than for, is consistent with this: whatever is defined is hampering, and only the undefined is free”.
Liberation from the grip of dominant, and often illogical, orthodoxies is important, but dismissing all that came before leaves us bereft and drowning.
The revolutionary trend that dismisses history and even ideas of objective justice has its origin in the Renaissance which James Joyce wrote has:
“Placed the journalist in the monk’s chair: in other words, it has deposed a sharp, limited and formal mind in order to hand the sceptre to a mentality that is facile and wide-ranging … a mentality that is restless and somewhat amorphous … Untiring creative power, heated, strong passion, the intense desire to see and feel, unfettered and prolix curiosity have, after three centuries, degenerated into frenetic sensationalism. Indeed one might say of modern man that he has an epidermis rather than a soul. The sensory power of his organism has developed enormously, but it has developed to the detriment of his spiritual faculty. We lack moral sense and perhaps also strength of imagination … we are avid for details. For this reason our literary jargon speaks of nothing else than local colour, atmosphere, atavism: whence the restless search for what is new and strange, the accumulation of details that have been observed and read, the parading of the common culture”.
But Joyce did identify one important redeeming feature: “If the Renaissance did nothing else, it did much in creating within ourselves and our art a sense of pity for every being that lives and hopes and dies and deludes itself. In this at least we excel the ancients: in this the popular journalist is greater than the theologian”.
Here again we encounter a conflict between the respective legacies of Plato and Heraclitus. The Platonic ideal, dear to the medieval mind, does not have the flexibility to observe the stream, instead staring towards an a priori and unchanging heavenly sphere. This was washed away in the current of the Renaissance. But the purely Heraclitean mind that has reached its apotheosis with the Internet just goes with the flow and shrugs its shoulders at the absurdity of it all; emoticons substituting for words and selfies for bildungsroman.
Analysing the origins of the mob that supports Trump is a precarious and depressing exercise but loss of attention span is surely a significant factor. The modern human is a bewildered creature educated in the use of tools – an infant can work a tablet – but increasingly removed from sustained intellectual engagement or poetic imagination: the province of serious books and enquiring spirituality. Befuddled minds identify with shrill invective and cheap humour: the sweeter harmonies of justice, beauty and truth go unheard, just as the high pitch of the dogwhistle is inaccessible to our ears.
Moreover, can we counter the complexity of a financial system serving the interests of those who rule over it? Can we ever enter an equilibrium with Nature?
Individual monetary wealth must be contained within prescribed limits but an innovative society can be served by incentives reliant on a form of objective currency. We need those incentives to develop alternatives to fossil fuels and livestock, and because small businesses harness creativity and the vibrancy of trade. The money market is, however, clearly unsuited to addressing contemporary deprivations of basic needs manifest, for example, in homelessness and food poverty. The challenge is to reorder our priorities as educated individuals, and reassert democratically-accountable states over corporations. But as Frye indicates this requires an electorate capable of intellectual engagement derived from reading serious books: more philosophers in other words.
A wise society can be realised by the reorientation of educational priorities towards the humanities, and its books, and away from an unmediated approach to science, as the former should guide the latter. The human should guide the machine and not become victim to it, as Dr Frankenstein succumbed to his monster. Frye observed perceptively: “The civilisation produced by the automobile, with its network of highways, the blasted deserts of its parking lots, the grid plan of cities, and the human sacrifices offered to it on every holiday, clearly raises the question of who is enslaving whom”.
We need to reassert the creativity and originality of the right hemisphere to guide the rationality of the left hemisphere as McGilchrist proposes. The evolution he observed is not irreversible.
In Greek mythology Prometheus is the fire-bringer who provided human beings with the power to control Nature and rise above it contrary to the wishes of Zeus who punishes him for eternity. Humans have been slashing and burning their way through primordial forests since. It could eventually end in tragedy for us as it has for many species, especially in this, the Anthropocene, the era of human geological time.
But another light shines too, that is the light of human ideas. We are capable of employing reason, even in the era of the Internet.
By Frank Armstrong