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THE ECLIPSE OF WISDOM

THE JOURNEY HOME

We now know that the earth was once nothing but wilderness/nature. We know that out of an African savannah, incubated in it, nurtured by it, a primate lineage gradually evolved into hominids. Then hominids slowly developed the self-reflective, creative consciousness capable of language, art, religion and politics. The San Bushman populations of Southern Africa have now been confirmed as the closest living relatives to that aboriginal population from which all modern humans descended. They probably give us the best image of our shared "African Adam and Eve". Their traditional cosmology is most likely among the oldest on earth, seeming to recede back into the Paleolithic origins of human consciousness. Traditional bushmen led an existence that in some ways seems enchanted, moving in nomadic small egalitarian bands, held together by an ethos of caring for and sharing with one another, while being sensitively attuned to the natural world that constituted Africa (see Chapter 3).

By contrast, the dominant political and economic institutions of our modern world were created from radically different assumptions about our origins. Political philosophers like John Locke accepted the Genesis account of the earth's creation: that the planet was young, that all plant and animal species appeared as a result of separate acts of divine creation, which culminated on the sixth day in the miraculous appearance of human beings. They believed that the natural world existed as raw material for the central human project of productive labour – converting wilderness into wealth. The wilderness was merely “waste" until transformed by labour. Locke's view then was precisely the opposite of Herman's own deepest experience of primal wilderness, an experience that seems to have been central to all wilderness-based societies.

CLASSICAL LIBERALISM: MATERIAL, MECHANICAL, SUPPLY AND DEMAND

Classical Liberalism, as it has come to be expressed by the United States, relies on three impersonal mechanistic understandings that converge, for Herman, in eliminating the need for the individual to consider the good of the whole. The first is the mechanical- materialism of Cartesian-based science, which values only the measurable knowledge of the tangible world and dismisses as unknowable and unimportant most of the things of the mind. The second is a minimal form of collective decision-making and conflict resolution based on a mechanical system of elected representatives, separation of powers, and checks and balances. The third is the law of supply and demand embodied in the invisible hand of the market that supposedly converts self-interest into the collective good. Taken together they make selfishness and lack of introspection into virtues; ipso facto the rich have the truth and should rule.

That having been said, in the wake of the corrupt and decrepit feudal institutions of the medieval era, the American Constitution was a revolutionary and liberating advance. Today we rightly celebrate its achievements: the rights and freedoms of the individual; the efficiencies of industrial production; the cornucopia of wealth; the endless succession of technological miracles; and the massively expanded perspective of science and the reliability of its inferences.

However, America's founders, to which Needleman alluded in the last chapter, could have no inkling of how their ideas might translate in a 21st-century world. They wrote almost a century before Darwin and Marx and without the revolutionary insights of Freud and Einstein. We now know that neither human beings nor the universe operate like clockwork, and we are also painfully aware of the failings of 18th-century clockwork thinking as a basis for politics and society; most particularly, we've witnessed the depersonalization of mass bureaucratic societies and the failures of electoral and market mechanisms to ensure the good of the whole. Without a truth-loving culture no electoral mechanism can protect us from demagogues who manipulate fear and ignorance in their pursuit of power. The miracle of an ever more productive consumer society – Adam Smith's promised "wealth of nations" – now confronts us with a double bind: we face an immediate political crisis whenever the economy fails to keep growing, and we face the ultimate environmental catastrophe if the economy continues to keep growing. All the while wealth is inexorably concentrated in the hands of the few.

Here we have to face squarely the most damaging and least understood consequence of the Liberal paradigm; the definitive elimination of a culture based on the love of wisdom – the truth quest – which ironically, as both Needleman and Herman point out, was close to the hearts of the Founding Fathers. In the absence of the quest, which is both an individual and a collective effort, the culture fragments and society lurches between a cynical, pragmatic materialism and a closed-minded fundamentalism. Today the majority of Americans regard politicians as morally equivalent to prostitutes, while many hold rigid ideological and religious beliefs in which bizarre individual interpretations are taken as divine certainties.

 
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