There are things we never refer to because we presume they are settled once and for all. These tacit convictions cast their spell over everything else we think, say and do. The small collection of first principles I referred to in an earlier post (Losing the Evidence) are among these, but they are few and shared by virtually all our ancestors. However, for the past two hundred years or so, there is a brand new unspoken assumption, and one shared only by the recently “enlightened”; and this one is wrong. Still, once it grew powerful in its hidden corner (like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain), it became imperious and flustered. It gets cranky when forced into the light.
I am referring to the common assumption that we live today on the favored cusp of history. We quietly presume we have climbed up sufficiently high on the mountain of time to look back accurately, and contemptuously, upon the faltering past that brought us here. We are all card-carrying historicists, although we tend to keep the card deep in our pockets. History, we silently decree, determines all and despite our current problems, we deem ourselves so blessed by science and technology that we can look down at the past behind us. We sigh gratefully that we are finally in a position to slough off old errors and behold the slow unveiling of final truth through the ministrations of science.
This conviction presumes something few of us would dare admit, but which follows hard on the heels of defining human beings as “children of their age.” Some scientists, and quite a few philosophers, have already bought into this. It is the new, avant-garde teaching that human nature changes. Obviously a corollary of philosophical spin-offs from evolutionary theory (though the link is scientifically tenuous), we presume that something deep and constitutive, and which has come to us uniquely through historical change, makes us qualitatively different from most of our forebears.
Those forebears of the pre-modern West – and virtually all non-Westerners – are made to look almost like a breed of subhuman primates because they were deprived of modern triumphs in explaining and controlling the world. Biologists will tell us, it is true, that appreciable evolutionary change requires not centuries or millennia, but millions of years. But not to worry; they are now applying principles of natural selection to culture and thought and, yes, even to recorded history (which only takes us back about 5,000 years). The stratagems they devise to escape the ever-present boogie man of self-referentiality (that is, their attempts to dodge the ricochet effect of their relativizing declarations on the validity of those very declarations) are often creative and amusing, but hardly convincing.
So let us remind ourselves of some facts. In the deep recesses of our body’s 30 some trillion cells, the chromosomes still number 46, as they have for at least as far back as we are able to date homo sapiens sapiens, that is, hundreds of thousands of years. When, in the 19th century, Egyptian hieroglyphics were first deciphered, we expected to find arcane lore of some “totally other” strain of human experience in that archaic culture. What we found were reports of sports, grocery stores, doctor visits and other human commonplaces. And the fabled primitive cave-man has long been debunked as one prehistoric cave after another is uncovered, with walls painted in mysterious artwork.
The unavoidable fact is that our nature has not changed at all. Despite our current Frankenstein-like meddling with genes and clones, there is no reasonable projection of such change for the foreseeable future. Nature trumps history. All of our emotions and basic thoughts can be adequately expressed in any of the 6,000 plus languages still spoken on Earth. Although translation is often difficult and approximate, we are still able to escort obvious meaning even from ancient and exotic tongues right into our own contemporary languages. As we listen through the unaccustomed phonemes, we are greeted by a common fund of human life and significance.
The classics of the past are accessible to our minds and imaginations for the simple reason that we share the nature of those who produced them. What we have in common with them far outshines the differences we possess in speed and power. After all, most of the frantic velocity of our cars and planes, and the muscle power of our computers, still serve human communion and communication. I may have more processing power in my smart phone than was in the rocket that took men to the moon in 1969; still, I use the little power pack mostly to say hi to a friend, or to order a pizza.
I, for one, would like to learn why earlier centuries did not, like our recent and so celebrated 20th, slaughter some 100 million people in wars, gulags, concentration camps and collectivist follies. And why were they unable (or unwilling?) to fill our oceans with more plastic sacks and bottles than there are stars in the sky? The simple truth is that the 20th century obviously got human nature wrong, and nature itself bears the wounds.
Who can help us remember what we’ve forgotten? Read Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas and Dante for starters. And what is more, take a look at an Upanishad, a Buddhist sutra or the Analects of Confucius. Learn a classical language, with its far smaller vocabulary and far richer grammar, and you will be amazed at what marvels language can perform in the nature you possess. Otherwise, the current epidemic of cultural Alzheimer’s will continue to spread to our collective psyche, as we increasingly refuse to know anything at all that is not shiny and new. Cicero already foresaw this danger 2,000 years ago. He said that the worse captivity of all is to be a child of one’s time. In our case, we are children of a very dysfunctional family.
In that prison, our human reality is observably in slow retreat. And although we will prove incapable of changing our nature, we will find out, to our horror, that we are quite adroit at destroying it.