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Two Great Civilizing Forces

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Long Man of Wilmington (cropped)
Long Man of Wilmington (cropped)
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From deep antiquity until today, the forces that civilize human beings remain essentially the same. But we must learn to balance differing views and create bridges for cooperation, at this time in history, if we want humanity to survive. After having weathered many trials, we remain on the brink of calamity with many people squarely in the middle of it. And yet; divisive political ideologies prevent the kind of cooperation that would allow the people to make life better for each other, by keeping individuals focused on the differences between us rather than what unites us. We need to heal the rift created by politics and make peace with our brothers and sisters, if we want to turn this situation around. And we need to make our elected officials work for the benefit of all, rather than only those who support the same ideological view. 'Win-win or no deal' should be the norm, rather than the province of a small number of political independents with integrity. But this ideal seems far-fetched, in the current political climate. People feel compelled to choose a side, lest the atrocities of the opposing party be allowed to continue. So what is offered are often false choices with many people losing either way, and only entrenched special interests standing to benefit. Therefore I am writing to help people make sense of these things, as part of a detailed game plan for fixing the problems of the world through sensibility.

The biggest problem has always been that those with answers and those who need clear solutions to make good decisions are separated. So the people who have the power to change the lives of others cry "there are no better answers" while people who have looked behind the curtain say "wait a minute, we have real answers; why won't you listen?" I am blessed or cursed by seeing the view behind the curtain so many times my eyes hurt. I have been the unknown extra man in the room when important things are happening, so now I am the odd man out, or the mysterious figure in the background - despite being a foreground figure to the best of my ability. And I have seen or learned things by being in the company of the wealthy or the intellectual elite, though I am not especially well-endowed myself. So I can attest with certainty that there are ways problems like pollution can be solved that would assure everyone's needs are met. Unfortunately; this brings up the same concern that has halted our progress repeatedly.

The question arises; "What if someone wants to turn it into a weapon?" This is not idle speculation, and it remains a palpable motivator for vigilance, regarding the introduction of certain advanced technologies. There are very real dangers! So we need close agreement in the international community to bring various helpful advances to the public safely. This is a general rule, rather than something specific to a given technology. Pete Seeger's dad Charles voiced a concern that too many of the advances of scientists were empowering the plans of dictators and despots, and argued with scientists that their research should be halted. But when I heard the story from Pete years later (also in "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?", pg. 283); he said he would take his father to task, were he alive, because the only way out of the dilemma was to learn more. He said we need something better than yesterday's answers, and should remember that Kant and Hegel taught how the clash of opposing views leads to a synthesis, incorporating elements of both outlooks. This is where human society is today. We need to reject the focus on choosing one carefully crafted viewpoint or the other, and learn how to craft and choose our own viewpoint instead, to be free from a kind of slavery and overcome the problems that face us. We must learn to think for ourselves and to value what is real above a political version of philosophy.

I think philosophy is healthy, and I believe that many who reject this statement do so while adopting an ideology that is a philosophy about life and its meaning. This view is informed by a wonderful article by Carlo Rovelli, talking about the value of philosophy for physics (and vice versa) that recounts the debate between Isocrates and Plato, who is known as one of the first philosophers. In modern times, most consider both Plato and Isocrates to be philosophers, but with competing ideologies, or views about philosophy and the meaning of life. Isocrates felt it was important to cultivate practical skills to the utmost, and Plato thought it was essential to know the underlying basis for things, to know what to do. The fault of modern people is trying to choose and find ways to affirm one view or the other, when we must see that both views have value. This is particularly difficult for some people to do, without a sense of betrayal. Choosing to be for everybody makes one a pariah in the eyes of every political idealist, regardless of their stripes. But people need to achieve a kind of balance, to be virtuous. To be a moral and upright human being one must be at least prepared to accommodate, to befriend or make peace with adversaries, and so on. If one is not so prepared, then claiming to hold the moral high ground is questionable. If this is of no concern for some, then the survival of the human race remains in question. However; the bigger question is whether humans are being good stewards. At this point in Earth's history, we must prove that we deserve to be here.

This is why it is so important to have a firm grasp on both of the civilizing staffs of life, knowledge and cultivation. If one chooses the path of knowledge, it leads inexorably to understanding and then wisdom. But choosing the path of cultivation leads one to expertise and then mastery. Who can say which is better? My view is that both are deficient unless one has some grounding in the other viewpoint. As always; the pediment of virtue rests on a pair of pillars, which represent the defect and excess of some tangible quality. In the case of courage, we see that if one is not informed by fear dangers are not avoided so sometimes holding back is warranted, and boldness needs to be tempered by judgment. Likewise; if one is not informed by what is possible, it may not be possible to make progress at all, so timidity must be tempered by sufficient boldness to spur action, and allow forward motion. Unfortunately; if one is trying to iron out the problems with modern society; it is difficult to know where to draw a line or build bridges, and how to do the right thing. That is precisely why I am trying to provide step-by-step instructions, which will allow people to develop a plan of action. If we consider the views of W. Edwards Deming, this is easier to sort out. Today's culture seems caught up in the mastery of skills over acquiring knowledge so when Deming was asked about 'doing your best,' he replied that this is not enough. Instead; we must know what to do or more precisely how to do what we hope to accomplish, and then do the right thing despite any difficulty or hardship encountered.

That is the appropriate balance between the two civilizing staffs of life. If we admit knowledge on the one hand and cultivation on the other, humans can make everything fall into place. But if we choose our philosophy on the basis of one ideology or the other, it is fairly certain humanity will come to a cul de sac instead. So learning philosophy was never about finding the right master teacher, but more about learning how to navigate among or between opposing viewpoints. People who choose to learn practical skills above all else may prosper from their own profits while those who choose pure knowledge may require institutional support to continue their work; but both are needed for us to survive. I see the future of humanity as improbable, unless we reconcile these two opposing views. Of course, the story goes back much further than ancient Greece, because the idea of two staffs of civilization is known in deep antiquity and is even seen in geoglyphs. So we see that the ancients likely knew the importance of what I write about today. But this may be written into the very structure of the human body itself, as well as that of more primitive creatures, because what we are talking about is lateralization of the brain and hemispheric specialization. This is nature's way of incorporating an innate sensibility that allows us to see the world two different ways at once. But we must tap into that dual viewpoint, and bring it into the foreground, if we want to benefit from the outlook on the bridge. This is, I think, a kind of epiphany for most human beings, but we need to revel in that capacity.

Different arguments appeal or are compelling, to folks of varying disposition. In fact, a description emphasizing how to provide for or create a better future plays well to liberals, while advocating for the same cause in a way that emphasizes preserving our heritage or a legacy from our forebears plays well to conservatives. It's the same information either way, but with a different spin or orientation applied. This is directly tied in to what could be called 'left-brained' or 'right-brained' reasoning. We actually have two brains, but left and right are not the same for all. Instead there are dominant and sub-dominant paradigms for each person, and it gets confusing for folks who want to know clearly where someone stands. We should not even try to fit ourselves to one outlook, in my opinion, because situations and people are unique. But folks are often confronted in a way that makes them choose between one path and the other. So we have specialists in an academic profession, people in a working trade like mechanics or construction workers, and those in between like engineers, architects, and various other kinds of designers. In almost every case, people are better off with a mix of pure knowledge and practical skills, because they can know what to do and do it so well, that anything they try to do will turn out right. This is harder to achieve in a world that shrugs off the value of Renaissance thinkers, in favor of a 'divide-and-conquer' mentality. The problem with the division of labor strategy is it misses subtle but important details, which sometimes turn out to be essential knowledge for our survival.

So here I argue that seeing two sides as part of the same coin is the only way out of the difficult situation our world is now in. Unless we can learn to find common ground where now we see only the grounds for opposition, humanity has a low probability for survival. But if we focus on ways we can meet our common needs with less opposition, it will serve the needs of the people and human society better. At this point, only strategies giving everyone a chance to survive and prosper are worth considering, because the cost of opposition is higher than that of cooperation. The challenge is to value the common welfare above our own benefits or profits, when it would diminish the rest of humanity's chances for survival. If the kind of balance I describe above could be achieved, it means greater prosperity and a better chance for survival for everybody on the planet. If we value learning for its own sake, and skills for their own sake, enough to have the knowledge of a scientist with the skill of a master craftsman, we become more like the best of the best makers. Now that is a tall order, but it's what humans are designed for. In a similar way; we should not be content with the mindset of one group of political pundits or the other, but strive to hold views that put all of humanity above any one political ideal. We need to see the value in concerns of both parties, without buying into the pat answers and ready solutions that favor one set of special interests or another. It is not about dissolving our identity or national borders, but seeing past the artificial boundaries that separate people to value our common humanity.

 2021 Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved

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Jonathan is a modern Renaissance man. He is a Grammy award-winning engineer, a performer, a writer and lecturer, and a scientific researcher. Since recording "At 89" Jonathan has worked on other projects with Pete Seeger, including a 300 song (more...)
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