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Life Arts    H3'ed 2/15/21

Rutger Bregman's Hopeful Evolutionary History of Humankind (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) February 15, 2021: My favorite scholar is the later American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955). In his mature writings from the early 1950s onward, he worked out an expansive evolutionary account of our cultural history.

In his pioneering studies of the print culture that emerged in Western culture after the Gutenberg printing press emerged in the mid-1450s, Ong carefully delineated an account of early modern and modern Western culture that I see as an alternative to the American pollster Ronald F. Inglehart's evolutionary modernization theory of secularization as he sets it forth in his new 2021 book Religion's Sudden Decline: What's Causing It, and What Comes Next? (New York: Oxford University Press).

However, we should note here that because our pollster Inglehart chooses to concentrate on evolutionary modernization theory, his evolutionary account starts only with agrarian societies and proceeds to industrial societies (and modernization). In short, our pollster Inglehart skips over the vast stretch of time before our human ancestor settled down to farming -- when our human ancestors were hunter-gatherer nomads.

See my lengthy OEN review essay "Pollster Ronald F. Inglehart on the Recent Decline in Religion" (dated February 13, 2021):

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Toward the end of my lengthy OEN article about our pollster Inglehart, I mention that Ong never tired of referring to the late French Jesuit paleontologist and religious evolutionary thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). See, for example, Teilhard de Chardin's posthumously published book The Human Phenomenon, translated by Sarah Appleton-Weber (Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 1999; orig. French ed., 1955).

Now, as a cultural historian, Ong never tries to construct a conceptual model that would enable him to say any specificity what comes next, as our pollster Inglehart attempts to do.

However, if we were to think of Ong as constructing a conceptual model for thinking about whatever may come next, then we would have to say that Ong typically tries to sound hopeful about the developments that he describes - and whatever may come next. For Ong, not sounding hopeful is not an option.

Similarly, for Ong, not sounding evolutionary is not an option. For Ong, by definition, evolutionary thought is not cyclic thought. For example, the account of creation in seven days in Genesis is not cyclic thought, but linear (and hence evolutionary) thought. Incidentally, in the seven-day account of creation in Genesis, God is portrayed as saying each day that his work of creation was good, including of course his work of creating humankind. We should note here that Judaism does not have a doctrine of original sin; that doctrine is a specifically Christian doctrine - a doctrine that both Ong and Teilhard de Chardin essentially disregard.

For an accessible account of ancient Jewish thought in the Hebrew Bible, see the American Catholic Thomas Cahill's 1998 book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday).

But also see my short OEN article "Thomas Cahill on The Gifts of the Jews" (dated November 21, 2020):

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Now, Ong eventually worked with the terminology of primary oral culture (and primary orality, including all pre-historic hunter-gatherer nomad cultures and pre-historic and historic agrarian cultures), residually oral cultures (such as ancient and medieval cultures in Western culture and elsewhere), print culture (in early modern and modern Western culture), and secondary oral culture (and secondary orality, including our contemporary culture). For Ong, our contemporary secondary oral culture is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

However, for Ong, our contemporary secondary culture is not the same as primary oral culture. If it were, then Ong would be embracing a cyclic account of cultural history, which he clearly does not want to do.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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