These are unsettling times. Events throughout much of the world seem to be rushing towards a cataclysmic destiny. A glance at the daily headlines sums up concisely the state of the world. (Need I list them?) Most ominous: a palpably worsening environment throughout the world that threatens the living conditions to which we are accustomed, our health, and - unlikely but conceivably - the very continuity of life on Earth.
Despite all the great accomplishments of civilization, no nation has found ways of providing secure and humane living conditions for the mass of humanity. This is an historical problem intensified by modern industrial society. Globalization and its antecedent, colonial exploitation, have contributed to the problems of the world and brought them to our door. Are our social and economic institutions capable of addressing the great grievances of the world? Can these destructive trends be reversed so that we --all the peoples of this world - can have faith in a hopeful future in harmony with nature where human needs are satisfied and life can be enjoyed and pursued with purpose?
When studying the course of civilization, we -- meaning most of us living in the "developed" societies - can define a path of progress over the ages in terms of scientific knowledge and technological development, widespread improvements of living conditions and amenities of daily life, as well as in the evolution of our cultures and arts, and of civility in human society. It is upon this understanding that we build hopeful expectations for future benefits in the present and future generations. But, from the immediate perspective, it would seem that civilization has reached a stagnant plateau in terms of the human condition and social consciousness, or has even reverted to prior stages of barbarism and chaos -- a new Dark Age. Possibly, we have entered a path to an evolutionary dead-end where the pace of commercial competition and productive activity accelerates to the point of self-destruction. Let's hope not.
Breaking the chains of outmoded traditions and practices, ignorance, and bigotry which impede true progress of civilization in a humanistic sense may require a radical transformation surpassing in scope a Renaissance or Industrial Revolution by which we, collectively, awaken to the still-latent potential of the universal human spirit to create vibrant, self-sustaining societies. Profound changes must happen universally in education and the distribution of knowledge that may come about primarily through a humanistic/cultural renaissance rather than a political or technological breakthrough. We must acknowledge that there is now a deep divide within our societies -- a divide as deep as the issue of slavery preceding the American Civil War - that must be crossed before mankind can advance towards a new era of prosperity, goodwill, and peace, which is the universal dream.
The "Hopeless" Divide
A very general theory of human civilization will indicate that two primary instincts of mankind have shaped the course of social evolution: the competitive aggressive instinct for self-preservation and dominance, and the cooperative instinct for collaboration and social organization. As civilization has progressed from primitive conditions, the advantages of collaboration have dominated to produce the amenities of modern life. Both individual and collective contributions have forged our shared cultural heritage; but the war-like nature persists in the aggressive, exploitive patterns of the world of commerce, and in divisive ideologies and religions.
These two primary instincts are always present, and are commonly in contention when circumstances will arouse them, impeding or at times undermining social progress - the mark of our civilization. We are now, both at the level of our communities and societies - and of civilization itself - in the throes of a struggle between individual or elite interests and the general welfare -- seemingly, a hopeless abyss.
One could well describe this struggle by analogy to Dante's Divine Comedy. We are presently in a raging Inferno as described by the events and conditions first mentioned. To enter that distant "Paradise" to which we hope civilization will eventually lead future generations, we must first pass through a state of Purgatory to rid ourselves of the ills of society that presently besiege us, creating victims and instilling fears.
Paradise On Earth: A Philosophy For The Future
Paradise could be a metaphor for a future state where the problems of contemporary life have essentially been resolved or ameliorated. This earthly paradise, at the most elementary level, can be thought of as a destination similar to the New World that America once symbolized to the suffering and oppressed peoples of the world: a place of peace, freedom, opportunity and prosperity. Immigrants to this new world brought with them the seeds of hope and inspiration that blossomed into a vibrant new culture of seemingly endless possibilities; but they also brought with them residue of ancient histories and dogmas that sprouted like weeds to entangle and corrupt the promising dream.
We are all too familiar with the shortcomings of the dream. (And let's not overlook the questionable foundation of this "paradise" based upon the displacement, subjugation, or annihilation of the original inhabitants.) In former times -- and where people today live essentially as they did in the past - people believed in divine power to resolve their problems or to compensate the failures of life on Earth with heavenly afterlife. In the modern era, we have held the notion that human ingenuity and democratic government will assure progress towards a better world. The premise here is that we must begin thinking again in terms of an earthly paradise -- one that may never be fully attainable in reality nor closely approached in our time, but which can be viewed as a sacred goal towards which mankind can persistently strive and be fulfilled in the knowledge that we are on the right course. The ancient universal prayer of "peace on Earth and goodwill to all" suggests that there does reside in the greater portion of mankind -- and potentially in all mankind when basic human needs are satisfied - a reservoir of love, civility, logic and spiritual values that ignites a spark of hope for a new Enlightenment bringing harmonious existence throughout the world. This prayer has been acted upon with such concepts as "One World", "World Federation", and "World Citizenship"; in spiritually and peacefully-oriented religions; and institutions such as The United Nations, the Peace Corps, and charitable, non-governmental organizations; and is reflected in artistic, intellectual and scientific cultures throughout the world.
The leap over the dark abyss to an earthly paradise requires a fresh dialogue in which inherited ideas and customs, some having timeless value and many without relevance in the present or future era. are sorted out. History itself -- the unfolding of events - is a slow and painful dialogue, but the accelerated events of the current era do not allow a slow pace. Barring an unlikely miraculous awakening to the urgency of cooperation by all major players on the international stage, it may require a cataclysmic event, such as an environmental tsunami or nuclear meltdown reverberating throughout the world, a worldwide economic collapse, a monstrous health epidemic or perpetual wars, to begin the new dialogue in all seriousness. Now let us begin to examine some of the premises of the earthly paradise.
The issue of human rights has evolved slowly throughout the ages. The concepts of freedom and democracy, which embody human rights, were born in the ancient world. What has changed over the centuries is the spreading of those concepts to a wider sampling of humanity by virtue of education and advances in communication. We see the latter happening at a highly accelerated rate in the present world. A primary condition for an earthly paradise is that human rights - as will be further defined - would apply and be enforced universally and fully for all of humanity. A fundamental tenet of human rights would assure the basic welfare of all. The protection of civil laws would apply equally to all. These are not new concepts; they are given much lip service but are nowhere practiced to the extent envisioned for an earthly paradise. (They are embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.)