from AN AGE OF PROGRESS? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces
Copyright © Walter G. Moss, 2008
By the end of the century, it was indeed evident how difficult it was for people’s prudence, wisdom, and morality to keep pace with technological change. In traditional societies where technology had changed slowly, the moral ideas of older generations had more relevance for younger people. The world that children grew up in was more similar to that in which their mothers and fathers had been raised. As the twentieth century advanced and the rate of technological change accelerated, many younger people believed that their parents and older people generally had little of moral and cultural value to pass on to them. In the 1960s one of the heroes of the young, Bob Dylan, in his song “The Times They Are A-Changin,” told parents that their “old road” was rapidly aging and that their children were beyond their command. He advised them to make way for their sons and daughters and not to criticize what they couldn’t understand.
In the final decades of the century, the values of teenage children in the advanced industrialized countries were increasingly shaped less by parents and more by an ever-expanding media and by peers influenced by that media. Many social critics placed much of the blame on television, especially criticizing its impact on young people. According to his friend Thomas Langan, the famous media observer Marshall McLuhan once said about televisions, “If you want to save a single shred of Hebrew-Hellenistic-Roman-Christian humanist civilization, take an axe and smash those infernal machines.”[i] U. S. humorist Dave Barry once said: “Another possible source of guidance for teenagers is television, but television's message has always been that the need for truth, wisdom and world peace pales by comparison with the need for a toothpaste that offers whiter teeth and fresher breath.”[ii] And Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to U. S. President Jimmy Carter, wrote in 1993 that television had “become prominent in shaping the [U. S.] national culture and its basic beliefs,” that it “had a particularly important effect in disrupting generational continuity in the transfer of traditions and values,” and that it helped produce “a mass culture, driven by profiteers who exploit the hunger for vulgarity, pornography, and even barbarism.”[iii]
In such an atmosphere old people and their life experiences were little valued by youth-centric popular cultures, and wisdom, whether from older people or other sources, was an undervalued virtue. The Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed., 1989) defines wisdom as “the capacity for judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice of means and ends,” and the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Spinoza indicated that wisdom implied viewing life sub specie eternitatis, that is, from the perspective of eternity.
As early as the 1930’s the poet T. S. Eliot had written:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
(from “The Rock”, Chorus 1).
During the same decade a distinguished Dutch historian, Jan Huizinga, wrote about the tremendous scientific and technological progress of the early twentieth century, and commented that “the masses are fed with a hitherto undreamt-of quantity of knowledge of all sorts.” But he added that there was “something wrong with its assimilation,” and that “undigested knowledge hampers judgment and stands in the way of wisdom.”[iv] In general, Huizinga thought that his era reflected the deterioration of culture, moral standards, and judgment. General Omar Bradley later expressed a similar sentiment when he said: "Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner."[v]
In his 1973 collection of essays, Small Is Beautiful, the German-born English economist E. F. Schumacher suggested that twentieth-century science, technology, and economics had gone astray by failing to be employed in a wise fashion. He wrote:
The exclusion of wisdom from economics, science, and technology
was something which we could perhaps get away with for a little while,
as long as we were relatively unsuccessful; but now that we have become
very successful, the problem of spiritual and moral truth moves into
the central position. . . .
. . . Ever-bigger machines, entailing ever-bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever-greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the nonviolent, the elegant and beautiful.[vi]
By the end of the twentieth century, however, it was clear that Schumacher’s ideas were having little impact on the global economy. Fed by expanded advertising and globalization, “needs” had continued expanding, contributing to worsening environmental conditions. At the same time, increased freedoms and choices had made it more crucial than ever for governments and people to possess the wisdom to make correct choices. This could most readily be seen in regard to environmental policies and leisure time. Cable and satellite television, the World Wide Web, and cell phones, to take just a few examples, had greatly expanded people’s choices of how to spend their free time. Sports viewers, for example, could spend weekends on their couches watching one sporting event after another.
Although there were notable exceptions like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who indicated his appreciation of wisdom in his autobiography, in general it became less valued as the twentieth century advanced.[vii] Nevertheless, this virtue had once been highly appreciated. One scholar, writing mainly of the West, noted that “wisdom was a virtue highly and consistently prized in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.”[viii] Many non-Western religions also emphasized the importance of wisdom. The ancient Hindu book The Bhagavad-Gida tells us “there is no purifier in this world like wisdom. . . . The man who is full of faith obtaineth wisdom, and he also who hath mastery over his senses; and having obtained wisdom, he goeth swiftly to the supreme peace.” Buddhist scriptures also praised wisdom and declared that obtaining perfect wisdom was the key to achieving blissful Nirvana, that state where suffering and individual craving and dissatisfaction ceased to exist. Into the twentieth century, some of Asia’s most prominent thinkers such as Tagore and Gandhi, continued being influenced by the Asian religious respect for wisdom. For example, Tagore wrote:
When the heat and motion of blind impulses and passions distract it on all sides, we can neither give nor receive anything truly. But when we find our centre in our soul by the power of self-restraint, by the force that harmonises all warring elements and unifies those that are apart, then all our isolated impressions reduce themselves to wisdom, and all our momentary impulses of heart find their completion in love; then all the petty details of our life reveal an infinite purpose, and all our thoughts and deeds unite themselves inseparably in an internal harmony.[ix]
At various times during the twentieth century, some Western individuals sought wisdom by turning to Eastern religious traditions or gurus. In general, however, from the seventeenth century forward, technology gradually gained momentum in influencing Western people’s perspectives on life. Just as gradually, respect for wisdom declined, as the modern world with all of its technological wonders and explosion of information came into being. And if respect for wisdom was in decline, could there be much moral progress?
[i] Thomas Langan, Surviving the Age of Virtual Reality (Columbia, MO, 2000), 131, n. 10.
[ii] http://www.comedy-zone.net/quotes/Comedians/barry-dave.htm (accessed April 9, 2007).
[iii] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century (New York, 1993), 112.
[iv] In the Shadow of Tomorrow, Norton reprint ed. (New York, 1964), 78.
[v] http://www.quoteworld.org/category/wisdom/author/general_omar_nelson_bradley (accessed April 9, 2007).
[vi] Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Perennial Library ed. (New York, 1975), 33-34.
[vii] On Mandela’s appreciation of wisdom see, for example, his Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston, 1994), 18, 88, 397, 466, 499, 542.
[viii] Eugene F. Rice, Jr., The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom (Cambridge, MA, 1958), 1.
[ix] Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana: The Realization of Life (Tucson, 1972), 35.