The Wisdom Page 




by Alan Nordstrom

      What’s to be done to correct human waywardness and aberration?  How badly broken as a species are we, and can we be repaired?  These are perennially urgent questions that we have made limited progress in answering.  But because the human population proliferates and because current technologies make us so dangerous to ourselves, to other species, and to Earth’s entire biosphere, these urgent questions are now imperative questions.  We human beings have no good choice but to wise up and grow humane.

      The problem with believing that humanity will grow more humane during the 21st Century—or any century to come—is that each human being has only one lifetime in which to become civilized and wise up, an 80-year period always starting from scratch.  Even if you believe in reincarnation and suppose that Old Souls have a head start, they still begin as babies who still have perhaps eighty years in which to grow sage or saintly, which pitifully few ever do.

      Besides needing a well-disposed soul to begin with (and many souls seem disinclined to spiritual growth), one needs the best of cultivation in one’s childhood, in a family, in a society, and in a culture that nourish one toward flourishing.  How likely is that?  How widely available are those resources in our inequitable and iniquitous world today?  Not wide-spread enough, I think, to transform the whole human population in four or five generations.

      But if we could be transformed, then the means would be through reformed cultural institutions (and possibly by some genetic engineering of our species).  A global civilization based on a global ethic would need to evolve, effectively eroding the diverse and often conflicting cultural belief systems prevailing today.  Again, how likely is that?  Perhaps, however, techno-economic globalization will indeed effect a homogenization of world cultures with everyone scrambling for citizenship in Greater Googlelia and for the right to trade in the worldwide e-Bay Bazaar.  Only if everyone in the world could enjoy a decent standard of living—far from the case right now—might our race begin to evolve toward higher psychospiritual levels of development, toward real civility and true enlightenment—toward wisdom.

      But at present, as always, we live with war, famine, plague, poverty, ignorance, and insanity of many sorts—so much so that many expect an imminent apocalypse.  And given our immense technological developments we are now perpetrating not only genocide but geocide—a new twist in history.

      The prospect of apocalypse, like the proximity of one’s own death, if it does not scare the wits out of us, may force us to focus our minds.  What we need to envision collectively is a global culture of sustainability allowing for the greatest individual freedom and communal diversity within a system that ensures the planet’s thriving and the flourishing of humanity.  Imagine that.

* * *

      The story of the 21st Century on Earth, hardly predictable at its inauspicious start, was that of the flourishing of human wisdom as our beleaguered species at long last came of age, stepped into collective adulthood, and assumed responsibility for managing the planet it had spent hundreds of years destroying.  How did this happen?  How did our brash adolescent species wise up to its impetuous and aberrant behavior and mature into the prudent humaneness that assumed custodial supervision of the ailing biosphere and found its way to peaceful, lawful resolutions of conflicting political interests, having eschewed entirely the tactic of lethal force?  How we did so is the story that follows, written from the perspective of the year 2100, the final year of what has come to be known variously as the Century of Sanity, the Century of Wisdom, or The New Age.

      Perhaps it wasn’t so much growing up that our species accomplished as sobering up.  Our period of adolescence, beginning in the Promethean Renaissance with the dawn of humanism and science, was a heady and reckless time of flexing our growing muscles and exercising our Faustian ingenuity to take the reins of nature, just as the mythical  Phaeton sought to drive the chariot of his father, the Sun.  With only willfulness and without wisdom, calamity, of course, ensued.  When our collective calamities continued to compound to the brink of apocalypse (our ancient intuition of humanity run amok), we finally bottomed out and woke to the pathology possessing us.  And then we sought a cure.

      Fortunately, sanity was at hand and always had been, for there were always wise people in our midst, though typically unheeded, like Cassandra.  As Shakespeare said, “Wisdom cries out in the streets and no man listens.”  Still, we learned to listen and learned to tame our bewildered wildness by seeking peace, harmony, justice and universal well being.  Primarily, we learned to cleanse our minds of foolish fables idolizing the Id and the Ego, our primal lusts and our selfish infatuations.  Altruism superceded the idiocy of isolated individualism as the higher consciousness of interdependency ascended in our collective mind, transcending tribalism and xenophobia.

      By the end of Earth’s 21st Century, historians concluded that history itself had turned a corner and would never again be the same; they concluded that humankind had by and large become kind.  It was now clear that history recorded not only the evolution of our species but its progress, and we had progressed to a point still short of collective enlightenment but nonetheless to a degree of general humaneness that would have astounded the cynics of the past (such as Voltaire, Twain, and Vonnegut) and would have gratified the prophets of optimism (such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Maxwell).

      Without the fruits of scientific research and technological wizardry, such progress could not have occurred as the good edge of that double-edged sword prevailed above the edge of devastation.  Only because science itself had wised up did this happen.  The institutions of science, recognizing at last the Faustian shadow they labored under, determined to submit their enterprises to the Rule of Value instead of the Rule of Anything Goes.  According to the new scientific dispensation, the basic task of science was “to help humanity learn how to create a better world.”  In “the rational pursuit of wisdom . . . [the] basic intellectual task of academic inquiry [was to] articulate our problems of living (personal, social, and global) and propose and critically assess possible solutions, possible actions.”  Academic inquiry devoted itself “to help humanity build cooperatively rational methods of problem solving into the fabric of social and political life,” so that gradually we acquired “the capacity to resolve our conflicts and problems of living in more cooperatively rational ways.”  The words quoted above were written by the prescient philosopher of science Nicholas Maxwell in the early years of this century.

      Given the success of this social and scientific project, true progress ensued so that by century’s end our perennial adversaries had been subdued: Poverty, Ignorance, Irrationality, and Egoism.  “Human nature,” as it always previously had been conceived, had altered fundamentally, and the science of psychology that had once attended exclusively to our numerous disorders was now chiefly focused on the optimization of human functioning.  The school of Positive Psychology, born at the beginning of the century, now flourished as a full-blown psychology of transcendence—of psychospiritual well-being.  And we ourselves at long last were, I am happy to report, flourishing.