One of my most cherished possessions is a 1911 edition of the Encylopedia Brittanica—in fact, I have two sets, one in my own home base, in the woods of Oregon, and one borrowed from the university library, in Boulder. Cherished not just for the humane, clear learning that leaps out of every article, but for the long lost world view underlying it. These writers were late Victorians, men and (all too rarely) women writing at the start of the last century, and their confidence in agreed upon truths is breathtaking. Every word shows an absolute belief that most of the Truths of the Universe had been uncovered, codified, integrated into a harmonious view of what Man (although not, significantly, Woman) could, should, and would be. Any mysteries, these writers clearly felt, would inevitably be solved in what amounted to no more than a mopping up exercise.Civilization and its move forward was assured.
That was 1911. Right before the outbreak of the First World War. That war, and the unprecedented barbarity of both sides in the Second World War, shattered that enviable illusion into a million pieces.
After World War II, there was no belief any longer that the culture was built out of agreed and time-tested truths. Instead the structure had fallen into pieces, and each specialty now stood on its own: science, art, literature, economics, history, politics, religion. Each was split from what had been a whole, and each began the work of developing itself in isolation. Those wars had shattered the self-confidence on which Western Thought was built, and a good thing, too, since that thought had arrogantly assumed that the tiny, admittedly exquisite structure it had built in a small corner of a vast, unknowable universe was the whole of knowledge. It was as if the two Great Wars—reallly, just one interrupted war that lasted fifty years—were a tsunami that washed away the little fortress of Western civilization perched so precariously on the edge of a rock, washed it away and left it in fragments on the beach.
So that’s us now, rebuilding in the flotsam and jetsum. And it wouldn’t be such a bad thing except that, for the last sixty years, we’ve maintained the arrogance without the structure to back it up. We’ve acted as if the little bits left after the destruction of that beautiful world view were still of absolute value, and we’ve tried to rebuild what we had with those old, wrecked materials. Here we have an opportunity to get creative, to think of new ways, new ideas, new stories, and we’re clinging to old, discredited techniques and materials.
But that looks to be changing. As usual after any disaster, it’s the individuals, and the communities made up of individuals, the people on the ground who are seeing that in order to build up a new, flexible, workable whole world, all the different categories kept artifically apart now need to come together to exchange information.
Physicists need to talk to plumbers Urban planners need to watch farmers. Doctors need to listen to poets. Historians need to read fairy tales.
This cheers us up here at EAP, this general rolling up of shirtsleeves and mucking in together. All the different specialties are getting together, increasingly, to share in the really big work of developing human values: of figuring out how it’s best for all of us, together, to live.
It’s not the work of experts. They got us those two huge wars, remember? No, it’s the work of all of us, down here on the ground. It’s a big job, of course, but we’re all up to it. At least, I hope we are. The alternative, after all, isn’t to be thought of.