This century contains the potential to be either the worst or the best of times for humanity. The worst of times because there is no end in sight to the struggle between the dehumanizing Global Economy and the dark irrational forces (sexism, racism, and other kinds of fundamentalism) threatened by its hegemony. Unlike any other time in history, ours possesses sufficient stupidity, power and hatred to destroy the conditions for the possibility of life on its planet before they may be preserved anywhere else; the destructive powers at our disposal far exceed humanity’s present capacity to express love or altruism. Yet, it could very easily be the best of times because, for the first time, we have material resources sufficient to nurture the entire population of the Earth.
Sadly, the tremendous powers at our disposal are presently used only to alienate human beings from themselves, each other, and their natural environment. As we blindly seek satisfaction through frenzied material accumulation, we create a situation where our possessions own us and render us incapable of meaningful human interaction. While the desires of human beings are at least potentially finite, most of us, with varying degrees of comprehension, allow our lives to run by insatiable Leviathan-like institutions. These artificial entities have no motive other than profit and unlimited accumulation; they have unlimited power and lack any internal sense of responsibility whatsoever. Most perverse of all, their coming-into-being has not been unintentional; they exist because they allow us to be thoughtless and selfish - as nasty as we want to be - without taking responsibility for our actions. As such, these impersonal Behemoths are the perfect instruments by which banality may be sown and evil reaped -by remote control.
Like their spiritual grandfather, the late Adolph Eichmann, liberally educated young corporate functionaries would claim to be quite unaware of the fullest implications of their actions. Pressed further as to why they chose to follow soul-numbing corporate careers, they would claim to be trying to pay off the enormous student loans incurred through four years’ study of the liberal arts. The sad fact that the cost of a liberal education all but ensures that graduates will not be able to put into practice the ideals that they were exposed to, cannot but make one somewhat suspicious that their predicament is not overly lamented by the powers that be. It is particularly ironic that this state of affairs should prevail in a time when the endowments of many prestigious educational institutions amount to several hundreds of millions - more than enough to reduce a student’s indebtedness by many tens of thousands of dollars. In many cases, the size of its endowment becomes the highest criterion by which the success of an institution of higher learning is measured internally. This results in fund-raising and resource accumulation being prioritized over education at supposedly non-profit institutions. Much time and money is also squandered on academically irrelevant buildings, programs and facilities that aim at attracting students for the wrong reasons. The careerism of the educator and the pragmatic concerns of the parent reinforce each other at the expense of the student.
Today, most successful faculty members and administrators would be the first to confess to being, at the end of the day, merely harried consumers. These worthies have long since renounced the foolish idealism that originally got them interested in the poorly paid business of education. Even the more ‘idealistic’ speak only of providing for their beloved children’s economic well-being in an increasingly insecure world. Two and a half centuries after Dr. Johnson’s celebrated bon mot concerning the abuse of patriotism, ‘family values’ are indeed the last refuge of a scoundrel. I am surely foolishly naïve to suggest that, instead of participating in the rape and impoverishment of the fragmented culture and polluted world that they would bequeath their children, it would be far better if they were to leave behind an example of committed idealism and virtue.
A liberal arts education must be more than an apprenticeship at an ivy-covered gentleman’s club (with suitably high tuition to hold its initiates hostage to ugly necessity) where young corporate Geishas are discreetly initiated into cynicism and introduced to the highest bidders for their services. A Latin diploma is but an assurance that its bearer will use beautiful words to serve and justify ugly ends; there is also an implied guarantee to potential employees that graduates have the ideal qualifications for work in the cutthroat workaholic Economy: broken spirits, high indebtedness, and insatiable desires. When educational institutions create an academic culture that values property rights over human rights, and shamelessly markets learning as a means of accumulating wealth, it is time for those who care about the future of humanity to give serious thought to how genuine education may be preserved and renewed.
We must first observe that although the many starve for want of the resources so mindlessly squandered by their betters, the favored few are really not that much better off either. Excessive wealth, or even its pursuit, seems to spawn self-hatred, paranoia, addiction, alienation, sadism, and self-destructive hubris. Having grown up in the Third World, I have never found anything romantic about poverty, being all too aware of the spiritually corrosive effects of powerlessness and hunger. But I do find ironic justice in the paradox that the materially wealthy are even more susceptible to the malaise of spiritual poverty than their economically impoverished inferiors; even the rich must be rescued from the appropriate to consequences of their folly.
It thus becomes necessary to draw a crucial distinction between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is a way of using the body to evade the obligations that go with having a soul. By contrast, happiness consists in knowing and liking oneself. It should be clear to any observer of popular culture that neither material accumulation nor sensual indulgence can generate genuine happiness. Unlike the pleasure seeker, who ceaselessly seeks to devise new and increasingly perverse ways of escaping himself, the virtuous person can look at his soul and know that he is at peace with himself. Only such a person is capable of friendship: either with himself or with others. Furthermore, only he is in a position to use property properly and liberally; by contrast, a heteronomous hedonist will always be possessed by that which he seems to own. While incarnate happiness often presupposes a certain amount of material property, an educated person’s wealth is measured by moderation rather than by excess.
Accordingly, we must look towards a situation where material sufficiency and the humanistic values of trust and community are not mutually exclusive commodities. Not unlike Plato’s satirically conceived Republic, wherein every individual was unhappy but the State was happy, today we compulsively sacrifice our personal integrity, leisure, and relationships for the sake of deriving vicarious satisfaction from the performance of the Economy and the Stock Market. We righteously condemned the insularity and chauvinism of countries like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, where the citizenry inexplicably gloried in the triumphs of their evil empires, but do we not blindly participate in the Juggernaut-like progress of today’s cutthroat capitalist economy in much the same spirit?
Unlike previous points in human history, when individual flourishing could only be secured through slavery and exploitation, our world is such that true happiness and security may only be enjoyed in a context where all will have at least the opportunity of participating in a ‘commonwealth’ of peace and abundance. While the 20th Century has mastered the technical/scientific problem of supply, we find that it is the task of the 21st Century to address what are ultimately humanistic and spiritual questions pertaining to the origins of demand and desire. Otherwise, the increasingly vicious battle between the exploited many and the addicted few will almost certainly end civilization within this century. People who do not place much value on their own lives can hardly be expected to be overly scrupulous in using the means for nuclear and biological warfare, weapons that will become ever more potent and available in the time to come.
It is in this context that we find that philosophy has a vitally important role in preserving and fostering the conditions for human flourishing. Without an adequate appreciation of "Poros" and "Penia," that maddening combination of abundant potentiality and infinite craving that human nature consists of, even the wealthiest among us will be forever incapable of knowing love or happiness. I would go so far as to claim that philosophy is the art that helps us to understand and embrace our humanity in all of its infinite complexity. In the absence of adequate self-knowledge, technological progress only makes it possible for us to project our ignorant self-hatred farther and wider. This self-knowledge is also crucial to the moderation that our troubled times demand. Through philosophy, we may joyfully affirm values that no longer alienate us from each other, but instead express a shared solidarity and abiding responsibility towards our planet, our rich cultural heritage and our future.
Today, most human associations are held together by fear, suspicion, and chronic general insecurity. While these values may be good for the economy, today, as the eternally adolescent baby-boomers grow old enough to fear death, we’re starting to recognize the staggering psychic cost of this approach. Like Dorian Gray, the aging boomers are beginning to recognize the extent of the damage they have inflicted, in absentia, on their souls. They have to learn how to come home to themselves and each other. They must somehow penetrate the iron curtain that has been built around their souls. To misquote Auden, they must learn how to love another and/or die. I used to believe that love is stronger than hate, today I say that love must someday be made stronger than hate. I recognize that this hope will only be realized when our understanding of love becomes more enlightened. Our task is to become reacquainted with the true meaning of the word ‘love’ in a time when, in the words of Bob Dylan, it is just a four-letter word.
Put bluntly, what passes for love today is nothing more or better than nearsighted, narcissistic sentimentality. ‘Love’ is deliberately chosen as a conveniently overwhelming emotion that leads us to ignore the world and almost all living beings outside one’s family. Indeed, even so-called loved ones are killed off when they are shrink-wrapped and reified in the stifling cocoon of perfection. The sacred word ‘love’ has been hijacked and used to serve the insatiable lusts of the market and the libido. True love has been driven into exile, and a hateful body-double, like Euripides’ phantom Helen, has been substituted. This so-called ‘love’ justifies flagrantly selfish behavior that is actually nothing less than barely hidden hatred of both the self and the other. In other words, our topsy-turvy world seems to have translated love to mean thanatos rather than eros. This accusation could be leveled with equal justice at the fundamentalist and the capitalist, since both would reify and destroy the fragile life-world in the name of God or the market. Conversely, true love will lead us to view the whole world through farsighted and compassionate eyes. This love must help us to embrace the world, in all of its imperfection, for the sake of its boundless potentiality. The world is not made perfect, and neither should it be; it exists for love.
I see overwhelming evidence that, beneath their masks of precocious cynicism, the students of the 21st Century are desperately looking for meaning and hope. They want to believe that words like ‘love,’ ‘justice’ and ‘beauty’ have a meaning that transcends the reductive vulgarity of the corrupt world they have inherited from us. We cannot betray them by exposing them to our deadly second-hand cynicism. While they surely need gainful employment, our main task is to help them to learn how to learn. Poised precariously in the no-man’s - land between the Jihad and the Macworld, they must learn how to read reality - instead of having it imposed on them by fundamentalists or imposing their post-modern lusts on nature as nihilistic materialists. In other words, they must acquire the courage to recognize, interpret and actualize the subtle texture and rich potentiality of the world. Far more than any set of soon-to-be outdated technical skills, this alone will enable them to survive and flourish in our swiftly changing world while conserving the conditions for the possibility of continued existence of the planet. A genuine education - one that gives expertise in a discipline within a humanistic framework that integrates the person and celebrates the unity of the world - must replace the banal job training brazenly demanded by the military-industrial complex and pusillanimously supplied by overly market-sensitive academic institutions. Such an education must also recognize, and deal accordingly with, the conflicting propensities towards eros and thanatos that eternally dwell within the human soul.
Only a pedagogic model that jointly addresses the needs for both spiritual enlightenment and global justice, and shows the connection between these seemingly disparate concerns, can succeed in providing our unhappy species with a viable future. Global justice must be seen to be far more than an unrealistic cause espoused only by ‘bleeding heart liberals’ and sentimental idealists; humanity’s current predicament demands that we stop devastating the planet and exploiting each other. But neither can stern retributive justice be seen as an end in itself, it must be superseded by the ascending ethical terms of education, trust, friendship, and love.
Ethics as I have described it, as first philosophy, derives its transcendental claims from the experience of beholding human nature in all of its ravishing potential. It is from this erotic origin that it indicates a spiritual horizon that gives its claims ultimate meaning and authority. Nevertheless, while religion can indicate the transcendent origins of the meaning that our restless hearts desire, it does not follow that God asks us to renounce or despise this world. Differently put, the Socratic-Platonic ethical archetypes are indefinable for a very good reason. They are not more or less than starry navigational aids to guide our worldly conduct; that is, they are not otherworldly destinations or hedonistic rewards that lead us to renounce the ‘cave’ - in all of its grubby imperfection. They are best regarded as eternal reminders that God wants us to ‘return to the cave’ and establish a fairer and less adversarial global community.
God calls us to the things of this world. Wherever they believe the Good to reside, it is time for all persons of good will to join together in the task of repairing, conserving, and celebrating this fragile world of ours. In other words, I believe that it is only when man is genuinely human, that God can be God and the world will truly "world." A properly educated person will not be a pious optimist but a humanistic optimizer. Such a person will not believe that the status quo is necessary, divinely ordained and perfect. The God that I choose to affirm is not a Sadist, and piety to me is not Masochism. In my not impious opinion, God is best pleased when human beings join forces and use their intellectual and spiritual powers to continually interpret the lively flux of reality in the best of all possible ways for all. Put differently, the world we find ourselves in is neither a divinely predetermined mechanism nor a godless chaos where everything is permitted; rather, it seems to possess just sufficient meaning to permit, and be justified by, the active exercise of human virtue.
I have tried to show why philosophy must play an essential part
in schooling a democratic citizenry for the future. Among other
things, it must help us to distinguish between true and false loves:
to redeem eros from the thanatos that threatens to
bring the human experiment to an abrupt and nasty conclusion. The
wisdom that philosophy strives to embody is not a body of arid dogma
but a thoughtful and gracious way of being-in-the-world. While only
a few may major in philosophy, or go on to master its theoretical
intricacies, all humans are entitled and obliged to know
themselves and their place in the greater scheme of things. Joyfully
renouncing the ignorant extremes of materialistic nihilism and paranoid
fundamentalism, liberally educated persons will be truly ‘born again’
when they, by thoughtful words and deeds, re-collect and realize
a world charged with the Grandeur of God.