Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

by Neil Postman

ISBN: 9780375701276

Publisher Vintage

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Politics & Government, Politics & Social Sciences/Sociology, Nonfiction/Social Sciences, Reference, Professional & Technical/Engineering

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

A Bridge to the 18th Century

The day before I began writing this book, I heard on the radio that somewhere between thirty-five percent and sixty-two percent of Americans believe that aliens have landed on Earth. Surveys vary about the exact percentages, as does the look of the aliens. Some are green, some gray. Some have ears, some do not. All have large heads. The report reminded me of a survey I saw some years ago about the number of people who believe in the Devil. Not the devil as metaphor and not a generalized concept of evil; the Devil, one might say, as a creature of flesh and blood, someone who walks the earth, looks like us, and is inclined to offer sly temptations and unholy propositions. Believers have in mind, I think, something on the order of Stephen Vincent Benét's creation inThe Devil and Daniel Webster. I can't remember the percentages the survey uncovered, but they were high. I can't remember because I have repressed the figure or, as the psychologists now say, gone into denial. Conventional wisdom tells us that going into denial is not healthful, even though it is obvious that doing so has many advantages. Ernest Becker explains some of them in his famous bookThe Denial of Death. But one does not have to go as deeply as Becker to make good use of denial. If you are an American writer who fancies himself an heir of the Enlightenment, it is hard to write three pages unless you emphatically deny that many of your potential readers believe in deal-making devils.

Denial is also helpful when one begins to contemplate the mental condition of some important members of our intellectual elite. I refer to those who have fallen under the devilish spell of what is vaguely called "postmodernism," and in particular a subdivision of it sometimes called "deconstructionism." Academic responsibility requires me to give some detail about this world-view, and I will do so in a later chapter. Here, I need only remark that in this way of understanding things, language is under deep suspicion and is even thought to be delusional. Jean Baudrillard, a Frenchman, of all things, tells us that not only does language falsely represent reality, but there is no reality to represent. (Perhaps this explains, at long last, the indifferent French resistance to the German invasion of their country in World War II: They didn't believe it was real.) In an earlier time, the idea that language is incapable of mapping reality would have been considered nonsense, if not a form of mental illness. In fact, it is a form of mental illness. Nonetheless, in our own time the idea has become an organizing principle of prestigious academic departments. You can get a Ph.D. in this sort of thing.

There is, of course, a connection between alien- and devil-believers and a certain variety of deconstructionists. They are people in the thrall of a serious depression, and, in truth, it is unseemly to make fun of them, especially since most of us are suffering in varying degrees from the same malady. If I knew more about psychology, I might be able to give the sickness a name. Instead, I turn to poets - not for a name but for a confirmation and a cause. Yeats, for example, gives us a precise description of our wayward academics and our overcommitted alienites: The former lack all conviction, while the latter are full of passionate intensity. T. S. Eliot, you will remember, wrote of the hollow men occupying a wasteland. Auden wrote of the age of anxiety. Vachel Lindsay wrote of leaden-eyed people who have no gods to serve. Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her bookHuntsman, What Quarry?, wrote a poem which goes to the root of the problem. Here is an excerpt:
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.
No loom to weave facts into fabric, people with no gods to serve, hollow and anxious, distrusting language, uncertain about even the most obvious features of reality, lacking conviction, suspicious of truth.

What are we to make of this? There are many possibilities. Among them are the strange and fanciful dreams that seem always to accompany the onset of a new millennium. Some believe a new age signals the Second Coming of Christ, some believe it signals the end of everything, and in between the varieties of delusion are legion. The possibility that strikes me as most plausible is more mundane. And it has happened before, with or without the coming of a new millennium. I refer to the confusion that accompanies the absence of a narrative to give organization and meaning to our world - a story of transcendence and mythic power. Nothing can be clearer than that we require a story to explain to ourselves why we are here and what our future is to be, and many other things, including where authority resides. I am not writing this book to document the loss of narrative. I have done that already, as have others in books better than mine. Besides, I have no intention of writing still another depressing book about the breakdown of the human spirit. But it may be said here that when people do not have a satisfactory narrative to generate a sense of purpose and continuity, a kind of psychic disorientation takes hold, followed by a frantic search for something to believe in or, probably worse, a resigned conclusion that there is nothing to find. The devil-believers reclaim a fragment of the great narrative of Genesis. The alien-believers ask for deliverance from green-gray creatures whose physics has overcome the speed of light. The deconstructionists keep confusion at bay by writing books in which they tell us that there is nothing to write books about. There is even one group who seeks meaning in the ingenuity of technological innovation. I refer to those who, looking ahead, see a field of wonders encapsulated in the phrase "the information superhighway." They are information junkies, have no interest in narratives of the past, give little thought to the question of purpose. To the poet who asks, "Where is the loom to weave it all into fabric?," they reply that none is needed. To the poet who asks, "What gods do you serve?," they reply, "Those which make information accessible in great volume, at instantaneous speed, and in diverse forms." Such people have no hesitation in speaking of building a bridge to the new century. But to the question "What will we carry across the bridge?" they answer, "What else but high-definition TV, virtual reality, e-mail, the Internet, cellular phones, and all the rest that digital technology has produced?"

These, then, are the hollow men Eliot spoke of. They are, in a sense, no different from the alien- and devil-believers in that they have found a story that will keep them going for a while, but not for long. And, in a way, they are no different from those academics who find temporary amusement and professional advancement in having no story at all. I am not writing my book for these people. I write for those who are still searching for a way to confront the future, a way that faces reality as it is, that is connected to a humane tradition, that provides sane authority and meaningful purpose. I include myself among such people.

Where shall we look for such a way? Well, of course, one turns first to the wisdom of the sages, both near and far. Marcus Aurelius said, "At every action, no matter by whom preferred, make it a practice to ask yourself, 'What is his object in doing this?' But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all." Goethe told us, "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Rabbi Hillel said, "What is hateful to thee, do not do to another." The prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with Thy God." And our own Henry David Thoreau said, "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end."I could go on nearly endlessly with these quotations, since the wisdom of the ages and the sages is not bound by time and space. We may add to the list Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, Shakespeare, Spinoza, and many more. What they tell us is all the same: There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

How useful is it to be reminded? The words of the sages can calm and comfort us. They offer perspective and a release from the frenzy of speed and ambition. Very useful, I would say. But, of course, they are very far away from us in time and cultural conditions, and their advice is so abstract that it is difficult to see how we can turn much of it into practical and coherent instruction. In some parts of the Islamic world the commandments of Muhammad are, in fact, taken as imperatives of everyday life. And there are Christians and Jews who follow the Law down to the last detail. But for many of us, unsettled by the realities of vast change, especially technological change, fundamentalism of any kind rings hollow. We have problems and questions that Muhammad, Jesus, Hillel, Socrates, and Micah did not and could not speak of.

Let us take a small but clear example. Not long ago (as these things are measured) scientists in Scotland successfully cloned a sheep. Another group of scientists in America cloned a monkey and a cow. And apparently, an American high school student, in order to gain some extra credit, has claimed to have cloned a frog. We can expect, if not this year or the next, that the cloning of human beings will become a reality. I think we can say that we have here a genuine twenty-first-century problem. It would be interesting - wouldn't it? - to speculate on what Jesus or the Buddha would say about this development in human reproduction. But we will have to address the matter without them. How will we do that? Where will we go for guidance? What use shall we make of this technology? Who has an answer we will find acceptable?

Here is an answer I imagine all but a deconstructionist will find clearly unacceptable: Cloning humans opens up a whole new field of "human spare parts." The way it would work is that every time someone is born, a clone of this person would be made. The clone would be kept in a special, confined, and well-guarded place so that it can provide spare parts for the original person as needed throughout life. If the original person loses a kidney or lung at some time in his or her life, we would simply take it from the clone. Is there a problem with this? Well, of course, you will protest that the clone is, after all, a real human being. But that would only be the case if wedefinethe clone as a human being. There is nothing new in human beings' defining other human beings as non-human things. In all cases of genocide, that is exactly the procedure. Joseph Goebbels explained how to do such things. In our own times, Marvin Minsky and others working in the field of artificial intelligence have prophesied enthusiastically that humans will become merely pets of their computers, so that the definition of the worth and capacity of humans will change. We have never had clones before. Who is to say we cannot use them in the way I have suggested?

I hope you are thinking that my proposal is simply a bad joke and that any such proposal, seriously made, is a product of a depraved mind. I agree with you. But here is a question: Where did you get the idea that this proposal would be the product of a depraved mind? I imagine you believe that infanticide is also a depraved idea, in spite of the fact that it has been practiced for many more years in human history than it has been forbidden. Where did you get the idea that infanticide is horrible? Or that slavery is a bad idea? Or that the divine right of kings is a bad idea?

What I am driving at is that in order to have an agreeable encounter with the twenty-first century, we will have to take into it some good ideas. And in order to do that, we need to look back to take stock of the good ideas available to us. I am suspicious of people who want us to be forward-looking. I literally do not know what they mean when they say, "We must look ahead to see where we are going." What is it that they wish us to look at? There is nothing yet to see in the future. If looking ahead means anything, it must mean finding in our past useful and humane ideas with which to fill the future.

I do not mean - mind you - technological ideas, like going to the moon, airplanes, and antibiotics. We have no shortage of those ideas. I am referring to ideas of which we can say they have advanced our understanding of ourselves, enlarged our definitions of humanness. Shall we look for some in the century that is ending? What is there to find - the principle of indeterminacy? Nietzsche's arguments for the death of God? Freud's insistence that reason is merely a servant of the genitalia? The idea that language is utterly incapable of providing accurate maps of reality? You may think that I am loading the case against the twentieth century. Surely, you will call to mind (let us say, in America) the rejection of the segregation of races, the rejection of the inferiority of women, the increased access to higher education, and a few other advances. But these were not truly twentieth-century ideas, but rather extensions of ideas that arose at an earlier time. If you put your mind to it, I suppose you can recall several ideas that originated in our own century, and that will be useful in the next. But if you think too long, you are on a road to despair. Is it not obvious that our century has been an almost unrelieved horror? Who would have thought, in 1900 - the year, by the way, of Nietzsche's death and the publication of Freud'sThe Interpretation of Dreams- that the twentieth century would feature continuous mass murder, far exceeding anything humanity had witnessed in the previous two millennia? Who would have thought that the three great transcendent narratives of this century would be fascism, nazism, and communism? Who would have thought weapons would be invented that, in a flash, could end all human life? Who would have thought that the theme of this century would be "Technology Über Alles"? I am sorry to say it, but I don't think we will get much help from our own century. As you can tell, I speak as an enemy of this century. But even if you are not, you must admit it is hard to be its friend.

If we are looking for good ideas that may be revived, enhanced, appropriately modified, we could do worse than cast our eye on the fifth century b.c. - the time of the great Athenians.


Excerpted from "Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future" by Neil Postman. Copyright © 2000 by Neil Postman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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