The attitudes we hold about our relationship to the universe, as well as to our own species, are the most important elements of our worldviews. Pascal said, “When the universe has crushed him, man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows he is dying, and of its victory the universe knows nothing.”
His view of a coldly indifferent universe persists, though the ‘noble man’ part sounds absurd to our ears. Indeed, Pascal’s conception of the universe has become the unquestioned cornerstone of the scientific and popular worldview.
Once the idea of man as God’s special creation fell onto the rubble heap of history, it was a short step, in a supposedly chaotic universe of pure chance, to viewing humankind as a cancer upon the earth. We urgently need a redefinition of humanity’s relationship to the cosmos.
Both Pascal’s outlook on nature and inlook on man are erroneous. The first half of the equation—the idea that the universe is a completely random mechanism—could not be further from the truth. Anyone who has spent time alone in the wilderness realizes that nature, while completely indifferent to one’s survival, is permeated with a profound intelligence, far beyond the mind of man.
And the wilderness, what’s left of it on earth, is an expression of the universe. Life on this planet is not an exception; the universe gives birth to life as much as it gives birth to stars and planets.
In short, the universe is not only life friendly; it is consciousness friendly. The cosmos is conscious in a way we cannot imagine, and can only experience when the mind-as-thought is silent.
That’s why the naturalist John Muir could truthfully say, “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
Though Pascal, living in the 17th century, preceded the Age of Enlightenment, with its faith in human reason and the perfectibility of man, he clearly presages it with his sentiment about the nobility of man. Our cynical age, beset with increasingly urgent global problems answered by persistently atavistic parochialism, is merely the flip side of our old self-image.
In America and other Western countries, misanthropy has gone mainstream, with movies and television echoing and reinforcing a sense of hopelessness that verges on a collective death wish. Shows like “Life After People” on the History Channel promulgate an apocalyptic undercurrent bubbling to the surface. Wikipedia describes “Life After People” as “a television documentary series where scientists, structural engineers and other experts speculate…about [what] the Earth might be like if humanity instantly disappeared, as well as the [beneficial] impact humanity’s disappearance might have on the environment.”
This is what happens when the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment collide with the realities of the Age of Bewilderment. Confusion becomes enshrined as clarity; localism is seen as the path to holism; and fragmentation makes a mockery of diversity.
The post World War II ideal of the ‘unification of man’, expressed by the United Nations and other international institutions, has been realized, but in reverse and perverse. The world is quickly becoming homogenous, a shrinking space of self-interest. Culture, religion, and nation have become either tourist streamers or enclosures of emptiness, parodies of the cohesive forces they once were.
The idea that ‘people in different nations, even people within nations, have become less alike in at least as many ways as they have become more alike’ is not merely wrong; it shows a mind that is out of touch with reality.
At the very least, such sophisticated silliness belies an incredible shallowness of perception and thinking. Not only is the crisis of the commons more and more evident and urgent in every area, from terrorism to finance, from climate change to drug trafficking. But urban people everywhere are becoming interchangeable individualists hustling for any and every angle.
It is simply false to say that the world feels different depending on what nation you’re in. Of course, people have always been the same under the superficial differences of ethnicity, culture, and nation. The difference in our age is a growing global crisis, shared by everyone. The world now is essentially the same no matter where one lives, and is perceived clearly as such by anyone that isn’t too blinkered by nationalism or some other ‘ism’ to see it.
The ‘crisis of the European project’ is not regional; it is the crisis of humanity. In the United States, diverse peoples, mostly from Europe, generally conformed to America’s materialistic values, and outwardly prospered as they inwardly died. Now that the American Dream is dead, nothing is holding people together, and the culture has gone mad.
Europe’s crisis was not caused by jamming nations and peoples with diverging values together, but by globalization jamming everyone together, without an adequate psychological and philosophical response. What is propelling people apart in Europe is the same thing propelling Americans apart in the United States: the acceptance of irrelevant ‘shared identities’ as the basis of cultural, economic, and political organization.
Reinhold Niebuhr said, “I think there ought to be a club in which preachers and journalists could come together and have the sentimentalism of the one matched with the cynicism of the other. That ought to bring them pretty close to the truth.”
Europe will integrate, or it will disintegrate. And so will humanity as a whole.