Sometimes you read a sentence that stops you in your tracks. Great writing takes the reader beyond words, and generates a moment of beauty and insight.
I came across such a sentence today during while reading H.G. Wells “The Outline of History.” Wells was of course best known for his science fiction works, a pioneer in the genre with such books as “The Time Machine,” and “War of the Worlds.”
But his magnum opus, in my view, is the two-volume “Outline of History.” In it we gain a window into Wells’ capacious mind, and his concern for the patterns, pathologies and potentialities of humankind since before the beginning of civilization.
The sentence that stopped me today is this:
“There appears life struggling towards consciousness, gathering power, accumulating will, through millions of years and through countless billions of individual lives, until it reaches the tragic confusions and perplexities of the world today, so full of fear and yet so full of promise and opportunity.”
The “Outline of History” was written after World War I, in 1918-19, and revised in 1930. Though the phrase “accumulating will” gives me pause, the sweep of the sentence ripples through one’s thinking, and feels pertinent and even prescient during the ongoing pandemic and the year 2021.
The question of culture, and cultural change, has been one of the themes of this column. A bromide that talking heads on cable TV have been echoing of late is “culture eats policy for lunch.” That’s a simplistic version of levels below the political dimension that I’ve been exploring for years. It means that underlying conditions always trump politics and policies.
H.G. Wells “Outline of History” attempts to go even further than culture however, and discern the basic shape and trajectory of human history taken as a whole.
As intractable as they are, cultures come and go, but human history marches on. But where is it marching from, and towards what is it marching? And if life is “struggling toward consciousness,” why are so many humans regressing into the consciousness of their dogs, which populate American advertising of late?
Just as the age of nations, much less empires, is over, so too the age of distinct cultures belongs to history. Yet because of a failure of perception and imagination, people cling to the remnants of their cultures, with useless traditions, irrelevant religions, and divisive identifications.
In the West at least, liberals, adhering to the past while talking about the future, do so in the name of ‘diversity.’ Whereas the remnant of conservatives who haven’t bought into the big lie and aren’t indulging in Q fantasies and bottomless grievance are “socially conservative, Christian and religiously observant.”
If culture in the anthropological and traditional sense of the word is history, what will take its place? As much as authoritarian nations like China and Russia are loath to admit it, American culture has been and continues to be a globalizing culture.
The old cultures have become fragmentary burdens from the past, hamstringing the human being and humanity just when the emergence of AI and gene editing compel an unprecedented awakening of intelligence. Is a new kind of culture, never seen before in human history, emerging?
The new culture will not be based on tradition, or memory, or even knowledge, but on awareness, insight and right relationship between humankind and nature, and between human beings. I don’t know when such a global culture will emerge, but I’m certain it has to emerge if humanity is to survive and thrive.
So what will allow a completely new order of culture to be created? Obviously, it will not just spring forth, organically and willy-nilly from the present trends in art, civil society and academia, much less politics.
To begin with, humankind clearly needs a completely different relationship with nature. Though it has become de rigueur to put faith in science and technology, AI and gene editing have been created by science; therefore science cannot give us the intelligence to use them wisely.
The direct perception of beauty and essence, which flow from undirected attention and effortless stillness, are no longer the luxury of a few contemplatives.
They are the wellspring of the intelligence the human being urgently needs to navigate the reefs and shoals of the present age and create a new kind of culture for the future of humanity.