Performing Human; Civility and Civilization
- Prof. Farhang Rajaee
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Prof. Farhang Rajaee, Carleton University, Canada
The title may suggest that I will take you through a philosophical journey on some abstract ideas about human culture and achievement. Quite the contrary, I have two rather practical questions I like to address as follows: What is the major crisis that humanity faces today? Is there a way out of that crisis?
What is the major crisis of humanity today? No one needs a reminder that the tune of the day is the song of economic crisis. I confess that there are many people whose very livelihood is in jeopardy, but blaming the economy I think is ducking one’s responsibility. Others focus on economic crisis, environmental degradation, and the threat of religious terrorism as the major challenges of our time. Notwithstanding the pressing, the immediate and the urgency of these issues, the author claims they do not address the real issue challenging humanity today. I believe we should look deeper. As a way of doing so, I begin with a novella that the Russian-American biochemist and science fiction writer, Isaak Osimov (1920-1992), wrote in the 1970s called “the Bicentennial Man.” It depicts the story of a robot butler, who battles in the court of law for gaining recognition as a human being, because, unlike other robots he has detected a sense of “empathy” in its system. Similar to other robots, he can (1) perform all the useful tasks imaginable, that is he has the ability to distinguish between useful and non/useful measures; (2) he is capable of manipulating complex ideas, resolving mathematical formula and even discussing sophisticated ideas and issues with his master, that is he is capable of distinguishing between experimental and philosophical truth/false categories. But he notices he has something more. (3) What sets him apart from other robots is that he is capable of sensing things that lies beyond either “utilitarian or scientific forms of rationality;” he can make non-utilitarian and non-scientific, i.e., “normative” judgment, that is he distinguished between normatively right/wrong positions. I like to underline these three forms of human rationality. It is through their working in complex interactions, despite the ever present tension between them, that human beings distinguish themselves from other species and make possible the occurrence of something deserving the designation of civility and civilization. It is this threesome rationality that helps humans navigate in the realms of “would or benefit,” “could or is,” but more importantly in that of “should or ought.” I assign the location of these three dimensions as in the heart, the mind and the soul.
In my ongoing research book project I explain how the epic of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk in the third millennium BCE, captures this triumvirate. The text depicts the story of a hero called Gilgamesh who is portrayed as being two third divine and one third human. He ruled the city of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. He proved an intolerable tyrant who violated all boundaries; “Heavenly Father, Gilgamesh – noble as he is, splendid as he is – has exceeded all bounds” (from Mitchell edition 2004: 73). His tyranny and oppression caused people to call upon the Gods for help. They pleaded to the Gods to “create a new hero, let them balance each other perfectly, so that Uruk has peace” (Ibid.: 74). The Gods responded by creating another being with equal strength as Gilgamesh called Enkidu. But as Gilgamesh was more divine and less human, Enkido was more animal and less human. When they faced one another and realized each other’s strength they saw the wisdom of abandoning animosity thus became friends. They joined forces and the long poem narrates their adventures together. The relevance of the epic to my story is that the union between the two creatures presents a turning point and in a way creates a new balanced force that proved equally animal, human and divine combined. The friendship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh creates a force that is one third divine (the soul), one third human (the mind) and one third beast (the heart). The working of them makes the city of Uruk a developed and civilized place, as depicted in the end the book. Now, while there is more than enough impetus, drive and the engine within each human for the first two i.e., the natural urge of wants and curiosity, human inclination toward the latter even though also within, its manifestation requires learning, education and acculturation. For example, while there is a common tendency for philanthropy, the fact that governments allow tax credit for such contributions is a great boost for its materialization.
How does this distinction help me identify the major crisis of humanity today? A more sophisticated bird eye’s view of the human condition today, beyond the daily difficulties, lead me to think that, despite their seriousness, the world’s serious problems are not economic, caused by too much utilitarian rationality, or ecological, resulting from too much positive rationality, but rather the erosion of empathy or what I call humanity deficit as a result of the undermining or even omission of normative rationality. I will point out one indicator: the unprecedented gap between the salary of the top management, everywhere, and employees is the most vivid symptom of such a deficit. Mr. Warren Buffet’s comment about unfair taxation aside, I offer some comparative statistics. Aristotle reports how Plato opined that it should be forbidden for a citizen to possess more than five times “the smallest property owned by any other citizen” (The Politics 1266b). The financier and banker J. P. Morgan (1837-1913) would allow for 10 times difference between the salaries of the two echelons of management and staff before we cross the boundary of fairness and acceptable. Today, the difference is about 350 times and in actual dollar value, the top CEO salaries average 10.5 million annually. To me such imbalance is due to the fact that normative rationality is overtaken by the utilitarian and positive ones and this point to the core of the modern crisis.
How does one rectify this? My answer to this question sounds rather simple and for some rather idealistic. It is neither. It has taken me a few years to understand the issues concerning it and the past two years of intense research to shape my elaboration of it into an ongoing book project that for now bears the title I have chosen for my talk today. We have to foster, encourage, and learn “the art of being human,” the result of which would make the individual cultured and civil while making the collective civilized. Which one is responsible for the performance of this art? My research on the history of civilizations has taught me that the emphasis should be on the individual in order to initiate it, and then on the collective to help it grow and maintain it in harness. The end result will be a civilization.
My findings will be presented in two parts. The first part aims to canvas an anatomy of the condition where the individuals and the collective work together in concert. The second part provided three examples of civilizations with various world views. The first part captures the condition of working of the heart, the mind and soul coming together. What does history tells us about the features of such a condition? So far these are the features I have identified: Civilizations (1) are not bound by or the monopoly of any worldview, ideology, culture or religion; (2) It refers to a condition of concurrent, comprehensive and convivial production; (3) such a condition does not mean heaven on earth, but rather a condition where at minimum 51 per cent of the time for 51 percent of the people things are not unfair and we can recognize it by the direction of immigration; and (4) the paragons of its system are captured with the acronym PET.
What does PET stand for? It refers to presence; ethos; and theatre. In each chapter, I will elaborate on my ideas by utilizing a series of triumviri as follows.
Presence or Modus Vivendi; the Politics of Demand
Agency: Absorbed, Abandoned, Aware
Selfhood: Isolation, Loneliness, Solitude
Love: Longing, Wholeness, Immortality
Reason (Rationality): Utilitarian, Positive, Normative
Attitude: Authenticity, Tenacity, Reverence
Commitment: Personal (Private), Culture (Collective), Universal (Human)
Functions: Labor, Work, Action
Ethos or Modus Operandi; the Politics of Mechanism
Attitude: Inclusive, Meritocracy, Isonomy
Scope: Tradition, Modern, Future
Aim: Fairness, Order, Dignity
Due process: Speech, Law, Participation
Spheres: Private, Social, Public
Freedom: Negative, Affirmative, Assertive
Governance: Friendship, Efficiency, Fairness
Theater; the Politics of Space, Structures and Institutions
Framework: Solidarity (Community), Cooperative (State), Transparency (Global)
Mode of Production: Agriculture, Industry, Information
Political: Security (Order), Welfare (achievement), Dignity (Engagement)
Legal: Protection, Due Process, Fairness
Economic: Family, Firm, Fellow-Beings
Socio-Cultural: Integrity, Autonomy, Solidarity
Educational: Authenticity/Originality, Innovation, Universality
At the moment when the three function in harmony, civility and civilization have occurred producing a life worth narrating about. I repeat this is not heaven. “Making a life” occurs when a majority, (usually more than fifty percent of the people and more than fifty percent of the times), deliberately get engaged in the conversation, which in turn, facilitates humans as species to become humans as cultural beings and perform acts peculiar and particular to humans. They include three processes of production/satisfaction, occurrences/achievement and experiences/actualization. These adjectives materialize when a moment of equipoise in concurrent, comprehensive, and convivial production occurs. A concurrent occurrence refers to the happening of these productions all at the same time. It does not suffice to produce only one of them. A comprehensive production means humanity produces everything, i.e., material (sustenance and welfare economy, order and administration) and non-material (art, music, social relations, sense of worth, hope, and quality of life). And a convivial experience refers to these concurrent productions with a spirit of festivity, energy and liveliness. Convivial comes from the Latin convīviālis, conveying a feast that in turn derived from the Latin convīvium, meaning living together, that again comes from the Latin verb vīvere, meaning to live. Civilization in the words of the physician and philosopher Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) “is the sum total of all progress made by men and the individual man in every sphere of action and from every point of view, insofar as this progress helps towards the spiritual perfecting of individuals as the progress of all progress” (1987: 91).
As a way of conclusion, I will ask what we might learn from this exercise. I hope that the exercise will confirm once again the ancient old maxim that one can encounter in most human traditions, i.e.; “know your-self.” Note how historically, the Greeks expressed it as “Gnothe Seauton;” the Romans phrased it as “Nosce te ipsum;” the Muslims phrased it as “arafa nafsahu;” and further equated it with knowing the ultimate reality that for them is the divine. The moderns popularized the Roman poet Horace’s phrase “Sapere Aude” that conveys the same spirit. To be human, which in turn manifest itself in civility and civilization, requires serious conversation with oneself. Here in the this work I suggest that such a conversation should not only include the self and its self-definition, but more so it should expand to the modus operandi or the rule of the game among the selves as well the features of the arena where the three interact. I invite and more so I hope to empower the listener and the readers to take possession of their very being and give meaning to it. No one else can or will do it when one either refuses or ignores this important task. The amazing miracle of civilization works like a garden that is in need of stewardship of weeding and planting of new flowers; a duty that is incumbent upon every one of us, individually.