The tree of knowledge
Will Durant became widely known for his early books, especially The Story of Philosophy.* My copy is from 1933, the 15th printing. A yelloeing newspaper clipping is inside; it is an interview with the Durants in 1963 by Jim Bishop, and includes a brief account of their 1913 marriage: Ariel was 15 years old; Will, her tutor, was 25; yet they obtained approval to marry. She rollerskated to the courthouse; a ring she wore ever after was donated by an attendant; the marriage lasted 68 years until their deaths two weeks apart. Ariel was a collaborator in all of the Durant’s subsequent books, and co-authored the later ones; their commitment and devotion is palpable in the dedication of Story of Philosoply which reads:
To My Wife
Grow strong, my comrade… that you may stand
Unshaken when I fall; that I may know
the shattered fragments of my song will come
at last to finer melody in you;
that I may tell my heart that you begin
where passing I leave off, and fathom more.
The same features of Durant’s book that made it popular were offensive to many formal historians: it is clearly written, and contains opinion, commentary, and humor. In other words, it was written to be read. understood, and enjoyed. As I open up my old copy again, the preface pages seem relevant to us in the 21st century; “Science teaches us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate retail, then kills us wholesale in war.” .They argue that only wisdom, as revealed through “desire coordinated in the light of experience, ( philosophy) can tell us when to heal and when to kill.” I will suggest that the world-wide chaos all around us in this new century is only another chapter in an imagined Story of Creation: There is no author other than humanity:
Book One, The Age of Agriculture is unfinished. It begins with the creation of farming and husbandry, which promote stable communities at the expense of hunter-gathering. Stable communities lead to social order, and in time, to science, art, land ownership, geometry, mathematics, commerce, architecture, rule of law. The chapter now being written in an increasingly urban 21st century is titled, Malthus, Speak.
Book Two, The age of Information, is also unfinished. Its dominant theme is that to create easy access to information can lead to chaos, which in turn, creates change in human behavior. How ironic and circular it is that humankind creates that which creates change in humanity! The chapter on the Biblical Genesis suggests that too much knowledge– information– is too much power; and power is something humans do not manage well. When the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is eaten, God becomes enraged and expels Adam and Eve from Eden. Now we billions of tiny fleshy gods suffer from knowledge: Infomania, or infodynia.
The chapter on the creation of the Printing Press was about the time when printed information became available to the entire world, information formerly accessible only to Church, Wealth and Monarchy (one and the same). The result is a still evolving revolution in various degrees, and weakening of the three-in-one powers. Only Wealth seems still healthy; yet for how long? Perhaps we shall see. Many grotesquely wealthy people are divesting through charity already, aware that their life is finite, and wealth is anathematic when hundreds of millions of people, whose voices, unheard light years distant, are now loud and clear on Social Media.
The chapter on information is still being written but, Ready or not, Social Media is here now, vital and alive, making books, magazines, and TV Old Media; still of interest but mainly in retrospect. We might have noticed the change when Talk Radio heralded new media, but was less interactive. Social Media, in countries where not suppressed, is egalitarian, and remains in the hands of the limitless number of individuals whose collective voice is very loud even though each one by itself is– pipsqueak– unless it goes ‘viral’. That Info-genie, is out of the bottle; it’s body is made up of various aspects of the internet, browsers, email, skype etc.; social media is its mind and voice, where live information is instantly available to almost anyone, anywhere. Any image, any idea, can spread in minutes around the globe. Any single voice can be heard. Meanwhile traditional top down sources of information shrivel , snivel, and fail: newspapers shrink to the size of circulars, sirviving on snippets of local news, and remunerative misleading medical or cure-all ads. Information offered on TV remains stale, dull, repetitive, and uniform; talking heads are entertainers on the order of professional wrestlers or football players, but less entertaining; some are serial sexual predators, violent scofflaws and drug users, yet they foppishly foist political views on viewers who turn to free media, social media. However we face a tsunami of information which creates chaos, both internal and societal. We are unable to evaluate, filter and sort it all. And until we are able to live wisely, and adapt, or create new ways of dealing with all this information, we are likely to remain factionalized, frustrated, fragile, and furious.
The Durant position is that people gnerally lack wisdom, which they see as the realm of philosophy. They decry epistemology, as an analytic approach or scientification of philosophy. The introductory paragraph in The Story of Philosophy, titled To the Reader suggests that:
‘epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy’.
‘the knowledge-process … (is) the business of science,
‘philosophy (is) interpretation of … experience rather than (its) analytic description’
‘Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge, while
‘philosophy must provide a synthesis… wisdom.’
The four and a half page extended introduction expands on these assertions. “… to seize the value and perspective of passing things, and …pull ourselves up out of the maelstrom of daily circumstance we need to know that …Science is analytical description, ( while) philosophy is synthetic interpretation. The philosopher ‘tries to put together that great universe-watch that science has taken apart”. The Durants claim that if we break philosophy down like scientists, into– logic: ideal method in thought; esthetics: ideal form; ethics: ideal conduct; Politics: ideal organization; and Metaphysics: ultimate reality, “ it becomes dismembered, loses its beauty and joy. That is found by studying philosophers. We have had the same experiences they had but we did not suck those experiences dry of their secret and subtle meanings. So let us listen, ready to forgive errors, and eager to learn.” So maybe this is a good time to hear the philosophers speak to us through a book that is clear, short, enjoyable, and perhaps can make us a bit more wise.
*The Story of Philosophy, 412 pp, focuses on the West, and excludes Asia. But the first volume of their 12 volume History of Civilization is devoted to Eastern Philosophy and History. Caution: 1150 pp. Both are free PDF on-line. But not without cost: that of mostly shutting down Critter, Glitter, Fritter, and to some extent, email, Siri and Browser. Enjoy!
This entry was posted in creative non fiction, Essays on América, oligophilia, philosophical essays, Reading and language and tagged epistemology and philosopy, Genesis, Gutenberg printing, infomania, social media, The advent of agriculture, the age of information, the role of philosophy, The role of science, The Story of Philosophy, The tree of knowledge, Will and Ariel Durant.