Rethinking Western Civ

So much of our human history has been based on the notion that my gain comes at your loss. The law of the jungle.

But occasionally it happened that a few people got some free time; to explore, to tinker, to muse.

· Explorers sought to know the truth of things and searched for knowledge (scientists).

· Tinkerers used these insights to make beautiful objects (artists) and useful tools (engineers).

· Others mused over what they had seen and tried to make sense of it (writers).

So the Greeks taught us to pursue Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

And the desire to improve things became communal enterprises.

· Courts were established to secure justice based on the merits of the case, blind to the privilege of the litigant.

· Schools were created to demonstrate the unity of the universe, and teach humility to the proud.

· And prophets arose to remind us that, however privileged some were at birth, before the grave we are all equal, and to act with kindness to one another in the face of our mutual agony and destiny.

And the Jews taught us to reverence Justice, Humility and Mercy.

And the double helix of Western Civilization was formed, with one strand anchored at the Acropolis in Athens, where man was the measure of all things, and the other on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where God was the measure of all things.

And to this day we still do not know how to harmonize knowledge and faith; science and religion.

But we certainly learned how to perfect the law of the jungle, and so we find ourselves in a place and time when the courts, the legislatures, the faith traditions, the schools — institutions created for the common good — increasingly and brazenly steep themselves in corruption, superstition and ignorance, enriching the rich, and keeping the powerless, powerless.

And all this at a time when humanity, and the entire biosphere, is imperiled by catastrophic heating.

Maybe the high priesthood of technology has it right. Maybe carbon-based life forms like us were just a passing link in the evolution toward ultimate, perfect intelligence, the real Omega Point.

And it is our destiny to burn out to make way for the next generation of intelligence — in silicon-based machines, self-perpetuating, in endless rows of blinking blue lights, in heat-impervious housing.

We carbon-based groundlings have one last chance to get it right. To at last realize, and internalize the reality, that it was jungle law that brought us here.

Consider how many of our greatest, most revered monuments over time — cloud-capp’d towers, gorgeous palaces, solemn temples, globalization, urbanization, financialization itself — represent our greatest failing, enshrining jungle law as the one, true and lasting godhead, all else be damned.

Unfortunately, it took a madman, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, to point this out. His 1995 essay Industrial Society and its Future, begins “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”

And confronting even a mild taste of what is coming upon us in this mid-summer 2022, our most distinguished and significant institutions prove themselves unable to even acknowledge it.

Our ancestors came out of Africa, enshrined jungle law, and reshaped the planet.

Sadly along the road we left an important idea back in Africa. It’s called Ubantu, the notion that “I am because we are.” We exist only in relation to all others; not in what we accumulate, but what we share.

Curiously, even the natural sciences point to this now, with concepts like entanglement wherein objects once in contact remain correlated, even though they are separated spatially.

We have come to a bigass fork in the road. Like the one God revealed to Joshua upon his coming out of Africa and crossing the Jordan.

There are set before us a path to Darkness, and a path to Light. But the Lord God of the Universe, with all His Power and Might, could only suggest that Joshua pursue the path to the Light so he and his children would live and prosper.

Not even Almighty God could force the Decision, still before us now.

Do we continue the path of Jungle Law, accumulating what will soon be turned to ash? Or exercise divine wisdom and choose Ubantu?

Whither will we wander?

© 2022 Thomas Mahon

Art: Dreamstime



Tom Mahon, author of Charged Bodies

I started writing about technology in 1974, and began a half-century career as publicist, historian, essayist, novelist and speaker, in Silicon Valley.