Posts Tagged ‘Carl Sagan’

Today (22 November 2013) is the fiftieth anniversary of deaths of three famous persons:


Aldous Huxley


John F. Kennedy


and C. S. Lewis.

The irony of that day is that Kennedy–a star on the rise, but not yet fulfilled–is the one whose death got the attention. Of course, he was the president of the United States, and someone that visibly powerful tends to draw the eye more than those whose influence plays out over centuries. Kennedy was glamorous and youthful, and while his education showed itself in his speeches and policies, his intellect didn’t challenge people in uncomfortable ways.

By contrast, Huxley warned us of the dangers of cheerful tyranny in A Brave New World. More importantly, he reminded us of transcendence, what he referred to as the perennial philosophy. His writings convinced me that science is not the only way to see the world. I have come to think of this as the theology of narratives. We comprehend the world on multiple levels, but storytelling is our primary mode of thought.

Lewis’s influence on me is broader. He was a vigorous debater, a teacher of the classics, and a fine literary critic. His stories were of varying quality from the heavy-handed Space Trilogy to the fun of his best known Chronicles of Narnia, but some of his narratives were profound. The Screwtape Letters works, whether we see the demons as fallen angels or as marketing executives. Till We Have Faces is a study of jealousy and of how human beings interact with the divine. And, of course, as a writer myself, it’s gratifying to see a scholar who comes to public attention as he reaches middle age.

But what of Kennedy? As I said above, he was potential without fulfillment. We love to play the game of counterfactuals, speculating about the Vietnam War or civil rights. Certainly, Kennedy was more cautious than Johnson and may have preferred the free market to the Great Society. We just don’t know. Like the lovers on the Grecian Urn, we are, with Kennedy, left in anticipation. His life was a story unfinished, and so we can only spin out the ending according to what our imaginations can conceive.

And that is the point. All our lives are stories, stories that we write for ourselves and tell to each other. The meaning that we find is in the narrative. If I may play with the ideas of “The Music of the Ainur,” written by Lewis’s friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, it is the duty and life of each of us to sing our theme in the cosmic fugue (thanks be to Carl Sagan) and our worthiness to use that theme to add to the total music.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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Recently, I watched the documentary, Alexandria, City of Dreams by Bettany Hughes and was reminded of a nagging question: Why did Alexandria fail?

But perhaps this needs more context. Alexandria was a city founded by Alexander (points for being obvious) after his conquest of Egypt to be the center of Greek influence in that region. The city is best known for its two Wonders of the Ancient World: the Pharos Lighthouse and the Great Library.

The shiny thing on the coast was an engineering marvel, one of many, in fact, to be found in classical Alexandria. The first known steam engine was invented there. There’s reason to believe that the Antikythera mechanism had its origins in the city. Temples used machines to open doors automatically, to move images of gods across the ceiling, and to give out holy water from coin-operated dispensers.

And then there was the library. City law mandated the copying of all books brought into the port for inclusion in the stacks. In fact, the story goes that the originals were kept and the copies given to the travellers. The library housed schools. The chief librarians were scholars in their own right. Eratosthenes, for example, used the angles of shadows at noon on the summer solstice in two parts of Egypt to determine the circumference of the Earth–he came within a few percent of the correct number. The book collection is reported to have been an assemblage of the great writings–perhaps even just about all writings–from the ancient world.

So with the blessings of technology and literacy, why did Alexandria fail? This question is important today. We share those two characteristics. If we are to avoid the ancient city’s fate, we have to figure out what didn’t work.

Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series, argued that slavery was one of the causes. Certainly, the view that machines were mere toys since labor could be done by enslaved humans retarded technological development. Why build machines and make them better when a person can be made to do every job that we can conceive of at the moment? (I ask this question from time to time when I wrestle with my computer.)

But the problem wasn’t just in the fact that some people were held as slaves. The tragic flaw of Alexandrian society was the idea of a privileged few ruling over many subjects. The machines were used mainly to cow visitors to temples into fear and donating. Education was sold to those who could afford it.

The astonishing achievements of Alexandria were reached by a small portion of the population. The city fell to barbarians because the benefits of its technology and learning spread to only a few. There’s debate as to who destroyed the library. Julius Caesar burned the original building by accident. Theodophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, ordered the closure of the library, and a later patriarch, Cyril–named a saint by fools–instigated the killing of the last head librarian, Hypatia. There are claims that when Muslim armies captured Alexandria, they destroyed the books, since anything that agreed with the Qur’an was unnecessary and anything that opposed the Qur’an should be destroyed.

What if instead of a privileged few enjoying the blessings of advancement, the whole of the society had participated? What if instead of a town full of subjects and slaves who were not invested in the knowledge, a militia of citizens had stood up for their Wonder of the World?

I value universal education because I see no other means of assuring that knowledge will progress and no other means of preventing civilization from descending into barbarism. The small-minded and the wicked will always be with us. The answer is to drown out their voices with those of reason. Spreading the blessing of education to everyone is the duty of any society. It is also the essential act of any society that wishes to survive.

Crossposted on http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/

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About twenty years ago, a pastor that I knew recommended a book to me–The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. (Michael Deming, if you’re reading this, you were right.) It’s taken me all that time to get around to it–graduate school, relationships, jobs, many other books, and life occupied my attention–but now having read it, I give it my wholehearted endorsement.

This book was the rare kind that I couldn’t underline standout passages because I’d have to underline the entire text. Others in this category have been Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, books that give a comprehensive explanation of life.

Hoffer analyzes mass movements. His claim is that they all are essentially identical. Since the book was written in 1951, his main examples are Nazism, Communism, and Zionism as contemporary cases, and he spends a good deal of time discussing the American and French revolutions as well. He gives the rise of both Christianity and Islam for a perspective from long ago.

For a mass movement to succeed, there must be a body of frustrated people who see no way to fulfill themselves. As a result, they seek a movement that will erase their individuality, thereby relieving their disgust with self. In support of this, he observes that a true believer can easily convert from one belief to another, but does not shed fanaticism in the process. This is because the doctrines of movements are not fundamental to the psychological comfort provided by belonging. Instead, they shut down the independent voice in the believer’s mind.

I have long been suspicious of any large group of human beings. Individuals can accomplish extraordinary things. Groups of individuals who know themselves to be capable of achievement can occasionally perform great feats–see NASA for its first several decades. But mass movements just shift the rabble around.

The True Believer will show you how that happens. It will then be up to you to find fulfillment on your own.

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