Civilizing Civilization

booksThis last week I packaged my latest version of The Fire Trail, my sixth novel, and put it in the mail to one of several publishers. It felt like sending a child out into the great wide world. 

Much of my work has revolved around the idea of truth, how we find it, how we recognize it, how we know it’s opposite, falsity. And so the search for what is real and true is a theme of The Fire Trail. It is a search that many have made before me, explorations recorded in the literature of mankind, going back to the first scrolls. 

The mind of man has long journeyed into and through the great questions: What is right and what is wrong? What is love? What is goodness and beauty? How do we live together peaceably, respecting one another’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? We call the result, our effort at creating a civilized culture, a civilization. We have come to realize that man is not born civil or civilized, but must be taught and trained and encouraged in the art of selfless love for his neighbor. He must proffer this hope to his world, offer a way forward. 

With the ebbing of religious faith and thus the ebbing of hope in a future, a tsunami of despair has flooded our culture. We are doomed, many say. So it was with great satisfaction that I noticed this last week several optimists, those hope-sayers, who countered the pessimists, those doomsayers. 

Lord Lawson, Chairman of the Global Warming Foundation, writes encouragingly in his recent review in the Wall Street Journal of Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century. He describes Mr. Bailey’s list of current scares: overpopulation, the end of natural resources, global warming, genetic modification. Mr. Bailey challenges such scares by pointing out that global living standards are higher than ever and population trends will actually be reversing; genetically modified grain (a GMO), produced by a better breeding technique, feeds the hungry worldwide; fossil fuels are far better for the poor than wood fires, and the contribution to climate change minimal. These visions of hope have triumphed, he notes, because of free market capitalism. 

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, weighs in with “The Green Scare Problem” (Wall Street Journal): “Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living… they exaggerate… Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic…, acid rain was not devastating German forests…, the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind.” Remedies for scares can be costly and lethal, particularly in regards to GMOs, climate change, and nuclear power, the current fears. 

The truth is that mankind throughout the Western tradition has been inspired and driven to solve problems as they arise. We have used our minds to help one another live better lives, to survive poverty and cure disease. The fears of doomsayers Paul Ehrlich (over-population) and Al Gore (global warming) are without substance and even harmful with their necessary policies, especially hurting the world’s poor. We have every reason to believe that we may be hopeful about the future, not only of the planet, but of human survival. 

That is, if we continue to be inspired and driven to solve problems, if we continue to search for truth and recognize it when we see and hear it, if we continue to teach the rich tapestry of the history of the Western world to the next generation, that tradition of civilizing inquiry. But with the loss of this “civil” education in high schools and colleges, we may have every reason for unease. With the loss of religious faith – and mystery and wonder – we may have reason to lose faith in mankind. We must equip the next generation with what works and what doesn’t (history) and with inspiration to create (the arts). 

John Agresto writes in the Journal about “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts.” While he recognizes the value of an education that will train the student for the workplace, he believes the student must also be trained to think, to ponder the meaning of life, the pursuit of truth, the definitions of beauty and goodness. The classic liberal arts curricula aimed to do this, to inspire us and “teach us how to marvel.” And when we marvel, we admit we are less than marvel-ous, we are not gods, that we have something to reach for outside ourselves. We become creative. We use our minds to help others. Mr. Agresto writes: 

“Some (literature) holds up mirrors labeled ‘courage’ or ‘friendship’ or ‘smallness of soul’ to see if we can see ourselves there… books… can show us and lead us to examine creativity and desire, love and treachery, giddiness and joy, hope and fear, and facing death… (we) ponder law and justice, the nature of innocence and causes of moral culpability, forms of government and the ordering of societies that can preserve and refine our civilization.”

And so as I handed my weighty manuscript, sleeping in its slick Priority envelope, to the postal clerk, I said goodbye and wished it well. I prayed it would find a home, that it would be midwifed into the world of readers, birthed onto white pages or tablet screens. I prayed that my little novel, a (suspenseful) love story set in Berkeley in September 2014, would be my small offering to our culture of despair, a way forward on a path to a more civilized society, one of truth, beauty, and goodness, and one of safety and sanity.

I prayed that we keep well tended that fire trail protecting civilization from the wilderness.

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