Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Discovery Of The Past III

In "The Discovery of the Past" (Past Times, New York, 1984), Poul Anderson commends Alex Haley's Roots as doing "...a wonderful thing for black Americans." (p. 190), then asks:

"Who will do the same service for white Americans?" (p. 191)

- and immediately goes on to ask:

"How much of our culture do we still possess?" (ibid.)

It is necessary to note that "...we..." does not refer (only) to "...white Americans..." I will demonstrate this shortly because Anderson does go on to ask, and answer, "Who are we?" (ibid.)

But first let us consider the ambiguity of the word "we." Remarks that might be made include:

(i) "We are descended from apes." This "We..." means all human beings.
(ii) "We know more about the universe than our ancestors did." This one means all (informed) human beings alive now.
(iii) "We have the problem of what to do with the unemployed." This one means the minority that manages society or, sometimes, the electorate although, even in the latter case, it does not really include the unemployed. They are the problem and "we" are usually the tax payers.
(iv) "We must respond to Japanese competition." This one means our country (UK, US etc) considered as an economic unit. It excludes the Japanese, who are nowadays regarded neither as heathens to be converted nor as infidels to be fought but as competitors to be outsold.
(v) Within our country, "We must respond to competition" means our company as against others.
(vi) "We believe..." defines the creed of one religious group as against others. And so on.

Anderson clarifies who he means:

"Who are we? And now I mean every citizen of every Western country, regardless of race, sex, faith, or condition." (p. 191)

I would want to speak of "we" as including every citizen of every country. However, Anderson explains why he focuses on "Western":

"How many today have any familiarity with the Bible, European and American history, or the rules of English grammar? Precious few!" (p. 192)

I agree that we need familiarity with all of these - and I hope that I get English grammar right! Some knowledge of the Bible is necessary to enable anyone to make an informed judgment as to the truth or falsity of the historical claims of both Judaism and Christianity. I argue further that some knowledge of all religious traditions is necessary so that we can ascertain which spiritual practice, if any, might be beneficial. A young man from Liverpool had become a Buddhist monk but told me that he did not know anything about Hinduism. I think that the teaching of karma yoga in the Bhagavad Gita is highly relevant to anyone who wants to be both spiritually aware and active in the world. The nearest Christian teaching might be: laborare est orare.

So I agree with Anderson on the importance of knowledge but would want to broaden it a bit.

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