The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.
Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has died. One of the giants of our time, he was one of the dissident heroes in the Eighties who helped end Communist rule in Eastern Europe. He was also a profound thinker and writer. In recent years, although his own personal religious beliefs were murky, he has bemoaned the atheism and the flight from God that has become a hallmark of modern Europe. Last year he gave a remarkable speech, in which the following passage sums up what is wrong with Europe and much of the rest of the West:
We are living in the first truly global civilisation. That means that whatever comes into existence on its soil can very quickly and easily span the whole world.
But we are also living in the first atheistic civilisation, in other words, a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity. For that reason it prefers short-term profit to long-term profit. What is important is whether an investment will provide a return in ten or fifteen years; how it will affect the lives of our descendants in a hundred years is less important.
However, the most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilisation is its pride. The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit.
And indeed, why should a developer go to the trouble of building a warehouse with several storeys when he can have as much land as he wants and can therefore build as many single-storey warehouses as he likes? Why should he worry about whether his building suits the locality in which it is built, so long as it be reached by the shortest route and it is possible to build a gigantic car park alongside it? What is to him that between his site and his neighbour’s there is a wasteland? And what is to him, after all, that from an aeroplane the city more and more resembles a tumour metastasizing in all directions and that he is contributing to it? Why should he get worked up over a few dozen hectares that he carves out of the soil that many still regard as the natural framework of their homeland?
I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilisation, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful, or that is simply a source of measurable profit, anything that induces growth and more growth and still more growth, including the growth of agglomerations.
But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.
We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident.
I believe that the recent financial and economic crisis was of great importance and in its ultimate essence it was actually a very edifying signal to the contemporary world.
Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable. Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on our knowing who man is and what aims he pursues, what was the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular individual or community.
And all of a sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from all the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who – having intimate access to the truth – were convinced with unshakeable assurance that the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit that they had been taken by surprise.
I hope and trust that the elites of today’s world will realise what this signal is telling us.
In fact it is nothing extraordinary, nothing that a perceptive person did not know long ago. It is a warning against the disproportionate self-assurance and pride of modern civilisation. Human behaviour is not totally explicable as many inventors of economic theories and concepts believe; and the behaviour of firms or institutions or entire communities is even less so.
Naturally after this crisis a thousand and one theorists will emerge to describe precisely how and why it happened and how to prevent it happening in future. But this will not be a sign that they have understood the message that the crisis sent us. The opposite, more likely: it will simply be a further emanation of that disproportionate self-assurance that I have been speaking of.
I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility. A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.
The modern pride that I refer to did not manifest itself in architecture only recently. In the inter-war period many otherwise brilliant avant-garde architects already shared the opinion that confident and rational reflection was the key to a new approach to human settlement. And so they started planning various happy cities with separate zones for housing, sport, entertainment, commerce or hospitality, all linked by a logical infrastructure. Those architects had succumbed to the aberrant notion that an enlightened brain is capable of devising the ideal city. Nothing of the sort was created, however. Bold urbanist projects proved to be one thing, while life turned out to be something else. Life often demands something quite different from what the architects offer, such as an urban district consisting of the strangest hotchpotch of different functions, where the children’s playground is next to the government building, the government building next to a pub, and the pub next to an apartment house, which in turn is next to a small park. For centuries humankind lived in culture-forming civilisations, in other words, settlements had a natural order determined by a universally-shared sensibility, thanks to which every illiterate mediaeval blacksmith, when asked to forge a bracket, infallibly forged a Gothic bracket, without needing a teacher of Gothic or a Gothic designer. The designers’ civilisation in which we live is one of the many secondary consequences of that modern-era pride, whereby people believe they have understood everything and than they can therefore completely plan the world.
Go here to read the rest. Man glories in his own wisdom and power and turns his back on God, a tale often told throughout history, and one without a happy ending except in a return to God.