LIFE represents a complex and multifaceted reality that defies conceptual formulation. But the human mind, perennially engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, seeks to impose meaning on the chaos of experience, shape an orderly picture of life and evolve coherent patterns of thought from a plethora of amorphous observations.
This is the central paradox that underlies the relationship between life and letters and makes the human quest for truth so exciting and interminable.
Infinite complexity and continuous change mark the vast panorama of life. It has many facets and dimensions which multiply, as in a folding mirror. The fabric of knowledge is woven of threads as diverse and tangled as life itself. It seeks to explore the entire spectrum of life – the hidden mysteries of the physical universe, the interaction between man and his environment, the relationship between individual liberty and social order, the spiritual recesses of mind that transcend mundane reality.
Knowledge is a systematic exploration of reality as refracted through the human mind and senses. As such it is an account of life in human terms. The vast body of knowledge that exists today has accumulated over the centuries; it is the treasure-trove of languages and literature, social and natural sciences, history and philosophy, folklore and the fine arts, mythology and ideology. The long perspectives of time, the complex processes of life, the changing aspect of society and culture, all this is the stuff of knowledge. In this exciting and endless pursuit, however, man remains the permanent point of reference.
There has been a phenomenal growth of knowledge in the modern world. The last 500 years, since the European renascence, have surpassed all previous ages in this regard. Urged by curiosity and restless to search for new horizons, man has gone to the corners of the globe, cruised through space and probed the mysteries of the universe.
The mastery of man over the forces of nature has immensely increased and the resources at his disposal grown apace. Side by side, new forms of social and political organization have evolved, making man the captain of his own soul and the master of his own destiny.
The English thinker Francis Bacon summed up the spirit of the new age by rejecting the scholastic theory of knowledge. There is a famous passage in his book, “The Advancement of Learning”, where he compares the scholastics with spiders, weaving webs out of their own heads without relating themselves to the life around, and the webs were admirable for the fineness of thread and workmanship but without any substance and utility. Knowledge, he affirmed, should not be a rehash of useless speculation but address the actual problems of life and help improve the human condition.
As the complexity of life increased and its problems multiplied, there was a burgeoning of new sciences and disciplines, deepening man’s understanding of himself and extending his domain over the physical universe. Physics discovered the natural laws which govern the universe. Geology broke the earthen crust for infinite riches that changed the destiny of many a people. Psychology delves deep into the mind and explores the motivation of human behaviour as physiology unveils the mysteries of human body. Anthropology harks back to the origins of man in remote antiquity as archaeology helps history reconstruct the past by unearthing buried cities and forgotten civilizations.
Not only have the frontiers of knowledge expanded and its scope widened; knowledge also came closer to reality as beliefs and superstitions held by man for ages were exposed to the test of scientific analysis. Facts were sifted from fiction and myths replaced by reality. Darwin by his theory of evolution rejected the theological notion of the chain of being. Frazer looked into the origins of man and reconstructed the remote antiquity of life. Freud questioned the sanctity of human consciousness and traced the mainsprings of human action in the subconscious. In sum, the traditional worldview was mercilessly flouted and new ideas gripped the human mind.
Modern science is based on the powers of human reason to sift the data of the senses. It is underpinned by the empirical theory of knowledge, which regards sensory data as the ultimate source of truth. But the empiricist philosophy created its own antithesis. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in his monumental work “The Critique of Pure Reason”, brought out the inadequacy of science to penetrate the ultimate reality of things as it was exclusively based upon sensory impressions. According to him, knowledge which comes through the inherent structure and nature of the mind is more authentic than knowledge which is refracted through the distorting and illusory channels of the senses.
Under the impact of a mechanical theory of knowledge, whereby the human mind is just a passive recorder of sense impressions and does not involve any creative process, the study of man himself deviates from the truth by ignoring his own essential nature. The dimension of transcendence is lost to him. To borrow the lucid imagery of M H Abram’s “The Mirror and the Lamp”, the human mind is reduced to a mirror which simply reflects objective reality and not a lamp which sheds radiance on the world around.
The Iranian scholar, Syed Hussein Nasr, in his work “The Plight of Modern Man”, brings out this point very forcefully: “The modern man has known the world in externalized terms and has sought to reconstruct an image of himself based on his external knowledge. He sees the world as devoid of spiritual horizon, not because there is no such horizon present, but because he lives at the rim of the wheel of existence and is forgetful of the axis”.
The growth of knowledge has brought specialization in its wake. Specialized knowledge concentrates on one aspect of reality; it offers more and more about less and less; it fails to relate part to the whole. The repository of specialized knowledge has a limited horizon, his vision is piecemeal, and his thoughts couched in esoteric terminology.
Bertrand Russell, in his essay “Knowledge and Wisdom”, distinguishes between the two. Knowledge is a collection of facts, while wisdom comes by relating facts with one another. It is in this sense that fragmentation of knowledge has led to a loss of perspective. Knowledge without wisdom, concluded Russell, is dangerous.
Modern philosophy makes watertight distinctions between the material and the spiritual, the human and the Divine, the intellectual and the emotional. As Aldous Huxley, in his book “The Human Situation”, puts it: “This way of thinking tears apart the closely-knit web of reality and turns it into nonsense”. Similarly, modern psychology has disintegrated human personality and reduced man to “a heap of broken images”. The theme of absurdity of existence recurs throughout modern literature and is clearly seen as rooted in the fragmentation of life and knowledge.
Man has wielded immense power through increased knowledge. But, paradoxically, he has failed to gear his vast body of knowledge to human values and purposes. Moreover, advances in science and technology coupled with the decline of moral and human values, have made life rich in mechanisms but poor in purposes. Many thinkers glumly believe that this is where the seeds of the destruction of modern civilization lie.
These, however, are facts of life which cannot be wished away. What needs to be done is to relate the vast body of knowledge that man has acquired with the wider approach to human problems and purposes. That is what James Harvey Robinson called the humanization of knowledge. Who are we? What is the meaning of human nature? How are we related to the planet we inhabit? How are we to live together satisfactorily? How can we develop our individual potentialities? This kind of approach is important to the modern man who has gained immense power through knowledge but has lost the vision and wisdom to harness it for the largest good of the greatest number.
The objective of knowledge should be to present an integrated picture of life. Intellect and passion, reason and intuition, objective knowledge and subjective experience, all these are inseparable facts of life. The modern scholar should aim at bringing together the worlds of immediate experience, objective observation and spiritual
insight. Through the unity of mind comes a unity of purpose, which enriches individual personality and lends order and dignity to human existence.
Life unfolds a panorama as wide as the world itself and as deep as the perspective of the ages of mankind. Its mystery, subtlety and complexity has always been a challenge and an opportunity to man who is eternally poised to unravel its secrets and control the current of life. The advance of civilization is indeed underpinned by the movements of mind and imagination. The man of letters not only projects the values and standards of his age, but also reacts and protests against them. He is firmly rooted in the social milieu, but he is also the harbinger of progress and enlarges the mental and moral horizon of his age. He is a futurist and an emancipator. The story of human civilization is a story of creative interaction between man and his environment, and knowledge is its distilled expression.
Modern western civilization, which has dominated the world for the last 500 years, illustrates this point more clearly than any other civilization in the history of mankind. This indeed has been a period of great social and intellectual ferment, which has shaped the modern world and transformed our lives completely. The roots of the modern world lie in the European renascence in the 15th and 16th centuries, the intellectual impetus given by a new worldview replacing mediaeval thought and philosophy.
The process of change, however, was slow yet sure. The eighteenth century, marked by new discoveries in science, emergence of empiricist philosophy and a new political order called into being by the French revolution, was a watershed in the history of the modern world. It was during this phase, variously called the age of reason, science and enlightenment, that most of the features of modern civilization took a definite shape.
After this, the world was never the same again as the Industrial revolution, together with democracy and liberalism which were the battle cries of the emerging bourgeoisie, swept away the remaining vestiges of feudalism. But the new world order brought its own contradictions and predicaments. Throughout the twentieth century, skepticism about the basic assumptions of modern civilization has steadily been mounting. The Victorians earnestly believed that science had opened an unending vista of progress. This illusion was blasted by the grisly horror of the world wars and the breakdown of traditional morality. The modern man lives in the dazed consciousness of having belonged to a civilization which has run its course.
The movements of mind and imagination which propelled this remarkable phase of human history, the spirit of scientific inquiry and the tradition of individual freedom that opened a brave new world, the spectacular advances in science and technology that increased man’s mastery over the physical universe, the grisly horror of the world wars that threatened civilization with extinction, the dehumanization of life brought about by the triumph of machine over man, all these aspects of modern civilization bring into sharp focus the potential and perils of human existence on the threshold of a new millennium.
By: Sami Saeed