The classical antidote to cultural pessimism

HSV Public Lecture by Dr Matthew Sharpe, philosophy lecturer, Deakin University, at Balwyn Library on 27 August 2015

Matthew began by referring to the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who had spoken optimistically in favour of further development of the sciences.  He then mentioned two German thinkers exiled in the US, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who in 1943 attacked Bacon, saying that the modern age that Bacon’s new scientific method brought about had led to the nightmare of the heartless world of European totalitarianism.  The Nazi philosopher, Martin Heidegger, after the war, exonerated the German people for the Nazis’ crimes, saying that ‘only God can save us’.

Matthew said Bacon gave three justifications for his hope for greater scientific knowledge. Firstly, the desire, through the careful observation of nature, to increase our capacity to make use of natural resources. Secondly, the ability to reduce substantially infant mortality, disease, poverty, famine, the effect of natural catastrophes and the like. Thirdly, the natural delight humans have in learning about our world.

Matthew said that Bacon typified a kind of liberal education, neither hostile to the sciences nor closed to humane culture. In contrast, he said, in his experience of fellow philosophers, some of the best educated can be amongst the most pessimistic or cynical. Part of the reason for this might be that our world is no utopia, with real deep problems such as social injustice, species extinction, climate change caused by fossil burning, millions of refugees, nuclear proliferation, Islamic and Christian fundamentalism with apocalyptic visions, high debt and structural dependence on unproductive financial capital.

One final view stands out in this list of themes in our period of cultural pessimism. This view, often asserted by a range of people, is that our modern secular institutions derive from our Judaeo-Christian heritage, which we must embrace in order to save our civilisation.

Matthew said this claim is not true, as our classical heritage from Athens and Rome has influenced our culture as much as Jerusalem. This, he claimed, is the first antidote to modern cultural pessimism.

The second antidote is a measured intellectual scepticism, linked to political values of toleration, civility, and the public adjudication of claims to know-ledge, that forever will link scientific endeavour and wider secular morality.

The third antidote is that we need to recover the sense in classical culture of constant human limits.

The fourth and final antidote links up with initiatives and impulses associated with today’s ecological movement. It is the sense that these limits to human behaviour are inscribed in the natural world of which we are one, cosmically minuscule, vulnerable part, although blessed with the almost divine capacities for wonder, love and understanding.

He concluded that, despite the hopes that our theological tradition has long entertained for us, there is something reassuring in realising that humans are not the centre of the human drama.

Report by Joe Sampson

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