Technology has deluded the modern West. We equate widespread knowledge of how to use an iPad with collective wisdom. Because a rare, brilliantly inventive mind from Caltech or MIT can craft a device undreamed of in the age of Einstein, we assume that we all warrant a share in his genius, as if our generation has trumped Einstein’s. We deserve no such kudos — unless animals at the zoo that find delight in their rote enjoyment of their hoops and bars can be credited with the architect’s sophisticated zoological design.
Pumps Are Not Water
Technological progress is no guarantee of collective wisdom — other than an acknowledgement that there is a brilliant scientific elite that we foster and don’t kill off in exchange for the good stuff that they give us. Our California public schools rate about 48th or 49th these days in nationwide testing, while most of the state seems to have their heads permanently transfixed to iPhones. Do we believe then that the population is smarter because we know “apps” or because there is an Apple or Google headquarters full of engineers living in the cocoon of Silicon Valley?
There is an arrogance of an age that comes with access to always better stuff. New technology prompts an assumption that there are always better things to come. Not true. Life was far better in Rome in AD 25 than in AD 425. Would you like to buy a house in Detroit today or in 1940? Me? I would rather drive down the central section of 101 in 1970 than tomorrow. Regress — material, intellectual, and moral — can be as common as progress, if each new generation proves a poor custodian of the laws, behavior, knowledge, and learning inherited from those now gone.
We Are Not Alone
No one in my town ripped out copper wire from the street lights in 1963 as they commonly do now; my grandfather contended with swarms of vine-hoppers and spider mites, not, as I do, with thieves who destroy pumps to scavenge conduit wire. I know that this will not be a problem in 2080 — either because such crime that threatens society must cease, or society as we know it will cease. Can we see these as symptoms, as something also beyond our present anguish, as challenges shared by Athenians, Romans, and Byzantines? We can — if we have some guide that turns the nonsense of today into the sense of the ages.
Not a poet in America today could match Virgil. Few, if any, of us historians could write with the flair and judgment of a Tacitus. But how would we know that — or care — if we did not read?
Without some awareness that ideas are old and somewhat finite, and that we are young and ignorant, we assume that each new adventure must be novel because we alone — right now! — are experiencing it. If Barack Obama would read Procopius, he would learn the wages of his huge inefficient bureaucracy. Jerry Brown, the self-described Jesuit sage, should return to his St. Jerome, because the latter’s descriptions of an eroding Rome could just as well describe a drive down California’s 99. (Before a crumbling society can borrow billions for a high-speed rail to nowhere it might better bring out the dusty maps and charts of a dead generation of engineers that once bequeathed to us plans about how to finish a three-lane freeway without cross traffic.)
Ourselves and Our Archetypes
Reading literature endows us not just with a model of expression and thought, but also with a body of ideas — and the names, facts, and dates that we can draw on to elucidate them. When I used to follow the career of the brilliantly destructive Bill Clinton, he seemed to be Alcibiades reborn — and thus was surely bound to share the same fate of those with enormous talent who are consumed by their own huge and unrepressed appetites.
Richard Nixon jumped out of the pages Sophocles, another gifted Oedipus whose innate and unaddressed flaws were waiting dormant — for just the right occasion to explode him, for Nemesis to take him from the King of Thebes to itinerant blind beggar.
Obama? He came on the scene as arrogant and self-righteous as young Pentheus or Hippolytus and he is now learning firsthand the effects of his Euripidean smugness on others. Nothing that we experience has not happened before; the truly ignorant miss that, hypnotized by sophisticated technology into believing that human nature has been reinvented in their own image.