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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Human science :Some Preliminary Thoughts

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Wherever one may happen to live on the planet, all modernisation is henceforth westernisation. ~ Amin Maalouf, Les Identités Meurtrières pp. 83-4
Introductory Remarks

The two quotes above are related. Modernisation has caused a great deal of alienation, much of it in the poor and underdeveloped countries. Modernisation has transformed life and the world but it has also caused a great deal of hardship.

The alienation caused by modernisation has taken many forms but, in this short essay, I shall focus on the scourge of extreme poverty which, I believe, is the root-cause of much pain and suffering in the poor countries. If Rousseau's prophetic statement still resonates so powerfully in our imaginations, it must be because it still captures, some two hundred and fifty years after he wrote it (stunningly it is the opening sentence of the Social Contract), the fate of the majority of humanity in our contemporary societies: 'Man' continues to be 'in chains' (metaphorically, of course, these days) 'everywhere', not only in the poor but also in the rich countries.

And it is safe to affirm that, despite the considerable progress recorded, during these two-and-a-half centuries, in what has come to be known as human rights -- the civil and political, social and economic, and cultural and developmental rights --, these rights are still very far from having been met for the majority of the world's population. Concerning the second quote, Amin Maalouf -- a distinguished writer of Lebanese origin who is both Arab and Christian, and lives in Paris - in his remarkable book-length essay mentioned above, published in 1998, wrote that, in the last five hundred years or so: 'Everything that durably influences man's ideas, or his health, or his environment, or his daily life, is the work of the West … All that is created that is new - whether buildings, institutions, instruments of knowledge, or lifestyles - is in the West's image.' Maalouf goes on to observe that that 'reality' is lived very differently by those who are part of the (dominant ) Western civilisation, and those who belong to the other (dominated) civilisations. Because, Maalouf notes, the former can continue being themselves during that transformation of their identities; while for the latter, that metamorphosis involves forsaking of a crucial part of themselves, a negative development which creates feelings of bitterness, of humiliation and a loss of self-respect.
I find Maalouf's hypothesis convincing because it does explain one of the important reasons of the 'clash' between the Christian West and Islam. I am not entirely convinced it is a war, but it is certainly a serious confrontation which is largely hostile, and which we need to address -in the long run, however, the American rivalry with China, which is not based on feelings of inferiority on the part of the Chinese, is more dangerous and could lead to a Third World War. To go back to Maalouf's hypothesis, we need, I believe, to add an important caveat to it, which is: It is true, but only as far as it goes; in other words, it does not go far enough, it is not the whole story, and we need to go further. We need to emphasise that -- as Maalouf himself admits -- the Christian West has, in the last half-millennia, used its superior modernisation, or modernity, to violently subdue and then exploit the populations of much of the rest of the world. As well known, that exploitation took, in the main, the forms of slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism The first two may be things of the past, but not the second two: neo-colonialism and imperialism are very much alive and well in the contemporary world. The human and material resources of the poor countries of the South continue to be exploited by the rich countries of the North (a broader concept than Christian West that includes North America) [3] by means of an unfair trade and the use of cheap labour. The raw materials and agricultural products exported by the South - copper, tin, iron, rubber, et cetera; and cotton, coffee, tea, cocoa, etc. -have been historically bought at very low prices, while the manufactured products produced and exported by the North have been sold at very high prices. In the 1960s and 1970s, that 'situation' used to be known as the 'deterioration of the terms of trade' (a term popularised by Raoul Prebish who was then the director of UNCTAD). Admittedly, the rise of the 'emerging countries' of China, Russia, India and Brazil (also called the CRIB countries, after their initials) modifies the 'picture', but, I believe, does not change the fundamentals.

The exploitation of the South by the North is probably the main reason why half of the world's population continues to be poor, and one quarter, extremely poor. As it has been repeated ad nauseam the about 1.5 billion people who live in rural areas in Africa, and in despicable urban slums in Asia, Latin America and Africa, are extremely poor. As a result, millions of children continue to die unnecessarily every year from malnutrition and preventable diseases.

Perhaps even worse (to transpose, or adapt, the dictum, 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely') is that poverty is humiliating, and extreme poverty is extremely humiliating. Extreme poverty robs a person of his or her human dignity, making him or her less human in an important sense. That situation is obviously not only unacceptable, but also not viable, and cannot be allowed to continue. Extreme poverty must be eradicated from the surface of the earth by means of a just and equal sharing of the world's resources.


From times immemorial great minds have thought long and hard on the big issues concerning human beings, and the world in which they live, with the purpose of not only trying to explain that world, but also of endeavouring to change it for the better. Rather arbitrarily I chose a few big thoughts by great thinkers that I believe are relevant to our topic. These include contributions by the Ancient Greek philosophers (who are 'incontournables' as they say in French, or 'unavoidable', because their importance to Western civilisation can hardly be overstated), as well as the ideas of a small number of great modern philosophers, novelists and poets. My own, necessarily far more modest, comments are intermixed with, or follow, these august thoughts.

À tout seigneur tout honneur: Heraclitus' Panta Rei ('All is in Flux') is an aphorism on the ever changing nature of all things in the world. Nothing is permanent, or definitive, that pre-Socratic philosopher taught us; which means that nothing, good or bad, stays the same for a long time, bad changing into good, and vice versa. That has two big consequences: it keeps humans hopeful, but also 'realistic'. Thoreau famously remarked that 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation'. Is it because they lose hope easily? Or is it because they fear death? Nobody knows what happens after death. But what mystifies me is that, given the inescapable reality of death, why human beings do not do what it takes to build a better world in which peace, justice and solidarity prevail. Why human beings, in other words, despite the warnings of all the great religions and philosophies, that everything on this earth is ultimately 'nothing' - we all know the famous aphorism by Ecclesiastes, the son of King David and king of Jerusalem himself: 'Vanity of vanities, it is all vanity' -- why then human beings, driven by their brutal egos, continue to behave in life greedily, selfishly and insensitively, in search of wealth, success, power and social status? I don't really have an answer to that question, except quoting a character who, in Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, declares: 'Your best efforts, even if allowed to continue, would probably have no impact on humanity which will remain stupid.' Is humanity stupid? Based on what it has achieved in so many fields -- science and technology, and the arts, to mention but these two; who is not awed by the sight of Leonardo's David, or the Taj Mahal? - the answer must be an emphatic 'No'. But, if we look at all the cruelty and destruction that human beings have been capable of in History, the answer must be an emphatic 'Yes'. So: Will man continue to be stupid in that second sense until the final destruction of himself, and of the small planet on which he lives? That question, unfortunately, remains an open one.

Socrates' famous injunction, 'Gnothi se auton' ('Know thyself') may well be essential in that respect. Despite Freud, Jung, Adler and a few others, we must concede that human beings are very far from knowing themselves. There are, admittedly, some very big a priori (so to speak) limitations: Human beings do not even know (to repeat these age-old questions): Where they come from?, Why they are 'here'?, and Where they are going?. In other words, they do not even know if there is a meaning to human life, or if it is a totally random occurrence due to some mysterious events in the Universe -- the 'Big Bang' and 'string' theorists may claim that they are 'very close' to explaining the origin of the Universe but my guess is that, like a traveller in the desert who sees an non-existing oasis and moves towards it, they will never reach it. That essential ignorance is, I believe, compounded by another conundrum, which is that human beings make the most important decisions in their lives -- those concerning love, or the choice of a profession, or where they end up living - not rationally, but intuitively. So will human beings ever realise Socrates' injunction and know themselves? Probably not. Is that a reason to feel pessimistic about the future of the humanity -- and of the planet? Not necessarily. To go back to Ecclesiastes' aphorism that everything in this life is nothing, my hope is that the powers that be of this world will realise this and do what it takes to eradicate extreme poverty in the world once and for all.

For a better understanding of the 'political economy' of the North we need to 'revisit' Plato and Aristotle who are, by general consensus, the two most influential philosophers of the Western civilisation. And of the two Aristotle is the more influential because he focuses on what is, while Plato has concentrated on what should be. In other words, we might admire Plato more, but being pragmatic fellows, we have followed Aristotle. That does not mean that we have not tried to follow Plato. We did, but, unfortunately, it did not turn out so well (archetypical examples of that huge failure are, of course, Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China). So Aristotle is the father of our flawed democracy, that mediocre but least dangerous of all political systems because its deterioration -- unlike monarchy and aristocracy -- does not lead to dictatorship or tyranny. Democracy remains amenable to reform, even when things get to be very bad - like presently in the United States. And that is its force. Western democracies remain mediocre systems with limited and decreasing legitimacy, but they are clearly the best that we human beings have been able to come up with. Which means that, despite all the breast-beating about human rights and democracy, to a large extent, might remains right in our world, as confirmed very clearly by the catastrophic behaviour lately of the only superpower of the world, in the brutal pursuit of its economic interests. But there is no alternative, and we must continue to strive for democracy's improvement. In that respect, I would like also to mention Aristotle's maxim of, 'Evil is the absence of good'. The powers that be of the rich and powerful countries need to be reminded that, not doing 'evil' is not enough, and that to build a better world, they must be doing 'good' actively, and that does not mean throwing some crumbs but keeping the loaf, but truly sharing the loaf with our less fortunate brothers.

Immanuel Kant's famous dictum, 'Categorical Imperative' -- which the German philosopher defined as, 'Acting so that every action of yours should be capable of becoming a universal action for all men' - can help us to achieve that goal. But, alas, the powers that be of the rich and powerful countries are very far from putting that 'imperative' into practice, to say the least. In two recent texts, Harold Pinter and Günter Grass emphasised that the political truth is indispensable to humanity if it is to achieve a viable and sustainable world. Will the political truth prevail eventually over the political lies that are the common fare provided by the politicians? Concealing the truth is also a form of lying. Ionesco once said that 'What we say is less important than what we do not say.' We must force the politicians not to hide the truth. Citizens and the civil society must be on the forefront of that battle to impose the political truth. But maybe it is a lost cause and it will never happen. So many great thinkers of the past were pessimistic in that respect. Nietzsche's Zarathustra laments: 'And I saw a great sadness come over mankind. The best grew weary of their works. A teaching went forth, a belief ran beside it: Everything is empty, everything is one, everything is past!'. In King Lear, Albany darkly prophesises, 'Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep'. Schopenhauer declares, 'The cosmic will is wicked. The increase of knowledge leads to an increase of human suffering'. Heidegerr predicts, 'The technological society must in the end self-destruct'. W.B. Yeats, in his famous poem, The Second Coming, wrote ' … Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.' To be sure, Yeats wrote that famous poem on the eve of the First World War, which explains its pessimism, but the last two lines contain a warning that is relevant a century or so later. Admittedly, not only 'the worst / Are full of passionate intensity', 'the best' are too, as shown by the large number of people in the civil society fighting for a better world. The question is thus: Will 'the passionate intensity of the best' be enough? Or will that of 'the worst' prove to be stronger? Mark Strand, a Poet Laureate of America, wrote: 'If you think good things are on their way / And the world will improve, don't hold your breath. / Just go to the graveyard and ask around.' I find these lines truly frightening and hope that Strand is wrong. That is why I want to conclude this section with an optimistic quote that belongs to Goethe: 'As we look inward and discover our natural selves we become more loving human beings.' Love indeed is the key as I will try to show in the section 'All you need is love' -- after the one below.


Erwin Laszlo, the President of the Club of Budapest, in a brilliant essay published in the Kosmos Magazine, argues convincingly that mankind is at a crossroads. Two roads branch out from that crossroads, he declares, which will lead humanity either to a 'breakthrough' or to a 'breakdown'. Laszlo goes on to show that, depending on the social, economic, political, cultural and ecological choices that mankind will make in the next ten to twenty years, human civilisation - and the planet Earth - will either enter a new era of 'peace, ecological balance, justice and solidarity', or collapse into 'a dark hole of chaos and anarchy characterised by constant war, scarcity of resources and insecurity'.

In that same issue of the Kosmos Magazine, Hazel Henderson, in an equally brilliant essay -- that complements that of Lazslo is some ways - explains what these crucial choices mentioned by Laszlo may be. Let me note, to begin with, that Henderson is, on the whole, an optimist who believes that the powers that be of the rich and powerful countries can be persuaded -- and are in fact presently, to a certain extent, engaged -- in the 'reformation' of the present system of neo-liberal globalisation - which is based, as Henderson herself mentions, on the 'Washington Consensus of free trade, open markets, privatisation, deregulation, floating currencies and export-led policies'. In other words, Henderson believes that the 'system' can be reformed 'from the inside', by means of initiatives that she is deeply involved in, such as: Global Compact, Global Corporate Citizenship and Global Reporting Initiative, and so on, which, she hopes, will result in 'global sustainability'. Henderson also supports a Global Marshall Plan, the Millennium Development Goals, and a series of initiatives -- like: global taxes on arm sales, on currency trading and airline tickets -- whose purpose is to raise big amounts of cash that would be invested in 'global public goods', like education, health care, peace-keeping around the world, and so on, to eradicate extreme poverty and promote the development of the poor countries. Henderson interestingly argues that the possibility of reforming the system from the inside is supported by recent discoveries in the 'neuroscience of the brain' which appear to show that the 'human capacity of cooperation, bonding and altruism' is housed in the fore-brain, or the pre-frontal cortex, which is the seat of rational decision-making, as opposed to 'fear, competition and territoriality' that are housed in the 'reptilian (or limbic) brain'. A hopeful element of that discovery, Henderson explains, is that the activities of the fore-brain are linked to the 'reproductive hormon oxytocin' which can be used to stimulate that part of the brain. In other words, human beings can be chemically induced to choose 'cooperation, bonding and altruism', and reject 'fear, competition and territoriality'.
I confess that I am impressed by the ideas of Laszlo and Henderson. I think that there is a lot in them that is valuable and relevant. And yet if I remain somewhat sceptical as to their potential to change the world for the better it is because I believe that, in our contemporary societies, the production and distribution of wealth, and the power and privilege that are derived from them, continue to be determined by what some social scientists call 'political economy'. As I have argued in a previous essay, our contemporary world is driven mainly by the 'primacy of reason', a concept that is mainly used to promote selfish interests, and not by the 'primacy of love', a broader concept that would include reason. Privilege seems to me a key concept in that respect. The big relevant question is thus: To what extent are the privileged classes willing to give up their privileges? Not to a significant extent is my answer to that crucial question, because the rich and powerful of this world believe that they deserve their privileges, that they are, in other words, entitled to them. They are also used to them. And for the truly privileged, these privileges are … truly enormous: private jets, yachts, villas in the Caribbean Islands, chalets in the Swiss mountain resorts, living in the best and safe neighbourhoods, sending their kids to the best schools, having access to the most advanced medicine, and so on, and so forth. As Bill Moyers has observed recently, '(T)he central fact of our times is a gap between rich and poor that is greater than it has been in half a century.' And: 'People suffer most from living in a society that is increasingly unequal and unjust.' [9] So, it seems to me, they will never agree to a reduction of their privileges willingly. And that is why Henderson's 'triple bottom line' -- that integrates the interests of the 'people, profit and the environment' -- appears to me to be unrealistic. Ultimately, therefore (like Robin Hood …), one must take from the rich, in order to give to the poor. Another way to put it is, to repeat myself, we must share the world's resources more equally and justly. There is no other alternative.


In the 'Judas Gospel' Jesus, just before he was arrested, tells Judas Iscariot: 'You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.' Suddenly Judas, the traitor par excellence, the most despised man in the history of the Western world, undergoes a complete metamorphosis and becomes the most trusted disciple of Jesus, and a great hero who sacrifices his life so that Jesus may accomplish his mission on earth, which is saving a sinful humanity. That, of course, is quite a revelation and changes radically the role played by the Jews in the crucifixion. But there is more, I believe. Another important consequence of the recent publication of the Judas Gospel is that it reminds us of another, similar, discovery that was made, in 1945, also in Egypt (in Nag Hammadi, to be precise, some 200 kilometres to the south of the place where the Judas Gospel was discovered). In that discovery, a dozen other Gnostic (gnosis means knowledge in Greek) 'gospels' of the same period were found in a jar. In them are statements that are in contradiction with the canonical 'truths' of the Catholic Church, such as, to give but one example: in the 'Gospel of Thomas' (dating from circa 110 AD), Jesus himself says, 'If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you … What you don't have within you will kill you'. That statement strongly suggests that what counts is one's direct relationship with God, and that no intermediary is really necessary - a statement that is not very good for the position and prestige of the Catholic church's establishment . So it should not come as a surprise that the church 'fathers' -Paul (Saul of Tarsus) and the four disciples who are the authors of the four 'canonical' gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John; and, later, several others (see below) - fought against these Gnostic 'gospels' violently, accusing them of 'heresy'. Why? One convincing explanation is that, in those early days, a fledgling Christian church was facing fierce competition from other 'churches' (or sects), not least from Judaism, the mother 'church'. In other words, the church 'fathers' can be seen, to use a modern terminology, as 'power players' who, like modern novelists, used their imagination to invent the Christian dogma - Jesus son of God, the immaculate conception, the resurrection, and so on - in order to distinguish and bolster the new infant 'church', by giving it some very special attributes. That 'strategy' was continued by subsequent early Christian leaders -- Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, in circa 180 AD, and Epiphanus, Bishop of Salamis, in 380 AD, for example -- who violently condemned the Gnostic 'gospels' as heresies. To conclude, the methods employed by the Church 'fathers' tend to show that competition was no less fierce in those early days than it is today … [11]

Be that as it may, and ultimately (and from a non-Christian point of view), it does not really matter whether Jesus was the son of God, or simply a great reformer. I believe that what really matters is his message of love -- which is universal, since we find it in all great religions and philosophies of the world -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, to mention some of the most important ones. What that message says is that only love can save the world. And that, in turn, means that reason alone -- on which modern (largely Western) civilisation is based, as I mentioned it above - is no longer sufficient to build a better world based on peace, justice, freedom and solidarity. And that it must be enlarged to include love, and so we shall have in the future a world civilisation based, not only on reason, but also on love. So, it looks like John Lennon was right, 'All you need is love', but with the caveat that it must also include reason. [12]


It is only recently that social scientists have come to acknowledge that humiliation and human dignity are key concepts in the understanding of our world so full of injustice, misery and violence. In the last couple of years three important workshops were held -- two at Columbia University, New York, and one in W. Berlin - in which a large number of researchers presented papers that explore various aspects of humiliation and human dignity, including efforts to provide answers to the following crucial questions: How can humanity put an end to humiliating practices? How can we break cycles of violence caused by humiliation throughout the world that involve hatred, revenge and violence? And, How can human beings establish relations built mutual respect and esteem? Not only classical forms of 'institutionalised' humiliation - Apartheid and Colonialism, for example - were the object of papers and discussions, but also humiliation caused by underdevelopment and extreme poverty. [13]

Extreme poverty is coming, in fact, to be recognised -- as Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, remarked at the first session of the new Human Rights Council that was held in Geneva between the 19th and 30th of June, 2006 -- as 'the most serious and widespread human rights abuse in the world.' And so it is, unquestionably, as I have argued in a series of short essays, all published on various web sites on the net. [14] It is - together with climate change due pollution, the proliferation of nuclear arms, and the various forms of violence in the form of wars, genocides, ethnic cleansings and terrorism - one of the most important challenges facing humanity today.

Let us be clear on that issue: Extreme poverty is a stain on the human conscience, and a better world based on peace, freedom, justice and solidarity can never be built unless it is eradicated. Again, the only way we can do that is through the sharing of the world's resources justly and equally. And only the adoption of 'agape' -- which means in ancient Greek 'pure, spontaneous, unmotivated and creative' love -- as opposed to 'eros' or 'philia', which either have sexual connotations, or are related to interested friendships; in contra-distinction, Agape which has to do with 'disinterested love', is also a 'love in action', and, in final analysis, the kind of love that rests upon the idea that all men are brothers.' [15]

Dr Zeki Ergas ~ STWR Member

Dr Ergas is the founder of Millennium Solidarity Geneva Group (MSGG),, and Secretary general of International P.E.N.'s Swiss Romand Center,

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