By Bill Frayer

The Hubris of Modernity.


In October, Václav Havel opened the Forum 2000 conference in Prague by observing its unsightly urban sprawl. He goes on to speculate why we are allowing our physical space, indeed our planet, to deteriorate so markedly. “We are living in the first atheistic civilization, in other words, a civilization 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.”

By referring to our modern society as an “atheistic civilization,” he is not calling for a return to a medieval society dominated by religion and superstition. Rather, I think, he is suggesting that with our rejection of the infinite, we have become arrogant about our own abilities. “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 civilizations knew: that nothing is self-evident.”

Nothing, he suggests should be accepted because it is self-evident. So is it fair to suggest that we really do consider many things to be self-evident? One example Havel uses is the current world financial crisis. The economic catastrophe caught most economists off guard, but it should not have. The economic prosperity of the previous decade was seen by the experts as a self-evident success of the free market system. Politicians removed regulations on business, particularly on Wall Street and the real estate market in the United States. To the economic elite, this growing economy was a self-evident result of capitalist free markets. Very few professionals anticipated the crisis which occurred in 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in New York. Why? Havel suggests it was hubris, an overweening arrogance and self assuredness which blinds us to reality.

So, can this phenomenon of believing that truths are self-evident be applied to other aspects of contemporary life? Let’s look at a few other examples.

Politically, I think, most people accept their liberal or conservative views as self-evident. Most Liberals believe it is self-evident that the medical system would be more efficient and more fair if it was overseen, or even operated, by the government. Conservatives consider it self-evident that the free market is always more efficient and successful, even in health care. Most of us consider it obvious that technology is a good thing and that it will eventually solve many of our problems.

All of this hubris is a type of oversimplification and self-deception, I think. We want to believe the Enlightenment ideal that progress is good, that increased profits will benefit us all, and that if we win the lottery, we’ll be happier. That’s certainly self-evident.

Havel urges us to abandon the idea that anything is self-evident. “In all events, I am certain that our civilization is heading for catastrophe unless present-day humankind comes to its senses. And it can only come to its senses if it grapples with its short-sightedness, its stupid conviction of its omniscience and its swollen pride, which have been so deeply anchored in its thinking and actions.”

So what beliefs do you consider self evident? What makes you so sure?

Ojo Del Lago
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