Vigilance, Patience and Hope: The Drive Toward Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2020

On the longest night of the year, we drove through the fog looking for starlight. Other people had the same idea of driving uphill to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. In a parking lot in Prather, carloads of masked stargazers emerged from the fog and looked toward the heavens, seeking the Christmas star.

We are all looking for inspiration these days. If you rise above the fog, there are wonders to be found.

The last time the planets lined up like this was 800 years ago. The stars move at their own pace. We must learn to wait and keep our eyes open. The philosopher Marcus Aurelius said that stargazing washes away the filth of the earth. The cosmos teaches patience and perseverance.

This was a star-crossed year. Disease killed people and jobs. Our democracy teetered on the brink of disaster. Let’s drink a toast to all we’ve lost and endured. Let’s also learn from the light that shined in the darkness. If there is wisdom in the gloom, it comes from the values of the Enlightenment. It was science and law that prevented 2020 from being darker than it was.

When the Black Death hit Europe in the Dark Ages, astrologers blamed it on a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. We know much more today about the stars and about disease. We know how to prevent contagion and predict the weather. We peer into the molecular basis of life and into the depths of space. We build vaccines and satellites. Let’s give thanks to the scientists who shed light.

One of the wonders of 2020 was the growth of virtual reality. Satellites, computers, and cell phones kept us connected in the gloom. Without these technologies, social distancing would have been impossible. Let’s give a shout out to the wizards of Silicon Valley.

Telecommunication transformed the field of education. Difficulties remain, including educational inequity and a digital divide. But students are learning in ways that could not have been imagined last year. Hurray for the educators — and the students and parents — who pioneered a new model of teaching and learning.

Our civic values were challenged in unprecedented ways. The year began with impeachment. It ended with outrageous falsehoods about a stolen election. This was a year of protests and anger. We are more polarized than ever. Racial animosity afflicts us. There is corruption in the halls of power.

But citizens enlightened ourselves about history and the Constitution. And ethical professionals held back the darkness. Lawyers and judges remained committed to their code of ethics. Soldiers, cops, and firefighters did their duty. Business leaders supported justice and the common good. Nameless bureaucrats served with honor and integrity. Enlightenment depends upon the good work of citizens and civil servants.

As this pestilential year comes to a close, what should we resolve for the future?

I propose we need to affirm the value of vigilance. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they say. This is common sense for those who drive through fog. We must be mindful and alert. Watchful care is the key to enlightenment.

Vigilance is the moral of Albert Camus’s novel, “The Plague.” That book is an allegory about the plague of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Camus noted that plagues stimulate enlightenment by opening our eyes. We must learn “a vigilance that must never falter.” The good man, Camus said, “is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.”

The stewards of civilization must be watchful, as we drive toward the light. New diseases are waiting to infect us. A random sneeze can start a pandemic. Tyrants and crooks wait to take advantage. Indifference leads to disaster.

Enlightenment is not something that just happens. Our scientific and technological prowess is the result of centuries of cultural evolution. Our legal system has a similar heritage. And the work of education is never done.

On sunny days, it’s easy to let your guard down. When the fog comes, it is easy to lose hope. But there are stars above the haze. Good and decent people live nearby. Science and reason provide hope in the darkness. Patience and vigilance keep us moving toward the light.

There’s still a long road ahead to find peace

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2014

Thirty years ago the United Nations declared Sept. 21 as an International Day of Peace. We’ve still got a long way to go.

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Human beings are the most violent animals on the planet. No other species kills its own members in large numbers on a regular basis. And yet, no other species reflects upon its own behavior or loves itself as much as we do. Hope for peace can be found in our capacity for reason and our ability to love.

Quite a few people claim that love provides the path to peace. Bumper sticker wisdom proclaims, “No love, no peace — know love, know peace.” Martin Luther King explained that love cuts through evil and hate. He said, “Love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” Love moves us to sacrifice and care for others. It connects us to each other in a way that should promote harmony and peace.

But love without reason is blind. Love usually stops at the front door: we love our family but not our neighbors. Sometimes we do “love our neighbors.” But love rarely extends beyond borders. We may love those who share our ethnic, national or religious identity. But it is difficult to love humanity as a whole.

The best teachers of love want to extend it broadly, even maintaining that we ought to love our enemies. That is a radical idea, which may be impossible for mere mortals. But reason does tell us to extend love in a universal direction. A moment’s thought tells us that we are all members of the same species, despite our differences. Reason tells us that racial and ethnocentric biases are unjustified. It points toward an impartial and universal point of view.

We might supplement King’s enthusiasm for love, then, by claiming that reason is also a creative and transformative power in the universe. Reason’s virtue is its demand for objectivity and justification. Reason directs us away from nepotism, ethnic chauvinism, jingoistic patriotism, narcissistic pride and other malfunctions of love.

If we admit that love without reason is blind, we should also admit that reason without love is heartless. Warmongers often make cold-blooded arguments to support their violence. The same is true for murderers, torturers and the rest of violent humanity. Explanations and rationalizations have been employed in defense of all sorts of brutality.

Some arguments in defense of violence are better than others. But things go horribly wrong when callous arguments and cold rationalizations ignore the common beating heart of human experience, which is love. The tragedy of reason is its tendency to become cruelly inhuman and unloving.

A further difficulty is that violence is often justified in the name of love. Reason tells us that we ought to defend those we love against our enemies. But those enemies are also motivated by love and by arguments of their own. All human beings love their families, friends and ideals. Even the suicidal terrorist thinks that he’s justified. The deepest difficulty of violence is that it can be fueled by love and reason — the very things that should prevent violence.

The good news is that many of us are increasingly skeptical of traditional justifications of violence. Domestic violence, for example, would have gone unremarked upon in previous generations. Recent outrage about highly publicized cases of domestic violence is a sign of progress. There is similar outrage about war crimes and military aggression around the world. A growing number of us believe that violence is an irrational remnant of the youth of humanity.

To make further progress we have to link the objectivity and impartiality of reason with the passionate motivation and empathic connection of love. We need universal and reasonable love; and we need benevolent and compassionate reason. We need to love better and think more carefully.

Violence — like hatred, stupidity and ignorance — is easy. Thinking and loving are harder. It takes persistence and patience to love, to think and to build peace. Humanity has slowly worked its way toward a global society, through millennia of horrors. We are making slow progress. But piles of corpses and oceans of tears litter the way. The hard work of the next 30 years — and the next millennium — is to make ourselves more loving, more reasonable and more peaceful.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/09/19/4133666/theres-still-a-long-road-ahead.html#storylink=cpy