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On Equilibrium

by John Ralston Saul
370 pages,
ISBN: 0670888826


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Life with an Inflatable Doll
by Frank Smith

Socrates famously asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living. But few contemporary philosophers show much interest in examining what makes us human. There is much more concern with the moist mass of neural interconnections in our heads or with the interplay of independent systems that constitute our bodies, from which consciousness and all the feelings that go with it might arise as ineffectual byproducts.

John Ralston Saul is an exception. In On Equilibrium he is knee deep in humanity, individually and en masse. He dissects the qualities that differentiate humans from all other creatures (and from machines) and discusses how those qualities might better be integrated to make humans more humane.

Saul focuses on six qualities (or talents, or characteristics), though he readily admits that other ways of slicing the conceptual pie are possible. He doesn't mind modifying the list, or changing the names he has given the qualities, and he wouldn't dream of trying to define any of the terms. He doesn't have great faith in the precision of words. He is trying to stimulate thought and provoke debate.

What would individuals in a state of Saulish equilibrium be like? They would live in harmony with themselves and others around them, guided by common sense, tempered by ethics, animated by imagination, inspired by intuition, constrained by memory and moderated by reason. The pervading emotion would be friendship. Why isn't the world like that, especially the world of governments and corporations? Because reason assumes a perverted and disproportionate authority, and other qualities are suppressed.

The inevitable fallout from this state of disequilibrium includes ideologies, managers, experts, specialists, hierarchies, judgmentalism and exclusivity. And dreadful misdeeds. Sombre themes reverberate throughout the book for Saul to strain against: the Holocaust, mad cow disease, and the corporate logic that self-interest should be the driving force of humanity.

And why does the imbalance come about? Here Saul, for all his urbanity, assumes a dark mantle. He blames a pervasive existential fear of doubt and uncertainty, which is ultimately fear of death.

But in the end, Saul manages to be upbeat. Everything is likely to turn out for the best, despite our feelings of powerlessness, because people become unhappy if they lead unbalanced lives, and politicians can't afford to make too many people unhappy. It sounds dangerously like the gambler's fallacy. We've been getting lousy hands for so long, the next deal is bound to be a good one.

Rationality gone berserk is of course the theme of Saul's best known book, Voltaire's Bastards, published in 1992 . He has a few more words to say about reason, but not before dedicating a chapter to each of his other five qualities, beginning with common sense. Alphabetic order helps Saul puts reason in last place.

Saul sees common sense as shared knowledge¨the core of any successful society. It has a calming influence and prevents panic in the face of uncertainty. It is for debate and against closure. It is complex, lateral and disinterested (while reason can be simplistic, linear, and control-oriented). As ideologies and technology grow and disseminate, they interfere with our ability to use common sense, which would otherwise safeguard the belief that citizenship in a democracy, freedom of speech, responsible individualism and social well-being are more important than trade and economics.

Ethics has been marginalized because managers want certainty, and ethics is regarded as irrelevant to the real world. All qualities have their dangers if pursued without constraint, and even ethics, allowed off its rational leash, will turn into ideology. History is full of good intentions that have turned into ethically motivated injustice, violence and murder.

Imagination is the richest of all our qualities, a form of perception. Unfortunately, many people don't trust imagination because its territory is uncertainty. It unsettles managers, who want to discourage dangerous ideas and withhold damaging information. This leads to "high-level functional illiteracy," which narrows imagination by focusing on linear thinking.

Imagination leads a battered life these days, Saul contends. It is exploited by government, business, advertising, and the entertainment industry, and assaulted by masses of images that reduce imagination to passivity. Unable to engage with reality, imagination escapes into visual and literary fantasies, disengaged from our actual lives.

Intuition is mistrusted and derided though we make frequent use of it. Imagination enables us to make choices, and intuition to make decisions. Intuition is the root of all art, and can come closer to truth than knowledge. Fiction, for example, has a longer shelf-life than fact-based writing. Fiction is an expression of intuition, while "non-fiction" falls an easy victim to fashionable points of view.

Inspired by intuition, Saul turns to rare mystical lyricism. "Passive intuition" (discovering how to live rather than launching oneself into action) can be a form of "applied animism", a sense of wholeness that denies human beings any special rights over other forms of existence. Like the universe itself, intuition is neither rational nor irrational; it is animistic.

Memory does not give us the past¨it is the context of our lives, "the water we swim in." Memory is never neutral and never trustworthy. But "the desire to forget" detaches us from reality. We reject a personal relationship with the planet but pretend to have one with technology. The thought inspires one of Saul's pithy metaphors: "What's more, we pretend that we are the subservient half of that relationship. This is a bit like having an emotional and sexual relationship with an inflatable doll".

Reason is weak, and has a tendency to isolation, self-reference and delusion. It marginalizes our other qualities. By rationalizing knowledge and skills into narrow exclusive categories, we feel empowered to act as if there were no other factors to take into account. Corporations are enabled to concentrate on self-interest, with the view that reason trumps ethics. Education, in the service of corporations thus become an ideological assault on thinking.

Saul wants a more modest, less ideological approach to reason, which is at its best when used as a basis for thought and argument. Scientific or managerial method is neither thought nor argument, but a deformation of reason, a requirement of structure.

Equilibrium gets unequal treatment as the shortest chapter in the book. Surprisingly, Saul refers to equilibrium as "normal behaviour". It is the way we behave when all our qualities interact in harmony and in balance with one another. Each quality normalizes the others.

Saul says love is a potent cause of disequilibrium; not an innate human quality but rather something that seizes us. If love is too exclusive (for a person, a cause or a country) it becomes ideology, which is a form of death. Better than love from a social point of view is friendship, the ability to imagine the other, and the beginning of tolerance.

The arguments are not impregnable. Saul's endeavour invites picky and irrelevant criticism, which he and his book have received in good measure. He acknowledges that "managers"¨ in government, bureaucracies and the corporate world¨would reject the book as impractical. They would claim that Saul is radical and romantic, carried away by his own imaginative processes. He would retort that the managers are romantics, in thinking that nature will conform to their linear attempts to structure the world.

No one completely lacks any of the qualities that Saul has listed. He thinks the problem is one of degree¨too much of anything can be unhealthy. It's almost as if he wants to damp the whole system down, to keep the convoy sailing at the speed of the most laggardly vessel. But alternatively, the problem could be differing views of what constitutes common sense, ethics, practical imagination, intuition, memory and reason. Whatever becomes the ruling pattern "stands to reason".

I doubt whether On Equilibrium will disturb anyone, and the exasperated will quickly stop reading. But then Socrates never succeeded in stirring up national debate, only local unrest. He was a gadfly flattered by being deemed an enemy of the state. There's no evidence that he ever changed anyone's mind (although he could go through a cunning charade of putting his own ideas into the head of complaisant others). Socrates didn't have the influence of the more structured and systematic Plato, but he made people think. John Ralston Saul's eloquent, detached and wry book is a worthy addition to the genre. It is probably best taken like Socrates's poison, in a comfortable armchair with a glass of wine. ˛

Frank Smith lives in Victoria, British Columbia. His latest publication is The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Teachers College Press, New York).

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