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On Equilibrium

Reviewed: July 9, 2004
By: John Ralston Saul
Publisher: Penguin
370 pages, $24.00

Over the last decade John Ralston Saul has been developing what I suppose one would have to term an attack on the ruling intellectual presumption of Western Civilization. We pride ourselves on being rational societies, ruled by reason and governed by level headed individuals who subordinate all other modes of thought to reason.

Even when beginning an enterprise as essentially unrational as a war, our society feels it necessary to justify the move with lists of reasons. We may go so far as to invent the reasons (weapons of mass destruction, anyone?), but we seem to need them, if only to make ourselves secure in the knowledge that we have thought this thing through.

Saul says that this tendency comes from a very basic misunderstanding about how we really think and how our minds work. He maintains that there are several kinds of natural human intelligence, of which reason is only one, and that by elevating that one above all the others, we are short changing ourselves. Worse, we are creating problems that we would not have if we looked at things with all of our faculties.

Instead of using all of our abilities, we have done our best to degrade the worth of our other modes of thought. Along with Reason, we ought to be working to balance these other modes, which are Common Sense, Ethics, Imagination, Intuition and Memory. Saul says these are not subordinate to reason, that all six faculties ought to exist in equilibrium with each other, and that we should value them equally.

There's no easy way to sum this up in a review. I read this book in chapter sized bites over a period of about eight months, not so much because it was heavy going, but because it was layered and required some thought. Saul's style is sometimes dense, but is often informed by the fact that he has also written five novels and knows how to hold a reader's interest.

At the risk of simplifying his thesis, he does use several items from current events in order to illustrate his main point. I'm going to use the case of Mad Cow Disease one which pops up often, in this review.

As far as we can tell Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is the end result of a rational decision to avoid wasting the detritus left over from animal slaughterhouses. The rational economic case even managed to dovetail with the three R's of the environmental movement.

Waste is bad. Animals in agribusiness settings need protein supplements in order to grow quickly. Let's take the waste material from the abattoirs (which does contain proteins, after all), turn it into meal and mix it with cattle feed.

It's a proposition which makes rational sense. If there was ever a common sense reaction that it might not be a good idea to make carnivores out of herbivores, it generally was ignored until after the result got into the food chain. No one could really have predicted that the problems first observed in cows could migrate across to humans and manifest as Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.

It's easy, now, to see that the false short term economy which was practiced in the creation of the protein pellets has been more than wiped out by the real world long term impact of mad cow on the cattle industry and on the farming sector.

It would have required a leap of the imagination to make that possible connection, and reason doesn't value that kind of thinking.

Once we arrived at the possibility that there might be a problem in 1996, it would have required an ethical leap to stop trying to explain it away and actually deal with what was happening. Instead, nation after nation launched into a protracted period of denial, much as they had 13 years earlier when AIDS first reared its nasty head and transmission through the blood supply was posited as a potential danger.

Each of our modes of thinking contains within it a danger. If any one of them becomes too dominant then the balance of our human development becomes skewed. The danger that is paramount right now is, in Saul's view, the danger of too much use of reason, but he thinks that there are other periods of history when other forms of thought have held sway. We need, he says, to consciously work towards a balance.

"What is the expression of our humanness, if not to live our lives, struggling with the dynamic of an impossible balance. This is something which lies within each of us and therefore within our societies. To know, imagine, sense, think, to some extent even to understand, this constant dynamic is to express civilization's essential nature.

"What is normal behavior? Is it not to seek equilibrium?"

On Equilibrium is well worth reading, but don't go to it looking for answers. Saul is much more in the habit of asking questions, of tipping the balance and seeing what happens. It seems to be the way he thinks we ought to live. I suspect that if we divest ourselves of the narrative structures with which we organize the chaos that is our lives, that we may find he is right.

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