Better Read Than Never: SAUL’s “The Unconscious Civilization” Part SIX

I’ve been studying and writing about this book off and on for months, and today I’ve finished. My first look at The Unconscious Civilization (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the summaries of the first four chapters are also linkable (and brief):

I The Great Leap Backwards

II From Propaganda to Language

A practical humanist.

III From Corporatism to Democracy

IV From Managers and Speculators to Growth”  

The final instalment of the 1995 Massey Lectures series by the notable Canadian writer/activist John Ralston Saul was titled “From Ideology to Equilibrium”. All were published in book form later that same year, and it’s a measure of the enduring value and bold vision of the book that a tenth-anniversary reissue came; I wouldn’t be surprised to see another edition come out next year for the 20th. (His 2004 The Collapse of Globalism came out again in ’09, with some extra commentary in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that he had predicted.) In this lecture/chapter, Saul advances and finally summarizes his argument; these thoughts also point towards his later book, On Equilibrium. He doesn’t believe in air-tight utopian dreams, but in the same way that Socrates advocated a lively but humble journey “towards knowledge without the expectation of finding [absolute] truth”, Saul describes his philosophy on genuine societal progress this way: “Practical humanism is the voyage towards equilibrium without the expectation of actually arriving there.”

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Better Read Than Never: SAUL’s The Unconscious Civilization 2

I began talking about John Ralston Saul’s book back here, though on that occasion I mainly focussed on the writer. Here is the first part of my precis of this short, bold, stimulating, even visionary book.

Kind of a cheesy cover, but don’t judge…

“Know thyself.” “The unexamined life is not worth living.” John Ralston Saul might have chosen these Socratic aphorisms to lead off The Unconscious Civilization, his 1995 lecture series and book. Instead, he chose a slightly more modern reference to self-knowledge, and his fundamental argument is that this same imperative of understanding applies to societies and even entire civilizations, hence his title.

Saul argues that mere propaganda has become a domineering substitute for the socially constructive use of language in public discourse. He warns that our practice of what we call ‘democracy’ is in fact warped and even thwarted by the steady march of corporatist thinking.

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John Ralston Saul (on corporatism and individualism)

In The Unconscious Civilization (1995), Saul traces the rise of individualism in the West, but complains that the term has been “hijacked” in modern times:

“Nowhere…was the individual seen as a single ambulatory centre of selfishness. That idea of individualism, dominant today, represents a narrow and superficial deformation of the Western idea….[We are] a society addicted to ideologies – a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism…[It] causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as a citizen,…which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good….The overall effects on the individual are passivity and conformity in those areas which matter and non-conformism in those which don’t.”

John Ralston Saul is a Canadian thinker, writer and activist for the public good. I was lucky enough to watch from close range, in the mid-2000s, as he continued to develop the ideas he put forth in The Unconscious Civilization (1995) and to poke and provoke conversation about ideas that matter, from the neighbourhood to the globe. He’s an intellectual fireball. In the midst of watching too much basketball and reading too many student papers, I’m stealing the chance to re-read Saul.

Edward Gibbon (on consultation)

“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”

Edward Gibbon (1737  – 1794)was an English historian, most famous for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. To be entirely self-centred, I’m not sure if this quote tells me more about my lack of understanding or my dropping out of genius school. It does remind me that nobody can do my most important work — whatever that is — but me. This idea may express an outdated, super-individualistic view of exceptional accomplishment, and it might not.