By Gilbert Highet
LAND and air and water are filled with living things but, apart from mankind, they scarcely ever change, or, if they do, it is over vast spaces of time. Ferns grow and fish swim just as they did long before men walked upon the earth. The industrious ants continue their routine of self-preservation and self-perpetuation as they did when the dinosaurs ruled. But man, in his brief history, has transformed both the world and himself. His specific quality is purposeful change through thought.
He is Homo sapiens: Man the Thinker.
The Human brain works like the heart, ceaselessly pulsing, day and night, from childhood o old age. In its three pounds of tissue are recorded and stored billions upon billions of memories, habits, instincts, abilities, desires, hopes, fears. Here are patterns and sounds and inconceivably delicate calculations and brutishly crude urgencies: he sound of a whisper heard 30 years ago, the delight never experienced but incessantly imagined, the complex structure of stresses in a bridge, the exact pressure of a single finger on a single string, the development of 10,000 different games of chess, the precise curve of a lip, a hill, an equation or a flying ball, tones and shades and gloom’s and raptures, the faces of countless strangers, the scent of one garden, prayers, inventions, poems, jokes, tunes sums, problems unsolved, victories long past, the fear of Hell and the love of God, the vision of a blade of grass and the vision of the sky filled with stars.
That man thinks all the time is a familiar notion. But it is a less familiar concept that all human history might be best understood as a process of learning. For it was by learning that we ceased to be animals and made ourselves into men. Far back in the warm jungles, somehow, cell by cell and reflex by reflex, the wonderful human brain was formed, and with it our two other miraculous human powers: our fantastically intricate speech and our ingenious, adaptable hands. The slow and impressive advance of our distant selves from animalism to humanity-learning, learning, always learning-is a story which contains much pathos and much charm.
The earliest tools were scarcely more than lumps of stone, with a few corners chipped off to fit the hand roughly. But gradually, century by century, better stones are selected, and they are chipped and smoothed and rounded and sharpened until they are not only efficient but almost handsome. It is impossible to look at those stone tools, and to imagine their makers, without feeling pity, admiration and affection for our clever industrious ancestors, and without renewing our reverence for the growth of the human mind.
After the stone tools came the control of fire, the skillful almost magical transformation of lumps of earth into hard pottery and durable metal the creation of the wheels which have ever since been rolling across the face of the earth. Equally wonderful perhaps more wonderful, was the invention of plants. Almost everything we consume, except animal food, is part of a plant, carefully bred from selected stock: wheat, sugar fruits, tobacco, hemp, cotton. Some intelligent man or woman found each plant growing wild in the jungle, tasted or tested it, by patient experiment discovered how to rear it and improve it.
This was one of the real beginnings of civilization. In that slow patient process men improved the plants, and the plants improved men. Men ceased to live at random; they settled down, and grew together. Cultivated fields make men invent rules and observe seasons. Therefore laws were devised, the calendar was established, and astronomy became both a religion and a science. So we moved from primitive animalism through primitive human savagery to civilization.
ALL IMPORTANT CULTURES are marvelous manifestations of the power of the mind. But our own culture-Western civilization-is, more than the others, the product of systematic thought. The whole world uses its inventions. Its scientific methods, its educational ideals, its cult of literacy have been adopted by other civilizations and are transforming them.
But the story of our Western civilization begins, soon after 1000 B.C, with the Greeks. There were other civilizations, some far richer and grander, long before the Greeks. But only the Greeks thought, hard and constantly, and principally in human terms. They saw themselves as surrounded on all sides by “barbarians”-which for them meant people who did not live reasonably: eccentrics such as the Egyptians who spent millions on preserving dead bodies; powerful brutes like the Assyrians who worshiped gods that were half animal; slavish hordes like the subjects of Persia.
In most things of the mind the Greeks were not only the teachers of their own contemporaries- Jews and Parthians, Romans and Egyptians-but they were the teachers of all those who followed them in the civilization of the West, down to the present day.
The Greeks believed that all civilization and all progress were based on lifelong enjoyment and improvement of the powers of the mind. Other nations have held that their own civilization meant service to God, or service to the divine monarch, or power or wealth and comfort. Several nations in our own day seem to believe that if everyone had plenty to eat and drink and owned a car and a few other machines life would be perfect. The Greeks, too, enjoyed life with all its delights-wine, women and song, sports and dancing. Many of them gave up their whole existence to light pleasures. But, centrally, they knew what was better, and their greatest men pursued and maintained it.
This was quite simply the improvement of the mind. It was in order to help men to think that their great poets composed, their philosophers and historians wrote, their orators spoke. ‘They were teachers. Horner, Aeschylus, Aristophanes; Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle; these and many more were, first and foremost, doctors of the soul. The Voice they listened to was the utterance of reason calmly discussing what is, what has been and what should be.
One of the chief pleasures of studying history is to see how the ideas of these men-or rather the ideas of Reason which found voice in them-reappear in distant times. The balance of powers on which the American constitution rests was first formulated by a Greek historical thinker. And Greek teachers first stated by a Greek historical thinker. And Greek teachers first stated that lofty ideal, the brotherhood of man.
The first pupils of the Greeks were the Romans; an unpromising set. When the Greeks first saw the Romans they called them “barbarians” and believed them determined but dull. The Romans had no literature of permanent value and no sciences. They could not reason philosophically. Even their language was clumsy. In all these fields the Greeks taught them. They result was another flowering of Greek culture transplanted to Italy-or rather, more truly the creation of a new joint culture, the Greco-Roman civilization.
Why that splendid and happy and thoughtful civilization collapsed, no one knows. Its inhabitants themselves did not know. Still, we can be sure of one thing. It was the western part of the empire, the Roman part, that collapsed first; the eastern sector, the Greek-speaking area, maintained itself under almost incessant attacks for another thousand years. And if one were asked to venture a single explanation of that odd disparity, one would do well to say that it came because the men of the West liked wealth and enjoyment, while the men of the East liked thinking.
Now descended the Dark Ages.Yet, even after the destruction of the western empire, after the roads had been blocked, the bridges destroyed, the harbors silted up, the aqueducts cut, the hospitals and libraries burnt the vast public buildings changed into homes for squatters; after language had dissolved into a score of dialects and literacy had become so rare as to be close to magic, when many a priest could scarcely read and many a general or monarch could hardly write his own barbarous name; after the region of worldwide law had crumbled into the organized gangsterism of the feudal system, even then and thereafter the movement of European civilization is best understood as a process of learning. The worst does not last.
Up out of that darkness our ancestors climbed slowly, as their ancestors had climbed before out of far greater darkness-and as our descendants may have to climb once more. It took the more than 1000 difficult years. But by 1450 western Europe was beginning to repossess the full thought of the Greek and Roman world, and to reach out in many ways beyond it And since then most of the finest minds in our civilization have been directly or indirectly the pupils of the Romans and the Greeks.
IT IS HEARTENING to gaze back over the history of learning and see how often mighty minds have appeared in lonely lands and savage tribes and eras full of repression and violence. How wonderful it is, in the midst of some bloody epoch resounding with dull groans and choked hymns, to meet a serene and gracious mind, studying nature and making poety; or to discover, among lazy bourgeois or glum, earthbound peasants, a powerful intellect grappling with abstractions of number, producing unique inventions, or building a systematic inter-pretation of the universe.
Such was the Buddha. Such was Sequoyah, the Cherokee Indian who alone created a written language for his people. Such was Gregor Mendel, the quiet monk who worked and thought patiently in his garden until he had discovered some of the fundamental laws of heredity.
Once certain truth about the great works of the mind is that many of them were made by men who started life in ordinary even unfavorable situations and then far outsoared their origins.
Isaac Newton was the son of a Lincolnshire farmer. Unlike some mathematicians, he was not even bright in boyhood. Then, within a few years after he went to Cambridge the spark descended. The son of an Italian gentleman and a country girl was apprenticed to the trade of painting like many thousands before and after him –but this one was Leonardo da Vinci. Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was a brave ignorant soldier in an age full of stupid men with swords. Luther and Rabelais were monks indistinguishable from myriads of other monks in other lands and times. Socrates was a stonemason in a city crowded with builders.
HOW DO great thinkers emerge? They do not grow like trees. They cannot be bred like selected animals. But we do know two methods of feeding them as they grow. One is to give them constant challenge and stimulus. Put problems before them. Produce things for them to think about, and question their thinking at every stage. Propose experiments to them. Tell them to discover what is hidden.
The second method is to bring them in contact with other eminent minds. It is not nearly enough for a clever boy or girl to meet his fellows and his teachers and his parents. He (or she) must meet and women of real and undeniable distinction-the immortals.
We know that the human mind is capable of far more work than it has ever done. A normal man uses nearly all his muscles during his mature life, but leaves large areas, perhaps two thirds, of his brain dormant. Individually many people are lazy; the bright, adventurous intelligence which they enjoyed in their youth is allowed to lie virtually unused for the rest of their seventy years.
THE LIFE of the human spirit faces two dangers, both appallingly powerful and urgent. One is laziness; the other is tyranny. It is perfectly possible that by the year 2000 the civilized world will have grown so rich and so comfortable, and so deeply devoted to simple asinine pleasures, that thought will be abolished or else reserved for a few wily Managers and Experts. It is perfectly possible that education will dwindle away into nothing more than job training and courses in social and family relationships, and that life will collapse into a series of delightfully similar days-a few hours’ mechanical routine followed by jolly picnics and cheap amusements. It is possible, though not likely.
Yet, if that should happen, the unused energies of the human mind would find an outlet in spite of every comfort and every distraction. There would still be inventors, researchers, thinkers, although for a few centuries they might seem as eccentric as saints and be as rare.
It is also possible that by the year 2000 the entire planet will be subject to a total tyranny-or to several regional tyrannies-more effective and ruthless than anything which has yet been experienced in our long history of horrors. Such a despotism has been forecast by several satirists, and has already come into existence here and there. It was established in Russia by the Bolshevik revolutions. Attempts to set it up in Italy and Germany were made by Mussolini and Hitler, with less durable success.
In the end such despotism will fail. It is not possible to dehumanize all mankind. Someone will be left, thinking. The governing clique itself must continue to think. And as each generation of children is born, new thinkers will appear.
It would be easier to destroy mankind physically, with a germ or an explosion, than to destroy it mentally. For men are adaptable, and their adaptability means constant ability to change and develop the powers of their mind. As long as men live upon this planet, whatever the tyrannies and cruelties they devise, they will, they must continue to think. It is this urgent march of the mind-imperfect but marvelous, unique in every individual-which has brought us out of savagery toward civilization and wisdom, and will take us further still.