In his 1924 book on The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, Edwin Arthur Burtt wrote this perceptive passage: “An adequate cosmology will only begin to be written when an adequate philosophy of mind has appeared, and such a philosophy of mind must provide full satisfaction both for the motives of the behaviorists who wish to make mind material for experimental manipulation and exact measurement, and for the motives of idealists who wish to see the startling difference between a universe without mind and a universe organized into a living and sensitive unity through mind properly accounted for. I hope some readers of these pages will catch glimmerings of how this seemingly impossible reconciliation is to be brought about. For myself I must admit that, as yet, it is beyond me” (p. 324).
We are now in the 21st century but despite Whitehead’s process philosophy and cosmology, and Sagan’s and Hawking’s scientific cosmological schemes the above mentioned reconciliation has yet to fully appear. To be sure there are some encouraging signs on the horizon. I am thinking here of scientists at the cutting edge of quantum physics already lying the foundations for a new revolutionary cosmology. See The Quantum Self by Danah Zohar (1990) and The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot (1991).
I would like to suggest that the bridge between the extremes of scientism and idealism may well prove to be Vico’s philosophy of history, but correctly understood.
For the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico the historical course of civilizations within a providential order is that “Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance” (SN 241). Thereafter, when a society at the last stage of development in its “barbarism of reflection” fails to heal itself by taking responsibility for its history, the Vichian ricorso takes place, i.e., the return to primitivism and barbarism which restores simplicity, religion and poetic wisdom (SN, 1106). It is that ricorso which saves Man by preserving his humanity.
To fully grasp the Vichian concept of “historical ricorso” one needs to first return to Vico’s concept of Providence, the centerpiece of his speculation. Anselm and Aquinas have taught us that God is the prototype of the thinker in as much as he creates being by thinking it. Vico too, as we have seen, points out that thinking and making are one and the same for God. Therefore, in as much as God has granted his own Logos to both being and the organs of knowledge, “created being” is “thought being” that bears traces of the divine intellect. Vico patterns this convertibility of thinking and making to man’s artifacts and shows that Man is capable of truly knowing only what he himself has made. He will never comprehend fully either nature or its Maker, at least here within time and space.
And here lies the root of contemporary Man’s cultural malaise: in the presumptuous conviction that the human mind can and in fact will in the future encompass God’s mind. At that point Man becomes a god of sorts. An inversion has occurred: it is God, not man, who is in search of perfection.
Vico describes thus the last stage of deterioration of a whole civilization: “And finally they go mad.” It is the madness of a Caligula that we have already examined in another article. What brings about the madness is the delusion of being a god which is nothing else but the worshipping of one’s cleverness and its derivations; what the Bible calls idolatry. This is the real original sin: the stubborn refusal to be a creature and the arrogant attempt to become a god. This is the secret wish of Adam surfacing in Hawking who boldly declares that “then we shall know the mind of God.” In other words, then we shall narcissistically worship ourselves as the creators of the eighth day of creation; and we shall rule not only empires and kingdoms, but the universe itself.
Surveying ancient history we see a Roman Empire at the summit of its splendor and organizational genius, when unaided human power could go no further, producing a Caligula, perhaps the most representative of the later Roman emperors and a civilization on the brink of its own self-destruction gone mad with the worship of its own achievements. Rome becomes a goddess too. Caligula proudly leads the Roman army to the shores of Northern Gaul and commands his generals to collect shells on the beach for him. A god need not give justifications for his whims.
Similarly, today we see in place a civilization which in its technological hubris has perfected the means and neglected the goals. A civilization which elects psychopaths as its leaders and guides. A civilization that by idolatrous self-adoration of its own cleverness ends up discarding the living God.
As Carl Sagan puts it at the end of the introduction to Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988): “Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do” (p. x).
What is at work in that statement is the Cartesian mind-set: first God is made the underpinning of one theory of knowledge. Eventually He is discarded as superfluous. For indeed, in our consumer-produced society, having nothing to produce is the equivalent of being superfluous. Once God has been rendered superfluous, anything is possible and allowed. As Dostoyevsky points out in his The Brothers Karamozov, if there is no God authority itself loses it legitimacy. Then the world will be governed by Machiavellian “virtù” and “fortuna” with man asserting himself in the world as amoral energy. Inevitably the “will to power” will tend to replace the “will to truth.” The gulags and the lagers become not only thinkable but possible. This is the “sickness unto death,” a “self-forgetfulness” of one’s nature, the final dehumanization of Man.
This is the dead-end on which Man is presently embarked in a closed world utterly immanent and deprived of any transcendent principle. When Man in his freedom wills such a world God respects that freedom and simply leaves it alone. He becomes the absent God. As J. Ellul renders it: “The silence of God entails the disappearance of the very meaning of western history. The paradox that is the West exists no longer…The West is dying because it has won over God” (The Betrayal of the West).
Those are powerful words. Perhaps more than any other contemporary thinker, Ellul has pointed out that we are the heir of a Cartesian world, both in theory and in practice. That is the logic behind a dehumanized world emphasizing technological progress at the expense of Man’s humanity. Ellul calls it the world of “efficient ordering” implying the transformation of al the spheres of human activity, be they productive, political, and even psychological, into systems of order arrived at through technology. All spheres of life are ultimately converted into procedures and structures. Humanistic thought rooted in imagination and intuition is simply excluded from this kind of efficient ordering (See J. Ellul’s The Technological Society, 1964). What lies behind this modern phenomenon is the Cartesian scientific mind-set eventually transforming itself into logical positivism.
Way back in the seventeenth century the Cartesian mind-set envisions the machine as a tool to systematically order human experience through a rationalistic division and conversion into procedures of al the processes of the human world. Vico intuited that in that kind of technological world little room is left for works of humanistic imagination (i.e., literature, the arts, history, philosophy, ethics); i.e. the very modes of thought and sentiment through which Man may attempt to understand himself. It is this inability to associate humanistic thought with truth that lies at the root of contemporary technocratic mentality and its sheer inability to provide a unifying vision of the whole of human knowledge.
As Gilkey has pointed out, in that kind of world human beings become the servants rather than the masters of the very organizations they have created. The worth of an individual will not be conceived as intrinsic to his humanity any longer but as related to his contribution to an effective, efficient part of a social scheme. Any sort of transcendence over the social system, any inwardness and creativity are not only unappreciated but more often than not they are discouraged. The individual is seen as a mere cog in the system: a producing and consuming machine devoid of any inwardness. Robocop will be seen as a better law enforcement agent than a human being who has fears and emotions and more liable to make a mistake.
What is highly ironic is that this cultural disaster and impoverishment has come to pass in the “Christian” West which has always valued, at least in principle, the transcendent dignity of the individual. After all, the inalienable rights enshrined in the US Constitution were not invented by Thomas Jefferson one fine day. They were already intrinsic part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Christianity has always conceived them as rights that inhere to the reality of the human spirit; what used to be called soul but is today called the “software” of man the machine. One cannot be too far from the truth in asserting that this degeneration of the concept of human spirit is directly related to our civilization’s present state of dehumanization. Indeed, to live by bread alone, for one’s belly, is to have sold one’s soul for a bowl of lentils, and ultimately to die spiritually.
Spiritual destitution lies at the root of our external problems such as the ecological devastation wrought on nature and threatening to swallow both nature and civilization. The prophetic warnings of 1984 and Brave New World ring even truer today. We live in a Machiavellian world whose main concern is the grasping and retaining of power, a world preoccupied with economic issues and oblivious of social justice, integrity and compassion. As the world gets more efficiently order, it seems to become less free, less dynamic and innovative, even less affluent, at least for the majority given the scandalous widening gap between rich and poor. Presidents talk of a “gentler kinder nations” and “compassionate conservatism” but the sad reality is the sense of being at the threshold of a new Dark Age, when those whom Vico dubs “the barbarians of the intellect” are already inside the citadel of civilization as we know it.
So the pressing question seems to be this: how could a culture issuing from a dynamic, creative civilization extolling Man’s dignity and grandeur such as the Italian Renaissance (when Machiavelli lived) have stooped so low? How did we end with “thought police” inside the very citadels of thought and free speech in academia? The answer cannot be given by science. Only speculative philosophy or theology can attempt one. Gilkey has already intimated one when he declared that “technology by itself, or technical-manipulative reason when made the exclusive form of reason and of creativity possesses a built-in element that leads to its own destruction and eventual destruction of all it manipulates.”
Now then, if our very cleverness has brought us to this impasse, is there any hope left? Or should put the lights out and go gently into the night?
I would modestly suggest that in order to recover hope humanity needs to recover its sense of a transcendent power beyond reason (which is not say irrational, far from it, Aquinas has taught us that much) able to temper this built-in evil which seems to be present in what we, who live in an “enlightened” culture, presently consider normal and even good.
There is undoubtedly a vast gulf in our present civilization between that for which and toward which man is oriented and the wretched reality in which he finds himself. Dante, as well as the Bible call this gulf sin. This reality can hardly be understood in a society where sin and guilt are either caricatured, or excused as neurosis, or exorcised by one’s analyst.
Indeed, modern man finds himself at the crossroads. He needs to choose between a dangerous delusion of being capable of his own redemption and salvation, that a few more push-button technological wonders will do the trick, or to live in the apathy of a “quite desperation,” or to muster the courage for a genuine concern for the meaning of his humanity. He has to resume his quest for meaning. Only that concern can arrest the process of dehumanization. But in order to make this crucial choice he needs a concept of what it means to be human and how nature, history and humanity are part of a larger spiritual whole. In theological circles this goes by the name of “creation spirituality.” In more traditional and simpler words, Man must know himself. “Know Thy Self” said Socrates and with those words he began the philosophical revolution which put ethics at the center of one’s humanity, “for the issue, gentlemen, is not whether we live or die, for we all die eventually, but whether corruption which is faster than death catches up with us and grabs us and does not let us go.”
We like to envision Jonathan Edwards and the Calvinists as men obsessed by the concept of original sin but a proper understanding of original sin would make Man conscious of the fact that he cannot justify and redeem himself through technology. But then, how does Man express this unity with nature in the light of the modern post-Kantian consciousness of human freedom and the autonomy of the human conscience? The German theologian Bonhoffer pointed out that modern scientific man has done away even with a working hypothesis of God because he is convinced that everything works just as well without Him. This seems to be modern man’s dilemma, how to avoid, on one hand, the pitfall of subjugation to nature, and on the other hand, that of abusing nature for his own allegedly “superior” goals. To overcome this dilemma man must be confident of being capable of transcending nature without destroying it.
At this juncture of mankind’s journey the rediscovery of Vico appears to me providential. It may be one of the best alternatives available within Western culture between two extremes: Cartesian technocratic man on one hand, and Nietzschean charismatic man on the other. As we have seen, Vico’s truth while aiming for the transcendent remains at all times open to existence and its contradictions. His historicism may be evolutionary but it is never deterministic as a Fontanelle’s or a Nietzsche’s. Vico insists throughout his speculation that the historian must not anticipate but rather interpret reality. He must always begin with the certum in order to understand the verum.
After Croce’s discovery and popularization of Vico in Italy in the 20th century, modern scholars began to understand, although confusedly at first, that (1) Vico is indeed very modern in his insistence on a pragmatic approach to thinking; in his insight that thought must be incarnate in life and experience and specifically the nature of history, (2) a mode of thinking that jettisons outright from the flux of reality the pole of the particular and concrete with its inherent contradictions, is a mere game of intellect and cannot possibly constitute thinking, (3) Vico’s merit is that of salvaging the particular from an abstract rationalism without falling into the trap, very common among positivists of all schools of thought, of a purely materialistic dimension of reality, (4) Vico’s “ideal eternal history” is not idealistic; it is rather the conclusion of a long speculative process beginning with experience and the particular and always returning to origins; a far cry from Descartes’ scientism setting up the deductive demonstrations of geometry as the only criteria of certitude and reducing philosophical speculation to mere calculation, and the whole of experience to the observation of mere physical materialistic phenomena.
As an antidote for rampant Cartesian rationalism, Vico, way back in 1725, proposed his New Science. He correctly perceived that the whole of reality operates on two paradoxically related and complementary poles; for example, particular/universal, form/content, transcendence/immanence, free will/providence, barbarism/civilization, objective/subjective, passion/virtue, intuition/reason, spontaneity/reflection, matter/spirit, body/soul, poetic wisdom/reflective wisdom, tradition/progress, life/thought, and so on. This complementarity issues forth not from a rationalistic pseudo-unity of intellectual categories but rather from an organic unity derived from the phenomenon of its very origins.
Unfortunately Vico was not accorded an attentive hearing in the 18th century. In philosophy text book he is usually relegated to a footnote if even mentioned. Even in today’s courses on myth, language and history, academics at best accord Vico a passing nod or a tip of the hat. In his autobiography Vico mentions that his own colleagues would cross the street so they would not have to acknowledge and/or discuss the publication of his book. Indeed, academics and political pundits are a strange lot.
Paul Ricoeur, who has offered us some brilliant insights into the relationship between history and language, in his Time and Narrative (University of Chicago Press, 1985) dedicates the whole of chapter 10 to the hermeneutics of historical consciousness but does not bother to as much as to mention its progenitor. Vico is found in a footnote (n. 33, p. 310), in passing, within the context of Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse, and Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Motives. Moreover, a brilliant philosopher of science such as E.A. Burtt, already mentioned above, former professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and Cornell University, investigates in depth the scientific thinking of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton in his classical The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (1924), points out the fallacies of modern scientific thinking, repeatedly mentions precursors from the Italian Renaissance who greatly influenced the development of scientific thinking (Tartaglia, Bruno, Campanella, Leonardo, Ficinus, Nicholas of Cusa, Patrizzi, Torricelli), and utterly ignores Vico’s New Science.
Indeed, academics have never been overly kind to Vico’s scholarly fortunes. Various reasons have been proffered for this sad neglect, among which the fact that Vico was not a systematic thinker and could not therefore be easily pigeonholed in a textbook. This intriguing phenomenon of Vico’s neglect in academic circles, which begins when he was still teaching at the University of Naples (where he never rose beyond the rank of Assistant Professor), and continues even today remains to be examined and studied carefully.
Be that as it may, the cultural malaise took its tragic course in the 18th and 19th century till Nietzsche proposes the abandonment of rationalism on rational grounds, pronounces God dead and the Enlightenment dead with Him, and in order to revitalize a sick civilization proposes the creation of immanent values as discoverable at the very core of human nature. Nietzsche correctly perceives that these values spring from a primordial religious impulse in Man. The cultural disaster seems to occur when the pole of transcendence is abandoned and the will to power replaces the classical Platonic Aristotelian will to truth. After that fascism is not far behind. Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern academia where truth is piously professed but power games are cavalierly engaged in. Machiavellism can be applied anywhere, especially under the pious pretension of searching for the truth.
The disaster need not have occurred had Vico’s alternative been given a more serious and attentive consideration. Today Vico is much better known than in his own century, however, he continues to be subsumed under idealism or romanticism and even under the Nietzschean rediscovery of the sacred. That is a mistake and a disservice to Vico’s thought. Vico’s signal contribution and importance, to my mind, consists in the fact that he is still today the most valid alternative between Cartesian rationalism ushering in technocratic man ready to efficiently order the world, and Nietzschean anti-rationalism ushering in charismatic overman devoid of transcendence and ready to transvaluate values and impose them on a world locked in a deterministic eternal return.
The final cricial question then remains this: Will our over-rationalistic culture finally opt to change its current paradigm of reality and recover humanistic imaginative poetic modes of thinking as exemplified by the poetic philosophy of Vico? At this juncture of our historical journey our very humanity may be at the crossroads and Vico may be the guide we desperately need in order to choose wisely and continue the journey to its final destination. Dante needed a wise guide to begin his arduous imaginative inner journey to salvation. Can we afford to do any less?
Author’s Note: This article first appeared on March 17, 2008 in Ovi Magazine. It was relevant 9 years ago; I dare say it is even more relevant today.
Classroom crisis: Avert a ‘generational catastrophe’
The world is at risk of suffering “a generational catastrophe” as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the education of students globally, the UN chief said on Thursday.
In a video message to the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Global Education Meeting (GEM), Secretary-General António Guterres reminded delegates that the pandemic had had a “disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized children and youth”.
“The progress we have made, especially for girls and young women, is under threat”, he said. “We now need to support the learning recovery in low and middle income countries – and to factor education into every stimulus package”.
Tackling the situation
To successfully avert the crisis, Mr. Guterres upheld the importance of recognizing education as “a common global good”, with teachers, safe schools, digital technologies and those at greatest risk, in need of far greater investment.
“Financing and political will are critical”, he stressed.
‘Vital linkages’ of education
Deputy UN chief Amina Mohammed observed that the COVID-19 pandemic had clearly highlighted “the vital linkages between education, nutrition, gender equality, health and social protection”.
She noted education systems had managed to undergo “rapid transformation” and pointed to the work of Governments in minimizing the educational impact on students, the flexibility and creativity of teachers and how caregivers have taken on “frontline roles” to support children’s education.
“Learners persevered and adapted to new realities”, continued Ms. Mohammed, as UN agencies have worked together with external partners, including through the Global Education Coalition, to deploy support and guidance to Governments.
However, these efforts have not been enough.
Since the pandemic hit, at least one-third of the world’s students have been deprived of any form of learning; close to half a billion pupils are still affected by school closures; and the most marginalized, including at least 11 million girls, are at high risk of never returning to school, according to the deputy UN chief.
Putting words into actions
Leading up to the meeting, UNESCO undertook a series of consultations for a draft GEM Declaration, which was informed, among other things, by the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief and the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of education.
Central to transforming words into action, Ms. Mohammed highlighted the priority areas of financing, inclusion, teachers, safe school reopening, connectivity and coordination.
“Over the coming year, political leaders in national and local governments, donor agencies and financial institutions must ensure that the resolve to support education is backed up with resources”, she asserted.
She also called for innovation, attesting that going back to “normality” was neither possible nor desirable as it would mean ignoring the “profound changes” in technology and labour markets across the world.
“And it would mean accepting the unacceptable fact that even before COVID-19, some 250 million children were out of school and more than half of primary school age children worldwide lacked basic reading skills”, she stated.
Finally, the UN official underscored that “effective multilateral collaboration” and “greater solidarity with the most vulnerable countries” were needed to coordinate education among actors.
“Implementation of this Declaration, therefore, requires a reimagining of education; a dramatic push to train millions of teachers…scaling up of partnerships to connect every school, teacher and learner to the internet; and…equipping young people with the skills they need to thrive in a complex and rapidly changing world”, spelled out the Deputy Secretary-General.
Fourth Global Goal
Turning to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, Ms. Mohammed called education the “docking station” for the SDGs, from achieving gender equality to learning about human rights and acquiring new skills for a digital green economy, to developing tools for boosting tolerance and peace efforts.
“Delivering SDG 4 is a great responsibility on us all — led by the education community”, she concluded.
UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay paid tribute to Samuel Paty, the teacher who was decapitated close to his school near Paris, last week, after showing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to his pupils, “and to all the teachers in the world who take risks to educate our children”.
Meanwhile, Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, a co-sponsor of the event, said that “as countries start to reopen in the era of COVID-19, education must come first”.
And Baroness Sugg, the United Kingdom’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Development, another co-sponsor, said “we know just how critically important it is to place education at the heart of our global COVID response”.
From Ghana, the third co-sponsor, Education Minister Matthew Opoku Prempeh flagged on behalf of President Nana Akufo-Addo that the digital divide in developing have left many children “deprived” of online teaching and learning tools.
In her remarks, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie emphasized that the biggest problem in this education crisis is not a lack of awareness or ideas, but instead a lack of will, saying “we know what should be done and we know the consequences if we do not act”.
Women ‘far from having an equal voice to men’- UN Study
The COVID-19 pandemic is “interrupting efforts” to achieve gender equality and threatening to “reverse hard-won gains” over the past decades, a senior UN official said on Tuesday.
Introducing the 2020 edition of The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics, Liu Zhenmin, chief of the UN’s economic and social affairs department (DESA), said that over the last two decades, “attitudes of discrimination are slowly changing” and women’s lives have improved with regard to education, early marriage, childbearing and maternal mortality, all while progress has stagnated in other areas.
“Women are far from having an equal voice to men”, spelled out the DESA chief. “And, in every region of the world, women are still subjected to various forms of violence and harmful practices”.
Beijing still pending
Overall, progress continues to fall far short of what Member States committed themselves to, at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.
“Twenty-five years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, progress towards equal power and equal rights for women remains elusive”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
“No country has achieved gender equality”.
To effectively measure progress in that regard, reliable, timely and disaggregated, data are critically needed and closing data gaps requires regular collection and use of gender statistics.
Pushing a boulder uphill
Mr. Liu pointed out that while the coronavirus pandemic is having “devastating social and economic impacts” across the world, women are fighting “on the front lines…in healthcare settings, in home care, in the family and in the public sphere”.
With less internet access, particularly in developing regions, women also face difficulties maintaining valuable personal connections and carrying on day-to-day activities during lockdowns.
“Many may also have been trapped in unsafe environments…and at risk of experiencing intimate partner violence”, Mr. Liu stated.
Moreover, he pointed out that women face reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services; and need more time to care for the elderly, sick and children, including home-based education; adding that they are also at higher risk of infection than men in the workplace.
Glass ceiling intact
In terms of power and decision making, World’s Women 2020 revealed that last year, women held only 28 per cent of managerial positions globally – almost the same proportion as in 1995.
And only 18 per cent of enterprises surveyed had a female Chief Executive Officer in 2020.
Among Fortune 500 corporate rankings, only 7.4 per cent, or 37 CEOs, were women.
In political life, while women’s representation in parliaments worldwide has more than doubled globally, it has yet to cross the 25 per cent barrier of seats and although representation among cabinet ministers has quadrupled over the last 25 years, it remains at 22 per cent, well below parity.
Call to action
Mr. Liu called on all countries to “accelerate efforts” in empowering women and girls, towards improving data gaps in covering key gender topics.
“Timeliness and comparability of data over time and across countries, need to be improved, and data disaggregation and dissemination by age, sex, location and other key variables, need to become a priority in order to fully measure and address intersecting inequalities, respond to crises, and ensure gender equality by 2030”, he upheld.
Of Here and Now: Pandemic and Society in 2020
After a century, the world population faced a new pandemic that fast spread globally, affecting individuals both physically and mentally. Covid-19 started in late 2019 in Asia, spreading so fast that despite the global connectivity and highly sophisticated information technology and communication systems, the interconnected society of the 21st century was incapable to fast react in order to avoid contagion and prevent the worst. Gradually, the pandemic is making a tour around the globe contaminating citizens even in rural communities from all continents. Worldwide, there have been 32 million confirmed cases with over 1 million deaths during the first 9 months of this year.
From this universal pandemic we learned that the interdependent globalized world of 2020 is connected but not synchronized – or as earlier in crisis, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic well-noted ‘world on autopilot’. All scientific, technological and digital knowledge accumulated over centuries remains inept to protect our civilization from an invisible virus that, ironically, can be eliminated with just soap and water. Obviously, the magnitude and the economic, social and cultural impact of this pandemic took humanity by surprise.
Society was already undergoing a deep process of transformation on all fronts. Debates were focused on the fragility of democracy, climate change and sustainability, inequality and inclusion, gender and race, social media and fake news, virtual payments and crypto currencies, artificial intelligence and blockchain. Science, knowledge and technology were advancing at a fast rate in all fieldsincluding genetics, neuroscience and biotechnology. Nevertheless, health-care was not a top priority for public investments or national budgets. Yet, with the eruption of the pandemic, priorities had to be immediately revisited. A human-centred and inclusive approach became imperative in every corner of the planet. Incontestably, the 2020s is bringing irreversible disruptions.
Lockdown measures and social isolation deprived individuals of free movements, restricting social gatherings and citizen’s mobility. The home-office dismantled solid organizational structures of daily work conviviality. Closure of schools prevented children from accessing formal in-person education, creating a childcare crisis for working parents. Crowded metropolis became empty urban centres, no shopping, no restaurants and no city life. Cultural festivities and spaces such as theatres, cinemas, and museums had their activities suspended leaving artists, cultural and creative professionals as well as street-vendors out of jobs. Parks and sportive centres became inactive and international tourism ceased.
Conversely, family life became the heart of social order. Parents that were extremely busy with their jobshad to juggle between work and the education of their children. People became less egocentric and started showing more empathy with the needed ones. Solidarity has been manifested in donations and collective assistance by civil society. Companies engaged with social responsibility. Artists, cultural and creative workers were defied to work even harder at home to find new niches in the virtual domain. The confined society had to rediscover its ethical values, principles and priorities.
Free-time and leisure at present
Paradoxically, this shift in human behaviour brought us back to a theory of economics that emerged a century ago (Ruskin, 1900) “There is no wealth but life”. In this new-old context, free-time, leisure, well-being and culture are closely associated. Usually, we use our free-time to carry out activities that are not directly related to work, duties or domestic occupations. May be free-time is an illusion because only in exceptional occasions our time is completely free. Leisure, however, is a subjective concept which varies depending on the society which we belong. It is connected with our participation in cultural life, reflecting the values and characteristics of a nation. Thus, it can be considered a human right according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and in particular the International Convention on the Economic, Social and Cultural rights (1967).
Despite some divergent definitions of leisure there is convergence around three distinctions: (i) leisure as time; (ii) leisure as activity; and (iii) leisure as a state of mind. Firstly, it is defined as the constructive use of available time. Leisure as a variety of activities includes the practice of sports or actions related to intellectual and human development like reading, painting, gardening etc. and those can be leisure for ones and work for others. Understanding leisure as a state of mind is complex since it depends on individual perceptions about concepts such as freedom, motivation, competency etc. Certain skills can be considered leisure depending on the degree of satisfaction, emotion or happiness it causes. Yet, the most important is the possibility of free will.
Time available for leisure also varies according to cultural, social and even climate considerations. The notion of time can be different in Africa, Asia, Latin America or Europe. Usually people who live in areas of hot climate enjoy outdoor activities and sports while Nordic people whose habitat is in cold weather prefer indoors socialization and hobbies like playing chess, classic music etc. Social leisure embraces communitarian happenings such as going to the beach, practicing sports in a club etc. Behavioural studies indicate the benefits of social leisure for the well-being of individuals, self-esteem and cultural identity.
Moments of leisure are essential in all phases of our life. During childhood and adolescence most of our time is devoted to study and sports while at adulthood our time is mostly consumed with work and family. Indeed, it is at senior age that retired people generally have extra free-time to enjoy cultural events, leisure and tourism. Globally people are living longer and a newage structure is taking shape: the young senior (65-74 years), the middle senior (75-84 years) and the older senior as from 85 years old. According to the United Nations, in 2018 for the first time in history, persons aged 65 years or over outnumbered children under age five. This partially explains the vast number of people in the group of risk requiring quarantine protection throughout the pandemic period.
Well-being and spirituality in pandemic times
During the pandemic, reflections about well-being and spirituality gained space in our minds. It is undeniable that the constraints brought about by lock-down measures and social distancing, offered us more free-time but very limited leisure options. We gained additional time to be closer to loved ones and to do things we like most at home. Enjoying family life, including eating and even cooking together became a shared pleasure and a new leisure style. Individuals had to optimize the quality of their temporarily sedentary lives.
Global pandemics affect our collective mental health. Given the prevailing health and economic insecurity, the focus of our attention has been on well-being, strengthening friendships, expanding social network, practicing solidarity, improving self-esteem as well as reflecting on spirituality and religion. Suddenly the exuberant society of 2020 is afraid of the unknown virus and its long-term harmful consequences on day-to-day life. Well-being and happiness became the essence of achievable goals.
People are emotionally fragile in this moment of anxiety. Individuals are suffering losses that will persist long after the pandemic will be over. Some feel stressed or depressed while others react by searching for relief in exercising, relaxation, meditation, yoga or mindfulness training. Individuals are finding new ways to overcome solitude and boost mental resilience. Current philosophical thinking (Harari, 2018) is reminding us that homo sapiens have bodies but technology is distancing us from our bodies.
Inspirational talks in likeminded groups have been helpful for reconnecting people dealing with an uncertain future. Social engagement and advocacy for health causes are used for promoting social change. Thus, besides upgrading healthcare systems and putting in place special measures for accelerating economic and cultural recovery, targeted governmental support will be needed to improve mental well-being and raise the overall level of satisfaction and happiness of citizens in the post-crisis.
Culture and e-learning nowadays
In a short period of time, many went from an exciting social and cultural lifestyle to a simple life. People had to assume the role of protagonists of their actions. Due to open-air limitations, free-time activities had to be less physically-intensive (no bike, tennis, jogging etc.), and more creative-oriented such as designing, playing music, writing. Much time has also been spent watching TV series, surfing the internet, viewing live music concerts, video-gaming, attending video-conferences as well as socializing in virtual chats. Equally, there are growing concerns about the ethics of consumer technology and internet addiction “time well spent” (Tristan, 2015).
A recent study carried out in the UK to track digital cultural consumption during the pandemic, indicates that the median time spent daily watching TV are 4 hours, while listening to music, watching films and playing video games each day are 3 hours respectively. Understanding human behaviour, in particular youth habits can help to indicate new cultural trends and consolidate social cohesion in post-pandemic times. Moreover, policy-makers could consider engaging cultural institutions and employing artists and creatives to help facilitate a collective healing process and kick-start recovery.
It is widely recognized that the arts, culture and creative sectors were hit hard by the pandemic. Whist digital cultural and creative products for home consumption were in high demand, others tangible creative goods like arts, crafts, fashion and design products sharply contracted. Many artists and creatives had no option than to experiment on work in digital spaces, since they had to go global from home.
Despite the fact that 4.5 billion people (60% the global population) use internet, the availability of affordable broadband access is a pre-condition to use and benefit from the opportunities provided by digital tools. This applies to both producers and consumers of cultural and creative digital content. Currently, videos account for 80-90% of global digital data circulation, but at the same time Latin America, the Middle East and Africa together represent only around 10% of world data traffic. This evidence points to digital asymmetries that are being aggravated. Creativity only is not enough to transform ideas into marketable creative goods or services if digital tools and infrastructure will not be available.
The pandemic also had a strong impact on education and learning. Re-thinking education was already a topic on the agenda of many countries in order to respond to the realities of the jobs market in the 2020s. Besides the need to adapt methodology and pedagogical practices, many believe it is necessary to bring an interdisciplinary and applied approach to curricula with focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), preferably also integrating arts (STEAM). In any case, the education system has been forced to quickly adjust to remote learning. Globally over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom in 186 countries. In Latin America schools are closed and around 154 million children between the ages of 5 and 18 are at home instead of in class. Furthermore, access to school-related inputs is distributed in an unbalanced manner; wealthier students have access to internet and home-schooling while the poorer have not. Young people are losing months of learning and this will have long-lasting effects. The loss for human capital is enormous.
On the positive side, continuous e-learning became a trend and a necessity. Innovation and digital adaption gave rise to a wide-range of on-line courses. Millions of learners are upgrading their knowledge and skills in different domains through distance learning, whether through language and music apps, video conferences or software learning. Some are free others have to be paid for, but what is absolutely transformative is that access to knowledge became more democratic. Independently of age or field of interest, learners from different parts of the world can have access to prestigious universities or practical training. E-learning, where teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms already existed, but demand has sharply increased during pandemic and this might be a point of no return.
Over these critical 9 months, there are growing signs that the 2020s will face a new set of challenges and life will not be back as usual. The future will be very different when compared to the recent past. Hope and fear are likely to co-exist for a certain time. There are new values, new lifestyles, new social behaviour, new consumption standards, and new ways of working and studying. The pandemic has imposed a deep ethical and moral re-assessment on society. This turning point is leading to a deep socio-economic renovation and hopefully to a more inclusive and sustainable society.
E. Dos Santos-Duisenberg (2013) – Tempo livre, lazer e economia criativa, Revista Inteligência Empresarial (37), Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazilhttp://www.epapers.com.br/produtos.asp?codigo_produto=2455
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