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The Making of the Western World

Before embarking on my deep dive into Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now – which argues that, over the past 250 years, humanity has made unprecedented progress – I wanted to re-read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. If you haven’t come across this book, I strongly suggest you read it, though it might take you a while – it’s quite a tome! In the meantime, I’ll try and summarise it in this post – in particular, the second half of the book on “The Making of the Western World” – and show how McGilchrist’s view of progress differs significantly from Pinker’s.

In the first half of the book, McGilchrist reviews a colossal amount of research on neurophysiological and cognitive differences between the brain’s two hemispheres. He argues that, although almost every specific task is performed by both of the brain’s hemispheres, they have very different generalised functions. The left hemisphere predominantly seeks certainty, rationality, manipulation and control of the environment. In contrast, the right hemisphere is all about curiosity, intuition, understanding and connection. McGilchrist shows that we must strike a balance between the activity of the left and right hemispheres – between certainty and curiosity, rationality and intuition, control and connection. But he also warns that we are living in a world dominated by the left hemisphere, ruled by certainty and security at the cost of connection and understanding.

In the second half of the book, McGilchrist applies this template to the history of Western civilisation – from Ancient Greece to Modernity. He argues there have been at least three periods of history in which the right hemisphere has had a revival: (pre-Socratic) Ancient Greece, the Renaissance and Romanticism. Analysing the cultural outputs of these golden ages, McGilchrist suggests that people were more connected to their embodiment and intuition, death and the tragedies of life, their history and cultural traditions and to the natural world.

And then came along the left hemisphere – with its lust for categorisation and systematised knowledge, rules and bureaucracy, power and control. According to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere took over during the Roman Empire, the Reformation and the Enlightenment and with Modernism and Post-Modernism. We now find ourselves in a world dominated by it’s way of thinking, so totally enthralled by the outputs of reason, science and humanism – the very virtues that Pinker rates so highly. The upshot is we have become increasingly oblivious to the deeper, more complex and interconnected, sense of reality presented to us by the right hemisphere.

McGilchrist suggests that the left hemisphere – with its internal logic and systems of knowledge – provides us with a very useful and consistent map of reality. In contrast, the right hemisphere is more concerned with the actual terrain – how, in any given context, things appear to be at any given moment. How things actually are is infinitely more complex, messy and difficult than our map of reality. So, if the roadmap is getting us to where we want to go, it makes sense to continue using it. The problem with this strategy is we can end up mistaking the map for reality itself. The map gives us a nice sense of certainty and security – we know where we’re at, how far we’ve got to go and how quickly we’re getting there. But reality outside of the map is a great big complicated mess. When everything is connected to everything else, it’s very easy to get lost. It’s much easier – and far more comforting – to stick with what we know, to fall back on all our facts and theories, and not worry too much about what we don’t know. In other words, it’s easier to disconnect from reality and live by whatever simplified routines and well rehearsed narratives get us through.

Once this disconnection has taken place, it’s very hard to see beyond the left hemisphere’s re-presentation of reality. According to McGilchrist, what was so special about Ancient Greece, the Rennaissance and Romanticism is they all emphasised the deeper aspects of reality: the depth of the human condition (death, tragedy, longing, melancholy); the depth of the body and mind (skill, intuition, relationships, community); the depth of space (place, nature) and the depth of time (ritual, tradition). In contrast, the Roman Empire, the Reformation and the Enlightenment replaced this appreciation of depth with scaled-up systems of control – ways in which we can consistently dominate ourselves, others and our environment in an attempt to improve our lives. And here’s the thing: from the point of view of control, it’s hard to see how this hasn’t been a success. Over the past 250 years, we have manipulated our natural and social environments to such an extent that we can now choose how to live our lives in almost every way possible: from where we live, who we spend our time with, what we do for work and even how long we live for.

To Pinker, this might seem like a great success. But to McGilchrist, all this so-called progress has come at the cost of depth and meaning. Sure, we can live wherever we want, but what if we are no longer integrated members of close-knit communities? We can choose our profession, but what if we’ve lost touch with the embodied skills and traditions that used to give us a sense of worth and purpose? We can marry or be friends with whoever we want, but with so much freedom and choice, how can we form committed, intimate relationships? And we may be able to live for much longer, but would we prefer to live long, shallow lives or shorter, more meaningful ones?

These are big, juicy questions, which neither Pinker nor McGilchrist can hope to answer fully. What’s interesting from McGilchrist’s analysis is how people have answered these questions differently throughout the major periods of human history in the Western world. The Enlightenment and the past 250 years – which Pinker focuses most of his attention on – is just one period amongst many, and a particularly disconnected one at that. In discussing Pinker’s book over the next few months, I hope to bring in McGilchrist’s analysis and insights from other periods of human history to assess the depth of the progress that Pinker claims has been made. By taking the long view of human history, we can better understand where all this progress is likely to take us in the long run.

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