I am infinitely saddened to find myself surrounded in the West by a sense of terrible loss of nerve


“I am infinitely saddened to find myself surrounded in the West by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into – into what?  Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery.”

Who is this speaking?   It is Jacob Bronowski, and it’s an extract from one of my most prized books, The Ascent of Man, which followed his epic 13-part series for BBC TV in 1973.  It’s about how we’ve advanced through scientific endeavour, and it’s one of the books I dip into when I need to find calm and inspiration in an odd moment.   Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book – I hope you will find them interesting too:

“Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment.  His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it.  And those series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution – not biological, but cultural evolution.”

“Man ascends by discovering the fullness of his own gifts (his talents or faculties)”

“It is something of a shock to think that justice is part of the biological equipment of man.”

“The horse and the rider have many anatomical features in common.  But it is the human creature that rides the horse, and not the other way round [even though] man was not created to ride the horse.  There is no wiring inside the brain that makes us horse riders.  Riding a horse is a comparatively recent invention, less than five thousand years old.  And yet it has had an immense influence, for instance on our social structure.  The plasticity [malleability, flexibility] of human behaviour makes this possible.”

“Who am I to belittle the civilizations of Egypt, of China, of India, even of Europe in the Middle Ages?  And yet by one test they all fail: they limit the freedom of imagination of the young.  They are static, and they are minority cultures.  Static, because the son does what the father did, and the father what the grandfather did.  Minority, because only a tiny fraction of all that talent that mankind produces is actually used; learns to read, to write, learns another language, and climbs the terribly slow ladder of promotion.”

“In a sense, all human thought is a form of play.”

“If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect.  We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed.  And that distance can only be closed if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others.”

“The ascent of man is always teetering in the balance … Knowledge is our destiny.  Self-knowledge waits ahead of us … The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.”

What I take away from Jacob Bronowski above all is the sense that in advancing knowledge – our own and that of other people – we are somehow advancing all that is most valuable in civilization.  Even if we just understand ourselves a little bit better, this is progress that helps the whole world.  It is not a solitary or egotistical endeavour.  It is part of the ascent of humankind that we should feel proud of and proud to belong to, simply by being a human being.  If it is okay to feel proud of being British, or French, or American, or gay, or whatever other affinity we feel, surely it is even better to feel proud of being a human, and to live up to the better side of that strange destiny?


M Scott Peck – Further Along the Road Less Travelled

Another book I dip into often for inspiration is the follow-up to Peck’s more famous book, The Road Less Travelled.   That is a great book, but in my option Further Along … is even better (though a terrible title).  There are several reasons I love Peck as a self-help writer, not least because he is a quite clear that he is addicted to tobacco, and also fond of a drink or three – not the standard self-help profile.  But as a thinker and writer he is the most profound and original of the genre.  He avoids easy and glib answers.  For me he fuses together the best of humanism and Christianity.  I strongly recommend you read, mark and inwardly digest the book.   Meanwhile just a few of his observations I find instructive:

“While consciousness is the whole cause of pain, it is also the cause of our salvation, because salvation is the process of becoming increasingly conscious… Carl Jung ascribed evil to our refusal to meet our shadow, or that part of our personality that we like to deny, that we’re continually trying to sweep under the rug of consciousness and keep unconscious.  One of the better definitions for evil is that it is militant ignorance.  Militant unconsciousness.”

Immediately following this profound observation, Peck provokes his readers by saying “The Vietnam War is one of the best examples of militant ignorance on a grand scale.”  And he makes his case well.

“We need some comfort on our journey, but one of the things we don’t need is quick fixes.”

“The more pain you are willing to take on, the more joy you will also begin to feel.”

“Maybe ten percent of the time – when you are confronted by someone like Hitler – affirming [giving positive feedback] is precisely the worst thing you can do.”

“Death is not a taker-away but rather a giver of meaning … as you struggle with the mystery of your death, you will discover the meaning of your life … Thinking about death produces love for life.”

“The Jesus of the Gospels – the best kept secret of Christianity – did not have much peace of mind …”

As he read the Gospels, he says, “I discovered a man who was almost continually frustrated … frequently sad, and sometimes depressed …”    He also observers that Jesus’ sense of humor and his sexuality have been deliberately omitted.  Peck goes on to remark “I believe that Jesus was an androgynous figure; not without sex, but whole.”  I think he means that Jesus was bisexual, and that is certainly one plausible way to read the hints that have survived.

I could carry on all day with quotes, but don’t have time or space – if you like the sample above, read the book!


Three other terrific uppers

I will just mention three other constant sources of spiritual and intellectual stimulus.   The first is The Social Animal by David Brooks.  It’s written like a novel, and has genuine narrative force, but along the way it slips in an awful lot of scientific insight into what makes us happy and successful.  A real joy to read and re-read.

Then there is a book I bought when I was at college a million years ago.  It is an old Penguin copy and it’s falling apart – I see it cost four and sixpence, in old British money.  The cover has fallen off and the spine is almost illegible.  It’s by H. A. Williams and called The True Wilderness.  Essentially it’s a book of sermons he gave in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1960s.  If that doesn’t put you off, do read it – sermons, but not as we know them.  Full of strange insight and extraordinary honesty.  It will make you look at Christianity in a totally new light.

Finally, a mention for one of the best business books ever, also a book with a dreadful title – Managing in a Time of Great Change by Peter Drucker.  It’s really a series of 25 essays, plus two interviews with Drucker.  My favourite chapter is the one on “A century of social transformations”.   Drucker was always more interested in the impact of business on society than in making money – though I’ve found him helpful on the latter too.  What leaps off the page is an original and penetrating intellect – and a truly decent human being.

I hope you enjoy at least one of these books.  Next week I expect I’ll write a piece about Guilt, where I have changed my views somewhat since my injunction in The 80/20 Principle to give up guilt.  The problem with guilt is that the guilty have none and the guilt-ridden have too much.   But perhaps a bit of guilt is not wholly bad.   All will be revealed next week.

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