Home / Culture and Society / Quantum of Solace: The Making of Modern Consciousness, Part I

Quantum of Solace: The Making of Modern Consciousness, Part I

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No reasonable person would dispute that a just state or its laws must rest on moral foundations. Never mind the circularity of the claim (since the term “just” is already a moral term and therefore highly suggestive of the argued-for connection). What is of greater interest is the derivative character of our laws from morals, complicated as it is by the element of historicity. The recent controversy surrounding the release of the torture memos is a case in point.

“Let it rest,” is everyone’s advice, especially since the laws as to what constitutes torture are in the process of being revised. If “enhanced interrogation techniques” (such as waterboarding, for instance) were considered benign under Bush’s regressive policies and his interpretation of the law and therefore “not torture,” that will surely change under Obama. Until, that is, we’ll have another occupant in the White House, and then another, at which time things will get back to “normal,” or they will not, depending of course on the whim of the president’s legal advisers and the president himself.

And so the argument goes, making it seem thus that the whole thing turned on definitions, and that definitions could always be defined and re-defined almost at will. What was once considered enlightened may revert some day to being thought of as shallow and stupid. The wisdom of the ages may yield to another perception that it was a folly. Nothing is fixed and nothing should remain so, because we humans have the power over definitions. It is so because we say it is so. True masters of the world in every sense of the word, because it’s a world of our own making! Gods should be envious.

I beg to differ. Our powers are greatly exaggerated and yes, we do operate under constraints – moral constraints, first and foremost. The history of humanity supports this contention. I’m yet to be swayed by the notion of historical progress, but progress it has been – a painstaking one and snail-paced, to be sure, but progress nonetheless.

The Other Boleyn Girl comes to mind. It’s a heckuva movie if you’re keen on comparing our present with our historical past. The past in this instance is the tail end of the Tudor era, the reign of Henry VIII; and the treatment of women, not just those of peasant stock but of noblewomen also, defies imagination. From childhood, they were groomed as assets — to advance the family’s interests and ambitions. The girls had no say in the matter but to do their family’s bidding, none whatever.

Such is the story of Ann Boleyn and “the other Boleyn girl,” Mary, Ann’s younger sister. The first ended up with her head chopped off, the second in exile – thanks to their loving family, which introduced both girls to Henry’s court for his sole use and pleasure, to serve as concubines once it became apparent that Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s lawful wife, was about to fall into disfavor.

Where am I going with this?

First, let’s just say that we’ll never go back to “the good old days” when women were so mistreated. Our history is replete with pendulum swings, with significant shifts forward only to experience a reversal — two steps forward, then one step back. But it is also true that the voice of reaction will take you back only so far, and no further. Parts of our past are irretrievable.

Why? Simply because the gains we’ve made have trickled down to the popular consciousness, precluding any possibility of radical backsliding. This is true of any area of human relations where gross injustices were once prevalent throughout our inglorious past only to be rectified, in light of heightened consciousness, in times since, including the present, . We simply can’t turn our blind eye anymore on practices we now regard as abhorrent : slavery, exploitation of women, discrimination against gays, African-Americans and the handicapped, unfair labor practices and sexual discrimination in the workplace, glass ceilings and all such; any practice, in fact, which only a while ago was considered the norm, but which now seems to violate our common sensibilities and consciousness  Too much time has elapsed ever to revert to our old barbaric selves and the barbaric views which were part and parcel of them. Once we acquire a third eye, it’s impossible to shed it. If that is not an argument for progress, I don’t know what is.

Which brings me to another, more perturbing,  because it seems to fly in the face of ordinary understanding, question: Why did it take us so long? Must we traverse two thousand years of darkness and oblivion to realize finally that certain rules of conduct, especially in such matters as justice and equality under the law, are not privileges to be accorded to the few but, by their very nature, ought to apply to all humans regardless of gender, skin color, or ethnic background?

It’s not exactly that the nobles in Henry’s court were unaware of the moral issues involved in the treatment of their own children, for one could well argue that the ideals as to what constitutes proper moral conduct were no different or less accessible then that they are today. The same can certainly be said for the Christian values of love, empathy and charity, and yet, very few indeed, if any, appeared to pay heed to these eternal precepts or consider their conduct deplorable. Not until William Shakespeare are we exposed to a different view of women, on par with the best in men when it comes to such qualities as native intelligence, ability and wit; a sad commentary indeed on the extent to which cultural prejudices and biases of the day affect the common sensibility, so much so that only the brightest lights seem capable of rising above them; and when they do, they shine like a beacon of light. Even Aristotle was blind to the many evils and prejudices of his day, such as slavery or exploitation; Euripides may have been the only exception.

Hence my argument on behalf of historical progress: it has less to do with the discovery (or rediscovery) of our moral compass by the select few and more with the general expansion of consciousness, of having the light shine on all of us, or with the enlightenment, if you will, spreading to include the many.

Dostoyevsky spoke of “the collective guilt” we all share as part of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters. Well, perhaps there is such a thing as “collective consciousness” as well – a consciousness which is shared in common by the society at large, or at least by increasingly larger and larger segments of the society.  This, perhaps, is the most beneficial and lasting effect of humanity’s advance, “the pilgrim’s progress” when applied to a collective: a heightened consciousness in Everyman, for only in that can there be adequate assurance that we shall never again revisit our ugly past. And that consciousness, it seems, must attain sufficient critical mass if it’s to ensure against radical reversals.

I believe we’ve reached such a point in the history of humankind – comparable perhaps to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press which made the word of God available to the many, and barring unforeseeable circumstances, it’s only going to get better.

This brings us full circle to the key idea: the derivative status of all laws from morals. It should be clear by now that even in the best case scenario, our laws are but a poor replica of heightened morality.  Understandably so, because you can’t expect each and every member of a civil society to live up to the highest standards of thought and deed. There are bound to be individual differences, and the nation’s laws must reflect this basic fact; accommodating to the extent possible the element of diversity. In short, they must ensure a relatively peaceful coexistence and resolution of conflict, for the good of the whole, which isn’t to say that significant advances won’t be made because of heightened consciousness. They will, as they already have, and our laws will come to reflect more and more the aspirations of humankind. The injustices of the past will be righted, never to be revisited again. But don’t expect a miracle. It is not going to happen overnight. Meanwhile, take solace in the fact that humanity is on the march. Only a better and brighter future awaits us.

How does this relate to the recent release of the torture memos and the resulting controversy?

I’d like to take a larger view and say that years from now, we shall put it all behind us as an ugly episode in American history because that’s all it will be. The laws will change, and so will our practices, and we shall never again suffer a national disgrace.

I’ll discuss our prospects in a forthcoming article.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Irene Wagner

    Humanity is on the march? It’s looking more like a post-KO stagger at the moment.

    Humanity has been on the march before, and on the stagger, and will be on the march again, and on the stagger…It’s a cycle, and that should keep us hopeful, but humbly hopeful.

    The seeds for a harmonious world are all there liberally sprinkled throughout the the world’s most ancient writings: “Treat people the way you’d want to be treated.” Compassion and the quest for truth and fairness have been with man since his earliest days (arguably) or at least for a very long time. And so has a lot of other nonsense.

  • Right, Irene. But what’s unique about modernity is that these “insights” are no longer just the special preserve of the few – the brightest lights of the day – but have more or less become part of parcel of everyday, mass consciousness.

    That’s, in essence, the crux of my argument. So I’m hoping here for a kind of momentum and reaching “the critical mass,” so that we’ll never again revert to our ugly past.

  • Irene Wagner

    Unfortunately, Roger, Guttenberg’s invention doesn’t just allow GOOD ideas to be more widely disseminated. I’m not even sure what a cross section of “everyday mass consciousness” looks like. If its the BC Politics section, then its a schizophrenic consciousness indeed!

  • I try to address the question in the sequel. No, I wouldn’t think that BC offers much hope for the future. We’re far too impressed with ourselves to do much good.

    But the Gutenberg invention did pave the way to Reformation, Pauline theology, individual reading of the Scriptures, and it did break the stronghold of the Catholic church.

  • Irene Wagner

    I appreciate the optimistic tone of your article, Roger. There’s inspiration to be found looking BACK in time, too, that’s all. A humble, gentle way of seeing oneself in relation to the rest of creation isn’t something that has to be invented or evolved into. It’s always been there for anyone, scholars and the simple peasant to give himself over to. Frequent reminders have been necessary, however, hence the prevalence of the theme in literature and philosophy. The idea that “I am god–anything I do to make myself wealthy and powerful is justifiable” is an attractive alternative that needs to be countered again and again.

    The sunniest days in history are the days when kings have not left the Golden Rule to stay buried in their well-appointed libraries, but have gotten it into their hearts. I hope there are days like that ahead on the near horizon, too. Meanwhile, the Golden Rule can still have tremendous power.

  • We’re past the Golden Age, Irene; but then again, the Golden Age was never so golden to the masses.

    I do believe we’ve made tremendous strides in the past fifty years in terms of eradicating some of the most glaring injustices which afflicted much of our society; and I’d like to believe these gains are irreversible.

    I realize this optimism may not be well-grounded, especially with those who subscribe to the final, eschatological solution. Personally, I myself have serious reservations concerning the extent to which we can ever achieve “a perfect society.”

    So this is more in the nature of exhortation, to hold on to our gains.

    As I said, I examine the prospects in the sequel. A sense of idealism, a rather novel element in the history of human movements, seems to be the key – the trademark of the New Left born out of Vietnam protest.

    Whether it will sustain itself to build up sufficient momentum and critical mass in light of the impending crisis – that’s another question. I certainly hope so.

  • Irene Wagner

    OK then, ROger, you know that as a Christian I’d have to admit there was a bit of a quantum leap in terms of the potential for human morality when Jesus Christ showed up on the scene. The reach of the Golden Rule was even to extend to ones enemies, according to Jesus. Not torturing them would appear to be a good start, yes.

  • Mr. Dock Ellis

    “We shall never again suffer a national disgrace”
    Sounds like a line out of “Confederacy of Dunces”

    I guess this works as satire.

    As for Guttenberg, the printing press was initially used mostly for medieval porn.

    Better luck with the next one.

  • Right. But Christianity became dormant within a hundred or so years since Christ’s death, known only to the initiates, more of a cult than anything else. Even with Constantine who made it the official religion, things haven’t changed much. The word of God wasn’t really accessible to the masses, except through interpretations of monks and then the institution of the Church. Reformation was the turning point, because it made it possible for every individual to digest the word of God according to their own best light.

    Well, I view the explosion in mass communications and the media in pretty much the same way. And I don’t really believe that the human rights which have been won in the past fifty years or so would have been won in the absence of that explosion.

  • Judging by some of your pieces, Mr. Ellis, you should be the least qualified to speak, especially as regards the reference to “the dunces.”

    Apparently, there’s something that perturbs you about this piece to evoke your kind response. Is it perhaps that you disagree with some of the correctives which have become part and parcel of American consciousness? Should women or the blacks still be treated as chattel and denied their right to vote?

    It would help if you were to express the exact nature of your discontent rather than dealing with vague generalities. Then perhaps we could have a semblance of a reasoned discussion.

    So the ball is in your court, Mr. Ellis. I’m game if you are.

  • I suppose Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Mr. Ellis, is pornography to you.

    Just keep on talking, because every word that comes out of your mouth paints a picture that’s louder than a thousand words.

  • Baronius

    The Reformation was characterized by dozens of German princes shifting loyalties and forcing their subjects to change religious practices in an effort to procure church property. Roger, it was nothing like the triumph of learning that you’re describing.

  • Irene Wagner

    Baronius, I can’t say that I’m sorry the Reformation happened. I wonder what would have happened, though, if the papacy had been bestowed on someone like Erasmus. Reformation might have been a little more John Seventeenish.

  • Baronius

    Irene, I wouldn’t expect you to concede the whole shebang. It’s just that Roger’s analysis seems to require a prior example of unambiguous goodness flowing from an increase in human knowledge, and I don’t think the Reformation is a good example.

  • Irene Wagner

    I see, Baronius. There may be more common ground if we focus less on “Reformation” and more on “Guttenberg.” Aren’t most Bible-reading Catholics today happy to be able to read Jesus’ words for themselves, in their own language? “…Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”

    As far as the human knowledge-driven unambigous flow of goodness goes, I’m not sure I understand how Roger is drawing a parallel between the invention of the printing press and what is “going down” today–that may be in the sequel.
    In 2009, who are those waiting in darkness to see a great light? The Wahabis? The fundamentalist anythings? The New atheists?

  • Baronius

    Pre-Gutenberg, if you could read, you could read Latin. If you were like most people and couldn’t read, you needed someone to tell you what the Bible said anyway. Considering my level of comprehension in Latin, I’m glad the Bible’s available in English.

  • Well, let’s just say Martin Luther. But there surely was some goodness derived from humanism, Erasmus being one example.

    Do we really want to argue that there is no light unless it proceeds from the Scriptures? And in a larger sense, doesn’t that light emanate from one and the same source?

    My take on Gutenberg is that it’s the first in a series of technological revolutions which led to explosion and dissemination of knowledge. The Age of Enlightenment and the works of the philosophes is another notable example. The explosion in mass communications and the media is the trademark of modernity.

  • Doug Hunter

    You’re making the common mistake of removing social progress from the context of material and technological progress. Don’t be confused and think the former leads to the latter, it’s quite the reverse. Sure it’s great to provide a child a meal or an education but when your family was starving or dying of the plague it took a backseat. Women were treated like financial liabilities because under those circumstances they were. I’m not denying there has been progress, it’s just not that people have suddenly become enlightened it’s the world is just an easier place to live in and get along these days.

    I hope none of us or our children ever get to see what would happen if humanity returned to basic survival mode. I bet you’d be surprised how quickly social progress would regress.

  • Irene Wagner

    I know what you mean, Baronius, but if I had to make the tough choice of having the Bible available to me in only one of two ways: having it read to me in English or having my own copy in Latin to study…I’d be learning Latin p.d.velociter.

    It’s a moot point though. William Tyndale had a

  • Irene Wagner

    William Tyndale had a “plow-boy-appropriate” English version ready and waiting for Gutenberg.
    Ah CHOO.

  • Irene Wagner

    But neither I nor Baronius were arguing that only scripture had light to give, Roger.

    Doug Hunter, do you think there are places in the world today where people are in every-man-for-himself-survival-mode?
    Would it be Darfur if it were any place at all? It seems if anyone should have a “right” to let go of the idea of social progress it would be the survivors of those horrors, and instead, many of them seem strangely “refined.” OK I’ve said enough, will shut up now.

  • Doug,

    I’m not minimizing the importance of social progress, Doug, and my account of the rise of modern consciousness wasn’t meant to be exhaustive. The point of the article, rather, was simply to acknowledge the fact. And mass communications and media are modern phenomena which make it possible for the whole masses of people to become exposed to ideas and realm of thought that transcends their immediate local, their immediate and parochial interest. The explosion of knowledge on a mass scale is a parallel development.

    In any case, the kind of sensibilities and awareness that in the past may have been shared by the most advanced/enlightened members of society have become more or less commonplace. And regardless of the multitude of causes that brought this about, this is a typically modern phenomenon.

    My arguments, more than anything else, concerns the significance of it. (So you have misinterpreted this article when you thought I was providing a full account or tracing the causal or whatever relationships you’re alluding to. It would be impossible, IMO, in the format provided, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking).

    As to the possibility of regression, yes – it’s a very real thing and I do address it in the sequel. Civilization is a very thin veneer, I agree.

  • Irene #21,

    I’m aware you haven’t. But the most immediate and probably the most enduring effect of the “Gutenberg Galaxy” (look up Marshal McLuhan) was printing of Bible – still number one (I think) on the bestsellers list.

  • Doug Hunter

    First of all, I disagree that there are any meaningful ‘correct’ morals. Those are just fluid concepts designed to best fit humans into the situation they find themselves. Technology has made life relatively easy and our morals have shifted during that time to reflect the new reality.

    If your question is social ‘progress’ I’d suggest technological progress is the answer you are looking for. (your article did mention the printing press, etc.)

    One day perhaps great automated machines can make make everything for us and achieve consciousness. They will scoff at us 21st century folk for our wage slavery and our brutality to machines (they are people to). Also, we put criminals in cages when all you needed to do was implant a microchip that would preempt any further criminal activity… how barbaric! Those are all great morals but they don’t make sense and wouldn’t work at our current technological level.

    I know you alluded to these concepts in your story, I’m just providing the context I think best fits: which is technological progress is the cause and leads to moral progress, not some magical evolution in our species or ‘enlightenment’.

  • Doug,

    You do raise some very interesting points. But consider – the very fact that even you consider our present practices as “barbaric” is already an indication of some concept/s you have which are more “humane” or equitable or whatever. Even when you judge the present administration or criticize it, you do so in terms of some ideas of right and wrong, in the context of (your view of) what are the proper rights, personal responsibility, and so on – and this is a moral context. When you form an opinion on certain Supreme Court decisions or other legislation, you don’t judge any such strictly in terms of their efficiency or anticipated effects, or only in terms of the Constitution, but also in terms whether they’re just. The whole idea of a state is predicated on some conception(s) of justice; and if the state fails to measure up, the citizens have a right to overthrow it. The gap you’re talking about has to do with implementation: we may not yet have the technology, e.g., to treat the prisoners more humanely, but we already have a number of ideas as to what a more humane treatment would be like.

    Your balking at “correct” morals could be further dissolved if you were to focus on the gap between “actuality” and “potentiality.” The ideals are there; it’s just that we haven’t got there yet. The entire criminal law, imperfect as it is, is based on what we think is right or wrong, and at any point reflects our best understanding at the time: it’s not just a matter of social convention.

    The same with consciousness. It’s necessarily incomplete and therefore imperfect. So my argument in effect is not that we have discovered or rediscovered what some people in the past had known all along – only that technological developments in mass communications and the media made that knowledge and understanding available to all (if only because of increased literacy).

    And it is this fact, I suggest, which is a rather novel development. We’ve never been in that situation before.

    One final example. Same with public opinion. A couple of centuries ago, there was hardly any such thing. Today, public opinion shapes the policy. And the notion of public opinion (serving as it does in today’s world) is co-extensive in my thinking to the great strides we’ve made in the area of “mass consciousness.”

  • Progress, Roger? If I could afford a new computer, I’d spit my coffee at the screen!

    Humans are still the same brutes and savages they were 3,300 years ago when Moses shlepped two stones down from the top of the Mountain of G-d – only to see his flock worshiping a golden calf, and chasing each other to see who they could sacrifice to the golden calf first!

    You haven’t learned anything moral in the last 3,300 years. You live longer, so you can fuck more and be less faithful to your spouses, rape more, murder more, cheat each other more, sell each other into slavery more, exploit each other more. And I forgot, you can commit more genocide, and threaten each more with genocide.

    There is no solace in that.

    What a pack of shit!

  • I suppose in the biblical times, Ruvy, there were gentler and kinder nations. The biblical record of your own people and the Canaanites is a sure testimony to the gentility and peace which were prevalent back then.

  • Ruvy


    When we consider that outside of Israel, there are some 60 odd pretty damned murderous conflicts going on in the world (but they ain’t white folks, so they don’t really rate coverage, right?), some of which are genocidal now, my points hold water, and your four pages of blather don’t. Neither does your whining about the Book of Joshua….

    Look at the real world, Roger. Teh one where people live longer, and so rape, murder, steal and exploit more. Read Jordan’s article on the murders going on in Sri Lanka. He took the suggestion I made to Dave Nalle seriously.

  • And now it is time for this editor to go make his money. So, ta ta for now.

  • I wasn’t whining, Ruvy, just pointed out how utterly saintly all of yous were.

    Later then.

  • Doug Hunter

    “is already an indication of some concept/s you have which are more “humane” or equitable or whatever.”

    It’s easy to imagine where morals might head, basically it’s a projection of our individual selfish wants and desires driven primarily by fear filtered through the concept of empathy (just in case ‘them’ is ever ‘us’). The last part, empathy, is not a trivial matter and is the part that seems most vulnerable to regression and probably the most effected by improvements in media, etc.

  • Correct. “Empathy” is most susceptible to regress. That’s why I argue in this and following articles that “high moral stance” is contingent on a general level of prosperity. I believe I make this point in part II (already published), and more strongly in Part III soon to come.

    Although technically speaking, Doug, I would make a distinction between moral and religious values. When it comes to such things as “love,” “empathy,” or ‘charity,” you can’t really command them. It’s different with “moral values,” however. We do have certain standards and we expect that most everyone abide by them. We know, for example, that “fraud” is wrong; likewise with “cheating” and things like that.

  • Doug,

    Part III just made it. Why don’t you give it a quick look to see where I’m going with this?

  • Doug Hunter

    Think I’ll detour through part II first but will get to it.

  • I disagree with the central point for several reasons – trends, oppression, poverty, and conflict – which each create collective amnesia either by themselves or in combination.

    Many populations, some very large, have become “enlightened” going back to very ancient history. Just because we are the latest and the largest doesn’t mean we’re too numerous or modernized to have whatever moral gains we make erased over time.

    Anything can be collectively forgotten within a generation. It can because it has been, over and over and over again. Enlightenment takes constant work – preserving, seeding, and growing within the ever changing population.. and it is FAR from being impervious to the forces which cause collective amnesia.

  • Zedd

    The last page of your article did not display.

    I have to process what I’ve read a bit. I’ll get back with you. Back to work….

  • Zedd


    Please explain what you feel we are progressing towards. Then I’ll know where to go with our discussion.

  • Universal values becoming part of mass-consciousness – universal justice, freedom, equality and human rights.
    We’ll talk later.

  • Hoby Van Hoose:

    Great point, always to bear in mind the human capacity towards oblivion.
    I’d hope, however, that the main features of modernity – with its emphasis on mass communications – would serve as a sufficient deterrent against great reversals. The kinds of human rights we’ve been able to secure on behalf of women, blacks and other minorities do appear irreversible unless subject to radical social upheavals.

    I don’t know whether here or in the next section I speak of the Gutenberg analogy. Once the printing press was invented, the word of God became available, eventually to the masses. And in spite of religious prosecutions, the Bible isn’t going away. It’s become part and parcel of mass consciousness. Consequently, I believe something of that nature is at work here.

  • Zedd,

    Thanks for your patience But try at least to catch the next two segments (Part II and III) which develop the topic fully.

  • Zedd,

    Apparently, there is a temporary glitch with “the writer page” on BC, which is why you can’t access Part II and III. But you can do so by clicking on my URL, and those two articles are posted there as well.