Some material for this post has been borrowed from:
1. ‘The Western Intellectual Tradition’ by J. Bronowski & Bruce Mazlish
2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
These have been enclosed in quotes
The tremendous economical and social progress that mankind has achieved throughout the world since the Renaissance is too well known. In the medieval times the world was a stark place. Pestilence and disease would decimate large sections of the population. Slavery was widespread and men would subjugate fellow men. Suspected witches would be burnt at the stake. Superstitions were rife and humans were mercilessly subjugated by nature. There were many tragedies like the Spanish Inquisition and incarceration of heretics. A significant change was brought about by the Renaissance.
“Renaissance witnessed the emergence of individualism. Art blossomed and numerous painters like Alberti, Verrocchio, his student Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michaelangelo Buanarroti have all created works that are characterized by a kind of impatience and self-assertion. There was a transition from classical to a popular culture, from an idealistic to an empirical Renaissance; from a worship of past humanism to a fierce belief in the human present. The Medici of Florence had given up the medieval ideal of an unapproachable godhead, but man and nature were still remote ideals to them. The self-made men of the new Renaissance wanted to grasp Man and nature through the senses, physically, in handfuls. The men of the Renaissance were interested in what was new. They were not willing to look back: their look was outward and forward into nature. They looked at her with two passions: a passion for the exact, which turned many men towards mathematics, and a passion for the actual, which urged them to experiment. These two strands, the logical and experimental, characterized the entire nature of artistic and scientific activity and have remained the two sinews of scientific method ever since. Thus there was a concomitant rise of empirical science and the close attention mankind paid to nature. Thanks to the Renaissance ‘The fitness of the individual, his worth and capacity, were of more weight than all the laws and usages that prevailed..’” (Bronowski & Mazlish)
The importance of what I have mentioned till now cannot be underestimated. Renaissance saw the sudden flowering of both art and science. This was no accident and the fact that both progressed together only underscores the importance and the intense need of both the spheres of human intellectual activity. Leonardo da Vinci’s works, especially his anatomical drawings with the hollows and blood vessels in the head are reputed to be so exact that even today it is striking to compare them point by point with X-ray photographs and with photographs taken with radioactive tracers. His notes reveal that he performed autopsies on corpses, a practice forbidden by the Church during his time. His artistic explorations were entirely scientific. His scientific personality helped him seek the unity under the chaos of natural phenomena but his artistic sensibility made him leap to the concrete and the particular. He made the artist’s eye for meaningful detail become a part of the essential equipment of the scientist. Observation of nature and nature’s laws revolutionized science. New realizations have dawned upon the Human Consciousness from time to time. The world was discovered to be round rather than flat, the earth was found to go round the sun, gravity force was recognized and a theory of electromagnetism to explain various phenomena like light, magnetism and electricity was formulated. Space and time were unified. Time was not a universal standard but was found to be relative depending on the frame of reference. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Shrodinger Wave Equation and quantum mechanics gave a new description of reality recognizing that perhaps an observer influences and changes the nature of reality! It was also discovered that LIFE as we know it had not existed throughout. Fossils were discovered. It was found that life had evolved and Man is a very recent appearance on the face of the earth. Scientific investigations also established that Earth, far from being the centre of the universe, is just one of the planets revolving around the Sun which is just an average star among the millions located in a remote corner of one of the spiral arms of a galaxy called the Milky Way which is just one of the millions of galaxies in the universe Science has transformed Man, the society and his beliefs.
Such a transformation was not always easy. The Church hindered the progress and dissemination of scientific ideas. Galileo’s case is not the only instance. The works of many philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Descartes were banned by the Church. It was not only Christianity but other religions too victimized heretical thinkers. Baruch Spinoza, a Jew, was excommunicated in 1656 for being a religious and political liberal. Even in the 20th C philosophers like Bertrand Russell were victimized for their views. And the case of Salman Rushdie who was condemned to death by certain Muslim clerics is still fresh in our memories.
It will be interesting to recount the impact of science on the social fabric of our own country. You just have to read accounts by various travelers to the 18th and 19th C India to realize what a bleak place it was. Young widows were burnt on their dead husband’s pyre. Child marriages, child sacrifices and untouchability were the bane of India. Infant mortality was high and the absence of hygiene and sanitary practices in our country’s towns and villages made diseases like typhoid, cholera, plague and hepatitis rampant. Superstition and blind beliefs led to much human suffering which could be prevented. Over a period of time, with advances in science and technology, there has been a vast change and things are still changing. The average life-expectancy has risen. Improved methods of agriculture have seen to increase agricultural production many fold. The fabric of the society is more equitable, though much remains to be done. The practice of untouchability is punishable. Women, who were earlier being consigned to the four walls of the kitchen have now become a strong work-force and are actively contributing to the economy.
While strongly acknowledging these changes that science has wrought, I would like to speak a word of caution. In trying to understand the world around them, humans employ two main methods. These can be broadly classified as Classical understanding and Romantic understanding.
“CLASSICAL understanding sees the world primarily as underlying FORM. ROMANTIC understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate APPEARANCE.” (Robert Pirsig) Science largely issues from the former and art from the latter. While both forms of understanding are essential for human progress, the overwhelming dominance of Classical understanding over Romantic understanding is a cause for some worry and introspection and such an unequal development may even be an impediment to Human progress.
The Romantic saw a universal intelligence which created the sparkling Sun. It created the Moon, the call of the mother, the reeds in the lake, the daisies and the white dove. The Classicist busied himself gaining knowledge. He reduced a fragrant flowering tree to Michaelia champaka. A leaf is not just green. It is green because of chlorophyll. To the Romantic the moon was perhaps made of cheese. Now we know it is made of basalts.
“Is there a man on the moon?” the children would ask in wonderment. Now they know Neil Armstrong was there. The magic of touch-me-nots, which close themselves in salutation to a man’s touch, for he is the only animal who has the consciousness to marvel at it, now shuts itself because water is expelled from one crucial part of the flower to another. The magic has been removed from creation and creation has lost its value. As Georg Lucacs says “Man has been rendered TRANSCENDENTALLY HOMELESS”.
“The Classical mode which generates science, by itself, is dull, awkward, ugly. Nothing is figured out until it is run through a computer a dozen times. Everything is in terms of pieces and parts and components and relationships. Everything has to be measured and proved. Everything is oppressive, heavy, dull and endlessly grey. The Romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative and intuitive. It provides value for the Human circumstance. It generates art. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feelings, intuition and aesthetic conscience!” (Robert Pirsig)
Is Newton more beneficial to humanity or is Shakespeare? The answer is both are equals. Both the Classicist and the Romantic are needed for the advancement of the human spirit. The Classicist is needed for the advancement of science and reason and progress, “while the Romantic is needed to give value to the Classicist discoveries. Without the former there would be no understanding and without the latter there would be no meaning.” (ibid.) Science and Arts are both important for human progress.
The overwhelming importance that man is giving to science may be causing this world to be a very bleak place for him. It has engendered man to think of his predicament as is widely reflected in modern (20th C) art and literature. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ could very well be the world of the near future. Franz Kafka’s works amply emphasize the fears and trepidations that a modern man faces in a contemporary world. The concepts of the ‘Absurd’, ‘Alienation’ and ‘Outsider’ dealt with by many modern European novelists talk of the tragedy of the human situation. The dichotomy between ‘LIFE’ and ‘MEANING’ has crept in. Many say that Science and Technology cause it! We pay for knowledge with alienation.
My call this day is that we should re-establish man’s home in the knowledge of the external world he has. Intuitive modes of interpreting the world should also be given its due importance as they may offer guidelines to govern human conduct and behaviour. Religious systems derived from mystical experiences have to be tempered and modulated with the knowledge derived from science and a firm basis for an ethical and moral world should be established, in which we, our children, and their children can live without fear.