Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Astonishing Diversity

Not just the Christian Science Monitor, which has long specialized in looking at the entire globe, but these days also in the pages of the New York Times and in images on television news shows (we rather like the new World Focus) we see many images of Asian and African cultures. On World Focus our presenter is usually Daljit Dhaliwal, herself of Asian roots; we got to know her back in the days of BBC’s often hapless world news on PBS. By way of an aside, we knew Daljit by name before she had a chance to introduce herself—because Brigitte likes fascinating sounds, and Daljit Dhaliwal had been one of those. Just for fun, sometimes, Brigitte will remind me of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, prime minister of Sri Lanka in the 1990s. And Brigitte is one of those who’d never dream of speaking of E. coli. No! She will produce the full Escherichia coli name at the drop of a hat and glory in each and every one of its rich, almost mouth-watering seven syllables. End of aside.

In any case, what with Africa in what appears to be a centuries-long turmoil of transition to the regions of Modernity, a process that unfortunately for humans always involves unutterable horrors of bloodshed, oppression, disease, and mayhem—plus our current culture-clash with Islam and our tense confrontation of Asia as an emerging economic behemoth—it is very easy to become aware of human diversity. The fifties and sixties were quite different. The signs of cultural mixing we sometime encountered back then took the form of ordinary white suburban youngsters dressed in odd robes approaching us in airports with “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.”

After the news I went upstairs to do some reading, presently A History of Private Life, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Paul Veyne, ed., 1987)—a book that merely reinforces what surrounds me in the news if not in the flesh, namely that it’s always been so. The book documents a transition between what its French authors are pleased to call pagan antiquity to early Christian times. Greek, Roman, and the Israeli experiences are included. The authors deal with multiple layers of society that, in those times, often lived very different lives. The focus is on private life and hence illustrates diversity down even at the level we call real life, thus life lived at the personal level. Astonishing.

I woke up with that phrase this morning: Astonishing Diversity. I do believe that we go right on thinking after the body slumbers off—or rather, it seems to me that we detach, depart for celestial regions and then, in the morning, resuming our bodies, we kind of check in to see what the status at departure was—and there, in our brains, the traces of the last thoughts still glimmer, the fire not quite extinguished, and so we wake up as we fell asleep.

Unbelievable diversity—but at the core a single nature. This because we are quite able to put ourselves into the shoes of the most arcane past and present modes of thought and feeling with a little effort and imagination. Something stirred in me, and then I remembered that Mortimer Adler had somewhere addressed this very subject. Adler was the editor of the Great Books of the Western World, an enterprise begun jointly with Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. Adler has been, still is, treated with disdain by some of academia’s aristocracy—perhaps because, as a popularizer, he gained wide recognition. Too bad. In my humble opinion Adler did more for real culture than most of that elite has done as a body.

Anyway, despite the ordered disorder of my so-called library, I soon had the volume in hand: Ten Philosophical Mistakes. In one of those essays, “Human Nature,” Adler defends the unity of human nature against its outright denial. This denial Adler assigns to existentialism, quoting Merleau-Ponty as saying that “it is the nature of man not to have a nature.” Adler’s defense may be stated this way: That which humans have in common, and that which makes the radical difference, is that all humans have the same potentialities—but these potentialities, while given to every human, may be—and are—developed in astonishing varieties. All other species are narrowly and genetically determined and therefore are essentially unchanging, but humans have a single potential which flowers in amazing ways. This supports Adler’s other characterization of the human condition, namely that humans are different from other creatures in kind, not merely in degree—a subject on which he produced a book-long exposition titled, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes.
Books mentioned at Amazon:

A History of Private Life, Volume I, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium
Ten Philosophical Mistakes
The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes


  1. I don't have anything useful to add here, but I did want to take the opportunity to note that this is the first time that I've seen the phrase "mouth watering" used to describe "Escherichia coli."

  2. Only the rarest of avid readers of daily columns is lucky enough to have the author read her all his columns over coffee in bed. My joy was particularly keen today as Arsen described succinctly my own certainty that "unity in diversity = US!" One could only wish that more of us would feel this conviction and act upon it more often.
    I'd like to add to the author's aside two more of my favorites multisyllabics: Drosophila Melanogaster and Mangasutu Butelezi...

  3. To astonishing diversity!
    All I can add to this is Scrimshqui Pimski.

  4. You have an amazing memory, my dear.


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