October 24, 2008
Time to build a new civilization
In the midst of the current global crisis, I am reminded of the words of Plato of ancient Greece to the effect that, to better the world, kings should become philosophers; otherwise the unhappiness of humanity will not disappear. Due to the lack of philosophy the world has lost its ideals.
“The maximum happiness for the greatest number of people,” which should be the essential objective of democracy, has been forgotten. Today’s materialism is based on greed, which is now threatening the future of mankind and the globe. The current financial meltdown is one clear example. The deterioration of the environment is another.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The earth can provide for every one’s need, but not for every one’s greed.” This may explain the problems encountered by globalization.
So-called GDP economics ignores all the important values that cannot be quantified and converted into monetary values, such as culture, tradition, family and social justice. And it makes a major mistake in regarding natural resources as “income” and not as “capital,” which requires preservation. Because of this mistake, economic growth is seriously damaging the environment.
The prevailing supremacy of the economy has eroded the ethics of the present generation, which out of self-interest is building prosperity at the expense of future generations, abusing natural resources. This lack of ethical values is rampant on a global scale. Combined with the absence of a sense of responsibility and justice, this is cause for apprehension about the future of mankind and the globe.
Based on this understanding, it is time to consider how to create a new civilization, based on ethics and solidarity, respectful of the environment and the interests of future generations. This new civilization must shift from the present material-centered one to a spiritual-centered one. As the late French author and statesman André Malraux said, “The 21st century will be cultural and spiritual, otherwise it will cease to be.”
Here we are reminded of the importance of “contentment.” This concept was introduced by Eastern spiritual teachers Buddha and Lao Tzu, but this line of thinking was also advocated in the West by the stoics of ancient Greece, by the Italian artist Michelangelo and by British economist E. F. Schumacher, author of “Small is Beautiful.” It thus has universal appeal.
Contentment allows us to maximize happiness by reducing desires, as opposed to the maximization of consumption now being pursued.
This is in line with the teaching advocated by Buddhists that happiness equals wealth divided by desire. In this numerical formula, desire is a denominator and wealth a nominator.
How should we proceed toward creating a new civilization that requires three transitions: from materialism to spiritualism, from greed to contentment, and from selfishness to solidarity?
We are confronted by three important tasks: establishing global ethics, forming true leaders, and counterbalancing the supremacy of the economy with culture.
Concerning global ethics, the widely shared belief in the existence of a supernatural being, or a sense of providence, could be the common ground for those who hold religious beliefs and those who do not. The common ethical standards of major religions and the conscience of civil society could be integrated to constitute a valid basis for the establishment of global ethics.
In this context, it is worth mentioning that the InterAction Council, consisting of former presidents and prime ministers and created by the late Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, has proposed a “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities.”
As to the formation of true leaders, capable of serving as a “global brain” to lead the new civilization, the importance of compassion and sensibility should be stressed. The words of Charlie Chaplin in his famous 1940 film, “The Great Dictator,” are impressive: “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.”
True leaders must be accountable for the future of humankind and the planet Earth. It is essential to nurture in all sectors of society such leaders who are equipped not only with intellect but also with sensibility. Civil society has consequently a greater role to play. It is imperative to foster leaders with vision and ideals, in all sectors.
Lastly, let me touch upon the issue of counterbalancing the economy with culture. The concept of economic supremacy has brought about “human exclusion,” observable, for example, in “restructuring” in workplaces. The excessive pursuit of efficiency undermines and ignores human dignity.
The co-existence of diverse cultures and civilizations as well as various religions has become a problem of great challenge for the world. Cultural exchanges could be the key to resolving apparent conflicts. Human happiness cannot be considered without culture. Culture enhances basic ethical values. Cultural exchanges can contribute to creating solidarity. Amidst the prevailing tendency to exclude humanity, the counterattack of culture to restore humanity is badly needed.
In this process, there is an important point to bear in mind. It concerns the striking difference between paternal culture and maternal culture. The former values competition and strength, whereas the latter attaches importance to harmony and compassion for the weak.
In the world of today, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, and paternal culture seems to be predominant. There is a need to strike a balance between the two cultures. The need for balancing and harmonizing the two cultures is being increasingly recognized, as is evidenced by the growing pressure within Islamic societies to promote female values.
In this respect, I was deeply impressed to see the Chinese character meaning “harmony” depicted by Chinese dancers at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games on Aug. 8. It was a reminder that maternal culture is widely shared in Asia.
These ideas may seem to portray an ideal distant from reality, but I believe in the existence of a force that will bring the reality closer to the ideal. It may be understood as the will of a supernatural being, or as human destiny. This force is evidenced through the lessons of history, which has witnessed the rise and fall of numerous civilizations. It is this force, transcending human power, that allows us to have hope for the future of humankind and the world.