The Great Forgetting

I wonder if you’ve ever considered how strange it is that the educational and character-shaping structures of our culture expose us but a single time in our lives to the ideas of Socrates, Plato, Euclid, Aristotle, Herodotus, Augustine, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Descartes, Rousseau, Newton, Racine, Darwin, Kant, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Freud, Marx, Einstein, and dozens of others of the same rank, but expose us annually, monthly, weekly, and even daily to the ideas of persons like Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, and Buddha. Why is it, do you think, that we need quarterly lectures on charity, while a single lecture on the laws of thermodynamics is presumed to last us a lifetime? Why is the meaning of Christmas judged to be so difficult of comprehension that we must hear a dozen explications of it, not once in a lifetime, but every single year, year after year after year? Perhaps even more to the point, why do the pious (who already know every word of whatever text they find holy) need to have it repeated to them week after week after week, and even day after day after day?

I’ll wager that, if there are physicists listening to me here tonight, you do not keep a copy of Newton’s Principia on your bedside table. I’ll wager that the astronomers among you do not reach on waking for a copy of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orblum coelestium, that the geneticists among you do not spend a daily hour in reverential communion with The Double Helix, that the anatomists among you do not make a point of reading a passage a night from De huniani corporis fabrica, that the sociologists among you do not carry with you everywhere a treasured copy of Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. But you know very well that hundreds of millions of people thumb daily through holy books that will be read from cover to cover not a dozen times during a lifetime but a dozen dozen.

READ:   Edgar Morin: Method, vol. 1: The Nature of Nature (1977–)

Have you ever wondered why it is the duty of the clergy of so many sects to read the Divine Office —daily? Why the same affirmations of faith are repeated word for word in so many religious communities around the world—daily? Is it so difficult to remember that Allah is One or that Christ died for our sins that it must be reiterated at least once every day throughout life? Of course we know that these things aren’t in the least difficult to remember. And we know that the pious don’t go to church every Sunday because they’ve forgotten that Jesus loves them but rather because they’ve not forgotten that Jesus loves them. They want to hear it again and again and again and again. In some sense or other, they need to hear it again and again and again and again. They can live without hearing the laws of thermodynamics ten thousand times, but for some reason, they cannot live without hearing the laws of their gods ten thousand times.