Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Nature must produce a man

Where I was last night I couldn't tell if someone was banging on the door or not. Maybe it was just the water conditioner or Lowell's skunk in the garbage can. Whatever it was, it was loud. But by the time I got up the noise had stopped. I opened the window and looked up and down the street. There was no one there. Just some clusters of leaves blowing around.

Standing there peering into the darkness, stray thoughts went flying through my head, too small to catch, like electrons or neutrinos. Pretty soon our physics'll be out of date, along with our morality and our politics. The word autumnal came into my mind like a newspaper headline. Western civilization hunkering down for a long winter.

Sometimes in the middle of the night I get up and watch TED Conference videos on my laptop. They don't reassure me, all those telegenic, articulate people delivering their stand-up slideshows. Their ideas are entertaining (even if a bit over-rehearsed), but if they're so clever and compelling and compassionate how come the world feels like it's spinning out of control?

I watched Niall Ferguson give a talk on 'the six killer apps of prosperity' and how they had enabled the West to out-perform the rest of the world for 500 years. He cautioned that the dominance of the West is drawing to a close because the killer apps have become available to anyone in the world. The Chinese and Indians have downloaded them, so have the Chileans and Brazilians. And this is happening just as we in the West are behaving as though we're no longer convinced of the apps' worth.

Ferguson called his fellow Scotsman Adam Smith, "The smartest man ever." He then made a joke of his Scottishness by imitating Sean Connery. The white college-educated audience laughed. This was what they had come to Edinburgh for. He told them that they should go and bow down before Adam Smith's statue in the Royal Mile. He said a lot of other things about competition and modern medicine and the work ethic. His was a good routine. The guy is a persuasive performer. But all it did was give me a headache. The middle of the night is no time to think about killer apps and the rise of the East. I took a couple of Advil and lay down on the couch. I must have fallen asleep though I'm not sure. Perhaps an hour had passed. It was still dark. My eyes were open.

Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the year the colonies declared independence. It was also the year David Hume, another Scotsman, died. I find his thoughts congenial in the nighttime, his subordination of reason to passion, his skepticism toward religion and received ideas. Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken. He took the world as it was.

I laid there listening to the wind rustle the leaves. There's a severe shortage of pumpkins this year. I read online about how the crop was decimated by the hurricane and all the rain. I'm glad I'm not a farmer. Farming is hard work, contingent on complex natural systems. Not like philosophy nor the brain work I do during the day, trying to publish a few good books a season.

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