ON EQUILIBRIUM: SIX QUALITIES OF THE NEW HUMANISM
John Ralston Saul explains how our different qualities give us the intelligence, self-confidence and practical ability to think and act as responsible individuals. He argues, however, that when certain human qualities are worshipped in isolation they become weaknesses, even forces of destruction or self-destruction. In short, they become ideologies.
How then can we use our qualities as positive forces in our own lives – and the life of our society? How can we use them so that each builds upon the other in order to reinforce us as humans?
Saul’s answer is Balance.
On Equilibrium is an intelligent, persuasive and controversial exploration of the essential qualities of humanity and how they can be used to achieve equilibrium for the self and to foster an ethical society. It is at once an attack on our weakness for ideologies and a manual for humanist action. It is the logical, compelling and humane successor to his philosophical trilogy Voltaire’s Bastards, The Doubter’s Companion, and The Unconscious Civilization.
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How much of our intuition, imagination, memory and “common sense” did we lose in the past 500 years and how much did we need to keep? Where, in the time of Auschwitz – and Rwanda and the Tampa and Kosovo – did our ethical sense go, and how do we get it back? What that was good in the way we were can be salvaged in the age of number-mania and international forgetting and slash-and-burn economics and new greed? How best can we order the way we live now in this deeply disorderly, brain-damaged era of new marauding empires, amoral business practice and the worship of machines?
It is not the habit of John Ralston Saul to ask small questions or to make the answers easy. Like Orwell, Koestler, Marshall McLuhan, Primo Levi and Tim Flannery he tells us unsparingly (as he did in Voltaire’s Bastards and The Unconscious Civilization) how tremendously we got things wrong, how much magic the Age of Reason cost us. In On Equilibrium he tells us, or attempts to tell us, what to do now.
Warming to his task, which is nothing less than the composition of a post-religious Koran for thoughtful humankind, he roves through military strategy, Renaissance art, Guatemalan fiction, the French Underground, Greek tragedy, animism, Picasso, ethology, Cervantes, ice hockey, Plato’s ongoing war on his mentor Socrates and mad cow disease in quest of the total jigsaw (the unified field theory, if you like) that makes us what we are, and were, and could be.
What, for instance, he asks, is the “common sense” (that is, the shared memory) of the monarch butterfly? It has “a brain the size of a pinpoint. It winters in Mexico, summers in Northern Canada and reproduces in the United States or the way between the other two. It takes three generations to make the round trip, over thousands of kilometres, year after year, summering precisely where they always summer and wintering on a few precisely chosen, high, wooded hills in central Mexico. These hills are isolated one from the other. On each hill the monarchs gather, tightly packed, onto the branches of the great trees, millions of them, creating the patterns of monstrous tigers in the half-light of the forest canopy.”
How do they know how to do these things? In what like pilgrimages is our species trapped, and how can we learn what they are?
In his search for the measureless things that move and guide and haunt us and how we might now resurrect them he trespasses (of course) on ground long held by the Greens, the New Agers and the various ragged-trousered disciples of drugs and Zen and morphic resonance and telepathy and table rapping without ever once (in my view) sounding silly or shallow or underinformed. For every hypothesis he puts up (that some of our memory, for instance, may reside in places other than the brain; that mad cow disease comes from feeding vegetarian animals processed meat) he has impressive evidence, and for almost every thought a forebear – Euripides, Homer, Jefferson, Montesquieu, Northrop Frye, Colin Powell, the author of The Epic of Gilgamesh (the first buddy movie) and that Bradman of ice hockey Wayne Gretzky, who said: “You must skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is.”
It’s hard, though, to summarise even a paragraph of this omnivorous, persuasive, many-tentacled book, which is in itself a concentrated summary (easy to read for a page or so, but necessary to put down and resonate with for an hour or two thereafter) of what we now might guess is the shape, and scope of things as they are in our universe, and in our tribal memory, and why our present rulers so hate our creativity, our intuition, our sense of right and wrong and need to erase them from the vocabulary of dissent.
Some thoughts, however, seem his alone. Among hundreds, this one on the Deity hit me hard:
“Gods to protect us from fear are gods to protect us from the necessity of imagining our long past and the probability of tomorrow. Gods give us truth. We can deny all the rest.
“And what is a god? Rarely the complex figure imagined in most religious texts. Usually a certainty. A totem of some sort. A structure. A way of doing things. Something asserted to be progress, or efficient. Something asserted to be the way things are done. All that such belief requires is a willingness not to imagine. You may continue to think, but in a linear manner from the base of truth, not in a lateral or preobjective manner.
“Not to allow yourself to imagine is a choice. It is choosing not to have a choice. In a sense, that is your problem. Although to choose not to choose can quickly take on a force of its own. Because we live in societies, it means that you must then discourage others from imagining. How else can you live without them? That is the story of religious or racial wars. Or of self-destructive social attitudes.”
Like Orwell, he is a trove of information – on the fact of Jean Moulin, who died under torture refusing to give information that he knew was known already because this was the right thing to do; on the beauty of the assassin in Carpaccio’s painting of the martyrdom of Saint Ursula; on the way Uluru turns tourists into the kind of awed worshippers – corralled behind a fence and clicking away – that pilgrim indigenes once were. He is particularly good on military matters (in childhood he was the oft-relocated son of a solider) – how Napoleon’s intuition and not his intellect won his battles and how his unaided intellect, later, lost them; how all the expert information available to the generals of World War I could not prevent the slaughter of the Somme, because another unknowable factor was at work, probably, a lemming rush of the tribes of Europe into Gotterdammerung, oblivion.
If he has a fault it is earnestness (I speak as an acquaintance delighted by the Woody Allen-style personality of his after-hours discourse) – and over-concentration perhaps; or his belief that humankind can be nudged towards sensible solutions as easily as Canadians.
But given that this, and not Finnegan’s Wake, is one of the books that we should read and re-read for the rest of our lives and (let me put it precisely) among the most important, absorbing and fulfilling books of our time (along with Voltaire’s Bastards, The Future Eaters, A Distant Mirror and Ian Kershaw’s Hitler), he deserves a little self-congratulation, however demurely he seeks it, as the most wide-ranging mind, and one of the greatest organising and focusing teachers we have.
Charity is becoming an increasingly necessary feature of our society and as such is signalling a return to a class-based society with marginalised ethics. We are slaves to technological progress and are unable to start “asserting our authority over circuit boards” because constant technological explosions have shattered our collective memory. The employment contract is a tyrannical device in which the employer controls the knowledge and ideas and therefore the freedom of speech of the employees. Non Government Organisations are a reactive and not a progressive force: their set-up mirrors the structure of the very organisations they oppose.”
Only in a book by John Ralston Saul could you find such an intriguing array of ideas, and more. If you found any of the above assertions challenging or objectionable, consider perhaps the most controversial of his statements: that the invention of waste disposal systems did not come about merely through rational thought. In fact, he says, the toilet is as much testament to commonsense, ethics, intuition, imagination and memory as it is to the existence of human reason.
Saul is a true intellectual maverick, one who revels in his role as an iconoclast and provocateur. His latest book, On Equilibrium, is his most wide-ranging work since Voltaire’s Bastards. And like Voltaire’s Bastards, it is almost impossible to categorise: is it a neo-classical humanist treatise; a philosophical exploration or a critique of contemporary society? Whatever the answer, his project is to identify the patterns of dysfunction underlying human civilisation, including its historical and intellectual origins and its present social, cultural and political manifestations.
As usual, a litany of historical and literary figures and philosophical thinkers are produced to support his argument. One by one, figures such as Solon, Socrates, Sun-Tzu, Harry Truman, Giovanni Batista Vico, Jung, Ken Saro-Wiwa, David Malouf and Robert Owen (to name but a few) are commended for their insight, and their words examined for their wisdom. Plato and Descartes do not fare so well, nor do Schopenhauer, Hegel or Hobbes, among others; various aspects of their thought is exposed for leading us into precisely the sort of predicament Saul believes we now find ourselves.
His usual suspects come in for another pasting: corporatism, the contemporary institutional bias of management over thought, false heroes and, of course, his all-purpose whipping post, utilitarianism.
At various points in the treatise, he draws upon examples as diverse as the mad cow disease epidemic, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Serbia and their respective international responses, and the French Resistance martyr Jean Moulin.
Saul is first and foremost a humanist, and so the work is structured around the six qualities he identifies as humankind’s basic attributes, the same qualities mentioned above as indispensable to the invention of the toilet: Commonsense, Ethics, Imagination, Intuition, Memory and Reason.
Each chapter, named after one of the qualities, is a meditation on where the particular quality can be found and how it can best be used (invariably in combination with the other five attributes) and what contemporary problems can be explained by its misapplication.
The sweep of the book’s vision and the breadth of Saul’s knowledge are sometimes mind-blowing, but such virtuosity is not matched by the smoothness of his argument. Saul is not only consistently brilliant but also consistently difficult to follow as he races from one idea to the next.
Perhaps this is why his standing is that of a kind of public intellectual rather than one cherished by the more rigorous academic world. Whatever the flaws in his methodology, On Equilibrium is well worth a read, and not just for its theoretical value. If you read between the lines, you can find fresh insights into many of our domestic political sore points, including the doctrine of practical reconciliation and the debate that characterised oru recent election campaign. And the final chapter of the book, written in the aftermath of September 11, is arguably the finest moment of On Equilibrium, and proves to be worth the effort.
With On Equilibrium, John Ralston Saul convincingly stakes his claim for a place in the great philosophical continuum by contributing his own perspective to the key questions: What is a good life? What constitutes a good society? That Saul’s answers are ultimately fraught with doubt, uncertainty, and paradox is deliberate, and intrinsic to Saul’s model for human fulfillment.
Long-time Saul readers will already be familiar with some of the material in On Equilibrium from his earlier books, especially the philosophical trilogy Voltaire’s Bastards, The Doubter’s Companion, and The Unconscious Civilization. In those works, Saul examined, among many ideas, unthinking conformism, the role of corporatism, and the failure of democracy to create a truly human, truly good society. All of these are examined again in On Equilibrium, which functions as both a distillation of the basic principles of Saul’s previous books and a re-envisioning of their conclusions as a single, holistic system, applicable to everyday life.
On Equilibrium devotes a chapter to each of what Saul regards as the six essential human qualities: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason. The qualities are presented in alphabetical order to avoid any sense of a hierarchy.
This non-hierarchical arrangement is key. According to Saul, the good life is not to be reached by elevating any single quality above the others. Such an approach results in a bastardization of the quality elevated (common sense transformed to dangerous ideology, for example) and a commensurate reduction of the power of other qualities to counter it. Instead, the good life is attained not through finding static balance but through equilibrium, a dynamic, ever-changing flow of these qualities, interacting, countering, and reflecting one another in response to the concern of the passing moments. The dynamism of this model requires a constant attention, an awareness of the qualities themselves, and how their interplay affects every decision we make. It also involves a willingness to abandon false certainties, embracing instead a continual state of doubt and uncertainty, accepting that not only are there no easy answers, there are likely no true or correct answers either.
It is a complex, paradigm-shifting model, likely difficult for some readers to absorb, accept, and appreciate. Saul presents the model as straightforwardly as possible, but while it lacks the sheer density and volume of Voltaire’s Bastards, On Equilibrium is far from an easy read. John Ralston Saul will never be mistaken for John Gray: this is a ho-to/self-help book for those looking beyond pat solutions for lasting, and revelatory, change.
Saul is dazzling in his intellectual rigour and breadth, drawing from not only Western philosophy but from Eastern thought as well, demonstrating a universality of these qualities which defies culture, politics, and ethnicity. In addition to his use of historical examples, Saul demonstrates an intuitive and insightful perspective on contemporary events and figures, incorporating the philosophical underpinnings of the martyrdom of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, the difficult ethical stand of Major-General Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda, and the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as examples of these human qualities in action.
There is much food for thought in On Equilibrium, perhaps too much at times. While Saul guides the reader toward an independent contemplation of the six essential qualities, he stops short of extending this contemplation into concrete action. The rationale is apparent (every reader will approach their own qualities, their own inner life in a unique and specific manner), but without specific action, there is a danger that some readers will proceed no further, thereby hampering the individual and social change that Saul presents as so tantalizingly within reach.
In an intellectual tour de force, John Ralston Saul describes six ‘tools of the human condition’ that determine how well we live.
If you read John Ralston Saul’s new work On Equilibrium carefully and with intention, it will leave you with a profound sense of disequilibrium, your mind swirling and your sympathies both enlivened and shaken. This is, I think, exactly as Saul would have it.
Equilibrium is not, after all, a place of rest or resolution. It is, rather, a place of “uncertain, creative tension – an uncomfortable pleasure – a playfully permanent state of uncertainty,” as Saul says here.
This book is nothing less than Saul’s attempt to provide a philosophical reading of this slippery and most unattainable of human conditions, a state that we are eternally moving toward. On Equilibrium is also a sort of peripatetic description of how civilizations can best function and how societies are best nurtured. In Canada, there has not been a better or more challenging overview of these far-reaching ideas.
Past winner of the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the Gordon Montador Award for Best Canadian Book on Social Issues, in this book Saul walks us through his choice of six qualities or “tools of the human condition.” Although they are alphabetically presented – common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and reason – Saul is never burdened by the weight of linearity or plodding logic. His vast cache of inspiration, among which he moves freely, include Aristotle, philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, German philosopher Immanuel Kant and Irish writer Samuel Beckett, as well as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and a little Wayne Gretzky thrown in for good measure.
His intellectual take on each of the six qualities is almost breathtaking in its self-confident quirkiness. Common sense, he says, is “essentially complex, lateral and disinterested.” Ethics “is perhaps the least romantic of all human qualities.” Imagination “isn’t really a means of distraction;” it is “the source of public policy and public programming.” Intuition is “the most practical of our qualities. The most useful, verging on the utilitarian.” Memory “has a shape – it is everywhere in our body.” Reason, well no one in Canada has written more, and more intelligently, on reason. In this most recent work Saul tells us: “I’d argue that neither pure reason nor instrumental reason exist. They are a classic fantasy.”
These snippets of Saul’s extended commentary (he devotes almost 50 pages to each quality) cannot hope to do him or this work adequate justice. Each of these six qualities, he says at the very beginning of this book “are most effective in a society when they are recognized as of equal, universal value and so are integrated into our normal life.”
But these disembodied quotations do give some sense of the breadth of Saul’s project, the seriousness he brings to it and the passion he feels for the topic. That he has succeeded so well at a Canada- specific introduction to philosophical anthropology, of what it means to be human, is both a triumph and a pleasure.
There are shards of brilliance and crystalline insights on almost every page. Self-interest and commerce, we are told, are not foundations of society or civilization. Why? Because “neither has an inherent memory.” Facts, he tells us, “are not rational” and “rationality is not based upon proof, but upon thought and argument.” One more example, which is a recurring theme throughout Saul’s writing: “The built-in instability of debate, doubt and ethics is precisely the key to our success.”
There are also positions that some might consider incendiary: “I sometimes feel that European and North American aggressivity towards Arabs over the last half-century has had less to do with Middle Eastern politics and more to do with an almost psychotic attempt to forget that it was the Christian civilization and no other which massacred 6 million Jews.” (The bulk of the book, including this comment, was written before Sept.11, although he does refer to terrorism and the obliteration of the World Trade Centre in the final, brief summation chapter.) He also refers to the recently published book on IBM’s complicity with the Nazi regime: “At Auschwitz, prisoners kept for hard labour had their forearms tattooed with five-digit, IBM Hollerith-machine identification numbers.”
And there are moments of furious humour. “In other words, ‘public evil’ is not an abstract theory. It is 22,000 registered lobbyists in Washington.” For those who are unfamiliar with Saul’s earlier philosophical work, including Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West and Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century, this book is the perfect place to begin. It is less diffuse, more passionate and more personal than those earlier works. It also deals more directly with several of his overriding concerns, which sometimes border on obsessions: his rage at the corporatist and managerial types who seem to run much of the world, and his embrace of the complex, the uncertain, the joyful shapelessness of our understanding.
Those who know Saul through his 1995 Massey Lectures, collected in The Unconscious Civilization, already have a headstart on this book. In the final of those lectures he sets out these six qualities and the attendant “virtue of uncertainty” and “psychic discomfort” that is here, in On Equilibrium, much more fully articulated.
Canada has had a rather parsimonious allotment of philosopher-kings, although perhaps we have had more than our elephantine neighbour to the south. That Saul and his long-time companion, Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, are so engaged in the cultural and philosophic life of the country is something that should make all of us sleep better at night. Politics, economy and their ceremonies best function when they are not completely separate from culture, imagination and thought.
In On Equilibrium Saul writes as though thinking, wondering and considering are the most important things we as humans can do. They are, and he demonstrates this on every page. His intellectual flourish, his keen observations of the broad reaches of history as well as the minutia of our daily lives, and his vast offering of allusions and references all demonstrate that the world, and the human mind, are still very much works in progress. That is infinitely better than if they were static or beyond redemption.
John Ralston Saul’s On Equilibrium solidifies his reputation as Canada’s leading public intellectual.
Just about any pat description of the roles John Ralston Saul has played ends up defining him as something he rails against. Saul began his working life as a manager in the investment and oil businesses – but he inveighs tirelessly against the power of the corporate managerial set. He went on to become a favourite author of the political left – all the while insisting that he has no patience for ideology of any sort. Most recently, he has moved into Rideau Hall as the husband of Gov. General Adrienne Clarkson, which surely puts him near the pinnacle of Canada’s social hierarchy – yet he says his experiences as vice-regal consort have only deepened his conviction that ordinary citizens need to regain the upper hand from elites.
If these apparent contradictions make slotting Saul seem tricky, here’s one label he doesn’t mind: best-selling author. His books move, even though they are about philosophy. He made a splash internationally in 1992 with Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, a long polemic against the way elite groups have, in his view, corrupted the concept of rational thought to create societies run by experts, not citizens. His status as Canada’s best-known public intellectual was solidified with 1995’s The Unconscious Civilization, a more easily digested repackaging of his case that managers and specialists have usurped the rightful place of citizens and voters. Then came 1997’s Reflections of a Siamese Twin, in which Saul argues that Canada’s complexity – especially the ties that bind its French and English parts – make it a model for the sort of pragmatic, non-ideological democracy he favours.
And now On Equilibrium is topping the best-seller lists. Nothing new about that. What has changed, though, is Saul’s official status. This time he is not just a freelance intellectual gadfly, but also the husband of the Queen’s official representative in Canada. As such, his latest tome got an unusually close read when it appeared in December. The result was a front-page controversy conjured up mostly out of a few sentences about Sept.11. “From what at first sounded like a bizarre accident,” Saul wrote of the terrorist attacks, “a wave of explosions and accidents and deaths spread through the day, at the end of which a rather frail, awkward man appeared on television to read a speech from a teleprompter in order to reassure Americans, indeed the world.”
Few who watched George W. Bush’s first televised response to the horror would dispute that he appeared shaken. Saul’s description might even be read as sympathetic. Still, critics pounced on the passage as too much coming from the Governor General’s spouse. The implication was that Saul, long associated with the left, couldn’t resist breaking with the protocol of vice-regal innocuousness to slight a Republican president. “Of course, it’s entirely possible to take a couple of words out of a sentence and pump them up as if they meant something they didn’t mean,” Saul says now. “But that has nothing to do with what I wrote. I’ve always written about ideas and society. I’ve never written about politics.”
There’s no denying that On Equilibrium, while touching on contemporary issues from terrorism to trade, is not about politics in the usual sense. There are no direct references to current Canadian politicians. By contrast, 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico is cited an enthusiastic 15 times. That’s the sort of stuff readers are in for when they tackle Saul. So why do so many try? Philip Coulter, a Toronto-based CBC radio producer who worked closely with him on the broadcast Massey Lecture series that was published as The Unconscious Civilization, says Saul feeds a hunger for ideas that are big enough to makes sense of the narrower issues that dominate the news. “Whether it’s abortion or health care or education,” Coulter says, “there is the larger question about whether all these debates add up to a picture of society – a vision which we all share in common. John plays an important role in that.”
Saul looks like an unlikely candidate for touching a popular chord. Slumped on a couch in a suite at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier for an interview, he is the picture of the salon intellectual, droll at times to the point of sounding smug. His background, though, is far from privileged. His father joined up with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles for the Second World War, fought in the tough Italian campaign and stayed on to serve in peacetime. Saul was born in Ottawa in 1947, and grew up on army bases in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Québec, changing schools, by his own count, 13 times. He inherited the reading gene from his bookish mother, and remembers after picking up Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair when he was still young enough for the title alone to make it seem enticingly adult.
He went to Montreal’s McGill University in the late ’60s, and threw himself into the era’s tumultuous campus politics. On graduating, he flirted with the idea of joining the foreign service, but opted instead to pursue a doctorate at the University of London. His thesis research on Charles de Gaulle’s modernization of France led him to live mainly in Paris. (“A very nice city to be poor in,” he recalls fondly. “Not forever maybe, but as a student.”) He stayed on there after finishing his Ph.D. to run a subsidiary of a British investment house – a strange leap from his history studies. “They said I knew all about how France worked, which I did, and they could teach me the business part,” he explains.
On his way back to Canada in 1975, Saul was introduced in New York City to Maurice Strong. At the time, Strong, who went on to become an influential figure in the rise of environmental concerns at the United Nations, had been tapped by Pierre Trudeau’s government to found Petro-Canada. On the basis of a half-hour chat, Strong invited Saul to move to Calgary to work as his assistant. Strong proved to be a powerful influence – as he has been for others whose careers he has touched, notably the young Paul Martin. “He’s one of the most remarkable Canadians of our times,” Saul says, “I always say jokingly that he’s the St. Paul of the world environmental movement. He’s the man who imagined all the international structures and put them in place.”
While he was working for Strong in Calgary in 1977, Saul published his first book, a novel about French politics called The Birds of Prey. Three more novels, on subjects ranging from the oil business to art smuggling, followed in the 1980s. (By this time, he and Clarkson were a couple, although they did not marry until the summer of 199, a step they took to clear the way for Clarkson’s appointment as Governor General that fall). A mixture of exotic locales and serious ideas in his fiction reflected Saul’s devotion to Joseph Conrad, the author of Heart of Darkness, and his heirs in fiction, including Greene and Gabriel García Márquez. But it was with the non-fiction Voltaire’s Bastards, dedicated to Strong, that Saul started attracting serious attention. In the Washington Post, culture critic Camille Paglia said Saul “offers a promising persona for the future: the intellectual as man of the world.”
By 1995, Saul was well enough known in the United States to be named one of “100 Visionaries” by the Utne Reader. But with The Unconscious Civilization and Reflections of a Siamese Twin, he attended to his home audience – and solidified a big Canadian following. Mark Kingwell, a University of Toronto philosophy professor whose popular books put him in a small club of public intellectuals who aspire to be in Saul’s league, suggests the time was right for a thinker to challenge the conservative orthodoxies that had taken hold in the era of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney. “in the 1980s, right-wing thinkers got a lot of profile,” Kingwell says. “In Canada, which is basically a social democratic country, people wanted to hear somebody articulating what they already believed. In a useful way, Saul does that. He has a following not because anything he’s saying is particularly startling, but because he’s saying it in a way that people can say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking all along’.”
Saul resists any bid to categorize him as a champion of even the moderate left – or as a foe of the right. “I’ve never actually thought in those terms,” he insists. He says he prefers an issue-by-issue assessment – citing public education and universal health care as policies he sees at the core of Canadian democracy. Still, with those convictions, there’s no danger of falling out of favour with those who tilt left. His targets, on the other hand, tend to be held in high esteem by those who lean right, including the World Trade Organization. “We are obsessively trying to regulate society through trade,” he complains in On Equilibrium. True to his new book’s title, though, Saul balances his critique of the WTO with a warning against the danger that rising opposition to the free trade doctrine might “fling us hard in the opposite direction, right into the arms of negative nationalism and closed markets.”
In fact, the book’s whole thrust is to praise the human capacity for balancing conflicting impulses. Saul divides it into chapters on six qualities that he identifies as essential to responsible behaviour – common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason. Anyone looking for a concise system, a formula for making the right decisions, will be disappointed. He detests the expert prescription, the purportedly rational solution. If that can make him maddeningly hard to pin down, Saul is not apologizing. “What makes you human,” he says, “is that you don’t really have the answers.” But as the brisk sales for On Equilibrium are proving again, a lot of Canadian readers are hooked on the way Saul puts the questions.
Over the past decade John Ralston Saul has brought a stimulating new vision of understanding the place of the common citizen in western civilization. In the books Voltaire’s Bastards, The Doubter’s Companion and The Unconscious Civilization, he has treated us to an in-depth philosophical survey of the ideas and forces that shaped our world during the past 400 years or so, since the so-called “age of reason” took root and then turned into something scarier.
Mind you, his conclusions weren’t always very uplifting. In fact, this citizen came away from the books feeling wiser, but powerless after absorbing Saul’s all-too-convincing argument that a technocratic and corporatist elite has come to largely hijack the decision-making process in democratic nations.
So what has this multi-faceted writer-thinker-historian, novelist, former investment banker and oil company exec been up to lately, since he began hanging his hat at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall (Saul’s wife is Governor General Adrienne Clarkson; his last, 1997 book Reflections of a Siamese Twin focused on Canadian society)?
It was only appropriate that he should offer up a sequel to his trilogy that might empower us or perhaps identify a few tools we could use to do something about the state of the world. Wouldn’t you know it, we’ve had them all along.
Imagination, reason, memory, intuition, ethics and common sense. In his new book On Equilibrium, Saul maintains those are the six qualities that make us human, the traits that give us the ability to interpret and act on the world around us. The key to dealing with life’s uncertainties, he says, is to balance each quality against the others in a kind of dynamic equilibrium, hence the title.
What do those qualities really entail? On Equilibrium looks short but the challenging tome really seeks to fill out a new mindset around those six words. Each term is thoroughly examined in its own section of the book, which is really a work of philosophy, examination and argument and less a “how-to” volume for translating ideals into action, as the dust jacket suggests.
As with the trilogy, Saul shows his gift for bringing a fresh perspective to concepts we’ve come to take for granted, for unmasking absurdity and explaining the paradoxical. He has a way of clearly delineating the fine liens that can exist between knowing and understanding, for instance, or between sense and nonsense. The first quality, common sense, he argues, is something that can only exist with shared knowledge, and the lack of that only leads to selfishness and panic. But even common sense goes out of whack if it isn’t used in tandem with the other qualities.
If we can pull them together then we have a chance to see through the smokescreen of techno-speak and bureaucratese, the propaganda of the power elites, and the way they use words like “progress,” “development” and “the common good” to promote their own self-interest. Perhaps, Saul suggests, if we are able to start using our innate qualities together and to promote “the right to say no,” we can begin to address the problems of a society that’s out of touch with the real common good.
If the book occasionally feels too caught up in the minutiae of language itself, then Saul is at his best in digging up history both ancient and recent, offering pertinent examples of how the six qualities work or don’t work in action. Among the many insights, you read about General Romeo Dallaire’s experience of trying to stop the genocide in Rwanda, the causes and effects of mad cow disease, and some closing comments on how the events of this past Sept.11 may be tied to the short-sighted thinking of international arms sales.
Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, it’s hard to ignore the sense that Saul is one of the great fluid thinkers around. Ultimately, the finest quality of his writing is that it continues to stimulate our thoughts.
John Ralston Saul, le plus célèbre des intellectuels canadiens, a une tell habitude des articles dithyrambiques, des applaudissements et des bonnes places dans les listes des meilleurs ventes de livres, qu’il a une manière bien à lui d’apprécier les hommages. Celui auquel il a été le plus sensible après la parution, l’année dernière, de son dernier essai, Vers l’équilibre, qui vient d’être publié en France, lui a été rendu par un père de famille anonyme. En rentrant chez lui, après avoir assisté à une conférence de John Saul, ce monsieur est allé droit dans la chambre de son petit garçon et lui a fait une leçon profitable pour tout un chacun : « Quand on te pose une question, à l’école, tu as le droit de répondre que tu ne sais pas. Et on n’a pas le droit de te dire que ce n’est pas bien. » Tout est dit. La pensée de John Saul est avant tout un éloge de l’incertitude et de la complexité. « Quand quelqu’un me dit : « Je sais, je connais la vérité », je réagis en bon Canadien, avec un sourire aimable et l’idée que nous avons un problème », ironise le philosophe, élégant géant roux aux longues mains de pianiste, affable, calme et enthousiaste à la fois dans sa conversation.
John Saul (à ne pas confondre avec son homonyme américain, un auteur de thrillers, rien à voir, vraiment…), a d’abord été un romancier relativement discret, héritier de Conrad et de Malraux. Homme d’affaires par ailleurs, il a travaillé notamment pour une compagnie pétrolière. Il a fait irruption sur la scène intellectuelle internationale en 1992 avec la publication des Bâtards de Voltaire : la dictature de la raison en Occident. Cet énorme essai (plus de mille pages à ne pas essayer de lire sur la plage) dénonce la manière dont les élites occidentales ont manipulé le concept de pensée rationnelle pour bâtir des sociétés à leur botte, et qui échappent aux citoyens.
Avec Vers l’équilibre, Saul propose une alternative à cette suprématie du rationnel. L’être humain, analyse-t-il, est doué de six qualités essentielles : le sens commun, l’éthique, l’imagination, l’intuition, la mémoire et la raison. Un équilibrage entre ces pôles peut seul assurer un fonctionnement plus harmonieux des sociétés. « Je ne suis ni un politicien ni un idéologue, insiste-t-il. Je n’apporte pas des solutions, mais des outils de réflexion. J’aime que les lecteurs me disent qu’ils avaient au fond toujours pensé ce que j’avance. En leur proposant une formulation, je leur donne accès à eux-mêmes. » L’épouse de sir John Saul n’est autre que son Excellence Adrienne Clarkson, gouverneur générale du Canada. Le protocole a fait de lui, pour cinq ans, le deuxième personnage de l’État. Ce statut passager ne le perturbe pas davantage que le fait d’être le mari d’un chef d’État. Il ne s’agit, après tout, que d’un poste d’observation supplémentaire pour ce Philosopher King (comme l’a surnommé un journal canadien), qui ne se lasse pas de scruter l’infinie complexité de la planète.
John Ralston Saul aime expliquer, convaincre et n’hésite pas à enfoncer quelques portes ouvertes, au risqué de produire quelques turbulences. Le romancier et essayiste canadien donne parfois le sentiment de nous prendre pour des gentils demeurés, nous les vieux Européens. Francophile convaincu, John Saul a l’exigence d’un amoureux des Lumières. C’est pour mieux vouloir notre bonheur. Il nous le dit depuis « les Bâtards de Voltaire ». Il y fustigeait déjà les excès du rationalisme occidental, qui ne doute de rien et impose ses erreurs avec certitude. Dans son dernier ouvrage, son Excellence Saul – il est l’époux de la gouverneure générale du Canada Adrienne Clarkson – tire les conclusions de sa trilogie (« les Bâtards de Voltaire », « la Dictature de la raison en Occident » et « le Compagnon du doute »). Pourquoi ne serions-nous pas heureux sur terre ? Qu’est-ce qui nous en empêche?
« Les autres » pourrait être une réponse. Mais Saul le sage nous tend un miroir. Nous et nous seuls sommes responsables de notre malheur. On s’en doutait déjà depuis qu’Empédocle est allé chercher la sagesse dans un volcan. C’est là que l’essayiste nous propose sa méthode. Elle tient en un mot : équilibre. « Qu’est-ce qui exprime notre humanité, si ce n’est le fait de vivre en lutant pour trouver un impossible équilibre ? » Nos sociétés et nous-mêmes avons perdu le sens de l’acrobatie entre la recherche e la réalité et notre confort existentiel. L’être humain, c’est un peu plus que de la raison dans une enveloppe corporelle.
Pour bien nous montrer que le monde avec son fichu progrès marche de guingois, Saul passe en revue les notions de sens commun, d’éthique, d’imagination, d’intuition, de mémoire et de raison pour pointer ce qui cloche. Le but de l’existence est de trouver l’harmonie entre ces six qualités. Pour développer sa thèse, il s’appuie sur des exemples aussi différents que les attentats du 11 septembre 2001, l’héroïsme de Jean Moulin ou les appels sans réponse aux Nations unies du général canadien Roméo Dallaire, plongé dans l’horreur du génocide rwandais. Un exercice funambule. A sa façon, « Vers l’équilibre » est un prolongement transatlantique audacieux du « Qu’est-ce qu’une vie réussie? » de Luc Ferry.
How conscious are we willing to be of our humanness? This is one of the central issues of John Ralston Saul’s new work, which follows on from his highly acclaimed and influential philosophical trilogy Voltaire’s Bastards, The Doubter’s Companion and The Unconscious Civilization.
As with these works, On Equilibrium is certainly not light reading, but it is a deeply rewarding mental workout, and the passion, courage and optimism that he brings to his work and expresses so fluently is nothing if not inspirational.
Ralston Saul is as ruthless as ever in his criticism of the status quo, yet he is far from negative. A writer of prodigious intellect and breadth of knowledge, his humour and irony are never far below the surface.
I enjoyed the way that the structure of this book seems to subtly mock the innumerable works of self-help literature that, along with sport and romance, serve in his view to palliate an increasingly self-focused and disoriented citizenry.
“Responsible individualism” is a term that crops up repeatedly in Ralston Saul’s writing, and it serves well to explain his view that there are those who place the ego on a pedestal and deny even the existence of society; and others who would subsume the individual as a mere element of human capital.
Ralston Saul argues persuasively for a complex path between these extremes – the path of dynamic equilibrium.
He dissects ideological structures with great precision and reminds us that the ones we reside in are often the hardest to see.
Voltaire’s Bastards argued that the Enlightenment project for rational government, which was spearheaded by Voltaire and a response to the chaos and injustice of the monarchist and clerical authority that dominated Europe in the 18th century, somehow failed to yield the promised freedoms.
Ralston Saul believes that the vision of freedom for all held out by the burgeoning democratic movements has been thwarted by the growth of corporate structures that mimic the hegemony of clerics and courtiers of the previous era.
In On Equilibrium he draws attention to the way reason has been used over the past two centuries as the alibi for every utopian project and argues for the restoration of reason as thought, rather than its deification as purity and action.
In The Unconscious Civilisation, he proposed a list of six qualities: commonsense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and reason that he suggested are fundamental to a balanced existence both on an individual and community level. On Equilibrium argues the necessity for what he refers to as a dynamic equilibrium incorporating all of these qualities.
Each chapter is a fascinating and erudite exploration of one of these qualities, displaying all of Ralston Saul’s mastery of insight and historical detail, and reading as a powerful exhortation towards engagement with society and the democratic process for all.
Completed in September 2001, the timing of this publication is interesting in itself: Ralston Saul has a great deal to offer the myriad debates that have arisen after the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the immediate and consequent tragedies thereof.
At the same time, he offers us an example of philosophical and political criticism at its most humane. I thoroughly recommend this book and believe that at the very least you will find it challenging, stimulating and provocative.