Thursday, August 6, 2009

Book Review: Van Doren's A History of Knowledge

A History of Knowledge is exactly what the title implies, a history of knowledge through the eyes of Charles Van Doren. In the book, readers are allowed a glimpse of ancient civilizations, medieval monarchies, revolutionary wars, scientific breakthroughs, modern civilizations, and future civilizations. In A History of Knowledge the progress of mankind is demonstrated through Van Doren’s words regarding culture, science, and politics.
In Van Doren’s A History of Knowledge, the progress of mankind is described through culture. Before the Common Era, ancient rulers often feared change. Change meant change of thought and, more importantly, change of power. In fear of losing their positions to a revolt, rulers often kept the majority uneducated so they could continue their rule unchallenged. Such fear, lack of adequate education, and manipulation still exists in some countries but is much less severe than in ancient times. India, Pakistan, and China were places of high inequality and a “survival of the fittest” attitude. In this ancient society, man knew his place and did not venture far in thought. Monarchies existed in most, if not every, country. Fear and inequality were taught through their religions and cultures. Chinese civilizations later allowed people freedom with restriction. This change allowed for a better educated population and better technologies. This freedom of thought led to the first written language in Mesopotamia and the great architecture and mathematics of the Aztecs and Incas. Greeks also allowed limited democracy. Limited democracies allowed for minds like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates to report their findings. Unfortunately, the word “limited” also meant that these men risked their lives for being too open and honest. Socrates paid the ultimate price for not standing down and for proclaiming the truth. Despite this setback, the study of the stars, medicines, and society began to thrive in Greece. Telescopes, equations, manuscripts, and theatre soon followed. It would take centuries more for democracy to be fully implemented around the world; however, ancient man fully appreciated and enjoyed the few rights given to him.
Unfortunately for mankind, another dark era of fear and enslavement shortly ensued. This new era is known as the Dark Ages. As Christianity began to flourish, a new mindset emerged. This mindset included three ideas: the city of God is separate from that of man, man is sinful and must pay for redemption, and wars must be fought in the name of God. During this time, one would imagine that very little could be scientifically done without criticism. Many minds were curious about philosophy and the cosmos. As long as these thinkers included God in their thoughts, all was well. According to St. Augustine, the city of God must be separate from the city of man. The city of man can be explained through reason; however, the city of God was free from the comprehension of mortals. This idea led to the hindering of science and the robbing from the people. Because the city of God is separate from man, there must be two rulers on earth: one to represent man, the other to represent God. Thus the monarchy of ancient times met the power of the Pope. Together, these two powers caused great havoc upon the masses. Wars were fought in the name of Christianity. A percentage of crops were given to the church and state. The Pope and King were often allies and would ensure the other’s position. Afraid of war, plague, and eternal damnation, the people turned to the church for comfort. The church robbed the people by ensuring their place in heaven for a price. Clergymen also traveled selling false religious items and promising forgiveness. If anyone were to question the state or the church, they would be killed as heretics. Many great men have been hanged, burned, and poisoned because of heresy; therefore, anytime a breakthrough was found in science, some men remained silent while others disguised the news. As the people suffered, the Pope and King enjoyed their luxury.
Monarchies were great for rulers. Kings and noblemen were treated with the utmost regard and given all of their luxuries at the people’s expense. The people were kept ignorant so they would not know how the government and church had fooled them. They were unable to read or write and worked too hard to have time to ponder. Although this setup was ideal for monarchs, the system was very inefficient. Because the people were hungry and tired, they were unable to work to the best of their ability. Because the people were uneducated and paid very little, they were unable to find new methods of producing more efficiently. With the proper funds, the farmers could have developed a new method of farming that would produce more with less effort, thus doubling output. Although change was still not wanted by rulers, this would be a change that would have been beneficial to them. Instead of stealing the little wealth the people had, the nobles could have taken a small percentage from each farmer and paid them for their work. By doing so, the worker would be fully fed and physically fit to work long hours with ease. Their marginal revenue product would have far exceeded the small price for growth. Instead, the rulers chose to keep the masses ignorant and hungry.
The Renaissance brought a renewal of understanding and progress. As people began to learn how to read, their focus began to shift from God to man. Although Renaissance men and women still believed and worshiped God, they became preoccupied with learning languages, how to play an instrument, how to dance, and how to argue philosophy. With this surge of knowledge came progress. New medicines, technologies, and scientific breakthroughs emerged. People became reintroduced to the Greek ways that the Catholic Church once condemned. The reading of Greek philosophy and science made man more interested in adapting and building on old ideas. Leonardo de Vinci began developing machinery and masterpieces that remain a wonder to this day. The writings of Dante, Milton, Cervantes, and Shakespeare would not be so widespread if it were not for the creation of Gutenberg’s Printing Press. Renaissance man longed for knowledge and adventure. During this period, people were buying and selling more goods to more people than any time before that. Kings and queens invested heavily in trade and exploration. The travels of Marco Polo, Henry the Navigator, and Christopher Columbus were the first steps to globalization. Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, RenĂ© Descartes, and Isaac Newton revolutionized science and lead to what people now know as “classical physics”. The finding of a heliocentric solar system, elliptical orbits, and gravity shook the foundation of science and paved the way to even more earth-shattering breakthroughs. Religious foundations of the Catholic Church were questioned for the first time publicly by Martin Luther. All in all, people began to think for themselves. Nothing could hold back the great, determined minds of the Renaissance.
Such determination continued into the 18th century. The free thinking of the Renaissance evolved into a longing for freedom in government. Governments began to find it difficult to control their people when they were well educated. Rebellions broke throughout the colonies and soon revolution seemed inevitable. Many believe that colonial men fought the British on their own with riffles and canons. European nations fought beside the colonies, ensuring their freedom. The European aristocracy would soon regret letting the genie out of the bottle. The French Revolution occurred shortly after the American Revolution. The aristocracy of neighboring countries shook in their boots. Man had finally gained the freedom of choice in government. Democracy was limited no more. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and many others proclaimed the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This proclamation rung through many lands and created a ripple effect which enabled others to do the same. With democracy came free markets and capitalism.
During the 18th century, revolutions continued in the form of the Industrial Revolution. This capitalist revolution was a sinister one. Children were forced to work in unsafe conditions. Deaths on the job were frequent occurrences. Appalled by the condition of the working class, Karl Marx sought a bridge between the working man and the bourgeoisie. That solution was communism. According to Marx, communism would grant the working man certain rights. In Marx’s communist utopia all men of all occupations would be equal. Unfortunately, there was a catch to this utopian society. Citizens would have to give their full trust to the government, allowing it to do as it pleases. Economically, no communist government can survive. In a communist society, most of the country’s money is spent on capital, or machinery. This tactic is useful in rebuilding structures and society; however, high spending on capital can not last for long. Pumping more money into capital allows for larger economic growth; however, the more a government pumps money into capital, the less money is left for consumer goods. This is known as the substitution effect. The people in communist societies had a limited variety of goods. Similar to capitalist societies of the time, people were overworked and received very little for their money. Both extreme capitalist and communist systems are ineffective in the long term. The World War II and the Cold War are excellent examples of the way governments portrayed a good verses evil doctrine. Both wars were not really good verses evil, but communism verses capitalism. Many confuse capitalism with democracy. Capitalism is an economic system that promotes private, free markets. Democracy is a form of government that promotes the voicing of citizens' ideas without representatives. The United States does not have a democratic government but a republic. Socialism, the opposite of fascism, has recently gained popularity in today’s society. Perhaps a society with government funded health care and education programs, limited government intervention in the marketplace, and only necessary restrictions on corporations is the bridge between the age-old war between capitalism and communism.
The 20th century was the century for science. There have been many improvements in all fields of science in the 20th century. All modern science has built upon the principles established by the great Albert Einstein. Einstein began where Newton left off, gravity. Einstein showed that gravity acts like a net that bends to the weight of the Earth and the Sun. Einstein also explained the creation of energy through E=mc² and the joining of space and time in the intricate fabric of space-time. Some of the many advancements of the 20th century are as follows: airplanes, rockets, satellites, radios, televisions, microwaves, lasers, robots, and the internet. A new type of physics also emerged in the 20th century, chaos. This science first emerged as quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics showed that at particle level, predictions must be made to determine what outcome will occur. From quantum mechanics emerged new theories of how the world works. As presented in the book, Van Doren explains the Big Bang and the possibility of the universe decreasing in size and collapsing. A new finding that is not included in the book is a form of matter called dark matter. Dark matter and dark energy constitute the majority of the universe. Dark matter does not allow for a cyclic universe. The universe can only expand. Dark matter and dark energy act like a glue that holds the universe together. Another advancement presented in the late 20th century –that is not presented in the book—is the finding of new theories that would combine classical physics with quantum physics. The most popular of these is String Theory. These new theories call for the universe to have many more dimensions than are currently known to man. If any of these theories are found to be true, this would shatter many age-old beliefs. Technology in the 20th century advanced more than in any other era. The pace in which newly advanced products emerge on the market is staggering. Because the demand for the latest hi-tech gadgets is constant, the incentive for companies to continue to pursue better technologies is high. The technology of the 20th century allowed for greater efficiency and comfort.
In A History of Knowledge, Van Doren wrote his predictions of the future. According to Van Doren, the 21st century would be a bizarre world where a one world government would rule and robots would demand authority. Some of his findings are true in today’s society. Some reports on the British Broadcasting Company suggested a universal law could be made in the near future granting robots equal rights as humans: the right to life, marriage, children, and even marriage with humans. The last suggestion is by far the most disturbing; however, a robot takeover of the world is highly unlikely anytime soon. The newest advancements in lifelike robots are robots that react to touch, think, and look similar to humans. Eventually the human race can very likely be replaced by a higher being. Many think this higher being will be an alien or a monkey. The human replacement will probably be robots. Van Doren was also accurate when describing the dangers presented to the environment: Global warming is no longer a prediction and is now widely accepted as a reality. The ozone layer and rainforests are still being destroyed by man. A recent proposal by environmentalists is currently shocking libertarians and humanitarians. According to some environmentalists, the only way to sustain the earth is to significantly reduce the population. Van Doren also realizes the impact of the human imprint. It would be controversial and hypocritical to condemn the murder of babies in China or the genocide in Darfur if the United States were to adopt a policy of population control. Genetic modification is another potential danger. Population growth is bad for the earth. A massive population reduction can be even more dangerous. Extending life has never been seen as a bad thing until now. If the upper class is the only group that can afford life extension, many of the problems in today’s society might continue for centuries. Population control is already being implemented in the United States and everywhere in an unexpected way. Global citizens are being poisoned. Toxins are being emptied into the food supply without labels required to warn the people that the food they are eating is genetically modified or with pesticides or hormones. Lack of exercise, along with an unhealthy diet and pharmacutical drugs, cause many of the health problems that are most popular today: diabetes, heart attacks, blood clots, acid reflux, kidney problems, arthritis, depression, and some insomnia.
The most controversial topic brought forth in the book A History of Knowledge was the suggestion of a world government. According to Charles Van Doren, world government would ensure peace. Libertarians and Constitutionalists would disagree whole-heartedly. Libertarians and Constitutionalists, as well as nationalists, believe that world government could jeopardize democracy and lead to the enslavement of the world population. According to them, the small percentage of people who have the most money and most influence would be the ones ruling. As a result, every law passed would benefit them. History has shown that power corrupts. If a tiny fraction of the world population gains control over the whole population, global citizens might see ridiculous price hikes, mass poverty and debt, and a non-existent middle class. World government could also do as Van Doren proposed, promote peace. Countries could no longer engage in war with another country because of resources or land. The international law would forbid war and the robbing of resources. Each continent would export goods to benefit the whole. Poverty could be eradicated and everyone could have a well-paying job. This sounds too close to socialism. Actually, it kind of is. This form of socialism is a watered-down, modern socialism. It is the form of socialism that already exists in countries like the United States and the European Union. The European Union is leaning more toward socialism than the United States, but they are both socialistic democracies. This term suggests that the governments of these countries are different shades of gray between socialism and democracy. In Europe, a 2/3 vote determines whether or not a piece of legislation is passed. This vote ensures a democracy. The expansion of their government ensures socialism. In the United States, citizens enjoy public schools, post offices, and libraries. The next step for the United States is public health care. After that, who knows? The most important things to be "socialized" are health care and schooling. Everything else is extra. This balance between socialism and capitalism might work better than some imagine, as long as the tip of the balance is not swayed too much to one side. Too little and too much regulation can be harmful to the environment, safety, security, and the economy. Unfortunately, such power has already damaged the United States’ economy. The government continues trying to regulate the economy. Once a government does this, the economy is forced further off its natural cycle. Europe, on the other hand, refuses to allow lower rates to banks despite protests. Such a response under pressure is how the government should handle an economic crisis: leave it alone. Personally, I think world government can be tolerable as long as local governments still hold certain rights. The Constitution should never be null and void. Unfortunately, the Constitution is slowly being stripped away by new legislation. This could mean the end of America. Some believe the end of America will lead to a union with Mexico and Canada and a one world government. Such fears are not without reason. Hopefully Van Doren’s predictions are correct. Hopefully a one world government would be one of peace and not fear.
Charles Van Doren’s A History of Knowledge is an excellent read. This book caused me to continue thinking about his proposals late into the night. The major theme of the book is progress. Van Doren shows that progress was not always welcome in societies. Currently, progress is sought and considered mandatory. Van Doren questions whether or not our current thoughts toward progress are correct: if society should seek progress the way it does. Progress can be used for good or bad. Progress can lead to cleaner energy sources, longer life-spans, and the removal of illness and aging. Progress could also lead to the destruction of mankind. Progress throughout history can be found in science, politics, and in the myriad of cultural practices. Progress can be either feared or revered. Van Doren’s extensive knowledge regarding all topics is impressive. In conclusion, A History of Knowledge is a thought provoking book that encourages the questioning of ideals and ideas.


Anonymous said...

It seems to be a great book. Thank you for posting it. Indeed education is the key for success. Thay is why some goverments still deny research and learning. They decide what people should study and the text books they should read. They want to control everything.
In a way I agree that upper class is the only group that can afford life extension; do not forget that the low class who lives out in the country is more active working the land, and taking care of their animals (chickens,pigs,etc.). Their air is not as polluted as the ones in the big cities, they hunt and fish consuming less food with preservatives. Also, like you said, drugs cause many other health problems, and because they can not afford to buy them they actually might live longer.

Seek2ruth said...

The middle class and poor are not as fortunate as you'd think. The middle and lower middle class are the ones who eat the food with pesticides and genetic modification. The poor in other countries have the left over fruit and vegetables that American companies did not want to sell to the American consumer. Also, since the early nineteen hundreds sterilization programs have been enforced upon the poor. The only ones who have clean water, food, cures, and genetic programs are the elite. There is a solution for the rest of us though. Simply eat organic, farmer's market, or home-grown food; exercise regularly; and use home remedies before resorting to big pharma.

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"An idealist is a person who helps other people to be prosperous." -Henry Ford

"All that we are is a product of what we have thought." -Buddha
So make sure you are worthy of what you create with your thoughts!