The Long View: The Coming World Civilization

William Ernest Hocking

William Ernest Hocking

The most interesting idea to come out of this book by William Ernest Hocking is the 'unlosables', those aspects of a culture that persist even when the society that created them falls into decay. It the unlosables that we speak of when we refer to the Greek or Roman heritage of the West. In many ways, Western Civilization has very little in common with Classical Greece or Rome. The Roman ideal of justice, for example, would be seen as unspeakably brutal by nearly everyone in the United States or Western Europe. Yet, there is a certain something that we do share, that has outlived its creators by millennia.

Hocking wanted to sift out what is unlosable in our civilization. John wasn't entirely sure he got there, but it is much harder to evaluate our own selves in such a way.

There are a couple of really striking paragraphs here:

First, from Hocking:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.
“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

And next, from John Reilly:

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

These two ideas have stuck with me for a very long time. Perhaps not unlosable, but pretty good. I shan't speculate what might fit that requirement; the only way I know to identify them is after the fact. If you could identify these ideas in advance, that Golden Age scifi conceit of truly scientific social science might become a reality.

Richard Dawkins' memes have not proven to be particularly useful as scientific concepts, but Hocking's unlosables seem to share a family resemblance to memes. In an analogous way to how genes outlast the species in which they evolved, unlosables can persist when a culture has been entirely eliminated from the Earth.  More's the pity that Dawkins never read anything by a real philosopher, it might have helped him shore up his most distinctive idea.


The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking
Harper & Brothers, 1956
210 Pages

 

 

This book is about just one feature of the hypothetical coming world civilization: the nature of the religion that civilization will need to undergird it. The gist of the answer is that Christianity is best suited for that role, but a Christianity stripped of mythology, and reconceptualized in existential terms. The book's argument has many similarities to esoteric Tradition, but is devoid of reference to the modern esoteric writers.

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) chaired the philosophy department at Harvard University around 1940; Alfred North Whitehead was a colleague. This book is influenced by the Harvard pragmatists friendly to theism, William James and Josiah Royce, whose careers at Harvard ended about the time Hocking's began in 1914. However, Hocking wrote “The Coming World Civilization” when Toynbee was in flower. That was the last time, before the 1990s, when people were inclined to speculate about universal states, the role of religion in world order, and the conflicts among civilizations. Already in 1956, Hocking was trying to view the modern era as a whole, and to imagine what would come after it.

Hocking does not trouble to argue for the inevitability of a world civilization. He simply notes that, though civilizations rise and fall, they never fall below the starting point of the last rise. Civilizations create “unlosables,” technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. Mechanically, the world was already unified by the middle of the 20th century. The problem Hocking addresses here is that a world civilization, like any other civilization, needs something more than a common technology, or even a common politics:

“[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art – the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command.”

Hocking's description of the limits of the competence of the state is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that he takes propositions as self-evident that neoconservatives were just beginning to articulate thirty years later:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Many Traditionalists, however defined, foresee that the modern age will not last forever. Often they see it as a total loss, and they cannot wait for it to be over. Hocking, too, looks for the end of modernity at no very distant date. (The nearly 50 years since the writing of this book are still no great distance in history.) His endeavor, though, is to discern the “unlosables” that modernity has achieved, and to separate them from the characteristic faults of the era.

Modern individualism, in Hocking's estimation, is one such advance. Unfortunately, it is tinged by the malady of meaninglessness. Because of Kant and Descartes, it has a subjective base, which serves to separate the individual from any greater whole from which meaning might descend.

The problem of modern individuality is solipsism. It cannot be remedied by a retreat to pre-modern religion, not if we are to preserve the depth of modern subjectivity. (The loss of which would mean what? A world without autobiographical novels?) Rather, we must pass straight through modernity, to the other side. The key to that is the recognition that each subject has a common experience: the Thou-art relationship.

The “thou” here is not just other people, but also the experience of a world. A world is far more than a mere collection of experiences. It is coherent in the way that our experience of other people is personal. In fact, the world is personal, if not quite a person. As for the “selves” in this world, we must recognize that we know other selves in much the way we known our own thinking self: the self is a concept, never a matter of direct perception.

The experience of the Thou is the foundation of science, which is identical to the intuition of the existence of God:

“All this is wrapped up in the spontaneous impulsive summoning of one's will to think, the simplest and most general response to the presence in experience of the universal Other-mind.

“The strength and persistence of that response is seen in the corporate and historic edifice we call 'science,' a building surely not made with hands.”

The religion of the coming civilization will mend the link between the modern soul and the Absolute. At any rate, it better. Modern subjectivity and science are among the unlosables. They will become universals. The problem is that, in the West, these advances were predicated on specific motivations and a characteristic morale; the advances meant specific things, and Western civilization developed the reflexes to deal with them. These predicates are not found in other civilizations. If subjectivity and science are not incorporated into a spirituality, the result will be incalculable. That is why Christianity is most likely to play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era: the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

Consider, for instance, the most extreme view of 19th-century science, that the world is nothing but dead matter. Hocking calls that “the Night Vision.” He also argues that it is a great moral achievement. Western science is based on the virtues of humility and austerity: humility before the facts, and the rejection of extravagance in the making of hypotheses. Francis Bacon said: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” Science is the willful suppression of self-will. Only thus could the will of God be known, as manifest in the created world.

Hocking also points out that only the purposeless physical world revealed by science could morally become the object of human purpose. Opening the world to human exploitation is another real advance.

The science of Christendom naturally pushed toward autonomy, toward a system of the physical world in which God does not interfere. The tension between this science and the religion that created it haunts modern man, but it is a fruitful tension. Religion rests on a broad empiricism, which understands that the world transcends scientific questions, but which does not challenge science within its own sphere. Much of the modern malaise comes from false science, which tries to put forward metaphysical propositions about meaning and truth for which science offers no warrant.

In Western history, as the arts and sciences were freed from religion, they curbed and instructed Christianity. By removing the historical and cultural excrescences that had made Christianity specifically Western, free thought is making Christianity universal. Christianity is not going to lose its particularity, or the marks of its history. However, if it is to play a universal role, it must be purged and purified and simplified enough to represent universals to the whole world.

Christianity, Hocking assures us, is a religion of induction. This is how Jesus could say that love of God and love of neighbor are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. There are, of course, particulars of Christian ethics, which are often paralleled in other traditions: kindness to enemies; the need for rebirth; the injunctions, not just to do certain things, but also to feel in a certain way. However, this can all be summed up in the Great Induction: “He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

Christianity is not a sacrifice, then, but the will to create through suffering. Its moral code is inseparable from a worldview in which the most real is the all-loving.

Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. Thus, the will, particularly the will to futurity, is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer. Similarly, the sense of sin is direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand.

Assume that the Christian movement succeeds in purifying itself to its simple essence. It would thereby cease to be specifically Western, and so more fitted for a universal role. But what would the religious system of the coming world civilization look like?

The key is that a universal system can affirm some things without necessarily rejecting everything else. Hocking assures us there is an intuitive recognition of mystic by mystic across the boundaries of the great religions. Thus, the great religions are already united at their summits. This is far from saying that every religion is essentially the same, or that one is no better than another. Indifferentism, relativism, and syncretism betray the search for truth.

The historic faiths will survive in the world civilization, but will not seek to displace each other. Rather, they will share a “reverence for reverence.” The struggle against idolatry will continue, but within each religious tradition, not between them. In much the same way, nations in the coming civilization will retain their value and historical mission. A spiritually and culturally homogenous world would be a nightmare.

* * *

Readers will have gathered that, to some extent, this book is a period piece. At least in the field of religion, I have encountered few other works that appealed so strongly to the authority of experience, while insisting so hard that experience must behave itself. Quite aside from Hocking's unconsidered dismissal of the supernatural as conventionally understood, there is something odd about his tendency to equate “mysticism” with the existentialist's intuition of Being. Agony and ecstasy, much less flaming chariots and the dread of Hell, seem to play no part in the spirituality of the world civilization. Hocking is aware of this himself. He expresses the hope that the East might add healthy fanaticism to the West's maturity. The problem is that all this rather misses what religion means to people at all levels of sophistication.

Hocking's account of Christianity as a system of inductions is fascinating, but it's not Christianity. People bother with Jesus because of the Atonement; Christian ethics is simply a radiation from that core. The ethics is not, frankly, all that interesting. In the early 21st century, a stripped-down form of Christianity does in fact bid fair to become a universal religion, but it has less to do with existentialism than with Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, this book is full of wisdom. It gives a satisfactory, if not wholly unchallengeable, answer to the problem of solipsism. That “quiet music in the back of the mind” (I think of it as a prosaic hum) that William James described as the everyday sense of the presence of God may not be the Beatific Vision, but it is not a bad place to begin theological inquiry. There is nothing wrong with a phenomenological approach to the spiritual life. That is what John Paul II has been up to all these years.

And what about the central questions of the book? Does a world civilization require a world religion? Can this religion be unified at the top, in the sphere of religious genius, while the spiritual life of ordinary mankind continues in its colorful variety? No, not if the religion is God's doing. God doesn't start at the top. You can look it up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking