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John Ralston Saul: On Equilibrium
(Penguin Books: 2001)


“All of our societies contain within them the contradictions which may one day incapacitate or destroy us. In this, most schools of philosophy and religions are agreed. In accepting the idea of uncertainty and opposing forces, they assume that of suffering.... The path through this conundrum lies less with constitutions and laws - although they have  their essential roles to play - than with the individual’s sense of a personal dynamic equilibrium. That is a state of being that we might call responsible individualism. It contains the tools to alter our situations in ways which can allow our societies to function. Today’s rhetoric of power is designed to marginalize this reality of responsible individualism, and to replace it with abstract and technological forces beyond our control. I cannot help feeling that it is precisely the opposite which will happen, because it needs to happen.”

(Saul, p.327)

In an age of specialism rampant, “wisdom” is something mainly left to New Age types, and serious attempts to specify what it may mean for us are few & far between. Of these, perhaps Sternberg’s is the best known. Yet, on examination, it clearly betrays the limitations of its disciplinary background in cognitive psychology. What Sternberg glosses over - and Saul correctly emphasizes - are the complex, conflicting & non-rational (not irrational) processes which make wisdom impossible to quantify...and even more important to our technocratically -dominated societies of today...


“The disordered, messy, inefficient world of democracy can release a surprising percentage of society’s genius. A meritocracy, on the other hand, is so busy concentrating on efficiently identifying who is best and pushing him to the fore that it shuts down its confidence in the rest of us.... The whole idea of a society of winners - a place known above all for its best - leads with surprising speed to a narrow pyramidal social structure. And then to division and widespread passivity. That in turn leads to false populism and mediocrity; to a world obsessed by bread and circuses.... [On another level,] it is as if we believe that power creates all relationships. These we then treat as fundamentals. Many of these relationships are indeed the products of self-interest, of technology, of industrial structures, of various power structures.... But all-consuming though they may seem to us when we venture out at the utilitarian level of our lives, these are often temporary, even incidental relationships. They may last a year, or several generations, but they are on the service road of the human psyche. They are not central to it.”
(Saul, p.6-9)

However, John Ralston Saul rarely mentions “wisdom” in this, his finest book to date. Best known as a historian/critic of modern corporate/technocratic “rational” management - to which he opposes democratic pluralism - On Equilibrium grew out of his attempt to reconsider his findings in the light of the old debate between Protagoras & Socrates as to the qualities we all share in, that allow us to overcome divisions and live (relatively) peacefully together in complex societies. Thankfully, Saul is also implicitly critical of Socrates here...siding w/the sophist Protagoras as to the common humanity of these qualities:


“I would speculate that the list of our qualities is Common Sense, Ethics, Imagination, Intuition, Memory and Reason. I put them in alphabetical order because they strike me as being of equal importance.... [And] if you try to define these qualities each by themselves, you will end up back in the Manichean world of ethics versus unethical behaviour, reason versus the irrational. A nonsense world of stand-alone qualities and black-and-white certainties.... This is ideology. Our protection against this is our ability to seek equilibrium. To try to balance our qualities. We won’t succeed. But the process itself does make our life and our society possible. In this process, our genius as humans is released - our humanism - and if we can continue that effort, we can continue to act in a more or less balanced manner.”
(Saul, pp.13-14)

The list of qualities Saul provides is thought-provoking, as are his explanations - not definitions - of their characters, which usefully draw upon historical evidence from earlier periods, when common sense & intuition (for example) were not scorned by the learned. And, by treating each of the six in a separate essay - yet continually stressing the highly complex ways in which they inter-relate - Saul has managed to balance analytic division (for clarity) with essayistic inclusiveness in a way which makes the best use of these virtues, given the intractable complexity of the subject matter. The start, appropriately enough,  challenges our currently all-too-common dismissals of common sense, by re-stating its original meaning...one considerably different to that usually used today:


“What is common sense if not shared knowledge? It is not understanding. Many find this a difficult idea to accept - that we can know something we don’t understand. Not only can we know it, we can use the knowledge. We must simply be careful not to slip into superstition. Curiously enough, that problem is more theoretical than real. We talk a great deal about analysis and expertise, but most of what we do we don’t understand. We are able to do these things because we do know, and because we share this knowledge with others. Shared knowledge or common sense lies at the core of any successful society. In fact, the importance of our ability to use it continues to grow as that of structure and technology grows. Why? Because these structures interfere with our ability to use our common sense. They are linear, interested in control, essentially simplistic. Common sense is essentially complex, lateral and disinterested.... [It] has never been easy either to explain or to exercise. While reason may be the easiest of our qualities to deform, common sense has always been the easiest quality to turn into nonsense; the easiest to capture for ideological purposes. Why? Because a pretension of simplicity and truth can readily be presented as self-evident, meaning that we can but agree. This is false common sense, a manipulative mechanism to ensure the passivity of others. It is quite different to think of common sense as...the foundation of societies of all sorts - a foundation of undefined commonality which allows us to engage in conversation. You might call this the ongoing debate of human relationships, small and big.”
(Saul, p.19)

“We have always had a problematic relationship with truth. Shared knowledge does not assume it.... The jury is an evocation of common sense at its best. The court itself appears at first to be centred on a lengthy rational process dominated by a variety of experts.... Yet when the definitive moment comes, the jury is devoted to making a judgement not on what is true, but on what is most likely.... And if jury or judges can agree to set aside their doubts, then their shared knowledge will become not a truth, but a judgement. This act of common sense will have little to do with imagination or intuition or reason. Instead, it will require the acceptance by all of perpetual complexity.... [And] whether it is inherited, learnt or experienced as part of life in a society, the practical effect of common sense is best described as prudence. To take care is neither conservative nor radical. It is a form of consciousness - conscious that we are part of something which precedes us and, if we are prudent, will follow in as good or a better state. We are both reliant upon it and indebted to it.”
(Saul, pp.42-5)

“We must try to see common sense in the context of our other qualities. In those mirrors, it will take on its real shape. And so there is instinct, which does have an element about it of the common man’s sharp eye. There is our sweep of memory, which reminds us what shared knowledge has meant and can mean. There is reason, which provides a counterweight of conscious analysis. Imagination, which allows us to give shapes to what we are not certain we know. Ethics, which can protect us from destructive conclusions. These are the corrective effects which we gain by examining a quality through the light of another, as opposed to the isolating reflections produced by self-analysis.”
(Saul, pp.26-7)

Ihave quoted at some length from Saul on “common sense”, here, both to allow some insight into his mode of argumentation, and because no other quality in his list - with the exception, perhaps, of “intuition” - is characterized so differently from its meaning in most current usage. But, what I truly cannot deliver here is any real sense of his diverse (and masterful) use of examples - from both “real” life & literature - in order to illuminate and exemplify what he is getting at, as well as to suggest more complex patterns resistant to analytical approaches. Throughout, as well, he also pointedly critiques our overly narrow disciplinary “understandings” of these qualities, correctly seeing these as ideological commitments rather than genuine insights into human nature:


“No other quality is almost unanimously recognized as being of great importance and yet equally thought to be inapplicable in the real world. This is the conundrum of ethics.... A strange undercurrent of self-loathing accompanies this line: in order to succeed, a certain conformity is required when faced by ethical choices. This is called loyalty. In fact, it is a structured denial of the central role of ethics. But ethics is not romantic. It is perhaps the least romantic of all human qualities. It has a steely edge which...is there precisely because ethics is down-to-earth and practical, a matter of daily habit.... There is a need for constant effort, constant evaluation. Ethics is like a muscle which must be excercised daily in order to be used in a normal manner.... The full question is: How should I live, given the existence of the other, of the family, of the community. Of the common good. Ideologues and cynics aside, most of us are perfectly capable of asking ourselves the ethical questions. Once asked they demand not so much replies as continual, sustained questioning. To ask is to admit that we have both a need and an obligation to ask, to go on asking and, along the way, to act in accordance.”
(Saul, pp.65-8)

“Again and again over the last 2,500 years we have been subjected to the assertion that reason alone allows us to identify and use ethics. The intention has often been good. But the effect, each time, has been to...go down the road of relativism, where there are no choices, only process and interest....[But,] if not central to our daily life, ethics is nothing. The quality which reinforces that centrality is common sense. And the very idea of shared knowledge suggest why. If common sense is profoundly complex, ethics is inescapably disturbing...because it assumes that freedom - freedom with justice - comes before any form of authority.... [Furthermore,] there is no measurable, sustainable relationship between ethics and interest. When ethics is focused on the other - the neighbor, the fellow citizen, the unknown - it represents an obligation. That is, ethics is the precise opposite not only of interest but of charity, which grows in societies where ethics has been marginalized.... Charity fails as a social project. And it fails as a utilitarian methodology. It cannot be an expression of public ethics.... [However,] moralism has found a natural friend in managerialism. Both are top-down, judgemental and exclusive. They impose a modern version of noblesse oblige. They happily abandon the real strengths of democracy - the real ethical strengths - which are inclusive.... But again, the issue is not cost. It is ethics. There is an obligation to serve all citizens. It is not for one class or corporation to decide how the others will be served.”
(Saul, pp.90-101)

And, like all of my favourite thinkers, Saul is unafraid to castigate both sides in a long-running dispute - this time between the Enlightenment & Romanticism - for asking the wrong questions to begin with. This is particularly evident in his discussions of “imagination” and “intuition”...which offer refreshingly non-reductive, yet non-mystical accounts of these crucial qualities:


“Imagination isn’t really a means of distraction. Nor is it an unquantifiable wild card which needs to be saved from itself by responsible organizers. This is the quality which most naturally draws all of our other qualities together. But it does so in a...prolonged swirling uncertainty. It is that uncertainty which makes progress possible. Imagination protects us from the temptation of premature conclusions.... What’s more, it seems to draw us forward by using this prolonged uncertainty to alternately leap ahead and then enfold our other qualities - our other means of perception - into a new, inclusive vision of the whole. Then, just as we think we understand, it leaps ahead again into more uncertainty.... We are more or less capable of moving through time, propelled by common sense and memory. But what stops us from bogging down? Imagination energizes the norm. This suggests that it is not merely contemplative - though it needs contemplation. And it certainly isn’t secretive. It is perhaps our most aggressive quality. Yet this ambition is not based on self-interest. One of our most beloved cliches is that we need self-interest to motivate ourselves. Well, we certainly have self-interest. No doubt we need it. But not to motivate us. If anything, self-interest slows us down because it most often focuses on accumulation and the short term. If anything, imagination is more likely to serve disinterest. After all, being naturally inclusive, even more than ethics, imagination enables us to conceive of the other.... Imagination propells itself. And not in some mystical way. Imagination is encouraged by the habit of imagining. You see here the return of the theme of balance and of normalization. Because to imagine without the context of our other qualities is to decline into fantasy...[and] if you can’t live with the implications of uncertainty, you lock yourself into the old conundrum: logic is the art of going wrong with confidence.... Any marginalization of this central role of the imagination is an attempt at dehumanization. The denial of imagination as a central quality in the conceptualization of societies is an attempt to deny the other. What are the signs of such a denial? First, a belief in the primacy of self-interest. Then there is the belief that a healthy imagination is reserved for a few superior people...[And] it is difficult to adequately express the damage done to our use of ethics and imagination by the romantic movement of the nineteenth century”
(Saul, pp.115-29)

“Much of what we call imagination is really intuition. Perhaps this happens because imagination is such an aggressive, offensive force, while intuition is essentially defensive - a reaction to the need to choose: to choose to act and to chose how to express ourselves. In our imaginations, we have the courage, the strength, the aggressivity to juggle uncertainty. But we also need to make decisions. Periodically, we wish to or must make sense of the swirling forces of imagination in which there are elements of memory, common sense, ethics, and reason.... This is the intuitive moment. It may not sound defensive, but it is. The offensive force is the swirling uncertainty of our imagination. Intuition is our response to that movement. In other words, intuition is the most practical of our qualities. The most useful, verging on the utilitarian.... It comes in two forms. First it is the basis of action which does not have the luxury of slow consideration. And very little of what we do is truly the fruit of careful consideration. Second, in a more passive form, intuition is the manner in which we choose to express ourselves.... Our problem remains that, while we have integrated intuition into our civilization in an almost self-evident manner, it remains technically excluded from how we run our affairs. This creates a conflict between reality and the way we pretend to manage reality.... There is no point ignoring - as so much of social organization and indeed formal philosophy does - the real circumstances in which choice normally takes place. Choices of all sorts, big and small. To pretend that immobile conditions leading to clear, conscious decision-making are a reality available to any of us at almost any time is simply naive. To refuse to deal with how we have made choices over thousands of years and millions of occasions is to abandon philosophy to marginality by fixating on the imaginary ideal of ‘certainty’.”
(Saul, pp.163-72)

However, perhaps the most intriguing essay here is that devoted to “memory” - the favoured quality of conservatives and, hence, too often neglected or dismissed by progressives of all sorts. Saul here, again, shows little mercy on those whose utopian dreams attempt to re-write human nature...although - as he carefully points out - today these fools are more likely on the right than the left...now that Marxism has found its (own) dustbin of history.


“Memory is not the past. It is the water you swim through, the words you speak, your gestures, your expectations. This suggests that memory has a shape. We use it every day. From it we grasp a context - for our thoughts, our questions, our actions. Our lives. Without a context there is no civilization, no society, no profound relationships.... Common sense is shapeless, as is imagination and rationality. And intuition is a function of choice. it cuts across shape.... Only memory gives us the ability to shape our thinking and our actions in a balanced way, [for]...without memory, there is a vacuum. Propaganda thrives in a vaccum, as does ideology. As does public relations. All three replace context with scrambled fragments of memory. False memory. Artificial shape.... [As well,] many of us, when we hear memory, shape, context, understand this as...an attempt to remove our right to act as individuals.... But I spoke of shape and context - the shape and context of civilization - not the prison walls of some tyrannical social or political control. A rigid or dominant memory would be an ideology. It would deform our other qualities by forcing them through a single spectrum.... [But,] to imagine that we have no need of context would be the ultimate form of false individualism. On the pretext that we are free, absolutely free, we would impose upon ourselves an anarchistic void of constantly recurring ignorance. Not doubt. Not questioning. But shapeless ignorance in which nothing can be imagined or analyzed, let alone judged. Without context, ethics is powerless, and the shared knowledge of common sense slips into meaninglessness. Such a state of being is neither freedom, nor an expression of individualism. It is a psychosis.”
(Saul, pp.213-19)

“I spoke earlier of memory as layering. When it comes to public affairs, cathartic memory is, more often than not, the negative side of layering. The non-cathartic memory is far more subtle, more interesting. It has all the complexity of restraint. It understands that each action creates a new layer of skin, which will grow upon our individual or societal bodies in a sound or diseased way.... I’m not suggesting that there is no room for cathartic experience. We have it in our personal lives, in births and deaths, in our friendships. Creativity is a catharsis for the artist and the public. Sports, adventures, there are endless opportunities for catharsis. But once it moves into the ordering of societies, memory becomes dysfunctional and the scarring begins.”
(Saul, p.233)

And when - in the shape of the final quality of the six - Saul returns to “reason”, the core concern of his earlier books...we can sense a deepening of his understanding here, in that having to spell out the nature of the other five has helped clarify just where this sadly overburdened faculty fits in...


“If reason were only reason, would that not be a fine thing? Why persist in insisting that it is an all-purpose, all-seeing, all-doing force, innately ethical, virtuous because progress is a virtue and reason the engine of progress? Why should any quality have to be both the ideal expression of our humanness and the instrumental mechanism by which we should act? After all, any honest glance at our own experience tells us that none of this is so.... Eliminate the godhead of pure reason and the jumped-up utilitarianism of instrumental reason. What is then revealed is the quality itself. Reason is thought. Argument is an adjunct of thought. Both are unrelated to purity, certainty, and instrumentalism. This least utilitarian of qualities is simply waiting to be rescued from those who have kidnapped it as a cover for their directionless obsession with form, methodology, technology and managerialism... [For,] as with common sense or ethics, reason requires a relationship of tension with our other qualities in order to function. Irrationality shows itself in a taste for absolute answers or truths, in self-referentialism, or in a belief that specialization implies a privileged access to truth. Our central protection from irrationality is the tension between reason and the other qualities.”
(Saul, pp.265-7)

“The strength of reason is its ability to free us precisely from ourselves, from thinking we are because we think. Rather it is that marriage between thought and the other which makes reason both conscious and intelligent.... Our ability to think is our ability to illuminate our disease. What maintains our understanding of our laws and safely directs our use of knowledge, methodology and machinery is our ability to to consider it. And to expose all of this to the cross-tensions of ethics and memory and common sense. And to make intellectual use of the swirling uncertainties of imagination. [And] it is imagination which allows us to drag our intellect out of its self-referential tendencies, just as it is ethics which helps us to stay away from logical truths which are profoundly destructive. And it is the shared knowledge of common sense which protects us against intellectual nonsense. And the context and shape of memory which can help to steer us away from that ideological certainty which convinces us that we can cut free from all that exists and do something else. These qualities drag our reason onto fertile ground and keep it away from the isolating delusions of purity and instrumentalism.... Thought is certainly not about locking in truth. If anything, it is a constant struggle to remain conscious of our acts. If you attempt to tie reason to progress, then you will limit thought by basing it on a delusion. And from there, it will slip effortlessly into a tool of self-interest and ideology.... [Because,] of our six qualities, reason has the greatest difficulty working with the others. What seem to be missing are the mechanisms to reach out easily to find out what the other qualities have to offer. Plato and Descartes misinterpreted this weakness as a strength - a splendid isolation of superiority. They therefore set about interpreting delusions as reality.”
(Saul, pp.283-6)

Isaid at the beginning of this review that On Equilibrium was John Ralston Saul’s finest work to date. And now comes the time to justify that claim - particularly since it has attracted less attention than the earlier Voltaire’s Bastards and The Unconscious Civilization. Well, one major flaw with those earlier works may be found in Saul’s profound misunderstanding of the nature of science - and, consequently, of the proper relationship between humanism and our most carefully-tested body of reliable knowledge in the modern world - a problem he has now largely overcome. And, on a very different level, the essayistic history/lecture approach of those earlier works - although masterfully written - was hardly unique...being the favoured mode of cultural critics of all stripes. On Equilibrium, however, is unique - as far as I am able to see - in recasting Montaigne’s essay form to attempt a full portrayal of the richly interwoven strands which make wisdom functional as a useful human ideal.

And, make no mistake about it, the delineation and promotion of wisdom - in a technocratic/corporatist political order - is an inescapably political project...and a key part of any viable escape into any genuinely democratic humanism. What Saul has done here is fully in accord with the best contemporary work in psychology, for example (as he is now well-aware), yet this does not mean any kind of “surrender” to disciplinary specialist thought. On the contrary, it is (neuro)psychology - now - that has fundamentally undermined the fact/value distinction, bringing it closely into line with the best humanistic insights of the past. And, as valuable as these are, it is also true that we need to recast their assumptions in light of the changes in human values (and knowledge) which have marked us today. Similarly, the delicate balance between analytic division & essayistic discursiveness which Saul develops here provides us with some genuinely new insights into the (dynamic) structure of wisdom...even if we do not agree with him on all points. The multi-stranded nature of fundamental human satisfactions - and hence ethics/politics - which Ernest Gellner re-affirmed, despite the massive empirical successes of the sciences, is too often abandoned to obscurantists in our modern over-specialized societies. In exploring its forms - and re-interpreting the concept of wisdom for today - John Ralston Saul proves himself a true heir to the philosophes of the Enlightenment...mediating incisively (and courageously) between power & knowledge...and, raising a whole raft of questions that we really need to ask...


“The rhetoric of global forces, whether economic, technological, or military, leaves us as individuals with the demeaning and irrelevant pleasures of self-fulfillment, providing we can afford them. I sense little satisfaction among people with this enforced holiday from the ability to shape their own destinies, and the shared destiny of their society. In fact, I sense growing discomfort and anger. They see their lives, their families, their streets, let us say their friendships, as reality. And this reality is the basis from which larger realities must be shaped. Used in this way, the word friendship has myriad implications. It can be to society what the jury is to democracy. These are the relationships we choose. These few people are our personal engagement with the other. In the classical sense, friendship has always been a proof of our ability to free ourselves from the exclusivity of love and the narrowing passivity of self-interest.”
(Saul, pp.327-8)



John Henry Calvinist