The Public Square heard one person lately say: “Civilization feels like a thin cross (of law and order) on the top of a volcano.” We are in a strange time generally, one where events – like the late unpleasantness in Charlottesville and the solar eclipse – may have larger lessons.
Some 200 years ago, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: ‘Everything nowadays…is being transcended notionally in thought as well as in action. No one knows himself any longer; no one can grasp the element in which he lives and works….Pure simplicity is out of the question…people are stirred up much too early in life and then carried away in the whirl of the times.” Could this true today as well?
For the seven million around the world joining millions here, the solar eclipse was a rare and exhilarating event. Many, however, lined the path of totality as an escape. Pleading external unity in world events troubling them, they ironically took to worship a dark circle for two minutes (the only way to see the sun) as a quest for the light of life.
The eclipse, a quite transient event, appeared to offer many a precision and predictability not much found elsewhere. Others, seeing the solar pathway diagonally stretched across the U. S. in the papers, thought it was the U. S. political divide: opposite points, Oregon and South Carolina, led them logically to this human over heavenly conclusion.
It was different 100 years ago. In American Eclipse, science journalist David Baron writes inspiringly about the 1878 total solar eclipse. It was viewed as unifying the young energy of the American nation. Then, astronomical science started replacing loud noises and banging drums from earlier generations who feared the sun might not shine again. The “pearlescent…corona around it that no camera can capture,” made the Earth seem “like a big place, but…not…such a big place after all.”
Observing how “a…typical workday assumed a new and exotic countenance,” Baron quotes The New York Herald then:
“Portly bankers about to start for home paused on their office steps and turned their eyes above the money making world; merchants stood in the doorways of their busy stores, alternately consulting the face of their watches and the face of the sky; clerks and messengers, hurrying along he crowded streets, ceased to knock and jostle one another….”
America’s attention was drawn “…to the higher spheres….” that long ago July 29, 1878. The casting of superstition from the cathedral of the skies, the awe of Earth, tipping of the hat in a busy New York workplace, gratitude beyond the self, wonder over who we are – all seem, however, far removed from our spirit as a people today. So what is the pathway in our hearts now?
In this age of Big Data, the world seems to argue, clamor, demand, accuse and be a babble of voices. Far from clarity, society loads itself up with behaviors, information, patterns, and prejudices – whether those of division in Charlottesville or the yearning for momentary unity surrounding the eclipse days later. Data can help us calculate the skies and build memorials well, but it won’t touch the heart.
Centuries ago, St. Augustine counseled that he who flees outwards loses touch with himself. He who wanders from his own heart, moves away from himself. There is nothing wrong, he says, between our being ignorant, only neglecting to find out what makes us so.
We may not heal our “wounded limbs,” he reminds us, but “It is essential to find out what it is that it is damaging not to be aware of;….” There is plenty of “fight” for us in those words still – no one needs to bow to the skies, or scrape the ground to unearth sealed monuments sprinkling the past. Blaming others beyond the self shows we don’t think much of ourselves.
Symbols like stars and memorials acting as time capsules weave a world. People can revere mountain peaks, be rapt by the boundless tides of sea, the sweep of rivers, the motions of stars, and the history of a land. But symbols, which extol place or time, carry even more weight. Because they summarize belief, they are not easy to confront. Yet casting light on them often illumines what they might say about us.
In this case, there must be a higher calling for our civilization than streaming to worship the vaults of heaven while concurrently axing the vaults of earth. The only way to conquer prejudice is, after all, to rise superior to all parts of it. For with prejudice, at times, come elements of hysteria. They arise from the comforts of indignation. They can sweep us up in a preferred side. This is perhaps “the whirl of the times.”
The Public Square believes we can learn valuably from events puncturing the news. Our real path of totality is one separating light and shadow. As the eclipse of 1878 ended false notions about the moon’s shadow to the ancients, let us focus on the heavens still and memorialize the darkness surrounding our statues by using the light of Augustinian discernment to end shadows of hate.