Toward a (the?) Canadian Enlightenment

I write this on the eve of the launch of formal preparations for a Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial, a 277 day celebration to take place in 2019 from March 28th to December 30th, these dates being the 75th anniversary of his death and the 150th anniversary of his birth. If you want to plug into this event, the place to start is http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca.

In my most recent post I came down on the side of a humanistic approach to economics, part of my belief in a humanistic approach to everything. I am not always sure that some of our ways of thinking about huge issues are as humanistic as they need to be. For example, spokespeople for the indigenous point of view often advocate on behalf of Mother Earth, and they are right so to do. But over the course of history certain decisions have been taken about our relationship with Mother Earth, decisions which cannot be reversed without wholesale destruction of humanity, either in the crude mortal sense, or in regression to a primitive state of poverty, hardship and brutality. While I do not believe that a high level of material prosperity, a high “standard of living”, should be the limit of our aspiration, I am not prepared to sneeze at it either.

Our relationship with Mother Earth is often brutal and exploitative and wasteful to a degree that our descendants, if we have any, will find difficult to believe. They will turn away from it with the same kind of revulsion that we feel towards slavery, child labour, gratuitous massacre, the gorier forms of capital and corporal punishment, rape, physical abuse, and other practices that we believe to be conspicuously evil. But our relationship with Mother Earth has another dimension too, which has allowed us to sustain ourselves and to prosper wonderfully despite our burgeoning population which, relatively speaking, is not a new phenomenon. We have been actively manipulating Mother Earth to increase her productivity for our benefit for quite a number of centuries, even millennia, and doing very well out of it. Irrigation works, the torching of countryside to encourage new growth, the breeding of plants and animals, the damming of streams, these are all blatant intrusions into the natural realms of Mother Earth, and they go back a long time. Our power to make such intrusions destructive has increased enormously in the past 200 years, but so too has our power to make them productive and beneficial.

It is this kind of worry, for which I claim no originality, that makes me so interested in the Stephen Leacock trope of the Unsolved Riddle. I think that our relationship with Mother Earth is an Unsolved Riddle and that any person or point of view claiming to have the answer and with the power to impose it is likely to do us great harm. The truth, as one Charles Simeon said years ago, does lie at one extreme or the other, nor half-way between, but at both extremes. The question of how to do that is an Unsolved Riddle.

But we can’t simply run around wringing our hands. We have to find ways to think, and act. Stephen Leacock said of his Great Detective that to think was to act and to act was to think—frequently he could do both together. That is what we need to learn to do.

When we have found a way, a new way, or an old way reinvented, then we call it, or the ideas behind it, an Enlightenment. I am interested in the question of whether something has percolated through the pages of our history that could be called a Canadian Enlightenment, and if so, who lit it. I think it quite possibly has, incomplete and imperfect as the application has been. Obviously it must have several strands and that the application is a species of weaving. I think that the European Enlightenment wove the strands of Knowledge and Imagination to an unprecedented degree. I think that Compassion was soon added, because Knowledge and Imagination by themselves can lead too easily lead into darkness. To make them work in a Canadian context, however, we need something else, because our context is inherently uncongenial and maybe even impossible. But here we are, and we have to do our best. Humour becomes the necessary fourth strand for us. I believe that that discovery belongs to Stephen Leacock.

Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour: the four strands in the Canadian Enlightenment, woven and perpetually re-woven by investigation, conversation, experimentation, and negotiation, the next step forward forever an Unsolved Riddle. That, at any rate, is my hypothesis. Pursuit ho!

Ahoy! Have you seen the Canadian Enlightenment?

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