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Brian Coyne: If you
were a late 21st Century intergallactic explorer and you were allowed
a limited allowance of personal reading or videos to take on your journey
to start a new colony in a new galaxy what would you choose to take with
Say you were allowed to take a maximum of four books or videos. Which
one's would you choose?
Yes, I know, this is a variation of the Stranded on the Desert Island
story. It'd make an interesting topic for conversation on our forum at
some stage though.
I introduce this commentary in this way because I'd like to talk about
one of those books I would definitely include in my allowance. I wouldn't
mind taking either a copy of the book or the dvd and in fact will be borrowing
from both in what I am about to write here.
It was not actually my idea to write a commentary like this at this time.
How it has come about is this. A few days ago my fiance and creative/business
partner, Amanda McKenna, was searching for a video or dvd for an hour
or so's entertainment. A couple of months ago I had purchased a copy on
dvd of what is perhaps my all-time favourite production. I'd not yet viewed
it as I already have the book and have copies on tape I'd recorded many
years ago from the on-air broadcasts. I purchased the dvd set from the
ABC shop principally so that I have an archivable record of this production
that will last many decades' longer than any videotape.
The program is the BBC series The Ascent of Man
which was written and presented by Professor Jacob Bronowski. It consists
of thirteen 50-minute episodes and when originally screened was spread
over a quarter of a year. It was originally screened on the BBC in 1973
and in Australia on the ABC a short time later. It has continued to be
repeated at regular intervals in the decades since. It has only been in
the last year or so that it has been released on DVD.
Amanda had never seen this production. She had often heard me talk about
She took the dvd and went off to her studio and the next time I spoke
to her was about six hours later. She'd become so engrossed in the series
she ended up watching about half the episodes in one sitting. I cannot
describe the personal joy I have experienced in finding a partner who
has become as enthusiastic as myself about Dr Jacob Bronowski and what
he had to say in this television series. Our conversation, and life, in
the days since has taken on a new meaning.
In the midst of all this, some days later, Amanda watched the last episode.
It was this episode that led to her suggesting that we write a joint reflection.
Very animatedly she was enthusiastically describing to me how there were
so many points of intersection with what Bronowski had been saying in
1969 and much of the discussion that is to be found in the commentaries
and discussion on Catholica. We sat down and watched this episode,
which is the last in the series, together and it is from that joint viewing
that we have prepared this reflection.
Let me now hand over to Amanda and let her describe the relevance she
sees today in Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Humankind...
Amanda McKenna: I have been moved
deeply by the entire series The Ascent of
Man but the last episode in particular – which Dr
Bronowski titled "The Long Childhood"
– had particular poignancy. It intersected with some of our recent
conversations on Catholica in a powerful way for me. Dr
Bronowski was drawing attention 37 years ago to the crucial importance
of our ability to question. Listen to this...
History, of course, did not stand still between
the nomad and the Renaissance. The ascent of man has never
come to a stop. But the ascent of the young, the ascent of
the talented, the ascent of the imaginative : that became
very halting many times in between.
Of course there were great civilisations. Who am I to belittle
the civilisations of Egypt, of China, of India, even of Europe
in the Middle Ages? And yet by one test they all fail : they
limit the freedom of the imagination of the young. They are
static, and they are minority cultures. Static, because the
son does what the father did, and the father what the grandfather
did. And minority, because only a tiny fraction of all that
talent that mankind produces is actually used ; learns to
read, learns to write, learns another language, and climbs
the terribly slow ladder of promotion.
In the Middle Ages the ladder of promotion was through the
Church ; there was no other way for a clever, poor boy to
go up. And at the end of the ladder there is always the
image, the icon of the godhead that says, 'Now you have reached
the last commandment: "Thou shalt not question".'
In our discussions on Catholica recently, this question
of questioning has been a focus of some attention, particularly since
KateD's 28th August reflection: A
Journey To Spiritual Maturity, and the follow-up from Peregrinus
on 30th August, The
value of Questioning in the maturation of faith.
I, too, have memories of how things were 'back in the day' when the sisters
ran the show. I, too, learned how not to question. If you did things the
way sister said, then you'd get top marks … and I was a girl who
loved top marks. At the same time, I had parents who encouraged questioning
as a way of breaking open and appropriating an issue. I learned from them
that the only way to really understand something was to get down to the
nitty-gritty to understand why something
is, as opposed to simply what. Thankfully,
by the time I got into high school, we had sisters who were passionate
about their (and by extension, our) faith and were also passionate questioners.
When I look around the world today and hear the various attitudes expressed
about religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, I am constantly
gobsmacked by the attitude of some who seem to think that asking questions
– particularly of religious authorities – brands one as some
sort of 'traitor to the cause'. We're all supposed to just do as we're
And I can't help thinking: I wonder where we'd be if they'd said the
same thing to Sts. Paul or Augustine? Where would that have left Sts.
Francis and Clare? Still, I suppose Sir Thomas More would still have his
head, at least.
Listen to what Dr Bronowski had to say about More...
Erasmus made two lifelong friends, Sir Thomas
More in England and Johann Frobenius in Switzerland. From
More he got what I got when I first came to England, the sense
of pleasure in the companionship of civilised minds. From
Frobenius he got a sense of the power of the printed book.
Frobenius and his family were the great printers of the classics
in the 1500s, including the classics of medicine. Their edition
of the works of Hippocrates is, I think, one of the most beautiful
books ever printed, in which the happy passion of the printer
sits on the page as powerful as the knowledge.
What did those three men and their books mean — the works
of Hippocrates, More's Utopia, The Praise of Folly by Erasmus?
To me, this is the democracy of the intellect; and that is
why Erasmus and Frobenius and Sir Thomas More stand in my
mind as gigantic landmarks of their time. The democracy of
the intellect comes from the printed book, and the problems
that it set from the year 1500 have lasted right down to the
student riots of today. What did Sir Thomas More die of? He
died because his king thought of him as a wielder of power.
And what More wanted to be, what Erasmus wanted to be,
what every strong intellect wants to be, is a guardian of
If these people had not had the freedom to question would it have furthered
the mission of Christ? I suspect not. Worse, it would have interfered
with the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet, this atrophied attitude is
still bandied about by an increasingly vocal minority today. And the more
fear-filled the world becomes, the shriller the cries. Questioning itself
is branded as some sort of 'failure to trust God' – as if the Church
actually were God – and the whole thing is just a vehicle to some
quasi-new-age 'anything goes', liberated philosophy. Well, I can't speak
for anyone else's motivations, but that certainly hasn't been my experience.
I would argue strongly that it is the silencing of questions that actually
interferes with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I would go even
further and suggest that our call to follow Jesus Christ actually calls
us to question. The irony is that the questions 'liberate' us only insofar
as they deepen the call to take up our own 'crosses' and follow Christ,
the One in whom true Liberation is found, and do our best to live with
Just look at where we have come from. Listen to these words from Dr Bronowski,
a man of Jewish faith background, describing his encounter with Jesus...
There is an age-old conflict between intellectual
leadership and civil authority. How old, how bitter, came
home to me when I came up from Jericho on the road that Jesus
took, and saw the first glimpse of Jerusalem on the skyline
as he saw it going to his certain death. Death, because Jesus
was then the intellectual and moral leader of his people,
but he was facing an establishment in which religion was simply
an arm of government. And that is a crisis of choice that
leaders have faced over and over again: Socrates in Athens;
Jonathan Swift in Ireland, torn between pity and ambition;
Mahatma Gandhi in India; and Albert Einstein, when he refused
the presidency of Israel.
I bring in the name of Einstein deliberately because he was
a scientist, and the intellectual leadership of the twentieth
century rests with scientists. And that poses a grave problem,
because science is also a source of power that walks close
to government and that the state wants to harness. But if
science allows itself to go that way, the beliefs of the twentieth
century will fall to pieces in cynicism. We shall be left
without belief, because no beliefs can be built up in this
century that are not based on science as the recognition of
the uniqueness of man, and a pride in his gifts and works.
It is not the business of science to inherit the earth,
but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that
man and beliefs and science will perish together.
My parents taught me that real truth can not only withstand scrutiny,
but it is illuminated by scrutiny — that the life of faith is one
of discernment every single day. There is nothing to fear from questions.
It is, as Professor Bronowski points out, how we learn and expand our
understanding as a human species. Teachers question us because they know
it is a way to engage us to explore the subject at hand. Jesus, the Great
Questioner asks the ever-pertinent question: "Who do you say
Both Brian and I would urge you to buy or borrow the book or the DVD
on Dr Bronowski's The Ascent of Man.
Brian argues that it is one of those key reference books any home needs
like a Bible, like a good dictionary, like Sir Kenneth Clark's television
series, Civilisation, or like
Paul Johnson's, A History of Christianity.
We would urge you to refresh yourselves on the whole series if you haven't
viewed it recently. In particular though the closing Episode, The Long
Childhood, is particularly prescient as a commentary, even prophesy,
of some important issues we face as individuals, as a Church, and as human
civilisation. I think they are particularly poignant words in the light
of Cliff Baxter's commentary yesterday. Here are Dr Bronowski's closing
words to the series...
We are all afraid — for our confidence,
for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human
imagination. Yet every man, every civilisation, has gone forward
because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.
The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual
commitment and the emotional commitment working together as
one, has made the Ascent of Man.
Brian Coyne: And to
end this reflection I asked Amanda to find a suitable song from her repertoire
that somehow captures the sentiments and ideas we have endeavoured to
elicit through this production. She chose "The Dance of Balance"
a song she wrote in 1995. This version was recorded in 2002 but this is
its first public release. You can download the recording HERE.
The Ascent of Man television series and book
were produced by the BBC. The DVD and Book are available in Australia
from The ABC Shop and most leading book retailers. They should also be
available for loan through most public libraries. Catholica
acknowledges the BBC as the holder of the copyright in these works and
the usage of extracts and images from these works in this commentary are
by way of critique and we trust might enhance sales of the work for the
copyright holder and are not intended to exploit this resource for our
own commercial gain.
The words and music of the song, The
Dance of Balance, were composed by Amanda McKenna.
The image of Budapest used in the title header comes
from stock.xchng the free web photo source – www.sxc.hu.
Photographer: Bernard Mukarubibi, Merelbeke, Ovl, Belgium [Image ID #607120]
McKenna can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coyne can be contacted at email@example.com
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