“Madness is the result not of uncertainty but of certainty” – Fredrick Nietzsche
It is perhaps useful to consider the book of Iranian-born Canadian Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo in light of the Canadian PM’s visit to India earlier this year. Like Justin Trudeau, Jahanbegloo is a Canadian with ties to India. Unlike Trudeau, he is no fan of Canada. One of the recurring themes in many of his recent works, including the one under review in this article, is the lack of a soul in Canada’s “bleached out” culture. He laments that technocratic cultures like Canada are too artificial and synthetic for his liking. Indeed, his critique of such “odorless and colorless” societies forms one of the main tropes of ‘Letters to a Young Philosopher.’
In this dialogic book, wherein he is building on the tradition established by Rilke in the classic ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, Jahanbegloo stresses that modern societies have fallen prey to the plague of conformism. He avers that this is a major problem for the world today because we are losing touch with our humanity and with the very purpose of existence. We have devolved into mere automatons mindlessly performing bureaucratic functions and tasks without heed as to why we are trapped in this meaningless existence.
In order to help his fictional young interlocutor escape this morass of meaninglessness Jahanbegloo provides something of a road map. This he does by reflecting on his own experiences in life, both positive and negative. His chapters on the art of loving and dying furnish instructive lessons in this regard. His advice on romantic love, for instance, will resonate with many.
Quoting Freud, he states that “From being in love to hypnosis is evidently only a short step. The respects in which the two agree are obvious. There is the same humble subjection, the same compliance, the same absence of criticism towards the hypnotist just as towards the loved object.” Jahanbegloo, therefore cautions his young interlocutor from giving into the illusion of idealisation when it comes to love. He cements this advice by saying that we should not fall into the trap of conventional myths about marriage, but should ideally strive for selfless love.
In the chapter on the art of dying Jahanbegloo urges his younger associate to pay no heed to what others think. A single-minded pursuit of excellence, he says, is the only way to break out of the zombified mindset we are trapped in. It is because modern societies have forgotten to pursue excellence that there is a decline in civilisation and a proliferation of ‘bubbles of protectionism, nativism and exclusion.’
These bubbles function as echo chambers drowning out the potential for asking questions and challenging the established order. Jahanbegloo says that the main reason we are so mediocre is because of our certainties. We forget to question the things we take for granted in life. Instead of achieving excellence by questioning and dismantling established shibboleths we become hostage to a herd mentality.
Such a mindset throttles the imagination of the young, leaving them under the illusion that excellence is about grades and a high GPA. They may believe that it is better to parrot back what the teacher is saying in class rather than give in to curiosity about the world beyond the four corners of a syllabus. After all, for many students, high grades are a passport to a high paying job, the traditional metric by which excellence in educational outcomes is measured.
Actually Jahanbegloo reminds us, excellence in education is precisely about breaching the confines of prescribed textbooks and ‘lighting the fire of imagination’. Learning occurs when each individual student charts her own course of discovery because as Chomsky says “if you can learn how to discover then it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. You will use that talent elsewhere.” That is why the famous MIT professor Victor Weisskopf would tell his students at the beginning of each semester when asked about the syllabus: “it doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.”
‘Letters to a Young Philosopher’ brims with many such excellent points that deserve careful contemplation from the reader. The decline of Jahanbegloo’s notion of education, for instance, as an end in itself should give us pause. This is a matter of no small concern as colleges and universities across the world have succumbed to succeeding waves of corporatisation over the past few decades. As a result professors can now rarely look forward to tenure. They are much more likely to be adjunct or temp faculty members – in other words, too financially insecure to raise uncomfortable questions about the status quo. Students themselves are crushed under heavy debt burdens that discourage them from emulating their peers from a few generations ago who transformed the world through their activism.
However to return to Canada, some questions can be mooted about Jahanbegloo’s critique. Certainly Canada like many modern capitalist societies may be subject to the deadening aura of conformity and mindless bureaucracy. But Canada is also a beacon of hope for many progressive causes. It is far more humane than many other capitalist societies in offering a welter of socioeconomic benefits to the poor and marginalised, which have been won through the kind of dissent and protest extolled by Jahanbegloo.
Canada is also, despite his lamentation of ‘a false sense of multiculturalism’, home to a rising cadre of minority politicians who espouse a bevy of progressive political causes and whose rise and prominence in Canadian politics, signals the success and advancement of previously marginalised groups. In this vein, Trudeau’s recent apology to Indians for the Komagata Maru incident heralds the dawn of a new era of racial sensitivity in Canada.
Also on the question of obedience of the masses that Jahanbegloo decries for electing the likes of Trump, historical evidence suggests that they were anything but obedient and compliant. They may not have known their Shakespeare but they were more than willing to question and rebel against the established order. That is why eminent figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson vigorously called for ‘proper’ education of the masses – not because they were too ignorant or stupid to question, but precisely because they were questioning the established order too much! His call to educate the masses to keep them at bay reveals his fear in the potential of the general public to rock the boat of society.
Some reviewers have critiqued ‘Letters’ for diluting the young interlocutor’s agency because we are deprived of his reaction to the advice meted out to him. But the responses to Jahanbegloo’s meditations should come from us, his readers, in conversation and dialogue with each other, which is the ultimate aim of the book – to inspire and reignite the lofty tradition of civic friendship in an unfriendly and passionless world.