An age of information and an era of ignorance
Scowled at by some and a confidant to others, Henry Kissinger remains among the most captivating figures of the last one-hundred years. An immigrant, a soldier, a statesman, and a close advisor to some of the world’s greatest leaders, Kissinger has lived a varied life. Nearly a centenarian, he continues to engage in dialogue and put his mind to the task of diplomacy. Most recently, he visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing to discuss the future of the globe.
His most recent book, World Order, was published in 2014. It addresses a multiplicity of topics, ranging from the threat of Iranian nuclearization, to a rising China, to regional balances of power, to the use of technology in the modern world. Known primarily for being a “realist” in the realm of international affairs, World Order illuminates Kissinger as more of a philosopher-statesman than the cold and calculated strategist of legend. Far from simplistic interpretations of states as purely national interest-driven creatures, Kissinger paints a mosaic which conceives of nations as the concretizations of ideas: the physical manifestations of a people’s historical understandings.
China does not expand into the South China Sea solely because of their interest in having more territory, argues Kissinger, but also because of the Ming Dynasty’s historical claims to the waters sitting between Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. And we would be remiss to overlook the Mandate of Heaven and the role of Confucian philosophy in animating the conscience of Chinese leaders.
Statescraft has layers, and at ninety-seven years old Kissinger is not afraid to admit that the answers to the dilemmas of international affairs cannot be comprehended with ease, even by the elder statesman.
Younger but nonetheless aged, Pope Francis leads the largest institution in world history. Born in Argentina as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis is the first Pope to call the Americas home. Known for his acute awareness of suffering and loving tone, Francis has attempted to navigate the murky waters of the modern world with a thorough understanding that the Church must stand apart from the world.
He has stirred up controversy across borders, viewed as too liberal by some conservative Catholics and too orthodox by a group of more liberal Catholics as well as many outside of the Church. Most recently this tension was on display in the Amazon, where regional Bishops requested a special exemption from the Vatican to allow some of their priests to marry so that they might be more able to tackle a shortage of clergy in the region. After long and constructive deliberation, the request was denied.
But Pope Francis should not be defined by the various scandals facing the Church and his leadership, especially considering, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat points out in a recent editorial, “The current trends on the Catholic left and right — the former’s eager ambitions and the latter’s defensive paranoia — are intimately connected to the triumph of secular progressivism in Western culture and the emergence of right-wing populism as the major source of resistance to its rule.”
Both Francis and Kissinger have wielded enormous power and contended with the forces of fortune and the necessity of strategic thinking. They are widely misunderstood by the world writ large and the public thinks them either demons or saints (literally, in the case of Pope Francis). But the pair have come to a fundamental agreement on, and deep insight into, technologization and the supposed “information” era. Their paths collide more often than I care to describe (and you care to read), but none more incisively than here.
Wisdom as more than the amalgamation of information
The triumph of secularism within modern institutions and societies has reduced virtue, and the great immaterial but nonetheless real concept of wisdom, to the sum of the new universal language: information. The allure of this thesis is undeniable, particularly in an age of bits and accelerating technological innovation.
No longer do those interested in learning have to open books to understand the workings of the world, or the lessons of history. Wikipedia lies only a few clicks from your view, and it will do the thinking for you.
Conversations between people are simplified into reaction emojis and short text messages (longer depending on how much of a toll the break-up is taking on you).
Wisdom and the higher things no longer moor the intelligent, the ambitious, the young, and the proud. Full disclosure: I count myself, at the least, among the young.
Integral to understanding what has been lost in this new age of information is the loss of context. In World Order, Kissinger argues that “Facts are rarely self-explanatory; their significance, analysis, and interpretation—at least in the foreign policy world—depend on context and relevance.” But this principle extends beyond foreign policy.
In his recent Papal Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“All Brothers”), Francis points towards this emerging reality:
“As silence and careful listening disappear, replaced by a frenzy of texting, this basic structure of sage human communication is at risk. A new lifestyle is emerging, where we create only what we want and exclude all that we cannot control or know instantly and superficially. This process, by its intrinsic logic, blocks the kind of serene reflection that could lead us to a shared wisdom.”
Kissinger recognizes the lack of reflection and wisdom present in the world as well, particularly among the political class:
“New methods of accessing and communicating information unite regions as never before and project events globally—but in a manner that inhibits reflection, demanding of leaders that they register instantaneous reactions in a form expressible in slogans. Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future?”
Wisdom requires an encounter with the unwanted and unrequested. It necessitates that human beings understand that the nature of reality exists independent from human will, and that knowledge is to be discovered, not created.
And what is wisdom? In Wisdom in Classical and Biblical Tradition, Professor Michael Legaspi defines wisdom as “a common aspiration toward wholeness of understanding that refuse[s] to separate knowledge from goodness, virtue from happiness, cosmos from polis, and divine authority from human responsibility.” Wisdom, as the ancients understood it, and even our close ancestors thought of it, involved an understanding that there is a fullness of knowledge which transcends specialization. In the narrow concentrations of the industrial/postindustrial world, there is not much room for fullness of wisdom.
It is achieved by habituation, in an Aristotelian sense, but also through a soulful humility which recognizes that man cannot create knowledge but must uncover it. The job of the wise man is that of an archeologist and a sculptor.
Information without context deprives the human soul of wisdom, and in denying the higher aspirations of human nature, we become a little less human.
Ignoring the moral universe
For Kissinger, both order and freedom matter. There must be an understanding of that which is right – that which “ought” be done – and a crystal clear comprehension of the undeniable realities of the world as-it-is. A true statesman, then, sees the world through an unsentimental lens, equipped with the resolve to navigate the murky waters of reality towards the promise of a better future.
While Kissinger focuses on the necessity of order for freedom, Francis emphasizes that true freedom cannot be gained without wisdom. In a modern cyber culture inhabitated by quick reads, 280-character Tweets, and Facebook news headlines structured to grab one’s attention, “We fail to keep our attention focused, to penetrate to the heart of matters, and to recognize what is essential to give meaning to our lives. Freedom thus becomes an illusion that we are peddled, easily confused with the ability to navigate the internet.”
Despite the abundant freedom of choice afforded by modern developments, people remain separated from the wellspring of wisdom which is explored and charted often through the “unchosen” aspects of one’s life. It is through family that we find grounding; by our local community that we find “home”; in our finite bodies that we discover our own fallenness (these are general examples, and do not apply in all cases).
If Kissinger and Francis are right, and the age of technologization has fundamentally disconnected us from both wisdom and the ability to navigate the stormy seas of the world as-it-is, what are we to do? Should we simply resign our efforts and retreat to the forests, as Benedictine monks, or neo-Ted Kaczynski’s? Or is there still a world, and many souls, worth fighting for?
Siren song of withdrawal
It is easy to opt for the route of terrorists and extremists. It is easy to abandon the world as it is and imagine a better world, always “tomorrow,” of course. But are we not called to better than this? Are we not called to higher things? To love, and wisdom, and freedom, and – secular world forbid – God?
Pope Francis asks us all to consider our role in the world. He believes that now, more than ever, there is “a need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.” “Encounter” what exactly? For Francis, the answer is ultimately God. But in between lies selfless love, service, freedom, wisdom, and all the higher things.
Kissinger, at ninety-seven, also refuses to throw in the towel. While his emphasis is international order, his thesis is strikingly similar to Francis’: peace and freedom are worth the struggle, and it will require peacemakers equipped with wisdom to work towards a better future.
So, what does that mean for all of us? Those of us who aren’t heads-of-state, industrial titans, Bishops, or diplomats? As the old adage goes, one must first change themselves before they can change the world. In the Catholic faith, all men and women are called to be saints – a tall order, no doubt – but one which all can do in any walk of life. It does not require sinlessness, but progress towards the good. It does not require perfection, but faith.
In the world of international affairs, this personal change might begin with simply opening books; through engaging thinkers and leaders stretching across the great sands of time; by doing what one can do with what one has.
Technology has done much good. It has cured many diseases, lifted billions from poverty, and now comes to our aid amid a once-in-a-century pandemic. It is not the enemy of the good, but a tool which can be used for good or bad. Neither good nor bad itself, it beckons our usage. It is thus up to us whether we choose the good or the bad.
But make no mistake: there is a “good”, and there is an “evil”.