The Whole Elephant

There is no way to understand what is happening in the world today without reading The Spiritual Imperative. Why? Because it is the only book that sees history and the future as the elephant it really is.

You know the elephant I mean — the one in the old Indian fable. Once upon a time there were six blind male intellectuals who went to see an elephant to satisfy their minds about what it might be. Naturally, each had to give his own theory about what the elephant could be likened to.

The first blind intellectual touched the elephant’s side and firmly asserted the elephant to be like a wall. The second felt its sharp tusk and just as firmly argued that the elephant was like a big spear. The third, nudged by the elephant’s trunk, retorted, with grand authority, that the elephant resembled a snake. The fourth, impressed by the elephant’s broad knee, described the animal as like a tree. The fifth blind man, cooled by the elephant’s waving ear, preached the animal’s likeness to a fan. And the sixth, wrestling with the elephant’s hither-and-thither flopping tail, never doubted that the animal was like a rope.

Conclusion: To quote John Godfrey Saxe, the US American poet who set this tale to verse, “Though each was partly in the right, all were in the wrong.” In other words, each blind man saw only one part of the “big picture,” and lacked the holistic macro-elephantine vision of the entire “system.”

Today’s historians and futurists — and so we, the public — tend to share the same blinders, the same non-holistic view of history and the future. History scholars relentlessly chop history up into its parts, with each scholar specializing in his or her own particular area: US history, Japanese history, art history, science history, etc. This usually means learning more and more about less and less. Historians complain that somebody should tie these loose parts of history into a big picture, take a macrohistorical view. But when a Marx, Spengler, or Toynbee comes along and does that, the others, jealously guarding their bits of historical turf from these “interlopers,” dismiss them as “grand theory generalizers.”

Futurists work in a field theoretically more open and holistically oriented. But they still tend to avidly specialize in their own area of expertise: environment, education, business, culture, science and technology, women, and others.

While history scholars and futurists fail to give the public big pictures, influential opinion-makers and the popular media fill the vacuum with fragmented and reductionist views, by presenting every new idea as if it were the “real key” to understanding history and predicting the future.

In the late 1980s, Prof. Paul Kennedy of Yale University wrote the exciting book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In it he showed how the great powers of the past had lost their power because they stressed military over economic strength. In time their weakened economies could no longer support the ever-mounting costs of military power, and bloop!, they lost that as well — and down they went.

Opinion-makers had an easy time sensationalizing this idea as the key to understanding the future because of what the idea hinted to the large US reading public about America’s future: If the US does not shape up economically, it will lose its superpower status, just as Spain, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, and the USSR had done before it, to rising economic stars like China and Japan. Prof. Kennedy’s thesis was brilliant and true, but certainly not the entire key to history and the future.

At around the same time, high-profile opinion-makers also gave attention to Francis Fukuyama’s idea about the “end of history” as the key to history and the future. In his 1989 essay, Fukuyama argued that, with the collapse of communism, history has ended: sooner or later every country would have to adopt US-style liberal democratic capitalism. For it is the only system that works. The fact that opinion-makers could get the public stirred up about both ideas — Kennedy’s and Fukuyama’s — at once shows how easily they can confuse us. For the two ideas sort of contradict each other: Kennedy’s hints at a poor economy and loss of power for the US, while Fukuyama’s hints at the opposite.

Then opinion leaders focused on a third idea: Professor Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of cultures.” In his 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, Prof. Huntington argued that, with the Cold War over, conflicts between ideologies, such as liberal democracy vs. fascism vs. communism, were being replaced by clashes between cultures: the West vs. Islam, Muslim vs. Hindu, the West vs. China, etc. Since the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Huntington’s idea has captured even more attention.

These ideas circulated at the more intellectual levels of our culture. The popular media, meanwhile, fill the vacuum resulting from the lack of a holistic approach to history and the future with “popular futurism.” This sees the future mainly as a cornucopia of technological wonders, such as artificially intelligent robots, buildings, and vehicles; medical breakthroughs; space exploration and colonization; superweapons and superfood; multimedia information networks; and perfect, ageless bodies through gene technology.

Popular futurism focuses on the future as mainly technology because we live today in a high-tech oriented age. But this view of the future as simply more and better technology and information is defective in the same way as that of the futurist who, living in preindustrial times, when everything was based on agricultural production, would have predicted the future (the last 400 years) purely in terms of more and better food production.

True, the future will be chock full of new technological wonders in all fields. But, looked at holistically, that is not what the future will be about. Kennedy’s, Fukuyama’s, Huntington’s, and the techno-visionaries’ ideas clarify part of the story of what is happening on the world scene. But overstressing single ideas or technological progress as the key to history and the future is the blind-men-and-the-elephant approach. To paraphrase Saxe’s poem, though each of these is partly in the right, all are in the wrong. Though all the above views are only partial, fragmented, reductionist explanations of the history-future process, each has been touted as “the whole elephant.”

The Spiritual Imperative attempts to present the needed holistic view, the whole elephant, so that we can truly understand history’s meaning and direction, completely change our view of the world, and foresee what lies ahead.

The Interview gives a rough sketch of the three holistic views. The introduction to The Spiritual Imperative explains the book’s contents chapter by chapter, but, more importantly, gives more detail about the three views. It also explains why discovering and having holistic views of history are urgent for human survival and for understanding the meaning of our own individual lives — who we are. That’s partly because they help us avoid the doom-and-gloom, Orwellian, techno-hell prognoses some futurists and science fiction writers enjoy making.

There’s more in the Introduction that will interest you. It explains what the three holistic views have foreseen that have already come true, what they foresee still to come, and how one of these three holistic views, the Caste Model, corrects the mistakes in Marx and Engels’ analysis of class struggle, which eventually led to the political failures of Marxist movements. (The Caste Model is based on the Hindu-Indian philosophy of history.) Please stop for a second and ponder the implications of this last point. It means that the Caste Model serves as a replacement for Marxist theory as a way of explaining why and how revolutions occur and develop, why we can expect more revolutions still to come.