Sunday, December 23, 2007

Ascent or Descent? It's Still Our Choice

You probably missed the greatest TV series ever put on the air, or if you saw it, you've probably forgotten about it. Back in the early 80's, PBS aired Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man." I talk a lot more here about Lincoln and King, Niebuhr and Berlin as my intellectual, political, and moral heroes, but I should include Bronowski much more than I do. He was a true Renaissance Man, a scientist who dealt in classics and philosophy, a little homely man who did better on TV than any of the newsreading beauties, male or female. I have a copy of the book companion to this series, but I would appreciate anyone able to tell me how to get a DVD of it for less than a mortgage payment. You know those "if you could invite 5 people from any time in history to dinner, whom would you invite?" questions. Bronowski would be at my table.

Why am I bringing him up now and what does he have to do with corrections sentencing? The very last scene of his series found him at Auschwitz, pondering human nature and how the ascent of man (pre-PC) could have led to that horror. It was the most memorable scene of anything I have ever seen, and, in cruising the blogs this morning, I found someone else who treasures it. I'll let them describe it to you, let you know that it was even more powerful on screen, and ask you to consider, as we do the things we do and may be about to do in corrections sentencing, if the message isn't still just as powerful for us, especially at this time of year.

There was a wonderful series on PBS a long time ago that had a tremendous impact on me, "The Ascent of Man." In the episode titled "Knowledge or Certainty", the author, Jacob Bronowski, goes to Auschwitz. Walking out into a shallow pond, he bends down, picks up a handful of mud, and says,

"..Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know, although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.'

...We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people."

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