Hanging on a wall in my home is an unusual poster, given to me as gift by a member of the Society many years ago. Entitled “Panta Rhei” or “All Things Flow” in Greek, it’s an artistic timeline depicting the history of Western thought from the time of ancient Athens to the middle of the twentieth century. As the timeline moves along from left to right it shows the major philosophers and scientists of each era with contemporaries communing with each other. Behind them, colors change and shade into one another symbolically suggesting progressive and regressive periods in human history. So behind the figures of Athens the background is bright red. As time flows into the Middle Ages, the background turns dark and then yellow as we move to the Renaissance and, again, brilliant red with the coming of the Age of Science, followed by the Enlightenment. When we arrive at the early and mid-twentieth centuries, with the optimism of the nineteenth century swamped by the First World War and then the Second, the background turns very dark again.
If the artistic rendering were continued into the current era, my thought is that after a glimmer of yellow in the 1990s with emergence of democracies around the world, the surrounding context would abruptly turn, once more, to a very dark gray.
As I write this article, England has just voted to succeed from the European Union, and news is afoot of the dark turn on both sides of the Atlantic. There is massive discontent with the status quo. Our politics is volatile, and the future, both near and far, very uncertain.
The major points of discontent, indeed anger, have gotten much attention. Globalization has gutted vast sectors of the workforce, enabling the wealthy to reap even greater wealth, while fostering hopelessness among those left behind in the new economy. Massive waves of immigration, both in the United States and Europe, have left the established populations feeling alienated in their own countries. Fixed points, socially and economically, have become unmoored and the larger contexts in which people live confront them as unfamiliar.
Governments are increasingly ineffective and unresponsive, leaving the discontented open to demagoguery, which is what we have.
Donald Trump is in good company. Nativist and demagogic movements with fascistic tendencies are sprouting elsewhere like poisoned mushrooms out of a foul soil. We see it in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and, of course, Russia, where Vladimir Putin, a regressive and thuggish authoritarian, remains popular. And there are similar movements elsewhere.
This very large canvass brings me back to the smaller universe of our own Ethical Culture community. To reinforce a theme of my address in June, I believe as we move into disturbing and uncertain times, we need each all the more. We need the strength and confidence we derive from being part of community of meaning that upholds and reinforces our values – values that stand opposed to the anti-democratic, anti-rational impulses of the impending night.
There is strength that comes from taking a parochial turn. But it is intrinsic to Ethical Culture that its fundamental values require us to take responsibility for combatting the injustices in the larger society that menace our freedom. When it comes to Ethical Culture, by turning inward to it and one another, we also turn outward.
One thing that characterizes our community and the people in it is that we are attuned to the larger world. With the summer approaching, I am sure that we are all looking forward to a well-deserved vacation. But if you are like me, the summer will be interwoven with rapt attention to the political world, given the realities I have outlined and in advance of our presidential election in the fall.
Because of the wonderful community we have created and sustain in the Ethical Society, I hope that none of you feels alone. There are others with you who share your values, and who cherish the optimism that after the dark night we can hope for a new dawn. May you all have a pleasant and restorative summer!