The Empathic Civilization
is then certain that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species." (Rousseau)
peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one
part of the world is felt everywhere
Jeremy Rifkin has published a
book with this title
. Its subtitle ("The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis") perhaps undersells the book's seriousness and especially its value to us as a contemporary synthesis of anthropology, history, philosophy and science.
In this series
of posts I have begun to lay out a program for the reinvention of "anthropology" in some sense of the word. I trace its origin to Rousseau and Kant. Rifkin is by no means as kind to the Enlightenment, but I do think he deserves to be read by any anthropologist who finds the fragmentation of the academic discipline frustrating. Apart from anything else, I found the book an immense storehouse of knowledge, even if it has been cut and pasted by an army of directed researchers.
thesis is simple, but powerful and generative. Human beings are wired for "empathy" which is like sympathy and compassion, but goes beyond just feeling sorry for people. It is the ability to place oneself imaginatively inside another person's mind and as such is linked to development of the self, of individual personality. Both Marx and Durkheim held that individualism was a function of more, not less society; and Rifkin follows them.
His basic argument is that to be human is to care for others, to work for common ends with people whose lives we may not know well, but whose feelings we somehow share. This in turn is a result of expanded systems of communication, of which our internet is just the most inclusive version so far. But it also their cause, since we need to get in touch with each other.
is a catch. Of course there has to be one. It is our old friend the second law of thermodynamics, usually summarized as "entropy", the notion that energy always flows from order to disorder in a universe where the first law states that the total amount of energy remains constant. In order to build this enlarged capacity to communicate, we increase entropy. The "race" is on, therefore, between humanity's ability to achieve global consciousness ("empathy") and our destruction of the planet in the process ("entropy").
The story may be too
simple and over-dramatic, but it makes for a compelling read. It allows Rifkin to string together an unusually coherent history of our species of the sort that we haven't seen, well, since Tylor and Morgan. I'll have more to say later, some of it critical. You can get the book in hardback from amazon.com for $18 which, at over 600 pages, is a steal. I recommend it to students for its very wide range of topics. But actually the book has some possible answers for why we are here in the OAC.