The declining role of thought in today’s society is illustrated by the following Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:
“I’ve been thinking Hobbes—“
“On a weekend?”
“Well, it wasn’t on purpose…”
What does it mean to think? I am referring not to the mere electrical impulses of our brains which create near-automatic thoughts, but our conscious decisions to meditate, to ponder, to think deeply. The philosopher Rene Descartes built upon the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine by deducing, “I think, therefore I am.” One inference of this statement is that to not think is to not exist. The ancient Egyptians literally believed this. They believed that chaos was held at bay by concentrated thought. Some scholars believe that their endless rituals were actually designed in part because they feared that the end of thought would signify the end of the universe. In the past, thinking has been held in much higher esteem than it is today.
There are comparatively few thinkers today. We’ve all experience “foot-in-mouth” syndrome at one time or another by speaking before we think, but again, this isn’t the type of thought I am referring to. I remember the first time I took philosophy seriously. I would spend hours walking by the river trying to take in page-long sentences by John Stuart Mill or reflect on the teachings of Marx, Rousseau, and Locke. It took an amazing amount of concentration. And the more I thought, the more I realized how little we emphasize thinking in society today.
Of all the variables which have contributed to the decay of conscious thinking, two causes in particular stand out: the Industrial Revolution and resulting technology. The Industrial Revolution created situations where people focused repeatedly on one task, limiting their ability to think about other things. Resulting technology has created the radio, the television, and the internet. Ironically, while these innovations can enable us to think deeper about life, we often use them to the contrary. It is not an infrequent occurrence for someone to go to work or school, focusing alone on one or two subjects, only to come home and immerse themselves in a world of media that rarely requires applied thought.
What does it all mean? Emerson is known to have said that “the ancestor of every action is a thought.” The Buddha affirms this principle when he purports, “all that we are is the result of what we have thought.” The declining role of thought in our society likely will not result in the end of the existence as the Egyptians believed. However, it will likely affect the level to which we enrich and are enriched by life. In one sense, as we lessen in our ability to think, the world around us becomes smaller. We are aware of less and capable of less. The world as a whole progresses as the quality of life is enhanced by specialized technologies, but individuals digress as they are able to comprehend less and less of what surrounds them.
Our society is in need of a return to concentrated thought. In the past, cultures have recognized the importance of thought. An ironic byproduct of the Industrial Revolution and resulting technology is that we think less. While the Egyptians believed that chaos would ensue if thought ceased, today we face a real danger of losing our ability to enrich and be enriched by life because of our increasing inability to think.
On the other hand, imagine the possibilities if we were to not only enjoy the amenities of modern society, but to meditate upon them as well.