Are We Solving the Mystery of Atlantis?


Reflections on a lost golden age

Ancient Greek literature is replete with intimations of lost civilizations, great floods, and slow renewals of human knowledge beginning at some unspecified point in a misty past. The most famous of these intimations is Plato’s legend of Atlantis, a great naval power which was supposedly repelled by an equally great Athens more than nine thousand years before Plato wrote of it, and which then sank into the sea following an earthquake.

Now it seems that we, watching our Western civilization sink, may at last be granted the extraordinary privilege of bearing witness to the concrete truth about which the most daring thinkers of our past could only speculate. 

Weeks before Rachel Jeantel popularized the issue during the Zimmerman trial, I read the following internet news headline: “Cursive writing facing extinction in face of technology.” The headline itself hints at the problem suggested by the article: the author or an editor has merely tacked two stock metaphors together (“facing” and “in face of”) in lieu of thinking clearly about word choice and meaning, and has thus produced a two-faced monstrosity of a headline. 

The article’s content, however, though barely readable, is most thought-provoking. 

[W]ith the increased presence of keyboards everywhere, the days of cursive writing may be numbered and schools are seeing the writing on the wall.

As the end of cursive writing appears to be nigh, many parents and educators probably find themselves wondering: should we still be teaching cursive writing?

There are at least 45 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Quebec) that have nixed cursive writing as an official part of the curriculum…. And why should it be part of the curriculum? With limited time to cram everything in from the curriculum as it is, cursive writing is just one more thing teachers have to help students with in light of the pervasiveness of electronic communication.

Right. With only a dozen years of compulsory schooling, with 12,000 hours of “socialization” and arbitrarily force-fed and quickly-forgotten “general knowledge,” and with each “unit” in every subject having to be concluded with a lesson on how this topic relates to social justice and environmental sustainability, how are “parents and educators” supposed to find the time to “cram in” a few hours on something so inessential as the ability to communicate with other humans through time and distance without benefit of advanced technology?

The idea that the skill of writing one’s language in the manner in which adults have written it for hundreds of years is a dispensable frivol in a modern curriculum, while “How a Recycling Center Works” is essential knowledge, is more than just a sign of the times. It may be a sign of the end times. In the foreseeable future, there will be no one left who can read the Declaration of Independence in its original form—quite apart from the issue of understanding it. That document, and so many other extant testaments to man’s greatness, will thereafter be perceived as a mere picture, a collection of dainty lines and curves, and less comprehensible than Egyptian hieroglyphics. An important means of civilizational continuity will have been lost, as future generations will be forced to rely on “translations” to read their own language.

Here, I suppose, is where the devotees of progress will jump in to object that I am merely getting carried away with a romantic notion of “the good old days.” I don’t think so. I am far from being anti-technology, and rely on it every day, as we all do. Regarding the present topic, I rarely write anything by hand these days, apart from rough notes. But I fear losing the ability to handwrite, just as I fear losing the ability to perform simple mathematical operations in my head in the age of electronic calculators.

This math comparison is not just a rough analogy. The ability to use a calculator is a skill that may itself become highly developed; but it is an entirely different, and clearly lower, skill than the ability to manipulate numbers accurately with one’s mind. The first is mostly manual dexterity; the second is the skill that our great thinkers, from Plato to Locke, regarded as the natural precursor to the development of philosophical reasoning.

Similarly, the ability to produce preformed letters with a keyboard is a useful manual skill, and the technology that allows us to do it borders on the magical; but the ability to form the letters and words of one’s language in one’s own hand is magic of a much higher order. We are barely aware of this as we learn the skill in childhood, but there is nevertheless something ennobling in the realization that we have the capacity to translate our thoughts and feelings through our own fingers into a complex of lines and dots that may be understood by men a hundred miles away, or a hundred years hence. Not knowing how to produce those lines and dots—the real windows to the soul—we would be reduced to relying on machines that can produce them for us on demand.

The keyboard is the calculator of writing, allowing us to produce without mental effort that complicated interplay of thought and symbol, nature and convention, which constitutes one of mankind’s definitive triumphs. The imminent demise of cursive writing will be more than the death of an obsolete tool. It will spell the end of humanity’s direct experience of the spiritual significance of written language as the most sublime interaction of mind and body, the mysterious bridge linking our animal bulk to our divine spark. And after we have burned that bridge, will we still have access to what once lay on the other side? Or will we be left, as increasingly appears to be the case today, to make do with the decaying remnants of our former commerce with our souls? Will language continue its slide into virtual disuse as anything but our economy’s hammer and nails, or a ritualized way of grunting and squealing?

The manual formation of the letters and words of our native language is one of the most complex skills we learn as children. And this early activation of the mind’s attentiveness to detail, precision, and the subtle connection between mind and motion contributes greatly to subsequent cognitive development. “The Chinese are better at math,” we casually say, meaning not that their expert mathematicians are superior to those of other nations, but that the average Chinese youngster seems more adept at math than other average students. If we seek to explain this at all, we typically fall back on causally unhelpful abstractions about IQs. But take a look at their written language, and think about how much mental discipline is required of their children in learning how to read and write those thousands of minutely differentiated characters. I suspect there is a strong connection here. If we stop teaching children how to write their own language by hand, we are stunting the development of a wide variety of skills and habits necessary for an advanced mental life: patience, memory, attention to detail, an eye for subtle distinctions, concern for precision and accuracy. These, among others, are the learned capacities that Miss Jeantel, like most of her generation and its teachers, defensively dismisses as “old school.” Simply put, when handwriting becomes obsolete, and is completely replaced with the mental shortcut of technology-assisted communication, complex reasoning (including moral reasoning) will become obsolete with it. The cognitive nexus is natural and possibly inescapable.

(And as an aside, returning to the argument of the news article above, to the effect that today’s students have too many things to learn in school to waste time on handwriting, I must note that many urban Chinese students I have met in Korea learned English cursive writing as part of their language education. Chinese students, most of whom will never visit an English-speaking country, have time to learn to write English script, whereas North American students supposedly do not.)

But why cursive? Might not hand-printed language, which bears a greater resemblance to our standard word processing fonts, perform this same function in our intellectual development? Apart from creating the need, noted above, for “translations” of many of the seminal documents of our civilization, or of our own family histories—for scholarly specialists to tell us what Thomas Jefferson and Aunt Mimi were talking about—perhaps hand-printing would be an adequate substitute for cursive. The problem is that the case for dumping cursive is also the case for phasing out hand-printing: the ubiquity of keyboard-based technology and the practical necessity of keyboard skills for modern life seem to obviate the need for any kind of hand-produced language.

And, if we accept the premises of the argument against cursive, this process of antiquation will only accelerate in the coming years. Every child will have a smartphone, a tablet, or some subsequent technology, in his possession continually. Schools, parents, and governments will demand that such technologies be in use at all times, and as all communication will be required to be produced in electronic form (for uniformity, for convenience, and for government data-collection purposes), hand-printing will soon be another outdated skill that we just won’t have time to “cram in.” In a generation or two, virtually no one—no parent and no government “educator”—will know how to produce language by hand; an entire civilization will have placed itself at the mercy of electronic technology for all its efforts to preserve and communicate its thoughts in a visible form.

But here comes the “Atlantis” question modernity never asks: And then what?

Paradoxically, the ancients, who had relatively little known history at their disposal, were obsessed with eternity—with the inadequacy of mere time-measurement as a means to understanding our ultimate place in the cosmos—whereas we moderns, with access to a much broader and deeper historical perspective, have resolved to trip along contentedly with the existential confidence of the profoundly narrow-minded. Modern political progressivism is our peculiar form of tyranny because it is the model most suited to an age that presumes a rectilinear conception of time. Imagining we are moving in an unambiguous straight line comprised of discrete points, and hence that the past is materially irrelevant, it becomes easy to believe that our gradual changes indicate irreversible forward development, i.e., “progress,” thus reinforcing our disrespect for the past.

The Greeks, by contrast, favored a cyclical conception of historical development. Time itself was understood as circular—exactly the opposite of our “progressive” assumptions, whether of the Enlightenment rationalist or the Marxist historicist sort. Perhaps this is no paradox after all. The Greeks, perceiving their civilization as something fundamentally “new” in the known world, drew from this perception an inference that perhaps only they could draw: This cannot be the first time mankind has risen. This noblest form of humility is perhaps bound to dissipate over time, as the evolving civilization loses direct contact with its beginnings, and hence loses the jarring effect of the juxtaposition of the infinity of being and the brevity of known history.

Thus the ancients tended to be exquisitely aware of the precariousness of their existence, and the severely limited moment they occupied in the grand calendar. We, on the other hand, take our existence for granted, and assume that we occupy a privileged moment in time, namely the “latest” moment. This is why the most profound ancient minds imagined the soul’s journey through the afterlife in three thousand or even ten thousand year increments, although they had little solid historical knowledge stretching even a thousand years back, whereas we, who casually discuss the universe in terms of billions of years, can barely remember what happened last week, and never engage in serious speculation on life ten thousand years hence—let alone our own lives ten thousand years hence.

Atlantis was Plato’s mythical speculation (or development of a received speculation) regarding a more advanced human civilization that reason seemed to indicate must have existed at some point in the unending sweep of time. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis revived that speculation, but projected it into a semi-realizable future—as a practical hope, rather than a quest for cosmic understanding—thus demonstrating a chief intellectual difference between the ancient and modern West. (This difference may also be observed by comparing Darwinian evolution to its most famous ancient counterpart, that of Empedocles, who conceived of a never-ending cycle, encompassing both evolution and devolution.)

This brings us back to the gradual, and seemingly inevitable, disappearance of handwritten language, and my question as to what might come next. Our age’s progressive impulses are rooted in a foolish sense of indestructibility, irreversibility, and dreams of impending “transformation.” Cursive writing, like so many of our noblest and most valuable traditions, now seems disposable; we don’t need it, because technology has rendered our former needs obsolete.

And if that technology should fail? Progressive authoritarianism has lived parasitically off the dwindling blood of Western liberty for so long, and we are so entangled in Marxist historicist fantasies about socialism as the natural completion of modern scientific man, that we may underestimate the invariable historical fate of authoritarian irrationalism: societal ruin, moral decay, economic collapse—and the loss of previous knowledge. In the known periods of such ruin, the loss has typically remained incomplete, either because the collapse was regional, and the collapsed region resuscitated by its conquerors or neighbors, or because the past was preserved in limited form by scholarly devotion and linguistic or cultural continuity.

We know beyond any doubt that modern warfare in general, and specific modern weapons such as the widely discussed electromagnetic pulse bomb, are capable of destroying or disrupting our technological civilization in short order. And absent such a sudden calamity, modern progressive totalitarianism, whatever its advocates’ best-laid schemes, will tear industrial society to the ground in the long run, if it is permitted to smother man’s last breath of hope and initiative. As a global movement (made possible by the technology it is bound to destroy), progressivism’s precipitated collapse will not be regional—there may finally be no advanced (i.e., free and rational) civilization on the outside from which the world’s competing progressive rulers may steal, or to which a tattered post-progressive world may turn for restoration.

If, by one means or another, our technological society should grind to a halt, much would depend on the ability of the people around at the time to carry on the human heritage in the physical reality of 1750. And while it may seem a trivial concern now, with a keyboard in everyone’s pocket, how would the physical reality of 1750 play out if no one—or no one outside the ruling elite—knew how to form letters and words by hand? We are already a civilization in which fewer and fewer young people in each generation are able to comprehend, let alone compose, anything but simple, brief, ungrammatical text punctuated with electronically-prefabricated emoticons to fill in the gaps in meaning where unknown vocabulary ought to be, and without any shared reference points outside of today’s popular culture. A century of compulsory public schooling has, in the name of universal literacy, conspired to restrict the majority of the English-speaking world, at least, to elementary literacy levels, or worse. (I have no reason to doubt that a similar devolution is taking place throughout Europe, for the same reasons.) Literacy, grammar, and a vocabulary worth the trouble of writing down are now an old man’s game.

Can we be brought even lower? Yes we can. The complete disappearance of both the skill and the practice of handwriting is not only foreseeable, but is now being advocated and actively pursued by education policymakers and the cultural mainstream alike. Whether the technological collapse that traps us in our incapacity comes in the relatively near future, or many years hence, it will come—to assume that it can’t happen would not merely be imprudent, but hubristic and narrow-minded. And when it comes, as we can now see, modernity may have officially, by custom and by law, cut itself off from the miracle of manually-produced language that constitutes the great leap forward in the development of all civilizations, and in the evolution of man as a spirit that has learned how to use its own flimsy, temporary body to extend itself across space and time.

We appear to be fulfilling a prophecy of the ancients, preparing ourselves for an eventual return to our roots, namely oral tradition. Or rather, to the precursor to such a tradition: a semi-verbal state of disjointed, prefabricated phrases that carry only vague signification, interspersed with emotive grunts and squeals—and a devouring sea of violence, which is how men communicate when reason and language fail them.

(Originally published in August 2013)

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