ASIAN RENAISSANCE AND THE RECONSTRUCTION OF CIVILIZATION, University Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Philippines, 2 May 1996
When the supreme Christian poet Dante Alighieri began work some time in the first decade of the 14th century on his Divine Comedy, his country was being torn apart by a succession of civil wars. Factionalism was rife, and the struggles for power between the Lords Temporal and the Lords Spiritual were seemingly endless. Dante skillfully wove the political convulsions of the Italy of his time into a universal, and timeless, drama of the human predicament. Thus he begins the first canto of the Inferno:
" Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight path was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh; the very thought of it renews fear! It is so bitter that death is hardly more so."
Dante is relevant to us today, even after seven centuries, because we too are entrapped in selva obscura, our own hard and savage dark wood. The world of politics in our time is perhaps more convoluted, with its constantly changing landscape, than the relatively straightforward intrigues familiar to the great poet. Today, however, politics has been reduced to a mere game of chess. It appears that nowadays, with the exception of occasional voices in the wilderness, ethics and transcendent principles have no relevance whatsover in statecraft. From Machiavellian machinations to Metternichian manoeuvres, all is realpolitik. Yet, despite the claim to be realistic, many of the real problems are not addressed. Politics itself has fallen into disrepute because the practitioners of realpolitik do not appear to have a handle on the chronic ills of society. The similitude of the modern world is of an acutely sick person being treated by the doctor for the symptoms, while the underlying cause of the illness is ignored.
In the realm of thought, the modern man is groping in the dark, no longer certain of the guiding ideas of civilization. This is the fundamental crisis of our time. Not so long ago, all the world was under the spell of the modern West. But today, the spell has been broken, and its moral and political ideas are no longer perceived as the universal criteria of civility and progressiveness. If today one is more likely to hear about the failures and shortcomings of the secular West than its strengths; and warnings about its evils rather than kind words about its virtues, it should not be taken as anti-Western xenophobia at work. For the debate on Western values has become the dominant cultural discourse of our time, having been preceded by a sustained and devastating critique of the Enlightenment, the very substratum of the modern West, by its own leading thinkers. They are disenchanted with reason and modernity and they attribute the malaise of their society -- moral decadence, rising crime, and the disintegration of the family insitution -- to the fatal mistake of the Enlightenment thinkers in exalting human reason as the sole guide in civilization.
Thus, before us, is a very huge challenge, which transcends the political and economic spheres, and even dwarfs the quest for a new world order, crucial and fundamental as that may be. For in fact the task at hand for the global community is nothing short of the reconstruction of civilization itself. Economic prosperity and political order, the prime concerns of our time, are undoubtedly integral parts of our civilization. But neither economic vitality nor political virility alone, essential as they are, can be the basis for the reconstruction of civilization, which must be founded upon humanitarian and civilizational ideals such as justice, compassion and moral uprightness.
One should not belittle the continuing search for a just new order after the collapse of the superpower-dominated Cold War arrangement. A stable international political arrangement as well as sustainable growth are undoubtedly among the building blocks of civilization. But if we desire an order that is to withstand the test of time rather than one that merely satisfies the need of the moment then it must be built upon firm moral foundations. Certainly, it must not be based upon the domination of the powerful over the weak, the wealthy over the poor, but one founded on a vision of common humanity or to use the Quranic expression, ummatan wahidatan. Such an order must be animated by a sense of justice and mutual respect. It must stimulate the flowering of human virtues and encourage the realization of civilizational ideals.
The Asian economy, which continues to grow by leaps and bounds, is perhaps the most powerful force currently shaping the global order. Asia has toiled to prosper and with that prosperity we can expect a certain degree of clout and influence. But our claim to a prominent part in determining the conduct of the affairs of the global community must not be based solely on economic might. Let us remember that the strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right. Asia, which has often condemned the Western powers on moral grounds, must remain faithful to its own moral values. Indeed, it would be easy to invoke the moral voice when we are weak, but the greater challenge is to pay heed to it when we are strong. Asia has to revitalize its moral and cultural life. Only through this process can we articulate the moral message or risk incomprehension, jealousy and opposition from others.
As Asia contributes to the world economy and global order it must actively work towards the reconstruction of global civilization. Let us not be lulled into complacency by the so-called East Asian Economic Miracle. Even in this domain much work needs to be done. Grinding poverty, disease, ignorance and inhumane living conditions are stark realities. For those caught in this vicious circle, wealth and comfort remain elusive. The challenge for the Asian leadership is indeed enormous if we want to prevent the growth of economic apartheid. As we embark on the course of civilizational reconstruction, economic growth is essential but distributive justice is paramount.
Be that as it may, it is in the economic sphere that Asia has realised its potential. After 500 years of marginalization, Asia has begun to move to the centre stage of global affairs. However, instead of indulging in self-adulation, this new found confidence should spur us to aspire to transcend mere economic pursuit for the more noble and enduring cause. And that is none other than to breathe new life into contemporary civilization which has been seized and crippled by a general malaise. We must rekindle the flame of idealism, restore the lost balance between reason and revelation, and reinvigorate the love for learning and the passion for justice.
The necessity for the reconstruction of civilization was already forcefully articulated by a young man of Asia a century ago, who is no other person than the most distinguished alumnus of this university, Dr. Jose Rizal. This Asian renaissance man "awaits a day when Idea conquers brute force." "The redemption of humanity" he said "would not be possible while reason is not free, while faith would want to impose itself on facts, while whims are laws and there are nations who subjugate others." If the malignant cancer as perceived by Rizal in his day was superstitious religion in which God was being, in his words, "utilized as a shield and protector of abuses," our day has seen the pendulum swing to the other extreme. The enemy is no longer superstition, but rather Reason that is too proud, Reason that murders, as it were, God Himself and the moral ideals that spring from faith in the Absolute Transcendent.
Thus the reconstruction of civilization would not be possible without a renewal of faith in the Divine. This indeed would be Asia's singular contribution to the world. Unlike the West since the Enlightenment, which severed itself from the dominant world view of the Age of Faith, Asia, despite centuries of change and transformation, still preserves its essential religious character. The Asian Man at heart is persona religiosus. Faith and religious practice is not confined to the individual, it permeates the life of the community. In fact it is religion rather than any other social force which makes Asia a continent of infinite diversity. Western man, on the other hand, in his arrogance and intolerance towards all things unfamiliar, sought to fashion the world according to his limited egocentric vision through the instrument of natural reason founded on the forces of modernity. This self-centred preoccupation was the root of imperialism in Rizal's day, where men exploited their fellow men, l'exploitation de l'homme par l'homme, to satisfy their lust for power and control. Today, man continues to unleash his savagery on nature and the environment with the same imperialistic disdain and contempt as he did then.
This imperialism, aided and abetted today by the forces of the technological revolution, now seeks to extend its hegemony into the cultural sphere. However, the new global community cannot be based upon a single culture, no matter how attractive its claims. It must be inclusive and founded upon multiculturality. And the world must look towards Asia for lessons in living in a multicultural universe . In this regard, Southeast Asia is Asia on a smaller scale. Its problematique -- complexities and potentialities -- encapsulates the predicament of Asia as a whole. Here, the children of Abraham encounter the great civili zations of the Indic and the Sinic worlds. Tolerance, mutual respect and a genuine desire to know each other will transform this encounter from one of enmity, suspicion and mutual incomprehension into one of friendship, trust and understanding. But tolerance and mutual respect can only come about in a multicultural and multireligious community if there is justice in dealings, if minorities are not marginalized on account of their faith, race and culture. Thus, social justice is a crucial element in sustaining solidarity in a multicultural community.
The reality of our time requires that nations come closer to one another and collaborate as a larger entity. We must have the wisdom to learn from one another to progress towards the realization of a civil society. While some Southeast Asian countries have led the way in the economic sphere, the Philippines has shown more courage than others in empowering the people by means of democracy. The determination of this nation to confront an arrogant power and defeat it is a veritable lesson for others to share. But democracy itself is in need of renewal. It must purge itself of its own excesses, arrest moral decadence, and stamp out corruption. It must not abet abuses of power and become a concert for the rich and powerful few. Democracy is only meaningful if it serves the needs of the people and becomes the vehicle for cultural empowerment. Above all democracy must be guided by moral precepts and faith reawakened.
Lest one forget, faith revitalized must never lead to bigotry, otherwise religion would be the bane of our time, causing us to descend further into darkness. If religion is to contribute to the reconstruction of civilization and the renaissance of Asia, faith renewed must be a cultural force liberating man from ignorance and intolerance, injustice and greed, domination and exploitation. This can only take place if the leadership of every community of faith actively promotes a universal per spective. Dogmatism and theological blinkers can only be transcended by cultivating universal wisdom, the philosophia perennis, as was cultivated by Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Dante, or the hikmah al-khalidah of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. To borrow the imagery from the Gospel of Saint John, this perennial wisdom is the light that "shineth in darkness," although "the darkness comprehendeth it not." This wisdom is alluded to in the Qur'an with arresting imagery, the light of a lamp "lit from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touches it."
The burden of reconstructing civilization is indeed heavy but necessary to free ourselves from the selva obscura, the dark and savage wood of our times. Asia's true claim on the world in the new millennium will rest upon its role in this bold and perilous odyssey. And as Dante said, we must summon all our strength and resources:
" as little flowers bent down and closed by the chill of night,straighten and unfold upon their stems when the sun brightens them."
With this new vigour and vitality we must articulate our moral message, civilizational ideals that are universal and perennial, a message that appeals to reason and goodness; the message of truth, justice and compassion, of beauty as splendour of Truth, and above all, of the liberty and dignity of man as the imago dei and the khalifatullah fil ardh.