Reflections about the Situation We Are In

Clifford G. Hurst (VP of Research at the Robert S. Hartman Institute) reflects on the current global situation with COVID-19 declared a pandemic and brings Robert S. Hartman's words to life from unpublished manuscript "A Revolution Against War."

Written by Clifford G. Hurst

As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel lobby in San Diego, CA, on March 11, 2020. Our college is on spring break; my wife, Dayna, is attending a workshop here in San Diego. I decided to accompany her on the trip so that we can spend a few precious evenings and nights together. 

It's given me an opportunity, for three days in a row, to kick back, think, and reflect a bit.

While I write, I'm reflecting on the scope of an eight-month project I have undertaken, which involved selecting and editing a book-length manuscript of Hartman's writings on war and peace, which we, at the Institute, have decided to entitle: A Revolution Against War. As you might imagine, Hartman's thoughts about the likelihood of a nuclear war have been large on my mind for these eight months. It's been sobering, if not downright scary. As I reflect on that undertaking, I also have CNN on TV in the background. CNN gives hour-by-hour updates on the spread of what just today has been declared a worldwide pandemic of the Covid-19 virus. These updates are interspersed with other reports about the serious slide of the stock market into recession territory. With all of that swirling in my head, it dawned on me that some of Hartman's ideas about the need to stop the spread of nuclear weapons have a lot to say about the current situation in which we find ourselves.

That brings me to Hartman's notion of the "situation." It's a word Hartman frequently used in some of his writings.

I just did a word search of the 68,000-word manuscript for A Revolution Against War for the word "situation." I found 154 references to it in this manuscript alone. As much as I have previously studied Hartman's writings, this is one concept I had not dwelled much upon, until now. 

It's gradually dawning on me that our ability to make axiologically sound judgments depends not only on our own value structures but also on the "situation" in which we find ourselves. Several of the situations we find ourselves in today are dire—stock market slide; coronavirus pandemic; a 20-year-long war; saber-rattling with North Korea and Iran.

How do we use formal axiology to help us make sound value judgments in the face of such situations? It is useful to review what Hartman had to say about "situations" and "situational analysis."

In order to study the behavior of humankind scientifically, Hartman says we need four methods—methods of abstraction, precision, situational analysis, and moral skills. He argues for the development of a "situational Gestalt" and mentions in a footnote that this is the subject of a forthcoming book by him. It is unclear from the context which book Hartman is referring to. Perhaps it was never written. Perhaps it was written but never published. Perhaps he is referring here to The Structure of Value. I just don't know.

What, exactly, does he mean by a situational analysis? Hartman writes:

"At present there is no science of man, just as there is none of situations, for the same reasons. Man has been cut up into dozens of different frames of reference, but no frame of reference has yet been applied to man-as-a-whole. The natural sciences were successful because they fitted appropriate frames of reference to natural phenomena. The framework of chemistry fits a chemical substance completely. Applied to man, that same framework will fit only very insufficiently—like a flea’s coat measured to an elephant. Man transcends by far the chemical realm. What we have to find is a frame of reference adequate to the behavior of man-as-a-whole."

This isn't going to be easy.

Hartman goes on to say that such a science has not yet been developed. But it must be, else our fate is grim. His description of our habit of taking for granted our good fortunes struck home for me, with particular force, today. 

"The Greek word “catastrophe” means “sudden turn”; the sudden turn which ends everything. Only in few situations are we conscious of the possibility of catastrophe, as in an airplane. Sometimes, as in the Greek tragedy, we see the noose of fate being tied slowly, knot by knot, and although we see with clear eyes the threatening fate we feel powerless to escape it. Generally, however, we live without the presentiment of catastrophe. Our life goes its tranquil course—or at least we think it does.
We take the good times as our due and are desperate when misfortune hits instead of being grateful for every minute of happiness. We believe that our life is safe. In this belief rests our security and our happiness.
Suppose now we would start with the thought that our existence is precarious, uncertain and every happy moment an unexpected present. In this case we would not take the everyday occurrences of life as matters of course. Our whole life would take on a new dimension, one of gratitude toward a kind fate or God or a power which watches over us and protects us against evil. We would not only live but experience every moment; we would be aware continuously of the limits that are set to our existence. We would perceive our existence as a limit situation in the sense that every moment could be the last—although, thank God, it is not. Limit situations, say the existential philosophers, are situations in which man collides with the inevitable, final and inexplorable limits of his being—guilt, death, fate, chance. In such situations we become conscious of our own existence—which otherwise we take for granted—and all our values take on a different hue. Our whole life, as a limit situation, would be under the species of eternity—in the consciousness of the infinity which surrounds our own finiteness."

The human situation, in other words, up to now, never was a limit situation. What was limited were the catastrophes. 

Remember, Hartman here is writing about the nuclear arms race, but I am re-reading his words on the day that the coronavirus has been declared a worldwide pandemic.

"All this has now ended. All of us are in a limit situation in which we depend so much one on the other that, if we do not all see the existential dimension of our situation, we shall all die together. As in the Greek tragedy the fates are spinning the thread and, turn by turn, are entwining us in the web. And, as in the tragedy, were are all either too blind to see the unavoidable fate is being prepared for us, or, if we see it, too powerless to avert it. Unlike the persons of the Greek drama, however, we are not the creations of a poet, we make the drama ourselves. We are ourselves the poets of our fate. And with open eyes and hearts we could, through our own action, ward off the disaster and turn what threatens to be catastrophe into abundant life."

In this new situation, he continues, the old organization of states and nations is obsolete. We have to think in new categories. The current pandemic has brought home to us, more than any event in recent memory, how very much today we live in a connected world. We are all global citizens, and many of the issues we face are global, not national issues. Recognizing this will take a new paradigm, a new and as-yet-uncommon way of thinking. Hartman advocated, near the end of this book, for an end to national sovereignty. Perhaps the current pandemic will serve as a wake-up call so that we needn't face the nuclear war that Hartman warned about before we take notice.

Written by Clifford G. Hurst

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