“Through painful toil you will eat food
from the ground all the days of your life.”
Genesis 3:17

The “identity crisis” that emerged after the two world wars left people uncertain about how to define themselves, what to believe in and what to hope for. Neither the institution of religion, nor the state authorities had been able to protect humanity from these disasters.

Following the French Revolution, in particular, “nation-state” organizations and “humanist” and “positivist” approaches to education were adopted throughout the world. This was the new way of existence for societies, and the rally cry of this new model of civilization was “Blind faith, raw power and bigotry must give way to scientific knowledge.”

However, expectations were frustrated. The physical and moral destruction felt in the wake of the two great world wars was accompanied by anomie and a loss of meaning.

What happened to all of the values for which peopled had toiled? What are we to believe in if there are no such values that bind people to one another? What is there to live for?

The result was nihilism.

Weren’t people “creatures of meaning”? Weren’t we supposed to build a family of humanity through meaning, understanding and mutual agreement? Won’t we lose our humanity forever in the face of these relentless attacks, blinded by avarice and narrow self-interest?

The result was de-humanization and a loss of conscience.

A curriculum based on this humanist project was disseminated throughout the world via universities, with the ultimate goal being to end wars of religion and sect, and to secure world peace. However, the ideological organizations that replaced religious organizations in such a short period of time proved to be no different, forbidding free thought in their members, and charging those who held different opinions with treason.

The result was fascism, totalitarianism and dictatorship.

Viktor Frankl

Famous writer Viktor E. Frankl wrote his book The Unheard Cry for Meaning in a concentration camp, as he waited for his hour of death in front of the gas chambers. Germany was considered to represent the pinnacle of achievement of the entire humanist and positivist project, but how was it possible that the herd mentality was still alive and kicking, despite the presence of so many scientists, artists and philosophers?

Previously, worldviews born out of “essentialist” philosophies used promises of progress, development, solidarity, rights and freedoms to generate designs for the future and to instill hope. The destruction wrought by the two world wars, however, not only frustrated these hopes, but also created a “problem of existence”. The name of the new philosophy was existentialism, in which the existence of the individual would now be dependent upon the free choices they made.

The two world wars had been conventional in form, while a third would not be so conventional, but “nuclear,” bringing about unprecedented destruction. The prediction was that the only upside of this war would be its preclusion of the possibility of a fourth forever. The Sword of Damocles was now hanging over the head of humanity, its shadow making every mindful person lose sleep.

What is interesting is that the first thing ever to be globalized was “war”. The history of humanity reads like a catalog of conflict, although the two great wars were not local, like the others, bringing the entire world head to head. The word “Adam” in the creation myth is derived from the Hebrew term for “red”, as if referring to the rivers of blood that would be shed on earth, the earth being awash with blood.

The second thing to globalize were “ecological disasters”, resulting from the waste generated by the ever-expanding industry, which has reached such proportions as to threaten the entire ecosystem.

The third thing to globalize was “information.” The World Wide Web has made the flow of information faster, however the lack of sufficient legal regulation and supervision has led to valid information being presented alongside misinformation, contaminating our knowledge and leading people to start relying on unchecked information and social media posts.

“Capital” was the fourth subject of globalization. Money –the billions of dollars that flood the earth like an overflowing river– leaves disoriented people in its wake, and has a way of making all obstacles to its free flow disappear. This is called the storming effect, which is responsible for the globalization of the economy. According to economic theorists, economy is not a free-standing phenomenon, in that it co-exists with politics; that is to say, we should be talking about the conceptual pairing of “political economy”. The corollary to this idea is that the global economy necessitates “global policies”. In other words, nation-state organizations with self-sufficient economies should transform if they are to join the global political economy, and humanity was de facto caught unprepared for this.

All of these phenomena forced themselves upon humanity as “second nature”. If people fail to pay attention to a new phenomenon, like they have insisted on maintaining an unhealthy relationship with nature and society, a new disaster awaits us.

Political economy also involves “labour”, and human labour must follow in the footsteps of capital and become globalized. Even though there are currently significant obstacles to this, it is bound to happen in the future as workers have been migrating to industrialized countries for some time now. In the globalized world, people will be recruited not based on their identities, but on their “talent,” “knowledge” and “skills”.

In this globalized world of ours in which there are free flows of armies, money and information, unprecedented problems will surely arise once individuals achieve the same level of mobility – which they have already started to do.

The first problem with globalization will be “culture shock”. The solidarity born out of relationships based on essentialist beliefs will fade, and the inevitability of living together will give rise to the need to get to know and understand one another, with “essentialist protectionism” being replaced by “existentialist competition”.

Civilization is internalized intentionally, whereas culture is inherited through unintentional participation in habits, akin to a warm, trusted friend that we grew up with.

The life of an individual has three main determinants: what they know, what they are capable of and what they expect, the third of which concerns the future, and is reflected in the present in the form of “hope”.

People who lost hope, as products of nihilism, regressed and sought refuge in the “womb of culture”. Thus, similar to feedback in cybernetics, or to how Heracles regains strength by lying down in mythology, people today have started to look again for the ancient wisdom of tradition. What we need, however, is not flashbacks, but to gain feedback by returning to the source.

The old is worn-out, is no longer fashionable and is left in the past. The word “ancient” in ancient wisdom means “timeless” and eternal, not simply the past. What is ancient remains relevant, as it works upon the present since it has eternal power. In Sufism (Tasawwuf), this is referred to as ta’wil, meaning literally returning to the source, turning something into its original state. Going back does not mean returning to a past time, but gaining access to one’s essence and origin, which are in fact our “own actions.”

There has been a return to ancient wisdom all over the world, not due to modernity, but as a criticism of modernism in a movement led by such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, and philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, who explored philosophical issues through literature.

Fernand Schwarz’s books on the rediscovery of ancient wisdom is a good example of the other approach.

Not all teachings from the past deserve the designation “ancient”, as they may be simply old. When criticizing modernism, denying the benefits of modernity would not count as proper criticism, being rather wholesale denial.

Beneath the differences and contradictions among religions, there are deep “ancient values” that can be unearthed via the “tradition of wisdom” in each culture. Like artesian wells, religions may look different to one another above the ground, but underground, they form a single sea, which is referred to as “unity” in the Islamic tradition. It is this deep wisdom (gnosis) that can make “intercultural meetings” possible out in the contemporary world.

* First published in Taraf, on 9 November 2012. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.