I have recently been reminded of the concept of ‘Thrownness’, which the Great yet tarnished German Philosopher Martin Heidegger first voiced in his book ‘Being and Time’. It is the unsettling feeling we perplexingly experience from time to time of being somehow thrown into the world – into being – with little or no say in the matter. Someone explained it like this: ‘Our past way of Being ‘threw’ us into the current way we find ourselves’. In essence, it means ‘we are unable to control how we feel now, and can only strive to feel differently in the future’. Thrownness might be described as the ‘past-for-the-present’, or the current way our past ‘situates us in the world’.
You certainly have the incentive to grapple with such flighty thoughts as you navigate one of those moments in the history of our nation when much around you seems ‘thrown’, and up in the air at that: Banks and all manner of financial institutions, politicians, jobs, the weather and attendant fatal floods, and of course your own life. The game seems thrown before it even begins and thenceforth we are simply chasing. The passing away in close proximity of two of the most illustrious Ghanaians of the modern era, namely, Kofi Annan and J.H. Mensah, has only helped to increase this sense of Thrownness. As an acquaintance of mine phrased it, Yen Mpanyinfo ko wom kra akyi, which translates loosely as our revered elders have progressed into the soul world. Interestingly, J.B. Danquah in his seminal ‘Akan Doctrine of God’ suggests that Opanyin, of which Mpanyinfo is the plural is etymologically derived from pa or good and nyin or grow. Therefore Opanyin denotes ‘One whose goodness has grown.’ This chimes well with a belief Nietzsche (another German philosopher) held that the proper measure of any person could only be taken in their advancing years when their diminished vigour could no longer suppress their true nature. Again, an Akan proverb states, ‘no one can by design give birth to an Opanyin.’ He is made not born, and ‘forged in the fire of adversity.’
A temporary bout of national ‘Thrownness’ makes a people more readily swayed by the seductive strains of a fashionable pessimism that declares ‘it’s all of a muchness’, ‘the value is the same’, ‘scoundrels out, rascals in’…’this nation is never going to get its act together’.
Just the other night I found myself driving behind a wheezy old trotro (passenger minibus) which, under the cover of darkness, was spewing out thick sooty clouds of exhaust fumes. The vehicle was going my way, so I was unable to take immediate evasive action and branch off onto another connecting road. I was forced to follow the trotro for more than I cared, muttering and cursing under my breath before I was rid of the sputtering menace. I resulted to honking to vent my frustration but the trotro driver was clearly unmoved by my lame protest. For this short uncomfortable period I felt thrown willy nilly behind the moving trotro, forced to come to terms with the experience, and challenged to understand the motivation behind such brazenly anti-social behavior. For his part, the trotro driver probably viewed the stealthy, police-evading evening run with his polluting, particulate-discharging vehicle, as the only realistic option he had for earning a livelihood. He almost certainly slept soundly later that night, blissfully unaware of a recent international air pollution study that determined bad air quality can affect cognitive ability in the long term and cause steep drops in verbal and math scores. The World Health Organization (WHO) has further fingered air pollution as very likely increasing risks of asthma, lung cancer, stroke and heart disease, etc.
Perhaps, this is just the way the cookie crumbles, and indeed all things crumble in the implacable grip of entropy, which is often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in a system and always increases with time. The Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that entropy increases with disorder. However, the real insight, according to the Austrian-American scientist Heinz von Foerster, is that entropy increases with confusion. Yes, confusion, because the greater the measured disorder in a system the more confused an observer becomes owing to the increase in indiscriminate randomness. W.B. Yeats in his rightly celebrated ‘The Second Coming’ memorably conveys this when he states ‘The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…’ Further on in the poem Yeats writes ‘The best lack conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ An almost sure recipe for rank confusion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in communication theory entropy does actually refer to a numerical measure of the uncertainty of an outcome.
So disorder begets confusion; and confusion in turn begets disorder.
This has real-life implications for any serious nation building project. The distinguished British art historian Lord Kenneth Clark in his magisterial BBC TV series ‘Civilisation’ from 1969 attempted to explain the reasons for the rise and fall of civilisations. He suggested vigorous civilisations have had a weight of energy buttressing them. As a consequence, he concludes ‘So if one asks why the civilisation of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.’ The energy, both creative and calorific, required to push back the inexorable march of entropy is lacking and doubt creeps in. Confidence in its own cognitive powers is inevitably sapped and the former zip and zest of the society gradually ebb away, replaced with listlessness, inertia, and finally a smothering fatalism.
Steven Pinker in his latest book ‘Enlightenment Now’ offers that ‘the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving is to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order…and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny.’ Energy is channeled by knowledge, and that is why Pinker later quotes the economist Peter Bauer, who claims quite provocatively ‘Poverty has no causes.’ Rather ‘Wealth has causes.’ In the view of Pinker, Wealth is created primarily by knowledge and cooperation. And this automatically raises the bar for wealth creation in these parts owing to our singular inability to so much as come together to weep collectively for our squandered national inheritance. The pathways to knowledge are readily identified while the ingredients of cooperation are more nuanced and fugitive because it requires empathy, intuition and a generous splash of imagination to pull off successfully. Put more starkly, if push comes to shove, knowledge can be outsourced. The same cannot be said for cooperation. Indeed, prepare to be laughed out of a room if you even suggested ‘you were seriously thinking of outsourcing your cooperation.’ Self-treatment is a bad idea when you have a toothache. You visit a dentist and cooperate with her if you hope for a good outcome.
It has been asserted ‘knowledge is simply a process that integrates past and present experiences to form new activities that are perceived internally as thought and will, and externally as speech and movement’. That process is driven by the cultivation of what the novelist Thomas Pynchon termed ‘temporal bandwidth’ – an awareness of our experience as extending into the past and the future. One of his characters in Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow explains that temporal bandwidth is the ‘width of your present, your now…The more you dwell in in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your senses of Now, the more tenuous you are.’
So the process of knowledge acquisition is literally a stretch. Yet, cooperation is the tougher ask.
Ghanaians frequently refer to the Phd or ‘Pull him down’ syndrome here, which insidiously undermines any attempt to create a collective tapestry of wondrous achievement from the interwoven strands of superlative individual effort. The generous temperament and humility (ahobrease in Akan) that allows talented others to ‘come through’ even at the possible expense of your own personal advancement are rare traits indeed. Zero-summing has all too often stymied cooperation and we have therefore consistently missed out on opportunities to benefit from its role as a force-multiplier. All for one, and done for all?
Apparently, the light-bulb moment of the enlightenment was the realization that problems were inevitable but problems were solvable, and (this was the kicker), through our own human agency. The enlightenment thinkers recognized the inescapable presence of entropy in our lives, but also believed we had it within our means to roll with its most extreme consequences.
Kofi Annan and J.H. Mensah are revered precisely because of their proven problem solving skills: their ability to roll with entropy. Kofi Annan has been castigated for his and the UN’s tragic failings in both Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s. Yet, by far his most impactful action at the United Nations was the launch of the eight Millennium Development Goals in 2000, which, despite the initial derision of some sceptics, actually succeeded in cutting the global poverty rate in half and lifting a billion people out of poverty well within designated timelines. Closer to home, his discreet yet firm interventions were repeatedly critical in ensuring the smooth transition of power from one government to the next following keenly contested political elections in our nation.
For his part, as the Executive Secretary of the National Planning Commission under the chairmanship of, then President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, J.H. Mensah wrote in 1964 a national Seven Year Development plan for Ghana, copies of which are still sold on Amazon. J.H. Mensah was later the Finance Minister, who oversaw the ill-fated devaluation of our national currency in 1971, although he was personally against the policy. Like the team player he was, he never publicly disowned the decision and, rather, quietly continued to champion the values and causes he believed in. Ghanaians were astonished to hear claims “J.H.” had gloriously died a pauper. Material things meant little to him. To his mind, there was more to the business of life than the accumulation of shiny things. Ei Bei! No self-respecting African politician makes the journey from afar merely to “admire the sea”, as we say in these parts.
In the mythology of Ancient Greece, two vessels of destiny stood at the entrance of the abode of the supreme deity Zeus, and no one received his apportioned share from the good vessel alone. Indeed, Pindar, the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece, reveals: “for each good thing obtained, the gods bestow two evils on mortals.” To the Greeks One step forward, two steps backward was the rule not the exception. The takeaway was (with apologies to the long-running ad slogan of Avis) bad things come in two’s, so we try harder.
Both Kofi Annan and J.H. Mensah clearly understood we are obliged to roll our allotted stone up to the top of the slope even though we know it will roll back down again. If anything, despite our inkling of the inevitable outcome, we must throw ourselves into the task with renewed purpose and abandon because despair is never an option. As Raymond Williams put it, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”.
Order and chaos should be seen as complementary sides of the same worn coin: they represent the eternal cycle of become and becoming. Becoming connotes movement and evolution and is the process of change, which takes place in space time. As far as Nietzsche was concerned nothing was ever fully become. He, like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, rather envisaged a world of relentless change and becoming. Order itself was an illusion.
We observe the choreographed interplay of order and chaos at the lower chamber of the British Parliament during the cut and thrust of the Prime Minister’s Question time. The back and forth of debate is robust, direct, and unapologetic. Whenever proceedings are at their rowdiest and the uproar is sustained, the politically impartial Speaker of the house of commons traditionally yells ‘Order, order, order’ to calm things down and, of course, restore order to the chamber. In this way a fine balance between chaos and order is scrupulously maintained at the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.
Our innate yearning for order and permanence is captured at the very beginning of recorded history. In the earliest literature we have, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero grapples with death, and the cataclysmic upshot of a world-engulfing flood, and ends up concluding that through works of enduring value and culture ordinary mortals can transcend their mortality.
The ancient Egyptians were guided by the ethical and moral principle of Ma’at in their everyday lives. Ma’at embodied the concepts of order, balance, truth, harmony and justice. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Ma’at as a female deity who controlled the movement of the stars, and seasons, and the actions of humans and the gods who had wrought order out of chaos at the inception of the world. Her evil counterpart was Isfet or Asfet, who represented chaos, conflict, and strife.
The principle of Ma’at came to pervade the entire fabric of Egyptian life and cosmology. This included ‘…the fundamental equilibrium of the universe, the relationship between constituent parts, the cycle of the seasons, heavenly movements, religious observations and fair dealings, honesty and truthfulness in social interactions.’
The universe of the ancient Egyptians was one of holiness and holism. Adherence of the people to the accepted tenets of public and ritual life ensured Cosmic harmony. Any disruption of the cosmic order had dire ramifications for all, so the people endeavoured to conduct themselves with rectitude, decency and truth in their respective dealings with family, the community, the Egyptian state and the gods. These rules underpinned Egyptian law. From the earliest era the King would declare himself ‘Lord of Ma’at’ who decreed with his mouth the Ma’at he conceived in his heart.
Ma’at enmeshed everything in an indestructible whole: all the disparate elements were to be viewed as parts of a greater order.
In the ancient text ‘the Instruction of Ptahhotep’ Ma’at is presented thus:
Ma’at is good and its worth is lasting.
It has not been disturbed since the day of its creator,
whereas he who transgresses its ordinances is punished.
It lies as a path in front even of him who knows nothing.
Wrongdoing has never yet brought its venture to port.
It is true that evil may gain wealth but the strength of truth is that it lasts;
a man can say: “It was the property of my father.