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Princess of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities 2015
Life is a never-ending experience. We learn as we go to look, to wonder at the natural world that surrounds us: the trees, clouds, light, sea, land and fruits of the earth. It was the first philosophers who introduced us to this wonder and began to speculate, to “theorize” –which is a way of looking– about what they called the stoicheia, the “elements”, the fundamental principles of life: water, air and earth.
From within our technological world –the fruit, initially, of science, of the passion to know–, we could not imagine that we should suddenly be told something like: tomorrow, there will be no air; tomorrow, water will cease to exist. Everything would be superfluous; there would be no technical marvel capable of compensating the fact. Including light: that chance to experience the wonder and thereby, the union with the world in which we find ourselves, and to transform ourselves into that inner light, in which we see ourselves and within which we exist.
Yet, that inner light, that discovery of the “delight we take in our senses”, (aisthiseon agapisis) (Metaphysics. Book I. 980a) was determined by a new way of looking and by new, “thought up”, “looked at” objects that the Latin tradition was to call concepts; that is, something conceived by the mind, which were to forge a new universe of “elementary” words. Words that no longer indicated the surrounding world, which did not point to reality: the hardness of the earth, the blowing of the air, the vital, flowing touch of water.
Within that constellation of meanings, something arose that we could not touch, we could not perceive with the senses, but rather with that inner light, born within the core of language, which has made us communication and humanity, which has transformed us into words. These elements were called “Truth”, “Good” and “Beauty” (Aletheia, Agathon and Kalon). Pure vocables, pure semantic air that indicated nothing beyond themselves, but whose selfhood started to become as vital as air or water.
The elements of culture spread out towards an ideal horizon of human life and are, therefore, at the origin of the following, likewise astonishing concept: the Humanities. A term that has become familiar to us, and due to that self-same familiarity, one in whose fecund territory of meanings we could inadvertently flounder.
Although it is neither the time nor place to delve into that semantic domain and discover something of its history and its inspiration, I would like to put forward that this word, the “humanities”, so full of life as it is, is the fruit of a long cultural process. It constitutes an ideal in the collective memory and, most importantly, is not only the result of “theory”, of looking, but also supposes strength, dynamism and wealth for society. The humanities are learned, they are communicated. We need them to become who we are, to know what we are, and, above all, so that we do not become obfuscated by what we want, by what we should be.
Truth was the foundation for coexistence, an essential structure in the behaviour of society: a mirror that reflects the conformity and agreement of the person speaking in what is said.
Then again, the ideal heavens of the Humanities reside in a reality replete with turbulent storm clouds. One need only open a newspaper or listen to the news. And that gloom makes us wonder whether this prodigious invention of the “humanities” may not have debilitated us and whether, despite unquestionable, real advances, the human race has failed to overcome ignorance and its inevitable comrades, violence and cruelty. The “human race”, that trivialized expression, turned into the “human disgrace”, into disgraceful.
In that ideal domain, within those elements invented by culture and its language, there is another concept called “Good” or “Goodness”. If we analyse the first texts in which this word appears, we discover that the Good –to agathon–, excellence, virtue, moral conscience and everything embraced by the word arete, gradually emerged and evolved from the shelter of the family clan. The Good arose from that place of mutual aid and protection in which Nature assimilates, encourages and maintains its own products.
In fact, goodness, as opposed to the idea of absolute good, supposed a human perspective. An observation, but from within oneself. A passage in Aristotle’s Ethics states that all men seek the good; but that this good is determined by the “appearance” (phainomenon) it assumes when revealing itself to us. The appearance is thus what our mind sees, what our heart feels, what the inner gaze that forges humanity itself constructs. And, like truth, this good is learned in culture, which, in its origins, is nothing short of teaching… education.
No wonder that beauty was bound to goodness (kalos kagathos). All this implied the awakening, before our eyes, before our ears, of that horizon of the Humanities.
A famous insight of Greek philosophy, attributed to Protagoras, tells us “Man is the measure of all things”. And we know this to be true; that our inner self is the mystery that conceals the perspective with which we approach the world. Yet that homo mensura that expresses the essence of our personality, of the being we are or are becoming, confronts us with other substantial issues:
Who is doing the measuring within us? What do we measure? How do we measure?
And, ultimately: Who teaches us to measure?
From early childhood, education (paideia), initiates the process of constructing the “who” that does the measuring within us. The mental reflexes, the possible conditioned reflexes which –as in Pavlov's famous experiment– the language of the media –of our, let us say, educators– injects into our neurons, determine, condition our lives and our person, enslaving or freeing us. Yet what is most important is not so much the media, but the sources, the origins, the wellsprings from which surges all that the media “mediatizes”.
I am convinced that teachers are aware of the privilege of communication, of this supreme form of the “humanities”. This desire to become more, this desire for culture –for cultivation– is perhaps the most necessary endeavour within a community, within a “polis” and within its memory. In this undertaking, this education of freedom breathes our future, the future of truth, of the fight for equality, for justice, for intelligence.
I would like to recall at this point a poem by Brecht that tells of the origin of the book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tzu’s road into exile. On crossing the border, the customs man asks him if he has any valuables to declare. “Nothing,” he says. And the young man who accompanied him adds, “Er hat gelehrt” [The old man taught]. He has been able to speak, to communicate, to teach, to exist in words. “And so then everything became clear.”
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