Novelist, historian, and philosopher John Ralston Saul thinks that we can learn many things—depressing things—about the modern world from Homer. “The Homeric idea was that people’s margin for maneuver was small because the gods and destiny were in charge,” he says. “Later Socrates and the Greek lawgiver Solon said: That’s garbage! Human beings have room to organize and change themselves a lot, within the limits of reality. Now, 2,500 years later, our elites tell us again: The gods rule! Only the new gods are the market, and any other force we just have to passively accept.”
In Voltaire’s Bastards (1992) and The Doubter’s Companion (1994), and even in his thoughtful novels of international intrigue, this 48-year-old Canadian polymath (who has worked as an investment manager in Paris and as an assistant to the chairman of Canada’s national petroleum corporation) wages war against the civic hopelessness that grows out of this fatalism—by wielding a sharp pen against the elites who foist the fatalism upon us. How do they do what they do? By monopolizing, and corrupting, language.
“The elites control what they consider a higher language, a technical language inaccessible to the lower orders—and to other elites too! This language is supposedly at one end of the spectrum, and, say, Roseanne is at the other. But the highest language is the one that can be used and understood by citizens, and the opaque languages of the specialists are dialects, lower forms that actually suck the blood from language.’
Because language doesn’t work, it’s no wonder that political and economic thought is “in a corner,” as Saul puts it. His remedy is to oppose the elites (whom he likens to medieval philosophers prouder of their mastery of Aristotle’s categories than of any grasp on reality) with the spirit of the Renaissance, “when people looked at their entire history afresh, threw all the cards up in the air.”
When Saul looks historyward, he sees periods of balance as the most creative times. “Cultures try to balance reason, common sense, memory, experience, ethics, creativity, and intuition. When a culture has too much memory, it may be a monarchy obsessed with the past. When ethics dominates, you have some kind of church rule. In our day, reason—rationalism—dominates, to the point of irrationalism. All our emphasis is on deciding [on] and then administering solutions. But any idiot can be decisive,” he laughs. ‘We’ve lost the capacity to find out what’s truly going on and then talk about that” —thanks to language that doesn’t work anymore.
“We need to say to the elites, particularly when they tell us that we must obey market forces, or that certain degradations of our life are inevitable: Gentlemen, we’re the ones that put you where you are, and we don’t want this from you anymore.”