Tuesday, November 18, 2008

[un]Common Sense

¡Hola! Everybody…
I am inundated with work, so I’ll be scarce today…

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-=[ unCommon Sense ]=-

“Wisdom consists in rising superior both to madness and to common sense, and in lending oneself to the universal delusion without becoming its dupe.”

-- Henri Frédéric Amiel (1821–1881)

This blog should have been the first blog I ever posted here. I’ve been writing it for a year now, but something else always comes up: some issue or topic I perceive as more important. The result being that I’ve never finished nor post this blog’s raison d’être. For example, have any of here noticed the blog’s title – “[un]Common Sense”?

Maybe we can start there… if this is the “[un]Common Sense Blog,” then what is common sense?

On January 10, 1776, an English immigrant published a pamphlet urging American colonists to question their assumption about something everybody took for granted: the divine right of the monarchy. According to published reports of the day, many committed Royalists (those who favored the monarchy) were converted by a single reading of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Paine’s argument must have been powerful: half a million copies were sold over the next year. Think about this for a moment: the population of the colonies at the time was probably just over 2 million; this man’s pamphlet sold a half a million in one year! And Oprah didn’t even pick it for her book club!

Because Paine donated the royalties from his two-shilling pamphlet to the revolution, the United States Congress him a small pension and a farm in upstate New York after the war. Yet only a few years later, Paine was branded a traitor for attempting to further expand the meaning of democracy (remember, initially, the land of the free was only free for white, propertied men). Ahhhh… the fickle fate of celebrity: one moment the “father of reason”; the next, an outcast! The more things change the more they stay the same…

So, what is this thing called common sense? We hear the term all the time: “Common sense should’ve told you… ,” for example, but it eludes definition. The term implies that there is a body of information (“sense”) somewhere that everyone (“common”) knows, but we all would agree that common sense is as rare as an original thought in our current president’s head.

We like to speak of common sense as if it were something immutable – something that never changes, static. However, common sense evolves all the time. For example, 18th and 19th century Europeans considered bathing unhealthy (this is why Native Americans could “see them coming a mile away. LOL!).

Common sense, right?

Another example of common sense: tomatoes were considered poisonous until the 18th century when a man ate one on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey (he probably bathed regularly too!).

The upshot being that common sense has more to do with the common part than with the sense part. As seen in the case of the Royalists of colonist America, common sense is often a mass of unquestioned assumptions dictated by culture and sub-cultures, than by reason.

Still, the prevalent question of the day seems to be, “What ever happened to common sense?” It’s more often than not a rhetorical question, not needing an answer – it’s more of a complaint. We sense that something is missing. Maybe we can say that common sense is a way of being rather than a body of knowledge. We say someone has common sense when they possess an attitude – not thoughts but an ability to think creatively and with purpose. Perhaps, as author Marilyn Ferguson says, common sense is not what we know but how we know it.

Which brings us back to this blog… but I must first digress yet again. In Emile Zola’s Best of Man, an engineer and a fireman are quarrelling in the locomotive of a passenger train. In his rage, the fireman has stoked the engine’s fire into an inferno. They grapple at each other’s throats, each trying to force the other through the open door. Losing their balance, both fall out and perish. The train rumbles on at breakneck speed. The passengers, soldiers en route to the war front, are sleeping or drunkenly, unaware of the impending disaster.

Zola’s story has been seen as a parable of modern runaway societies. Those supposedly in charge, embroiled in their own personal dramas, paralyzed with performance anxiety, or caught up in their ambitions, have left the driver’s seat. Meanwhile we, their oblivious passengers, are about to pay the price.

Unless we wake up…

(to be continued)

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[un]Common Sense