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Journal of No. 118


August 15th, 2013

The Two Cultures (and A Second Look), by C P Snow @ 05:01 pm


The Two Cultures was originally delivered as the 1959 Rede Lecture at Cambridge. The phrase has (kinda*) entered the lexicon as a description of the gulf between science and the humanities. As a chemist and novelist, Snow somewhat straddled both worlds. And in descriptions of the lecture, that's usually what people focus on.

So I was prepared for "Scientists drive like this, while humanists drive like this." There is a little bit of that, but the actual content of the lecture goes well beyond that. One of the interesting things is how particular it feels to mid-century Cambridge... and how alien it sounds to normal people. The Cambridge dons of the humanities are a bit horrified by the parvenu scientists. 'I mean, yes, Newton was a mathematical philosopher -- oh, very well, he was a... scientist -- but at least he had the good taste to write in properly declined Latin.' Snow notes that the gulf is maybe not so wide in the US or the SU.

But where Snow goes with the theme was surprising. He identifies science as the cure for world poverty, starvation, and illness. And the moral thing for countries (like the UK, the US, and the SU) is to train thousands of scientists and send them off to the benighted corners of the world to uplift them (not only to cure disease, and introduce modern agriculture, etc. as angels from afar, but to help these countries go on to train their own scientists to carry out these tasks). To get a sense of the strength of his moral feeling on the matter, here's something from his "A Second Look" at the Two Cultures, written a few years afterward(**) (my occasional emphasis).

We cannot avoid the realisation that applied science has made it possible to remove unnecessary suffering from a billion individual human lives-to remove suffering of a kind, which, in our own privileged society, we have largely forgotten, suffering so elementary that it is not genteel to mention it. For example, we know how to heal many of the sick: to prevent children dying in infancy and mothers in childbirth: to produce enough food to alleviate hunger: to throw up a minimum of shelter: to ensure that there aren't so many births that our other efforts are in vain. All this we know how to do.

It does not require one additional scientific discovery, though new scientific discoveries must help us. It depends all the spread of the scientific revolution all over the world. There is no other way. For most human beings, this is the point of hope. It will certainly happen. It may take longer than the poor will peacefully accept. How long it takes, and the fashion in which it is done, will be a reflex of the quality of our lives, especially of the lives of those of us born lucky: as most in the western world were born. When it is achieved, then our consciences will be a little cleaner; and those coming after us will at least be able to think that the elemental needs of others aren't a daily reproach to any sentient person, that for the first time some genuine dignity has come upon us all.

Man doesn't live by bread alone-yes, that has been said often enough in the course of these discussions. It has been said occasionally with a lack of imagination, a provincialism, that makes the mind boggle: for it is not a remark that one of us in the western world can casually address to most Asians, to most of our fellow human beings, in the world as it now exists. But we can, we should, say it to ourselves. For we know how, once the elemental needs are satisfied, we do not find it easy to do something worthy and satisfying with our lives. Probably it will never be easy. Conceivably men in the future, if they are as lucky as we are now, will struggle with our existential discontents, or new ones of their own. They may, like some of us, try-through sex or drink or drugs to intensify the sensational life. Or they may try to improve the quality of their lives, through an extension of their responsibilities, a deepening of the affections and the spirit, in a fashion which, though we can aim at it for ourselves and our own societies, we can only dimly perceive.

But, though our perception may be dim, it isn't dim enough to obscure one truth: that one mustn't despise the elemental needs, when one has been granted them and others have not. To do so is not to display one's superior spirituality. It is simply to be inhuman, or more exactly anti-human.

Here, in fact, was what I intended to be the centre of the whole argument. Before I wrote the lecture I thought of calling it 'The Rich and the Poor', and I rather wish that I hadn't changed my mind.


(* Snow had (a little) better luck with his other lasting coinage: the Corridors of Power.)

(** An amusing bit of his reassessment is his discussion of how many people objected to "culture" in the title (because science and humanities are not cultures), and how many people objected to the "two" in the title (because there are more subsets), but then notes "No one, I think, has yet complained about the definite article.")
 
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Journal of No. 118