Alan Watts: our capacity to destroy ourselves is key to our awakening
An obscure 60-year-old recording reveals a prophetic voice
Alan Watts has been often praised for his insights into the modern human condition. Born in England during the first World War, he became an emissary for the counterculture movement in the US during the 1960s, speaking regularly in weekly gatherings and on the radio.
A few years back a good friend gifted me with an archive of his shows at KPFA between 1959 and 1960. Rarely heard, these recordings are absolutely brilliant. Watts speaks with with the auditory charm of a Gospel Hour preacher, but towards an audience that is hardly religious.
This morning I happened upon a passage in one of his talks that, while nearly 60 years old, feels as it could have been written last week. I couldn’t find a transcript online, so decided to type one up:
I am very grateful that I have been born at a time when the problems of human nature and destiny have been peculiarly exaggerated and thrown into sharp relief by an unprecedented development of human power.
I feel that the peculiar direction of Western civilization has achieved something fantastically wonderful. It has given human beings the technical means of amplifying and exploiting almost every idiocy of which we are capable, and at the same time of taking the most brutal, hard-boiled, and realistic view of mans’ place in the universe.
Western science and technology have given us the H-bomb, the TV commercials, and the modern hospital, and they’ve given us the most rigorous discipline in looking at facts without wishful thinking that the Western world (at least) has ever known.
If I may put it in another way, I feel that Western culture – Western science, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and political theory – have raised the basic questions, the fundamental problems of human life, as no one else has ever raised them. And they have raised them unintentionally quite as much as intentionally.
This achievement, this (if I may coin a phrase) supreme criticalization of the human situation, this sense of living always in the midst of a cosmological crisis, is the ultimately valuable (if nerve-racking) contribution of the West to human culture.
Because of Western science, we are able to seriously contemplate the imminent possibility of destroying life upon this planet. We are able to consider problems of human population and ecology, of moral and ethical relativity, of the relation of the individual to society, of the deliberate control of the brain and mind, of the conquest of disease and the lengthening of life, of the displacement of thought and labor by machinery, and of the management of natural resources. And to consider them in a way which has never before been possible.
In short, we have the most acute, well-informed, and sensationally telling ways of confronting ourselves with the most radical problems about man’s relation to his world.
Yet at the same time, this vast extension of human knowledge and power is accompanied by an increased awareness of being out of control. Of lacking the wisdom necessary to deal with the enormity of our information and our technical skill.
Having raised the problems of human life in such an acute and dramatic way, what we need to do first is to examine the premises on which these problems are based. To put it in another way, we need to take a clear and critical look at the “common sense” and nearly unconscious notions on which Western civilization was founded.
We need to ask, for example, whether the survival of human life on earth is the basic measure of practical value. Whether there is any real meaning in the idea of “progressive improvement” of the human situation. And whether any actual progress results from the increasing control of ourselves and our environment. We need to take stock of the fundamental goals towards which our natural instincts are supposed to lead, to find out whether what we want is what we want, or what what we have been told we want.
We need to ask whether we really feel ourselves to be individuals facing an alien environment, or whether it is only through cultural conditioning that we think of ourselves as egos in bags of skin. We need also to take a good hard look at our actual sensations of those highly marketable dimensions of time and space, and find out if the way we measure them actually corresponds to the way in which we feel them.
These may be highly philosophical questions, yet at the same time they are brutally practical, since they form the context and the fundamental incentives of all our technological, commercial, political, and social activities.
— Alan Watts, “The study of Asia”. KPFA radio broadcast, 1960.