The Seekers: The Story of Man's Continuing Quest to Understand His World

The Seekers: The Story of Man's Continuing Quest to Understand His World

By Daniel J. Boorstin
New York: Random House, 1999. Paperback, xiv+ 351 pages.

Everyone is a philosopher at heart-a lover of wisdom. One way to arrive at this self-knowledge is to be wisely companioned on the journey to truth. Surely one such sage is the eminent scholar and former Librarian of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstin. His book is not only an insightful clarification of the significant points of development in western consciousness, but also the story of seekers whose quest for meaning invites each of us on our own search for truth.

On this journey, Boorstin offers his perspective on what he sees as the "three grand epochs of seeking." During the first epoch, the ancient seer's influence was based on an ability to predict the future. Prophets, such as Moses and Isaiah, eventually surpassed them with the ability to proclaim God's word with God's own authority. Their divine teachings became a source of sacred wisdom, a mythology that reflected a profound metaphysical reality beyond scientific facts.

Western thought developed as Thales and other pre-Socratic philosophers shifted their questioning from mythology to the nature of the cosmos and as Socrates sought wisdom by questioning human nature. Plato then widened the focus to include a theory of knowledge, metaphysics, and questions of community citizenship and practical morality; next Aristotle rekindled the search for what the world is made of and how it works.

The communal search of the second epoch included the seekers of early Christianity who experimented with styles of living. Hermits, for example, lived separately, withdrawn from society, while cenobites lived together in community. Out of this grew the monastic way of life whose monks invaluably helped western culture survive and advance. Medieval Christianity developed the communal experience of Western education with the seven liberal arts in the cathedral schools, and later with theology, law, and medicine in the universities.

This communal search for truth, however, was not without difficulties. Seekers in the Christian community were challenged by a powerful Roman Church to be analytic and creative within its dogmas and traditions. Copernicus and Galileo struggled to be both true to their intellectual convictions and faithful to their Catholic beliefs. The constraints on scientific evidence, thoughtful scholarship, and freedom of expression caused other seekers to leave or be forced out of the institution. Thus, Martin Luther and John Calvin became instrumental in the Protestant Reformation of theology and church organization, which prepared the way for modern western democracy and representative government and the later work of such seekers as Locke, Jefferson, and Hegel.

Boorstin offers a wonderful discussion of Francis Bacon's "idols of the mind," those experiences, ideas, and attitudes which give a person the illusion of knowledge. He then trumps this treatment with reflections on Descartes, who believed that "truths are more likely to have been discovered by one man than by a nation ... because no one can so well understand a thing and make it his own when learnt from another as when it is discovered himself."

Lastly, Boorstin presents a panorama of development in the third epoch. Key themes in this age of the social sciences include the differentiation of the science of history from cultural history and political science, the laws of social change, and the stages and influence of human progress on history. Not surprisingly, the scientific dogmas of destiny were challenged by seekers who believed in consciousness, autonomy and human freedom, and the impact that great individuals (St. Francis, Gandhi) have on history.

In "a literature of bewilderment without precedent in our history," some twentieth century seekers have spoken of the absurdity of living life without a moral compass in a universe from which humanity is alienated. Observing that others have found "meaning in the seeking," Boorstin concludes eloquently and hopefully with reflections on Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein.

Bergson liberated seekers by shifting the focus from the codes of laws and customs derived by intelligence and expressed by science, to the aspirations of heroes and mystics, derived by intuition and expressed by freedom and creativity in works of every kind of art.

Einstein, who saw the atom and the cosmos as a single, unified puzzle, never stopped seeking for a unified field theory. He worked to bridge the gap between the old and new physics and to reveal a newly significant unity. "He had the patience, 'the holy spirit of inquiry,’ the sense of humor, and the faith that he was treading an endless path."

A reflective reading of this book will help readers renew their own quest to understand their world by treading the endless path with some of the western world's most significant seekers.


May/June 2000