I have thought about this a lot. It is one of those words that the English have borrowed from the German, but which in its usual dictionary explanation does not express all that the word implies. Some words are just like that, aren’t they?
The dictionary definition of the term is; “the spirit of the time and general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time”. Well yes, but the thing is when you go into the background of the word from a German perspective, it has many layers to it. This is perhaps why we don’t have a good feel of its translation or its common English usage. The word in German carries the idea of being in a fog, so the ‘spirit of the age’ is not recognised by you or me, because we are so influenced, affected, controlled by, engulfed by, our eyes covered by the fog of the spirit of the age that we do not know there is such a spirit nor can we see any alternative. From a German perspective you can only assess zeitgeist in retrospect; looking back or, better translated, the ghost of the past age. Then we can see what it was and know where they went wrong or how they could have done better. Hind sight is a wonderful thing.
I often think it’s funny as politicians seek to correct history, and pardon this or that from the past, or say how the government was so wrong seventy or a hundred years ago and their party got it wrong then, let’s put it right. As if we can put what we see now into history and make it different to what it was they saw and understood. I think that process is daft.
Why am I going on about this? Well one of the reasons is that I teach a class of senior students in our school and am talking them about entrepreneurs, and how to be one. As I have talked with the class I am very aware of how often both in history and now, people cannot see certain things. Clever people like Albert Einstein, who said in 1932 there could never be atomic energy, or Thomas Watson the head of IBM said in 1943 that he could only see the need for about 5 computers in the world.
Even funnier to our mindset today was the president of the digital equipment corporation as late as 1977 said “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home!” In 1927 H.M. Warner of Warner Brothers quipped “who the hell wants to hear an actor speak” as the possibility of ‘talking movies’ were coming on stream. David Sarnoff's associates, in response to his urging's for investment in the radio in the 1920 said of Radio “it has no commercial use and will not catch on”. Sir William Preece, Chief engineer of the British Post office said of the invention of the telephone: “Americans have need of it, but we do not we have plenty of messenger boys.” Why did they say such things, is it zeitgeist?
I have often spoken to audiences about the problems Moses had with the children of Israel after they left Egypt. The thing is, if your next door neighbour is a slave, and your friend across the Road is a slave, and in fact everyone you know is a slave your vision of ‘freedom’ is a nonstarter. Zeitgeist has you; sadly you don’t want this ‘freedom’ thing what you want is more onions, leeks and cucumbers (The Bible, Numbers chapter 11 verses 4 to 6). Can you blame them for the fog?
So are we suffering from zeitgeist now? I think we are, but how do we know? How do we break out? How do we change the future?
Cairine Reay Mackay Wilson was one of those people who broke zeitgeist, she wanted to become a senator in the Canadian parliament, the problem was that the zeitgeist of the time was that woman were counted as a non-person, therefore you could only have a person as a senator, so a woman could not do the job. From the point of view of the zeitgeist this was obvious.
Cairine did not accept the obvious and appealed to the UK Privy Council, Canada’s highest court. The ruling given changed the ‘nature’ of person-hood and Cairine became the first Canadian female senator.
So are we in the fog of our zeitgeist? I think we probably are, and there are things we should see, things we could do, a better way to live, a better way to be, a different paradigm to be in. What we need is to listen to the seers, and see what they see.
Maybe we need someone from the other side to come and tell us that there is a better way to live and be, and then we should listen to them. Oh, He has already spoken.
Edited by Robyn Heather
Sunday, 23 March 2014